Staging Ground Interviews Deborah Simon

Ursus arctos horribilius
polymer clay, faux fur, linen, embroidery floss, acrylic paint, glass, wire and foam
26”H x 22”D x 22”W, 2013

SG: What is it about animals that draws you to use them as your artistic subject?

DS: I’ve been drawing animals since I was about four, and, except for a brief stint as an undergrad, I’ve pretty much always used them as an subject. I don’t really have a good answer for this question – why do we love what we love? I could say that I like animals more than people, that I enjoy the mystery of them, that I like the fact that I will never know what they are thinking, but none of that really sums up why a fleeting glance of a wild animal is more exciting to me than seeing a human.

SG:Your sculptures exist at the intersection of the real and irreal. The viewer first mistakes them for a real (and presumably taxidermied) animal. But then, on closer inspection, they reveal themselves to be art. How would you situate the realism of the bears in relation to figurative art, tromp l’oeil, and/or hyperrealism?

DS: I never set out to be a realist artist. It’s just the way I’m bent. I’ve tried to work abstractly, but I always find a shape that resembles something – a scottie dog, an eagle, whatever – and tease it out until I have a realistic representation. I don’t think about the bears in terms of tromp l’oeil or hyperrealism. If anything I’m constantly fighting my need to be absolutely accurate and allow the pieces to drift into their own being. I like to walk the line between taxidermy, toy, and sculpture, and I like the tension this creates.

SG: The “natural” question to ask concerns the relationship between art and the environment, or the status of “environmental art.” Do you feel that you are an environmental artist? What, if any, environmental message do you hope your art conveys?

DS: I don’t think of myself as an environmental artist and generally don’t use environmental issues as a starting point for my work. I usually start with the image fully formed in my head without really understanding what it means. If the idea sticks around for several months, I know it has the staying power to keep me interested through the months and months it will take to make it.

By the very nature of using animals as a subject, people read environmental issues into the work. My husband interpreted the circulatory system on the polar bear as a reference to changing ocean currents and the warming of the arctic waters, which had never entered my mind.

I am very careful not to venture into wildlife art – images of charging buffalo and majestic lions surveying the savannah – that treat animals as odalisques there for our enjoyment and control. I want my animals to challenge the viewer and how they think about animals. I see it more of a psychological challenge than an environmental statement.

SG’s emotional reaction to your bears runs along these lines: an affective leap that makes us sympathetic followed by a sort of horror, or jarring fear. How, if at all, do you think these sculptures are tragic?

The emotional starting point for me with these pieces was vulnerability. I was thinking about how bears were both the iconic hunting trophies and are still childhood toys, and how opposed these two roles are. The taxidermy focuses on the power and violence, while the toy is a safely defanged and declawed companion for children. The toy becomes a special friend to help keep the vulnerability of childhood at bay, which in my sculpture, became a toy-size realistic bear that was flayed and exposed. The polar bear evolved on its own based on a strong image in my head, but with other bears I became more purposeful about which organ system and body language I chose. Black bears always struck me as nervous and fearful despite their size and strength. So I chose the nervous system and a defensive but frightened body language.

I usually need to connect emotionally with the piece, even if it’s not what I planned or I don’t understand the emotion. Once the emotion of the animal is set, the rest of the piece falls into place.

SG: What is your ideal context for viewing these sculptures? How does that context contribute to a viewer’s perception of the bears as artificial or realistic?

DS: I didn’t have any idea how to show these pieces. I hate pedestals, but as the bears needed to be seen from all side, they made the most sense. Pedestals, unfortunately, are around for a reason. I have been playing around with showing them on a long thin table, like a scientific exam table, and that is almost working. I’m still looking for the ideal way to show them.

SG: Without describing your entire process, can you tell us which part of making these bears was the most challenging for you, either due to the material in question or otherwise?

Figuring out the relationship of the colors of the linen, fur and embroidery has been the biggest challenge. Unless I want to start dying my own linen, I’m limited to the colors I can find in the Garment District. The textures of the fur and linen also present a challenge. Once the colors, fabrics, and embroidery are figured out through painted sketches and embroidered samples, my process switches to the relatively easier task of making everything and putting it together.

Deborah Simon
Packer Schopf Gallery