Clusters: An Interview with Deborra Stewart-Pettengill

August 15th, 2011  |  by Published in featured, featured artists

C3 has been working in the Montview neighborhood of Northampton this summer as part of our L/A/N/D and SEE/SAW community mapping and storytelling projects. We are walking around, talking to neighbors, drawing, and generally getting to know this diverse Ward 3 neighborhood.  So, it seems geographically fitting for C3 to interview an artist showing at The Oxbow Gallery in the Montview neighborhood.  If you’ve never been there, The Oxbow is a couple of doors over from Northampton Coffee at 275 Pleasant Street.  (The show runs from August 4-29, with a closing reception on August 25.)

While the artwork of C3 often involves multiple artists, and a bringing together of many viewpoints from many people, Deborra Stewart-Pettengill’s show Cluster at the Oxbow Gallery serves as a beautiful reminder to me of the value of sustained solo studio practice. This work is the residue of time spent, thoughts isolated, and actions recorded.















1. What are you trying to communicate or explore in your work?

I am exploring the concept of clustering, physically and metaphorically. What does it mean, how is it achieved, what is the effect on the component parts, and upon the viewer? Considerations include: overlapping structures, the spaces or shapes they randomly form, intersecting lines and forms, shifting perceptions, passing of time, joint dependence, sharing adjacent space, and adjusting to contiguous structures.

The show is the result of a personal challenge to create a site-specific grouping of pieces, which deal with a common theme in a variety of approaches.
The work is an outgrowth of drawings, paintings and sculptures made over the past three years. Using repetition, rhythm and pattern, the drawings began as meditations. Inspired by the hexagonal units of a simple seedpod, I began exploring the organic nature and structure of their intersections. Initially reducing these units to linear structures, I became intrigued by the possibilities, which could come from limiting my visual vocabulary to a single structure and a single color.

My goal for this show became an investigation of how these structures could affect one another, and how their relationships could vary. My focus is process-oriented. I loose myself in the rhythmic making of each piece. I see my work as marking time, with a meditative approach. The pieces are not exactly and specifically planned; the organic outgrowth of this work is more challenging to me than designing a specific form, or adhering to a rigid design. The chance operation employed allows the pieces to grow into themselves, and I learn as they become. This is integral to the work.

2. Where were you when you created one of your favorite works?

Most of the pieces for this show were created in my  “summer” studio (spring, summer and fall), which is located in a large barn in Hinsdale, NH.  The space is expansive, and one wall is open to the surrounding fields. I have created sculpture here for the past 7 years. The space itself inspires unrestrained exploration of form, while being intimately connected to nature. I’m out there working in the 100 + temps, wild summer storms, and refreshingly breezy days. I usually work alone in this space, I find it to be a particularly meditative environment. My favorite piece in this show is Gather, the large wire grouping. Being able to allow these forms in this piece to grow organically into this particular relationship was an advantage of working in this space. The space allowed me to rearrange and explore their individual forms as well as the relationships between them.

3. How do you see your art in relation to cultivating community, and how
does community affect the work you make?

Community offers new perspectives and fuels my imagination for new work.

These pieces reflect a metaphorical “coming together”. They are about the coalescing of unique shapes and forms, which shift and layer around one another, in a supportive manner, much as a community does.

Regarding my personal community, I enjoy the response and interaction of fellow artists, friends, and family as I create my artwork. Because my studio is adjacent to Wingate Studio, the flow of artists in and out of the studio provides me with a variety of reflections on my work, whenever I feel the need. This exchange of ideas is rewarding and invigorating.


4. What is your spirit animal?

My immediate response is both my Mom, Mary Ellen Stewart, and my Grandmama, Sallie Rogers Gillespie, who were each powerhouses in their own right. They possessed endless energy for all manner of work and exploration of every variety.

However, since they are unknown to most of your readers, I’d say my spirit animal is a beaver, with a focus on initiative, tenacity and hard working aspects of its nature.

5.What spaces in Northampton are you most curious to see inside of, or
to make work in?

I’m really inspired to look more closely, but off the top of my head I’d say the Round House, or the towers of the courthouse or First Church.
I’d love to create a hanging Cluster to float or hover in a tower or tall space.

6. What are some strategies you use to sustain your art practice (while
living in the Northampton area)?

I try to stay in touch with fellow artists, who live inside and outside the area, and enjoy exchanging ideas and information. Attending as many art exhibitions as possible gives me food for thought. The art related lectures and symposiums provided by the 5 colleges and area organizations inform me. I read quite a bit and familiarize myself with new work throughout the internet. Facebook helps me stay connected with fellow artists who live outside the area, and keeps me informed of work to see in other locations. My husband, Peter, is a constant source of inspiration through his work at Wingate Studio and his interest in a wide variety of artists and their work. The students I teach keep me open to a new world of possibilities and refresh my imagination. However, my best strategy is a maintaining a regular daily practice, nothing takes the place of time in the studio.

What 5 items do you always carry with you?
Sketchbook, pencil, pen, camera, phone.

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