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Serra Victoria Bothwell Fels: Sculpture Artist

Lily Hetzler

Serra's work is interactive and playful, transforming spaces into something that feel both otherworldly and defiant, but also familiar and inviting.  She creates environments that bring you into her world, and it's clear from the start that she is passionate about process and social interaction.  From the Appalachian Smoky Mountains to the urban farms of Australia, Serra is a woman who is committed to community and the way we interact with our world.  Come on board for this chat with the artist and discover what brought her from southern quilt-making to secret society building...

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Nativen:    Serra, where are you from?

Serra:    I'm from Knoxville, Tennessee. I was born and raised there. My dad's family's from Tennessee, but my mom's Australian. It's kinda like two redneck populations hanging out in my body.

Nativen:    Do you think growing up in Tennessee influenced either your work or your choice to start doing kind of sculpture work in any way?

Serra:    Definitely it framed how I approach visual making from a young age. I grew up in the valley of the Smoky Mountains, so a lot of the art classes I would take would be very Appalachia craft based. Making corn husk dolls or basket weaving, and then a lot of quilting. My mom, who is the Australian one, makes quilts, and there's a tradition of quilt-making in Appalachia and the South in general. I was around her and her friends doing a lot of that sewing. She taught our Girl Scout troop how to piece patterns together, so a lot of it had to do with this early approach to pattern making and approaching flat planes and giving them shape.

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Nativen:    When did you realize that you wanted to pursue sculpture work? Was there a specific event or something that happened in your life or was it like a gradual thing?

Serra:    Yeah, probably both. I did my undergrad at Stanford, 'cause I went to public school in Tennessee, and thought what's the school that's the furthest away from home that I could make a case for going to? Anyway, I applied and I ended up getting in. At that point, you go. You don't really have a choice. I ended up in California. I was looking to study art, but their art department wasn't as maker based. I ended up studying social psychology with a bunch of people, including Philip Zimbardo who did the Stanford Prison Experiment. I was in that department with all those people which was really interesting, just to see how people approach the social fabrication of humans and how we come to believe who we are through the environments we make around ourselves. I was really interested in that, but also still interested in art. Then I took an engineering class my last year in silversmithing. My entire art education life I'd just been given 2D assignments, like Tennessee Public School, I did painting and drawing. It was always something I liked, but never felt particularly good at. It wasn't until I took the 3D silversmithing class that I was like, oh, I get it. It just really clicked for me.
It clicked for me at the end of undergrad, so I was like what do I do with this? I ended up moving to Australia for a couple of years and teaching environmental education at an urban organic farm.
At that point I think it had just sparked a deeper understanding inside of myself about the way that I think and the way that I process things.  So when I started making in 3D, this entire way of interacting with the world just clicked for me. 

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I was in Australia, and thought, all right, I don't have kids, I don't have a mortgage. I had just broken up with somebody, and I was like, well, if I was ever gonna make art and pursue art, now would be a good time to do it. I ended up going to the Appalachian Center for Craft for a year. I did silversmithing and blacksmithing back in Tennessee for a year, and then came up to New York.
I had a bunch of art making friends in the Bay Area, and they were really good at banding together and making weird projects happen all the time, and through them have friends here in New York. A bunch of us just started making things together. Out of that, we started an installation art collective, so we would take over abandoned buildings or unused buildings, and then fill them full with installation art.  We'd pick a theme, invite somewhere between 20 and 60 artists to come make work on that theme and then often ask that the installations overlap or interact with each other in some way. We took over an old convent in Greenpoint. We did an abandoned snowmobile factory in Detroit, and worked with that property owner. Then we took over an abandoned Secret Society hall in Philadelphia, and then made our own Secret Society and lived as a Secret Society and then abandoned our Secret Society. You would walk through and get these weird layers upon layers of different people having these mystical interactions with each other and this residue left over. 
We did that for a long time, and then my own practice came out of that particular way of making around other people, kind of alone together. 

Nativen:    An interdependent maker gang, basically.

Serra:    Yeah, basically. But then I went to grad school, and life has moved on and changed and shifted.

Nativen:    What do you love most about living in Brooklyn, and do you think it's integral to your work in any way?

Serra:    I feel like New York's the only city that's ever made me tired. There's so much going on here and there's such a veracity for interaction and fervent making and gestating that I love being in that pipeline in a way that I think in other cities I've lived in there's not enough going on. 
I don't know, I feel like I could live in New York for six more weeks, or I could live here the rest of my life. I don't think it's up to me. I actually really believe it's up to New York whether or not you get to live here. 
I think there's just a component of how I make and how I live that is very much right on the edge of extroverted and introverted. I like that New York gives me both of those things in hyper speed. I deeply get both, and that really feeds me in how I make and do stuff.

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Nativen:    In New York, do you have a favorite restaurant?

Serra:    La Superior.

Nativen:    How about a favorite home goods or clothing store?

Serra:    No, but my friend Josephine is my favorite potter, and she's in a lot of cool stores. Recreation Center is her blog. She's awesome, and her studio's in Red Hook.

Nativen:    Favorite park or outdoor space.

Serra:    Well, Maria Hernandez is the park that's right by my house, and I've really grown attached to it. When I moved to New York in 2008, I lived in this neighborhood and that was my park. As New York does, it's shuttled me around and around. I've been back in this neighborhood for like four years. It's really nice to have that community commons, do you know what I mean? Where everybody intersects and you can run into people you know or see the guys that work at the bodega that you say hi to every morning. It doesn't have an imposed social hierarchy on top of it. I like that a lot. It's not my favorite park necessarily because it's so beautiful or anything, but it has to do with the way that people move around it and show up there.

Nativen:    How about a hidden gem? Do you have any hidden gems in New York?

Serra:    Hidden gems. My favorite egg sandwiches are at Fort Defiance in Red Hook. 
Also my friend Sto has been pulling marbleized prints for a long time, making these giant swimming pools and throwing in all this crazy paint and pulling these things out. A couple of years ago, he started doing it on the Newtown Creek. So he pulls pollution prints. They're marbleized, they're amazing.
He built a Newtown Creek clubhouse, basically, like a little tiny illegal shack on the banks of the Newtown Creek that became a little boathouse hangout. That's pretty hidden.

Nativen:    That's a very good hidden gem. What do you think is the greatest resource to your work here?

Serra:    People, yeah, getting to overlap with people. There's like a flow to life here, even just the way that we met, if you show up and you're open and you have an ability to say yes to things. What I love about New York is that you never know where you're gonna end up in your day. I was helping a friend, Jeff Stark, with an install. I made a piece for a play that was happening on the Gowanus Canal, and was installing this installation on a pontoon boat.
He and a number of other collaborators did Persephone and the underworld. As the audience you would pay your fare to the ferryman to ferry you across to the underworld, and so you would get on this pontoon boat. I was installing a piece, and there's some guy next to us who was just like, "Free canoe rides, just sign a waiver." You're like, "Really?" And he says, "Mm-hmm, just bring it back." We ended up canoeing the Gowanus Canal for two hours. 
There's something about New York where if you show up and you are willing to say yes, there's these incredible doors just open.

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Nativen:    There's a version of New York for every human, if you look for it. This is the asking you to pick your favorite child question, but do you have a piece that is either your favorite piece or maybe it was the greatest accomplishment for you? 

Serra:    I can tell you about the one that I'm just starting currently, that I'm learning a lot from right now. Whenever I make a sculpture, particularly installation work, it takes me many months after making it to even know how I feel about it. If I like it, what's going on, what it's teaching me, what I need to do next. I think in part it's because installation art, for me, is kinda like improv. 
You've got a deadline, you have a space. Most of my work is site-responsive, so then it's like in this compressed period of time something gets made. Unlike a painter that can exist in a studio and paint until they feel like it's ready to be taken out into the world, my work happens in the world, whether I like it or not. So often it takes me a while to be aware of what's going on. 
There's a piece that I made that I showed a year ago December at the gallery that represents me on the Lower East Side, and it's a piece that is like cracking out of the floorboards.
As I install work, I end up doing a lot of staring, like wordless staring, and I end up walking the pathway a lot, which is a thing that you can't really capture in photographs. Like the piece at Pioneer Works, for me the thing that I learned in that piece is that as you walk up the stairs, it just looks like a flat slightly protruding wall hanging, but as you come up and you round the corner, you realize that there's a doorway, oh, that you can go inside, that there's a room inside. There are these layers of discovery, and I've never been able to figure out how to convey that posthumously if you're not there.
For this piece, what happens is you walk into the gallery and you open the door and you walk into these hardwood floors and you're maybe looking at the strange recessed art on the walls that's happening, and in the back of the gallery you'll arrive at a sculpture that is literally cracking the floorboards up and there's a protrusion just rupturing inside.
I think that there's a lot that I'm still processing about what it means to rupture something. 

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Nativen:    Sure. Did you have to break existing floorboards to do this? 

Serra:    This is the tricky part. You walk in, and you get up to here and then there's this protrusion. I would say, and I didn't expect it, I thought that most people would look at the piece and then look around and be like, "Oh, I get how she did it," and then would come back to the piece. But probably 9 out of 10 people ask did I actually rupture the floorboards? What I did instead is I laid all of the flooring in the entire gallery.
This piece really taught me to pull the line of reality that you're starting to mess with really far away from the focal point. 

Nativen:    It's a magician's trick.

Serra:    You’re already on top of the sculpture once you enter the gallery. I'm not out to trick anybody, but I am really interested in that believable rupture basically.

Nativen:    What part of your process brings you the most joy?

Serra:    It changes a lot. Sometimes I really like doing repetitive tasks. It's very meditative, but eight hours in, I'm really sick of it. Sometime I love getting to meet a lot of new different people, like figuring out how to collaborate with new people. A lot of my art practice has consent as one of its cornerstones. Again, unlike a painter who can just paint a painting and somebody can pick whether or not they put it in their space, where they put it, my practice is to go into a space to take advantage of architectural anomalies, and figure out how to pull that into a sense of otherness, like really trying to get into this line between the imagined and the real. 
A lot of that is a really consensual practice 'cause if it's your gallery, you're like, "Wait, what are you gonna do? How are you gonna do that? Are you gonna repair it? Do you know how to repair it?" 'Cause also artists, we've given ourselves a bad name for many years. I'm just doing something crazy and then leaving it crazy. A lot of it is me coming in and saying, "great, here's your space. How does it work? What are the hours? When can I work here? How can I make large construction noise in a way that isn't gonna disrupt what you guys are doing on a daily basis? Does it make sense for me to shift my practice to work at 6:00 pm to 3:00 am in order to accommodate your needs. Okay, that weird recessed hole in the wall, is it there for a reason? Are there pipes back there I need to know about?" It's just a really long consensual collaboration.
It's the only way my art practice can exist the way that it does. 
That part, I love, of just really getting to have those conversations about what's okay and what can we really manipulate and get in there and do something different with?

Nativen:    That's cool. What part is the greatest struggle for you?

Serra:    Rent. 

Nativen:    Human problems.

Serra:    I make installations. There's like four people in the world that will buy massive installations. I mean, there's more than that, but until you're incredibly well-known and your art has a stock value, it's a really difficult thing to do.
Really making rent is the hardest part. But I teach, I fabricate, I have all these other things.

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Nativen:    Sure. What's one thing you've always wanted to do but haven't done yet?

Serra:    Oh my, probably cut my hair.
I think I would cry, but I always dream of having crazy haircuts. I love how sculptural people can be with their hair. I am in terms of bobby pins, but my hair's so long and it takes forever to grow, so I've never done it.
I'd really like to start climbing. That'd be a fun one.

Nativen:    If you weren't a sculptor, what do you think you would be?

Serra:    There's so many answers to that question. I think I became a sculptor in order to be able to pursue all of the things that I find interesting, do you know what I mean?
I think I would have been a really good surgeon. I've got micro detail ability from being a jeweler for a long time. Engineering would be awesome. Being a Waldorf kindergarten teacher. When I was a little kid, people always ask you when you're a little kid what do you wanna do when you grow up, and I came up with my stock answer early on. When I was eight, I was like, "I wanna be the person who makes up the stories for the Witness Protection Agency."

Nativen:    That's genius, I love that.

Serra:    I still believe in it. I still wanna do that.
I would love to have a psychological architectural consulting firm, where people can come and consult with how in building a space, how is it gonna make people feel in a particular way? I think we're starting as a culture to more recognize that's real, but I've long had big problems with the way that schools are built 'cause I think in general they're not built in a way that you actually wanna be there all day learning, like the smell of the cleaner, the way it shuts people in. Most of the schools in the South were at one point built by the same contractors who built prisons.

Nativen:    Yeah, my high school looked like a prison. What destination to you wanna travel to next, and do you think it might inspire or alter your work in any way?

Serra:    For many years in my early 20s, I had the ability to travel and did a lot. I lived in Brazil for a while. I lived in Australia. I traveled all around South America a couple of times.
I was involved in an international children's peace organization from when I was like 12 to 20, so I went to India with them and went to Europe a couple of times. I thought for a long time I would have a hard time being in the US, but I kind of hit this switch maybe 10 years ago where I was like I think I'm ready to come back. It felt really important to come back to the place that had birthed me and made me, and really invest in what I believed and do believe the country needs in order to become healthy.
That being said, my interests are less outward focused and more inward focused. I'm also now at a point that I'm almost exclusively interested in traveling to places where I'm making art or doing an installation, not in a self-focused way, but because in having done a lot of different types of traveling in my life, I find that to be the most nourishing. If you and I are hanging out and we're putting drills in things, screwing in lathe into itself all day, it's a certain type of experiences. It's a deeper way of getting to know a place and a people that I'm interested in rather than like surface visiting. 
With that being said, I would love to go back to Iceland.

Nativen:    Is there's anything you've been listening to, heavy hitting lately, I can share?

Serra:    Yeah, I've been heavily listening to fantasy novels and science fiction while I'm in the studio.

Nativen:    What are three words that sum up your work for you?

Serra:    Construction, psychology, beautiful-growths.

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Nativen:    Ooh, I like it. Is there anything that you do, in your work, to specifically connect with your community?

Serra:    Yeah, I'm actually in the beginning of starting a project with two collaborators, Sarah Diver, who's a curator, and Alex Strata, who's a fellow artist. We're starting something called A Body of Experts, which is a think tank to archive the research that goes into making art work.
Primarily around fem identifying or feminist leaning artists.
We wanna have art shows where we show a piece of work, but then we also show everything that goes into it, because it's kind of like an iceberg. You just get the tip of everything that goes into making. Like my friend, Iris, is an amazing painter. For her, a lot of her research is familial experiences, Chinese folk tales, tarot cards, her spiritual guides. She really gets into all of these deep narratives that are experientially based. I'm thinking of other people who have more of a scientific research practice, or people who are more into researching a material in a particular process, but then all you get at the end of it is the piece of artwork, and you can feel that there's this entire ocean underneath it, but you don't always have access to it. I think we're gonna start probably an online archive, but then have art shows as well.

Nativen:    Very cool.  What's the most helpful advice you've received or what's advice that you'd give to some person who's looking to pursue their craft or art or passion.

Serra:    One is advice that I got really early on from an Ira Glass video. It's called On Storytelling. He’s basically giving an impromptu lecture on storytelling. But embedded in that video he's saying that when you choose to do something creative, you're choosing to do it because you have a really precise taste and vision about what you like and what you don't like. But the problem is that when you start out, your taste, let's call it, is way high up, but your skill level is really far down. The problem is you know from this high perch looking down on your skills what you're making is crap.
He says that anybody he knows that's made it in a creative field took them more than 10 years to figure it out, and that they had to go through 10 years of the excruciating feeling of just knowing what they're making isn't up to their own standards. He says that a lot of people he knows can't make it out of that gate. Then he goes on and he plays a clip of himself on radio.
He's like, ‘bear in mind I won awards for the best radio program in America. This is me 10 years into the job.’ He plays a clip, and he's not the Ira Glass we know and love. He goes through it and he tells you everything he's doing wrong and everything he's learned since then. That I fervently believe in.
Then the other one I really believe in as well, is that there is a great manifestation power in the ability to provide opportunities for other people. As quickly as possible, create a way to make opportunities for other people instead of waiting for opportunities to come to you. For instance, like what you're doing right now, right? It becomes such a great framework to say, "You, this person, let's hang out and talk about this stuff that I find interesting." Otherwise, how would we have this framework? 
For me, I've learned through my installation art collective and through a number of other projects I've been involved with, that the more opportunities I make for other people, also the more comes back to me.

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Nativen:    Totally, that's great. Do you have a hero or someone who's helped influence your work in a big way?

Serra:    Probably. Certainly, I have idols, of people that are much further along an artistic path that I look up to and whose work has really inspired me, but I think to that question, actually, it's really my community and my friends.
I learn through watching other people do stuff, and these are the people who are at the forefront of allowing me to learn from them.

Nativen:    What are three things you cannot live without?

Serra:    Probably breathing, eating, and shitting, I suppose.

Nativen:    I respect the literal.

Serra:    No, but I've just started over enough at this point in life. I once had all of my favorite clothes in a suitcase in the back of a friend's box truck. We were going on these crazy epic adventures, circumnavigating the United States. They were supposed to meet up with us in Utah, but the truck broke down, and it ended up going back to LA, and I never saw my clothes again. And they were beautiful, like sentimental value, gorgeous handmade things, or just vintage pieces that I found in the middle of nowhere that were irreplaceable. I was just like, eh, oh well.

Nativen:    ‘We had a good run.’

Serra:    Yeah, so I think there's actually very little ... I've lost things enough times. 
I think for my life currently, living around plants has made a huge difference. Living around plants, getting to be near water, and then getting to actively engage in a sense of community on a daily basis, those are probably things that keep me really sane.

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Serra's work can be seen in person at Pioneer Works, and The University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, among others.

Interview by: Lily Hetzler

Photography by: Ethan Covey, with special thanks to Pioneer Works

This interview has been condensed & edited

all images copyright of Nativen