A Conversation with Mowry Baden

Mowry Baden at Pomona College, Claremont, California (c. 2011). Photo © January Parkos Arnall for Claremont Graduate University School of Arts and Humanities Oral History Artist Series.

Mowry Baden at Pomona College, Claremont, California (2011). Photo courtesy January Parkos Arnall for Claremont Graduate University School of Arts and Humanities Oral History Artist Series.

Interview conducted by telephone at the artist’s home studio in Victoria, British Columbia, August 14, August 20, and August 24, 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 Los Angeles in 1936 and educated at Pomona College and Stanford University, Mowry Baden has lived and worked in Canada since 1971. He has practiced sculpture for over 40 years and has taught sculpture at Raymond College, Pomona College, the University of British Columbia, and the University of Victoria, from which he retired in 1997. He has influenced a generation of sculptors in Canada and the U.S. with his engaging, participatory installations and has challenged contemporary sculpture through a staggering number of projects and artworks that borrow from psychology and architecture.

Articulating an internal awareness of movement and posture has always been the most important element in his work. For more than 40 years, he has developed various methods of decentering vision and interfering with habitual human gestures. He has built harnesses, furniture, rooms, pathways and catwalks, all with the goal of impinging upon the viewer’s movements and awakening a physical self-awareness that was previously unconscious.

Baden tries to provoke a perceptual crisis that assaults the viewer’s confidence in the information that comes through the senses. His practice has always involved materials, just like any artist who makes objects. Ideally, however, he is less interested in the object than in the experience. He wants the viewer to enter the object (or the space) and have an experience that is visceral, internal, and sensorially cross-circuited.

He is the recipient of numerous grants from the Canada Council for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts and has held solo and group exhibitions across North America including Los Angeles, Mexico City, Montreal, Vancouver and New York (including the Museum of Modern Art). His work is represented in prestigious collections in Canada and the USA. He has been commissioned to create public art works in Victoria, Vancouver, Seattle, San Francisco, Santa Barbara, Irvine CA, Pittsburgh PA, Washington DC and Lewiston, NY. Baden received a Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts in 2006.

JILL THAYER: Your father was an architect. I understand he was your main teacher and influence.

MOWRY BADEN: An enormous influence. He, my father, was bipolar. Bipolar people have colossal energy, and they make perfect companions for kids because you can’t wear them out. He was a very creative person, full of ideas but also full of generosity. He was keen to see his children try everything; experiment with everything and to exercise their own creativity.

JT: Were you able to go to his office or did he work from home?

MB: Usually he worked at home, except for during the war years when he worked in a defense plant, the old Northrop Aircraft factory in Southern California making drawings for the assembly line, to assist the workers fabricating airplanes. He said it was the worst work he’d ever done in his life, just deadly boring. Every once in a while he would play hooky. He would come into my room and say, “Hey Mowry, you don’t look good. You don’t look like you can go to school today. You’re sick aren’t you?” “No, Dad, I’m fine.” “No, you’re sick today.” And, he would just trot out … talk to my mom about how sick I was. Since she was going out, he’d be happy to stay home with me. So, he wouldn’t go to work, and I’d stay home from school, and we’d spend the day essentially sitting on my bed and carving an airplane out of a redwood two by four.

JT: Isn’t that something. What childhood factors contributed to you becoming an artist aside from your father?

MB: Well, we shouldn’t count out my mother, who was a poet. She was a writer and she was also a very astute reader of character and personality.

JT: She focused on the interaction of people and clearly that is an integral part of your work. Was anyone else in your family an artist?

MB: No, we had enough. My mother, my father, and me!

JT: Pretty creative bunch, I would say.

MB: And, one of my boys, Colin, is an architect and a designer. So, it goes on down the generations.

JT: So he followed in your father’s footsteps. Do they focus on the same discipline in their architecture?

MB: No. I’m very interested in architecture and always have been, but instead, I became an artist.

JT: That’s wonderful. And, you wonder, back when your father practiced, what it was like economically, socially, and politically––how he managed to thrive in his practice.

MB: Well, he was a student at USC, and he basically worked his way through school. You could do that in those days.

JT: Yes, it amazes me how artists make their way in the world despite whatever economic conditions are posed to them. Growing up did your family encourage you to pursue your work, Mowry?

MB: I think my mother wanted me to pursue a professional career. Her father was a doctor and she was concerned, as are all parents, that I have a contented and economically sufficient life. But, I wasn’t headed in that direction. I always wanted to do something creative, and, so, I told her that I would become a teacher as well as an artist, and that seemed professional enough for her. She accepted that.

JT: I understand in 1954 you graduated from Redondo Union High School in Redondo Beach. Do you have any recollections of your experience with art and how that environment inspired you?

MB: It was not an art-oriented place at all. It had mostly a manual-arts orientation, and then there was a liberal arts stream with not very many students in it who had ambitions to go on to college. So, it was kind-of a mixed place, but I would have to say that, no, the liberal arts… the practice of creativity was not high on the agenda of that institution.

JT: But, the shop classes that you took in business and constructing, did that inform your work?

MB: I don’t want to say that it was a cultural wasteland. I mean, the Smothers Brothers were in a class behind me.

JT: Oh yes!

MB: So, it wasn’t as though there wasn’t anybody there who could make music, or… something out of thin air, which they were clearly capable of doing even at a young age.

JT: Absolutely. Then, four years later you graduated Pomona College in 1958. What led you to attend Pomona?

MB: I think my folks just wanted me to go to a good liberal arts college, but in the Southern California area. They wanted me to go to a small place, and they could afford it, to a point. They had their own difficulties. And then, in my junior year, I took a year off and studied at Mexico City College. Not as an exchange student, but as a student at large, with every intention of returning to Pomona, which I did. I came back and finished up at Pomona in my final year.

JT: When you were at Pomona, tell me how you navigated towards the Art Department and how that evolved.

MB: It was an interesting art department. It had three very interesting profs in the studio area. There was James Grant, painter; there was Frederick Hammersley…

JT: Of course.

MB:  . . . another painter. Both of these men knew Rico Lebrun, and you could see it in James Grant’s work but not at all in Frederick Hammersley’s work, not a bit. And then there was Charles Lawler who was a sculptor, a European-trained sculptor. He had studied under Alexander Archipenko. So it was an interesting mix of individuals from diverse backgrounds. At the same time, in the art history area there was Peter Seltz, who was the head of the department, so it was a pretty vigorous little program going on.

JT: I would say. Karl Benjamin, is part of our oral history series, and Frederick Hammersley, one of the Abstract Classicists, was in their show at LACMA in 1959. It is extraordinary, the artists that came from Pomona.

MB: Exactly, and Karl was a participant at times with us undergraduates at Pomona.

JT: In what way?

MB: He was very welcoming. I can remember spending time in his studio, at his home, and just sharing ideas with him. He wasn’t an official member of the faculty, but because he was very close to Jim Grant—in fact they were neighbors—he just seemed to blend in with the Pomona faculty. There were some very interesting people coming through Pomona at that time, too. Peter Selz brought Buckminster Fuller to campus, twice. He also brought Leon Golub to campus, and there was a substantial Leon Golub exhibition here during Peter’s directorship of the department.

JT: Do you remember the year?

MOWRY BADEN: 1957. Buckminster Fuller came and gave a marathon lecture, as he’d always done, and then he set up a problem in the studio, and he left and said, “I’m going to come back and want to see you guys resolve this problem.” He challenged us to make an enormous dihedral kite.

JT: Really!

MB: Which we did, and we flew it when he came back.

JT: How long did you have to complete the task?

MB: I can’t remember. We worked as hard as we could to make this kite—when we launched it, it just drug the guy holding the tether across the lawn. It got pretty good altitude, and that was it.

JT: That’s great!

MB: We were just thrilled.

JT: Peter Setz brought in these wonderful contributors to the critical discourse. Claremont Graduate University programs continue to bring regionally and internationally recognized artists to talk about their methodology and their work. It is such an important part of education. How did you see that as a student?

MB: I don’t think I was really that aware. But, when these two faces showed up, suddenly there was a lot of excitement, lots of stimulation.

JT: Can you describe the evolvement of the art department in the early days at Pomona and Scripps?

MB: They linked. We could go to Scripps and take courses and get full credit at Pomona and vice-versa. Since my ambition was to be a painter, I studied with people up at Scripps just to expand my experience. Their idea of painting at the time was, of course, way different from what it was at Pomona.

JT: Who were your professors were and how did their philosophies differ?

MB: Doug McClelland at Scripps. You couldn’t draw a greater gulf than that between Doug McClelland and Fred Hammersley.

JT: Can you elaborate?

MB: Hammersley was really oriented toward Europe in his practice as an abstract painter, and Doug McClelland was a plein-aire painter. He liked to go outdoors and observe the landscape and make sketches of it, then turn them into paintings. They are very traditional plein-aire Southern California paintings. There was a watercolorist at Scripps, Jim Fuller. Once again, with Fuller, the emphasis was on direct experience from nature and in the studio, direct experience of the still-life. All of those mimetic ambitions that accompany that kind of teaching were emphasized at Scripps.

JT: Tell me your transition from painting to sculpture or installation.

MB: Well, I continued painting after I got my degree. I went to Europe with my first wife and practiced painting there and set up a studio in Spain. I had an exhibition in Rome. When I came back to the United States, I set up a studio in Massachusetts, in a little town called Bolton and continued to make paintings there, but at the same time started to make small and then ever larger sculptures. Finally, when I returned to Los Angeles, I just stopped making paintings all together.

JT: Can you describe the environment, maybe your studio or the facilities, what you remember?

MB: Well, the studios were in Rembrandt Hall. It still stands on the Pomona campus. I believe they still run classes in there. Rembrandt Hall was a purpose-designed building because it had north-facing windows that were even tilted, as the traditional atelier studio windows are. It was a tiny place. It wasn’t very big, but big enough for those very small classes of student artists—maybe half a dozen people.

JT: You know, I never thought about the tilt of the window. Was that to regulate the light for the artist studios?

MB: Yes, it brings in more light.

JT: Tell me about your studio and how things evolved.

MB: What you would do is go and push the sculptors’ stands aside and bring the easels into place and put your painting up, or your drawing board up. You just had to switch from one activity to another depending on who the professor was and what was going to be taught. So, you might go up there in the evening and be painting but, out of consideration for the morning class, you’d have to push your stuff aside so the sculptors could kick in. I can remember sitting with Richard Chamberlain…. He became famous as a television actor.

JT: Of course, the Thorn Birds!

MB: Dr. Kildare.

JT: Oh, yes, that was before.

MB: And poets would take their turn in the studios, and it was just a small little nesting place, you know, for creative people.

JT: Yes. And, how did you feel with your involvement in studio work? Did your talent emerge organically or was it something you had to work at?

MB: Well, I’m an art brat. I come from an art family. There were never any identity issues for me.

JT: That is good to hear, because many artists go through the questioning and self-assessment, and identity construction––everything that comes with forging your way as an artist.

MB: Often during my teaching career I would look at a group of students thrust into my care and say to them, “Who among you can count in your family other artists?” And, maybe a few hands would go up, not many, and then I would say, “Well, why don’t we include singing, why don’t we include craft?” Then more hands would go up. “Why don’t we include more generations, go back to a grandfather.” More hands would go up until almost all the hands in the room would go up. But there’s always that doubt, right? That anxiety that maybe I’m doing the wrong thing here, maybe I’m in the wrong room, exposing myself to something that is of little value or maybe I’m exposing myself to something that will reach too deeply into me and expose something I don’t want exposed.

JT: Art making is truly an intimate experience. It is a process of discovery, but it’s difficult to find your way at times and feel you have a grounding. You have to create a belief system or structures to help. Claremont Colleges and Claremont Graduate University, and Pomona and Scripps worked within a cross-disciplinary curriculum. I am sure that benefitted many students. How did you feel working within the different colleges and programs? Did that benefit you or did you find it challenging?

MB: I think so. I never felt unwelcome at Scripps. They were always friendly and supportive.

JT: And the cross-disciplinary courses that you took. You had your studio work, were there other courses that interested you?

MB: World literature.

JT: What about Psychology? That does have a narrative in your work.

MB: No. That came later.

JT: Can you recall the culture at the time? Did the socio-political climate influence your work in the mid to late ‘50s?

MB: Well, you have to remember that this is the Korean War period.

JT: That’s right.

MB: That, the draft was still active.

JT: The baby boomers were booming.

MB: Yes, that flower was about to open. There was a conservativism, I would say, especially in those little teacup colleges, you know, a reluctance to engage radical thinking.

JT: Did you engage with what was going on outside college life or strictly focus on your work?

MB: Well, the males, of course, in the student population were very interested in what was going on in Asia in particular, Korea. We were plenty anxious about getting drafted. I remember … well, I don’t want to bore you, it is a long story. I’ll try abbreviating, I was met, surprised, on campus by two military types in civilian clothing who wanted to talk to me about my involvement with the Communist Party.

JT: Really?

MB: You have to remember that when you are that age you have to go and take your physical for the military and when you take your physical you can feel the hot breath of the military on your neck, right? And I failed the intellectual test as best I could. It was impossible to fail the physical tests. In the political orientation test, I indicated that I was a Communist or interested in Communist ideals—just trying to disqualify myself in every way I could think, and ticking that Communist box brought these guys on campus to talk to me about my political affiliations. I still have a complete transcript of that conversation . . . I, like the rest of my fellow male students, were all looking for ways to exempt ourselves from military duty. Nobody had a patriotic bone in their body . . . not one. Some people chose to stay in school.

JT: If you were a student, were you automatically drafted or were you exempt?

MB: You were given a deferment. I got married right at the end of my school, just before I graduated. My wife and I decided to take advantage of the Honnold Scholarship, which I won, and go to Europe and set up a studio there, which we did. At the same time, with letters of introduction, I went to the Academia de Bellas Artes in Sevilla and enrolled as a student, but I didn’t really enroll as a student. I got them to prepare a document to say that I was, but actually I wasn’t. So this I mailed in to my draft board, and it got me a deferment

JT: What came of that meeting with those fellows?

MB: Nothing, nothing. I think they didn’t pursue it further in any way.

JT: And how that was like a cloud over the entertainment industry and those being blacklisted.

MB: Oh, yes.

JT: It also reached academia, it wasn’t just the entertainment industry. They were looking for a number of people who had different views.

MB: And we watched those hearings on TV. Here is this miraculous thing, a little box with a picture you could watch. People were moving and you could hear their voices. The new technology seemed to come into being to serve the McCarthy hearings!

JT: I came into the world at the time when all that was evolving. I remember, being very young growing up in Sacramento watching some of this on television. I didn’t understand it, you know. Though, in the early ‘60s, things were coming into play with the Kennedy administration. Even though I was young, I was aware. But you at that time, you were in college, so you were old enough to really understand the implications of all of this.

MB: Yes, some people felt obliged to enlist, or to allow themselves to be drafted. Some people met the issue by declaring conscientious objection status. You have to remember this, Jill, that there was no consciousness of resistance. There was no consciousness of information that could be shared with young people about how to avoid the draft, nothing. I mean, all of that changed in a decade, right? Suddenly in the ‘60s that was a lingua franca—everyone spoke it.

JT: That’s right, people were trying to emerge and understand the world and their context in it. What about the professors at the time when all of this was going on? Were they vocal in their stance or just focused on their work?

MB: Some were, in particular in the philosophy department. Also in some courses I had in literature, in art history with Peter, there it was discussed, but not instrumentally, only ideologically. I mean, you only have to wait a decade and suddenly those same things are discussed instrumentally. Here is what you have to do in order to avoid the draft. Or in some very radical situations, here is how to build a bomb.

JT: Right. Remember the bomb shelters? “Duck and cover,” I remember all of this. My father was in the Korean War. He was a sergeant in transportation. He was a civil engineer for the California Aqueduct. That is what brought us down to Bakersfield from Sacramento and Tracy. It is interesting to hear some of these stories of what was going on at the time.

MB: Is your dad still working?

JT: He passed away in 1975. I was 19, very young and it changed my path. My father was a civil engineer for the State of California. We lived in Sacramento and then he was transferred to Wind Gap near Bakersfield in 1969 with the Department of Water Resources. He was Superintendent of Civil Maintenance and helped engineer the water over the mountains to Southern California in the California Aqueduct. It was quite an event. In Tracy, when I was in 6th grade, I wrote Governor Reagan a letter, and was thrilled to be his mascot when he pressed the button to release the water in all the pumps to Southern California.

MB: You were there?

JT: I sat right next to him. It was extraordinary. While we were sitting on the speaker’s stand he doodled some sketches after I told him I was an artist. I still have them. They’re pretty good! We corresponded up through his Presidency and my artwork is included in his library. I had some wonderful experiences.

MB: Very precocious.

JT: I was. I have letters and newspaper clippings my mother kept. It was a remarkable. It’s funny to think about that. You never know what is going to evolve and where you end up, the opportunities and horizons we cross.

MB: Ever read any Joan Didion?

JT: I know her name.

MB: Well, just the title that springs to mind is a title called “Where I Was From.” Hers is a perspective that might be fresh or new to you about California water and oil, and the agricultural development. It is really good.

JT: I’ll look that up, sounds interesting. I remember hearing that the California Aqueduct was one of the few structures that could be seen from space.

MB: Yes. I would see those structures frequently because my father bought a ranch up on the ridge.

JT: That is a stone’s throw away from where I am. I know Tejon Ranch and the area. Was it near Frazier Park or the Grapevine?

MB: Just beyond Frazier Park. The ranch that he bought . . . this is an interesting connection with the McCarthy hearings, the ranch that he bought once belonged to Dalton Trumbo, the screenwriter. Dalton Trumbo was one of the most successful screenwriters of the period, but he was blacklisted and had to move to Mexico and have his screen work authored by somebody else. Anyway, my father didn’t buy the ranch from Dalton Trumbo, he bought it from somebody else, who had himself bought it from Dalton Trumbo. But, isn’t that interesting that that connection occurs with the McCarthy hearings?

JT: It certainly is, you think back and these things emerge you wouldn’t imagine. That is what is so fascinating about these oral histories. I have a set of questions that I ask, but I really encourage the narrative to take these tangential directions with some of the topics that come up. This is great, Mowry, any other experiences that you recall?

MB: My father was the job-site architect for the men’s dormitory and refectory on the Pomona campus.

JT: Really!

MB: That was work that he did when he was a young man. When he graduated from school at USC and began practicing architecture, there really weren’t many clients because it was the depression and the aftermath of the depression. There was no money or movement anywhere. He took a job with an old architecture firm called Sumner Spaulding, and Sumner had nailed this contract at Pomona to do the men’s residences and the refectory, the famous Frary Hall. So, my father would be sent out there to supervise the work and be sure that the architect’s wishes were carried out. My dad would tell me stories about having lunch with Jose Clemente Orozco and my father’s Spanish was practically non-existent, and Orozco’s English the same. They would just sit there and have lunch and make sketches and pass them back and forth. Maybe that is why my parents thought I should go to Pomona, because my father had had such a long architectural connection to the place.

JT: That is extraordinary. What a great opportunity for him and you.

MB: He would come out and visit, sure, when I was a student.

JT: Mowry, do you remember some of your colleagues in the program—fellow students?

MB: Well, we mentioned Richard Chamberlain … Kris Kristofferson.

JT: Oh my goodness, this goes way back.

MB: He was a singer …

JT: Of course, with Waylon Jennings. I just remember him in “A Star is Born,” with Barbara Streisand. That’s something he went to Pomona!

MB:  And, not quite the same . . . a little later, Judy Fiskin went to Pomona. Who else? Martin Green, a painter; David Ossman, a poet; Michael Spafford and Elizabeth Sandvig, both painters. It was a little circle of creative people you could hang out with and talk about art.

JT: And, did you take art history classes or studio focus?

MB: Lots of art history.

JT: What was your interest in art history?

MB: I liked the modern stuff, of course. But, thank god that Pomona would hire those people who could give you a grounding in Ancient and Medieval and Romanesque. You’d have a sense of the broad sweep of the history of art. Make an educated person out of you.

JT: What was your study like when you went to Spain? Did it open up new doors? Had you traveled before?

MB: Not to Europe. That was the first time I had been to Europe. I went with this burning curiosity about Goya. Even though we lived in the south, in Malaga, when we went north, we went to Madrid so that we could see the Goyas and especially the paintings of the “House of the Deaf Man” in the Prado, and Velasquez of course, too. But, a driving theme for me was Goya, as it had been with Orozco when I went to Mexico earlier.

JT: Do you feel that played an influence on your later work?

MB: No. No, it is entirely formative.

JT: Yes. So, you are graduating Pomona with your Bachelors in 1958. Were you thinking about going to grad school or did you take time off? How did Stanford come about?

MB: We were starting a little family. I had a child born in 1959, Tobias. That settled the draft issue, because if you had a child you were deemed draft-free. I stayed out of school and after that period in Europe, I came back and lived in Massachusetts for a year with my family, actually more than a year. I began to make forays into the New York art world and had gallery representation there. The Cober Gallery represented me for all those years. When I moved west again with my wife and two children, I had already spent a year in India.

JT: What part of India?

MB: I worked in a little community outside Bombay called Aurangabad, and I had a studio there.

JT: What year was this?

MB: That would have been 1963.

JT:  What particular experience do you recall?

MB: I went there as a Fulbright Scholar. That is how we paid for it. At the time I was in Aurangabad I was making paintings, not sculpture. I was very interested in rock-cut sanctuaries, and we spent a lot of time at Aurangabad, at the Aurangabad caves, the Ellora caves and the caves at Ajanta. These are all rock-cut sanctuaries and maybe the only cave architecture in the world that is carved to look like freestanding buildings.

JT: You were there a year as a Fulbright scholar. I didn’t realize that. Tell me, Mowry, how did that come about, what led you to apply to become a Fulbright scholar? Did someone encourage you or did you feel that this would help expand your direction?

MB:  I was very interested in rock-cut sanctuaries and was casting about for a way to go and then I saw that the Fulbright program had an Indian office, and also it was an English-speaking post. Since I have only one language, that deficiency would have disqualified me from all European locations, but it was fine for India. It was an English speaking country as far as the Fulbright Foundation was concerned. I met some really interesting people in India.

JT: Did you?

MB: There was a fascination with meditative practices. Just beginning in 1961-62. No, not quite the Beatles explosion of it.

JT: I know, that came to mind.

MB: It was beginning at that point. I never went into a monastery in India, but if you had a conversation with anyone in India, they always wanted to talk about philosophy; they always wanted to talk about the meaning of life. They always wanted to talk about deep, spiritual values. And, so, it is in your face, daily.

JT: Yes. And after India, you came back to California and you were an instructor at Chouinard?

MB: I taught there for a year.

JT: Tell me about your experiences at Stanford and how your work developed.

MB: Well, by that time I really was a sculptor. I had stopped painting completely. I made one very, very large sculpture that you could walk inside, and I painted the inside, but that was all the painting I did. And, after that, I did put color on sculptures but they were nothing like flat canvases anymore.

JT: And, had you had experiences at that point with human engagement in your work?

MB: No, no. Just at the very end of my Stanford degree. If you go to the web site [www.mowrybaden.com] and you go down to the bottom there, and you look for a sculpture called Delivery Suite . . . that is a Stanford work.

JT: 1965, steel, fibered polyester resin, right?

MB: Right.

JT: Tell me about the piece.

MB: It engages the actions of the viewer. The viewer’s body becomes part of the work. This was the very first time I made a work where there would be a physical interaction for the viewer.

JT: What the catalyst for this work?

MB:  The birth of my daughter.

JT: Oh, of course.

MB: I was allowed to witness her birth, so just imagine that when you sit on that saddle and hang on to those two breasts, one on the left, one on the right, and look through that slot that I’m looking through in the photograph, you are seeing that big hooked yellow shape coming toward you. That sculpture will be in the “It Happened At Pomona show. It opens in the spring of 2012.

JT: They have three different exhibitions for the initiative.

MB: This will be a part of the third.

JT: Wonderful. So, this was all pretty life changing . . . the birth of your daughter, your third child, transitioning within your methodology.

MB: Very fortunate.

JT: Did you feel that there were many directions you could take your work?

MB: I just began to see that the viewer could be a part of the experience. I didn’t dedicate myself entirely to that premise, but I had a glimmering that that would be a good direction. So, there I am, a thirty-year-old kid. I didn’t know very much. I knew I couldn’t make paintings. At least I had learned that. Anyone can make a painting, but to make a painting that adds significantly to the conversation is nearly impossible. Painting is used up. It is an activity that is so intensively pursued and turned over this way and that, there isn’t a bare bone anywhere. But with sculpture, particularly in this period, it seemed like everything was opening up. You could do anything, and much of what you did had never been done before.

JT: Tell me about your 1967 piece, Auger. It is fiber polyester, “gimbal cast.”

MB: Too bad there is no image of the gimbal itself, but just imagine a box the size of a phone booth suspended in a gimbal and full of urethane foam.

JT: Mowry, define a “gimbal” please.

MB: Well, a gimbal is… the word is a nautical term. It refers to an apparatus that holds the compass on shipboard and keeps the compass level at all times. It has two pivots in a 90-degree relationship to one another. I could open the hatch at the bottom of this box and start carving my way up through that foam leaving behind me a cavity, and once I had reached the top of the box, I could retreat back down through that cavity and exit. I might do this many, many times to make a work.

JT: I see.

MB: Once I retreated from the box, that cavity remained. I could seal off the box and then pour fibered polyester in, and it would slosh around inside the cavity by means of the gimbal. It would tumble around inside the cavity and coat all its surfaces, the way you might take a glass of brandy and slosh it around and see how the brandy coats the interior walls of the glass.

JT: Yes. I hadn’t heard of that methodology before.

MB: I invented it for large-scale work.

JT: How did that come about?

MB: Well, you know, in ceramics there is a process called slip casting.

JT: Right.

MB: And it is the same…


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 Mowry Baden by Jill Thayer, Ph.D., 2011 August 14, August 20, and August 24, Claremont Graduate University, School of Arts and Humanities Oral History Artist Series. Photographs courtesy of Mowry Baden 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 Mowry Baden by Jill Thayer, Ph.D., 2011 August 14, August 20, and August 24, 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 Mowry Baden, visit: http://www.mowrybaden.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/.

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