Above: Still from Rewilding Platte Clove (2014)
︎ Rachel Frank, New York City
with L Autumn Gnadinger
Rachel Frank (she/her) is a multidisciplinary artist and wildlife rehabilitator living and working in Brooklyn, NY. Frank’s studio is right out of an old-fashioned natural specimen museum: wooden file drawers containing various bones, fossils, or dried plants, wall-to-wall bookshelves filled with reference texts, and large scale taxidermy-like sculptures of various species dot the space. As the variety in the room would suggest, Frank’s work is at times sculptural, performative, interventionist, and relational. During a studio visit I spoke with her about her practice, her hometown in Kentucky, and her relationship to land and ecology.
L Autumn Gnadinger: First off, how are you today?
Rachel Frank: I'm doing okay. I'm a little tired. I work in wildlife rehabilitation and I had a very late night last night. I didn't get home until around 11:30pm because we are just completely swamped right now. It’s the height of migration season and there are a lot of baby birds coming in. I usually work with water fowl and raptors, but I was helping out with the baby birds—medicating the songbirds in particular last night until very late.
LAG: A lot of your artwork deals with ideas of the environment and perceptions of the environment, and it is really interesting to hear that those concerns not only show up in your art practice but in your “Job,” too. So I'm wondering how those worlds feed each other? How do they feel related or unrelated?
RF: They're very related, but it's strange. I was thinking about this the other day, how the work of the rewilding performances—and also the work of conservation—is to view species, animals or plants, as this really large whole, and to think about how some number of these species are having an impact on the ecosystem as a whole. But then my work as a wildlife rehabber is so specific to the individual animal. They're dependent on me in certain ways. So these things are very related, but they are also these polar opposite ends of a spectrum. With the performances that I staged, in a way I'm trying to feel closer to the environment and to that sort of history—I think about engaging with the landscape’s memory. But then with the wildlife rehab, I'm frequently just thinking about my patients and checking up on them. You get to know them so intimately, you know, down to how they're eating, what medications they're on, how to treat their wounds if they have them.
LAG: That's so intense and down to earth. I mean, your performances can also be that way but in a more lyrical or poetic sense than, say, worrying about someone’s medication.
RF: It’s also kind of strange because I'm not the only artist that works there. I've definitely found that artists are really good at doing wildlife rehab because we're really good with our hands. We're very visual. So we might notice changes in our patients—like wounds or things—that maybe someone else would overlook. It's kind of funny that this Masters of Fine Art is being used in this other job that's completely unrelated. Using your hands and problem solving in a completely different way.
LAG: If you were going to introduce somebody to your art practice, where would you start?
RF: I would say I have a very multidisciplinary practice. I work with a combination of sculpture, video, and performance, and sometimes these pieces are standalone sculptures, and then sometimes they interact with each other or support one another. I have several ongoing projects. One involves “rewilding”—rewilding is an actual environmental practice which deals with returning species back into environments where they once lived to help restore ecosystems. And for that project I started making these large-scale bison heads, or pronghorn masks, and would wear them in performances. And within those performances, I’m often using what is called tableau vivant, which basically translates to “living picture.” The masks that I wear are made out of fabric and are quite large, and when I'm wearing them, I can't usually see out of them very well—if at all. I'm sort of forced to interact with the landscape in a different way where I have to make these still gestures or move more tentatively.
And then another large part of my practice is ceramic based. I've been making these offering vessels that are based on ancient Eurasian forms. Either the rhyton, which usually took the form of an animal or animal parts and usually held liquids like wine or olive oil, the kernos, which was a circular shape vessel that had many individual offering cups that held grain, or the lekythos, which was a slender vessel that was typically tied to funerary rights. So I’m interested in this idea of offering vessels—of how they would be used to influence the future or maybe to reflect one’s position in the world—and re-interpreting them. I've been remaking them in completely different forms and then using them in performances or videos. For example, I made some animal shaped rhyton forms that I positioned at the shoreline and then had the ocean tide gradually fill and drain them as it ebbed and flowed as a way to think about climate change and rising sea levels.
LAG: Perhaps as a consequence of working in several different directions, your work involves a lot of materials. You mentioned fabric and ceramics specifically—what interests you about those?
RF: I like both of those materials because I find them very easily easy to manipulate, in a way. I also find them more intuitive, potentially, than other sculptural materials that I tend to think of as more planned or rigid. A frequent criticism I received in grad school was that I relied too much on my intuition, which I actually found later to be kind of a sexist comment. They were like, “Your intuition is really good, but you're always depending on it.” I honestly don’t think that that's a bad thing, and that's still how I work. Working with ceramics and fabric allows me to continue thinking intuitively and to be a little bit surprised sometimes by the outcome of pieces. I definitely have big ideas of what I want to do, but when I'm filming, or writing a dialogue for a piece, or even when I'm sculpting, I honestly prefer to be surprised and not have everything completely planned—to just trust in the process.
And then there's also the rich world history of ceramics, which I find really exciting. And the fact that it comes from the earth and—if it's taken care of—can last so long, which is pretty amazing too. I find fabric equally interesting in that way too. Take the needle, which as a primary tool has essentially not been changed since paleolithic times. You can still find bone needles that are basically the exact same shape that we use today for hand sewing or even for inserting into a sewing machine. So both of these mediums have this rich, long history that I really enjoy being in some sort of conversation with.
LAG: I'm really curious about the head pieces you wear in some of the performances. They are these almost mascot-like helmets that resemble real-world animals. They are visually quite persuasive, and otherwise a little eerie-looking. You had mentioned it's kind of difficult to see out of them, and I’m getting the sense that maybe there’s an element of surprise in that process too—where you are at the whim of the environment and your movements are restricted. Can you describe the material quality of those? And what is it like to briefly become one of these animals?
RF: They are primarily made out of fabric and stuffed with polyfill pillow stuffing. I use a lot of acrylic mediums and paint to color them. Then some of them have horse hair or thread that's sewn into them to create this hair effect. I even make eyelashes on some of them. They definitely look like the species that I'm trying to recreate, but still maintain that handmade, sculptural element. And they do have a weight to them. I like that they change my posture when I'm wearing them and force me to interact with the landscape differently. They also make me vulnerable because I can't see out of them well. So I'm forced to move through the landscape in small movements—I have to feel the ground in a way that I find interesting.
When I was filming with the pronghorn mask, I was particularly interested in filming at night, and I was thinking about how militarized zones are such a big part of the current habitat of the pronghorn, and how that creates these disconnects in the migration and movement of the species. That video was challenging and a little scary at times. I was largely setting up a tripod and camping by myself and filming by myself late at night. And, you know, sometimes there wasn’t great cell phone reception. I was just telling people where I would be and telling them I would call them back the next day at a certain time. But it turned out really well. And it was exciting and kind of exhilarating. I think it allows me to feel like I have this more intimate relationship with the landscape and with the places that I'm filming.
LAG: Works of yours like Thresholds (2019) occasionally take the shape of faux-documentary video. They layer the fantasy of your worn sculptures with a suggested, though not necessarily real, authority or “truth,” through this David Attenborough-style voiceover. I’d love to hear about your relationship to fantasy and reality.
RF: I always write my own dialogues to the video and they are often pretty open-ended. I don't like my works to be super preachy or didactic. I definitely have ideas I want to express, but I like to allow those ideas to come to the viewer more organically. When I'm wearing the mask of another animal, it's clear that this hybrid creature is not real, but there's something still semi-real about it—like when the camera sometimes catches just part of the mask. It’s this slippage between something that seems very natural and something that seems kind of uncanny and unusual.
And I think I'm interested in that because the “actual rewilding” projects that are going on are so sculptural and so performative themselves. Sometimes absurdly so. Some people make these rubber hand puppets that look like California condors to feed baby condors with, so that the birds don’t get imprinted. Or similarly with Sandhill cranes, people will dress in these elaborate costumes that look like cranes to teach babies that are raised in captivity to sense danger and where to find food. So there's like this kind of absurdist performance and sculptural aspect to these actual projects that I feel like I'm sort of highlighting and also engaging with in my performance videos.
LAG: So you're from Fort Thomas, Kentucky. What was it like to grow up there? How does growing up in a place like that inform your work and how you move through the world as an artist?
RF: My mother was from Minnesota and she grew up on a farm and was very interested in science and plants and animals. I feel like I got a lot of my interest in those things from her and from my upbringing there. The town I grew up in is very conservative and is all about football. I was a shy, sensitive kid who was just very interested in nature instead. It wasn't until I went to college that I finally met people that I had a whole lot in common with. There were just a lot of ways it was not the best fit for me, intellectually or emotionally. But I still love the landscape and I think growing up there I really appreciated the connections between natural things.
I actually had this really Proustian moment the other day at work. We had a whip-poor-will in the clinic who had hit a window and was injured. And I was listening to recordings of whip-poor-wills while he was there and it just brought this flood of memories of the night sounds in Kentucky—hearing the spring peeper frogs, the katydids, and that really loud chorus that you hear every night. It made me incredibly nostalgic for that sound. I remember we would have relatives from out of town visit and they wouldn’t be able to sleep because it was so loud. But I felt like there was something so comforting about that—the loud sound at night and the way that the humid summer air would sort of just envelop you, and you would hear these sounds all around you.
I also talk frequently about the relationship to extinction within where I come from. Not far from where I’m from is Big Bone Lick, where a lot of large scale prehistoric mammal bones were found. And those mammal bones influenced a lot of early Western thought on extinction and evolution. Before then, people basically thought that nature was a kind of constant, and was perfect in this God-like way—species never changed nor went extinct. So when these bones were first found, they were very confusing to people and they didn't know what to make of them. Thomas Jefferson actually sent Lewis and Clark out to that area to collect some bones to bring back to him because he was quite an avid paleontologist, which seems kind of ridiculous now: the idea of large fossilized bones being in the White House.
LAG: As if George W. Bush had taken up fossil-hunting instead of painting after retiring.
RF: Definitely one of the last presidents I think would take that on. I guess I was always kind of fascinated with that area. In Kentucky, as you know, we have a lot of shale and so it’s really easy to find fossils—like brachiopods or trilobites. I remember finding some bison bones in the stream at a local park. So there was always this idea of a deeper time and history, even within your own backyard.
LAG: How would you describe or situate the audience for your work?
RF: Oh, that's a tough question. I feel like I've done a pretty good job of making my work accessible to different kinds of audiences. Even kids sometimes find the videos interesting. I had a show at the SPRING/BREAK Art Show here in New York which included a video of mine that involved a conversation between an extinct wooly mammoth and an extinct wooly rhino. And these kids came in—clearly walking around with their parents—and they just immediately plopped themselves down on the ground and were watching the video. And it's not like I expected them to get the bigger messages or narrative behind the video, but they were clearly enjoying it. So I do think people can approach the work at a variety of levels.
But honestly, I don't really think about my audience too much. I just make what I want to. I just trust that if I’m really excited about what I’m working on that someone else will be too. I don't want to get hung up too much on following trends or, “is going to appeal to like X, Y, and Z people,” because I feel like that's not really a healthy way to work.
LAG: What's next for you? What do you need to get there?
RF: This summer I'm going to be working on a large-scale sculpture for Socrates Sculpture Park in Long Island City. That will be exciting because it's a really big public park where there's a wide variety of visitors. Everyone from just regular people going to the farmer’s market to arts professionals. So I’m feeling a little bit of pressure—we had an orientation the other day and they had this huge statistic, something like 20,000 people visit the park every year. Which is exciting. I'm going to be working on a large-scale ceramic offering vessel that takes the form of the kernos which centers on a couple of different indicator species that are unique to the New York ecosystem. And then I'm also doing a residency called Open AIR in Montana as the artist in residence of the Rattlesnake Creek Dam, a current dam removal site outside of Missoula. Which is kind of funny and I'm excited about that.
LAG: It kind of reminds me of the Recycled Artist In Residency thing in Philly—the residency at the trash place. I love residencies in weird places. That's great.
RF: Me too. I think there's something to be said about doing residencies that are super high profile and are about networking and advancing your career in this business kind of way. But then there's the other kind of residency that's in these far away places, in small communities or even in almost no communities at all. I think those are really exciting too. There's a benefit to both and having grown up in Kentucky, I often dream about getting out of New York City and being somewhere else. I really love camping and hiking and being outside. My job in wildlife rehabilitation allows me to connect to the environment a little bit, but it's not quite the same as being out somewhere fully immersed. My art practice has sort of allowed me to combine both of those things together so that I get to take these trips. I like that you get to spend this really concentrated time in one area that you may not know super well, but then you get to know the ecosystem so much better and the different components and people involved.
L (they/them) is an artist, writer, and current MFA candidate at Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia, PA. They are originally from Louisville, KY and are an editor for Ruckus.
Thresholds, 2:25 minute clip of 4:19 minute total running time.
Rewilding Platte Clove.
Thresholds, Hydroponic Rhyton Vessels (2018), Ceramic vessels with glazes on wood platforms, pump, tubing, water, UV light and living basil and shiso plants, 26 x 26 x 24”
Thresholds, Hydroponic Rhyton Vessels, (detail)
Mycelium Tree Offering Vessels I. (2021), Stoneware ceramic, glazes, thread, rattail string, and fabric, 21 x 49 x 23 inches