"I love working on the wall so much that at times it becomes problematic": A Conversation With Mollie Oblinger
I first encountered the work of Mollie Oblinger when artist and curator Michael Velliquette included us in the exhibition A Tiny Rivulet in the Distant Forest at ArtStart in Rhinelander, Wisconsin last year. I was immediately impressed by the sense of monumentality Oblinger compressed into a compact object, and entranced by the magical and challenging materiality of her work. Oblinger took time out of a busy exhibition schedule to chat with me about allegiance to the wall, material juxtapositions, and the importance of place, among other things. Here's our conversation:
Liz Miller: Your works utilize materials that I often consider sculptural, and suggest a sculptural presence. But much of your work is wall-based. Why is allegiance to the wall important?
Mollie Oblinger: I think the biggest reason my work so often hangs off the wall is the positive/negative space relationship that employing the wall as canvas affords me. The white space operates formally as a break to my color palettes. But there is something just as important about the empty space, about what is not present that functions not just formally, but also conceptually in the works.
I love working on the wall so much that at times it becomes problematic. I have works which were created or adapted for spaces where the perfect white cube didn’t exist. Probably the best example of this was when I found out I was having a show in a space that was wrapped in tan carpet! The floor and the walls were covered. There was a brief conversation in my head about whether I could drywall the space before the show or somehow back out. Ultimately, my solution was just as absurd, I completely covered all of the walls and floor of the gallery in felt.
Liz Miller: In your oeuvre of works, there is a compelling tension between natural/raw/found materials and found materials that have been manipulated in specific ways (weaving strips of felt together, etc). Can you talk a little about how you select materials, and how those materials are manipulated and in dialogue with one another?
Mollie Oblinger: Process is an important driver in my work. How things are made can affect my material selection, but in ways that are subtle. For example, I switched to working with MDF (medium-density fiberboard) from other wood products, in part because its manufacturing process was more similar to acrylic felt. Both are composed of tiny fibers mashed together to make something that appears solid and uniform. The idea of millions of tiny bits pushed together to form one thing feels similar to the environment to me.
There is also a humor in manipulation for me. Cutting felt into strips and weaving them together is completely absurd. Felt is in a category of fabrics referred to as non-wovens. Though that is a joke for fabric nerds, there is also something about the process of weaving, of bringing things together in a structured, gridded way that again goes back to human manipulation and the environment for me.
Liz Miller: You integrate materials from the natural environment, and you have lived on the east coast, the west coast, and now in the Midwest. How does place shape your work?
Mollie Oblinger: Location has a major impact on my work. I read and research each new area that I call home, but it can take a while to trickle into the work. I think that is why I love residencies so much. I get to take in a new area for a concentrated period of time, free from life’s distractions.
I work each location like a mine, digging below the surface by taking walks and spending time in the place, but also by engaging the local community. For example, while on a residency in Alpena, Michigan, I met a woman who taught me about the fossils and plants and showed me places I would never have discovered on my own. And this led me to volunteering to help plant and maintain the rain gardens in the city which introduced me to a whole network of locals with more knowledge to share with me. Currently, I am working to understand the Polania/Lincoln village neighborhood of Milwaukee by doing things like reading a dissertation on the Kinnikinic River and going on community bird walks.
Liz Miller: The collision between natural and synthetic materials seems like a theme in your work. What is it like to reference the natural world at a time when it seems more threatened than ever?
Mollie Oblinger: I am pretty obsessed with the natural/artificial dichotomy. It is hard for me to reference the environment in a material that is perceived as natural because that seems like such a contraction.
I grew up in the Midwest where you didn’t need to do anything to have a green lawn. It never occurred to me how completely artificial something like that could be until I moved to Santa Maria, California. Now, I have lived in so many different parts of the country and see the nuances of environment. Every time I am in a new place, I love exploring that ecosystem and learning from locals about the history of their place.
Liz Miller: I have trouble working small, and have boundless admiration for those who do so successfully. How does scale figure into your work? Why is the relatively small size of these works important?
Mollie Oblinger: I like working large, but I have a very practical side (inherited from my father) that reigns me in. I limit myself to large pieces when I am given/gifted the space. I fill my studio time working on smaller pieces that at times feel almost like sketches for the larger works. I find the size gives me the freedom to play and have fun without filling my storage as quickly.
Liz Miller: What are you working on now, and where can we see your work in the future?
I am finishing up works for a solo show at the Thelma Sadoff Center for the Arts in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. It is a beautiful space and I am working on a series of pieces that incorporate text from a poet, C. Kubasta, I have been collaborating with for a few years. There will be a large floor piece mapping the Great Lakes watershed with excerpts from her poems dyed and bleached into the fabric. About 20 years ago I worked as a dyer for regional theatres and it has been really fun to return to the process! Plus, the fabric I am using is the discarded orange curtains from Ripon College’s Demmer Recital Hall. I adored them, but most were happy to see them replaced.
I am also working on a temporary public art proposal for a new green space in Milwaukee. UW Milwaukee Urban Planning Professor Nancy Frank and I led a WaterMarks walk along a section of the Kinnikinic River in June. The greenspace will have new gardens and art as it awaits its further transformation when the concrete that channeled the river in the 1960s is removed and a more natural habitat is restored.
Liz Miller: When you aren’t making art, where can we find you?
Mollie Oblinger: I love to be outside when I’m not in the studio. In the summer, I garden and forage. My fingers are currently stained from the quarts of black raspberries I found along the shoreline of a mill pond. In the winter, I sometimes need a good reason to go outside and explore so I volunteer at an animal shelter walking dogs.
I also volunteer as a citizen science stream monitor. This lets me hang out with biology colleagues and gives me a better understanding of the local water issues. It feels good to collect data that will be stored by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to be used by many different people and organizations studying water quality.
Mollie Oblinger’s artwork explores the environment often focusing on water issues. Her recent exhibitions include solo shows at Thelma Sadoff Center for the Arts in Fond du Lac, WI, Miami University in Ohio, and the MacRostie Art Center in Minnesota. She was an artist in residence at Playa in Oregon, the Alpena Wildlife Sanctuary in Michigan, and in New Mexico at the Roswell Artist in Residence. Oblinger received an MFA in Studio Art from the University of California, Davis and a BFA in Sculpture from Syracuse University. She is currently an Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Art and Art History at Ripon College in Wisconsin.