Fragments of Storylines - Interview with Elias Hansen

Elias Hansen , Born in 1979, lives and works in upstate New York. His delicate blown-glass sculptures are presented alongside deteriorating found objects; neutralizing the contradictory status of the precious to the discarded and evoking a dialog between the histories of each object. Juxtaposing the worn and the exquisite, Hansen’s elaborate structures resemble an ultimately dysfunctional meth lab, translating the idealism and escapism of the industry into a compelling visual language tinged with the secrecy and mystery. - Jonathan Viner  

Pablo de Pinho: Your work seems to be about the creative process, connecting the lines between daily life and art making. As well as, connecting the lines between sculpture, installation, ready-made and many other crafts like foraging, hunting, and glass blowing. Do you see foraging and hunting to be strong components in your work?

Elias Hansen - I try to let my work drift back and forth between my life and my studio, keeping a connection in the materials and ideas alive in both.  When I lived on Vashon Island, WA, I spent a lot of time crabbing and walking the beach collecting rocks, shells and rusty metal.  I made a lot of my sculptures on my porch where I kept my treasures and crab pots, so naturally those things found their way into my work.  Since moving upstate New York, I have been spending more time hunting, foraging and collecting old farm tools, so this has started to make it's way into my current work.  I try not to let them become central ideas in my work, but rather accents and accessories to a main theme of life and death, love and loss.

Have you always lived in the countryside? Would you be able to do your work somehow in a big city?

I thought it might be possible to live in the city at one time, but I think I am past that point.  Maybe when I am quite a bit older and ready from some kind of change I could live part time in the city, but for now, it doesn't seem possible.  I think if I lived in a city, I would need a 10,000 square foot warehouse with a parking garage.  I really like my personal, private space, and I have trouble in the city when I'm not able to get to a place where I can sit and not see people.  It's so difficult to find a place in a big city that feels private and quiet.  I really enjoy the country side, and it's pretty important to me to be able to share that joy with my two daughters and awesome wife.

Do you think you are composing your work with a limited range of materials? How often do you introduce new materials to your work?

I think the limitations of materials have always been an important part of my work.  Much of the time, it is simply the materials at hand that I am working with.  Because of certain jobs I have held, I have had a lot of access to glass, steel and wood in different capacities, so these materials and processes often make their way into my work at these times.  I really enjoy learning very traditional processes and the studies involved in that kind of learning, so I often steer towards those kind of works.  I have a lot of tools and set ups in my studio that have only made limited appearances in my work.  Sometimes things need to marinate in my studio for years before I feel comfortable sharing them.  I'm pretty precious with my pieces and processes, so there is a lot that happens in my mind and studio that doesn't make it into the work.

What is the relationship between the objects you manually produce and the objects you find and find or appropriate in your work?

Often, there is no difference.  I try to blur the lines between objects I produce and appropriate, I think it allows the viewer to enjoy the work as a whole, rather than get stuck on one object.  I think it also helps to question the value we place on certain objects.  My hope is to raise the value of the appropriated objects, giving the viewer a moment of really appreciating the beauty of some of the found objects, and maybe even finding their own story within.  At the same time, this can devalue the handmade object, which I think is important to level the playing field between objects and allow them all to be seen as they are.  I really like junk and worn things, so some of this is just relaying my reverence for the discarded.

The various compositions including glass objects are reminiscent of test tubes and science experiments, which introduces a element of fiction into the work. How do you describe this line between reality and fiction in your work?

A lot of the objects in my work have a specific function, and this function begets a story line of a user.  At times, I let these story lines stand out and become a part of the whole piece, creating connections between pieces so the viewer can see the hand of a person that may have just left the room for a minute.  Other times, I keep the interactions minimal and allow the pieces to be more disjointed, forcing the viewer to make connections between objects that may not exist.  The fiction is really created in the mind of the viewer, to me it is all reality.

You've mentioned your parents used to build things like geodesic domes and also publish books. Have you ever collaborated on a project with your parents?

Our parents were actually book binders, they made traditional Italian journals and photo albums for other people to fill up.  Oscar and I collaborated with our mother, Anna Linzer.  She is an author and playwright, and we helped design the set for her play, River Story, a tragic story about a family in the Skagit River Delta in Washington State.  We used to visit there a lot when I was a child, so it was a pretty special thing for Oscar and I to collaborate with her.  Oscar is collaborating with our father, John Hansen on a compound in the woods on the Olympic Peninsula.  They are both really special people and it's great to be able to spend as much time with them as we do. 

How was your experience university, did you study art? What are your thoughts on not just art school, but education in general in America?

I went to Whitman College in Walla Walla, WA.  It was a very nice college.  I studied book arts, printmaking, Japanese and economics.  At the end of the 3rd year, I realized I wanted more hands on experience in the arts than I was getting.  It didn't seem fair to be going so deep in debt for such little studio training.  I was in very good standing academically, but my heart wasn't in it.  So I found a job as a ranch hand in Montana and moved there to quiet my mind.  Once quiet, I got on a motorcycle and went to New Orleans, where I started blowing glass.  When I returned to the Northwest, I met Jorgen Harle, a blacksmith on Orcas Island.  He told me to work for 30 different masters before I started making my own work.  That was the most important thing I learned about making things.  No one tells you that in school, no one does traditional apprenticeships anymore.  I spent ten years working for as many different artists as possible to get myself to a place where I felt comfortable making my own work.

I think school is great, it's a really great opportunity to spend time with like minded individuals learning about yourself.  But I also think there is a false sense that once you go through a program, especially a masters program, that you come out the other side with the ability to make interesting work.  I think there needs to be more emphasis on studying with real world artists, not just the ones in university programs.  And I think there are many older artists that could do a better job in training younger artists and offering them quality apprenticeships.
After dropping out of college, what attracted you to move to Montana? How was working at Larson Red Angus Farm in Montana?
Montana was very far away from friends and family, so it seemed like a good place to go to gather my thoughts.  It was very hard work, so it kept me distracted and interested.  I had a 4-wheeler, a 3 legged dog and a .22 rifle.  I shot rabbits and rattle snakes, and even got bit by a baby rattle snake I was playing with.  My job was to spread water out of ditches using a tarp irrigation method, so I would drive around roads and walk through fields to the ditches.  Every couple days I would move the 150 head of cattle to a different field.  It challenged me to be strong and independent.  It was just me and a small set of tools, and I had a lot of jobs that needed to be accomplished in a day.  If a fence was broken, it needed to be fixed right then with the tools at hand, if you took off, the cows would get out and you could spend hours getting them back in.  The work was done when the work was done, not when the day was over. 

Color in your work is introduced through pigmented glass, for example in bongs, bottles, and bulbs. Through colored lights, the work morphs into the ambient and becomes an entirely new visual element and idea. Conor and light are very distinct components in your work, why is it introduced mainly through glass?

The way glass shows its color is so pure and beautiful and strong, it is hard to find any paint or pigment that can do what glass does.  I started using the colored lights a few years ago because it reminded me of the shadows of transparent glass.  Having colored lights in a room is like being inside of a colored glass vessel.  I have also been using fluorescent spray paint to splatter colors around, but often I like to let the wood and metal be bare and the glass become the colorful element.  I think I am going through a very gradual process that will take me to other color sources, but I really can't rush that kind of thing.  I think so many years in glass shops tainted me a little and made me favor glass.
You mentioned the Reader is one of your favorite artists, one reason is because of his unique approach to art making. Besides having shows together, have you two collaborated on a single piece?

We collaborated on some installation work at the A Palazzo in Brescia, and we always talk about doing some more projects together.  We used to build freak bikes together, big, tall, small, weird kind of bikes, but those were just for fun.  During our install in Brescia, we planned on collaborating on many pieces, but we realized during that time that we like working side by side more, and it felt more natural to produce work in a space together that was inspired by each other, but was our own individual work.  To both of us, collaboration is a kind of sacred being, and it shouldn't be pushed when it isn't totally natural and necessary.  He is such a hard worker and prolific artist, I just can't help but be enamored of his process and work.  If we were living together, I bet we would make work together, but our practices are so studio time based, that it is tough to imagine doing something really powerful together without spending months in the same space.  Maybe when my children are grown we'll spend a winter in New Orleans together.  
How was the experience at The Swiss, working as a beer taster?

Ha!  You've done your homework!  The Swiss was a bar down the street from my house in Tacoma, and I would pass it on my way home from work at the Tacoma Museum of Glass.  Unfortunately, it was not a paid position, but I did taste many delicious beers!  Over and over again!  It was at that bar that I was taught by a wonderful group of Czech glass artists that pilsner was really the best beer, and American pils had a long way to go.  They could barely speak english, and I, no Czech, but we had a wonderful time sharing many Pilsners.