An interview with Adele Wayman

Simon Kelly:For Adele Wayman, Hege professor of art at Guilford, the intersection between spirituality and creative expression has always been a compelling subject.
While on sabbatical last year, Wayman was able to explore this territory in depth, producing her latest project, “Artists Make Altars.” Currently on display at Raleigh’s Long View Gallery, the exhibition includes the altars of four other artists, each employing a unique array of media, including clay, photographs, found objects and paint. I understand from your “Artists Make Altars” artist’s statement that you see art as a meditative tool for achieving a greater understanding of the world and the meaning of life. Has this type of Buddhist spirituality always figured into your work?

Adele Wayman: No, I would say that only for about the last seven or eight years. I’ve been practicing meditation for 15 years, sort of sporadically. This year, while I’ve been on leave, I’ve been practicing it more seriously. I also developed a course at Guilford about seven or eight years ago called “Sacred Images, Altars and Rituals,” so I’ve been interested in altars for a long time. But the connection between the meditation and the altars is a little bit more recent.

SK: Your work suggests a strong connection between yourself and other female artists, such as Frida Kahlo. In what way has she influenced you?

AW: I don’t know any women artists who don’t love Frieda Kahlo – either for her art or simply by the life she led, which was fascinating. The painting that contains her image (Polish Your Mud Balls) has an interesting story behind it. I think of that painting really as a mixed media collage, and the idea for it came from a Guilford alum named Patty Digh, who has since become a world-recognized worker for diversity training. In recent years, she has been writing a prize-winning blog called “Thirty Seven Days” that she is turning into a book of essays, which a number of other artists, including myself, will be contributing illustrations to. The essay that she sent to me is called “Polish Your Mud Balls,” which was great for the theme of my project because in the essay, polishing your mud balls is a metaphor for meditation.

SK: What is a mud ball?

AW: Making mud balls is a Japanese art practice, which involves taking a ball of mud and polishing it, by hand, to perfection. The mud balls in my collage are only photographs taken of mud balls made by an American. They are called Doro Dango

SK: How long have you been working on this project, how long does one altar take you to make?

AW: These have gone pretty fast, usually it takes me longer. I started working on “Artists Make Altars” around the end of September, and the show just opened the first of February. So that’s about how long. They take less time than the paintings that I usually do, because the paintings in these altars are very small. It’s the finding and placing of the other objects that is the central process of this work. They’re made like a bulletin board, and they are very fragile.

SK: Speaking of fragility, your other paintings of flowers seem to contain an element of impermanence, would you say that this theme remains consistent with this project?

AW: Yes I would, and it was fun to put together things like bones and dying leaves, which are at the end of the life cycle, and images of babies, which are of course at the beginning. There are also images of galaxies, both in small pictures and as the general background of the altar as you’ll see in “Milkweed Galaxy Dancer.” I’m interested in trying to encompass the little tiny parts of nature and also the bigger components.

SK: There is also an emphasis on these works being contemporary, not drawing on a particular tradition or style?

AW: Yes, we talked about that when we got together in the beginning, deciding that we wanted this art to come from our own path of spiritual investigation. Even though I am interested in Zen Buddhism that is not exclusively how I define myself. I think that holds true for everybody in the exhibit.

“Artists Make Altars” is running at the Long View Gallery from Feb. 1 until March 22.
Guilford students are encouraged to attend an alumni reception at the exhibition from 5 -7 p.m. on Wednesday, March 19, followed by a talk by Wayman called Making Art and Altars as Sacred Practice.