Alison Pebworth's "Spirit Drawings"

Alison Pebworth's "Spirit Drawings" on view in In This Light

Artist Interviews

Alison Pebworth On Pulling Form Out Of Chaos

Artist Alison Pebworth details how meditative making exercises and Octavia Butler steered her practice during this tumultuous time and inspired her installation for In This Light.

Over the next several weeks, McEvoy Arts interviews each of the four artists from The Minnesota Street Project Studio Program whose work is on display in In This Light, a virtual and offsite exhibition presented in conjunction with the Minnesota Street Project’s group exhibition Invincible Summer.

Make a reservation to visit the exhibition in person here.

McEvoy Arts: Can you share a bit about your practice and background? 

Alison Pebworth: Originally from the piney woods of East Texas, I have been living and working as an artist in San Francisco since 1991.

McEvoy Arts: As an artist in The Minnesota Street Project Studio Program at 1240 Minnesota Street, the building’s temporary closure has forced you to embrace new working accommodations. How have you coped with the isolation of social distancing and uncertainty?

AP: Isolation isn’t an issue for me—I’m a hermit by nature.  But the closure of the studios definitely affected my practice as I could no longer work large, dirty, or have access to shop tools. Projects I was working on were cancelled or postponed, so there was definitely a period of reorienting myself to what I could do from home from a desk. I had already been feeling a need to weed out distractions so I embraced the opportunity to find the space I needed by turning inward and developing badly needed meditation and writing habits that I hope to take with me to the other side of this pandemic.

Alison Pebworth's studio at The Minnesota Street Project Studio Program. Courtesy the artist
Alison Pebworth’s studio at The Minnesota Street Project Studio Program. Courtesy the artist

McEvoy Arts: Has the onset of the pandemic and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement offered you new insights into preexisting bodies of work or motivation for new projects?  

AP: It takes time to process important events- the more profound the event the more useless artists feel to meet the profundity of it. However, both the pandemic and the problems of white supremacy and cultural segregation have given me stronger resolve to put more focus to building long term visionary projects and less importance to career achievements.

McEvoy Arts: How does work on view in In This Light engage with the notion of resilience? When, where, and how was your work produced? 

AP: Feeling inadequate to meet the big questions, I started looking at what I could do in and with people in my  own neighborhood. In order to keep my hand engaged in “making,” I started using my handmade walnut ink to make stains on aged paper I had been collecting and then using colored pencils to pull forms out of it. I had to let go of creating anything “good” and just think of these “drawings” as meditation exercises: metaphorical acts of pulling form out of chaos. I called them “spirit drawings,” since the more I thought, the worse they got. 

<i>We Are Earthseed</i>
Alison Pebworth’s installation We Are Earthseed on view in In This Light.

Over the past year, I have been challenging myself to create installations in 24 hours using the many materials accumulated in my studio space at 1240 Minnesota Street. These exercises helped me find connections between seemingly disparate ideas. While sheltering in place, I occasionally helped Andrew McKinley (the founder of Adobe books) sort through three huge warehouses of books, and in the process salvaged old books and collected random passages. When the call for work went out for In This Light, I initially didn’t feel like I had anything to contribute. But then a narrative started to emerge between the passages I was collecting, and the ephemerality of the old books and paper I was using, and everything clicked: I can do this! I added selections from handwritten cursive letters I had been collecting as a third paper element, and over 24 hours in the exhibition space, I channelled personal and collective anxieties over the past few months into this installation. Wire and paint salvaged from the MSP studios became the connecting element.

McEvoy Arts: Do you have any suggestions for artists wrestling with making work amidst collective anxiety and uncertainty? 

AP: Just do something every day. When you can’t think, feel, and let go of the pretense of making anything good. The act is more important than the outcome.

McEvoy Arts: What’s been most striking to you about the impact this moment is having on the making, presentation, and consumption of culture? What are your hopes for the future? 

AP: I don’t take it lightly that it was a privilege to even be in this show. My hope is that the forced pause that the pandemic brought has a lasting effect on our priorities and that we never return to what we previously thought was “normal.” 

McEvoy Arts: What is the responsibility of the artist in times like these? Has your sense of the role of art in society shifted? 

AP: The only responsibility I see is to keep making something out of nothing and facing the unknown whether you’ve been granted the permission, space or resources to do so or not. I’m learning to let go of wondering what my role as an artist is and trust that the small actions and I make  in my immediate world will prepare me for the visionary role I aspire to, should it arrive.

McEvoy Arts: Lastly, is there a piece of art, literature, film, or music that has been a comforting touchstone for you through the pandemic? 

AP: A phrase from Octavia Butler’s Parable of the SowerWe are Earthseed. The life which perceives itself. Changing.”—inspired the title of my installation for In This Light and ties together the found passages in the installation with the “spirit drawings,“ which feel like primordial earth seeds to me. Though my interest in Butler and her writing pre-dates the pandemic, her vision of Afro-Futurism feels particularly relevant in these uncertain times that our salvation lies in our ability to embrace change.

Alison Pebworth is a San Francisco-based artist who engages painting, installation, and social interaction in her work. She has exhibited at Southern Exposure, San Francisco; Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco; the Legion of Honor, San Francisco; the Oakland Museum of California; the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit; and the New Children’s Museum, San Diego. She is the recipient of awards from The Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation, The Center for Cultural Innovation, and The San Francisco Arts Commission. She has held residencies at The Bemis Center for Contemporary Art, Omaha; Recology, San Francisco; Ucross Foundation, Wyoming; and Space, British Columbia.