Artists Talks & Lectures

Beverly Penn at Lisa Sette Gallery, Nov 5, 2011
Beverly Penn

Texas Sculpture Group member Beverly Penn gave an informal gallery talk to several TSG members in the fally of 2011 in Houston. Beverly eloquently talks about her sculptural process, her inspirations, and answers questions about some of the challenging logistics involved in shipping her work. The full audio is provided here with Beverly’s permission, as well as the full transcription below that. Enjoy! (Questions? comments? Contact BJ Heinley for more information. bj [at] heinley [dot] com)

Beverly Penn / Houston (Full Transcription)

Beverly Penn / Houston

Speaker 1. …a class.

Speaker 2. Oh yeah, that’s a good idea.

Speaker 1. You have to have a prop.

Speaker 2. A visual aide, right? So the plants are _________ to this wax, upright. Not all plants can survive the process. So I’ve done…

Speaker 1. Don’t they all not survive the process?

Speaker 2. Well, that’s a good point. Ha, ha, ha.

Speaker 1. Down to the end.

Speaker 2. Right, right, right. So then the flask gets put around them and then the investment is gypsum based, like plaster so it is refractory and that gets poured around and hardens and then this gets pulled off…represents the base and the stem. And the burn out cycle is about 12 hours to get all your organic material out. And then the castor itself is spring-loaded and is a horizontal process so the bronze is in a little crucible right here and the swing arm is released and it whips around and it throws the metal right in to the negative.

Probably the most…that’s a fairly dramatic part but the fun part is that the bronze solidifies but still about 800 degrees we put it in this sophisticated five gallon bucket of water and it rumbles, you can feel it rumbling as the investment shakes off from around the…that’s the process.

Speaker 3. The heat tracks it and…

Speaker 2. Right. But again the trade off is that these pieces are just pretty short. So, what happens in the studio is I have tables and tables and tables of these parts and I separate them out in terms of the stems and buds and blooms. So it is like a palate in a way. You know, they are like different colors. So I just begin…I don’t…Sometimes I have a finished idea in mind, but more often than not I would just start working on a drawing really and start putting pieces together.

They are all straight when they come out of the investor. They are really flexible, I just bend them according to how I want the shape to go. And um…So the idea really is to…What I do have in mind a lot, though, is the character of the piece that I want to portray. For example, a lot of this work references things like a Victorian pattern and it is kind of a nod in some ways to that old Victorian idea of controlling nature by bringing the outside in, in terms of wallpaper patterns and early jacard weaving looms. That kind of invention of the technique…First really computer technology is the jacard bloom, really…

Speaker 3. Uses cards.

Speaker 2. Yes, uses the cards, exactly. So there is this sort of nod to that because all the plants that I choose are invasive species. And they are all weeds. And they are all, for the most part, the reason they are invasive is because they reproduce rhisomatically underground. So that, for me, is an interesting connection to the internet as well as to how we think.

So I wanted to interlace technology in with respect for study of nature and that whole idea of how we control nature and how really in spite of it all we aren’t really getting away with it, this control of nature. Ha, ha, ha.

So the bronzes are kind of like a memorial to each of the individual parts, really. They are kind of a stand in. The patina colors in the pieces, for example like these smaller pieces that have bar codes are stand-ins for the natural color. And so the work is largely in three series, which is…These are just loosely referred to as The Bar Code Series. So these are kind of organized like family trees or even corporate bar graphs or like tubes in a laboratory or in a refinery.

Obviously, which genetic evocation and hybridization and grafting it is not hard to imagine that nature could be bar coded. I mean, just the whole idea of us…


autonomy of putting plants in genus and species as a way controlling nature in a way, just to understand it. It is not that old of a science.


But for me obviously, the bar codes aren’t from those plants. That’s the fiction in my mind here, even though I am inclined to reference. But, they are not entirely unrelated to the sculpture because they are from all the supplies and materials that I used to make the piece. For example, the top part is from a hot plate I used to heat up the patina solution, one of them is from my pen and some other are from the hardware.

And it is not arbitrary. Like those three plants were adjacent in my garden and two were cultivated and one of them is a weed. But…so I picked those. They are sort of…This whole series began several years ago. I described a locale that was 50 feet circumference, or radius, around my studio and I gathered plants between the vernal equinox and the summer solstice as sort of way to think about making a picture of that place at that time. So, that’s sort of an artist’s way of, you know, making sense of the place that one lives in. Right? Have the visual evidence of what was happening at that point in time.

And so that’s what those plants…So each of them have a different narrative that I go by. What is the, you know…It is like, for example these three or four plants have the same sort of leaf, they are the same genus, for example, and I’ll put that together. There are certain plants picked at a point in their life cycle that may not necessary be at the same time, but they are all at the bud stage, I’d say for example. So that this is a narrative.

Speaker 1. Which one of those was cultivated?

Speaker 2. This is an Allium and this is a Hawthorne, so…these are both cultivated. And this is the weed and I’m not sure…But, it is for me also there is the inherent contradiction of this using weeds.

Speaker 3. Absolutely.

Speaker 2. It is important because I want them to have been made then in to something that is desirable. So you keep balancing that notion of what is value. I mean, even…there is no botanical, ah, ah, characteristic of what a weed is. It is culturally ascribed meaning, actually.

Speaker 4. …elevated…

Speaker 2. That’s right. That’s right. And generally, invasive species are so poorly thought about. The City of Austin is now going to have these very strict eradication systems for weeds that are growing on public property. I mean, as it is now, um, thistles especially, they are very interesting. There is a botanical classification for something called “the disturbance loving species”. Right? So when they go to Wyoming and they make these roads for future natural gas wells, what comes in immediately are thistles because they travel. They reproduce by both seed and rhisomatically. So they are there and they propagate. So, that’s why when you see highway development there are thistles there.

So I had to get them for the highway department before they put herbicide on there. It is really a…

Speaker 4. …artichoke…

Speaker 2. That’s right, they are. Exactly. There is a lot of value to a lot of…In fact, I am interested in that as well. I did this sculpture outside of Whole Foods in Austin at Sixth and Lamar. And those were Texas native plants that are useful beyond ornamentation. And one of them is a cat tail which has about 30 different uses. In fact, during World War II where there were shortages, the Army stuffed life jackets with the fuzz of cat tails. Yeah, because that is what they had in supply. It is really interesting to think about.

I don’t know…Anyway, there is a lot, also strange as it may sound there is also a kind of nod here to minimalism and ______________ this big giant monoliths that are heavily attached here with geometric patterns and also attempt to kind of confine and control a variety of line and a specific shape. So pulling these two extremes together to define the shapes of…I like sticking with primary geometric forms. It seems to be reasonable because those are the forms of architecture and those are the forms of civilization and cultural implications. So you think tidying up these invasive weeds in to these…kind of block of thistle here is a way of referring back to that idea of bringing nature in, controlling it and cultivating it.


Speaker 4. Do you think of them mathematically or is it more of a drawing?

Speaker 2. It is a drawing. It’s intuitive. And again, I bring with me to the piece, I bring with me an idea of what I want to try to accomplish. Like for example, in this piece I wanted to try to…and the piece on the other wall which we can go over and look at, is to try to begin with that, essentially almost a Victorian…It depends on what, you know sometimes in different views it is a tangle, but straight on it has this edge of beauty embracing that. But then in an attempt to try to…But, then with those gyres there is sort of a whole attempt to try to put that I motion as if it was trying to come off the wall. And that happens with this one too. That’s Hydrilla, it’s from…the one in the center…from the San Marcus river.

One of the ecological tragedies where there was something in the water previously that they were trying to fix so they brought the Hydrilla in, they imported it, and put it in the river and that of course took over. So now they have to mow the San Marcus because it is drowning out the Texas wild rice which was an endangered species. But it is interesting because…if you are in the river the Hydrilla is multiplying invasively and then on the banks are thistles which are multiplying invasively. But they are not harmful to each other. They are merely invasive to everything else around them and contending for the place where they live. So, that to me I wanted to embrace that idea of the blocking of the river and being confined by the land. The Hydrilla sort of matched the motion it has in the water.

Speaker 1. It looks like they are trying to escape, being attacked by the thistles.

Speaker 2. There is a certain tension there.

Speaker 1. How do you attach…

Speaker 2. No, they are all in pieces.

Speaker 1. Oh.

Speaker 2. They are in pieces and they have posts on the back and there are drilled holes.

Speaker 1. So each is separate?

Speaker 2. No. There is…if you look closely like…this is a section right here.

Speaker 1. And that was all made in one casting?

Speaker 2. No. No. There is a weld in all of these, every four inches.

Speaker 3. Is it silver soldered ?

Speaker 2. It is silver soldered because I don’t want to melt the…

Speaker 3. Right. Right. Do you pre-coat some of these to keep them rigid so the investment doesn’t move them around?

Speaker 2. Just the Hydrilla. That is the only one that I couldn’t do. And that’s kind of what I was referring to when I was saying that a lot of plants don’t survive the process, meaning that they are either too delicate for the investment or the investment would crush them.

Speaker 3. Right.

Speaker 2. The Hydrilla was just too thin, too delicate.

Speaker 3. Do you dip it or do you spray it?

Speaker 2. Yes. That one I put in wax, a little bit of wax. It was…just to get them to stand up.

Speaker 3. You couldn’t dip it while you…investment?

Speaker 2. No. It’s not that it couldn’t be cast necessarily standing…even the centrifugal process is not enough of a force to make the form fill out.

Speaker 3. Oh, I see. So the wax actually gives it some…

Speaker 2. Thickness. And in some ways they are like aerial landscapes in addition to being…

Speaker 3. _____________

Speaker 2. Yes. Ahuh.

Speaker 3. I also think that the dichotomy between something that is invasive and something that most of us don’t see, um, and its morphing our transformation in to something very beautiful, it is a really nice relationship between those two opposite kind of things. So…and it really is even more so in this one, whereas the density of the Hydrilla, is that what you call it?

Speaker 2. Hydrilla, that’s right.

Speaker 3. And the darkness of the patina and the one kind of energy and two kinds of energies opposing each other.

You know your pieces echo pattern and issues that are already and you feel that you have this geometric shape that you are referring to as being kind of minimal niche and you’ve contained them. Because they are so invasive. There are a lot of dichotomies and they work.


Speaker 2. I’m interested in pattern theory and swarf theory and also cellular automaton. I don’t know if anyone has played that game of life? The principle theme of course, that…

Speaker 1. Every day.

Speaker 2. Ha, ha, ha.

Speaker 3. Ha, ha, ha.

Speaker 1. What are you talking about?

Speaker 2. Ha, ha, ha.

Speaker 3. Ha, ha, ha.

Speaker 2. I can drop that.

Speaker 4. Ha, ha,ha.

Speaker 1. So how do you keep track which piece goes where, when you take this down, pack it up, take it some place? Can you rearrange it?

Speaker 2. You can tell a sculpture’s question here. Well they don’t ever leave the wall without their identification tags.

Speaker 1. Okay.

Speaker 2. There’s a big template. So, I don’t have that process in mind when I am making them. I just make them on the wall and then I come up later with markers and mark around them. They look like camouflage. It is really interesting to have these big interlocking shapes.

Speaker 3. You have to tag each one of them?

Speaker 4. _____________________

Speaker 2. I think there is almost 35 in that one there. And there is 50 in that one, but that’s only because I just made that one, I know. But otherwise I don’t remember.

I don’t know about you all, but I don’t like keeping my work in hands of __________________ very long. I just don’t…It is two or three days less that they can damage it.

It’s in there pretty tightly. I get them in there. They are very durable actually. They look delicate. So there is another contradiction there.

Speaker 3. A funny story about…transportation. I was invited to be in a two day show in Illinois. And I flew and so I got a big suitcase and packed smaller works in a big suitcase. I packed it in a very specific way with bubble wrap, etc. One of the appendages was broken and put a note on the top as I knew the minute it was scanned they would go, “What the hell is that?” So I put a big note at the top and I said, “This has to be.” And lo and behold I went to St. Louis and I rented a car to go to Illinois and when I went to pick up the bag there was a guy there and he said, “Can we look at this together? I peeked inside of one of the bubble wrap packages, but sir, can we look at it together?” I said, “Sure.” I’ve got a really good story…

Speaker 1. Everybody’s got more stories…

Speaker 2. Yeah. Traveling with your work stories are really great.

Speaker 1. I make a little book and put it in an envelope on the top that shows it being packed. So when they scan it, they go, “Oh yeah, there it is…”

Speaker 3. Really?

Speaker 1. Yeah.

Speaker 4. I like that. I loved your pictures at the airport.

Speaker 1. Yeah. Yeah, I did that too. How to unpack the box.

Speaker 3. Steve, what’s your shipping story, I think I interrupted you?

Speaker 1. No, I said to him, I said I hope you had a good story for the inspectors before you told them the truth.


Speaker 3. Right. I’ll think of a good shipping story. I have a view. I used to do that for people too. Very quickly…__________Epstein, I shipped for them. I was going to ship a whole bunch of Dorothea Tanin, she was a surrealist, to New York. And I told them, I was like 20, I had my own work in my van to take to _______________ gallery. And I opened the door to one of my crates and it fell to the ground right in front of Charles. Ha, ha, ha. “Okay, and now I’m going to load your stuff up. Your surrealist paintings in my old van.”

Speaker 1. That’s why they call it impressionable youth.

Speaker 4. Ha, ha, ha.

Speaker 3. He was like, “That’s great Steve, we’re stuck with you.”

Speaker 2. Well, thank you all so much. I do have one little…Just to say how terrific and dedicated your Ronnie is…Really compared to ____________________. We worked together for any install, ten hours or so.

Speaker 1. Wow.

Speaker 2. Yeah we did. But it took the next day and a half to light the show. It was just amazing. So, I have thank you. As you all know sculpture, especially stuff like this, throws shadows and are half of the work. It is critical. And if it is too much shadow then they start interfering with the pieces and if it is not enough they are flat and there is no depth. It is really, really, really a hard part of it. It was an adventure.

Speaker 1. An adventure.

Speaker 2. Right. It took all those years of having lit pieces and your intuition.

Speaker 4. I thought you were exaggerating…

Speaker 1. The lights are so cute, just by themselves.

Speaker 2. Well, they had to be because without that they had to have lights on the walls here. We do a little bit there, but they were all at each others…

Speaker 3. I don’t think I’ve seen this many lights on a piece before.

Speaker 2. That’s what Ronnie was saying. We went looking, “Where can we steal other lights from?”

The glass rod pieces also, that series…that’s a strategy for me because it is not intuitive, that process. This one I wanted to show the lifecycle of a plant from the dormant stage…Actually there is one right around this corner over here that you could see. From the dormant stage, or when it just first start budding all the way down to the seed cycle. And so some of them take…like the wild onion takes only four weeks to happen, this one takes a year for that to happen, this is a crape myrtle. So I keep me eye on the plant and the stage. I am casting all year.

But, they are mounted…so the strategy is to mount them on the…these are wafer carriers. They are used in the tube industry to dry wafers. I had done some work previous to this series with some laboratory glass. There is a guy who makes quartz laboratory equipment so I was there getting some other things and I saw this in a corner. It was not this one, but one like it broken. And typically they re hugely expensive because they have to be perfect down to…I don’t know, how many thousands of an inch or something. But this one wasn’t and so it was a discard and I got it very cheaply.

I then started this series when I gathered plants between the equinox and the solstice and then realized that I wanted it to extend beyond that because to me watching those plants change over that time I thought about how the whole plant structure changed.

So what I am constantly surprised about in this series of work is that…So I had this strategy and I put all the plants in the same way here, you know having technology wrestled in to this shape, like vertebrae along a spinal column or ribs along a spinal column.


But each composition…I don’t know the composition before I start. It evolves. Because some plants are more robust in their bloom cycle and some are more robust in their seed cycle. So some of them assume this really ___________ shape and some of them have this kind of swell in the middle and some of them get really light at the top and really dense at the bottom. Or some are just the reverse where the roots are prominent and the blush at the top and then they dwindle down in to sections. It is really a wonderful surprise for me every time I put one together to see how that evolves. I haven’t worked that way ever before. Largely I am working more intuitively putting forms together, especially with these big pieces. It is an interesting contrast to let the work make itself, to let the sculpture design its own form.

Speaker 1. Are those patina colors…are you trying to sort of match and come close to the original colors or is that just…

Speaker 2. No. It is, again it is kind of…

Speaker 1. Because that looks almost…I walked in here and I thought for sure it was…

Speaker 2. I have worked that way before. When I work with casts of my larger outdoor work and in that case I have attempted, through the foundry and their excellent patina process is to imitate the plants. And they just don’t have the life for me that this, kind of, this is a chance process. It is ferric chloride that is then neutralized and it is just amazing.

Actually, the way I came up with that process was that I had done a series of prints for Flatbed and was noticing…these were monotypes, but noticing they keep their plates and the plates were etched with ferric chloride. They change these beautiful colors every time. And I thought I’m going to try that. So, I did it on the bronze and it was pretty…I liked the result a lot. I like the element of chance. I also want it to be a kind of a stand in for the real color. Because, it is not…you know, I have to feel like I need to make a contradiction of them being art, not plants and have a sort of mark up of the process.

That’s why in these pieces they are not patina’s. This is the result of the casting process. That’s not true…I do go back and disguise the welds and then I go and change the metal back to the texture. And they also have some, each one has a little bit of residue of the investment, a way of marking as a human construction, not nature.

Speaker 3. I guess that would in a way be kind of…like my work a lot of people look at it and say, “Where did you get that?” It’s like, “No, I spent thousands of hours making that thing out of a lot of little pieces of junk!” And how often people go, “Oh, how did you get all of those plants to stay like that?”

Speaker 2. Always! Always! Always! Or they are coated with… “Did you spray them?” There is that. But, it is a great thing…

Speaker 1. You just want to put a sign that says: These aren’t bronze.

Speaker 4. I think…

Speaker 1. Ha, ha, ha. I think!

Speaker 2. But isn’t it wonderful when you see that look of surprise on the faces of the uninitiated when you explain that as artists? It is great. It is really great joy in some ways. It takes the veil off of it between the viewer and the piece. And it is just great.

Speaker 3. Yeah, absolutely.

Speaker 2. I love talking to artists.

Speaker 1. Ha, ha, ha.

Speaker 4. Ha, ha, ha.

Speaker 3. Ha, ha, ha.

Speaker 2. Because it is a conversation. There is so much that we all understand already that we don’t have to talk about. You know, that there is…

Speaker 1. __________________

Speaker 2. There is that too.

Speaker 4. How long did the show…how long…is it several years?

Speaker 2. It is several years, because the big one takes about four months to get it together. I have people who work for me too. Well, I teach metals at Texas State in San Marcus. So I take my best students who have paid me money to train them…I know what I am getting and then I can hire them to…I know what I am getting.

Speaker 1. Yeah, but then they leave.

Speaker 2. Well, my lab technician has been with me for a long time.

Speaker 1. Okay.

Speaker 2. So he does most of the casting. That’s a really good thing. You got to love it.

Speaker 3. So about four months for a big piece from casting to finish, install?

Speaker 2. That’s not counting the casting actually. But you know, there are other things that get in the way. I’m not…maybe 30-40 hours a week I work in the studio.

Thank you.

Speaker 1. Thank you.

Speaker 3. Way to go.


Speaker 3. Now you have to feed us.

Speaker 2. I brought snacks too. I brought snacks, they are in my car.

Speaker 1. I’ll see you later.

Speaker 2. Okay. I’ll be over there.