This was unquestionably my most informal interview - and it seemed perfect for the subject. We met in her kitchen while she made pizza dough, and I questioned her with off-hand comments. I considered it an interview version of her work - "not a rectangle." She liked it well enough that gifted me with a 5' x 4' piece of art that I had admired in her studio. It's vaguely rectangular, has no real corners, is folded in places, stitched, battered, taped (and all this the way she made it), and goes everywhere with me. Like all great art, wherever I hang it, it's perfect.
Rebekah Potter does not believe in rectangles. Instead, she prefers to let the borders of her art become part of the art itself. Using scrap wood – complete with gashes, tears, and protrusions – she creates pieces that purposefully reach beyond the boundaries our minds impose. Many of her paper and cardboard collage pieces have no shape, reaching out and folding back in on themselves, helping turn the medium into the message. She sews stitches into many of her pieces, adding texture and drawing your eyes to places they would not necessarily go. And yes, she does have some rectangular pieces, but only because it suits her to do so.
Potter has been called an intrepid wanderer, living alone around the world, yet always touching base in Jackson, where she lived for six years. Perhaps because of her infrequent visits home, she has remained near the edges of Jackson’s vibrant art scene, yet she has many devotees and numerous individuals collect her work. She often reaches inside herself to find her subject matter, which vividly reflects her state of mind at the time.
On Thursday, June 2nd, Potter will return to Fondren Traders, inside the Rainbow Whole Foods building, for a show of her newest work, called Vis.Queen.Wonder.Land. (See The Art Scene for details.) When I first spoke with her in early May about doing this piece, she was simply in Jackson for a visit. By the time of the interview, she had decided to return to Jackson permanently – or as permanently as she ever is.
As is her wont, our interview was extremely informal. PW sat in a kitchen while she prepared her own pizza crust for a dinner party; we discussed her travels, her work, and her belief in “art for no reason.”
Planet Weekly: How would you define your art?
Rebekah Potter: I’m a mixed media artist. I do 2-dimensional work with paint, but I also do collages with found material – everyday life objects; things you maybe should take out of context in order to better appreciate.
PW: What brought you to that style of work?
RP: When you first start out, you want to try to be a painter’s painter, to paint things classically. For me, it got to where that just wasn’t enough. Robert Rauschenberg was taking painting beyond just paint and I liked that.
PW: Your art reflects who you are?
RP: A lot of it has been really autobiographical; in a sense, I’d say selfish. Now I feel like I’m trying to bridge – the word bridge and the word bound; those two words I’ve been thinking about – with the viewer and maybe start addressing issues larger than myself. When I was in school, I thought it was cliché; I thought it was what you were supposed to do. Now, it’s a matter of following my curiosity, following my interests.
PW: You mention found objects. What do you use?
RP: Mainly for me it’s recycled paper, cardboard – things you take for granted. In San Francisco, when you walk around, you can see tons of valet stickers on the ground. I collect them because I was always walking around. I was really into them.
PW: How long did you live and work in San Francisco?
RP: For six years. I went to school at Arizona State, I went to San Francisco, went to Japan, then Los Angeles. Now I’m coming back here.
PW: Are you from Mississippi?
RP: I was born in Mobile, Alabama. My family moved around. I remember we lived in West Virginia. I remember some of South Carolina; we lived in Charleston. I remember Atlanta. We lived in Oklahoma City for a couple of years. By the time I reached the sixth grade, we were here. I graduated high school here.
PW: Why come back?
RP: It’s gotten big enough that I can handle it. Before, it was so small; I couldn’t. It wasn’t enough for me. You have to go out there and find yourself and discover who you are. I think you have to go out of your comfort zone and that’s what I did.
But here, the cost of living is so much cheaper. It’s more interesting than it used to be. Jackson has interesting characters.
PW: I suppose you don’t know that, population-wise, Jackson is actually a little smaller.
RP: I didn’t know that. How come it seems so much bigger?
PW: That’s what I’m asking you.
RP: I guess there is more here, as far as shopping, performance venues, and people from other places. There are a lot more people from other places. Jackson has become more cosmopolitan.
PW: I’m assuming you find that more appealing.
RP: Yeah. There are certain things; I can’t get over the fact that there isn’t a Trader Joe’s here. There are those little things that can make a city great. You can go to all these different little places and get all kinds of interesting food, wine, clothes. You can see independent films you can’t see here. There’s a lot more going on in L.A. than in Jackson.
PW: Then, was there something in particular that drew you back here?
RP: People. There are people who have been a consistent inspiration: my friend the glass blower, my friend the writer, and my friend the architect. There are good people here doing interesting things. Besides the glass blower, the others have left Jackson and experienced other things and places, and they’ve been brought back here for some reason. You wonder what’s wrong with you; why do you come back here? But there is something about Jackson. I don’t know what it is. I feel different here.
PW: Is that a positive different?
RP: Yeah. It’s interesting to me. In L.A., I wake up and drink Yerba Maté – Brazilian rainforest tea that tastes like bark – with rice milk. I have something soy; an overly L.A. kind of breakfast. Here I have coffee, maybe an egg with hormones. I really can’t quite imagine drinking Yerba Maté here. But in L.A., I’m not a drinker. Here, I like a drink at night. I like to watch the rain. The other night I told [the architect] I hadn’t seen a thunderstorm since I can’t remember. It’s been forever. I sat outside and watched it. We didn’t have the weather out there. There are no trees to make that noise when the leaves are blowing. I love that. The South is more sensual.
PW: How does that affect your work?
RP: It makes it more tactile. You’re not supposed to touch a painting, you know. But I’m avid about doing that. With the process I’m using, I like the way they feel. I like people touching them; it feels like skin. My work is more 3-dimensional here. I’ve incorporated the sewing; the sense of lighting is different. L.A. is very bright, but it lacks depth – it’s flat, shiny, hard.
I’m here for the life. There’s more soul here. I’m an oddball. I don’t look like Jackson, but I feel comfortable here, and I feel that no one would harass me about it.
PW: What kind of work will you be showing?
RP: A few different styles. They’re bridging together. Some of them I started before I got here; they’re autobiographical, reflecting what I was going through in L.A. That whole series brought me here. I finished a couple of pieces here, so they’re half-and-half, and there are pieces that I’ve started here – equines. For me, horses are passion.
PW: That’s a female thing.
RP: It is. That fine with me, because I like being a girl.
PW: She says while kneading dough.
RP: I know. That’s been a shift in me. I see a shift in my work, too. I can’t sew and suddenly I’m obsessed with sewing. I want to learn to sew. Now I’m sewing in my work. For me, I’ve been such a tomboy, but now I’m starting to feel more okay with womanly things, domestic traits. I don’t see it as being a bad thing; it’s something that adds strength and balance.
PW: How active were you artistically in these other locations?
RP: In San Francisco, I was the most active; I was part of a studio group, the Blue Studio. Now it’s on Mission Street, but it used to be near PacBell Park [home of the San Francisco Giants]. It was a work-only space and I lived there. My friend built me a Murphy bed and I joined the gym up the street [for bathing facilities]. There, we would go to the Art Walks, participate in the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts shows. That’s when things started to click for me. I did a lot of auctions and benefits. It’s weird: I don’t know why, but for a year, I quit painting and took a corporate job selling furniture. Then I lost it and went to Japan.
PW: Lost your job?
RP: Lost my mind.
PW: What did you do in Japan?
RP: I taught English. It was exciting; Japan is beautiful in every way. I wouldn’t want to live there forever, but I liked it. It was visual splendor.
PW: How did this affect your work?
RP: I was unaware of how much I liked everything Japanese until I got there. I like the food; I had Japanese prints. I had started to collect wooden Japanese carpenter tools.
I’d say Western art is 3-dimensional; it wants to create space, volume. Japanese prints are very flat. I liked that. I started recognizing that in my own work. When I got back from Japan, I had my first show at Fondren Traders and it was all very Asian looking. It gave me a good experience at documenting a place and a feeling. That series I would like to own myself; it was natural and fluid. It came out of me. It had all the elements: it was personal, but it could match your couch. I had to tell myself to get off the Asian theme.
PW: There is still some Japanese influence in your current work. The layout hints at it. In one, there is an Oriental-looking fish…
RP: And a pagoda. It’s hard for me to shake. You’ll catch me on the Internet, looking at scenes from Japan.
PW: You took imagery and concepts from Japan. What did you take artistically from San Francisco?
RP: There, I was influenced by a good group of peers, some amazing painters. One guy had a very established style by the time he finished school – very Basquiat-influenced. I used to watch him paint a couple hours a day. He was very free with me and I learned a lot from that. Another friend was a hyperrealist painter. He thought about art very formally, about what school taught you to do. All those things influenced me. I pick, choose, borrow, and steal whatever I want. I was a sponge.
It’s more intuitive that way. I don’t like formula. It’s shallow and small-minded. You want to have an experience. Have the guts to make art for no reason – for no reason. I think who you are and what you appreciate translates less literally than people think.
PW: What did you take away from L.A.?
RP: Ruins. When I got there, I loved it for the first year and a half; the industrial look, the interesting colors. But then I felt like I’d never experienced the reality out there. If you’re not in the film industry, everyone seems crazy to you. They’re obsessed with these people, and these people are jerks, in this industry where everyone gets all this money and notoriety. I was just struggling to survive. I couch-surfed the first year I was out there, and there were a lot of nights in the car. I will say I met one friend who was a photographer there with a lot of heart and soul
I have to say, L.A. is known for the second-best art scene, next to New York. As far as painting, I didn’t see much that impressed me. I feel like L.A. set me up to move here. It stripped away the fluff and brought me down to the essentials.
Jackson is very real. I can live my life my way. I want to create my own world. I want my place, my paintings. I want to take them anywhere and everywhere. That’s what I want.