FIELD NOTES: BEAN GILSDORF
Updated: Oct 26, 2022
We are excited to share a new way of understanding residency programs: Field Notes! Each week we’ll publish an inside look at how life as an artist in residence unfolds, from the preparation to the final production. Field Notes follows artists through their own experience of a residency.
Our first featured artist is Bean Gilsdorf, who today begins a five-week residency at lower_cavity in Holyoke, Massachusetts. I would describe Gilsdorf's work as Cloth-Pop, sewn objects that pull from cultural and political phenomena. In her practice, Gilsdorf traces the deeper (and sometimes satirical) connections between individuals, events, and ideas. Her projects have been exhibited at venues such as the Museum of Contemporary Art Santa Barbara and the Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, among others. Prior to the pandemic, Gilsdorf participated in several artist residencies, including Headlands Center for the Arts in Sausalito and 18th Street Arts in Los Angeles. Our initial weeks of Field Notes will track her plans and process.
WEEK 1: PREPARATION
Normally about a week or so before I leave for a residency, my “monkey mind” starts in with the self-doubt—stuff like, Why are you doing this? You already have a perfectly good studio! You’re going to work somewhere else? What if you need the tools you have right here?
But this year was different: I got sick exactly seven days before my departure, so Am I making the best possible choices for my life? became Shit, do I have Covid? Am I going to be well enough to get on a plane? Additional distractions came in the form of a broken iron, a broken washing machine, and a leaking water heater. At another time I might have read some kind of portent into these events, but being tight on time and low on energy I skipped the metaphysics and just bought a new washer; I’ll deal with the iron when I get back; the water heater doesn’t appear to be leaking anymore. I'm not going to look too closely.
Whenever I have a hyper-focused, travel-bound period of work before me, I’m pulled in two directions: I want to keep plans flexible so that I have room for spontaneity, but I also want to prepare carefully so that I don’t feel like I’m wasting time while I'm in residence. I like to do a lot of research and follow where the information leads. To that end, from late June to the beginning of August, I borrowed books from the library, made sketches, and wrote down ideas and lists—to-do lists, materials lists, preliminary packing lists. By late July I also ordered fabrics and dyes and photographic chemicals that I wanted to play with. In addition to being an artist I’m also a freelance editor, and summer is by far my busiest season; this year, by the time I wrapped up my last big editing gig in late August, I had everything on hand to begin testing my materials.
At lower_cavity I’ll be working on a project that touches on the history of the textile mills in Massachusetts, but it remains to be seen whether that will take the form of an installation or a series of photos or a video. In the first two weeks of September, I sewed my “actors” and their costumes, and experimented with cyanotype processes. I figured out how much string I would need to turn lower cavity into a giant loom—approximately 36,000 feet. Coincidentally, that’s the cruising altitude of a commercial aircraft, and tomorrow I take a red-eye to the East Coast. At the moment that this field report is published, I'll probably be standing in my new workspace, asking myself what I really want to do with this residency.
WEEK 2: GETTING SET UP
Here’s the thing about residencies: No matter how practical or pragmatic or swift you are, inevitably your process of getting set up will not go as rapidly as you had planned. I, a person with a wholly unrealistic sense of time, had pictured my first week ending with every one of my foundational tasks completed, thus sailing into pure, immersive production on the seventh day of my stay. Ha. I arrived on Monday wobbly-legged from the red-eye flight from Portland, having slept for three non-consecutive hours. I did manage to get through a brief orientation to the apartment and installation space, and then a trip to the grocery store (lower_cavity is a “self-catered” residency), before collapsing onto the bed and sleeping for ten hours. Day one, over.
Part of what eats your time during the first week of a residency is that everything is brand new, so there’s a lot of friction and very little momentum. Day two was productive but slow: I unpacked some of my supplies, went to the hardware store, and took stock of the spaces. In preparation for making cyanotypes printed from digital negatives, I began to set up an auxiliary room in the building as my darkroom. It took a couple of tries to completely block the light coming from two large windows and the transom over the door; I spent a good portion of the day locating tools, cutting cardboard, and peeling the thin paper backing from strips of aluminum tape. I also worked on an essay that’s due this week—a project that I had hoped to conclude before I began this residency (these things never play out in reality as neatly as they do in my daybook).
Day three was better yet. After I got my equipment and materials unpacked and organized, I accompanied Tony Discenza, the owner/operator of lower_cavity—who doesn’t use the title “director”—to Wesleyan University to meet curator Benjamin Chaffee at the Zilkha Gallery. I hadn’t planned on this excursion, but I’m very glad to have gone because we had a fun time with Ben, who generously walked us through two absorbing exhibitions by the artists Renee Gladman and Nick Raffel. Also, it was a perfect New England fall day: bright and warm with a tang in the air, much better for sitting outside with coffee and talking about how to bring students from different studios together for productive and supportive critiques, than to be in a darkroom mixing chemicals and soaking fabrics all day.
The rest of the week was more of what we might call part of the journey: The printer I require for making digital negatives needs to be replaced because suddenly it will only print in red ink; I discovered that I didn’t pack enough warm clothes; two scheduled Zoom meetings were canceled at the last minute. On the plus side: a double rainbow; I finished the essay; Tony loaned me a KitchenAid mixer, and as I’m writing this, I’ve got a double batch of blueberry muffins in the oven. They freeze well, so I’ll have something extra to look forward to each morning, before the day’s work begins.
WEEK 3: THE PROCESS
This week started off great: Over the course of two days, I installed metal brackets to the brick pillars using a hammer drill—an absolutely indispensable tool if you’re working with material that is particularly abrasive and dense, such as masonry. But these drills are large and heavy, and in my effort to make accurate holes I braced myself with my legs more than I realized. By the time all the holes were drilled, I felt like I had done 500 squats and it hurt to walk up and down stairs. To recover, I spent a day and a half of “downtime” making more cyanotype tests. No sooner did I heal my legs than I exhausted my arms and hands by installing the threads that attach to the metal brackets. When I was conducting materials tests back in July and August, I decided to space the threads a quarter-inch apart, which in hindsight may have been overkill.
In general, I don’t mind strenuous, repetitive labor. For a couple of years my family lived on a farm, and the travails of installation feel similar to the toil of barnyard chores: often extremely physically demanding, sometimes ankle-deep in mud and shit, but begetting the glorious exhaustion of a job well done. The threads, which are meant to evoke the strings of a loom, reach from one end of the 118-foot-long space to the other and back again; so to get them into place, I went back and forth and back and forth down the length of the room. Out of this movement, a choreography developed: I zigged to one pillar and wrapped the thread around it, then zagged to the next, maintaining constant tension on the spool. Three pulls were required to go from one pillar to the next; then I snapped it into the notches on the bracket with a satisfying little snik. As I worked, the lines of thread accumulated and inched down the brackets. Since I had to pass my body under the threads each time I wrapped around a pillar, I moved my body more and more with each pass: pull pull pull nod became pull pull pull dip became pull pull pull duck became pull pull pull bow, all the way down to pull pull pull crawl.
Keeping even tension on the lines fatigued my arms and cut into my hands. I wore gloves, of course, but discovered that gloves provide little protection against 30–35 pounds of pulling force, and they began to shred at the points where the line dragged across the gloves’ rubber palms. As a prophylactic measure, I took to wearing adhesive bandages under the gloves, then added nitrile gloves underneath the work gloves when these bandages proved to be insufficient. I got blisters anyway. My birthday horoscope reminded me to continue, and at the end of the week a walk to admire some of the other old mill buildings in the neighborhood restored my spirits.
WEEK 4: PROGRESS REPORT
Nelson Mandela famously said, “I never lose. I either win or I learn.” This week has been a lot of learning, particularly in terms of technical matters—for example, adding an acid rinse to a cyanotype on fabric will enrich the blues but stain the highlights; much detail is lost when printing on cotton sateen versus hot-press paper; “instant-dry” transparency films are not. These are the kinds of hiccups that are not really a big deal when you have unlimited time to find solutions and work-arounds and alternate materials, but under the time constraints of a residency they take on a greater weight. There is a public reception at lower_cavity at the end of the coming week, and I expect I will have far less to show then I had anticipated. Still, this is an experimental residency, not a technical/production residency, so I’m trying to bear in mind that I’m right where I should be in terms of trying new things and documenting the efficacy of specific techniques so that I can apply them to future projects. As an ambitious, stubbornly perfectionistic person, it can be very difficult for me to lower my unreasonably high expectations for myself (see also: “time blindness” in Week 2).
The week also brought some very welcome opportunities to be social. I had a lovely catch-up coffee date with my friend Anne, also an artist and an educator, whom I have not seen in a couple of decades. Over the course of a few dinners, Tony and I managed to review and then solve, at least theoretically, the problems of the world. On Saturday, my friend Laurel drove up from New Haven and we visited Mass MoCA, the Clark, Williams College Museum, and North Loop Gallery.
In the literary world, authors frequently discuss the interplay between reading and writing—how a writer needs to read in order to be able to write well—but outside of art schools I don’t think we talk enough about the necessity of looking at art in order to create it.
Whether you like the work or not, there’s something about seeing how other artists approach concepts and materials that nourishes a studio practice. The last three weeks have been all about production, so it was restorative to take an entire day to just look and think.
WEEK 5: PIVOT, PIVOT, PIVOT
If creating/installing the loom and setting up a space for cyanotypes was “phase one” of this residency, then my efforts this week moved me solidly into “phase two”: I staged and photographed the textile sculptures that I brought with me (see Week 1) and made cyanotypes on fabric. Back in the summer, the idea was that these two activities would be closely coordinated: A portion of the photographs I would first produce at the residency as cyanotypes on fabric, and others I would later produce as editioned inkjet prints in Portland. However, the results of last week’s tests indicated that the initial part of this plan isn’t achievable with the equipment and materials I have access to here. For one thing, I’m working with a home-office printer. Therefore, large images must be tiled and printed in 8.5 x 11-inch sections. As I discovered, even the thinnest transparency films leave a faint shadow at their perimeter, which creates a visible grid—an unwelcome addition to my photographs, which are an inquiry into the historical portraits of young women laborers in the region’s textile mills.
The solution to this issue is to print full-scale digital negatives on a commercial printer, but this is more feasible to do from my home studio in November, owing to the time constraints of ordering and shipping. Working on this part of the project in Portland will also allow me to produce images of “the girls” (as I call them fondly) at life-size or larger, which isn’t possible with my current set-up here. Yet I wanted to continue my experiments with process and technique, so I pivoted to making smaller-scale prints that combine photographs of the girls’ hands, lengths of tangled thread, and puffs of raw cotton in compositions that make oblique reference to textile manufacturing.
Despite these complications, cyanotype production has been incredibly satisfying. I was fortunate enough to have been introduced to photographic processes in my high school’s darkroom; I adored the medium but didn’t have opportunities to explore it further after I left. Additionally, cyanotype chemistry is not that different from hand-dyeing fabric, which I did extensively in the first decade of my studio practice. In fact, it's remarkable how much of what I’m working on here relates to prior moments in my practice: In the middle of installing the loom, I started thinking about an installation of mine from 2009, in which I suspended dozens of yards of dyed, bleached, and printed cloth from the ceiling by several hundred parallel threads (Assembly, line, image, system at Linfield College). When my hands blistered from the effort to maintain constant tension on the loom’s threads (see Week 3), I flashed back to a video project (2011, unfinished) in which I dragged a prone man across a city rooftop by a “golden lasso”—a yellow nylon rope that served as a line for the camera’s eye to follow; as we filmed take after take, the rope bit into my bare shoulder, creating abrasions that took six weeks to heal. And each time another cyanotype blooms into a lush deep blue in its final peroxide bath, I’m reminded of the hours I spent measuring dye and soda ash into bucket after bucket of fabric in order to produce precise shades of cloth for new works. As the French say, plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.
In studio snap shots of cyanotype experiments.
WEEK 6: WRAP UP
I’m ending this residency (and this diary) almost where I began: With a plan for the future. Of course, as the reigning champ of wholly unrealistic expectations, I had initially envisioned myself departing with two new bodies of work in hand, 100% completed. What I’m actually bringing home with me is a set of new technical abilities and a to-do list; a series of tasks that will advance my projects and eventually enable me to materialize those bodies of work. Someone once told me that Hemingway had the practice of getting up from his typewriter in mid-sentence, so that when he sat down again the next day he could pick up right where he left off—this will be me in just a few days, when I get home and unpack my boxes in the studio.
A partial accounting:
Days at the residency: 34
Number of steps taken to install the loom: 16,795
Feet of thread used in the loom: approx. 29,500
Adhesive bandages applied to my hands: 51
Cyanotype prints produced: 23
RAW photos taken, from which I will cull the final images to make prints: 2190
Number of times a person saw the in-progress sculpture/photo setup and uttered the word creepy: 12
New sketchbook pages created: 7
Meals eaten standing up while doing something else: 10
Times I used the KitchenAid mixer: 4
Excursions to area exhibitions: 3
Trips to the hardware store: 5
Student visitors: 3
Books brought with me to the residency: 3
Books purchased during the residency: 3
Total books read: 3.5
Hour of the morning I will need to get up to catch my flight from Hartford: 4
Times I wore the dress I brought with me “just in case”: 0
To keep up with Bean and the project she started while in residency, follow her at: