Biblical symbolism wrapped up in vibrant aesthetics by Hilary White

Using anything from wood, plastic and paint to glitter, crystal, and even hair, artist Hilary White creates neon-colored, eye-popping sculptures. She uses materials from all different sources that she collects over time, utilizing them in her process of structural experimentation. With each element building off the last, her sculptures contain a multitude of layers, creating a dense complexity in her compositions. Originally focusing on painting during art school, her current style brings her concepts right off the canvas and into the 3-dimensional realm, producing an arresting aesthetic that directly confronts the viewer. Inspired by biblical symbols and theology, her artwork explores this imagery and our own understanding of it. White is interested in the interaction between pop culture and our belief system, and how faith affects the way we perceive the world. She sees her work as embodying the spirit of celebration and community, which has inspired her work to become not just sculptural, but also immersive in her installation/performance work. (text by Christina Nafziger for ArtMaze Mag)

In our interview below we got to know more about Hilary’s work, inspiration and the ideas which stand behind her magnetising sculptures. Read on!

AMM: Hi Hilary! Could you please introduce yourself and shed some light on how you started in the arts? Who were your early influencers?

HW: Hello, my name is Hilary White, I am a multimedia artist working three dimensionally. My primary materials are wood, plastics, and paint. I got started in art really young. My mom told me I was drawing (scribbling) constantly before I could walk. When I was in elementary school she enrolled me in some after school community art classes and I just kept it going from there. When I was 18 I got my scroll saw, the one I still use in all my work today, and I started making sculptural light boxes out of wood, and clear plexi for some local art shows. I focused in painting as an undergrad in college while still making sculptural pieces then in my last year in school I started making some of my first sculptural pieces that were basically three dimensional paintings. I have continued to work in this format, but I’m constantly seeing how far I can push it, what new skill I can learn in the process. My earliest art influence was Frida Kahlo.  I found Frida in my school library in the fourth grade. She opened my mind to the use of symbolism to convey a story. Then later on I would say Dennis Oppenheim, he opened up my mind to start combining and using all kinds of mediums as an undergrad around 18, he was incredibly diversified. I realized I did not have to limit myself.

AMM: Can you outline some of the themes you explore and convey within your art?

HW: I am interested in pop culture, fads, and how we interpret and develop belief systems. I explore this by using a series of symbols derived from personal mythos, neon colors and various materials like rhinestones, metal studs, glitter and iridescent surfaces. I see these items as mass produced, easily attainable products of a generation attempting to create ethereal moments in the midst of the mundane. In a way, much like party decorations they are humble markers that the moment is set apart, it is special, and it should be celebrated.

Biblical theology and symbology is used as a constant within the works research. I am interested in the imagery used in art history and the church edifice to interpret Biblical narratives and how this may have affected and informed/ misinformed culture at the time and how we use images in mass media and advertising to inform now. I’m experimenting with how faith and the Biblical narrative might be depicted today using contemporary images and materials that might inform and invite interpretation.

AMM: You mention that in your work you are expressing faith in the act of making. How has your interest in the topic of belief and Biblical symbolism developed?

HW: Belief is a very powerful thing. Faith is in part action on behalf of belief because it has become truth for the individual. When I make work,  it is an extension of the truth I encounter through faith as I interact with the world. Through the lens of faith I see the spiritual intersecting with the world through the vivid manifestations of humanity’s creativity, humor, love and ingenuity.  The pieces are extensions of the human experience converging with a spiritual realm void of the systems of death and decay that destroy life.

I developed an interest in faith and Biblical symbolism as a child. When I was around eight I remember I had a Bible with some pictures and captions in it. I spent most of my time studying the pictures (of course). I started becoming more interested in what the pictures meant. I decided to read it front to back reading a few chapters every night. A lot of it at the time was really confusing and to be honest still is, but I finished it and decided to read through it again. I have been reading and rereading through the Bible front to back ever since.

Around when I was thirteen I found a book on Biblical symbolism and got really interested in that. This added another layer to the depth of the meaning to what I was reading. By the time I was eighteen I started buying books about the history of the Bible, and the context certain books of it were written in. I still feel so limited in my understanding and depth of knowledge of this book. It continues to challenge me. When I make the work it is a continued meditation on these readings, a celebration, and a wrestling.

AMM: Could you tell us a little bit more about the materials – where do you get them and briefly what’s the process for making your sculptures?

HW: When it comes to materials I usually go with my initial reaction to an object when I see it whether it is on a piece of clothing, a display case, or on a construction site. If the material urges me to stop and study it for a minute or two, I make a mental note of that encounter and then go try to find something that emulates that visual reaction. I don’t acquire materials from a single source, they all come from an amalgamation of years collecting boxes, overstock items, rolls, and scraps. My studio is literally piled high with this stuff. I don’t always know how I am going to utilize a material when I acquire it. Sometimes it takes a few months or years before putting it to use. It really is just a matter of time before I look at something in my studio and have a eureka moment. A lot of times the materials will inform the construction of the work.

When I begin a piece I start a rough sketch of it. I take the sketch and start to color it in loosely just to get a general idea of color and structural composition. After that I just jump into it, get in the woodshop, start painting, sewing, pouring, blinging, etc. There is a lot of experimentation that happens when I work so I don’t fall in love with the initial idea, I just keep adding and subtracting to the piece until like I feel it has achieved a good balance, structurally and visually.

AMM: Your works are incredibly vibrant and full of different shapes and structures, which draw a lot of attention and interest. Where does your love of vivid colors and such a variety of shapes in your sculptures come from?

HW: I think it goes back to my initial reaction to a material. If it makes me stop and look twice, it might make someone else take a moment to pause and engage with the work. Neon colors have a way of exciting the eye. These colors seemingly vibrate and enact a kind of energy which is why they are used in raves and party decorations. Both of these occasions are examples of moments that are “liminal” meaning they are pockets in time where a break from social norms can occur and people can engage with a moment in an innovative way. Anthropologists call this “anti-structure”.  When making the pieces I am attempting to engage people with this kind of anti-structure, a fracture in the routine that allows wonder to enter in. The variety of the colors and shapes I use stems from the desire to create an experience within the work and from my love of learning a new skill or technique. It’s the risk of experimentation, and the resulting problem solving that finishes each piece.

AMM: Which events or experiences in life have made the strongest impact on your work? 

HW: The strongest impact on the subject matter in the work has been the experience of attempting daily to live out my faith. My ego has no room when confronted with unconditional love. The accounts of the life, death, and resurrection of this extradimensional God as human figure Christ humbles and challenges my outlook of the world and how I interact with it. I get tired and worn down but it’s this faith that keeps regenerating life’s beauty, it’s luminosity, it’s vivid hope.

Structurally speaking the strongest impact an experience had on the work was in undergrad a professor looked at this giant 6 x 4 foot painting I had completed. This professor drilled me about why I had left the background of these figures “blank”. Essentially, I had left the background all white so the content would “pop” visually. The professor asked “Why even paint the figures on a surface at all?” I got a C on that painting, but walked away really excited by the question asked by the professor. I thought why paint on a flat background when I could use my saws to cut out and layer these objects in space? Right after that I created the first piece using this technique, that was essentially a 3D painting. I never went back. I just fell in love with the process of combining two worlds that I loved, painting and sculpture.

AMM: Where has your work been headed more recently?

HW: Lately I have been focused on the communal aspect of the work. Ideally the sculptures would be immersive. This is how the installation/performance REST came about. I was researching how community is formed referencing studies in anthropology and sociology. Oftentimes a moment where “communitas” or “spontaneous community” is formed (think dance clubs, spiritual gatherings, sporting events) enables social barriers to break down, enabling the formation of new relationships. Spiritual practice and modes of celebration are two prominent conduits that allow individuals to gather and enter into that space of social anti-structure and engage in new communal formations. I used the historical accounts of the Biblical prophets and their use of symbolic acts to deliver a spiritual message to a gathering as well as the celebratory format of the Rave, allowing for the tension between history and pop culture to give way to the moment and create a common ground for people to relate to the work as well as possibly be challenged by it.

“REST” was an attempt to reenvision our communal structures and possibly identify through new formations of community where the existing structures might be breached in order to creatively find ways to rectify them.

The communal call to mend the schisms in our culture explored in REST, later led me to begin working with foster kids to start an art program that would enable opportunities for mentorship through creativity. The program connects these kids to each other, to their communities, and to mentors and families. I spend time throughout the week visiting a refuge house in town  where the classes are held and some of the kids live. It is a privilege that I have the opportunity to see them progress, not only in their work but in the belief that they can accomplish their goals.

I am also working on a new series of sculptural pieces for this year, location of exhibition to be determined.

“REST”

AMM: Do you pay attention to the work of your contemporaries? If so, is there anyone in particular you feel inspired by?

HW: I don’t think anyone creates in a vacuum especially with the internet at our constant disposal for better or worse. I can’t say there is any one artist I feel inspired by right now, more like a community of artists. I have had the opportunity of knowing so many that continue to refresh my vision for the work I am doing and inspire me…Steven Speir, Brad Haubrich, Ryan Beck, Caitlin McCormack, Jessi Hamilton, Lisa Iglesias, Micah Daw, Yis Goodwin, Hannah Stouffer, J.L. Schnabel, Jason Andrew Turner, Jen Clay, Shawn Hileman, Jason Kofke, Samuel Lopez de Victoria, Kelly Kozma, Jeanne D’Angelo, Michael Bukowski, Jeremy Hush, Paul Romano, Darla Jackson, Thomas Buildmore, and there’s a lot more… I could go on, this is not an inclusive list. I am constantly meeting creatives that get me fired up about making. All these people have inspired me in some way and continue to do so. I am really thankful for the artist community I am continually being exposed to. My work continues to develop because of this.

AMM: You have exhibited your work nationally and internationally. What are your thoughts on the art community & market in your local surroundings as opposed to internationally?

HW: Like most markets the art market has become global. I think my experience reflects more on the condition of the global market than on the market in any singular location. I have had the opportunity to work with some really wonderful galleries, curators, and collectors locally and internationally. I am thankful for their contribution and hard work. It is because of these individuals I am able to continue funding what I create. The pitfalls of the market system for artists is what is created and sold by default becomes a product. This may inhibit the ability for experimentation, and often does not best suit artforms such as video, sound,  performance, and time based works which I would love to experience more of in our art communities.

I find that the art community locally and internationally finds its common ground in the pursuit of art. I always feel at home. No matter where I have had the opportunity to exhibit works, I have met artists and curators that are supportive, and inspiring.

AMM: When someone walks into your show, what do you hope they will grasp or enjoy about the sculptures?

HW: I hope they grasp the celebration within the work. These works are attempting to create manifestations of faith, the spiritual, by celebrating the physical wonder in the world, in humanity. I want each person to feel invited to the celebration, to engage with the work and its meaning and make their own decisions about what they may have experienced.

Find out more about Hilary’s work on her website: www.hilarywhiteart.com

Introduction text written by Christina Nafziger for ArtMaze Mag.