in the Mix: Calif. artist brings her mixed heritage themed works to Hub

Colette Greenstein | 2/6/2014, 6 a.m.
"The beauty of art is the ambiguity," says sculptor Alison Saar discussing her current exhibit "STILL…" showing at the Sandra ...
Sculptor Alison Saar’s work “Weight,” shown above, is an example about how her mixed heritage and interest in American and African traditions influences her work. Saar’s newest work is on display in the exhibit “STILL …” at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. courtesy of Alison Saar

When you’re creating your sculptures do you find that it’s more of a conscious effort or is it subliminal?

I always have a specific work in mind. I’m very conscious of what I’m creating. In the process of making the art there are subliminal images that manifest that are not always conscious.

In the introduction of “STILL…,” Meg Linton writes that she has been working with you the last two years on this exhibition. Did she commission your work for Otis College of Art’s Ben Maltz Gallery? How does it work between the artist and the gallery?

There’s a difference between a commercial space and a gallery like Otis. Meg Linton really gives the artist full reign. The Otis gallery has very high ceilings and it’s an exciting space to come up with ideas. It’s an opportunity for the artist to explore the work. You can make big, unwieldy things. It’s an opportunity to take some risks and you’re encouraged by the gallery to do so.

How do you name your sculptures?

I’m a huge fan of the thesaurus and I’m interested in punning, wordplay. Part of it is the African American tradition of slangs, playing with words. Word plays as in the blues traditions. All the work is a little dark and heavy and I try to add some levity to it.

Who or what has been an influence on your work?

Of course my parents and my mentor Dr. Samella Lewis. She was an instructor at Smith and she broadened my horizons.

In what way did she help to broaden your art and the way that you think about your work?

I studied African Art history as well as the art of the African diaspora with Dr. Lewis. She was also my advisor for my thesis on self-taught African American artists. Although I didn’t pursue a career in art, I feel these studies have a huge influence on my work as an artist.

Was there a moment growing when you knew that you wanted to be an artist?

It was something I always did growing up; being dragged around to installations. My mother was widely known. It was daunting. Initially, I was interested in being an art historian but when I was getting my B.A. I realized that I wanted to make art instead of reading about art.

Do you consider your work political?

In the ‘80s I was invited to be part of an exhibit called “Art & Politics.” I never considered my work as political. It’s always been very personal. Sometimes, it’s a direct response to what’s going on in the media and in the world.

You talked about working with glass and the idea of “distilling down to an essence.” Can you describe in more detail your experience working with glass during your residency at Pilchuck Glass School?

Pilchuck invites artists without prior knowledge of glassmaking to come and explore the material with the help of skilled glass artists to create works in a variety of techniques. I was working with two gaffers in the hot shop. For some pieces I would draw an image of what I wanted and we would work together to get the right shape. For others I made molds of pieces, into which the glass was blown.