We had the good fortune of connecting with Gretchen Scharnagl and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Gretchen, how do you think about risk?
I consider risk taking as one of the most important components to the creative process. In teaching art, I always place risk taking, the abandonment of fear and rejection of ideas of perfectionism, uppermost in importance. Risk taking can take many forms, but in my art making, it could be as simple as leaning toward the difficult or unknown, rather than maintaining the familiar. The choices I make are driven by what I have read, the current news cycle, the state of the Environment, combined with embedded narratives of my suburban life. This results in often using untraditional art materials and tools that make everything about the work more challenging and difficult. Like taking two years to collect used Christmas trees from trash piles or using the hoarded waxy graph paper I found in my father’s effects or working on fragile paper or paper refuse. The work is often ephemeral or lacking permanence, resisting the archival demands of the art market. The imagery can be ugly or disturbing. The materials and subjects risk failure, rejection, and force me to always be uncomfortable in the art making process. I think the success of my work is the embedded struggle, the unseen performative nature of it all, the authenticity of time and place, that requires the risky trust of my own artistic vision and experience.
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
Discovering connections is what excites me. It can happen while researching a subject, it can happen during the creative process, it can happen when art is shared with the public. To discover that rather than differences from others it is the commonalities instead that are revealed, connecting me to all my fellow dwellers of this planet. I am most proud when someone sees this connection in my art. It is the power of art I value and love. The power to communicate. The power of art making and the art itself as a tool to think. The subject of my art is founded in this idea of connections. It started with observational works of those things I might find in my yard or in South Florida. Those works leading to discovering the environmental problem of window collisions of migrating birds. Which was connected to obsessions with extinctions. Which led to the definitions of the Anthropocene. That also included current social issues which connected me to Plains Indian Ledger Art. Then to Eco-Materialism and Bricolage. To thinking about permanence and impermanence and responsibility to the planet and how that affects me as an artist. I love my connection to the oldest gestural-contour rock art and cave drawings. I teach mark making as having its own intrinsic value. And finally empowering myself with the knowledge that if it is easy it probably doesn’t have value. I do not make art to leave a mark on the world, but wish my art to make an impression on another’s life.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
I would begin our week with a walk on the Anhinga boardwalk in Everglades National Park because we may want to return a second or third time to celebrate the ever changing dynamic of flora and fauna. If feeling extra adventurous we would include Garl’s Coastal Kayaking for close ups to gator and croc alike. Followed, of course, by a stop at the historic landmark fruit stand Robert is Here for all sorts of goodies from local sources to take home for gifts, but not forgetting to order a freshly made shake. Our subsequent days would be filled with trips to the Deering Estate for a dose of the historical including Indian burial mounds and the stone house, nature and art. A trip to Fairchild Tropical Garden filled with orchids, butterflies and hawks performing arial mating dances if you are lucky. I would not forget a little excursion to Pinecrest Gardens, a unique blend of structure, history and beautiful gardens and possibly a herpetologist’s dream. Including again, two art spaces. We would go to one of my second homes, The Frost Art Museum on the FIU campus for a surprising fresh look at art. We would wind up our week with a day at the PAMM museum to fully immerse ourselves in art, enjoy artistically presented and delicious food on the shaded veranda and enjoy the view, the architecture of the building, and the hanging gardens. A trip to the gift shop is a temptation to not resist. And if time allowed, a drive up to The Frank Gallery in Pembroke Pines that would be a fitting conclusion to my triad of exciting and unexpected art spaces. Because these are my haunts.
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
I jumped into the academic arena later than most of my fellow artists and with little or no understanding of the world of art, whether contemporary or historically. It is exactly this set of factors that made the mentorship, guidance and friendship of Clive King, Bill Burke, and Manny Torres (my professors at FIU) invaluable, in fact life changing. They set the stage of everything that I value about myself as artist and educator. Sometimes when I am asked about my art or the way I teach by someone admiring something about it, I am reminded of the impact we all can make on one another. In addition, I have benefitted from many of the brave individuals who have facilitated non-commercial art by providing non-profit, experimental spaces that allow artists like myself to grow and express ourselves unfettered. To all of them, including those we have lost to time, I say thank you. As my career has gone forward, I realize that my art, particularly the ephemeral, only exists or can be shared through the documentation of the work, and for that I am completely beholding to the photographer and friend, Daniel Portnoy. But in fact, the list of students, of fellow faculty of FIU, Miami-Dade, and UofM, of local biologists and other scientists, and my immediate family members, all who have been integral to every aspect of my art, is too long to list here, but are all of equal importance.
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