Rachel Blythe Udell’s “Pocket Dimension” Expanded – An Interview

Rachel Blythe Udell‘s installation at Old City Publishing, Pocket Dimension, is, “a corner of the universe that is not quite here but not quite elsewhere.” Pocket Dimension was installed right before quarantine began, and while there has been less foot traffic than usual at its 2nd Street location, this show in the vestibule has brightened up the days of anyone who walked by. Udell’s intention within the show is to remind us that we are connected just like the inhabitants of Pocket Dimension‘s realm.

LH: What was your inspiration for the concept of “Pocket Dimension”? Have you done a version of this installation anywhere else?

RBU: Inspiration comes from many sources, often stored away, at the edge of my consciousness. It swirls around in my brain, waiting for the moment of discerning.  As a child, I loved science fiction. I wondered about life on other planets, and pictured lifeforms that may exist in the space beyond our imaginations. I think there is a lot of that in this installation. It embraces the idea of fantasy and offers escape into a world less sinister. Inspiration also derives from things I can see, though abstracted and distorted in ways that make me feel some kind of emotion that I don’t know exactly how to qualify.

I often feel like all of my installations are part of the same installation, like moving on a time continuum but in different physical spaces.  They somehow extend to connect with each other.  The arrangements of work evolve, sometimes revolve, or grow, with more pieces added, and sometimes shrink to accommodate smaller spaces. It’s as if a bright stream of ideas and shapes and forms and feelings flows continuously within and manifests at various points in time and space. The installation that feels most closely related to “Pocket Dimension” is “Biomorphia” which I did at The Atlantic Highlands Arts Council in the fall of 2018. The two installations share a main character (the enormous sculpture) centrally placed in a window gallery. In my mind, “Pocket Dimension” seems like a section of that work, but also its own thing, as several of the surrounding pieces made their debut at the InLiquid Vestibule.

My installations have always embodied a realm just outside of lived experience, but the events of recent years and months have intensified their sense of transcendence. Perhaps today more than ever, the sacred connectedness of lifeforms and the environment within which they live is so poignant. Just prior to installation, there was talk about the coronavirus and its deadly potential, bringing that connectedness into much sharper view for people all over the world. My installation went up just before all of the closures began. I had no idea what was to come, but I had wanted to create a safe and beautiful space- aesthetically and ideologically beautiful.

LH: When/how did you first become interested in merging science and art? How have you been able to intermingle science and art?

RBU: I don’t know that it was ever a conscious decision for me to do that.  I think that the realms of science and art are already overlapping, and thus intrinsically merged and intermingled.

Science describes the structures and frameworks of reality. Maybe math does that too. Art is an interpretation or translation of reality, or a tool used to get closer to (or further from) reality. But, it is also a part of the world to which it responds. I used to read books and articles about string theory and black holes and the multiverse, but I’ve never really understood any of these things on a scientific level.  For me, these ideas were amazing and I thought about them abstractly- but with this sense that my knowledge was extremely limited.  I knew there was so much going on that we as humans were not built to be able to perceive.  But nonetheless, they exist. Many of these things might shape and inform the way that we process reality, without our even being aware. All of this has always fascinated me.

LH: What are your artistic and scientific inspirations?

RBU: I am inspired by nature and the study of natural phenomena. I’m drawn to biology, physics, space, time, life, the universe. I’ve always loved flowers, trees, the woods, the mountains, rivers, streams. And all of these things that are echoed within our bodies, branching arteries and veins, capillaries, and on the macro end, swirling galaxies, rivers of stars, the multiverse. Nature elicits awe. How all of this translates in my work is not always consciously planned out. But, when I’m creating sculptures or forms in embroidery collages, there is a deep biological bent to the shapes I create.  Everything feels derived from nature-though not specific specimens or organs or structures or creatures.  I work intuitively and these are the forms that come out of me.

Artistically, I’m inspired by all kinds of things- giant, colorful installations like those of Ernesto Neto or Sheila Hicks or Yayoi Kusama, and more understated works like those of Eva Hesse that affect me viscerally, perhaps even moreso.  I’ve always loved biomorphic imagery in all mediums — but really connect to fiber and textile work on a deep level.  Perhaps this is because fiber art is so tactile and rife with textures that can mimic the natural world. But also, when dealing with natural fibers, they are the material of the earth and life itself, not just a tool to describe it. I work mostly with reclaimed, salvaged, and heirloom pieces which were made and used by others, fabrics that existed in a more utilitarian context before meeting me. This is also very interesting to me. There are so many layers, and I am so attracted to physical and conceptual layers in art.

LH: Can you speak to your artistic use of heirloom fabrics and how it connects you to the work?

RBU: The heirloom fabrics that I use are garments that were inherited from my mom, who passed away in 2001.  My mother had this expansive love of clothing that left a lasting impression on me. The way that she dressed was one of her primary modes of creative expression.  It really felt like everything she wore was an aspect of her personality, or some part of her physical self.  I felt this most keenly after she passed, and I was left with her varied and sizable wardrobe to contend with- these beautiful remnants of her. She also collected antique lace that she sometimes wore. She loved lace. This I inherited from her too. She taught me to love fabrics, as precious extensions of one’s body that could alter or enhance feelings in oneself and others. Later, when I began to use them, I found they could do similar things in an artistic capacity.

LH: Have you been finding any inspiration from your art/others’ art during this time?

RBU: So much has changed in such a short time.  I think I’m trying to process it all.  Unfortunately, I injured my arms and hands a few months ago. So, I have not been able to make art in my usual manner. This has been trying, as art making has always been my main way of coping with stress and anxiety.  I’ve sort of had to pause, along with the world, to think about change and how that can be implemented. For me, in my practice, I’m not sure exactly what that will entail. As events in the world unfold to reveal more plainly fractures in society and the lack of social cohesion, our belief systems and what is really important to us are also laid bare. I definitely use art as fantasy in the service of mental health- creating worlds to retreat to when this one is too much to bear.

Early on, at the beginning of the pandemic, my friend and sometimes collaborator Bonnie MacAllister hosted a virtual gathering for artists focusing on collaborative and cross-genre work through her magazine and platform, Certain Circuits. The result was a wonderful event with poets, musicians, and various combinations of the two that really felt inspiring to me. Around this time, I’d been working on a book with my niece Ayla, who is an author, gymnast, song-writer and artist at 8 years old. This was her book – my husband and I just served as a sounding board for her ideas and also helped with light editing. We would do most of this work on FaceTime calls. Her art and creativity and energy and spirit inspire me so much. One day, on one of our calls, she decided that she would give me an assignment: to create a song. I had never done this before, though I used to love to sing (and dance and perform) as a child. I took her up on the challenge, and it was a really fun experience, gratifying, and totally different than anything I’d ever done before. I don’t know where I will go with this, but I’ve been thinking about incorporating sound into my installations for several years. The songs I’ve been creating are nothing like my visual work though. In some ways it makes sense, using different media to express different aspects of myself. But, it’s interesting for me to think about how the two can possibly intersect in my work, if that is a direction I decide to take. Doing this work has also been less painful for my hands and arms.

My injury has also provided a lens through which I’ve been observing my way of being an artist. What would it mean if I could never sew again? I hope this is not the case for me, but it will be at some point in my life. And then what? Who am I without my art? In another sense, the injury brings to the forefront the science of my body: hands composed of tendons that connect to the neck, to the jaw, the shoulders, the back, legs and feet. Connection is paramount within us, but it is more than just biology. It expands, connecting us to everything, through our social structures, our relationship to the planet and beyond.

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