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People of Duke Arts: Balls and Beads and Hanging Trees

Published By Robert Zimmerman / published on: July 5, 2018

A six-week residency at the Power Plant gallery allows Durham artist Rachel Goodwin to think big while inviting the public to follow along.

Rachel Goodwin is an artist based in Durham who uses paint, wood and found materials to make paintings, collages and constructions. She is also in the midst of a six-week #PPGArtists residency at the Power Plant Gallery, working on a project she calls Converse Canopy. The gallery program supports two resident artists each summer, who are brought into the space to make work but not necessarily to finish or exhibit it. The public, in turn, is invited to visit the artist at work. It’s a “process-oriented residency,” according to gallery director Caitlin Margaret Kelly, meant to “foster an understanding of the work behind the art, not just a finished object.”

During her residency, Goodwin is extending a series of works she calls Balls & Beads, inspired by her New Orleans roots, that involve hanging strings of plastic balls and other discarded objects. When I visited the gallery two weeks into the residency to interview her, the beginnings of the artificial forest of plastics she’d proposed was being upstaged by an actual hanging tree. She was relishing her sanctuary from home life and her day job as graphic designer for the Nasher Museum of Art, drilling holes in plastic bottles and letting the work lead her where it would.

Rachel Goodwin’s residency runs from June 1 to July 14 at The Power Plant Gallery (part of American Tobacco Campus). Her reception and artist’s talk is 6-9pm, Thursday, July 12. Her public visiting hours are Thursday and Friday afternoons—see the PPG calendar for details.

The second #PPGArtists summer residency, by multimedia documentary artist Anthony Patterson, begins on July 23.

All photos by Robert Zimmerman.

Robert Zimmerman (RZ): Tell me about the show.

Rachel Goodwin (RG): My original intention with the proposal that I submitted to Power Plant Gallery was to make a forest of Balls & Beads, and to see what kind of content could grow within the piece as I made more and more of them.

Right before I was offered this residency, a tree died in my backyard, and it was such a beautiful tree that I sawed it down with the intention of putting it back together. I was really bummed because none of my studio space at home is tall enough to do that. Then I got the residency and I thought, “Oh, I can put it together there!” But then I thought about the logistics of an upright tree and decided to turn it upside down.  Turning something on its head makes you see it in a different way. I think it shows how beautiful trees are—this tree in particular.

My goal now is to unite the two sides of the gallery, have the Balls & Beads flow into the tree, which is like an opening in the forest.

RZ: Where do the materials come from?

RG: The materials are all found and recycled. They mainly come from The Scrap Exchange and my recycling and my friends’ recycling.

RZ: And how has it been, working here?

RG: I have time and I have space here—two things I never have in my regular life—and it has changed the whole piece! At home, I have to be succinct and efficient, map out all the steps to get to the end product, and things can get really precious.

I haven’t been able to pay this much attention to my practice of art since art school. I feel totally safe falling on my face because I have time to pick myself up and redo stuff.

RZ: I’ve known you as a designer for a long time, first as a freelancer and then for the Nasher. But it’s only recently that I’ve been aware of your work as a practicing artist. Did you take a break and now you’re back to making art or have you kept it up this whole time?

RG: What I’ve discovered about myself is that it’s not a choice for me to be an artist. If it was a choice, long ago I would’ve said, “Okay, I can’t fit that into my life—there’s no way.” But I discovered that I make stuff anyway, and if I just put it under my bed, it’s never complete. To me, the process is only completed once a viewer is in front of it.

But to answer your question, I have had shows throughout the last 15 years, just not as many as I’d like. Most weekends I’ll work on my art but not every single day.

“I have this nostalgia with the Balls & Beads. I’m originally from New Orleans and Mardi Gras was a really big deal in my family. The original impetus and inspiration for that work comes from my daughter getting a huge bag of balls at Mardi Gras the first time I took my family down there. We drove them all back home and I started painting them and hanging them and realized they reminded me of the trees in New Orleans that hold Mardi Gras beads all year long.”—Rachel Goodwin

RZ: You’ve had a great vantage point to watch things change in the art world both at Duke and in Durham. If you reflect on the last decade or so, how has all of that change affected you?

RG: Since we moved here about 15 years ago, Durham has completely turned around in terms of the art scene. It used to be nothing. Downtown was empty during the day.

My husband and I call Durham a rut-buster. We got in a lot of ruts in Oakland, which is where we lived before we came here. It felt like everything was already set there. When we got here, it felt like a very open place. Now that it’s starting to feel more set, that’s the only thing that’s worrying me.

RZ: Yeah, that’s the worry on everyone’s mind. So has living in Durham, versus Oakland or somewhere else, changed the kind of work you do?

RG: I don’t know if it would be different if I was living in Oakland, but I do know that if I had never been to The Scrap Exchange, I definitely would not be making this work. My very first show in Durham was at The Scrap Exchange gallery, when it was part of the Liberty Warehouse. It was me and a bunch of other artists—we turned game boards into art.

RZ: Very Scrap Exchangey! There have been big changes at the Duke, too, starting with the Nasher.

RG: When I first was interviewed at the Nasher, I was asked, “What could we do better here?” I said, “Well, what about engaging local artists?” It’s remarkable how Duke has changed in its relationship to the art world!

RZ: That must be the reason I started seeing and hearing about your art—the Balls & Beads piece you did in the Brodhead Center, then the satellite dish for Mural Durham at the Arts Annex, and now this.

RG: Yeah, I’m amazed at how supportive Duke is of the arts and individual local artists. That has really helped me.

Newly commissioned art was part of President Price's Inauguration Week. In this video watch Nasher Museum of Art employee and local artist Rachel Goodwin work on Balls & Beads, a 3-D sculpture commissioned to hang in the Brodhead Center. Video by Joyce Ventimiglia.