INTERVIEW BY ELLA VISCARDI
PHOtOGRAPHS by Emily Alben
When I consider the work of Bronwyn Walls, the word ‘thoughtful’ immediately comes to mind. The multidisciplinary artist describes her current practice, involving paint and textiles, as a sustained meditation on the emotional states of groundedness, patience, and continuance. Bronwyn’s deep-rooted perspective stems from her experiences of displacement; 13 years after relocating to Texas in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, she has only recently returned to her hometown of New Orleans, Louisiana. This emotional transition period has prompted moments of rediscovery and reflection, which have, in turn, found a home in Bronwyn’s contemplative creative process, as I learned when I caught up with the artist this spring.
Ella Viscardi: To start, I’m curious about what led you to become a self-taught artist. What sorts of resources have you utilized while forging your distinct creative path?
Bronwyn Walls: When I was little, I used to do a lot of copying. I used to go to art museums and draw stuff I saw on the wall, and I copied from comic books and the newspaper funnies. Then when I was a teenager, I got one of those books on how to draw portraits—it gives you, like, 10 examples of noses, and you copy all of the noses over and over again. So I was motivated by something other than a classroom setting in that regard. I also did a lot of doodling all day, whether at school or at home. I studied filmmaking in college, at the University of Texas in Austin. I drew a lot throughout school; I kept journals. I had been trying to get into a drawing class, which is really hard to do if you’re not in the studio art program, and I finally got into one for the last semester of my senior year. It was three hours in the morning of just drawing, with 10 other students, and it was my ultimate favorite thing ever. It felt really right to be there, and I found that those three hours were rejuvenating, therapeutic, and inspiring in a way that I hadn’t felt from anything else. After graduation, I drew a lot and started working in an art printing studio. Eventually I decided to start taking it seriously. One day while I was drawing, my roommate suggested that I post work on Instagram, which I hadn’t really kept up with. Once I did, it changed my life.
All of a sudden, people were encouraging me to post more—I started to get a lot of feedback. I realized that there was this huge community of artists on Instagram, and then I started making friends and all of these great connections. It became an art community. I guess I had been involved with a pretty large music community in Austin, where there were a lot of artist types around, but I didn’t know a lot of people doing what I wanted to do. Seeing people on Instagram who were my age and working in illustration was really essential and inspiring. It opened my eyes to a different side of the art world, and it continues to do so.
EV: Do you have a preferred medium within your multidisciplinary practice?
BW: Every time I discover a new medium, I think, this is the one, this is it, I’m going to stick with this one, this is my love, this is what I’ve been leading up to my whole life. And then it always passes, and I get excited about something else. A recent lesson has been to be in love with something without feeling like it has to be my ‘forever medium.’ I think exploring a new medium is a great way to reset your work in another medium. And no matter what medium I’m working in, I always have to have a drawing practice—and by that, I mean pencil on paper. I find that it’s not necessarily the most inspiring or exciting work, but I want it to be in my practice regardless of what I’m doing, just to ground me in some way.
EV: What projects have you been working on lately?
BW: This spring, I was invited to be a part of a two-part show here in New Orleans called Femaissance—it’s a kind of feminine Renaissance in the art world. (The first part, Primavera, is more of the blooming, growing, beautiful, fecund part of this feminist movement, while Prosperena focuses more on the work that needs to be done and on some of the darker aspects.) I took it as an opportunity to work on a large textile piece, which I’d been wanting to do for a while.
More and more, I feel as though process is becoming the most critical part of the work that I’m doing; it’s all about the lessons that can be learned from each material. For instance, when I embroider by hand, it takes a really long time and requires a lot of patience; it’s very detailed. You have to get super close to it and focus really hard. Working with thread is kind of complicated; it’s this super delicate material and things can easily go wrong. If you take your mind off of it for a second and try to go quickly, it automatically knots up and destroys. Then you have to spend an hour untying these tiny, tiny knots. It’s kind of a beautiful metaphor; you tie these huge swaths of fabric together with this tiny thread, and through patience, dedication, and love, it connects and all becomes one big piece.
I also recently started to make own paints, which is really exciting. I was recently in Salt Lake City for work, and I drove to Moab to meet up with a friend who lives in Arizona. It was the most beautiful drive of my life, going from a super high altitude city up in these snowy mountains down into this desert with red rock and a totally different landscape. I collected a whole bunch of soil samples of dirt of different colors. There are a lot of rusty dark reds, oranges, browns, and even some blue-green soil, which blew my mind. I got some recipes and a glass muller and some chemicals that I’ve never worked with, and I’ve been experimenting with using those paints in my abstract painting works, which have a very neutral color palette. That’s something that I feel transcends a lot of the work that I do—these kind of natural, soft, gentle colors that maybe make you want to scoot in closer.
The shapes that I’ve been really drawn to lately, partly because of Utah, are arches. In Arches National Park, there’s this one spot called Delicate Arch. It’s probably as tall as five stories or something and it’s created naturally through wind tunnels in the canyon. I thought that was so inspiring—and then I realized it was showing up in everything I was making.
EV: How does your interest in spiritual and meditative practices play a part in your work and creative process?
BW: I grew up in the Catholic tradition and was sent to Catholic school. While I’m not Catholic, everyone in my family was baptized in the faith and my New Orleans ancestors come from Sicily in Italy, where there’s a huge Catholic tradition. The church that I went to growing up in New Orleans had these super tall ceilings and beautiful stained glass—you can picture the priest in a robe wandering down the aisle, swinging the smoke, giving you bread, and touching your forehead. I have so many criticisms of the Catholic church, but I really appreciate a lot of these recurring images and traditions.
One spiritual practice that I got into sort of recently was tarot. I was really attracted to it because it draws from a lot of systems all over the world, and it isn’t exclusive to one belief; it’s really open. It’s a nice way to check in with yourself and reflect—you look at a picture and think about how it’s relevant to you in that moment, and then you start to realize things. Usually the cards tell you something that you already know but haven’t been able to articulate. I decided to make a tarot deck with my friend called Mesquite Tarot. I illustrated all of the cards in the deck—there are 78—and my friend wrote a little book to go along with them. Each card has one page in the book that features a little meditative poem, a little phrase to help you feel the vibe of the card, or a question. Through tarot, I studied a lot of symbolism and visual semiotics, and I began to understand how symbols and mythology are such a huge part of the human psyche. Whether we like it or not, they influence the way we think about things. Bringing that information back to Catholicism or yoga or any kind of system shows you how it all ties in together, and that’s super interesting to me.
EV: How have your experiences of movement and geographic disruption changed your sense of place and relationship to your American Southern roots?
BW: Not only is moving an act of uprooting, but it’s also a really interesting thing for me personally right now, since I’ve returned to a place that I’ve considered home for a long time and have been met with a lot of grief and pain. I’ve realized that I have a lot of unresolved emotions with this place. It has been really interesting to rediscover my relationship with my city as an adult and as a different person than I was when I left.
When I talk about New Orleans, I want to personify it. I feel like I’m returning to an old friend that I left behind and didn’t even say goodbye to or mourn her loss.
I was 12 when Katrina happened. My family evacuated New Orleans—thankfully we found a motel in Mississippi that wasn’t listed on the books but was advertised on the radio. It was my mom, my dad, my sister and I, and three big dogs in one tiny motel room. We didn’t actually think that it was going to happen—I think a lot of people were in denial—but we left anyway. I just packed a suitcase for a week. Then we watched the whole thing hit. It became clear that we weren’t going to be able to make it back into the city anytime soon, so we went to stay with a friend of my mom’s in Dallas, Texas. My dad lost his business in New Orleans and my mom lost her job there, and the house was foreclosed—our whole life there was destroyed….It was this really weird thing of not getting to say goodbye to any of my friends in the city or my home, and then, all of a sudden, I was just living a totally different life.
What I’ve realized since moving back to New Orleans is that I never grieved it. I remember on the one-year anniversary of Katrina I cried for the first time. Even then, it was like I had one day to mourn and then that was over. But now that I’m here and back in my city again, it’s just all so real. When I talk about New Orleans, I want to personify it. I feel like I’m returning to an old friend that I left behind and didn’t even say goodbye to or mourn her loss. Now, I feel like I’m reclaiming a big part of my identity that I had totally left behind.
EV: How would you describe the creative community within New Orleans?
BW: I live off of this street called St. Claude in the Bywater, which is kind of the artists’ neighborhood, and there are about 10 cooperatively-owned galleries in walking distance from my house. I need to learn more about it, but I do think that, following Katrina, the artistic community here has really banded together and created a supportive network. Everyone is really open-armed and so friendly. It doesn’t feel cliquey or anything, it’s just like, let’s be creative together all the time. ★
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Ella Viscardi is the editor-in-chief of Matter of Hand.