So Good You Can Touch It: A Conversation with Oakland based artist Ari Bird
Oakland based artist Ari Bird creates objects that carry symbolic meaning. Her naively rendered paintings, sculptures and installations distill her own narratives and ideas into simple compositions and form. Through a minimal approach, Bird’s work is able to explore concepts around the human condition, personal behavior and our relationships to one another. She employs the imagery of everyday items like cups, tissues, sponges and cherries to act as archetypes for larger cultural conversations. By scaling these handmade objects up and down in size, Bird is making a comment on their value, purpose and overall weight in our world.
Aesthetically, her work borders on playful and surreal, shifting reality through dreamlike palettes and soothing gradients. By captivating her viewers through simple form and color, Bird positions herself between artist and world builder. In her day to day life, she works as a set builder for the Children’s Fairyland Amusement Park on Lake Merrit in Oakland. Working inside the fantastical, Alice-In-Wonderland environments has unsurprisingly had effects on her own studio practice. Learning from her work with children allows Bird to grow as an artist in unexpected ways and creates new pathways of creation in the studio. I was lucky enough to sit down with her this summer and get a glimpse inside her Oakland studio for our #westcoaststudiotour. Take a look at our interview below.
Jessica Ross: To me, your work is like a tonic, it’s warm and inviting and congenial. Is that a goal in your art? To heal or offer comfort?
Ari Bird: I create objects for my own soothing, and it’s really invigorating when it extends to others and soothes them as well.
If you had asked 8-year old me, what does an artist and their work look like, your paintings and sculptures would be the answer. Is there something to be said about holding onto a more naive, simple look at the world?
Often times I paint an image to be a symbol. I metaphorically sand down corners and round off edges until the image is digestible and soft. Archetypes are not real, they are the result of our brains making shortcuts and categories so that we can make sense of the world around us. Archetypes are glorified figments of our collective consciousness. Painting archetypes is a way to catch other people in a dream state, or in an in-between state.
With that said, what is it like to work at Fairyland? How much has the job of painting/restoration made its way into your own practice? How is it working alongside kids?
It’s really strange because I was already making art similar to the sculptures and murals at Fairyland before I started working there. I was painting trippy gradient mushrooms, rabbits with weird faces, etc. So getting to continue delving into fantasy/storybook/dream imagery more and with a different context really helps free me up in the studio. I love making art with kids because they are naturally curious and impulsive makers, which is a useful skill to develop in the studio.
We talked briefly about some bad behavior when it came to people viewing your work, touching and damaging certain parts of your large scale sculptures. Besides that unfortunate reality, would you consider making usable oversized objects? Something meant to be used and handled?
Yes definitely! I felt mixed emotions about people handling my large scale sculptures. Because I wasn’t prepared for that outcome, my pieces essentially didn’t hold up to all the touching and using. But it was sort of an unplanned success-they were so tangible that people felt the impulse to interact with them. This indicates that they were accurate (yet superficial) replicas of the original, but not durable or functional. I’ve actually thought a lot about this and how satisfying it would be to make some of my large sculptures as functional, tangible, and ‘real’ as possible. Having that experience also gave me a lot to think about in terms of boundaries with people who interact with my art and how I want to instill and play with ‘boundaries’ in my work in the future.
How has the Bay Area arts scene been for you? Who are some other artists working in the bay right now that you’re really digging at the moment?
There are rad communities of artists here and interesting creative communities of all types. It’s a little isolated from other cities, but that makes room for so many radicals and weirdos, for the more diy and fringe. I’ve loved living in the Bay and making art here. I’ve made very close friendships with some artists and I’ve learned a lot. Even if moving to another city is in the near future for me, I’ll always keep the Bay Area as a home. There are so many artists I respect here, too many to mention. I am particularly inspired by these people and their work/ethic: Grace Rosario Perkins, Eli Thorne, Lena Gustafson, Mar Paz, and Nkiruka Oparah.
If money were no object, do you have an ultimate dream project you’d want to complete?
I love the idea of having multiple art studios in different cities and in the woods, so you can practice in different settings. I make so many large paintings and I’m almost addicted to it, so then I’d have room to store them.
Some of your larger sculptures seem to focus on areas of self-care and hygiene products. What’s the message there?
I just think it’s amusing to blow up petty, inconsequential objects that make up a significant part of my physical space. These pieces of trash (mascara wand, qtip, bread clips, etc) become otherworldly and full of meaning and significance just because they were given special space and attention.
Your background is in printmaking but you’re also a self-taught painter. Do you think your work benefits from a more organic, less informed approach?
Techniques that were lifted from printmaking are used in my painting. I also like the printmaker’s work ethic-tediously working on a process that only they understand….that is part skill, part science, and also part just plain mysticism or like lore.
Top 5 favorite fruits or veggies to paint, GO.
Peach, watermelon, cherry, daisy, ivy yam.
What’s coming up for you in 2020? Where would like to see your work go?
I am really looking forward to more opportunities to do full installations of my sculptures and paintings. I plan to learn how to fiberglass, and I want to do murals. I’m really looking forward to 2020. 2019 was productive and meaningful for me. Only up!