“How a body might impress itself on a location”: Paloma Barhaugh-Bordas in the Studio

September 26, 2019 by

Written by Anastasia Nikolis

When Paloma Barhaugh-Bordas began her five week residency she had two goals: to begin a new series of her habitual quick-process monoprints and to take advantage of WSW’s etching studio to start working more slowly. About her slow process experiments, she explains,  “I loved the idea of flower petals etched in copper.” The minute focus of the etching project contrasts with her series of monoprints that were intended to be more expansive and comprised of three chapters, Weeds, Nets/Knots, and Women. These two endeavors might initially seem to work across purposes, but Barhaugh-Bordas explains that her work often begins with an imagined outcome that her mind is constantly trying to undermine, an impulse that is borne out in the ways she is guided by open-ended methods of “seeking and scavenging and foraging.” She embraces her mind’s tendency to circumvent and avoid her explicit intentions in order “to ask questions that lead to more questions.”

Barhaugh-Bordas is motivated by questions of home: how to find a home, how to build a home, how a place becomes a home—and looks to organic plant materials to investigate these questions in her work. She explains that all plants emphasize a relationship with the land, whether they are invasive weed species that take over a landscape where they wouldn’t ordinarily be found, or they are houseplants that are reliant on their caretakers for constant attention in order to thrive in their nonnative climates. 

Houseplants have been a longstanding source of inspiration for Barhaugh-Bordas as she thinks about her own efforts to make a relationship with the land on which she lives. “I’m from an immigrant family,” she explains, “I don’t have a home and everywhere I go I feel like I could make it a home by forcing my will.” Since leaving her childhood home out west, her collection of nearly 40 houseplants has traveled with her across multiple states and domestic spaces. “These plants aren’t even close to native. What the hell are these cacti doing in Western New York?!” she says of her southwestern plants in their home in Ithaca, NY, “I force them to grow and thrive with me.” 

Weeds and invasive species are a newer interest for Barhaugh-Bordas that she cultivated during her residency. Whereas houseplants have a dependent relationship with their caretaker and a distant relationship to their climate, invasive species are independent of a caretaker and have found tenacious ways to thrive in their new environs. Barhaugh-Bordas takes these ideas a step further to think about invasive species metaphorically, “I’m interested in invasive species as a way for looking at how we treat humans in place,” she explains, “how a body might impress itself on a location.” 

Barhaugh-Bordas impressed her own body on WSW by scavenging and foraging for weeds and invasive species in Rosendale, becoming attuned to the plants that were thriving during her residency from early to high summer. At the beginning, it was the tail end of honeysuckle season and the garlic mustard was flowering. By the end, the mustard plants were “just stick and pod things” and mugwort was in bloom. Each of her foraging expeditions resulted in collections of materials that she arranged in her studio space and then used in her monoprints, often printing small bundles of plants tied together with bits of twine and textiles that she had found while foraging. She even found herself making nets with some of her findings in the evenings, which she also displayed.

In the process of manipulating these found materials in her studio, Barhaugh-Bordas discovered that her mind for arranging had undermined her original intentions: that her work came together in the most satisfying way when the imagery was combined. The not-quite-visible etchings of flower petals worked best when stacked with the monoprints of the nets she was weaving, which started to look like hammocks cradling human forms when assembled with the bundles of plants. “The middle of my work [process] is really scary and confusing,” says Barhaugh-Bordas, but “printmaking is about trusting a process even if the end product is uncertain.” Through its adventurous spirit, its subtle tones, and its delicate forms and shapes, her work can’t help but instill that trust.

Anastasia Nikolis is a writer and PhD candidate in 20th century transatlantic poetry and poetics at the University of Rochester. She is the Poetry Editor at Open Letter Books and co-host of the Black Box Poetry podcast.