Beth Dary: Near the Water’s Edge

By Etty Yaniv

Beth Dary’s sculptures, installations, and drawings have in common deep layers of meaning, imaginative combinations of materials, and subtle delicacy in form and color. Her insatiable curiosity for exploring diverse materials and processes results in a wide array of formal expressions, ranging from ceramics to photography, and fabric to glass. In this interview, she shares some insights into her work, her process of exploration, and talks about her upcoming projects.

You grew up by the sea and the notion of water and patterns in nature seem to play a central role in all of your work. Can you tell me more about it?

Nature has always been an inspiration and is an integral aspect of my work. I was born and raised on Cape Cod, Massachusetts and remember being acutely aware of the power and beauty of the ocean and the coastal environment, even as a child.

I spent many hours walking the shoreline, beach-combing with my mom. On her daily morning walk, she would clean the beach, picking up the trash that washed ashore while I picked up as many interesting objects as I could carry home – beach glass, seedpods, fishing lures, shells, driftwood. Another visceral memory is of the Nor’easters and hurricanes we weathered and the almost ritual routine we had preparing for and riding out these storms. We would board up the house, light the kerosene lamps, and get out our books. When the storms passed, we would walk the neighborhood to survey the damage. This has left a lasting impression on me and has also played a large role in how I view the natural world.

Moving forward to my adult life, I have always lived near the water’s edge – whether on Cape Cod, New York City, on the Mississippi River in Memphis, and New Orleans. As a result, I have continued to bear witness to the awesome forces of nature and climate, including having experienced Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy first hand.

Please tell me about your project Elements of Ambivalence from 2006.

I was living in New Orleans in 2005, where my family and I had settled after two years of traveling. Less than two months after moving into the house we had purchased, we were on the move again, hitting the road with our then four year-old less than 24 hours before Katrina made landfall. Once it became clear that we would not be able to return home for some time, we resettled in New York City. That fall I was a recipient of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s Gulf Coast Residency, which was created in response to the many artists who were displaced by the storm. Being able to go back to work with a community of 12 other artists who had also landed in New York after leaving the Gulf Coast was the first major step in recovering personally and professionally.

Elements of Ambivalence, 10’ x 17’ x 4″, fabric, pins, encaustic, 2006.

The “studios,” located in an empty floor of a Lower Manhattan office building, were separated by fabric walls as they were put together quickly to create an instant work space for the artists. It was during this residency that I began the Elements of Ambivalenceseries. I decided to use one of the 10’ x 17’ fabric walls as a canvas to create a large-scale, double-sided drawing; since I didn’t have any materials to work with at the time, this seemed like a good place to start. The drawing was inspired by the circle maps I was seeing in the newspapers to describe the diaspora of the New Orleans population and communities displaced by the hurricane, as well as the mold patterns that formed in people’s water-damaged homes, including ours.

I chose to use florist pins to create the drawing. On one side of the canvas were thousands of reflective black and white round-headed ball pins; the opposite side revealed only the sharp sheath part of the pin. This duality relates to the simultaneous beauty and danger of the natural world. Also included in this body of work were kinetic sculptures made using steel hoops covered with discarded sections of the wall fabric embedded with pins to make individual pieces that hung in the space at eye level.

You do public art as well. Can you tell me about your project Emerge?

In 2006-2007 I returned to New Orleans with my family after spending a year in New York. It was during this time that I created my first public art project in conjunction with Aorta, a guerilla-style artist group dedicated to placing artwork into areas that were heavily damaged by Hurricane Katrina.

Emerge was located in New Orleans City Park. The installation consisted of placing hundreds of cast paper pulp “pods” into the landscape of a low-lying wetland on the grounds in the park. For a casual passerby, the distinction between “artistic” and “natural” phenomenon would blur. The sculptural elements of the piece, which were inspired by objects found in nature like a gourd or seed pod, were created using all organic materials and placed in a way that could be imagined as an integral part of the life cycle of the plants in that area. In this way I used “art” to seed something of potential growth for a landscape that was flooded and badly damaged during the storm. Perhaps these sculptures were even collected as a curiosity by a visitor to the park – maybe a child around the same age I was when trailing behind my mother on the beach.

Emerge, sizes variedcast paper pulp, 2007

The sculptures, many of them unfinished fragments, were part of an earlier body of work that was interrupted by the hurricane, sitting untouched on my studio work table for over a year. The use of elements of a partially completed work connoted a disruption of a work in progress, much the way so many lives were caught in a moment at the time of the storm and dropped elsewhere out of their intended context.

Let’s talk about your glass work. What is the genesis?

In 2007 we returned to New York, where we have lived ever since. Coming out of my experience with Emerge, a friend told me about “Art on the Beach,” a 1970’s era artist movement in Battery Park City in Lower Manhattan on land that was, at that time, a vacant sandy landfill. By 2007, the area had transformed into a dense urban neighborhood where we happened to be living.

Much of my free time was spent along the Battery Park waterfront in the playgrounds with our young son. A favorite spot of mine is the Lily Pool, a duck pond just south of the World Financial Center. Thinking about “Art on the Beach,” and seeing bubbles floating over the pond from the nearby playground where my son was playing, I was inspired to propose Equilibrium as a public art installation made up of bubble sculptures that would float in the Lily Pool.

Equilibrium, sizes variedblown glass, 2008Photo courtesy of Steve Gross and Susan Daly (L) and Scott Ferguson (R).

The sculptures were immersed in the water, floating amidst the plant and animal life inhabiting the pond during the summer and fall of 2008. My hope for Equilibrium was to add a bit of curiosity and playfulness to the viewer’s day as the sculptures reflected the natural surroundings including the passersby themselves, as well as alluding to the metaphorical bubble that inspired the installation. The “bubble” has taken on many simultaneous meanings for me as I have worked with the form over the years – including air bubbles of CO2 trapped in Arctic ice that track climate change, and biomorphic forms that relate to metastasizing cells.

As it happened, the installation took place in the fall of 2008 during the height of the subprime mortgage collapse and the fall of Lehman Brothers. At that moment, by its location near the heart of the Financial District, the installation took on the added context and meaning of the financial “bubble,” which was much on people’s minds that fall.

Beth Dary at the Lily Pond in Battery Park City in New York City. Photo courtesy of Steve Gross and Susan Daly.

You are working with diverse materials and processes: paper, glass, drawing, sculpture, video, and ceramics. Tell me a bit about your relationship to materials and media.

My 2010 installation Emersion began with a fascination with barnacles that grow in abundance on Cape Cod. I felt this kind of sea life worked as a metaphor for the resilient and adaptable qualities of humans in a time of global warming and rising tides.

I had begun making barnacle sculptures with oil clay and sticking them directly onto the walls, ceiling, and floor of my studio and I agreed to turn them into a full-scale gallery installation. I spent time at a residency developing ideas for how to realize the installation. Some key reading material that I brought with me included Darwin and the Barnacle, which deepened my understanding of how these crustaceans have adapted to changing environments, and On The Water/Palisade Bay, a book that grew out of “Rising Currents” (a show featuring the work of a friend, Marc Tsurumaki, and his firm LTL Architects at the Museum of Modern Art), which proposed architectural projects along the coastal edge of New York City, exploring strategies to adapt to sea level rise. Using the walls of the studio, I developed the idea of creating wall sculptures hanging in an array that would mirror the topography of marine environments where barnacles thrive.

Emersion, 7’ x 31’ x 4″, porcelain, 2010-presentPhoto courtesy of Heriard-Cimino Gallery.

After returning home, I had two months to fabricate work with a medium that I had never used. Enlisting the help of an experienced ceramic artist, and a group of my friends, I had small ‘barnacle parties’ in my studio where we created thousands of hand-built barnacle clusters designed to hang in formation on the wall of the project room of the Heriard-Cimino Gallery. Emersion eventually became an immersive installation that filled the gallery, merging and overlapping the contours of New York Harbor and the Mississippi River, exploring the idea that we are connected through global waterways.

(Top image: Emersion (detail), sculptures range in size from 1″ diameter to 10″ x 12″ x 5″. All photos courtesy of the artist unless otherwise indicated.)

This interview is part of a content collaboration between Art Spiel and Artists & Climate Change. It was originally published on Art Spiel on January 8, 2019 as part of an ongoing interview series with contemporary artists.

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Etty Yaniv works on her art, art writing, and curatorial projects in Brooklyn. She has exhibited her immersive installations in museums and galleries, nationally and internationally. Yaniv founded the platform Art Spiel to highlight the work of contemporary artists through art reviews, studio visits, and interviews with artists, curators, and gallerists. Yaniv holds a BA in Psychology and English Literature from Tel Aviv University, a BFA from Parsons School of Design, and an MFA from SUNY Purchase.

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

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