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INTERVIEW

nava levenson

february 18, 2019

richmond, virginia



Adele: Are you a cat or a dog?

Nava: Definitely a cat.

Adele: What makes you definitely a cat?

Nava: I think I’m a little stingy at what keeps my attention, much like my cat. Yeah. A little selective with affection, maybe.

Adele: Could you describe your studio? And then describe your studio practice as a party?

Nava: The structure we’re in right now is a two-level detached garage that I renovated with my father through the late fall and winter of this previous year. It’s a space that’s laid out for a future apartment but is currently being used as a studio, so there’s definitely a lot of love that went into making the space.

Adele: That’s so great.

Nava: Yeah! It’s good. I didn’t know I would ever work this well with my dad! It’s kind of crazy. I saw him every day for months. And now I have to drive twenty minutes just to see him and I’m like, *sigh*. And then my practice as a party — I’m inclined to call it a potluck. I’m a potlucker for sure.

Adele: What a great term: a potlucker!

Nava: Yeah. But I think my practice is more about circumstance than chance, so I think I’m going to err on the side of a picnic. A lot of my work is putting a lot of parts together, and then letting things unfold. Circumstance really dictates what kind of mediums I use and everything.

Adele: And you’re like, oh, it might be a rainy day, or a sunny day —

Nava: And do you know where you’re going when you pack the basket?

Adele: And it’s just, oh wow, it’s really a dejeuner sur l’herbe! I love that painting. I’ve never heard of a studio practice described as a picnic, so I think that’s a really nice metaphor. 

Adele: Could you tell us a little bit more about what you are working on right now?

Nava: I’ve got like, three or four projects that are in my weekly life that I’m involved in. One is Studio Dirt, which we can talk about when we get to it. And then the other is — do you wanna come look? These are napkins and rituals and documentation. I’m documenting my personal mess, every day. It’s a napkin a day and I’m interested in later coming back and maybe monogramming, edgework, and potentially quilting. But turning these kind of gross ephemera rituals — things that we put on disposable napkins most of the time, to get them out of our life — I’m interested in turning them into sort of keepsake or pass-down objects. There’s a lot of overlap between existing and artmaking. That’s one project. It’s newer, maybe like, fourteen days old?

Adele: Yeah! This was a very clean day. Coffee, maybe?

Nava: Actually, rusty plant water. This one is salsa. I think this was a potluck day because I think I cleaned all my — no. I think some of these, with this kind of general dirt, are when I do my counters and most of the time that’s before potlucks. Actually, sometimes I don’t have much control over the cleaning at potlucks, it just kind of happens. I think this is wine, one of these wine ones was from a potluck. This is salsa, I know that. This is from Kevin’s painting. He was like, ahh! I messed up! Do you have a paper towel? And I was like, here. This is a project that I need to let live more to understand more.

Adele: I really love that sentence you just said: a project I have to let live more to understand more.

Nava: Sometimes you just gotta do them, even if they don’t go anymore, even if no one sees them. This quilting project is taking tilework patterns and quilting with them.

Adele: So beautiful! I love the herringbone.

Nava: Thank you. I learned tilework over the past summer when we re-did a huge wall in the main house that’s on the same property as the studio. I’m eventually going to do the shower and bathroom floor in here. I kind of got in a trance doing tilework. And piecing as a quilting process is so similar, and so many of the same shapes work out, and I started thinking, these are two skill sets that have recently come into my life that I’ve just become addicted to, and what other sort of work is out there for me to experience that has the same piece-by-piece nature, and largely covering pretty big surfaces? This tile quilt is a site-map of the bathroom floor in my studio, which is not tiled yet. I’m in a place where I’m trying to figure out if this project is about imitation or replacement or what, but recently it’s been about the type of work that I do and that other people do related to houses, and thinking about the gendered expectations that come with that kind of work. I had this epiphany the other day, I was realizing that to me, it feels like a hardware store, a big box store, is organized on a gender spectrum. At one end we have masonry and lumber and raw building supplies which leads into electrical and plumbing and hardware. I think there’s a point where electrical meets lighting, and I think that’s a point of tension, where it becomes more cosmetic and aesthetic, and then everything on the other side of the store, shelving and paint and gardening things, become more about the cosmetic aspects of a house. It’s interesting where you generally find which gender of people shopping in the store.

Adele: That’s so interesting, I’ve never thought about Lowe’s that way.

Nava: I freaked out, I was like, this is crazy! But there’s a whole back section too, with like, appliances, flooring, surface design, and carpet.

Adele: Doors. Yeah, that’s so interesting. When I say housework I automatically think of interior spaces, cleaning interior spaces, hooshing interior spaces. But like, housework — working on a house — is not necessarily that kind of work. And it does feel gendered in my mind.

Nava: Yeah, exactly. I’ve broken it down in my mind as structural and cosmetic, as far as the making of a house. But then there are a lot of things that come later in homesteading that make a house a home. I’m thinking about that a lot. I’m still trying to figure out how to put all those good thoughts into an object that I can walk away from.

Adele: The combination of quilting techniques and tilework really seems like you are flipping that on its head in a beautiful way.

Nava: Thanks. I’m also exploring being someone who does both kinds of work, but identifies as a woman. Constantly being spoken down to in stores and in the construction industry. Feeling like the only male who respects my work is my dad, which is crazy amazing.

Adele: Yeah, that is absurd but also so sweet.

Adele: Tell us about Studio Dirt! You’re talking about these jars, the scraps…

Nava: Yeah, Studio Dirt — I’m also thinking about Practice Preserves as a title, I don’t know — is a process that operates between homesteading and artmaking and recycling and reuse and thinking about all the material that’s wasted. In a physical form, this is also curatorial. I’m essentially sending jars with a letter to different artists to keep in their studio and fill with whatever they consider to be their artmaking waste. That can be anything from literally stuffing it with things that are in their trash can, to excess material, to washing their brushes out in it, really, anything that the artist wants. In the letter I say that the jar is sort of like an olive branch and if they’re returning it to me full, they’re giving me permission to use the contents. It’s an opportunity for artists to be part of something and have their practice on display in a way that’s very different from finished work. It’s been so exciting. The days that I get a jar from someone are the best days. It’s been probably the art that I’ve made that has delighted me the most. I think it’s really easy to be so excited about someone else’s work but to have that moment of shock and delight about your own is hard to come by for me. Just like, the momentary shock. When I open boxes or stop by someone’s studio to pick up a jar, seeing this collaborative thing between us is so fun. I’ve got one jar that’s pretty much all saw dust, razor blades, and tiny wood parts. That’s from Stephanie Williams, an animator and sculptor who was a previous professor of mine. She’s now teaching in the animation department at MICA. Her jar is all things puppet-related and I only know that because I took a puppetry class with her. I only know that because I’ve worked personally with her and I think the way that we can study waste and material in order to learn about a thing is really cool. That was a big takeaway from Elsewhere, like, I’m living in a time capsule of material rejects from a certain time period and what does that say about consumer culture in America from 1939 to 1997? Yeah, the jars are like these mini core samples of waste.

Adele: Core sample: that’s such a good description.

Nava: I’m going to host these little happenings. I’m hoping it will be a small group, maybe under ten people, where we can pick a jar, open it, go through the material and try to understand things about the practice and record every object we can identify —

Adele: Oh my god, like an archeological dig!

Nava: This is the project that I’ve proposed for Torpedo Factory. I’ll probably do three or four jar openings while I’m there. I’m hoping to do one or two in March before I leave. I’m going to Torpedo Factory in April. I don’t know what kind of scientist would do this, but it would be really awesome to identify like, tiny little pieces of things. To determine whether something is really dirt or whether it’s dust or debris or like, sawdust. Yeah, I’d love to engage and collaborate with somebody who knows a lot about material identification. And like, to what level do I want to break it down? Do I want to know its elemental makeup, or do I want to know what the object is and how it’s part of that artist’s practice?

Adele: It seems like Mark Dion’s work but in the Nava realm. I love the idea of a happening. That also sounds like a lot of work —

Nava: To go through it all?

Adele: Yeah.

Nava: Some artists really stuff their jars. Maxed out. Others are like snow-globey. You can shake it up.

Adele: How do you choose artists to reach out to?

Nava: At first I was looking for emerging artists that were working in a material-heavy practice and whose work I saw a lot of merit in. But after a while, a lot of artists started coming to me, friends or people I know or friends of friends who wanted to do jars, and they were like, can I have a jar? And I was like, I’m not going to tell anyone no! So it really has broadened. When I do choose to display the work, after I’ve gone through the jars and archived the contents, I’d love to do a publication on them. Like a feature of this artist and their jar and their materials. I have a lot of plans for the project. One sort of goofy idea I have is like, after they’ve been archived and documented and everything, is to make preservation decisions, because they are in canning jars. Maybe some of them I would like, bury in the ground like a time capsule and return them to the artists in ten years. Some of them I could pickle. Or freeze-dry. Or, I don’t know, brush with the chemicals they use to clean paintings. Just to explore preservation in a really goofy and sort of disgusting way.

Adele: How do you use your art to support yourself financially?

Nava: I don’t know if I use my artwork, but I use my skills. A lot of the skills I’m implementing and learning from my artwork are the skills I’m paid to do. In the past two years, I’ve worked for a company that made artisan bags, sewing and doing a lot of work for them. I’ve used my arts administration skills, which comes from fending for yourself as an artist. I’m currently working an upholstery job. I’ve worked doing a lot of foam sculpting at this place in Ashland, sculpting huge foam bugs. It’s not what they want to do. They were like, we don’t normally do this, we’re hiring someone.

Adele: That sounds really fun.

Nava: It was! Yeah, when they have large commissions or multiple at a time, they just hire a bunch of temp work. For a while they struggled finding that work and after a while they realized they could reach out to galleries, and like, VCU, places that always have artists that are in flux, ready to work for a month or something. And I’ve also done renovating, anything from painting houses to landscaping. All of these skills I think are part of my education and practice, which have led me to using them outside my practice to get paid for them, basically. As far as the selling of my physical work, that doesn’t happen much. I’m not really looking for that. There have been some small, no-strings-attached grants that I’ve been able to get, so those have been good. I’d say my skills support me more than my work, but my work is providing my skills. It’s all working out!