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A Mann’s World: An Interview with Artist Julie Anne Mann, Currently Exhibiting at the Lake George Arts Project

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By Monica Sirignano and Dave Bower

Julie Anne Mann, MadameA Brooklyn-based artist, Julie Anne Mann’s work has appeared in galleries throughout New York, California and Pennsylvania; in 2007, she exhibited at the International Art Fair in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Her work, which delicately draws on both the natural and nether-worlds, allows the viewer passage into an existence that’s full of enchantment, oddities and historical tales, of which she is both master creator and mad scientist. Using a variety of organic elements, Mann works in multiple series, creating a diverse catalogue of work that ranges from otherworldly Forest Portraits (paintings) to meticulously sculpted vibrantly imagined life forms (curiosities). A truly unique and compelling artist, Mann’s macabre and elegant laboratory of art is currently on display through October 22nd at the Lake George Arts Project in Lake George, NY.

The Free George: When did you start painting your Forest Portraits & was there something in particular that inspired them?

Julie Anne Mann: I believe the first portrait was completed in 2007 and it was an older version of Starlet. The Forest Portraits panels are inspired by actual trees that live in the Olympic National Park in Washington State. The rain forest floor is very dense and often trees will take root on top of fallen trees or ‘nurse logs’. As a result, their roots are mostly exposed as they wrap around and bore through the decomposing tree to reach the ground. Consequently, the result is these fantastic anthropomorphic formations and an opportunity to see the whole tree. For the most part we really only ever see maybe 2/3 of any tree, who knows what’s happening underground.

TFG: The trees in the paintings–they seem alive, almost enchanted. To some degree, they look like otherworldly animals. Was this something you were going for?

JM: Yes and no… I try very hard not to embellish the forms. Obviously, I have to make up some parts that aren’t visible but I attempt to logically fill in the blanks. The trick to a good portrait of anything is to capture its spirit or character. No one really wants a portrait that looks like them. They want one that looks like them, but better. These trees are genuinely enchanting and otherworldly to come upon unexpectedly in a forest full of ‘normal’ trees. It is one of the reasons I used the silver leaf as their skin, it too is a naturally occurring element that has precious and unusual qualities.

TFG: One of the Twins appeared very graceful and elegant, with its long swan-like trunk, and looked almost like it was wearing a bustle (was very classy and elegant), whereas the other seemed more sinister, not nearly as “attractive” in terms of the other twin’s grace and beauty. Was this purposeful? To express maybe two opposite twins?

JM: Well, they are definitely fraternal… truth be told, they’re actually the same sapling from different angles and I couldn’t decide which image to use, but mostly for that very reason. Which angle or personality is true? So, they might more accurately be a yin and yang, since most things are made of percentages of ‘good and evil’. It’s a remarkable little sprout though that has taken root on top of a decapitated tree and is growing very high up, maybe 20 ft., in the air. Its roots will probably never make contact with the ground. That portrait is probably the only one that is depicted actual size. Odds are that sapling won’t survive another 20 years.

Julie Anne Mann, LoversTFG: All of them were just wonderful. Runaway looks like it’s truly running away, like a spider almost with its two front legs, I think they were two. Madame, graceful too, yet older, more experienced, much like a madame, but full of verve, she almost seems like she’s twisting towards the viewer. The Lovers, intertwined. I’m curious, did you name them before or after you did the paintings? And were you able to see where you wanted these to go when you first started working from the photographs, or did the ideas come about during your sketching process?

JM: I guess the answer is a little bit of both. Some were instantaneous, like The Lovers, I couldn’t imagine them as anything else, but some of the others developed over time as I realized I was building a cast of characters. Madame is actually a locally famous tree at the Lake Crescent Lodge. It’s on a very short trail that leads to a popular waterfall. While I was growing up (I’m from the Pacific Northwest), I always mentally referred to it as ‘the peacock tree’. I thought its roots looked like a peacock tail. Fortunately, the majority of these trees are protected since they live inside the National Park and I and many others will have the opportunity to visit them for many years to come.

TFG: The roots in the paintings also appear to reflect sinewy muscular structures or nervous structures, was this purposeful as well?

JM: The exposed roots never develop a protective covering like bark, so in a lot of ways they are very sinewy. They’re perfectly smooth and very supple. Where trunks and branches are genetically designed to take on specific shapes and protect themselves, roots are designed to weave around, cling and overcome underground obstacles. The vascular system of a tree is not so different from our circulatory system.

TFG: What inspired you to use silver-leaf, had you used it before in any of your paintings, prior to starting the forest portraits? And the walnut burl as your canvas–was that partially because you wanted to keep with the natural environment that you chose that?

JM: Silver leaf has a very ethereal, magical quality to it. I had used it a few years earlier in a relief drawing of the eight phases of the moon (that I still haven’t completed) and had quite a bit left over initially. Since you can scratch into it and in effect create shading, I thought it would be the perfect medium for what initially started as ‘The Secret Lives of Trees’. Originally, I thought I would leaf the trees on the type of wood from which they originated, douglas fir, red cedar, hemlock, etc., but as I started to research veneer, I quickly realized that they were mostly building woods, renowned for their straight grain etc. not exactly the kind of backgrounds I had in mind. Walnut burl however is phenomenal. It has endless possibilities and never repeats itself, much like the trees. It acts as a sort of natural wallpaper and mimics the dark, mysterious, fluid quality of the rain forest.

Julie Anne Mann, MortiferaTFG: Your Mortifera series is really just incredible. Every piece is so intricately designed, when did you start making these & what’s the story behind deciding to make your first one?

JM: I think I started this series in 2004. The very first one was Lenis Creatura. It’s not at the current show, but it is visible on my website. Lenis (which means gentle in Latin) is constructed from rabbit vertebrae and dandelion seeds (it looks a bit like a Grim Reaper caterpillar a friend of mine refers to it as ‘the slug fairy’). My original idea was one part irony, one part kitsch and maybe one part cruelty. I thought, ‘Oh wouldn’t it be funny if I made a caterpillar out of bones since they don’t have any and it would never be able to metamorphosize’. Of course, what really happened was I went on ebay bought 2 dearticulated rabbit skeletons and made my caterpillar, but then I had all these extra parts which resulted in my second and third creatures Mas and Femina Creatura which translated mean male and female creatures. They are made from the skulls and scapulas of the leftover rabbits and consequently look like giant moths. Apparently, they can metamorphosize… or at least breed…

TFG: How long does it take you to make one of these creatures?

JM: Mostly it depends on the creature. Some take hours, some take days to assemble, but what really takes the most time is collecting the parts, that can take years. In order to make a good, believable creature everything has to work together seamlessly, the color, size, texture etc. I have hundreds of possible parts that are patiently waiting for their match.

TFG: Where do you get your material from–the different animal parts & such?

JM: The parts come from all over. Some I bid on via ebay, especially if there is something specific I know I want. I get pieces from people I’ve made contact with over the years who have natural history collections and will sometimes upgrade their stock. Since I take everything apart, damaged goods are perfect for me. Some things I scavenge. The beach is a great place for interesting dead things I’ve discovered. I just bought a book recently to help me decipher all the miscellaneous fish parts. I live in Brooklyn and have been known to carry around shears and snip my neighbors’ ornamental plants from time to time… Prospect Park and the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens are also good places for a variety of natural elements. Oh and the flower market carries all kinds of foreign plants, dried and otherwise. I have a stag horn fern in my apt. I’ve been collecting its dead leaves for years now, not sure to what end though.

Mortifera, Julie Anne MannTFG: It almost seems like you’ve created a whole evolutionary line here, of what the future holds for us, yet it has a very archaic feel as well, as if we’re going back to the beginning & the whole beginnings of life are morphing and changing. It seems very circuitous in a way. I think because all the creatures are smaller, it seems like more of a beginning of an evolutionary line, or of life that might exist elsewhere, an alien existence perhaps. Was this something you were striving for?

JM: The Mortifera series is intentionally netherworldly. They’re not quite skeletons, but not quite fully realized animals either. They sort of straddle the line between alive and dead. They have eyes, but no skin, functioning wings but no muscles, fur but no flesh, that sort of thing. They are both the result of a devastated planet here or a normal planet elsewhere or perhaps just something undiscovered in the earth’s mantle.

TFG: And the arrangement in the gallery, makes it almost appear like it’s an arrangement of specimens on lab shelves. Was this something you wanted to elicit, this feeling?

JM: The display is intentional. For most people, they’re curiosities, so I figured I had one of two options, either a hyper modern top secret display route or a more Victorian Darwinian approach. I figured the latter would fit more readily into my other bodies of work, but it also harks back to a time when Naturalism was all the rage. I think that sort of movement is in progress again with a return to organic living and environmental consciousness. I think people have a renewed interest in what’s happening in nature on a myriad of levels.

TFG: There’s also an elegance, a fragility to these creatures as well, despite their oddities. That’s something else that seems to interlace throughout your work, this elegance and fragility. Is that a comment in some way on life being fragile?

JM: I’m not sure if fragility is an intentional comment on my part, but I do see it as a fact of life. It’s certainly one of the things that make life precious. Someone once commented to me that some of the creatures were kind of goofy looking and while that is true some of them are a little off, take a good look at a giraffe or a platypus or half a dozen other animals. Some are truly sleek, efficient, killing machines and others are well… like a beaver. Often elegance and symmetry go hand in hand, which nature has pretty much perfected.

TFG: The Bled Dry piece, what inspired that–it has a very fairytale like quality to it.

JM: Bled Dry is constructed from Queen Anne’s Lace and was inspired by the story behind its name. Queen Anne’s Lace is said to have been named after Queen Anne of England, who was an expert lace maker. Apparently, the Queen challenged the ladies of the court to a contest to see who could produce a pattern of lace as lovely as the flower. No one could rival the queen’s handiwork (nor is it probably a good idea to best the Queen). However, as legend goes, she pricked her finger with a needle and a single drop of blood fell into the lace and that is said to be the small dark purple center of the flower, which is one of its most defining characteristics.

Julie Anne Mann, Bled DryTFG: It also has the feeling of nature coming alive, with the blood dripping. Were you thinking in terms as well of that living otherworldly aspect of nature?

JM: I think as I was making it I realized that the smaller idea is indeed a much larger more global one. We are literally as a culture and species bleeding nature dry. The flowers used in this piece are dead, they’ve been dried out and sapped of their essence. They didn’t freely give their life to me. I took them because I could and it suited me. I wanted to and I thought ‘oh there are plenty left,’ but that basically sums up the attitude that brought us to where we are now… I’m not sorry I did the piece, but it does give pause to thought. They grow wild behind my studio in the thousands (not to mention they’re an invasive species), but once upon a time most things in America and the world were abundant at some point. The buffalo were in the thousands and at times the sky would turn black with birds. I can’t say I’ve experienced either of those things.

TFG: Upon first glance, these even looked like small bones to us, which seems to interconnect with the other pieces, that they have that possible look to them.

JM: I was initially attracted to their composition since they represent a micro to the macro of the Bled Dry installation and some of my other botanical works. Each flower saucer is actually made up of hundreds of smaller individual flowers that branch off from the center like satellites. Queen Anne’s Lace’s has an unusual structure in that sense. That and it’s often disregarded as a weed. I’ve never been able to come to terms with what constitutes a weed or why one flower is regarded as bad and another isn’t. Considering it’s the forbearer to the modern carrot I think it deserves more credit. I agree though, they do look like tiny bones and they dry to a beautifully aged whitish cream color.

TFG: Besides going to the gallery and looking at your work, we also perused your website a bit & were very taken with the Andromorphs as well. Can you tell us a little bit about your work on those?

JM: Oddly enough, I almost never show those and am surprised they found their way onto my website at all. I made them mostly for fun and as an homage to The Brother’s Quay and Jan Svankmajer, both of whose stop animation and staging I greatly admire. Consequently, Henri (as you were sleeping) and two others that aren’t on the website (H)armless Charlie and Persephone are going to be exhibited this November in Soho at the Ise Cultural Foundation on Prince and Broadway in NYC. I’m making a hodge-podge apartment complex for them at the moment.

TFG: Given your various works, we can’t help but wonder if you’ve studied or have a background in science?

JM: I don’t really have a background in science unless a childhood filled with “Star Trek” reruns and “Nova” episodes counts. I recall having simultaneous crushes on both Spock and Carl Sagan from Cosmos around the age of 11 and wanting to be both an astronomer and veterinarian, but at best, I’m an amateur naturalist with a degree in sculpture. My father was a retired nuclear engineer, self-proclaimed ‘whittler’ and an avid outdoorsman so I’m guessing it runs in the family.

TFG: So which came first, the Mortifera or the Forest Portraits?

JM: Mortifera came first as an idea though by several years and will probably continue to grow for many years to come. I do have a few more Forest Portraits in the wings as well, but next I really want to learn to scrimshaw!

–Monica Sirignano and Dave Bower are Publishers of The Free George.

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