Sunday, December 4, 2022

Inside the Artist’s Studio: Paula McDermott

By Derrick White

“Art has given me an outlet to express myself. Art has the ability to really help you work through your issues and ideas both good and bad. Teaching art at TJC has been amazing. The TJC art department is so vibrant and supportive, it breeds creativity. I love teaching. We have such a diverse student body, they are like a breath of fresh air, I learn something new from them every day and I hope they learn from me.”

A positive energy or vibe is one the most important assets in the art department at Tyler Junior College and our newest full-time professor is a firework! Artist Paula McDermott joins the faculty teaching drawing and art appreciation bringing her amazing passion and excitement for art, life, microbiology, and the creative process. Paula earned both her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree and Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Texas at Tyler. She had also attended Stephen F. Austin State University and Sam Houston State University where she says she had great experiences which were very influential. Paula is a lively, spirited, and engaged professor taking a personal interest in the lives of her students and teaching as well as mentoring beyond the classroom. McDermott involves her students in outdoor collaborative projects and demonstrations to students how to look and appreciate past the ordinary to the aesthetics of the natural world and the often overlooked beauty in all of the small things surrounding us everywhere every day. On a beautiful spring day you will find her with her group of students somewhere on the incredible campus of TJC designing Andy Goldsworthy (environmental sculptor) outdoor nature mandalas (circles in geometric patterns symbolically representing the order of the universe). These brief, temporary art pieces will be created with natural materials like leaves, flowers, salt, rocks, and sticks and become nice unexpected surprises for those visitors lucky enough to stumble upon one of the creations. They diminish, fade, and change over time so it is a transient experience, fleeting.   

“I work with whatever materials I can find. I am currently working with fibers. I am using different types of found objects and fabrics. I am dying, sewing, stuffing, tying, and binding individual pieces for components of wearable, wall pieces and installations. I am also creating mixed media collage pieces,” states the artist. Paula continues, “I really got interested in art as a young child.  My Grandmother was a painter and my mother incorporated a lot of art in her science classroom and at home. She got me interested in sea life and microscopic organisms we would see through the microscope, this still interests and influences me today. I think a lot about the unseen or things hard to see, things really controlling our bodies and our world, things we as humans do not often acknowledge like the microscopic world around us, like plankton, phytoplankton, bacteria and some fungi. We don’t often think about it but different types of phytoplankton really help sustain all life on earth, they produce 50% of earth’s oxygen supply. Even our internal organs and cells are not often seen but we could not live without all of them working together.”

Paula McDermott’s artwork looks natural, organic, and like something inspired by the microscopic. Big soft forms mimic an altered and blown up scale of a cellular world we do not see and often take for granted. “I am really into the way things can naturally grow, change, transform, cover and disguise. Like dividing cells, colonies of coral, or the harmful, symbiotic relationships barnacles have with whales or a remora with sharks or manta rays, these relationships can be both harmful and beneficial,” says Paula, adding, “This is where my wearable work has come in. The wearable sculpture can serve as a soft barrier or shield for the wearer, they offer a personal space but in a soft way. They can disguise and take away identity; they can give protection from unwanted attention for the introvert. They both attract and repel the viewer. Most of my work can be either worn or hung.” 

Although soft sculpture is largely underrepresented in mainstream art markets and exhibitions, Paula has many influences in the art world. (Writer’s note: please take the time to look up some of these people. You will be glad you did.) Some of Paula McDermott’s inspirations and favorite artists are Nick Cave (American fabric sculptor, dancer, and performance artist), Tara Donavan (New York artist known for site-specific installation art utilizing everyday materials), Alexander Calder (American sculptor of delicately balanced or suspended shapes that move in response to touch or air currents), Susie MacMurray (British artist whose work includes drawing, sculpture and site-generated installations), Ernesto Neto (influential, contemporary Brazilian artist creating large-scale, sensuous environments evoking bodily experiences), Sally Hewett (British stitching artist making works characteristics of human bodies), Yayoi Kusama (Japanese, contemporary artist primarily working in sculpture and installation), Anthony Howe (American sculptor who creates wind-driven sculptures resembling pulsing, alien creatures), Jason decaires Taylor (British sculptor and creator of the world’s first underwater sculpture park), Andy Goldsworthy (British sculptor and environmentalist creating site-specific sculpture and land art), Eva Hesse (Jewish German-born American sculptor, known for pioneering work in materials such as latex, fiberglass, and plastics), and Eugenia Loli (Greek filmmaker, illustrator, and modern vintage collage artist). Paula responds to this list of artist because they all have dedicated themselves, their work and lives and created something igniting a light inside Paula McDermott and we are the beneficiaries. “They all produce artwork that is interactive and in many cases kinetic (movable). Most of their work is somehow related to the human body, whether it is work representing different aspects of the human body, is directly interactive, or work involving performance,” states the artist. Remember you are human. You are organic. You are made up of microbes and whatnot. You’re original, cannot be replaced. And baby…you’re a firework!