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Cornered Q&A: Donna Dodson Mermaids at the New Bedford Art Museum

Donna Dodson, Elephant Seal, at her "Mermaids" solo exhibition New Bedford Art Museum showing through February 5, 2016.

Donna Dodson, Elephant Seal, at her "Mermaids" solo exhibition New Bedford Art Museum showing through February 5, 2016.


By Brian Goslow

(“Donna Dodson: Mermaids” continues through February 5 at the New Bedford Art Museum, 608 Pleasant St., New Bedford, Mass. The show’s artist reception takes place on Sunday, January 31 from 1-3 p.m. The museum’s winter hours are Wednesday through Sunday from noon-5 p.m. with extended hours on Thursday till 9 p.m. For more information, call (508) 961-3072.)

WHEN DID YOU BEGIN WORK ON “MERMAIDS?”

I began working on Mermaids before I moved (to Maynard, Mass.) in July 2015 and finished the first piece after we moved. I made the rest in my new studio between August 2015 and Jan 2016. I got waylaid by dropping a log onto my left foot and breaking my toe, thus slowing me down a bit, but I had planned a small show for this space, because I wanted to install a small grouping or island of works in the middle of the gallery so that people can walk around all sides of the work. I do not like when my sculptures are installed flat to the walls. I was very happy working with (NBAM exhibition manager) Jamie Uretsky for the installation — she is wonderful and very professional. We achieved what I had imagined in the space.

WHAT KIND OF RESEARCH WENT INTO YOUR SCULPTURES? WHERE NEW BEDFORD HAS SUCH A GREAT HISTORY AS A PORT CITY — AND GREAT SHIP AND BOAT FIGUREHEADS OVER THE CENTURIES — DID YOU STUDY AND CHANNEL THAT SPECIALIZE ARTISTICAL GENRE?

I wanted to try something new for the show, like sound but the logistics proved to be impossible to arrange on short notice. I was invited to submit an application for the gallery and I proposed to create contemporary figureheads, thinking about the whaling ship history of wood carving in New Bedford. After doing lots of research, I decided on mermaids, since they were a popular theme of the figurehead carvings, and because they are like sex symbols in kids culture and contemporary culture — oversexualized women. Plus they tap into the mythology of sirens, and other femmes fatales. They were very hard to create and imagine since sea creatures are seldom seen, and very alien.

DOES THE CRAFT STILL EXIST IN ITS TRADITIONAL FORM?

I found one contemporary ship carver, in the UK, when doing a quick Google search, maritimawoodcarving.co.uk. I imagine the craft still exists for restorations more so than for new ships.

FOR YOU, WHAT ARE YOUR SHOWCASE PIECES IN THE EXHIBITION?

The Octopus Maiden or Octopussy was one of the most successful since it evokes the flow of the fabric of a burqa or veiled woman. Also the Siren/Orca was a breakthrough because instead of paint, I was able to create her black head by burning the wood — which is a new technique for me. The black from charcoal is near perfection! The squid girl is the piece that attacked my foot, so I have the utmost respect for what lies beneath her girlish appearance — she is also fierce and fiery — like the color of her shoes.

HAVE THERE BEEN OTHER PIECES THAT HAVE MADE THE MUSEUM STAFF GO, ‘WOW!”

The curator has a real eye for the Naiad/Narwhal and she is installed as the centerpiece of the show — she is also the largest piece and the most complicated. The Elephant Seal implies alot of motion, so she draws your eyes around her figure in a playful way. Don Wilkinson (who is also an artscope contributor) wrote about the show for the South Coast today paper, and he was very positive.

DO YOU ALREADY KNOW WHERE THE PIECES ARE HEADED AFTER THE SHOW?

Since I have a solo show coming up at the Boston Sculptors Gallery in September 2016, I know that I want to develop this series further and bring sound into the installation. I want to create mermaids on different scales — life size and miniature and play with those juxtapositions.

WHAT WAS IT LIKE GOING TO VISIT THE CHANGCHUN WORLD SCULPTURE PARK IN CHINA AS A REPRESENTATIVE OF THE BOSTON SCULPTORS GALLERY JUST PRIOR TO THE OPENING OF YOUR FIRST MUSEUM EXHIBITION?

I installed the work on the day before we left. I missed the work when we came home — they were not in my house anymore and since they were new, I had not spent alot of time with them before they left. I want to spend more time with the installation at the museum.

HOW DID THAT TRIP COME ABOUT AND WHAT DID YOU ACCOMPLISH THERE?

We met Gertrud Aeschlimann at the opening reception for ‘Mixing Medias’ — the group show Andy and I both have work in at the Carole Feuerman Foundation at Mana in Jersey City. She invited us to come to China and be part of the ISPU. We traveled with our friend Carole Feuerman from NYC and Michael Manjarris from New Orleans. It was a blast — we are trying to figure out a way to go back again soon.

ANY NEW IDEAS BASED ON WORK OR THINGS OR LIVING BEINGS THAT YOU SAW IN CHINA?

We took a long hike on the beach in Provincetown on Sunday, January 3, and found a seal skull and the carcass of a leatherback turtle. That felt very magical to me. In China, we did not get to spend a lot of time in museums since we were there for a conference and then we did alot of studio visits with artists. But the last day we spent in the National Art Museum of China and the National Museum of China. In the National Art Museum there was a fabulous show of paintings by the National Academy faculty and students.

There were also many jade carvings. What I appreciate about the work I saw is that there is a marriage of craft and concept that is usually lacking in the art scene in the USA and NYC. One of the most inspiring things I saw was a video of the artist Qin Feng, someone who uses caligraphy and ink and brushwork in a very contemporary way. We also found out that he knows Yin Peet at Contemporary Arts International in Acton. Small world! There are many sculpture parks in China, all funded by the government on a symposium model — very democratic way of using art to activate green spaces with cultural activities.

ALONG WITH MAKE THE BEST OF THE OPPORTUNITY OF PROMOTING YOUR CAREER DURING THE MUSEUM SHOW, WHAT NEW PROJECTS ARE YOU — OR THE MYTH MAKERS (DODSON AND HUSBAND ANDY MOERLEIN) — WORKING ON?

I have a solo show at the St. Botolph Club opening Feb 24. I will be exhibiting the Chinese Zodiac Series that I previewed at Colo Colo Gallery last summer. I also have a solo show coming up at Colo Colo Gallery in July and probably another feature show at Rice Polak Gallery this summer, but that has not been confirmed yet.

The Myth Makers are working on several projects in Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Michigan, Washington DC and Maryland — stay tuned!