Samantha Dickie is a Canadian ceramic artist, based in Victoria, British Columbia. She describes her work as “focused on abstract expressionism and minimalist sculpture within an installation practice.” A defining element of Samantha’s aesthetic is the concept of multiplicity – numerous (sometimes thousands) of individual ceramic elements that she combines into a piece or installation that exposes the viewer to the collective whole, individual elements in the whole, as well as the negative space between individual elements of the collective.
Samantha notes in her bio: “Integrating a theoretical degree in women’s studies with her broad interests in philosophy and psychology, she has become drawn to the visceral nature of rough and intentionally imprecise clay as emblematic of rejecting social pressures, often placed with particular weight on women, to strive for unattainable perfection. For Dickie, there is expressive beauty in imperfection.”
Given the scale of Samantha’s work, I’ve included photographs of a few installations and interspersed them in this article, focusing on both individual elements as well as the overall context. Additional photos of Samantha’s work are located on her website.
JTW: Much of your work involves creating lots of objects – similar forms. Has this requirement for volume changed the way you work?
SD: Multiplicity has been how I’ve envisioned my work for the last 20 years. As far as changing the way I work, I’d say that producing large-scale pieces with huge numbers of components has been an entrenched work routine for a long time now.
As you say, the requirement for volume is different than creating a smaller grouping of forms. However, as many of my forms that are in smaller assemblages are in fact large in scale individually, I am still working on them over a long period of time.
The process of creating a large-scale assemblage or installation starts with a preliminary time to experiment, resolve and plan how to execute my vision for the piece. Following that development process, is major production mode with a lot of studio time doing very repetitive work. Sometimes repetition is meditative. Sometimes it is boring. I distract myself from the monotony with learning through podcasts and audio books. I often hire a studio assistant to help keep production going efficiently as I never seem to have enough time.
People have an idea that being an artist is always creative. When I’m in a time of visioning and creative flow, it is awesome. The rest of the time my work predominantly requires diligence to simply produce. I carve out months to prioritize a large-scale project. In order to meet my deadlines, being self-employed and working from my live/work home requires setting a work schedule amongst life’s busyness if I have any hope of completing a project for installation. It’s work, work, work. Seeing a vision that takes months to create installed in the flesh is the most incredible feeling and is worth all of the effort. I love this work.
JTW: There seems to be some idea behind most of your work – an intellectual underpinning like abstraction/minimalism, feminist politics, etc. Are there any elements of your work that aren’t connected to some idea – or that you don’t understand on a logical level?
SD: Absolutely. The creative process always includes intuition as a requirement to experiment with different forms and ideas in order to find a degree of resolution with new work. At times, such as during the artist residency I just completed, I give myself intentional time to play with new ideas, new inspirations, and new forms without constraint. The place of spontaneity, as you put it, is where the seeds for new projects sprout. Most often I come away with a collection of fresh visions, ideas, techniques, forms, and approaches to installation.
As I often respond to a particular gallery space, residential commission, or corporate design, I have parameters from which to syphon my ideas and visions for a particular creative project. I like responding to a space, or design concept, or curatorial theme. When I have a crystal-clear vision for a new installation in the early hours of the morning, that vision needs to percolate over the ensuing weeks or months for the ideas to emerge that will frame the project. Most often what I create is close to that first vision; and intuition is always the guide. Because my work is often thousands of components, it takes that clear vision to be able to endure the time required for the whole project to come to fruition.
I want to have ideas ground my work. That is why I like to work with installation. It gives me the opportunity to create something that can have an embodied response by the viewer, and hopefully can be both emotional and thought-provoking.
JTW: You mention Agnes Martin, the abstract painter, as a source of inspiration. Are there other artists who have inspired you with their work, and if so, in what way?
SD: A few artists have inspired the way I approach my work. Agnes Martin and her use of subtlety. Ernesto Neto. I saw one of his hanging installations at the Guggenheim 2 decades ago and was blown away. I can see how it inspired me to want to work big and use the ceiling so that the work can float and be walked into. At the time of seeing these artists I didn’t know that they would eventually inspire directions that I take in my work.
I admire a breadth of artists such as Ai Weiwei, Barbara Kruger, Betty Goodwin, Dale Chihuly, Hans Coper (to name a few), but I can’t say that they have influenced my work.
At times, I have made work that responds to something I have seen from another artist. For example, Walter De Maria’s installation in Soho, the New York Earth Room. He filled a 3600 sq ft, 2nd floor gallery with 22 inches of dirt, 250 cubic yards of earth. It has been maintained since 1977 in that space. Incredible! It inspired my piece ‘Grounded’. Or while I was in France, I wanted to make work responding to the local surroundings. Vallauris is a historical ceramics town in south France where Pablo Picasso made his ceramic work. I made a piece inspired by a painting that included his deconstructed wheels that I saw in the Picasso Museum in Vallauris. I named it Picasso’s wheels.
JTW: You’ve done a number of residencies during your career, giving you important time to reflect. How long are those residencies, typically? Have you approached residencies with an intention to try something new, or to just devote yourself to work & thought and see where things go?
SD: Residencies are deeply fruitful times for creative exploration and production for me. Attending an artist residency is like a magic break, where I can fully immerse in my work at arm’s length from other life responsibilities.
I have attended residencies when I can over the course of my career: 3 residencies in Canada that were each three months (the Banff Center for the Arts, the Klondike Institute of Art and Culture (KIAC), and Red Deer College) before parenting became more all-consuming in my life; and 2 one-month residencies during the busy years of parenting (the Sculpture Factory in Jingdezhen, China, and A.I.R. Vallauris in France that I just finished). As my kids head out into the world, so will I for my work as much as possible. I’m already dreaming of what could be next.
I’d say that more time is better in a residency, but time is a luxury that many of us can’t carve out easily. Whatever amount of time, I dive in. I have created entire exhibitions that were proposed, received grants to create, and produced while in residency for ensuing public gallery exhibitions. I have also attended residencies with free-flowing time to experiment, to be spontaneous, to respond to the local environment, to seek fresh inspirations, to work out unfamiliar ideas and to resolve new techniques. Each time, I come out of the residency with many different things that evolve and expand my practice when I get home.
I have three concurrent intentions for any residency: explore in the studio to bring home the seeds for future projects (incorporating different ideas, forms, and techniques); make new connections and friends with artists from around the world (the best part); and make sure to explore the local area around the residency (that inspiration part is essential). Don’t just work in the studio like at home, fill the well with inspiration and connection.
JTW: Has becoming or being a parent changed your creative life? How so?
SD: Absolutely. Prioritizing parenting has changed many things for me, some good, some hard.
The downside is that in order to prioritize my kids, given the circumstance of where I live and single parenting, I’ve had to postpone some ambitions like graduate school that would have furthered my career sooner. I’m now heading into my MFA after deferring it for 19 years. That has had an impact on the trajectory of my career opportunities, but I’ve worked hard to be an artist and a single parent and have no regrets about my choices. Kids first.
On the other side, being a parent expands a creative life outside the studio and into everything. Kids hold a spirit of creativity that is lovely. Besides having part of my studio dedicated to materials for my kids to use (from watercolour paints to printmaking to soap making), I did a ton of volunteering at their elementary school with art workshops, and permanent art installations to inspire the kids in their learning environment. Now that they’re older, they come to exhibition openings with their friends, or travel with me for work. I’m super inspired to see them engaged in their own creativity, whether that’s on the dance stage, in the wood shop, or in the art studio. We all need creativity as part of our lives. Of course, they’re my best creation (and biggest distraction from my work).
Concurrently, I think creating my home for my family (a live/work/family space) brought me to the residential house design work that I do (on the side to my studio practice), where I use the spatial skills from working in sculpture and installation to create functional aesthetic spaces for people to physically live in.
My personal experience as a parent has simultaneously played large part in my work conceptually. Many of my recent installations have been created to pull viewers into an embodied experience of generative pause. My work over the last number of years is about what I am thinking about and want to feel.
As a single parent, I crave space. Space to take a moment to slow down, to notice the details, to refuel, to catch my breath. For me this pause, a suspension of time, is most easily felt in the deep backcountry wilderness, or even in the forests where I run my dogs or the ocean that is close by. The experience lying under a canopy of trees, or the starry sky reminds me of the minute detail and expansiveness that surrounds us, a life force that is much bigger than us, that pulses underneath and above, where we can sink into, feel held and then stand taller. Finding pause, through any contemplative practice, is like pressing the reset button to go back into the busyness of life, work, and parenting with a little bit more clarity and grounding.
In my work I use multiplicity to create a feeling of expansiveness in the installation by drawing attention to the spaces that are saturated between, inside and surrounding each component, highlighting spaciousness as a point of contemplative pause.
JTW: You say public feedback from viewers is important. How do you typically gather that feedback?
SD: That’s a great question. The viewer’s interaction with, and reaction to my work is the most interesting part for me. With installation, I can invoke a feeling, an association, an embodied response. I garner feedback at public openings, artist talks, online posts, and from conversations with curators and educators, and interviewers, but I also know that I miss a lot of potential feedback from public exhibitions. During COVID when I couldn’t attend public openings, I asked for feedback by email, and gratefully received some. Any gallery or artist talk that includes time for dialogue between the audience and myself has given me lots of information about how viewers receive my work. Most often what I garner is in line with the conceptual intentions behind the work. I hear people talk about how they want to interact with the work, such as wanting to touch, or move, or hear the components; or wanting to dive through, be curled up inside, or be enveloped by the installation. All responses are fascinating to me and illustrate the kind of embodied experience I am creating in the gallery, and how I can evolve the work to be more invocative. My next work will be an interactive installation where viewers need to duck underneath, step through and around the installation while being invited to move the components as they see fit.