Extremities of Human Consciousness: Interview with Sienna Freeman

Sienna Freeman is a San Francisco based visual artist and writer. Her visual work has exhibited across the United States and internationally in Switzerland, London, Belgium, and Canada. Her written work has been published on DailyServing.com, ArtPractical.com, and in the California College of the Arts’ Sightlines journal. Freeman earned an MA in Visual & Critical Studies and an MFA in Fine Art from the California College of the Arts in San Francisco and a BFA in Photography from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.


My work draws upon significant personal experiences that illuminate the extremities of human consciousness: altered or heightened states of physical, psychological, or emotional condition. In these cumulative moments, which are characterized by their intense, transgressive, revelatory, and often dream-like nature, I find terrain for contemplation and investigation. Seeming to exist simultaneously in dichotomous spaces, perhaps pulled inside out through opposing forces, these dialectical borderland instances expose the complexity of territories between the intellect and the senses, places where the logical mind and subconscious interface with a deeper sense of being.

Through the fragmented, layered, and surgical process of collage, I seek to investigate these surreal areas of radical opposition. Modifying my own photographs, appropriated images, and found objects, aspects of my process can be looked at much like a combination of stream of consciousness and constrained writing techniques. I manipulate and assemble source materials as I go, working within a fixed set of thematic, conceptual, or visual constraints. In dialogue with historic techniques and concepts utilized by the Surrealists, these methods allow for an automatic processing of visual information on a semiotic level, an intuitive sense of sight that is both linked to and detached from our contemporary mass media experience and corporeal understanding of the world around us.

My most recent work investigates fusions and fissures between the imaginary-visual and the material-haptic as tied to perceptions of selfhood and otherness. Here, the material of cloth is metonymic for the boundaries of the body, both formally and symbolically. Culled from the most intimate to commercial sources, such as my own closet to bridal shops on Amazon.com, satins and silks in hues associated with both the inside and outside of the body (blood red, chocolate, taupe, pink) are photographed, dissected, rearranged and then cast in plastic resin, becoming image-based icons for thresholds of (dis)embodiment, corporeality, cyclicality, and circumscription.


Tell us about your start as an artist.  When did you decide to follow the creative path? 

I was raised by a family of artists, so I was surrounded by people who lived a creative lifestyle, which made it seem like an attainable and possible choice.  When I was a kid, my dad played in a punk band and my mom was a weaver. My grandfather was a prolific self-taught painter.  He helped me pay for undergrad and bought me my first real camera. I didn’t grow up with money, so I never felt comfortable without a consistent financial gig. I suppose that is where choice came in for me.  While I have never considered a life path that did not prioritize making stuff, I did choose to pursue a professional career in the arts outside of my studio practice that had meaning for me.  Early on, this meant working in galleries to support my own work and the work of other artists.  Now that means working in non-profit arts education, which allows me to support and learn from some pretty brilliant makers and thinkers while sustaining an active studio practice.


What is your work about? 

This new work is inspired by self-experiential moments when the imaginary-visual and the material-haptic bump up against each other, those instances when you perceive yourself as both connected to and removed from your own sense of being.

Making this work, I have been thinking about the word “circumscription” a lot. I’m interested that it means both the act of being limited, defined, or restricted to part of a pre-determined taxonomy, and also the implication of a metaphorical and/or physical surrounding boundary.  Looking at the body as a structural metaphor, the skin serves as a boundary between our internal musculature and the external environment. But it also serves as a cultural signifier for identity in terms of race, gender, and age. While our skin itself circumscribes, the cloth we wear to protect our skin adds another layer of literal and symbolic circumscription.

I am interested in what it means to consider cloth and skin as metonymic, while acknowledging the distance and closeness between the two as we encounter them through touch and vision.  I am also interested in considering this type of perceptual experience beyond that of just the individual, how we experience ourselves as present and absent in the context of collective or communal bodies, and whether such contexts are systematically imposed upon us or we self-subscribe (or are circumscribed) to them. 


How do you feel the materials you use contribute to the overall meaning of your art? 

The collages that I have made over the past year or so are primarily assembled from self-produced and found photographs of skin and cloth. Photographs of the inside of my own body from a recent ovarian surgery also serve as source material, along-side photographs I’ve shot of liquids in motion, as well as objects that bind or constrain, such as rope and ribbon. The found images are culled from specific types of printed matter, such as wedding magazines, obscure 1970’s porn, and targeted genre publications like “Horse & Rider.”

These source materials are hand-cut into a variety of similar shapes and then arranged intuitively in a non-systematic order, a process that concurrently confuses, conflates, and illuminates the multitude of meanings attached to each image source.  Often, it is difficult to discern which is which in the final piece—a concept that has been driving this new work. They are eventually glued down and cast in a sheet of plastic resin. 

The medium of collage is pretty essential to the overall meaning of work that I make.  My materials and processes are intentionally in conversation with those utilized by historic Surrealists, although perhaps more inspired by the school of Georges Bataille then André Breton. I think about Surrealism a lot—how surrealist goals and tactics were driven by the desire to disrupt social norms and challenge oppressive systematic ideologies.  This seems more fruitful then ever given our current climate. 


What inspires you to keep creating?

There is just a drive there that tells me to do it.  I choose to listen to this drive, ignoring all of the practical reasons to not do it.  I also feel motivated by my peers and want to contribute to a conversation that is bigger than me and my own motivations. I believe that critical dialog with other folks (artists and not) about meaning and possibility is essential to all types of growth and feel that my creating artwork is just another way to participate in these conversations. 


What would a dream life look like for you? 

I am already lucky to do what I love on a pretty consistent basis with the support of some pretty amazing people.  But, a dream life for me would have to exist in a word with real equity. For example, I would like to no longer have to pay for and then be taxed on tampons as “luxury goods.” While I’m dreaming, I would also like a lifetime supply of New York pizza and bagels available for delivery to me 24 hours a day in San Francisco, because they are just not the same here. 


Share a piece of advice with or readers for trying something new in the studio and overcoming blocks.

It sounds cheesy and everyone says it, but just working through it usually pays off—even if you know what you’re making sucks and you aren’t having fun.  I think giving yourself the space to experiment while knowing that failure is part of the process can be liberating.  It can allow you to make the most fruitful mistakes and discover something new in your practice without feeling the pressure to actually produce something good. 


What are you currently working on?

In addition to these collages, I have also been working on a series of soft sculpture pieces. Textiles, which often appear as image-based icons for thresholds of corporality and cyclicality in my collages, have only recently made their way into my practice in their actual three-dimensional woven forms. I am not sure they are any good at this point, but I am really enjoying working on them and excited to see where they go. I also just curated an online show for the NIAD Art Center in Richmond, CA and am working on a long-term collaborative project with the San Francisco poet Justin Robinson.