Material Ability

Mia Feuer and the Art of Social Connection

Mia Feuer, the Winnipeg-born, California-based sculptor and teacher, turns material into worlds. It is a process she initially recognized as a teenager while working as an unpaid volunteer at Winnipeg’s Rainbow Stage, the longest-running outdoor stage in North America: “I became aware of the curiously magical potential of transforming materials into fantastical environments and stories.”

That awareness has become a lifelong pursuit. Put more accurately, it has become an obsession. From the beginning, Feuer has been drawn to scale both in the scope of her ideas and through the size of her sculptures. She has made a 3D military tank in the form of a pop-up book, fashioned free-standing sculptures that speak to the intractable conditions of the West Bank, constructed a tar sands aerial forest, designed a workable skating rink out of oil products, and conceived of a partially submerged gas station in the Anacosta River in Washington, DC, to draw attention to energy policy and sustainability. Her sense of using art as a way of articulating a committed social engagement has taken her to Fort McMurray, the West Bank, and onto a three-masted Barquentine Tall Ship and then into the Canadian Arctic. Her practice is to take that experience and filter it through her own autobiography. The resulting work may be connected to watching her father play outdoor hockey in Winnipeg, or to the half-year she spent working with Palestinian children in Nablus and Hebron, or to her research trips to the blackening white landscape of northern Alberta. The range of her provocations—from the horror of bodies piled in the death camps to the spectacle of the barricade scene in Les Misérables—tells us a good deal about the inventive powers of her imagination.

Rink, 2013, MDF, black paint, highdensity polyethylene polymer, wood, MDF, assorted hardware and hockey skates, 16 x 27 x 5 feet; An Unkindness, 2013, foam, feathers, tar paper, tar, wire, black enamel, shredded rubber tires and powdered glass, dimensions variable, approximately 15 x 30 x 10 feet. Installation view, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Photo: Paul Bothwell.

Feuer is also an omnivorous observer of other artistic practices. She admires the ambitious scale of Nancy Rubins and the crystallized figuration of David Altmejd. Her hippopotami—open-mouthed, flesh mountains—have things in common with a cluster of artists as different as Hans Bellmer, Gaston Lachaise and Louise Bourgeois, but they are entirely her own. Her unrealized gas bar looks like an ecological warning sponsored by Ed Ruscha; her Decline of Outdoor Skate-ability is parkland Jannis Kounellis and the vast mouth of the hippo could be a 3D version of a Soutine meat painting. But her interest is not in duplicating what has already been done; what engages her is recognizing the common ways that art can be used to frame discussions surrounding the body and the body politic.

In her recent hippo hybrids, she has joined the animals she made 12 years ago with an Egyptian fertility goddess and a newly discovered dinosaur in a body of work that represents the condition of mothering in the Anthropocene and that also offers a radical reconfiguring of the female body. In 2018 the hippo is suddenly hip in an altogether different manner.

For all her criticism of the dominant political, social and economic structures, she is in possession of a pragmatically engaged optimism. The scope of that optimism is measurable, as is so much of her art, through her own experience. After her research trips to the tar sands in northern Alberta, during which she saw wholesale environmental devastation, she had decided not to bring a child into a world doomed by its own greed and abusive power. Less than three years after that determination, she gave birth to a baby boy, and her perspective on the future, and the shape it will take, changed. She looked ahead and named her son Galileo.

The following telephone interview to the artist’s studio in Berkeley was recorded on September 25, 2018.

Mia Feuer, Totems of the Anthropocene 2018, found sleds, found petroliana and other vessels formerly containing petroleum products, individually cast and assembled polyester resin crystals, approximately 5 x 4 x 3 feet. All images courtesy the artist.

Mia Feuer: I grew up in Garden City in Winnipeg and my father was an electrician. From a young age he helped his dad, who was also an electrician. My mom had a string of odd jobs; she was home a lot with me and my younger brother, Eric. I was sent to a private Jewish school from nursery until ninth grade. I was so unhappy there; I was questioning and was skeptical of everything I was being taught and there was no art program. By the end of ninth grade, I wrote a letter to the principal of Kelvin High School because I’d heard they had this fantastic art program. Up until that point I was sitting through classes about Israeli history, Zionism, Hebrew and things that I considered to be utterly irrelevant. Then I was accepted into Kelvin—I took the bus every morning from Garden City—where for the first time I had art classes, and was exposed to punk rock and activism.

Were your parents religious?

It was confusing because they were not religious at all. My brother never had to go to that school. I think it had something to do with my grandparents and their belief that public school was bad and I needed to go to school with Jewish kids. It had less to do with god than with a sense of community, which didn’t make sense because I never felt part of that community. During the summer most of the kids at my school went to a Jewish camp. I never wanted to go. In desperation to find something for me to do during the summer months, my mom had called someone named Chris Pearce, who was the head of the props department at Rainbow Stage. She asked if there was any way that she could drop me off there every day for a couple of hours so I could help build and paint the sets for upcoming productions. And he said yes. As I got older I ended up staying longer days. Those summers at Rainbow Stage were really important. I watched people who worked in the props and set departments turn materials into worlds. My first memory of this was seeing green resin being poured into moulds to become the majestic green gemstones of Emerald City.

Did you actually learn structural techniques by observation when you were at Rainbow Stage?

I didn’t learn anything technical, but it ignited something deeper. I just watched all this making happen and I became aware of the curiously magical potential of transforming materials into fantastical environments and stories.

So by this time had you determined that art was something you wanted to do?

I don’t know if I knew anything about what being a professional artist was. At that point it was just about having a creative or escapist drive. I wasn’t interested in reading and I couldn’t sit still. I was a pretty poor student. Even at the University of Manitoba as an undergrad, I struggled with everything but sculpture. I was getting Ds in art history. All I wanted to do was make stuff, and that has been true for as far back as I can remember.

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Volume 37, Number 4: Women + Sculpture

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #148, published December 2018.

Border Crossings looks at contemporary art with interest, passion and thoroughness. Subscribe to Border Crossings today for as little as $24/year.