Exhibition | Witness / Rose B. Simpson

The sculptural figures in Rose B. Simpson’s installation Witness invite visitors to reflect on fundamental aspects of being human, on what it means to be sentient, reactive, and impactful. Through her work Simpson explores the human condition as an accumulation of lived experiences, distilling aspects of her own life into her sculptures.

Simpson is from Santa Clara Pueblo, famous for the ceramics produced by women since the sixth century. She received MFA degrees in ceramics, from the Rhode Island School of Design, and in creative nonfiction, from the Institute of American Indian Arts, Santa Fe. She works from her studio and carshop in northern New Mexico. The following text is excerpted from an interview with the artist conducted by Curator Bryan R. Just.

RBS: When viewing my work, I want visitors to find parts of themselves that may not be easily accessed, to set aside their stereotypes and judgments and understand their biases, to access my work with a different emotional lens.

BRJ: Do you think the use of the human form in your work facilitates direct emotional engagement?

artist working in her studioRBS: Absolutely. I create installations that our bodies enter. Our physical bodies become part of the work; we become part of the installation. In my sculpture, I often leave out individual characteristics, but I always use sensory organs—the nose, the eyes, the ears, the mouth. Through our senses, the human body perceives and witnesses.

BRJ: Your sculptures might inhabit spaces you may not have imagined. At Bainbridge House, they are situated within an eighteenth-century home, a colonial space. Is this space at odds with your work, or conversely, should we think of Bainbridge House itself as being “out of place”?

RBS: I like that idea. There have been times when I wanted to speak only to people who could understand my work. Yet if my sculptures are out of place, they’re actually working harder than if they’re surrounded by my context. I want my sculptures to go into difficult places; they’re intended to infiltrate.

I like words like “witness” that can flop from noun to verb. These words are powerful and transformative; they’re dynamic. Such words remind us of how much agency we have. Witnessing happens both ways. Viewers might be looking at the sculpture, but the work is also watching them.

I play with the idea of the bust as a form of portraiture. I’m interested in the relationship between the vessel as a common ceramic form and the vessel of the human body. I can’t make an honest portrait of someone else. I have to make pieces of myself. I look at myself in different ways. We’re so multifaceted. If I can find that place that’s connected to all things and speaks the language of the universe, and we can each hear and understand it, then you’ll know that place as well as I do and can have an empathic response.

RBS: In works such as Believer II, the closed eyes represent subjects engaged in internal experience. They’re in a state of faith. Like me at work. I developed a technique that I call slap-slab. It involves throwing clay on a flat surface until it’s really thin. Working with thin slabs of clay forces me to be present in the process because I have to make swift decisions: the clay dries very fast, and it’s also very weak. If it’s too wet or too dry, I can’t attach the next layer of clay. I can’t leave it overnight and come back the next day; I have to commit to the process.

I created slap-slab because I was trying to get away from perfection. With slap-slab, I have to accept how a work ends up instead of judging what it could have been. I have more compassion for myself. The process is a metaphor for lived experience and the ways we navigate our lives. I don’t make many slap-slab pieces with legs because it’s hard. The pieces are very light, but they have metal bases. Believer II, with the legs, has a rod through a leg and the torso to hold the head up.

I make the beads for all of my sculptures. I give the sculptures the adornment that looks or feels right. The beaded necklaces can become like arms embracing the figure. I usually omit arms because they have so much reference to power and agency. I’m conveying instead a moment of vulnerability. Without arms, the strings of beads become gestural.

BRJ: You’ve spoken about your presence in the works, through your fingerprints and the slap-slab process of making, as well as the momentary and fleeting nature of the creative experience. Through firing, the ceramic sculpture becomes fixed. I find an interesting tension between the ephemeral and the enduring result.

Clay figural sculpture with a black body, elongated neck and tan head with closed eyes.RBS: Once I fire something, it becomes eternal, a relic. I am making future potsherds. I walk into the hills and see the fingerprints of my ancestors and then go make more. I have a very engaged relationship with history and lineage.

BRJ: The figural pair in the last gallery of the exhibition is titled Old Masters. Given that your ancestors—including both parents—are also artists, are they your “old masters”?

RBS: These pieces were created as parents, as a mother and a father figure. They deconstruct the idea in Western art of “old master” artists and question who has the right to knowledge. For example, I take earth-colored clay and paint it with traditional pottery designs from my region. The knowledge of my ancestry flips the script about who holds knowledge and who is the master.

Much of my work is not about what it is but how I do it. I’m sensitive to cultural exploitation. I don’t speak for all Native people. I don’t even speak for my tribe. Because I grew up very much a part of my community, I understand its nuances. I also come from a very private community. If you share too much cultural knowledge, you can get kicked out. I have something incredibly important to me—my background, heritage, and its strong foundation—that I could lose.

Thus, I consider basing my conversation around my heritage as problematic. I’m trying to build a conversation with other communities that speak an entirely different cultural language. I want to use my own vulnerability, processes, and stories to demonstrate how we can all be vulnerable and committed to holding many perspectives without judgments about identity and self. This is why I often expose my building style, my hands, my fingerprints in the clay; the process is my own making, my own becoming.

Witness / Rose B. Simpson is curated by Bryan R. Just, Peter Jay Sharp, Class of 1952, Curator and Lecturer of Art of the Ancient Americas.

Art@Bainbridge is made possible through the generous support of the Virginia and Bagley Wright, Class of 1946, Program Fund for Modern and Contemporary Art; the Kathleen C. Sherrerd Program Fund for American Art; Joshua R. Slocum, Class of 1998, and Sara Slocum; Barbara and Gerald Essig; and Rachelle Belfer Malkin, Class of 1986, and Anthony E. Malkin. Additional support is provided by Sueyun and Gene Locks, Class of 1959; the Humanities Council; and The Native American and Indigenous Studies Initiative at Princeton (NAISIP).