by Susan Knowles
Two summers ago, University School art teacher Delia Seigenthaler spent two weeks of her precious time off taking an art class. Working with Elisabeth Higgins O’Connor at Anderson Ranch, a serious art retreat and craft school located high in the mountains of Colorado, both guided and reinforced her direction as an artist. Higgins O’Connor creates large, free-standing sculptural forms from scavenged materials, such as scrap cloth, upholstery, foam, bedspreads, clothing, blankets, and other stray fabrics. She binds and sews them together, attaching them to her own armatures, then adorns them with found objects and additional stitching and shaping to create otherworldly beings, often big-headed creatures.
Seigenthaler has always created “collage,” a juxtaposition of materials assembled out of used and worn items. She is inspired by things others have left behind. Collage is usually thought of as paper pasted on a flat surface, but Seigenthaler pieces and layers in three dimensions as well as two. Such an “indirect” way of working keeps her surprised and wanting to see where it will lead. “I like the process of putting things together and letting them explain themselves to me.” So, it was not so much that she learned anything particularly new at Anderson Ranch as that she picked up some techniques to further an already well-developed sense of where she is going as an artist.
For years she has worked with discarded dolls, taking them apart to use the heads and hands in sculptures or casting new ceramic heads from the original rubber or plastic ones. The faces and hands, transposed into a new context, are transformed by a sort of benign artifice into small beings that can play out a variety of imagined narratives in the minds of an audience. Lately she has begun repairing the discarded doll bodies, which are often falling apart after years of neglect, adding new fabric and remaking them into precious objects that she thinks of as receptacles of emotions.
These are personal pieces. She says she feels compelled to make them and is even a bit self-conscious talking about them. When she went public and exhibited some of them in a recent Nashville gallery show, they garnered great response, but she is reluctant to part with them.
Seigenthaler studied design, printmaking, and ceramics at Middle Tennessee State University. She credits two influential teachers: Phil Vander Weg for introducing her to both two- and three-dimensional design, and Susan Kowalczyk for inspiring her to move into ceramics. Kowalczyk moved on to Alfred University, an international hub of ceramic experimentation that has produced many of the foremost artists working in clay today. Seigenthaler stayed in Tennessee, and fortunate timing placed her in a similar crucible of creativity—the brand new Appalachian Center for Craft in Smithville, Tennessee.
For minimal tuition costs, she worked with the first wave of artist-in-residence instructors: furniture maker Wendy Maruyama, glass artist Hank Murta Adams, and ceramic sculptor Tom Ripon. Encountering artists who were making a living with their work was priceless, Seigenthaler says, and she met students at the Craft Center who remain close friends to this day, like Lanie Gannon and Rob Ogilvie. Most of all, she recalls, the students at the Craft Center learned to produce at a level of perfection that was unrivalled in academic art departments. Several years later, in graduate school at the Art Institute of Chicago with Tom Ripon as her teacher, Seigenthaler realized she was several steps ahead of her fellow students. In addition to inspiring students by his relentless work ethic, Ripon encouraged them to experiment by combining new content with the traditional clay medium. He also introduced them to folk and self-taught art and to other unorthodox artists such as the Chicago Imagists. Since Seigenthaler already had the skills, she was set free to pursue ideas.
In her most recent body of work, she has taken apart old children’s books, adding clippings from other books and magazines and bits of fabric on which she has “drawn” with a sewing machine. These “collaged” paintings are pieced and layered onto a smoothly gessoed canvas surface, with cuts or tears to reveal what might lie underneath, possibly even a section of one of her drawings or prints. These canvases are what she calls “little stories without beginning or end,” vignettes often having to do with domestic life, home settings, and the lives of women or children. They are titled very simply, so viewers can intuit the emotional content and interpret the scene for themselves. At first impression, Seigenthaler’s works might seem playful and slightly awkward in a childlike manner. A closer look reveals tidiness around the edges and careful construction methods. Once the imagery sinks in, these pieces reveal a serious edge connecting them to adult emotions and situations.
On a tabletop and on her studio walls are both two-dimensional and three-dimensional works in larger formats. A tall square post holds a large sculptural head made of found fabrics and other materials that have been stitched and bound together. The eyes are revealed through uneven holes cut through several of the top layers, as if to underscore their enduring, all-seeing vision. It is a powerful piece. Seigenthaler’s next series is clearly underway, and she is excited for the future. She is beginning to see that there will be time to create art, to travel, and to use the artistic skills she has been perfecting by inventing projects for her students at University School.
In addition to full-time teaching for the past fifteen years, she has been busy raising two creative sons. In 2001, she founded the Artist in Residence program at the Campus for Human Development/Room in the Inn program for homeless adults. All of these have fed her creative side, she muses, giving her back as much as she has given. She also counts herself fortunate that the University School curriculum is intended to be experiential and intuitive and that she is encouraged to teach that way. Seigenthaler leads by example. Drawn to art that is ambiguous but also touches one’s humanity, she wants her students to embrace something similar in their own art making—and in their lives to come.
For more information about Delia Seigenthaler, please visit www.deliaseigenthaler.com.