A Conversation with Connie Zehr

Connie Zehr in her studio, Horseheads, New York. 2011. Photo by Jamieson Riling. © Connie Zehr, courtesy of Connie Zehr.  Reproduced by permission.

Connie Zehr in her studio, Horseheads, New York. 2011. Photo by Jamieson Riling. courtesy of Connie Zehr.for Claremont Graduate University School of Arts and Humanities Oral History Artist Series.

Interview conducted by telephone at the artist’s home studio in Horseheads, New York, July 8 and August 19, 2011 by Jill Thayer, Ph.D. “In Their Own Words: Oral Histories of CGU Art” was presented in an exhibition Sept. 4-21, 2013 at CGU East and Peggy Phelps Galleries. The series was curated by Dr. Thayer and sponsored by Claremont Graduate University School of Arts and Humanities.


Born in Evanston, Illinois, Connie Zehr received a BFA in sculpture at Ohio State University in 1960. She has created on-site ephemeral installations in museums and galleries nationally and internationally including: The Whitney Museum of American Art (New York City, NY); The Museum of Contemporary Art (Chicago, IL); Pasadena Art Museum (Pasadena, CA); Taipei Fine Art Museum (Taipei, Taiwan); Salvatori Ala Galeria (Milan, Italy); Wadsworth Atheneum (Hartford, CT); Newspace Gallery (Los Angeles, CA); and numerous university galleries.

In 1987, the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery in Barnsdall Park (Los Angeles, CA) mounted an 18 year retrospective exhibition where she recreated scaled down versions of six major sand installations in the 10,000 sq. ft. space. Ten years later, in the same space, she participated in an exhibition, “SENSUALITY IN THE ABSTRACT,” where she created three new installations (consecutively) over a three month period and exhibited the first “iris” prints relating to those installations.

She is included in “Sunshine Muse,” by Peter Plagens; “Original,” by Eleanor Munro; and “L.A. Rising,” by Lynn Kienholz. Connie is an Emeritus Professor of Art at Claremont Graduate University where she taught in the art department from 1982-2009 and was Chairperson from 2001-2008. She now resides in New York.

JILL THAYER: Connie, I understand you recently retired from teaching, of course, at Claremont and now you are in New York. Can you tell me a little bit about this transition?

CONNIE ZEHR: Well, it was pretty much a financial decision, because I simply couldn’t afford to live in Los Angeles, and in the house that I had been in and had owned for about 30 years in Claremont. Since I was no longer teaching, it felt like I was free to go anyplace. Artists are not like athletes or dancers­, we make art until we die.

JT: Sure.

CZ: So, I wanted to be someplace where I could continue doing my work and not have to worry about the financial situation. I moved here because my older son works for Corning Corporation in Corning, New York, and it’s very beautiful. And, even though it was a very difficult move and a big transition, I’m really happy that I’ve done it and I’m happy to be here. But, it has taken me a while to get myself adjusted, and proceed with my work.

JT: What childhood factors contributed to you becoming an artist. Do you remember any specific experiences?

CZ: I grew up in Indiana and my earlier memories were of living on a farm.  We lived on my grandfather’s farm in Indiana and actually, it’s interesting, that location was called Sand Hill Farm. My grandfather was Amish and his property was just adjacent to his parents’. So, they had lots of land so they were farmers and that’s where I started. When I was about six years old, I remember some friends of my parents gave my mother and I Christmas presents, and they gave my mother colored pencils and they gave me perfume, and to this day I think they must have gotten it mixed up because I was terribly insulted, I thought, you know, “I’m the artist, I should have gotten the colored pencils!” So, at a very early age, somehow, even though I was living on a farm and had really no idea what it meant to be an artist, I considered myself to be a creative person.

JT: Was anyone in your family an artist?

CZ: No, nobody. The families really were . . . my mother’s family lived in Lafayette, Indiana and she came from a really large family, and my dad’s family, were obviously, all farmers. So, there was no role model at all. I think the most sophisticated experience I had was when I was in high school, my freshman and sophomore year, my father was in India with the Point 4 program, and I worked with a woman [whose husband was with the foreign service in Delhi], who was an artist and she had a studio. And I worked with her several mornings a week. So, that became, I suppose, that was my very first real practical experience of what an artist did. She would work in her studio in the morning . . . she would not answer the telephone. Her friends all knew not to call her at certain times, so that was probably my first experience with that.

JT: Here you are in a different country and a different culture, and you are pursuing art from this new perspective. That had to be interesting.

CZ: It was, we went to art museums, we traveled through Europe on our way home. We didn’t do any stopping when we went to India, but on the way back, which was better, because by then I was 16 and so I saw a lot of things I wouldn’t have seen if I was just living in Ohio.

JT: I understand that you studied briefly at Michigan State where you took a ceramics class?

CZ: I started college at Michigan State because I went to . . . two summers before that I had gone to Interlochen Music Camp and they had an art program there. And so, the man who was teaching art was also teaching at Michigan State, so I got interested in going there because of their program. So, my first year, I was I was at Michigan State and then after that I transferred to Ohio State so that I could live at home. My family did not have that . . . it was always a matter of finances to, you know, how you were going to afford to do these things. All beginning art majors, you take drawing, ceramics, painting, and everything. That was my first experience with working three-dimensionally so I was completely hooked. Before that I had, in India, all the work I had done were drawings and paintings, because I was working with [Janet Sewell], and that was all that I knew. Even as a child, I was always drawing. So, it wasn’t until I went to Michigan State and took that ceramics class. There was something about, you know, not just your ideas, but the physical information that is in your body or in your hands or something, that really clicked for me, I liked that a lot.

JT: You continued to Ohio State University as a sculpture major where you received your BFA degree. Tell me a little about those experiences.

CZ: Well, the art department there was very different than it is now.

JT: In what way?

CONNIE ZEHR: The sculpture department was over in some agronomy building in the basement or something because they had a very old building and, there just wasn’t room for all the classes. Now they have a huge new building. I went to interview someone that we were interviewing as a Dean who was in their Art History department, and their Art department now is in a huge building, it has like 12 floors or something and three floors are devoted just to computers. So it is a very different department now than it was then, but when I was there it was very intimate and you could work there all the time, all day, on the weekends if you wanted to. They had visiting artists. I remember David Smith came one time and spoke to us, and talked to us in our studios and I remember I was complaining to him about something, I can’t remember. I didn’t have enough of something, I was complaining because the school didn’t provide it and he just said, “Well, go get it!” And I said, “Oh yeah.” It just never dawned on me, “Oh yeah! I’m in charge of what I’m doing! If I need something, just go get it!”

JT: The words of David Smith!

CZ: Yes. And my [former husband], David Elder was the T.A. (teaching assistant) for the person teaching the sculpture class.

JT: He was an artist also?

CZ: Yes, he was in a graduate student in that program, and that’s how we met.  We married right after I graduated and he continued as a graduate TA.

JT: What did you do after your studies?

CZ: David got a job teaching at Valparaiso University, which is where he graduated from, that’s in Indiana. And, I did some things. Again, I was kind of back to doing drawings. We were there for a couple years and then moved to California.

Connie also taught elementary school for two years while in Valparaiso, Indiana.

JT: What year was this?

CZ: It was1964 and I was pregnant with Eric at that time and so we moved out here and we were in Long Beach for a couple of years before he then got a job at Pasadena City College. By then, well, actually, in Long Beach, I was making sculpture again. As soon as we got to California, things really started to click and when we moved to Sierra Madre and David was teaching in Pasadena, I think one of the really important things for me was that I saw one of Judy Chicago’s smoke pieces. I don’t know if you are familiar with those but she did them in several locations where she would. . . . Well, one that I remember in particular, was at the Pasadena, or, what is now the Norton Simon Museum, around that pool she had people set up colored smoke and so they would light them and then . . . so you just had this ephemeral experience that lasted for what, maybe 30 minutes. So that was my first experience with seeing something that relied on your visual memory. There was nothing left, there was no object. I was quite fascinated with that.

JT: How did your work evolve? I know your first show was at Mount San Antonio College.

CZ: Right.

JT: Conceptually, as an installation artist working with sand as your medium, talk about that time and how that evolved.

CZ: Well, we were living in Pasadena and David was teaching at Pasadena City College, we both had studios there and I was . . . I’m trying to think, one of the other things that was really important was that I saw an exhibit at the Newport Harbor Art Museum was originally on the peninsula in Balboa, and I saw an exhibit there of Barry Le Va did one of his talcum pieces where there was talcum on the floor and, let me see, who were the other? Oh, Allen Ruppersberg did a piece where it was, you know, he did that “Al’s Café” where he had a plate and he put like sticks and rocks and leaves on it, and you were being served food. So, he had a piece, it wasn’t that, it wasn’t the plate, I can’t remember. It was like leaves and maybe a skull or something if I remember, and so, you know, that was another example of sculpture or something that took up space, existed in the space, and it was a real material but it was totally ephemeral and I was very excited by that.

JT: How did your first exhibition come about?

CZ: We were friends with Max Cole and her husband [Carl Knitig]. He was teaching at Mount San Antonio College. The way they worked at that time was that the faculty, if they wanted to, they rotated being the gallery director. We were friends and we had dinner together, and our kids played together and we visited each other’s studios, and so he knew what I was doing and he knew that I was doing interesting things, but I had never had a huge space to do anything. So, that gallery, there were two gallery spaces and he gave me a show. I called it “Fallen Sand,” [“Mound Fields”], because, and I never did this after that I used sawhorses. Well, I built these huge [sawhorses] and then put canvas across the top on 2-by-4s, and poked holes on the canvas and poured the sand from the top and it fell into mounds on the floor. It was complicated because I had to kind of teeter across in order to fill the room.

JT: But it seemed like it was a controlled environment.

CZ: It was a gallery. The interesting thing about it, they were both called, “Mound Fields.” One was really small mounds and the other was larger mounds that people could walk between and one of the . . . it was Joe Soldate, who is a ceramicist and I think he was teaching at Cal State LA or maybe Pasadena City College, somewhere where he knew David and he came to see this and he said, “Well, Connie, have you ever seen a Zen garden?”

JT: Yes, absolutely.

CZ: I said, “No, I’ve never seen anything like that.” So, he loaned me two really big, gorgeous books of Zen gardens. At the time I thought, well, I could feel bad, this is nothing new, you know, people have been doing this for hundreds of years, but then I also thought, I’m onto something. This is something that is, you know, and I feel very important about that kind of continuity of creativity across cultures and across time is very interesting to me, because I think artists are somehow kind of tapping into something that is not personal, it is bigger than the individual.

JT: You had this first show and then went on to exhibit “Eggs” at the Pasadena Art Museum and Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford . . . or Mount San Antonio?

CZ: Yes, Mount San Antonio was in the late Sixties. But the show in Pasadena at the Pasadena Art Museum wasn’t until 1972.

JT: And then the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford?

CZ: Yes. And that was later, I redid that “Egg” piece because of all my installations, it’s the easiest one to re-do because it has a grid, and you can make the grid anywhere, you know what I mean? And also, just by then, I had . . . well, for one, you have to be known in order for people to pick you to do something at the Pasadena Art Museum. And so, by then, I had enough of a reputation so that then, I was invited to do some other things.

JT: So this stemmed from that first show. People saw it and the word was out. 

CZ: I think it stemmed from that, yes, that first show I did at Mount San Antonio was a real breakthrough. It was unusual. I invented it right there. It didn’t happen in my studio. I was experimenting with things, but to do something on a large-scale like that and with proper lighting and everything, that was really the first installation.

JT: It had to be a thrill. Then you went on and did an exhibition at Cal State University in LA, and in 1974 . . . I’m just kind of reading some of these exhibitions that you exhibited, “White Sand with Hand-formed Unfired Terracotta,” [This installation was at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago]. Tell me a little about that

CZ: Right. I did that when we were living . . . we moved to Chatsworth and David was teaching at Northridge, and I was working with porcelain and hand-forming things and it was all white clay and some was terracotta, but most of it was white clay. Some of it I had dipped in tea so it had this lightly brown look. There were hundreds of pieces and I used upholstery foam and I cut a slit in it, and then I slipped the clay down into that, and I transported the upholstery foam in suitcases and took it to the museum. And then they ordered the sand so the sand was there. There were two other people in that show, John White and Lloyd Hamrol . . . oh, and Barbara Munger. So there were four of us in that exhibit at the Contemporary Art Museum. The name of the exhibit was Four Los Angeles Sculptors, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, Illinois and my piece in that was called, “The Place between Two Waters.”

JT: So, your career is just burgeoning and by 1975, you reached the Whitney Biennial in New York displaying “Red Carpet.” Tell me about that whole experience and how that came about?

CZ: Barbara Haskell curated the show at the Pasadena Art Museum, the 15 Los Angeles artists where the egg piece was done, and Marsha Tucker was the curator for the Whitney Biennial that year. She called me, and she and her assistant were in LA and they asked me to come to the hotel, and have a little interview and show them slides of my work, which I did, and then I was selected.

JT: Tell me what was going through your mind during that time.

CZ: Well, one of the things, Jill, that is difficult about what I do, is that you don’t do it in your studio, and then decide which one is the best and then just ship it. You have to go there with your whole self and make sure you have all your tools, and enough materials and so forth. So, that always was my major concern is that did I have everything I needed? And then I was . . . then again, I used clay. That was unfired red terracotta and I transported it the same way I did the little white pieces I had done for the Chicago show, and then I also sent . . . I collected that red sand from the Valley of Fire in Utah.

JT: Oh, yes.

CZ: So, I had to send the sand in the truck that went from LA to the Whitney, That was . . . oh, probably, it came about maybe 30 inches off the floor. It was kind of like a big, elongated mound and so, they had to order white sand just from building supply to be at the museum. What I would do would be to make the form and coat it with colored sand because it was very difficult to collect that. Then I placed the clay in it when I made it. It was interesting. That photograph that I sent you, they had a landscape painting of a mountain on the wall and I was very disappointed by the placement because it implied that my piece was a landscape.

JT: Here you have your body of work, your methodology, and your approach, but then, when you do your installations, you’re working in a foreign space.

CZ: That’s right.

JT: You have to contend with the architectural symbolism of that space that is already implied,. Tell me about this, is that difficult? 

CZ: For the most part, and a lot of people have done, like Michael Asher does all of his work in relationship to the space.

JT: Yes, installation artists, of course, but in your particular work?

CZ: Well, for me, you know, my pieces are a lot like a painting, it really relates to the floor so I just need the floor plan. I need to know where the doors are, you know, so that it’s about how the traffic is going to move around the piece if it can, and that’s what I prefer is for people to walk all around it. In those early pieces I really worked off of a grid, I made a grid myself on the floor with tape to place the mounds and to establish the diameter of the work. So then, I just worked within that and removed the tape as I worked. One of the things that I actually . . . from the piece at Mount SAC, I would pour the mounds and in all my work I do the major elements, the major events, and then I go back in and I fill it in. I know when I did the “Egg” piece, people thought, how in the world did you get all the way back there? Well, I started in the back and then I moved forward, but that was a very important thing, to fill it in. It just snapped together as one image.

JT: They are absolutely stunning.

CZ: So, that was the major, just an accidental decision that I made in that one show that I continued to use.

JT: Well, I think it is interesting because a lot of it has to do with the curatorial approach, the way that your work was positioned in the space and transitions from that landscape.

CZ: Well, part of that also, Jill, is the photograph. I left before the opening, so I didn’t really stay. You know, we had two little kids at home and I had to get back so . . . Anyway, that photograph . . . when you are in a space, unless you are the curator and are hanging it, you experience it by walking through. And my pieces, for the most part, are so large … when you are looking down at that, your peripheral vision just blocks out everything else. On the other hand, I think of the juxtaposition of it was . . . I mean for me, I don’t want to dwell on it that much.

JT: It’s an interesting point though.

CZ: It’s a very interesting point, because none of my work is, I mean, it [“Red Carpet”] relates to landscape because it is large and because, obviously, it is using a material from the landscape, it is using sand, not always, but for the most part, the sand is a major part of those big installations. But they really are installations of the mind, they are conceptual, they are not meant to be, you know, it’s not a diorama of a particular location, it’s a location of my mind at the time.

JT: Certainly, and the use of transitory materials where the artwork no longer exists.

CZ: Right.

JT: It is so ephemeral.

CZ: That’s right.

JT: As an installation artist, can you speak to your medium and methodology?

CZ: For one thing, I kept thinking it would be very nice, as I got older, to do something smaller, something that didn’t take quite so much effort and work .

JT: The practicality of art.

CZ: Yes, being practical. I was just beginning to realize that this couldn’t go on forever. But, no matter how I rationally thought that I should adjust the scale and my materials, I just kept getting more ideas to do large pieces, and I just went with that. I felt I had to honor that more than all of those rational practical things that I realized I should do. I ended up being able, because I was still being invited to do installations, I ended up being able to continue to develop that work and I used a lot of different things besides sand. And one of the things that very early on … I didn’t want anything in the work to represent a person, even though, it’s interesting, when I was in school, the work that I did was mostly figurative. But once I started doing the installations, I really had this feeling that the viewer was the figure . . . the artist was the figure that you were always looking at something landscape-like. But then I began to do things that referred to the figure, like there were several that had furniture in them, like chairs and tables, and doorways. I mean, they referred to architecture and those installations where I used furniture and eventually did carve fragments of the figure. I mean, again, I was alluding to the figure but we were not talking about a specific figure, we were talking about either a mythological element or just the fragment was like referring to something, not actually illustrating it in that sense. So I wanted to bring those ideas in. I didn’t want it to be so completely abstract.

JT: I was reading from the 1992 article, the “Archetypal Images and Landscapes; Figures and Installations,” that you’ve collaborated with M.A. Greenstein, and you discussed the aesthetic and archetypal imagery of your work, and those metaphoric landscape imagery and using the figure. It was interesting, one of the references I saw was your piece, “Threshold,” about the one female turning into the tree and the reference, I guess, was Daphne from mythology escaping from Apollo, but it was also metaphoric for your own escape from. If I may quote, “purely literal interpretation of your work to psychological interpretation, from pure abstraction to the figure.” Can you elaborate on that?

CZ: The work also is referring to nature and nature in every sense. In other words, it isn’t an automobile, it’s something that refers to natural form. The idea behind the art is that a tree and a person are both natural elements in the world that we experience in our own experience and then the reference to mythology again is kind of a bridge to history, and the way ancient people tried to organize their experience. So, that whole . . . a lot of my work where I use animals and those kinds of . . . and rocks, and wood is really pointing to a natural progression that relates to nature, it isn’t artificial in any way. There is no way to really define that something is either natural or artificial, but that is what I was trying to do. In fact, even with the sand, I only would do what the sand would do. I never mixed it with anything in order to make it into, make it go higher than it normally would. I was very interested in all natural processes in relationship to the sand, and then the other things where I was making reference; with the animals I was making a reference again to something that was natural. In other words, unless it’s a dog show, or a horse show or something, you know, animals are doing pretty much instinctively what they do. So, I was interested in that, I was trying to keep myself on some kind of balance of following my instincts and following those rules and relating to the rules of the gallery, the space, how much money I had to buy materials, all of those things were elements that all had to be taken into consideration.

JT: It was more of a metaphoric landscape, I understand.

CZ: Yes.

JT: Can you speak to the subject of gender in your work?

CZ: Well, it is always there. It isn’t terribly overt. I never was doing overtly feminist work I don’t think. I’m sure there were people who could interpret it that way. 

JT: People had made references to various pieces in that regard and I wanted to know what your perspective was on that.

CZ: I made everything myself, and the scale was always in relationship to my body. In other words, it was as tall as I could reach and as far as I could reach.

JT: Sure.

CZ: I never used tools or anything like that. I don’t know, I suppose those are feminine decisions––those are decisions that women, as very practical people, have to do things by themselves. I had to follow those kinds of guidelines for the process of making my work and I think the sand has, because of the light and everything, and because of the mounds, I think people could interpret it as elements of the feminine body, but it wasn’t that. But, a mound of sand is a mound of sand. Because I’ve had somebody wrote something once about one of my pieces and they talked about the egg piece looking like breasts and the eggs looked like nipples. The piece was called “Eggs.” It wasn’t called “Breasts!” And it was about becoming, I mean, an egg is a symbol of something that hasn’t evolved, hasn’t emerged yet. I was really interested in that quality and also those early ones were called “Fields,” so you’re looking at small mounds, like a plant that hasn’t broken the surface yet.  I think that is part of the feminine, and that’s the creative aspect of the feminine, but it isn’t specific and doesn’t illustrate the female body.

JT: In this article there is also reference to surrealism in your work. Can you elaborate on the art historical connection there?

CZ: Well, one of the things I participated in when I was teaching in Claremont, of course, I was in Claremont for almost 30 years, and very early on I was going to the Quaker meeting and there was an elderly gentleman there who had retired from teaching Philosophy at Mount Sac and he was a Jungian psychologist and he was conducting a dream group, and also there is a very active Jung club in Claremont, Carl Jung, the psychologist. So, I got very involved with that group and went to the dream group every week and so all of those aspects of Jungian psychology became just part of the way I was thinking about what I was doing, and that is how the whole reference to mythology came about.

JT: And also, the masculine and feminine.

CZ: Yes.

JT: And the personal and sexual relationships and so on.

CZ: Right. I gave that up after a while. There were two reasons for that . . .

JT: You explored that, right?

CZ: Yes, I kind of did that. The other thing was, when working with the polystyrene, I became allergic to it.

JT: Really?

CZ: I would walk in my studio and within about 10 minutes my nose, the insides of my sinuses would swell up and I couldn’t breath.

JT: Not good for an artist.

CZ: Yes! And Dean DeCocker was the gallery director and the shop director and he, and I ended up having to clean out my studio, completely sweep it out, paint the floor . . . paint the walls. We had to take everything off the shelves, because we didn’t do that at first, we just did the walls and the floors, we didn’t do anything with the shelves and all the stuff was still on, so I was still affected by that. So, we had to take everything off the shelves, completely wash them. So, I had a period of two or three years there, when I was in a transition of “Well, now what do I do?” I couldn’t keep using that material that I was using, so I went back to actually doing the sand installations and of course, the sand isn’t entirely without problems because silica dust is poisonous.

JT: Of course. Do you wear a mask?

CZ: I do sometimes if I’m working in close quarters. But, now I don’t use that technique where the sand is falling and when it is falls it makes a cloud of dust, I don’t do that anymore.  But even working around that, and the Styrofoam things, I was coating them with wax that I colored with mineral pigments and those are very dangerous to work with. So, it was a combination of a lot of things and everything artists work with . . . oil paints, thinners . . . everything is toxic!

JT: Absolutely, we choose our battles.

CZ: Well, that was the reason I had to give up working with the more figurative and representational imagery. It was just a practical thing that had to do with my health. Still I was, I still think that I just kind of lost interest in that. I wanted to go back to something that was more open and not so specific, not so much about story telling. And also, I had someone, speaking to the Surrealist association, that I was actually working with images from my dreams.

JT: Interesting.

CZ: Again, I wasn’t interested in illustrating the landscape and wasn’t interested in illustrating my dreams. I simply wanted to take elements from that because I have pretty visually specific dreams. Meaning, they’re not, there isn’t a lot of conversation. I don’t know what other people’s dreams are like, but in mine, I have objects, color . . . so, it was fascinating. It was a way of working with your dream by making it into something, allowing it to have another life. I always felt like a dream was coming from something to something else, something outside of myself. And it was the conversation, it wasn’t me repeating, you know, I wasn’t being the last speaker just repeating what my dream had said, but it was as though the dream had come and I would have some association with that, and then there would be another conversation and that’s kind of the way I thought of the installations.

JT: Perhaps it was a subconscious influence.

CZ: Yes, I’m sure it was. The more you pay attention to that, the more you get. It’s like a gift, you know, when something gives you something and you appreciate it, they think, “Well, hey, I might do that again.”

JT: How does your perception factor into your work. What do you wish the viewers to take away from the experience?

CZ: The viewer, well, that is an interesting conversation in relationship to these surreal-like landscapes that I was doing because a woman, a curator, once said, “I don’t like these as well as I like your more abstract work because they’re kind of irrational, and it makes me feel like I’m stupid because I can’t figure it out.” So, I didn’t want them to be linear, it wasn’t a story about something. It was something that you looked at and you didn’t take it in, in a rational manner. You experienced it on a different, on a level that’s different from the rational, literal, interpretation of something.

JT: Almost metaphysical?

CZ: Well, I don’t know. I mean, I don’t really understand what the word metaphysical means. I don’t think I would use that term because I don’t understand it. But, we have all kinds of experiences. Every individual experiences things on a daily basis that are practical. I mean, you and I . . . you get up in the morning and make your coffee and wash your cup, and you brush your teeth. Those are all physical things that we do but at the same time we are thinking about a lot of things . . . we’re listening to music . . . we’re reading, you know. So, I was interested in pulling all of that together in some way and I always felt that by making art, by making things visible and physical so that you could walk around it and see it, that it helped you understand it on some level, not on an intellectual level, because I didn’t expect it to be explained or understood on that way, but it helped me just work through and work with an image or an idea in order to round it out, and to maybe understand it myself.

JT: And how do you view the relationship of your work to contemporary culture?

CZ: It has changed so much, Jill. And, this is one of the reasons I retired, was because I think young people, with technology and photography, and a lot of the things that young artists are dealing with, I’m just not very interested.  And I don’t understand it on the level that they are experiencing it.

JT: But, you’re coming from a different place in your own work.

CZ: Yes, and I think that when artists get to be, well, I mean, not everybody is teaching. You get so deeply involved in your own process and where you’re building on what you’ve done over the years, and you are drawing from things. To me, that is one of the important aspects of installation, is that because it was made in place. Robert Irwin coined that term, “made in place,” so, it was at the location of a particular gallery, and at this place in time.

JT: That’s right.

CZ: So, the ideas that you come up with, I think, when it’s most meaningful is when you are drawing all of those things together and it becomes a really important aspect of that moment. It’s not like a painting you did 10 years ago. When people experience it, they experience it that moment.

JT: In that moment and time, that particular context.

CZ: And place.

We discuss Connie’s teaching experiences at Claremont and the Art program.

JT: Was there a certain mission that you were all aspiring to in the curriculum?

CZ: I think, I’m using Roland’s words, but I think most of the time, I can’t speak for Michael, but I agreed with that. We were in-sync in terms of the way we thought about art and the way we thought about students. But, I think the main thing is that it was a school where it was a community and people learned from each other and the faculty were practicing artists. We were just a few years older in experience than the students themselves, so it was very studio-oriented and it also had several places where people could have exhibitions. You would put up a show for a week. You could put up your drawings. You could put up your paintings. You could do an installation. It was always important to have places in the building where people could move things out of the studio and present their work to the community, to the art community in the school in a different way. It was really a community of artists. It was like a big art factory where people made things, and where other artists came and talked about what they were doing, not only to the whole student body, but from the very beginning, they invited artists to come and students would sign up and have individual meetings with them in their studios. It was a very socially oriented place.

I remember before I was talking about going back to Ohio State and how different the building was. I remember walking into the building and there was no gallery, it was just an office, and you walked down the hallways and the doors were all closed. Claremont is very open. When you walk into that place, the galleries are there, and that’s the first thing you see is the galleries. And the second thing is the office and then you have permission to go around and go upstairs, and go through all the studios. It is a very open place. So, people learn by just being in an environment like that, not only from the things you read and the things you talk about in the class, but also the other work you see, that students are doing.

JT: I think this is really important. Professor Emeritus Roland Reiss is one of the artists in our Oral History Series. He was describing the early years from Claremont Graduate School and how it grew out of Scripps College Art Department, and the separate programs at Pomona and Pitzer. And they had the studios at one point in Harvey Mudd in the basement.

CZ: That’s right.

JT: And how that evolved.

CZ: Yes, I was a visiting artist when they were over in the basement of Harvey Mudd. That was the first time I was there.

JT: Yes, and the different structure that evolved and the open studios . . . the individual workspaces . . . how they facilitated the artist community and the exchange. Also, another key component to this was the artists, and the students, they had a say in the ongoing activities and the operations.

CZ: Right.

JT: It’s truly unique.

CZ: I think Cal State Fullerton, as I remember, we would set aside a couple of days [to interview] and people who were applying to the program. This is one thing that Claremont doesn’t do specifically, but at Fullerton people were interviewed. Faculty, were in a room, the students would come in with their slides and the faculty would ask them questions. So, you would schedule so many each day and then the faculty would go through and decide which they would admit. At Claremont, we don’t interview them all together but often people will come and visit the school, and interview with the faculty. So, when you see the slides, you remember talking to that person. But, basically, it’s not so much about the student and their personality as it is the work. Everybody looks at the work. Faculty has a larger percentage in their vote than the students do, but it’s collaborative, every part of it is a collaborative experience.

JT: Certainly, it is a very unique situation and one that incites creativity and intellectual discourse. The discussion groups, I’ve heard were another important part of the program and also the visiting artist series. Tell me about that throughout your tenure.

CZ: One of the first classes I taught was a colloquium, in which, I think, we could only have 10 students or 12 students in it, and I invited artists to come for the day and the artists would meet with each one of the students in my class for, I can’t remember, half-hour or 45 minutes or something, and then we would take them to lunch. The first thing they would do at the beginning of the day was they showed slides of their work, so the students knew the artists, they knew what they did, and then the artists would go to the individual student’s studios. So, all along there has been a presentation by the artist and then a more individual interaction between that artist and students. That was always an important part of it, and an understanding that someone can’t walk into your studio and figure out what you are doing right away, but you get some kind of an outside opinion or information about what you are doing from these people who are already out there working in the world. I want to say something about one of the things I did when I was Chair, probably the only thing I did as Chair that I liked. It was a very important part of the program and how I understand the program, and what being in that program means to people.

JT: Yes, please.

CZ: For the school, one of the things I did was I made a lot of changes in the building. I divided up the offices so that there was a space for the secretaries to do all their faxing and their emailing, and all those things, and have their mailboxes in a place. It used to be Susan [Lindley] and Roland [Reiss’] office was one big room and if you wanted to use the fax machine, you had to walk all the way through Susan’s office to use it. And, of course, if Susan was on the phone or she had an appointment with somebody, or if she was just trying to get work done, she was always interrupted. So I organized the front office in a way that everybody could get their work done a bit easier. They used to have desks in the front, there were rows of chairs and the students would sit their with their feet on the secretaries desks and eat their lunch and gossip. [Laughs] And one of the things when Dean DeCocker was there, he designed the desks now that they have so it’s kind of like a wooden . . . so it’s higher so that everything on their desk is private. We took all the chairs out so the secretaries could talk on the phone and they could get their work done without being interrupted. [Laughs] And, in the foyer, I bought those two couches from IKEA and the bookshelves

JT: They’re perfect.

CZ: Yes! And I got that table with the chairs, so if people wanted to eat their lunch there, they could eat out there. That area never had anything in it . . . it was just used for openings.

JT: It’s a community, so people gather there. Right.

CZ: Yes, it became a place where people––they needed to sit down, talk to each other. They wanted to eat there at school, not just in their studios. So, I felt like that was… and I had a studio there, Roland had a studio there, Michael had a studio there, Dean had his stuff back in the shop in areas. There were all these private places where people were using the space. You know, Roland and Michael were no longer using their studios––they were just storing things there. So, when I became Chair we had 20 studios over in the theater building and when Scripps bought that building we had to get out of there. So, that meant we had 20 less studios and 20 less students. I made room in that building in places like, you know, our old studios and back in the shop and all of those things. I made room for 18 more studios.

JT: So, the total in the program, didn’t you get up to about 65 students?

CZ: I think we have enough studios for maybe 64 or something.

JT: That’s tremendous.

CZ: We divided the shop, because one whole end of the shop was just storage, so we took that and we made storage units in the foyer for all that wood and stuff that they used for shop. Anyway, that for me, that was a really important thing to not only make room for studios, but because the building was big, there was a lot of space that wasn’t being used very well. And I think that is the contribution I made to the program that didn’t change the program, but simply accommodated students so they could do the things they needed to do. And I think that’s part of my installation mentality. I love organizing space and how people use space, and how I use space.

JT: It is intuitive, those sensibilities you contribute to the organization of space that affect the dynamics between people and relationships.


The audio recording and narrative transcript is in the public domain and may be used without permission. Quotes and excerpts must be cited as follows: Oral history interview with Connie Zehr by Jill Thayer, Ph.D., 2011 July 8 and 2011 August 18, Claremont Graduate University, School of Arts and Humanities Oral History Artist Series. Photographs courtesy of Connie Zehr, David Elder, John Elder, Bob Bassler, Martha Alf, Frank J. Thomas, Chris Mounger, Carol Saindon, Gene Ogami, and Jamieson Riling are copyright protected and require expressed permission by the contributors for use. Other photographs and art images are copyright protected and may be used without permission, and cited as follows: [Image title] ©2011 [Artist or Photographer]; Oral history interview with Connie Zehr by Jill Thayer, Ph.D., 2011 July 8 and 2011 August 18, Claremont Graduate University, School of Arts and Humanities Oral History Artist Series. 

The above is a partial transcript from the original interview. The full transcript is included in Archives of American Art at The Smithsonian Institution. For more on the work of Connie Zehr, visit: http://www.conniezehr.com; and “‘In Their Own Words: Oral Histories of CGU Art,” see: Jill Thayer, Ph.D. – The Artist, Emergence, and Culture: http://www.jillthayer.wordpress.com/2012/12/08/in-their-own-words-oral-histories-of-cgu-art/.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s