My friend Cynthia Cusick – a native New Yorker turned Eastern Kentucky farm girl – graduated last year from Eastern Kentucky University with a bachelor of fine arts degree. I remember visiting Cindi in her studio in late March of that year when she was preparing for her senior show. I stood amazed at the incredibly personal expression she had accomplished through metal and glaze stoneware sculptures. Looking at the scope of the work, I was reduced to tears – and then so was she. We shared one of those moments between friends where no words are really necessary, and then we proceeded to unload some of the then current hardships in both of our lives, while all around us an incredible collection of psychologically rich shapes and figures fresh from the kiln glistened and shone like the tears drying on our cheeks. Since then, Cindi, who turns 48 next week, has created a body of work that is only just beginning to be known and make an impression in the art world. I interviewed her over coffee yesterday about her life and work.
Cindi’s web site, where you can see all of her current work, is here.
Frances: When you were little, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Cindi: Lots of things. I used to have one of those Pocket Books for each grade from Kindergarten to High School where you filled in your school name, the teacher’s name, your friend’s names, your likes and dislikes, attached a picture and each grade had a pocket to keep all those stellar report cards. They had a check box section at the bottom of each page to check what you wanted to be when you grew up. It was segregated by gender. I never liked the options for the girls so I felt I had to check “nurse” or “teacher” until I started checking “other” from age 7 on up. Some of my choices were “Archeologist” and “Horse Owner.”
Frances: What was your family’s attitude toward creativity?
Cindi: Actually, my family was very creative, especially Mom, but more towards the performing, song and dance, plays-on-stage type thing. They did a lot of parties with their friends and at church that had themes so they were always getting dressed in costumes and Mom was usually the one to draw up the invitations and posters. Mom has a lot of artistic talent that she never fully realized, I don’t think. I know she sent away for a “Commercial Artist’s Course” that gave instructions in this big printed book, chapter-by-chapter, about how to draw advertisements. Think Coca-cola ads from the 1950s. I still have the book. Mom and Dad grew up in the ‘40s so there was a “safe zone,” a very conservative type of creativity. Not the avant-garde type of stuff, at all.
Frances: What were your first creations as a youngster?
Cindi: Ha! My brother, Larry, and I once made an entire town out of construction paper on the window sill of our room when it rained during our entire school break. We also created our own newspaper. We both did a lot of drawing. God, I drew constantly. I was horse crazy from an early age so I was always drawing horses. My brother, Larry, is a year younger than me so we grew up like twins from a young age until about 13, 14. I do remember when we would play outside behind the apartments on Garth Road in the woods; I would dig in the dirt looking for clay. I imagined I was on some Indian trail and would try to find clay to make pots. Of course, it was mostly regular dirt, not necessarily clay but I did like playing in the mud even then.
Frances: How do you feel your family shaped your attitudes towards feminism and gender issues?
Cindi: Wow. Typical Baby Boomer family. Dad was a WWII vet, Mom was the wife and home-maker. Older siblings born in the 50s and then a gap of 8 years between my older brother, Jimmy, and me, born in 1962 so I was in an odd place. By the time I was finishing elementary school and entering puberty, it was 1972 and Gloria Steinem, Betty Freidan and the like were in full swing. Women were burning bras, feminists and feminism were on the news, Ms. Magazine was launched and the options for girls was opening up. Although Mom and Dad were what I would call very conservative and traditional in gender roles, they were also less demanding on my brother and I since we were like a second family with eight years between me and Jimmy, so there was less concern that I was playing with GI Joe’s along with Barbies. They were less uptight raising Larry and me, I think. I grew up with an attitude that whatever I wanted to achieve, I could do it although, having said that, there were still gender specific expectations at home, like I should know how to cook and I should have a natural inclination to be a mother. Which I didn’t have.
Frances: When you lived in NYC, were you conscious of the artistic community? Did you realize that you were living in a place where art was a lot of more accessible and integrated into the social structure than in many other places?
Cindi: You can’t be from the NYC area and NOT be conscious of the artistic community. That’s like asking someone from Denver, Colorado if they were conscious of the mountains. NYC=ART, end of story. I suspect the same can be said of Paris, London, Berlin and other big, culturally important cities. In a way, I think the intensity of the artistic climate, the fact that it is part of the fabric of NYC made it incredibly intimidating to me. I had dreams, as I grew up, drawing horses and then people and things, of being an artist but I was too scared to do it because look what I had to compete with? The rest of the world. I don’t think I was ever really aware how integrated art is in NYC, and how diverse and forward-thinking art is, not fully, until I left NYC to come to Central Kentucky.
Frances: What type of art or which artists do you remember first being affected by?
Cindi: Modern art. Picasso. Mondrian. Bauhaus architecture. the Abstract Expressionists, Pop Culture. Andy Warhol. I hated all of it at first, because I think I was expected to hate it coming from a nice conservative, Catholic family. But at the same time, our family was a little bit weird so I was really, really drawn to the difference from traditional, “safe” art all the same. What really drew me in and kept me going back was the subversiveness of it all. I was ultimately attracted to the power those kinds of art had in making people think.
Frances: You worked as a graphic artist for many years. How did you eventually decide you needed to move your creativity out of that realm and into a new direction?
Cindi: Graphic design was a cop-out for me. It was a “safe,” productive, respectful way for me to “be creative,” i.e. I could make a living at it earning a steady paycheck and appear to have some creative input into the things I was making. The reality was that I was always doing the bidding of the client and creativity, as far as I defined it, was an illusion. It was immensely frustrating. “Stifling” is the word I’d use. Plus so much of graphic design is promotion and product-oriented which left a bad taste in this old punk rocker’s mouth. When you see the ins and outs of media manipulation, it takes the joy out of life. How did I decide? One word: divorce. Nothing like a divorce to make you sit down and say, “Right. What the hell am I doing and why? Time for a change!”
Frances: Moving from the sophistication of New York City to live in rural, and intensely traditional, Irvine, Kentucky, has been a challenge that you have both relished and risen to. How have you learned from the culture around you and how do you feel it has shaped your artistic philosophy?
Cindi: I think I’ve always felt I would have to leave the environment of NYC to fully express myself. I’ve always yearned for the outdoors, the woods, the dirt, the rivers, the oceans, the wild animals and weird plants, trails, hiking, National Parks – I love National Parks. New York doesn’t have a lot of that. Because of that, I had a deep desire to go back to those profound, visceral relationships with nature that I experienced in my childhood in the woods behind the apartments. Being able to come out here to Estill County and own my own acreage allows me to indulge that part of me whenever I need inspiration. Estill County is traditional in one sense, but this part of Kentucky also has some quirkiness and eccentricity that I feel comfortable with, almost like walking around Thompson Square in the East Village – but you have to drive longer distances and people have funny accents. To me. As for artistic philosophy, I think I get to be one of the eccentrics. I enjoy my role as a weirdo New Yorker, an outsider. You get a much better view, in my opinion.
Frances: You have explained your work as referencing organic objects as a metaphor for life experiences. Please explain this statement.
Cindi: I’m really interested in nature, in general. My niece, Allison, is a biologist, and I think that is the coolest thing. I’d love to do some of the things that she does. She and I observe nature. She records it differently than I do but we’re getting at the same thing. We’re both trying, I think, to make a bridge between the organic world all around us and ourselves. Particularly now, in this day and age of technology, much like the Industrial revolution, I suspect we humans have this tendency to disassociate from the rest of the natural world because we’ve conned ourselves into thinking we can live without it and in spite of it, but nothing could be further from the truth. We are nothing but an elaborate container for some sophisticated DNA whose mission is to reproduce itself with as much variety as possible to ensure biological success. We are organic. Driving a hybrid car, watching a flat panel TV, having 1,000 “friends” on Facebook is us deluding ourselves that we are removed from nature. Or above it. So I like to use seeds and other organic references as a reminder of our vulnerabilities. We can crap on the planet and ignore climate change, but we’re only hurting ourselves in the end.
Frances: What role does observation play in creativity and in producing art?
Cindi: Art is about observation. In order to produce art as opposed to replicate art, you have to really be aware and observe without judgment, initially. Then, when you take in the information around you, you can analyze and say something about what you see. Without observation, it’s all just paint-by-numbers.
Frances: Your work often centers around feminist themes and women’s issues. What is your stance on feminism and do you consider yourself a feminist?
Cindi: All women in Western culture, as far as I’m concerned, are feminists, even if they chose to adhere to more traditional roles. The very fact that you can have a choice about that means you support the feminist point of view, whether you realize it or not. Unless you want to give up the right to vote, you’re a feminist. Going back to school as an older woman, and a non-traditional student, I was always struck by these teens and 20-somethings that swore off anything feminist just because they were so far from the roots of the movement. I would just politely and directly contradict them when they would say, “Oh, I’m not a feminist!” “Bullshit,” I would say, “You’re a student here, right?” They missed the irony in their enrollment.
Frances: Why did you gravitate toward clay as a medium and why do you love working with it?
Cindi: I blame Joe Molinaro, my ceramics professor at Eastern Kentucky University. I was simply trying to get my BA in Metalsmithing and had to take a Ceramics I class. He told me I needed to be a ceramics major. I felt threatened so I caved. Okay, I’m kidding, but he did encourage me to become a ceramics major. There’s something basic, fundamental and Zen-like about working with, well, dirt. How much more basic can you get? Maybe air, but it doesn’t hold a form the way clay does. I think Joe recognized that I had a connection to the process of working in clay as well as a sense of proportion and design. He saw my relationship with the material, I think. I work in other material besides clay, mind you, but his guidance and direction helped me find my artistic voice that had been silent for a long time. Okay, maybe not silent, but my voice prior to school was directionless and lacked confidence.
Frances: Some of your work involves the use of metals, but usually juxtaposed with other materials. What does metal represent or signify for you?
Cindi: Oh, I love metal. I’ve been on a bit of hiatus from metal and I’m itching to get back in to it. I really think I have some quality metal pieces inside me that have yet to be expressed. I can sense ideas percolating but I think they’re in the future a bit. I love the strength of metal as a medium and the flexibility, if that makes sense. Metal can be illusory. It can be thick and clunky, filigree and delicate, shiny or dull, smooth and polished or textured, ominous and dark or enameled and colorful. You can set stones in it, wrap it around objects, pierce it with things, use it to pierce things, even flesh. It brings different possibilities to the table than other media. I just saw some enameled vessels that had me drooling the other day. Talk about sexual! Mmmmmm….
Frances: Themes you have explored include very personal and autobiographical experiences related to parental alienation. Talk about how that came about and how it is evolving in your work.
Cindi: My first theme or thing that I felt compelled to say in artistic form was in metal combined with gourds, organic objects that represented the human form. I was going through an intense, emotionally exhausting and draining custody issue with my husband (concerning his ex-wife) during the years I was getting my BFA from EKU. His son, who is now, seventeen, was seven and a half when I met him. He is an only child. The effect of being in the middle of two adults who were angry at each other was painfully obvious. I was appalled at the behavioral changes we saw in him as he tried to cope. Watching a child suffer when one parent willfully manipulated his natural feelings towards both parents in order to gain a legal advantage was something I never contemplated being involved with in my lifetime. Basically, parental alienation is a form of emotional abuse, as it asks the child to give up their natural love for a parent in order to make another parent happy. It’s about exploitation of power relationships of parent and child, and development of co-dependency. Eventually, you hope, depending on the kid, that they figure out what’s going on, and a lot of kids do, but it’s at the cost of a wound that can take a lifetime to heal. In our case, my stepson is on a path of awareness, now, so that’s good for him. I’m sure I’ll find some way of expressing this “turning of a corner.” Needs time to ferment.
Frances: You have said to me before that the only constant in life is change. I have noted how you, like many artists, are able to find relative calm amid a myriad of chaotic events and situations. Talk a little bit about your ideas surrounding chaos, change and constancy.
Cindi: Well, it is true that the only constant is change, that’s what this universe does and yet when you step back and observe, all that change makes a whole picture at the same time it’s changing. In fact, some times we can see not change, itself, but the still moments and effects of time and change, and then we sense the process it took to get from one place to the next. I always like to say we’re all in a race for the pine box or however you choose your finale. In the mean time, as we race, we hit mile posts and then reflect on them afterwards. I think it’s been helpful to me to embrace change instead of fighting it. It certainly makes things a lot more enjoyable and fun. When I feel a chaotic situation, if I take the time to step back from the chaos, I can find some beauty and pattern in the illusion of randomness. It reminds me of those fractal patterns, in each part of the fractal if seems there is no pattern or direction to the graph, but when you keep the algorithm going and step back, this weird snowman-like pattern emerges. It’s a meta experience. Think of those videos where it starts in the middle of a busy, chaotic, ugly, urban street and then zooms out further and further until your view is of the planet and the swirling atmosphere. Just depends on your perspective.
Frances: An area of exploration in your work involving change is that of sexuality and the natural progression of a woman toward infertility in the form of menopause. How does your work explore this?
Cindi: I never wanted to have kids. We’re biologically programmed and built to procreate and recreate. I had all the desire to do the procreative act, but not the follow-up, which I never had to do. As a result, I’ve always had questions – either from within or more often foisted upon me from without – about defining myself as a female, as a woman. What does it mean to be woman if you do not fulfill the biological plan of bearing children? Even if I didn’t want children, just the fact that I was still technically able to have them somehow fulfilled that part of my identity as “woman.” So what happens when you go through menopause and now, you can no longer have children? What becomes of the female identity then? What about sexuality? The libido drops but there are ways around that and you can still have sex without the childbearing. But I already do that so what’s changing and will my perspective on my sexuality change much as a non-mother, as opposed to a woman who has been sexual and had children? I’m also really fascinated by issues of sexual orientation and gender identity. It’s so fundamentally biological and yet we humans make things so complicated.
Editor’s note: Cindi has an entire series of work exploring menopause. You can see it here.
Frances: You have said that a recurring theme in your art is a trust in the intuitive. Please elaborate.
Cindi: A visiting artist to EKU once said to me, “If it comes from your hands, it’s good.” English wasn’t her first language so she may have wanted to be more elaborate, but the simplicity of what she did say had such a profound effect on my work. I went from simple gourd forms in clay to bending the form and finally, my carving exploded. I stopped planning what I was going to do and trying to get my hand work to match the expectations in my head. As a result, I was able to let go and just let my hands do their thing and then stop and look at what I had created. I began a dialogue with myself about what I was trying to say to me. I became my own best feedback. I let my intuition guide me and then tweaked and guided it to help express what I was trying to say. In effect, I let go of my artistic control freak that had been holding me back.
Frances: What is your relationship to spirituality and how does this play out, if at all, in your creative process?
Cindi: I’m an atheist from a good Catholic background! If I had to identify a spiritual philosophy that most resonated with me, it would most likely be Buddhism and Zen, although I’m not into all the ritual. But from what I know about Buddhists and Zen practitioners, they’re not so hung up on the ritual. I do have an aversion to religion and religious structures and dogma. I find all religions have some philosophy that is simply humans trying to understand their place in the universe and to a degree, they function like different languages saying the same basic message. Unfortunately, it’s the hierarchies and dogma that muck it all up, in my opinion. I’m not sure that spirituality plays out in my creative process, itself, as much as the creative process is my spirituality.
Frances: How do you define wisdom and do you think this differs for women and men?
Cindi: Wisdom! Ha! I know nothing. What is wisdom, anyway? I think wisdom comes, also, from keen observation and awareness. And some detachment from the emotional. In that sense, it probably does differ for women and men, but merely by the path it takes, I think. Ultimately, I think we’re all capable of attaining some wisdom at some point in our lives. Before we die.
Frances: How do you define balance and how do you achieve it?
Cindi: Balance, for me, is being able to come back to a place where I can begin again. It’s like yoga poses. For every pose, there is a countering pose to strengthen the whole. So if I’m very focused for a time, I need some relaxation and goof-off time to counter it. On the other hand, if all I’m doing is goofing off, I need some task, goal or chores to counter my idleness. Chop wood, carry water. When things get really out of sorts, I always try to remember to come back to the basics, food, shelter, water, chores. When in doubt, wash the dishes, sweep the floor. You can get a lot of thinking done without thinking then. And the other great thing for balance and a nice reality check are my animals. Nothing puts it all in place like my cat’s purr, my dog licking my hand or leaning on me for some head pats or the nuzzling of my horses, sinking my face into their coat and breathing in their smell.
Frances: What are your current goals with respect to your work in the next five years?
Cindi: I’m looking at the year 2010 as a year of transition for me, which makes 2011 Year One. So, we begin. In five years, I’d like this to be a comfortable process, the making, the creating, the showing, the thinking. I’d like to keep my ability to see the beautiful patterns in the chaos. I’d like to see my work evolve from media specific to more integration between clay, metal, organic and so on as it’s called for. Right now, my goals are getting the most exposure for my work as possible, as far across the region, country and globe as possible. And also to keep making work. I wouldn’t mind doing something unexpected and/or collaborative, either. All in good time. I’ve got a whole second half of my life to enjoy this.
You can follow Cynthia Cusick, artist, on Facebook, here.