Interview: Artist Laura Borneman

Editor John Barrios, Interview, March 25th, 2014

...if your search is honest and relentless, you will constantly renew your ‘self’...

laura borneman interview

“The very statement of the desperate situation, the ability it gives the spectator to face it with open eyes, constitutes a catharsis, a liberation.”

          — Eugene Ionesco

Laura Borneman has been studying and teaching art for nearly 25 years. Her work as a painter has been displayed across the country, more notably in Philadelphia. She moved to Bakersfield CA to teach and in turn the dusty quiet town ended up teaching her: she learned to harness the truth of who she is as a person, then as an artist, and turned the notion of her very own art upside down and began work on what may very well be a defining turning point in her career; her work vision of the American Dream as seen through her work with miniatures. By moving outside of her comfort zone of paint on canvas, she found a new voice, and a way to discuss with herself, and her audience, the emptiness which is the American dream. She thought she was following it to Bakersfield, only to find, as so many before her, a relentless and quiet truth: the dream is itself a dream. Borneman’s reality is an interior with no entrance and no exit, a zen dichotomy if ever there was one. The current work is still in its own transformative phase, and this is where NAILED‘s John Barrios began his conversation with the artist via email.

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NAILED MAGAZINE: What is the definition of The American Dream you are working with?

LAURA BORNEMAN: Using the notion of ‘The American Dream” in my work began shortly after I moved to Bakersfield in January, 2009 to begin teaching painting and drawing at Bakersfield College. Days after arriving here, I’d switch on the radio and hear a stream of news reports about the collapse of the banking systems and housing market, really the collapse of our entire economic system. At a time when hundreds of thousands of people were losing their jobs and homes, I had just begun my first “real” job with health insurance, a retirement plan and a salary that would offer me some financial stability. The juxtaposition of these two realities made me begin to question the ends to which we will go to live up to the lifestyle we are sold. We become convinced we must have a house and a car and a lifestyle that is basically pre-packaged and forced on us, without ever really examining whether or not it is what we truly want. And then once we are completely sold on the idea and we buy into it, thinking we have bought ourselves stability and comfort, we find out it can all be ripped away and we may have been foolish and gullible in the first place to not question this pre-packaged dream life.

The American Dream, in the context of this project, refers to its failure. It is about disillusionment with an ideal that cannot actually be realized, at least not without devastating results. It is about our own confusion and struggle in trying to reach a destination that is often meaningless and empty at its core. It is about the deep contradictions in human behavior that come out when we are pitted against one another and the hypocrisy of institutions and ideologies that we support and believe in, only to be taken advantage of in our naivete. It is about the devastation to the environment that our lifestyle has created and our own unwillingness or inability to find working solutions to the problems our lifestyle has created.

Even though my current work appears at first glance to be deeply cynical, I am also trying to offer a sense of hope and possibility by attempting to use humor and building structures that are beautiful and possibly regenerating, rather than collapsing.

NAILED: How did you come to a place, artistically, in which you are not only dealing with a cultural institution (The American Dream) but doing so in miniature?

BORNEMAN: The use of miniature was accidental in a way. I have always made paintings and drawings, but occasionally would play around with sculpture. Two years after moving to Bakersfield, I was very depressed because I felt very disconnected to my artwork and was very homesick. I really felt lost, but was simultaneously grateful to have the position at Bakersfield College and I knew I had to see it through, that there was something for me to learn from the experience. In order to reconnect to my work and maintain my connection to the east coast, I began a low-residency MFA program at MICA in Baltimore, which meant dividing my time between Baltimore in the summers and Bakersfield September – May. It was through the research I was doing at MICA, combined with the exposure I had to other artists in the program, that I came to the use of miniatures. I was looking for a way to express ideas that I just wasn’t able to express in painting or drawing. I began by using architectural forms in my paintings to try to express various states of mind. I was arriving at some formally beautiful solutions, but there was no meaning to the work outside of the formal properties. Out of frustration, I began making architectural forms out of paper, cardboard and wood that were based on my drawings and paintings and on my immediate surroundings. The reactions I got from the artists I was working with at MICA really encouraged me to continue exploring this new format and eventually the miniatures crept their way in. My first thought was that the miniature environments would simply be props for paintings, but then I realized they were far more interesting than the paintings were. I decided to really dive into the use of miniature and see how far I could go with it. It is all very new to me, so I haven’t completely resolved it in my mind–I’m just going with it for now.


NAILED: Can you delve deeper into the inspirational works which are affecting the current project?

BORNEMAN: There are many artists that have inspired the current project. I am fascinated by many artists who are also trained as architects: Gordon Matta Clark, James Casabere, Stephen Talasnik and Sarah Sze are some that I have been looking at most recently. What I love about their work is that they combine structure and logic with imagination and intuition. You could say most artists do this, but there is something about working between the 2D and 3D formats that I am particularly drawn to.

I also refer to the work of Ilya Kabakov and Louise Bourgois because they are both artists who draw upon deeply personal experiences to create work that functions on many levels–personal, political and social. I think the most positive outcome of living and working in Bakersfield for the past five years has been that I have begun to make work that is personal, but also begins to consider and examine the world around me in a much deeper way than my past work did.

NAILED: What aspects of yourself do you think you lost, and how did finding a new voice help to ground your path back to yourself?

BORNEMAN: After having been in Bakersfield for 5 ½ years, I’ve realized that the experience has been an extremely rewarding one. It has been one of the most difficult and challenging experiences I’ve had on a personal, artistic and professional level and that is what has made it so rewarding. When I first applied for the teaching position here, I never thought I would even get an interview. I just had made a promise to myself that I would start applying to at least two full-time teaching positions a month. I was tired of being broke and working as an adjunct. However, I never wanted to leave Philadelphia. Even though I was really struggling financially, I had made many great friends there and the 6 years I spent there were life changing and incredibly positive. Philadelphia is a great place for artists to live and I felt very much at home there. However, when I was offered the job in Bakersfield, I knew it was a rare opportunity that I couldn’t turn down and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to teach full time and have time to work on my own artwork.

I was completely unprepared for the culture shock and for how homesick I would be for the east coast. The lifestyle here is so different from anything I’ve experienced anywhere else and suddenly I was thrust into a profession and a lifestyle that I had no time to prepare myself for emotionally or mentally, as it all happened very quickly. I had told a friend that the transition from Philadelphia to Bakersfield felt like the equivalent of being shot full of adrenalin and then put in a straight jacket. I became very depressed and really withdrew into myself and did nothing but go to work and try to continue to paint, but my work felt completely empty and I was just going through the motions. I desperately wanted to move back to the east coast, but felt both trapped and obligated to stay, at least until another opportunity presented itself.

When I was accepted into MICA’s MFA program, I knew it was going to be a life changing experience, but I had no idea what would come of it. I was determined to continue painting and not let graduate school “talk me out of painting”. As it turns out, I made the decision myself to put painting aside and focus on this new body of work, though the decision was a pretty slow and painful one because I felt like I was giving up and abandoning something I had spent 20 or more years trying to learn and do to the best of my ability.

Finding a new voice for my work came directly out of my experience of living and working in Bakersfield. I knew I had to find a way to react to and use my experience in my artwork and after many failed attempts I finally stumbled into what I am doing now. It’s got a long way to go, but I feel I am much closer than I’ve ever been to making work that is both very personal and can also reach a wider audience.


NAILED: It fascinates me to think of a hybrid of finding a self, which is in constant flow with its own evolution. Like touching the same river twice. Is it possible to go back to yourself, or are we chasing an elusive self in the guise of our art?

BORNEMAN: I think one of the gifts of being an artist is that if your search is honest and relentless, you will constantly renew your ‘self’ through the work and in turn, the work will constantly evolve with you. I feel very lucky that I’ve been able to transform myself many times as an artist and that I’ve never settled or said to myself, “that’s good enough”. I’ve never been satisfied and my curiosity and restlessness have always made me strive for something more. I think the most powerful thing that’s happened since moving to Bakersfield is that I feel as though for the first time in my life, I really know who I am and have a level of confidence in what I am doing and what I am capable of that I never had before. Teaching and the things I’ve learned from my students have given me that.

I’m not sure its possible to “go back to yourself”, but I do think its possible to reinvent ourselves and become more fully who we are and that when that happens, we can’t help but recognize it.

NAILED: One aspect of the miniatures I find most troubling, or fascinatingly troubling, or personally inspiring, are the ladders. They seem so homemade, dream-made; like they are a path we can or cannot take, willing or unwilling, to a portal which may be below or above. In searching for the American Dream, it becomes as elusive as the search for the self. In the end, we are climbing or descending the ladder without end. Can you speak to the ladders?

BORNEMAN: The ladders come from very personal experiences. I was searching for a form in which to express the idea of unrealized human potential–both from the point of view of what may yet be possible and what is impossible, or seems to be impossible. There is a history in my family and in my own life of addiction and mental illness. While I have spent the last 10 years of my life sober and rebuilding myself, I’ve watched addiction and unresolved family issues surrounding it slowly destroy people I care very deeply about. Unfortunately, there is very little I can do about it. The ladders symbolize the helplessness, futility, and tragedy that are wrapped up in all of that, and the hope that there may yet be a way out.


NAILED: Can you discuss the end game of the work? It feels part of a larger world, perhaps unrealized or unmade as it stands. What is the ultimate vision, if there is one, and how do you see the evolution of this work moving beyond the miniature? Will it be open to “experience”? Is it possible for it to move from gallery to gallery? Is that even necessary?

BORNEMAN: At this point, I have no idea what the end result of this work might be. It’s very new territory for me. The many facets of the project such as sculpture, installation, video and animation, are all areas that I plan to continue playing with. I am intrigued by the idea of the work moving back and forth between miniature and life-sized, or larger than life-sized, forms in one piece. The dramatic shift in size and scale helps to emphasize the play between reality and imagination and dream-like imagery, or the objective and the subjective. Once the current work is installed, it will be set up so that the viewer can literally enter into part of the piece, where a video will be projected inside a life-size version of one of the miniature houses. Surrounding that and spread throughout the gallery space will be clusters of miniature houses and buildings which the viewer will walk among when looking at the work. There will also be structures hanging from the wall that will engage the viewer in another way. The entire installation is made so that it can be taken apart and put back together, so yes, it can move from gallery to gallery. One possibility is that the work will begin to be more site specific in the future; that would be a welcome and challenging task.

NAILED: When was the last time you NAILED it?

BORNEMAN: Hmmmmmm…..Yesterday.

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laura borneman interviewLaura Borneman is a native of Buffalo, NY. While currently living and working in Bakersfield, CA, she is looking forward to her permanent return to the east coast in May, 2014 with her dog and three cats, where she plans to continue to pursue making art with a vengeance. You can see more of her work at her website.



John Barrios

John Barrios is a poet and musician. He has been part of the band Curious Hands for eight years. He graduated from Buffalo State College and chased his dreams in the Bay Area for a decade before landing on his literary feet in Portland, OR. Barrios was part of the original team at NAILED, and was a Contributing Editor until May 2014.