DEVELOPER: Madeline Cass
I had the pleasure of talking to Madeline Cass, an artist who seems almost impossible to characterize given the incredible breadth of her practice. Looking at her work excites me, always instilling within me a sense of wonder, serenity, and connection to the world we are all surrounded by. As social conversations encompass identity, intimacy, and the environment more and more, hot like a wet knife finds a way to bring intrigue and surprise, and hopefully will make you saunter (as she likes to say) through the world a little bit differently. It’s my pleasure to feature the fascinating voice that is Madeline’s work, and as she embarks on a new journey in the big world of New York City, I cannot wait to keep up and see what is next for her.
Madeline Cass (b.1993) is a Nebraska native and recently moved to NYC. In 2017 she received a BFA in Studio Art from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. Her work examines the multitude of relationships between art, science, nature, and humanity. Through photography, artist books and zines, poetry, drawing, collage, video, installation and sculpture, her work follows mycological (the study of mushrooms) metaphors of growth and decay. She is currently an artist-in-residence with the Platte Basin Timelapse project.
As a naturalist, ethnobotanist, mycologist, and artist, I am driven by a fascination to explore the natural world. A central part of my practice is to walk in wild places (a “saunter” as Thoreau would say), which feeds me artistically and spiritually. Observation, meditation, solitude, and writing all play important roles in the creation of my work. I’m a native of the Great Plains and have learned to embrace the nuanced beauty of understated landscapes like the prairie. Biological diversity, no matter how subtle or rare, deserves investigation, conservation, and celebration. I want my work to evoke a new consciousness: one that is alive with nuanced, ecological awareness blooming from a type of making that is focused on a long-view of time. – Madeline Cass
Brennan Booker: How did hot like a wet knife begin? What experiences brought you to the work and continued to inform it as you were making it?
Madeline Cass: The title for the show came to me as I was washing dishes. Knives are something domestic but adventurous, dangerous. They represent utility and craft and potential. Their use and care (or lack of) is a reflection of their owner – they’re intimate. I own a lot of them. hot like a wet knife is being in love with someone or someplace – who is unavailable, or far away, and feeling really blue and writing them love poems anyway. I want to eat the world sometimes, and intuition is usually my principal guide. Sometimes this gets me in trouble, sometimes it leads to a lot of magic. The following was the statement for the show:
a fascination with wildness
decay + rebirth, the fungi in between
wildness is not ‘out there’
we are surrounded by it ;
a shift in perceptual sensitivity
abandon the lines between humans + nature
being alive is an erotic process
Sauntering is a way of walking in wild places that is not for scientific inquiry, exercise or any specific outcome except nourishment of the soul. It makes space for intimacy and the contemplation of nature. Wild spaces are quickly disappearing, and with them, human consciousness of our role within nature. We need this connection more than ever. The effects of climate change and the rise of fake news are a terrifying combination. It will be almost impossible to sustain life on earth unless we seek meaningful and passionate relationships with our surroundings.
Effective advocates for the environment will only come into being when and if people care to connect. It is easy to think of the environment as being somewhere far away, with mountains and waterfalls, yet access to spaces such as National Parks and “wilderness” comes with privilege. I want people to engage with their own environments in their own ways, even without this kind of access. New pathways can be formed to create access in radical ways. In order for us to protect our environments, we need an emotional connection and a sense of agency with regards to the place we want to protect. I want my work to inspire this kind of connection and action.
My relationship with my home state is strange, I’m always leaving and coming back, and am eternally driving west. A couple of summers ago I went out to Portland to put together an exhibition of my work and then helped out some friends at the infamous Oregon Country Fair. I met a dude and moved in with him after we went on a first date canoeing. (Probably because I’m a Pisces.) A job on a farm and cold dips in the Willamette kept me in Eugene for a while, but I had unresolved projects back in Nebraska. The work is in part about this unsettled feeling, this hot burning for more, and this connection to landscapes. I moved back to Nebraska, eventually printed the zine and the show, and began resolving the things that felt unfinished. The restless feelings are creeping back in. Recently I spent a couple of weeks sleeping on friend’s couches in NYC. It led to some really exciting meetings with editors and artists. I decided to take the plunge and recently moved to Brooklyn. We’ll see how this adventure goes!
BB: I definitely understand that almost nomadic emotion. I myself moved around a lot growing up and now as an adult, I constantly want to see and explore new and unexpected things. Is this something you feel? Does that play a role in your work?
MC: Yes. My interests and intuition often serve as guides. I enjoy wandering and being lost. I don’t ever have a solid plan. There is flexibility and reactiveness that I so love – there has to be room for spontaneity. I’m trying to figure out if there’s a way to positively harness this irrefutable itchiness inside of me to not stay in one place long. As a photographer, in particular, traveling is sort of a golden elixir – once you’ve tasted it, you always crave it. I end up making work you didn’t know I wanted to make. For example, my intense love of befriending strangers can lead me to weird situations. So maybe the unintentionality is intentional? Traveling parallels to a mode of art-making that I’ve always been drawn to; it’s process-driven. I’m learning how to take things more slowly. How to look around, ask questions, get really bored. How to be alone. I start talking to myself. Gas station attendants or grocery store cashiers are incredibly valuable social interactions when you haven’t talked to anyone for a week. It changes how you perceive other people, and is humbling.
BB: I know you study in a lot of different fields, with your artistic practice fluctuating between different mediums. How did this inform your decisions while turning the body of work into a zine?
MC: Mostly due to the fact that I am fascinated by so many things. I changed majors maybe six times during my undergraduate studies. Self-publishing is a format that I love and use to tie together seemingly disparate ideas and I now realize that they’re all interwoven.
I’ve been gradually learning about mycology for the last 7 or so years. I’m heading to a mushroom festival in Sonoma County as I’m writing this. I published another zine called earth-care / self-care : ethnomycology for everybody! Mycologists are strange, obsessive, wonderful people. I’m currently fascinated by the future of myco-materials such as mushroom leather and mycelium packing materials to replace styrofoam. Fungi play a central metaphor in my work – they so beautifully illustrate the relationships between growth and decay.
Last summer I was an artist-in-residence at the University of Nebraska’s Cedar Point Biological Station in western Nebraska. I had the pleasure of shadowing an ornithology class for three weeks. I caught birds in mist nets, banded them, and released them, and learned first-hand about the declining global bird populations. I started carrying binoculars everywhere. This new frame of mind led to a lot of bird imagery, bird metaphors.
A backpacking residency with Signal Fire, which took place in the Klamath Wilderness of northern California, tied together and expanded many ideas for me. We spent four weeks in the wilderness, making art and learning about the local natural, indigenous, mining history, dams, development, and deforestation, as well as examining our own perceptions of Nature.
I’ve been learning more about water lately, and am currently a resident artist at the Platte Basin Timelapse project. My residency work is focusing on a small area of endangered Nebraskan salt marshes. Learning about watersheds has led me to learn about a number of other things too – from botany to geology to local history.
BB: How does writing inform your photos and vice versa?
MC: Turning thoughts into poetry feels like spelunking in a cave. I have no idea what I’m doing or where I’m going but I am really enjoying it. (Bring a headlamp. Use your sense of touch. Be lost for a while.) For me, writing poetry usually feels much more intimate and vulnerable than making photographs. For example, it’s strange to me that people often tell me with regard to any nude self-portraits that I am “brave” to share them. Bravery is a character trait, something associated with an act of selflessness. Putting nude photographs into the world isn’t selfless. It doesn’t make me afraid either. The whole process makes me feel quite empowered, to reclaim my body in wild spaces. To have a space where I can be the most myself – something in that is completely pleasurable. Sharing my poems, on the other hand, feels completely terrifying. Perhaps in part because I’ve done a lot less of it. But the message is clearer, more available, even if it’s abstract. It somehow feels even more vulnerable than being naked.
Poems grow inside of me, they ruminate or roll around, until I can’t hold them in much longer. Or, they’re automatic – just kind of spilling out, and the editing process plays a heavy role. With both media, I make a lot and then boil down. I had a pretty specific group of poems to start the zine with. I then chose a wide edit of photographs, printed them, started making choices to complement the words. I don’t know if they really informed each other much until they started playing together in the zine format. I think my underlying interests guide both of them, and so naturally they tie together. I see photography as a tool, rather than a box that I want to live inside of.
BB: What writing practices would you recommend to other photographers trying to expand their work?
MC: Poetry, as a genre of writing, gets a bad wrap. Many people think it’s boring or too hard to understand. Accept that you don’t have to understand something in order to appreciate it. Read – right now I’m in love with Clarice Lispector, Coral Bracho, Ada Limon, Mary Oliver – and you’ll realize that poetry can be full of fire. You won’t be able to put it down. Have idols, steal from them. I can’t write prose for shit. Find a format that works for you. Share it with people, ask for feedback. I’m bad at habits, but always, ALWAYS carry a notebook. Some of the best writing happens in unexpected or stolen moments. I have to write by hand in a journal that I like. Then I type them up, print them out and make edits, rinse and repeat.
BB: How did transforming this collection of images and poems into a zine change the nature of how you perceived the work for you?
MC: It sounds dramatic, but the publication of the zine and hanging the show led to a deep catharsis of feelings, which I did not expect. Starting projects is easy, finishing can be incredibly hard. It felt like permission to move on from some heartbreak that I’d been holding onto and to move into my next body of work, and the next set of intentions for my life and work to continue growing.
BB: Did you ever experience any roadblocks while making this work? How did you get through those periods of stagnation?
MC: Many of the poems sat in a file for a year or more before I really got serious about doing anything with them, figuring out how they fit together, or why they needed to be together. I knew they should be paired with my visual work, but I didn’t want the poems to serve as didactic captions to the images, yet there obviously needed to be some kind of connection between the two entities. Sequencing photographs is one of my favorite parts of the photobook-making process, but I was stumped with how to sequence the poems.
It was incredibly helpful to get the perspectives of other artist friends.
Amy Plettner is an incredible poet – she asked me to read a few of my pieces on the local indie radio station, which made me uncomfortable, but I appreciate being forced to do things that make me uncomfortable. She helped me edit them and saw them from a writer’s perspective. Terry Ratzlaff was an invaluable help to finishing it – it was a totally collaborative effort and we essentially published it together, through his publishing entity, the basement window. He makes stellar handmade artist books, and he wanted to really elevate the craft and make the zine more than just a Xeroxed & stapled format. We decided to add tipped-in prints, and stitched the binding by hand. It turned out way more beautiful because of his dedication to creating interesting handmade publications.
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