MOWA’s Mona Boulware Webb Curatorial Engagement Fellow Brianna Cole talked recently with Jacob Bautista, exhibiting artist in Magic Wilderness, on view October 22–January 15. Jacob Bautista is a printmaker and draftsperson. Originally from Amarillo, Texas, he holds an MA and MFA in printmaking from the University of Wisconsin–Madison and a BFA in printmaking from West Texas A&M. Jacob is currently a lecturer at the University of Wisconsin–Platteville, teaching printmaking, drawing, and 2D design.
“Tall and textured, with a warm translucent quality, the “Bautista Trees,” as we affectionately call them, were a perfect fit for the imagined ecosystem we wanted to create for the Magic Wilderness exhibition. Having twenty individual trees allowed us the opportunity to create an immersive experience.” – Anwar Floyd-Pruitt, MOWA Associate Curator of Contemporary Art
Brianna Cole: So, when did you start this work on the paper trees and how did you go from a background in a flat medium like printmaking to these large three-dimensional objects?
Jacob Bautista: I’ve been making and developing them for at least two years. They were a part of my MA and MFA thesis show. In terms of how I went from 2D to 3D, I took a papermaking class because I was interested in the process. I had no notion of what exactly I was going to be doing, I just knew that I wanted to learn the process.
I had been making images—drawings and prints—based on the forest and how it appears in myths and tales. It’s this strange place that is totally alive. You can’t see everything around you; you experience the fear of the unknown. I’m originally from a part of Texas that has very few trees and if there is a tree, it’s more like a shrub. You can see for miles on and on. In Wisconsin, I’m now experiencing hills and trees and greenery.
My first year here, I went to a small park near my apartment, and it was a very strange experience. I expected to have a nice walk and enjoy it, but I had a totally opposite reaction. Being surrounded by trees and not being able to see everything around me gave me anxiety. I was really inspired by that experience and the fear of the unknown. I thought of trying to recreate that experience for the viewer, and that’s where the 3D aspect came from.
BC: Can you talk a bit about the process of building these trees?
JB: When I first started, I was making them in 4-foot halves and then putting them together to make an 8-foot-tall tree. The seam line disappeared somewhat, but I knew that it was still there and that always bothered me. For the MFA work I got a big aluminum pipe that was 10 feet tall. I’d use a flax fiber pulp and many of the processes I learned in that papermaking course and from my professor to make about 12 to 14 sheets of 18-by-24-inch paper. While damp, the sheets are strong enough to be manipulated. Using a ladder, I started from the top to attach the sheets to the metal pipe. The damp sheets adhere naturally, but I follow up with glue to make sure the form doesn’t fall apart. As it dries, I create folds and creases. The flax fiber shrinks as it dries, which allows the fibers to get tighter. When the form is taken off the metal pipe, it has a ghostly hollow tree shape.
BC: Do you find a connection between the delicacy of the work and the hardiness of actual trees?
JB: Yes. And I was excited that the flax fiber gave a bark like texture. I think of myself as a collaborator, with the paper as my partner. As the forms dry, they are doing their own thing, drying, and shrinking in their own ways. They look like they should be so heavy, but when you pick them up, they are really light, and you use way too much strength. That’s something that I really love about the trees.
I mentioned my idea was based in the fear of the unknown and wanting to re-create that experience, but as I continued to work on my thesis, my installation shifted and became more about discovering identity through understanding your family members—similar to the experience of growing up in Wisconsin versus growing up in Texas and how place has influenced my identity as a human being.
The paper trees became past generations, family trees that are now looming and watching over us. They feel, in part, comfortable, because we are able to recognize them as a forest. However, the trees are so much taller than us, looking down and casting a shadow on us. I like that dichotomy.
BC: Has this work informed or inspired other pieces in your practice?
JB: I am still deeply engaged with this work and consequently, very grateful to have this opportunity to show it.
Another part of my MFA show was arranging the trees to surround an origami paper boat. I asked viewers to write a letter to someone or some personification of a past self-telling them something they wish they could have said and deposit the letters in the boat. The letters have been powerful. I was really moved that strangers came and wrote these anonymous letters. I would love to continue this practice, then turn the letters into drawings or mix them with paper pulp to make more trees.
BC: When people view your work, what do you want them to experience and think about?
JB: I want to create artwork that somehow communicates the importance of empathy. There’s a saying something like “can we ever truly understand another human being?” I think it’s incredibly hard because we have our own individual experiences, and with human nature, in general, it’s hard to look outside of ourselves.
BC: Are there any other artists or influences that inspire your work?
JB: The Japanese author Haruki Murakami, his writing style is very magical realist; I’m very inspired by and interested in his writing. Cy Twombly’s works and the tone and texture of Anselm Keifer’s paintings have also been an inspiration.
BC: Is there anything else you’d like to add about the work or yourself?
JB: I don’t think so. I think it’s important for people to be able to make their own conclusions about the work.
“I consider myself to be more of a draftsperson. I have this belief that every time you draw something, even if it’s the same image, it’s going to become better each time. Each step of the process I’m making more intuitive decisions.” –Jacob Bautista