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Accumulating Experience: A Conversation between Diana Jean Puglisi & Betty Jarvis

This conversation is an extension of an exhibition, “Accumulating Experience”, that will take place from October 19th through November 11th in Newark, NJ as part of the Newark Open Doors Festival. Diana Jean Puglisi is the current Big Red & Shiny Inside/Out AIR and Betty Jarvis is a curator that selected Puglisi’s pieces for the exhibition. Betty is a recent graduate of the MA program in Art History at Rutgers University.

The exhibition, Accumulating Experience, explores the ways in which artists use, and build on their observations of human nature, navigate personal identity, span perceived cultural border divides, and create intimate connections between individuals. It emphasizes the necessity in thinking beyond the momentary, singular impact of an experience and deeper, towards the indirect effects that resonate outwards, creating a communal link between humanity. Many of the artists included in Accumulating Experience embed an enticing quality within their work that is meant to elicit personal engagement with the viewer, however fleeting, in order to deepen the connectivity of humanity. As a work continues to engage, mesmerize, or confound, its own meaning has the opportunity to grow and develop.

Too Silver for A Seam, 2016

Betty Jarvis: In an artist statement submitted to Newark Open Doors, you say, “I gravitate towards gendered materials worn during transformative events.” Some of the artists included in the exhibition in addition to yourself, such as William Norton and David French, are fueled to make artwork due to a singular trauma, while your work is almost literally created from layers of experiential events. I would love for you to expound on your statement. Where does the urge to utilize charged materials in your work come from?

Diana Jean Puglisi: I can’t really answer this question with one singular moment or why exactly I do it, although I think I am getting closer to it. A lot has to do with the death of my grandparents, I made this work at a time of mourning and loss. I was very close to my grandfather, so in approach the amber flits the material on the floor is made from a cut piece of fabric from the back of my grandfather’s wool suit that he was buried in. The pattern for the lace comes from my grandmother’s hand-made lace, it is made into a digital file, and then cut at a high setting to make each piece look fragile. Morbid I know, but there was something about the process for me, burning the wool and smelling the scent of burning hair. The process was ritualistic and funerary. I built a tent, similar to funeral bunting. It became a shrine for them. It is placed into a corner because corners are both vulnerable and comforting places to be, it is poetic and metaphoric. In my review board our guest critic was Joyce Kozloff, she told me that my work makes her feel like someone is in the room that she does not know, a spirit, and that she can feel their presence. My interests in this comes from artists like Doris Salcedo and Rachel Whiteread. I used only tulle for the work that will be in Accumulating Experience because I feel like it haunts you at a young age particularly and peculiarly as a female: baptism, ballet recital, communion, wedding, funerals.

BJ: Having spoken with multiple artists who have completed an MFA program, as you did this past year at Massachusetts College of Art and Design, there seems to be a common experience in which an artistic crisis of faith occurs, resulting in a significant and positive change to art output. What was the most influential or illuminating moment for your own artwork, does a singular experience stand out, or was it a building of experience that significantly affected the way you approach creating?

DJP: Leaving the MFA program at MassART with a point to excel from was my experience. My professors were very supportive. Vermont Studio Center was a perfect place to be after leaving, it cleared my head and really gave me the chance think about what it was that I was doing artistically, and with my life. I guess you can call it mindfulness. It gave me the space I needed to leave comments behind, and progress with the information I took with me that was actually pertinent to my progression as an artist, both conceptually and formally. I see it as a building of experiences, a constant building, sometimes your work ends up at a place you did not expect it to, and you have to embrace it. Sometimes things feel unnatural, but most of the time this is when I feel like I have taken a step forward. I think my most recent work is very intuitive, it is figurative, this intuitiveness lead me to new forms and the materials I am now interested in. Although some ideas stuck like the absent body, multiple parts to make a whole, and using fabrics that are gendered or craft materials like felt, velvet, lace, and chiffon.

Can you speak about your research in your MA program at Rutgers?

BJ: I entered the program with the intention of focusing on American post-modern artists and artwork, and specifically looking at the incorporations of craft into fine art. I hoped to focus on blurring distinctions and bringing an inclusiveness to my research that I felt had been lacking in certain art historical scholarship. I think that my interest in non-traditional fine art medium is perhaps apparent in this exhibition. However, at Rutgers, I began to gravitate towards the development of the decorative arts in late nineteenth and early twentieth century London, so a bit of a departure took place! With the help of fantastic faculty, such as Dr. Carla Yanni and Dr. Susan Sidlauskas, I was able to explore the ways that the decorative arts can reflect such a strange time in history. The nineteenth century was the beginning of professionalization, and this occurred within art and the decorative arts as well. The Bloomsbury Group, for example, included artists, writers, and philosophers who were hoping to create a modern domestic life. They strove to fuse fine art and interior design. So although my research took a turn from post-modern American art, there was still a strong interest in artists who wanted to participate in fine art, while using the dialogue of craft, or the decorative arts.

DJP: What brought you to this concept for the exhibition, was it something from a personal perspective that made you interested in the topic of how something personal becomes communal?

BJ: The idea of a collective life has been something I’ve thought about since my time as an undergraduate student at Baylor University, where I actually studied Studio Art. I would often try to work through the different relationships in my own life and think about how I ended up where I was. This question of all random happenings and interactions leading to now, the present stage, has continued to fascinate me. Prior to looking through the artist submissions for Open Doors call for works, I was drawn to ideas of individual identity formation and personal experiences. The concept evolved as I was through looking through the art submissions, and I started to see a pattern that made me think about the micro experience really becoming macro, and how there are so many individuals who all have this shared bond simply by living their individual lives. I wondered, have we all become part of an entire network bound by personal experience? I then thought about viewership. Open Doors is all about the Newark community coming together for a weekend of art experiences, and multiple, if not all, artists in Accumulating Experience are trying to bring people into their work. There are all of these singular moments that make up a whole personal identity, or a whole community. This is something that continues to baffle and delight me, and I’ve really enjoyed being able to think about it further through this exhibition and through each artist's’ work.

DJP: Can you explain further into what you mean by the personal becoming communal and accessible? I find this really intriguing because it is something I often think about. We all have personal experiences, and the something, somewhere in the world, or another artist can create something that triggers a memory, or even some sort of nostalgia.

BJ: Right, and the memory or nostalgia for one person is never quite the same as it is for another. I like that a singular artwork can trigger a feeling for everyone engaging with it; five completely different people could be standing in front a work, and suddenly they’re bound together in that moment. There may be different ideas or emotions going on, but they’re all reacting together. To me, they are a community in front of the work, or inside the exhibition space.

What constitutes “experience” for you? How do you see it in, and emerging from, your work?

DJP: I think of experience as an emotional response that comes from something personal, and then through material specificity, personal history, and/or intuitiveness it begins to place itself into my work. The work in the exhibition came from a few direct experiences of loss. I watched my grandmother battle with Alzheimer’s disease for over 10 years. I saw her physical body, and then realized that she died when her memories did, which is heartbreaking and fascinating. I also have deeper direct experiences of loss from an outsider perspective of seeing someone react to loss right before their eyes, which I can’t really get too deeply into in order to respect a close friend of mine. This one experience I saw with death made me develop an anxiety disorder that still affects. I am realizing my work roots from this more often than I thought. This body of work is about making presence through absence, about making something or really somebody feel like they are still here, or standing beside you, yet all there is, is emptiness, a void.

What contemporary conversation do you think all the works are having with one another about experience?

BJ: I think that would be a really interesting question to hear the artists answer, or talk with one another about. For me, the works are held together by their desire to communicate and share an experience. Whether the artist is hoping to create an immediate sensorial experience between work and viewer, to convey to the viewer something about the artist’s own personal hardships and formation of identity, or to utilize recognizable items from daily life that will prompt the viewer to think about a past experience, the artist is hoping for something to take place and become activated. Accumulating Experience includes seventeen artists, so there are many different nuanced voices within the dialogue happening between the work.

Do you have any preconceived ideas about how viewers will interact with your work? What type of relationship do you hope to take place?

DJP: I don’t. I am very aware about how their bodies will navigate them, though. For example approach the amber flits is in a corner and blocks access to two sides of the piece, conceptually, so you are blocked half access to the piece. I really thought about this piece as looking into it, similar to how one views a casket. I know that my white works take time. They can easily be ignored because of [their] subtle qualities, but when given time you begin to see subtle variations in color, and exactly what it is you are looking at. The shadow seems more real than the tangible object. I hope my viewers have an intimate relationship with the piece, an emotional one and the desire to get close.

Approach the Amber Flits, 2015

BJ: I feel as though much of your work, such as the pieces Too Silver for a Seam and Approach the Amber Flits, included in the upcoming exhibition, has a fluidness and instability embedded in the softly draped materials. There is a sense of transition and an emphasis on process that brings to mind the idea of “anti-form”. Do you see your work in dialogue with any art historical figures, through their own artwork or writings?

DJP: Yes, I have thought of this anti-form, or even anti-image culture kind of philosophy. I think my work is in conversation with minimalism and artists that have explored clothing as surrogate for the body. It is like a meld between the two. I love working with raw materials, but at the same time I am engaged in metaphors and my personal histories. I read Eva Hesse’s diaries this summer at VSC and I realized how similar her and I journal and how I am interested in many concepts that she was. There was an exhibition called “Empty Dress: Clothing as Surrogate in Recent Art” in 1993, I feel my work extends from this thinking. In terms of anti-form, some are deflated and others only hold form when installed, but they still do take on a form of clothing, which references back to the body or absent body. This is definitely something I think often and will continue to think about, awesome question.

I often think about how in America we hold importance on the individual. In my Master's program I remember speaking with an international student and them explaining during a critique that they liked America because of this (individualism), because people cared about their individual perspective and emotions vs being viewed as a small part that makes up a whole, the importance being placed on the whole. When you mention "How much of our reaction is determined by our immediate culture?" It made me think and question this. I know there is definitely not one answer to the questions I am about to ask, maybe it is more of a long conversation; How do you feel our culture ties into experience? Is it culturally constructed to a degree? How do we begin to think about this in relationship to art and the maker?

BJ: What a great observation made by your colleague, it makes an insightful juxtaposition and additional question to this exhibition. For me, art comes in as this communal altar, where we have personal reactions, but we can have them while standing next to someone else feeling something as well. The artist is able to facilitate the convergence of different psychological perspectives, so that for a moment we are brought together, though we do remain individuals. This perhaps brings up more questions about the role of the singular artist… While I do think most things in life tend to be informed by our cultural perspectives, I think that there is always a desire to connect to others, or to be a part of a connection, where we hope that we can communicate with a larger group and that our individuality is respected and even praised.

Exhibition Information

Accumulating Experience

Exhibition Open: October 19th- November 1st

Open Door Event: October 19- October 23

Location: 75 Market St, Newark, NJ 07102

For more information about the exhibition please visit:

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