The Big Year with Ashleigh Bartlett
Calgary, AB, Canada / Boston, MA, USA
Mount Agung delayed Ashleigh Bartlett’s arrival at Elmo’s House by two days. As it threatened eruption, billows of black ash interrupted aerial activities in Bali where she had been staying two weeks prior. Such an auspicious beginning naturally concluded with a body of work that pays homage to the earth’s forces.
With less than two weeks to complete her residency, Ashleigh quickly settled in the studio with painting implements and a plan; work began almost immediately.
The conditions in the open-air studio were in continual flux, affecting the artist and the art. Winds sweep through, sometimes as a lazy breeze and at times a robust display of might. The suns’ rays gain strength with each hour of the day, commanding shadows into a slow dance across the studio. But once daylight reaches its peak, the sky answers the encore with a movement of warm colours blanketing everything below.
Making the most of these elements, Ashleigh responded with a body of work that was both dynamic and yielding. Using the white square silks she brought from Indonesia, Ashleigh created double-sided paintings, appropriating the sheer luminescent qualities of the protein fibre. Diluted acrylics and watercolours were used to pigment the silk, allowing the colours to bleed through and out, mapping the square with vibrant, formless stains.
To dry the paintings, Ashleigh used the laundry line (set up on the rooftop garden) fixed with plastic clothespins. The paintings billowed and fluttered with the westerly winds. As the sun set, colours flickered from brilliant to muted, inspiring her end-of-residency exhibition, Alive with the Sun at the Paniki Gallery, Elmo's House's exhibition space.
At the beginning of the year, Ashleigh completed back to back exhibitions, Best Friends Forever, at The Cube in Kamloops Art Gallery, and the Sleepover at The Lily in Calgary, AB Canada. Both shows were through Circles and Wigs, a long distance collaboration with Jessica Groome, which began in 2015. Rooted in friendship and mutual support, Circles and Wigs can be likened to a visual conversation between the two artists' alter egos, Circles (Jessica) and Wigs (Ashleigh). Through Wigs, Ashleigh has built a body of work, that insists on the painting as a sculptural form. By shredding the painting, she creates dimension and movement.
Continuing this idea in Alive with the Sun, Ashleigh cut patterns within the silk paintings, altering the shape of the once square composition. This strategy added visual interest, as well as instigate a relationship between work and wind.
Paniki Gallery is located in the residency's repurposed front porch, skewing the distinction between outdoor and indoor space. Ashleigh harnessed this unique attribute and pushed it further by occupying not only the gallery space but also the front garden. The work in the gallery space swayed almost imperceptibly with a subtle breeze from an electric fan. The paintings hung from bamboos laid across the eight-foot-high panels. Shadows cast by the hanging pieces, moved across the white walls, from the sunlight that entered from the gap between the walls and ceiling.
In the garden, the paintings were installed with a more playful direction; works were draped over plants, propped against a papaya tree and drooped from the end of a bamboo jutting out from the ground.
Alive with the Sun was well received by the local audience. Though the exhibition only had a weekend run, a great number of people visited the show and displayed genuine curiosity and interest in the work and Ashleigh herself.
It is to the credit of Ashleigh's confidence in her ideas that she completed her short residency, with all goals accomplished.
Over many dinners, conversations about art, life and everything in between were shared. Meals were often an unwinding from the full days occupied in the studio, gathering materials or embarking on day trips.
One evening, in the spirit of conviviality, Ashleigh spoke about 2018 being 'The Big Year.' With several life and career changes culminating, it seems this years' appointment is quite accurate. Along with the external changes, Ashleigh's big year is driven by the internal changes she has committed to making. This means embracing a positive self-image, not giving in to fears and meeting everything with unwavering determination. Elmo's House Artist Residency is grateful to have been a part of Ashleigh's Big Year, which is shaping up to be an extraordinary one.
What expectations did you have coming to the residency?
I was both keen and curious to spend a few weeks in the Philippines and I heard positive things about Elmo’s House from my friend (Tiggelers). I never expected to have such a large working space which I immediately sprawled into/over/around/below/and above!
How did the limited time affect the way you worked in the studio?
I planned on making double-sided watercolour paintings on silk that would respond to the movements of the air, while being illuminated by the sun. I saw this an opportunity to consider the relationship between abstract painting and a specific environment. Even with the short duration of the residency, the parameters allowed for experimentation and invited some unexpected processes.
I planned on making double-sided watercolour paintings on silk that would respond to the movements of the air, while being illuminated by the sun.
How was your work received by the people of Batan? Is there a particular interaction that stands out to you?
Hand delivering invitations for the exhibition, particularly to the students at the local schools, was a fantastic experience. I observed a level of enthusiasm that’s remarkable, and even contagious.
I was really taken with visitors who touched the work and physically interacted with the paintings in the show. A woman used her pocket fan to create more movement in the gallery. She danced around the paintings and enacted a kind of performance. Likewise, the large groups of high school students who visited more than once (and painted coconuts with us) were hands on and energetic, they hung out in the garden for hours!
What kinds of considerations did you have when installing your work for the show?
I wanted to work with silk for its transparent, delicate, malleable and light-weight qualities. I was considering the possibilities for display in both the gallery and garden spaces. Could the paintings share aspects of flying a kite? How can a double-sided painting breathe and find a new posture in the breeze, in and among the plants and the garden?
After visiting Coleen’s property in the rainforest and learning more about the strength and versatility of bamboo, it struck me as the ideal local material to suspend the silk. It doubled as an interactive prop in the garden. When I woke up one morning to a painting flipped on the backside of the gallery wall, I wondered, was this the work of the wind, or bats, or both?
When I woke up one morning to a painting flipped on the backside of the gallery wall, I wondered, was this the work of the wind, or bats, or both?
During the day, the paintings soaked in sunlight and others had moments of cool in the shade. Their colours changed with the weather like a mood ring. Some of the silks got tangled in the breeze. I would be curious to see how they would perform in the rain, but then felt unprepared to deal with the bleeding paints / bleeding plants.
What were you reading, listening to, thinking about while in the studio? Reading: Difficult Women by Roxanne Gay, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, and The Inner Life of Animals by Peter Wohlleben.
Listening: I made a playlist and often listened to music in the studio. I was also taken by the shifts between the quiet and the lively sounds of the town (the roosters and the rain and the howls and the kitties and the buzz in the foliage and the radio from the café).
Thinking about: Flying kites, (the making of) Pina fabric, Richard Tuttle, flying Lynda Benglis, Alexander Calder, Eva Hesse, Helen Frankenthaler, feminism, sails, spiders, papayas, ocean swimming, coconuts, plants, bamboo.
What other thoughts can you share about the big year?
This year for me has been about change- I made some decisions about what I wanted to do, as though it was a more important year to me than others in the past. I’m grateful for the opportunities I’ve had to travel and work in the studio. It’s led to more collaborative projects (CIRCLES & WIGS with Jessica Groome, Ray~Ray), unexpected interactions with new communities, meeting new people, and new friendships.
What are you looking forward to for the rest of the year?
The silk titled "Alive with the Sun" is part of an upcoming group exhibition at Ortega y Gasset Projects in Brooklyn NY, organized by Caroline Larsen. A tall plant will be shown alongside the silk- hopefully it will bring out some of the E.H. garden qualities!
I’m returning to Calgary, Canada this fall where I’ll be teaching in the Painting Department at the Alberta College of Art + Design. I’m looking forward to working with the students and also reconnecting with friends and artists in the city. I’ve also been invited to take part in a residency in China.
Learn more about Ashleigh Bartlett