An Interview with Cassandra Emswiler Burd

Erin Cluley Gallery
Jan 22, 2015 5:54PM

Erin Cluley Gallery interviews Cassandra Emswiler Burd about her exhibition “Flowers of War,” for which she created a series of tiled tables.  

ECG: Could you explain the title for the exhibition, Flowers of War?

CEB: With the term “flowers” I’m referring mostly to the ornamental results of the control of landscape, whether through gardening or waging war. The patterns on each table derive both from the grounds of Versailles under Louis XIV and the military fortifications of Marquis de Vauban, who played a key role in the defense of France in the 17th century. Whether we are making a beautiful garden or designing defenses, the activity and resulting appearance possess some disquieting and fascinating similarities.  And in a literal sense, the tables are covered in photographic imagery of flowers and plants.

ECG: Where does your interest in military history stem from?

CEB: I found my way to military fortifications through my interest in rocks. I have always loved stones and rock walls and ruins. Almost a decade ago when I was still primarily painting and drawing, my work memorialized significant rooms and buildings from my life and meditated on the ways structures are signifiers for the people, events, and things they contain. I would draw these different rooms in the form of ruins, with hundreds and hundreds of little interlocking stones. Some of the books I was turning to then were about castles and the architecture of ancient civilizations—particularly Mayan and Incan. During that time, I made a trip to see most of the ruins on the Texas Forts Trail, and I was even able to visit some sites in Eastern Europe. The more I researched, the more beauty I found. My professor Dr. Charissa Terranova lent me one of her books on the fortifications of Marquis de Vauban. At the time, I was more interested in his use of the gabion, but the starburst plans of his fortifications stayed with me—and those starbursts form the center of each table’s design.

ECG: How did you start your experimentation with tile & what is it about this medium that inspires you?

CEB: When I began living at CentralTrak, an artist residency in Dallas, I was at Home Depot all the time for one thing or another and constantly taking-in their many products. I always noticed the tile displays and became increasingly curious about the visual source and the longevity of these banal offerings for DIY flooring. Around that time, I had a fairly profound reunion with the kitchen floor of my childhood home and felt that my whole life story was present in its image. I wanted to move away from making drawings and paintings about spaces, and work with physical materials, and I turned to tile. After lots of work with mass-produced tiles, I began designing my own in 2011. Tile satisfies so many interests and impulses for me. It’s repetitive in process and outcome. It plays with what photography can be and allows me to collapse fragments from many narratives into one small space. And in turn, that space ends up stranded between function and fine art.

ECG: What type of imagery did you incorporate into the tables?

CEB: The imagery is all pretty specific—I gathered photos that picture the gardens surrounding my childhood home, but taken from inside the house looking out through windows. Most came from family photo albums, and some I took myself on moving day in 2009. I chose them in the spirit of being in that front room around the table and looking out into the garden.

Using the photos made the historic references in the motifs to gardens and war personal. When remembering my own family relationships, the best and worst of times all happened around that breakfast table (which was also covered with mosaic tile by my parents). It was a place of beauty and a place of negotiation and conflict, and so I think of the tables in Flowers of War as half pretty breakfast table, half war-table.

ECG: Your tables are intended to be fully functioning additions for a living space. Ideally, how would you like to see the tables used?

CEB: I would like to have people sitting around them enjoying breakfast, or just using them as a small table in their daily lives—setting their mail or a bag of groceries upon them.

ECG: You have spoken about art being used in ordinary spaces. Do you think that art should be more accessible?

CEB: Art’s accessibility, physically and intellectually, is something that has always been important to me. However, my interest in locating my printed tile in ordinary places, has more to do with how the work is absorbed and internalized. In working with tile and the many patterns that covered the surfaces of the home in which I was raised, I’ve come to believe that the images which had the most impact on my aesthetic and the ways in which I deeply visualize my identity came from ordinary spaces: the countertop, the bathroom wallpaper, the kitchen floor, the blue Formica, the popcorn ceiling. My parents filled our home with art and curiosities, but all of that was often in flux. The surfaces that endured worked on me slowly over many years through daily, casual interactions. For me, spending time looking at a painting on the wall means that I am asking something of it. I never even thought to ask anything of the Persian rug in the breakfast room or the linoleum in the kitchen. It was simply just there with me, and because it wasn’t set apart as special, it quietly became the most powerful. I want to locate my work in everyday spaces so that it can nearly be forgotten, and perhaps affect someone more profoundly in that place of semi-awareness

ECG: How would you like to continue your work with tiles—what’s next after your exhibition with Erin Cluley Gallery?

CEB: I’d like to work in a more customized manner and have the opportunity to design tiles unique to other people and families. I’ve been so focused on my own story for so long—and now I want to explore the stories of others and install work in their homes. I’m especially interested in making tiles for an organization such as Habitat for Humanity and now have the time to better pursue that idea.

I’m excited to be recently included on the emerging artist pre-qualified list for the City of Dallas Public Art Program. While this certainly doesn’t guarantee I’ll be selected for a project, it’s a wonderful opportunity. And expanding on the idea of accessibility of art, both Habitat and a public project would be perfect ways to reach an important and wider audience.

I’m also in the very early stages of learning how to make tile from scratch—the tile I’ve printed on thus far was produced by Dal-tile. My studio is well equipped to produce small runs of ceramic tile, though I’ve only had the chance to try it out a couple of times.

Overall, my work with printing photographic imagery on tile has really just begun. This past year has been driven by very large scale projects relative to my past experience, and I’m looking forward to being more playful and working on small ideas in the studio. 

"Cassandra Emswiler Burd: Flowers of War" is on view at Erin Cluley Gallery, Jan. 10-Feb.14, 2015.

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