We can whine, we can pout, tweet with zeal, or dub the whole thing fake. Deny it, denounce it, debunk it, deface it. Or, we can make art. The narratives of Natalie Baxter can’t be confined to one channel or prescribed audience. They have been born in studio art, documentary films, photography, and sculptures, and all brimming with undeniable pathos connected by a consideration for place, identity, and stereotypes. Stuffed with polyfill and civic responsibility, Baxter’s most recent bodies of work, Warm Gun and Bloated Flags, take familiar emblems and defamiliarize them, initiating alternate dialogue and entry points to fermenting ideologies and the connotations they’ve absorbed in the process. We caught up with the New York-based Midwesterner to talk about her work, from bloated to flaccid.
First off, who is Natalie Baxter? Give us your spiel.
I grew up and have spent most of my life in Kentucky. I have always been into art I was an art major in college, I then lived in Montana for a few years before going back to school to get my MFA and then moved to New York City where I currently split my time between working in documentary film and in my studio where I have been working in fabric for the past few years.
What does home mean to you? Is it a place? A person? A scent? A feeling? How does it influence you and, in turn, your work?
I have spent a lot of time thinking about how place and perspective of home shapes identity. I spent most of graduate school creating work exploring the female perspective and relationship of home and place through the region of eastern Kentucky where my mother’s side of my family is from.
For me, home is something that can be built in a place, a relationship, a ritual, a community, a network, a memory. Personally, for me, home is in my almost daily phone conversations with my sisters, the smell of my parent’s cooking or my grandmother’s house, the ritual of spending Christmas eve with family and friends I grew up with, and in time spent with my recently betrothed. Living in New York City has taught me that creating home takes time to foster and it is sometimes ephemeral.
Can you speak to your familial background and the influences its had on your work?
My grandmother taught me to quilt when I was younger. She spent her life in a rural, mountainous part of Kentucky where she would do a lot of sewing for neighbors in her holler alongside Kingdom Come Creek. Every bed in her home was covered in a quilt she had made from the plethora of leftover fabric scraps. Granny was a hardworking homemaker and was always keeping herself busy with quilting, cooking or gardening. She didn’t make it past 8th grade but she was wise from experiences very different than my own upbringing. I think about her a lot when doing this sewing work.
With your acute interest in home and place-based identity, what are your thoughts on the significant home displacement taking place around the world? Is there a visual narrative in the works there?
Yes, this work I’ve been calling Bloated Flags does explore concepts of identity in this moment of our country’s history. I started thinking about flags after the tragic Charleston shooting sparked a national debate about the confederate flag. I was intrigued with how the meaning and symbol of the confederate flag changed over time and how strongly different people felt about polarizing perspectives.
What it means to be American is vastly different across the country, across the world, and after the recent presidential election, a lot of the country discovered that how they define and perceive America may differ drastically from their neighbors.
How did each of these warm guns come to be? Does each gun have a corresponding story?
I started this series when I was home in Kentucky for the holidays in December of 2014. I was at a friend’s house who had a collection of hand guns hanging on his wall. Remember, this was in the wake of Ferguson, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Black Lives Matter marches were happening across the country and police brutality and gun violence were hot media topics and fresh on everyone’s mind. So looking at this wall of guns felt uncomfortable and strange and I wondered what a wall covered with stuffed quilted guns would look like in contrast, thus, Warm Gun began.
Most guns are modeled after weapons that are accessible and commonly used in America, but each gun does not necessarily have a story. I see each gun as a part of a body work that looks at gun violence and masculinity in our country.
When I first started this work, I was using clothes from my roommate’s Goodwill pile, for example, In Ya Genes is made from 3 different pairs of old pants. But as I continued, I discovered New York’s Garment District and have developed a slight fabric buying addiction.
What’s your creative process like?
I come up with ideas sometimes months before I have the chance to try them out. I like to let them stew in my mind for a while before I am able to talk about them with anyone or try them out. Through working in the film world, I learned that it is sometimes best to not discuss your work until it is at a certain phase where you are ready to listen to other people’s inevitable opinions. Some ideas I have that I think are great concepts end up failing in the execution, so I put them on the backburner until they are ready to be tried again. But when I do have an idea that I think is working both in concept and in execution, I usually enter a phase of obsessive production where I create a lot of work from that same idea until it’s no longer fun to make.
Your work comments on culture, mirroring its happenings with enough indistinction to allow room for interpretation. Can you speak a bit about the responsibility as an artist to examine society?
Approachability in my work is really important to me. Art can help create an alternative context for dialogue on issues that elsewhere divide us, and making work that doesn’t have an entry point makes that conversation less achievable. I feel that now more than ever, it’s important to try and reach a wider audience than just those who share my political beliefs. Preaching to the choir doesn’t make change happen. We all can and should use the tools we have to bridge these mental gaps that we have right now in our country.