Ann Weber & Arte Povera: Making Something out of Nothing

An Interview with the Cardboard Sculptor

Curiouser, Cardboard Sculpture by Ann Weber

Ann Weber loves exploring the ‘Infinite Possibilities’ of art. She likes to help the audience realise the ‘Miracles and Wonders’ of life. And, she creates large cardboard sculptures to fulfil her objectives.

The multiple award-winner has reinvented herself from her early days of ceramics. Ann Weber’s life is a striking example of what her favourite author Ann Pachett has to say in What Now, ‘Coming back is the thing that enables you to see how all the dots in your life are connected, how one decision leads you to another, how one twist of fate, good or bad, brings you to a door that later takes you to another door, which aided by several detours, long hallways and unforeseen stairwells, eventually puts you in the place you are now’.

You have studied art; you have been a ceramic artist and now build figures with cardboard and other mundane materials. In your views how the evolution of the art and the artist inside you has been thus far.

I only use cardboard for the last 20 years, so I don’t use any other material; I say I am a one pony. Oftentimes sculptors use a lot of different materials but I come from a ceramics background. In ceramics we only use one material, just clay; so, my homage is really to that world and I started working with cardboard 20 years ago so I just feel it has infinite possibilities.

So you started with the creation of art forms which have definite, uniform shape kind of thing but thereafter you moved to creating art forms that are in a way much different.

Yes, it wasn’t so much about expressing myself, because I was making functional pottery, I was making dinnerware sets and teapots and vases. It was really part of the ’60s movement where there were a lot of people working in clay and weaving and glass blowing, macramé even. So I feel I came out of the crafts movement and started my own business with my husband at the time. For 15 years I just made functional pottery that was very useful and I started out in upstate New York in a small town called Ithaca and later I moved to New York and started my business there.

You moved on from that background and worked with Viola Frey and thereafter inspired by her and Frank Gehry’s work you kind of added your own dimension and defined your own style. How satisfied you feel after all these years in the portrayal of your imagination?

I think you called it ‘design philosophy’ but it’s more about incorporating the ways of living into the ways of making art. And I feel if you work with a material long enough you make your own personal discoveries and come up with your own vocabulary.

I was brought up in the mid-west and I had a very conservative upbringing. I was raised in the suburb my father was a businessman and my mother was a homemaker but we were very frugal and very resourceful. And the mid-westerns say, we can make a silk straw out of a pig’s ear. So one of the things I have always loved is making things out of nothing and when I think about cardboard I think about it is like turning straw into gold, there is an alchemy that forms and so I feel that my philosophy is to as much of who I am into my artwork. And the cardboard suited me so well because anyone can make something beautiful out of bronze or gold or silver or plaster or marble but it’s the clever person who can make something interesting or even beautiful out of a material that is just thrown away.

Strange Fruit, Cardboard Sculpture by Ann Weber
Strange Fruit

I love the idea that I get it out of the trash and out of dumpsters and I like it to be used, sometimes I go to the grocery store and just get boxes that have colour in them but I like to have some of the patina of use, not something brand new I like it to have creases and I don’t care if it’s little bit dirty or crinkled up or mashed up I like to show some of the personality of the cardboard it becomes like a skin. So that’s sort of my philosophy about the material and why I use it. Also, I feel that I want to incorporate things like beauty and joy and wonder, which was the name of my last exhibition, into the work. I love the idea that people come into a gallery and studio and they think that these great, big forms, some of them are 16 feet tall, and they are shocked to think that they are made out of cardboard boxes out of dumpsters. It comes from Arte Povera era in Italy and that was because people couldn’t afford, sculptors couldn’t afford to have studios and buy marble and bronze so they started using the alternative material. And that’s where I am coming from, I love the idea of making something out of nothing, not that I am trying to recycle. But I like when people come in and they think that it is made out of leather or bamboo or anything but cardboard. But it’s me.

And this transformation also requires very little input. In terms of also the kind of tools that you need to use, they are not sophisticated; you can make something that is 1ft tall or something that is monumental. It is not really the input but the imagination that is at work.

Exactly. I have two tools, one is a scissor and the other is a staple gun. It’s made by an American company called AP22, it fastens staples behind the strip; it’s like an office stapler only it’s bigger and a little more industrial. In other words, the staples have to come back around and they sew on the outside but they hook back on the inside, so exactly… I like to go to residencies every once in a while, I will be going to Rome in the month of December and the only thing that I have to take in my suitcase is the staple gun and the scissors. I love… Italian cardboard… American cardboard.

Is it more spontaneous or do you think through every detail at the very beginning?

There is a very interesting article that I am starting to read in the NY Times, it was in the Sunday paper and it was called inspiration. And they were interested in talking to artists about where inspiration and ideas come from? The person I read about is Alicia Keys, you know the singer. I do not do any preparation I like to collect images and I have a folder, I don’t do it very often but every once in a while when I am looking through an art magazine or newspaper, I would cut something out it could be like the New Yorker cartoon or a picture of the Brancusi, so I will tell you a little bit about the series I am working on now which was influenced by a picture in magazine of some sculpture by Brancusi. And I started to make the piece and usually what I do is to lay on the floor a piece of cardboard and sometimes I have to buy a big sheet otherwise I could get a big sheet on the street if the furniture factory is putting out cardboard. Sometimes I have to get a big sheet. Then I draw out the shapes that I wish it’s usually 2ft x 6ft or 2ft x 8ft but it’s not 4ft x 8ft, that’s a pretty big shape. So, I will just draw out the shape and then I will make a copy of that shape, also in cardboard and then I cut a slit halfway up on one piece and halfway up on another and I slop them together. And that gives me an armature so that’s how I sort of start and then I translate the shape that was for the armature that’s the part that was underneath I will build the shapes around and then I will start with something and it is already translated into something else so it doesn’t really look like the Brancusi piece. And then what happens next for me is that the negative space that I cut out on the big sheet of cardboard sort of looks interesting. So I will make another piece from that and then I will start out to make it exactly like the way I was thinking and the picture and then it looks all wrong and it looked just awful so I will take off part of it and throw that away; but the thing that intrigues me was having one piece coming out of another.

I am now working on a piece that will probably be about 20 pieces. And in the last year, I suffered an adversity and I was amazed at how many people came to help me. I had no idea so many people were so supportive of me and loved me so much and so started to think how much we are all independent and connected to each other. I mean especially your circle of friends and family. So I wanted to make a series that represented the connection between people and what they did for me. And so I am thinking of this as sort of my legion of well-wishers. So it is with my ideas that always come back to something that has happened in my life. Like in a year and a half ago I was in Rome and had this little love affair and so I built this whole body of work around this little 4-day love affair. It was so spontaneous and it was so wonderful. And that ended up being, I did about 7 large pieces that were on a show that I had in San Francisco. I feel oftentimes that there these life experiences that are… obvious things coming together like inspiration and other art and life experiences and how they get transformed and translated into sculpture.

Enough not Enough, Cardboard Sculpture by Ann WeberTiny Dancer, Cardboard Sculpture by Ann Weber

Have you travelled extensively, even in Asia?

Yes, I have. I started travelling in 1977 when I came to Japan for 3 months. Some friends were studying Ikito and they were living there for a year, so I stayed with them for 3 months in this little, tiny town in the island of Honshu; it was a fishing village. And it was so unusual to have foreigners there that when we walked down the street the Japanese people would come out of their doors, look at us! That was my very first experience out of the country. And then for many years, I would try to leave for 3 months, and I lived on nothing. One of my skills as an artist is to be really resourceful but still have a rich and full life. And I have always worked part-time so I never had a lot of money but I think travelling is really important so for a while I would go with my husband for 3 months in every year. We were living in NYC and rented out of our apartments and usually, that would pay for our living expenses and then we would save money on airfare. And then we would go to some cheap country like Costa Rica and at that time Portugal was inexpensive and just stay there for 3 months. We would eat with a man who shines the shoes and we would sleep in cheap little pensión; I have never been brought up around foreigners. Everybody in the mid-west is the same. There could be something valuable in being with another culture that is very important to me. And that is one reason why I moved to NYC and I come to California because I love the cultural diversity and I think it makes things very special.

You have explored balance, you also shared this philosophy on your website and in your other interviews that I have read… how has the balance shifted in the four decades that you have been associated with art?

Yes, 1970, it’s a long time! Well, I think the idea of balance or what I call balancing act is part of life experience. And when I first graduated from art school in 1985, I had no idea how you could live as an artist and still have a family; also I had a child in graduate school because I was getting older and I was 35 and I thought you had to make a choice between being an artist and being a mother because I didn’t think that you could do both. So after I graduated I did have a child and I read every book in the library about other artists because I was trying to figure out how they did it? How did they have a studio practice and how did they support themselves financially; how did they make time for relationships and husbands or wife and how did they have children; so, I realised it’s a big balancing act. There used to be this television show and there was this man who came out and did these tricks, it was the Ed Sullivan show and it was in the ’70s. A man came out and he had plates on sticks and he was twirling them, there were may 10 or 15 of these and he would go to the next one and then one would start to fall off and he would have to run back to keep the plates twirling; so to me that was a metaphor for living the life of an artist. So I felt that I wanted to make artworks that were about this balancing act. So I wanted to create something as high as I could to see how high I could make something or how wide you can make something with cardboard before it collapsed. So, you are always pushing things or taking risks. And the balancing acts were really metaphors for how to make your life happen and have it rich and be interesting. So, again that’s how I expressed it in the sculpture.

Miracles, Cardboard Sculpture by Ann WeberAndy, Cardboard Sculpture by Ann Weber

Please share your advice for those who want to pursue their dreams in these difficult times.

Well, first of all, I don’t think times are any more difficult for me that they have always been when you are an artist. There is always this struggle and there is always a financial concern, so to me, this calamity was not a calamity. My income didn’t go up or down it just stayed about the same. I hardly ever sell any work, even though I have been doing it for many many years. I have an art dealer and she thinks that she will sell it so, ok! I don’t care, I can take care of myself and I also think that artists should be very resourceful and creative. I live in a co-operative living situation where there are 56 people in the industrial area of San Francisco and I am actually in the East Bay and we all own 3 buildings and it is very difficult to work out all the different problems because artists are very independent. But it enables me to have a reasonably priced place to live and make art in a really beautiful place. Secondly, the artist needs to figure out how they are going to support themselves. I bought a house, it was in terrible shape and we call it ‘tear it down’ because it has no value. But I didn’t tear it down and I bought it for very little money and I had some friends who loaned me the money because I couldn’t get it from the bank. So I have a really strong group of people who care about me; I fixed up the house and got a bank loan and I sold it at the top of the housing bubble 7 years later. Meanwhile, I had built a studio in the backyard, I lived there with my daughter and I rented it out when my daughter moved to college and then I slept around with my relatives and friends while I earned money from the rent to pay for my share of her college. So, when I sold the house at the top of the market it enabled me to put enough money aside to last me for the rest of my life, if I just took out a little bit at a time and always had another part-time job; so those are the thing that I think an artist can do at any time and it makes no difference and this is no different than how the people survived the depression. And you of people living in Calcutta you know how strong the desire and drive is to care for yourselves and your family. It’s always like this and it’s always a challenge. It’s more fun to figure out how to do it than have somebody give you a million dollars.

Portrait of Ann Weber

Ann Weber likes…

My favourite music is Jazz, I love Mark Davies, and sometimes I use the titles of his songs for titles of mine.

My favourite book is called Truth and Beauty: A Friendship. It’s about friendship and it’s by Ann Patchett. One of my favourite places to be is in Rome because the whole city is about sculpture.

Find more of her work at her website.

Image Courtesy: Ann Weber