Unnamed colors in the gloaming

by HRM on July 13, 2012

New York artist at work

Brett Day Windham came to the Her Royal Majesty launch party in New York city and we were thusly introduced to her body of work.

Discussed in this interview: the mating habits of the bower bird; dangers of nostalgia; hazards of found objects; self-generating idea machines.

Brett Day Windham

Your work involves a host of mediums, and you use all sorts of different forms, from collage to sculpture to performance video. Is there a common thread of inspiration across your work as a whole? What do you find yourself responding to consistently?

The desire to organize and celebrate color drives me into the studio more than almost anything else. I love color. I love to find it in unexpected places, and also to re-imagine how it is used. The conversation between my sculptures and collages has everything to do with this instinct. I think about color all the time, judging one shade against another, wondering how an apple green so close to a chartreuse can have such a different effect on me.

I was blown away by David Attenborough’s documentation on the mating habits of the bower bird. In my happiest studio moments I imagine myself that way, privately and laboriously picking through bits of color and obsessively grouping them together in riotous presentations.

Intense focus on color also allows other concerns to inform the physical aspects of each project. I often allow humor into the mix. I am attracted to making soft materials hard, making shapes that look voluminous but are flat, and to placing objects unexpectedly.

Brett Day Windham

You’ve traveled extensively, practicing as an artist in both the US and Italy. What sort of relationship exists between your creative practice and your environment?

I first ended up in Italy as a stumbling twenty-year-old, hot off the plane and without my lost luggage. I was blindsided by a place so completely un-concerned with new-ness, that great American past-time. As an American girl fascinated by ritual but raised without any formal religion, the complex co-existence of magic, superstition and Catholicism particular to Italy was a revelation. On a certain level, Italy took advantage of me. I was young and unformed, and living in that contradictory and decadent place shaped me in ways that return visits haven’t quite explained.

I think that some artists are self-generating idea machines: they live in a world of their own creation, and will continually crank out interesting work even from inside a closet. The other kind of artist needs to be stimulated by their environment, and then try to synthesize and comment on the particular things they see. I am the latter.

Brett Day Windham

What is your favorite time of the day?

The gloaming. I love all of the unnamed colors and the way the world feels promising. It is when I feel calm and awake.

Many of your pieces seem to be collections of found objects, such as your Rosary and Luxury Collages. In this way they represent a kind of search. Can you describe this searching process, how you go about accumulating materials?

Found objects are as vital to my practice as they are hazardous. Nostalgia is dangerous; as an artist and as a person one could be consumed by it, but I love the surprise of form and color where I find it. I love what I glean about my community from what is discarded. (Here I realize that I owe a debt of gratitude to everyone from Kurt Schwitters to Candy Jernigan). The challenge is to organize this raw information, and use it to create something entirely my own.

I’m a lifelong beach comber, and searching the ground for treasure relaxes me. The ritual of walking and looking and choosing also distracts me from tensing up as I approach my studio. All kinds of self-imposed rules that dictate what I can choose and how I can use it have developed over time. For instance; with the Rosary I can only pick up one object per walk, and there is no switching.



Wing Mountain is a short and possibly violent story about climbing a ladder to the unknown. It is a rare instance where the pivotal material (bird wings) came as a surprise gift in the mail from a very close friend. It is the also the only sculpture that I saw in my head before I made it. Formally, it is a kissing cousin to the Ellegua.

The Ellegua started with a familiar search for color. There was a hair supply store downstairs from my studio in Providence called “Two Brothers Hair.” I was drawn to the loose acrylic hair extensions in neon to natural colors, all so hip hop and so flamboyant. I started braiding them into a kind of rainbow ombre color fade, and then stitched the coil of braids together to create a masquerade costume for myself. It took about three solid months to complete. The Ellegua is a trickster and master of ceremonies across the African Diaspora, so this name seemed a fitting tribute. It was only later that I saw Chris Rock’s documentary, Good Hair, and also the humbling work of the hair-based artist Shoplifter. I highly recommend both.

Brett Day Windham

Rosary gives shape and meaning to my walks to the studio. I string one object from each walk onto a fishing line. Each object is separated by five glass beads. At last count, it was ninety feet long. Over the past four and a half years, I have continued to add to it in different parts of New York, New England and Italy. It is in many ways the cornerstone to my practice: a private and indulgent exercise that I never intended to exhibit.

With the Luxury Collages, I take discarded fashion magazines and remove all branding from the expensive goods being advertised within. I never buy the magazines, they have to be found. I laboriously hand-cut and glue together diaphanous shapes in similar colors, focusing on an end result that looks as three-dimensional as possible on a flat plane. In essence, I am trying to make chromophilic flat sculpture. When I make these my eyes go out of focus, I go into a trance.

Brett Day Windham

Previous post:

Next post:

ISSN: 2116 34X