MARTHA TUTTLE’S practice engages the natural world in a way that is both sensual and powerful. Her work is largely inspired by her childhood in New Mexico, where she grew up surrounded by a mystical landscape unlike any other. Martha fuses elements of textile design and sculpture to create serene compositions that function in similar ways to painting. Martha is based in Brooklyn, NY and is represented by Tilton Gallery and Rhona Hoffman Gallery.
How does your background and upbringing in the American West feed into your art?
Oh, in so many ways. Land and landscape (especially the tough/ delicate/ vast space of the west) continues to be my most enduring inspiration. Practically, it’s seeing colors at a distance, the sense of geologic time and the way that small plants are able to survive in harsh conditions.
Your work has a soft and sensual nature but the materials that you use vary in their histories and processes – that is to say some of the work that goes into creating them is highly labor intensive and not for the faint of heart. Can you speak about this duality?
I’ve always been really interested in reading biographies of mystics and saints. So often they have this continuous pursuit of something beyond earthly laws. But then at the same time, saints and mystics were real people, with real bodies. Even if your life is contemplation, you still get a runny nose, Meister Eckhart had a microbiome, etc. And so many testaments I have read (Simone Weil, St. Theresa, The Buddha’s brush with asceticism, Paul, etc.) describe how the negotiation of the physical ends up being a way to faith, rather than the roadblock it might initially seem to be.
While not making any kind of equation, an intertwined and symbiotic relationship between the material and the spiritual is where I want my work to locate itself. I’d like to have the physical reality and challenges of my processes bring me to a feeling of lightness and harmony when the piece is finished.
What about working with textiles interests you?
I liked the idea of spinning and weaving because the marks and the surface could be made at the same time. I liked also they are processes that allowing body and touch to enter into every part of the work.
Your color palette is both simplistic and eye-catching. How do you choose which colors go into your work?
The colors I’m drawn to I think refers back to your first question about landscape. It’s often the case that I’m like “Yes! I finally made a piece with lots of color!”, and then someone will come in and see it and be like, “Wow, I love this grey piece.”
That’s often the case with the desert landscape, that it looks kind of beige-ish at first, but then once your eyes settle, a lot more colors come through.
I don’t like to mix colors. That feels like too much of an imposition on my materials. So, 99% of the time, the colors in my work are the colors of the sheep wool, the colors of the stone.
Your process from beginning to end is quite different than most artists making ‘paintings’ today. Can you walk us through these steps?
I start by spinning roving into yarn. Spinning for me is a drawing tool. A spun line picks up every distraction, change of mood, tired hands. I like that it allows the finished material to include all of it.
Once I spin the wool, I weave it on a floor loom, and then wash it in hot water so it felts. It’s a sensitive process, because I want the wool to be felted enough so I can cut in and work with it, but still see the changing line.
The wool panels are then sewn with translucent silk or linen (I don’t weave these), which has been painted or dyed. Generally, if it’s painted, it’s with pigments made from stone, or graphite, and the dyes tend to be plant dyes.
Some of my work ends up incorporating sculptural elements, like carved stone, or cast metal, but some found elements from the natural world as well.
Which artists most inspire your practice?
I’ve been thinking a lot about the way liquid passes through Candice Lin’s installations, and her material lists.
I think about Ana Mendieta all the time. In addition to the significance of the political content in her work, she had a remarkable sense of form. I love that she was able to – I’m thinking especially about her Silueta series – create such a vital interchange between form, body, and landscape.
Bas Jan Ader, for how he plays with sentimentality, absurdity, and emotional directness. Especially the piece where he rides his bicycle into the river carrying a bouquet of flowers. Blinky Palermo. Roni Horn. Anicka Yi.
This line from Etel Adnan’s book Night has been on my mind recently “Memory, and time, both immaterial, are rivers with no banks, and constantly merging.”
What are you looking forward to this year?
I’m installing a booth for the Tilton Gallery at the Independent Fair in March. Alongside paintings, I’m making sculptures that are new moons embedded with cast hands holding crystals. I’m looking forward to making sculptures that feel kind of embarrassing to make because they sound so cheesy, but at the same time are very honest to what I’m thinking about.
This summer I’m making a show for Rhona Hoffman Gallery in Chicago, and for Geukens and De Vil Gallery in Knokke, Belgium.
Next month I’m going to the Tucson Gem and Mineral Fair. It’s the largest gem and mineral fair in the world, and I could not be more excited.
At the end of every interview, we like to ask the artist to recommend a friend whose work you love for us to interview next. Who would you suggest?
CINDY JI HYE KIM