isa newby gagarin
october 27, 2019
Adele: Will you tell us your name and where we are? And what pronouns you use? And are you a cat or a dog? Four questions.
Isa: My name is Isa Newby Gagarin and we are at my home in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I use she/her pronouns and I am probably a cat. I’m a cat. Yeah. But I want to be a dog. I’m a cat who wants to be a dog.
Adele: What informs the cat?
Isa: I enjoy solitude and being cozy and I sleep a lot. I wish I slept less.
Ava: What’s your typical bedtime and wake up schedule?
Isa: Michael and I usually go to bed around 11. I have a lot of things that I do. I like to take a hot shower and drink tea. I have to be hydrated. I usually drink kava tea to slow down. In the morning, I always set my alarm for a really early time like 7 or 6:45, with the intent of waking up an hour earlier than I usually do. I usually turn the alarm off and sleep another hour.
Adele: Oh yeah, that’s what I did this morning. It was really beautiful.
Isa: I have a difficult relationship with waking up because I have a desire to wake up earlier and I enjoy the morning period as a time for being productive and thinking and writing. But my body needs more sleep.
Adele: Will you describe your studio or artistic practice as a party?
Isa: I think my studio practice is a small dinner party with a very intentional guest list and really good food. And many different beverages. Tea and kombucha and bubbly water. Wine. I’d probably enjoy serving like, light Italian amaros. It’s not a wasted party, it’s a conversationalist’s party.
Adele: Oh yes. Just a little bit of alcohol to keep things running swiftly around the table.
Isa: During the party we definitely take things outside to eat on the deck. The party takes place before sunset.
Ava: Is sunset part of the party or is it done before sunset?
Isa: It’s part of the party. There’d be some nice time for stargazing at the end of the party.
Adele: Gotta keep it celestial. Is there any music?
Isa: There’s a record player with music but it’s not too loud, more to set the tone for conversation. Instrumental music. And there are snacks everywhere. It’s not like a fine-dining, coursed-out meal. You can eat, talk, drink little drinks.
Adele: Ah yeah. It’s like a snack forest.
Ava: I love a good hors-d'oeuvres.
Ava: What is your favorite color right now?
Isa: Let me think about this because I’m teaching myself how to make milk paint right now with earth pigments. I’m trying to remember the spelling on this, I may have to double-check it. Ercolano red. It’s a red pigment from Italy. I am really drawn to rusty terracotta reds right now. I think I’m known for using a lot of blue hues in my work.
Adele: I think of you when I see those blues.
Isa: There are strong associations with the color blue and how I use it with sky and water. Currently, I’m drawn to reds because I’m thinking a lot about the earth and the underground of the earth.
Adele: It’s an appropriate time to think about these things, especially with the changing of seasons and the reds that are really present in the landscape right now. Underground earth, dying season. That makes sense to bring all those associations in right now.
Isa: I should stress that when I have favorite colors, it’s always in relation to other colors. I don’t think about colors as an isolated swatch. I think a lot about what color to paint my nails—things that are a tiny color in relation to the majority of the colors that I’m wearing. For some reason it’s important to me to contrast red with blues or dark colors. So, when I think about this rusty red that I’m drawn to right now, it’s in relation to cool hues, like blue and grey and black.
Adele: It’s like an ember in a field of other colors. I get that.
Ava: Why did you decide to start making your own milk paints?
Isa: I had been using acrylic paint in my previous bodies of work until now, and I realized that I wanted to start using a material that had a more meaningful materiality in relation to my ideas. With my current project, I am making an installation in response to the ceiling of a basement space at an artist-run gallery called Hair and Nails. The installation will be underground in a basement. I’ve just been thinking a lot about the underground space as the place where the roots of the plants are, the invisible part of the plant, but so important to the plant. I immediately drew this connection between earth and dirt and soil and rock with earth pigments because earth pigments are made out of the earth and minerals. It feels like I have a meaningful way to explore painting and color using a material that was made of earth. I’m interested in choosing materials to work with that embody ideas that relate to the projects that I’m working on.
Adele: You’ve used this term embody over illustration before in your interview with Make MN. Can you elaborate on the difference between those two words and how you use them?
Isa: It’s like dying textiles. With a gessoed canvas, the surface of the painting is additive layers on top of a relatively stable ground. When you dye fabric, the fibers of the fabric become imbued with the color of the dye. And so the color is more intrinsically part of the material and I find that very fascinating. I’m interested in my work embodying the sense of an idea rather than articulating it as a verbal or left-brain explanatory thing. I might have specific ideas that informed the art work but I’m less interested in explaining those ideas to my viewer and more interested in expressing something that conveys the sense of something. Maybe the viewer has their own way of entering the work. For example, I have all these ideas about roots of plants and the underground space, and how the earth is where the water table is, and how I might have a different entry point coming from a surfing background where water is literally in the ocean and I’m literally swimming in it. I have all these threads and currents of ideas informing this work but all I’m interested in creating for the viewer is an experience where they go from ground level to the underground space and they look up. I just want to shift their orientation so that they move into the underground basement and they’re like, “Oh! What’s all this stuff on the ceiling?” They can enter it in their own way. I want to create an experience where the viewer’s attention is drawn to the ceiling beams as a place of visual interest for them. Whether or not they come away from it thinking about roots of plants or these various inspirations that fed the work—that’s something that could happen, or they could have this experience that’s specific to the time and place of the work. I’m interested in work that embodies an idea rather than illustrates it because I think it offers more entry points for the viewer.
Adele: You’re focused on presenting a much more sensual experience for your viewers.
Isa: Mhm. Sense-oriented. The senses are what my viewer is going to bring to the space. They can see the space. They can walk into it. They can have that feeling you can have when you’re in a basement—where you’re just kind of intuitively like, “oh, I’m in a basement now. I’m underground.” I’m just interested in creating this experience where you go down, but then you look up. It’s a shift in orientation and I’m curious what people will experience when that happens—when I create that for them. If I work with the intention of having my work embody the idea—creating the sense of something rather than illustrating it—then there’s less risk of creating an obtuse situation.
Adele: What exactly is milk paint?
Isa: Pigment requires the use of a binder in order to be applied to a material or surface. I have always been drawn to paint that is watery. I like watercolor. I just have a certain sensibility where I’m drawn to water-based paints. I was joking in that last interview that I wish I could have an acupuncturist read my work because I feel like my work is really wet. In terms of how I think and how I ideate, I’m really drawn to water. I like brushing watery paint onto surfaces, so oil paint or goopy acrylic paint makes less sense to me. When I apply it to a surface, it feels like I’m struggling with the material. But when it’s watery, I can create washes of color. I can build up layers of hue that are transparent and feel really luminous. Layering thin layers of color can create luminosity and I think luminosity is something that I’m interested in creating in the surfaces of my work. Milk paint is made by mixing skim milk with white vinegar, letting it sit overnight. The curd separates from the whey and you strain out the curd. It looks like cottage cheese. You rinse it.
Adele: Can you eat it?
Isa: I guess you could. It would just taste kind of plain and slightly vinegary if you didn’t rinse the vinegar out properly. Then you mix the curd with high calcium hydrated lime, like what you would make lime plaster out of. It comes in a white powder. Then you mix dry powdered pigment with a little bit of water to make what’s called a slack, to get it to the consistency of liquid to mix with the milk and the lime. I don’t know the exact history of casein paints but they are as old as fresco and tempura paints. It actually has a very similar surface quality as tempura. It looks very matte and chalky. But if you build up thin layers you can, like I said, create a sense of luminosity. The surface has a lot of depth. Even though I’m working with site-specific installation, my concerns with materiality are very related to painting, or come out of the language of painting: thinking about surface, luminosity, color, texture. I just started teaching myself this process and I’m going to paint the ceiling beams of the basement.
Ava: I can’t wait to see photos. Although I’m sure it won’t be the same as actually being there.
Adele: When is your opening?
Isa: Friday, November 8th. I’m kind of worried about documenting it because more and more, the experience of my work is contingent on being in the space and not having a fixed position as the viewer but having an experience of moving through the space. Your experience of color and light and texture and surface changing according to your movement. It’s becoming more important when I photo-document my work to be able to tell a story in like three images or even less of what it felt like to enter the space and be in the space. I worked with a photographer to document my last show “Intervals” at the U of M because it was in a corridor and there wasn’t really one image that properly conveyed the experience of being in the space. It was really important when I worked with him to be able to have either a selection of two images, or three, or five, depending on whether I was applying to a grant or giving an artist talk where I could have ten images. I need a sequence of documentation photos that tell the story of what it feels like to experience the work. Because my upcoming installation is in the ceiling beams, the work is going to draw attention to the complexity of a ceiling space. And it’s not clean. Like, there are pipes and infrastructure and all this random detritus and shit in the ceiling that I am intentionally drawing attention to and I’m not sure what that will translate to in a photograph. It might just look very confusing and ambiguous as to what the work is. I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it.
Adele: Will you talk about your post-graduate school life and returning to Minneapolis and what drove your choices?
Ava: Maybe incorporate what your idea of home is.
Isa: While I was in graduate school, I fell in love and got engaged and Michael bought our house in Minneapolis. So when I was pursuing my thesis work, this home was seeded. It was planted while I was in graduate school. I feel that Minneapolis does—as you have discovered visiting here—have a lot of opportunities for artists at all stages of their career. It has a less robust commercial gallery scene than larger cities but there’s a lot of momentum in many other areas of artistic production and discourse. There are many schools in which there’s a lot of activity happening. There are constantly new experimental programs occurring, like the new Emerging Curators Institute that’s trying to provide support for new and emerging curators. There’s a lot of State of the Arts board funding. There’s the Jerome Foundation grant and the McKnight Foundation grant and many other opportunities. There’s the MAEP exhibition program that I just applied to at MIA. There’s just a lot percolating and fermenting here. And I got a job teaching drawing at MCAD, so I was able to get my foot in the door with teaching. Right now I am pursuing other teaching opportunities. It’s a city where we can access nature pretty quickly outside of the city. Minnesota feels like home to me because one of the things that I perceive as a similarity between Minnesota and Hawaii is that the sense of sky—the presence of the sky and bodies of water is very significant in Minnesota, including the lakes and the Mississippi River and the St. Croix River. Water is a resource and a presence in our life here in Minnesota.
Adele: Much more so than expected. I mean I thought, “Richmond has a river. What’s the difference?” But there are really so many lakes and wetlands and marshes. I completely— ignorantly—underestimated the presence of the Great Lakes and how impressive they are. They’re not super close to Minneapolis but the landscape still feels like, “oh wait, there’s like an ocean here.” A surreal ocean.
Isa: Yeah. Absolutely. It is hard to be away from the Pacific Islands. My immediate family lives in Hawaii and my sense of origin is from Guam. I do feel disconnected from Micronesia and from Guam. I know two Chamorro people in Minneapolis and it’s very comforting to know that they share my experience of that distance from Guam. Guam feels so far away. And it feels sad to me to not feel engaged with the Chamorro language and my relatives in Guam. Sometimes I feel rooted in Minneapolis but I do feel a dull heartache from being disconnected from Micronesia. More recently, I’ve been trying to look west as a way to connect with my ancestors and my family there. Just kind of always carrying a sense of orientation to the West as a way of feeling some kind of connection with that place.
Adele: I love that awareness to the west. Going west and going north feels good, directionally. That really resonates with me. To always be mindful of where you are on the earth is a beautiful thing.
Ava: What are you most in love with right now? What’s romancing you out in the world?
Isa: I think my garden is romancing me right now because it’s the time of harvest and there’s a sense of urgency. Like, I need to process these leeks that I harvested so that I can eat them throughout the winter! It’s just so cool that you can put all this energy—including your own intention to plant a garden but also the energy of the sun and water—and watch this energy manifest in this edible plant, vegetable, herb. It’s really romantic and beautiful that you can grow your own plants and eat them.
Adele: Yeah. Your garden is badass. It seems so lucrative and productive. Those two raised beds are on fire.
Isa: Yeah. It’s because of the soil. Michael put so much intention into the soil. It has sheep manure and compost from the city and all kinds of things. It has ashes from his late dog, Morgan.
Isa: It’s very intentional soil. Soil—that’s another reason why I’m so keen on this underground installation. There are so many invisible parts of the resources that we use. Everything that’s invisibile is so much more important than the parts that are visible. The roots of the plant are equally important as the plant. The health of soil is equally important as the health of the fruit.
Adele: The aquifers flowing underground.
Isa: Yeah. I feel like it’s important to acknowledge the invisible. And I think that’s why I’m interested in making visible what we normally try to make invisible in a gallery space. It’s to try to draw attention to like, how magical is it that we can just dig a hole and make a room underground? That’s kind of nuts. Just outside the walls of the room are the aquifer and the plumbing that takes our shit out of the way.
Adele: The wires that make it bright.
Isa: Yeah and beets and turnips and parsnips. Adele: Isa planted garlic yesterday for the spring.
Isa: Yeah. It’s awesome to plant something in the fall. It seems magical to plant something where you just have to wait through the winter and it will start growing in the spring. That’s really romantic.
Adele: Like, being in the dead of January but knowing that deep under the soil, there are little seeds that are growing and unfurling and traveling up. Honestly, that is a visual that I think about a lot for warmth in the dead of winter because it’s not dead at all! You just can’t see.