Between Words and Press: Beth Fein in the Studio

August 16, 2017 by

Ten years ago, ceramicist Beth Fein went to hang out with a friend who was enrolled in a local monoprinting class. Handed a plate and ink, she found the intuitive process much like building with clay, and from there she crossed into the print world.

Although she’s made the leap from three dimensions to two, Beth’s work seldom stays flat. It is instead transformed into hanging installations, crumpled during performances, or rolled into sculptures of paper cones. Even the first experiments of her Studio Workspace Residency, made before she dove into the Workshop’s collection of letterpress type, were monoprints on loops of mesh. Despite the many conversations on markmaking with clay and ink taking place in the studio, wooden letters and shapes stole the spotlight in Beth’s residency. Borrowed from the letterpress studio and locked on the intaglio press, a range from the alphabet to arrows to a checkerboard have been embossed or printed in a series that will undoubtedly, in time, become parts of a larger whole.

“I love looking at the wood type and shapes to try to imagine the history behind them,” she says, and her inquiries run on deeply formal and conceptual levels. Each piece has been isolated, flipped, and used not as a sound or symbol, but a compositional element. Historical tools of propagation,the public voice, and print media, the type pieces have been means for Beth to investigate questions about language and motivation which run through her practice.

Some of these prints were meant to be cut and folded into paper pyramids when Beth returned home to Berkeley—a project she planned beforehand. However, so much of her time at WSW was marked by new processes and collaborations. After fellow resident Sue Carrie Drummond showed Beth how to pull handmade paper, Beth began embedding objects—including a saw blade—between sheets of pulp. Between three studios, she turned her residency into an exploration of material and meaning, judging and disregarding the weight of words. 

WSW: For the abstracted nature of much of your work, you address very real social issues in your practice. How would you describe the main themes in your work?

BF: I’m always working on portraits of women. I did them once for a show, I continue to make them, and that will probably carry through my life. I spent much of the last decade working on a participatory performance project about finding common ground—no politics involved.

In the last three years I have been dealing with how everything is so polarized in our culture. I’m exploring how people find their voice in the face of either personal bullying or slander, how hard it is to stand up for yourself, and how hard it is to stand up to someone else. Also, in a larger cultural context in our society, who is capable of standing up—who has the wherewithal to make those choices? Who has the empathy, who doesn’t have the empathy, and who has the courage to make that happen?

It’s easy to imagine where you find polarization in today’s society. Are there specific instances that captured your attention or that you’ve addressed in your work?

I did a residency in Argentina and I have family there who lived through the military dictatorship. My family was not political but the state affected everybody. There were people who were brave and managed to stand up to the regime, one of the most famous example being the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who lost children and went out to march every Thursday. I wonder—how do you get to the point in your life where you make that decision? What does the repression look like, and what does the resistance look like?

How is this investigation of your own experiences and social landscapes informing the work you’re making now?

I’ve made more personal work about speaking out based on truth, power, and money—I’m continuing those themes in a lot of ways. But I have to say, this past year I am speechless. I almost can’t find any words. Not just my words—there are so many eloquent people and we don’t seem to be making progress. This residency has been a way to step back at everything and work in a reactive, physical way, rather than having to search for the words.

As the Beth is finding her voice again, her exhibition when words fail is on view at the Transmission Gallery in Oakland, CA through September 23! You can find her most recent work, including prints made during her WSW residency, and find more photos from her residency on our Flickr!

Beth Fein is an interdisciplinary artist who grew up in the Hudson Valley. Her work encompasses installation, printmaking, video, and performance. Fein now lives and works in Berkeley, CA, where besides working in her studio and at Kala Art Institute, Fein has taught dance and printmaking workshops and continues to coach fellow professional artist on an individual basis. She has been awarded artist residencies in Spain, Argentina, New York, Vermont and California and her work has been exhibited nationally and internationally including the Oakland Museum of California, the International Print Center NY, the Triton Museum of Art, Headlands Center for the Arts, Banks Gallery in London, The San Francisco International Airport, Santander/Spain, Buenos Aires/Argentina, and Kala Art Institute.  She has created numerous site-specific performances in diverse locations including the San Francisco Public Library, The Oakland Museum of California and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.