Monday, April 16, 2007

Art Space Talk: Rachel Simmons

I recently interviewed artist Rachel Simmons. Rachel grew up in Port Tampa and Bradenton, two communities located in the Tampa Bay Area. She attended Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida completing an Honors degree in studio art in 1997.

Rachel studied printmaking and painting at Rollins under Bosnian artist Tanja Softic. After graduating, she left for Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where she completed an MFA under the guidance of painters Michael Crespo and Edward Pramuk at Louisiana State University.

In 2000, Rachel returned to her alma mater Rollins College as an assistant professor. At Rollins, she has been actively involved in connecting the studio arts curriculum to the local community through specialized service-learning courses and collaborative art projects.

In the last few years, Rachel’s work has been exhibited in Florida at the Orlando Museum of Art, the Cornell Fine Arts Museum in Winter Park, and the Arts Center in St. Petersburg, in New York at the Ceres Gallery as well as abroad in Piacenza, Italy at the Pulcheria Arte exhibition of international women artists and at the 2005 Florence Biennale.

Q. When did you first discover that art would be an important part of your adult life?

A. "I discovered early on in school that I loved to write creatively and draw, but it was really in high school that I saw the possibility of making art a central part of my life. Not surprisingly, writing/text has continued to play a major role in my work."

Q. How has society influenced your art? Are there any social implications in your art?

A. "Growing up, my mom was a social worker and public school teacher and my father worked on advanced degrees in political science while he taught public school and college, so social issues and politics were a regular part of our family discussions.

It was only after grad school, however, that I felt empowered enough as an individual to start addressing these things through my art. Particularly since 9/11 and the birth of my daughter, social, political and environmental issues have really become a strong focus of my work."

Q. On average, how long does it take you to create a piece?

A. "It depends on the complexity of the image and the amount of uninterrupted time I have when I am working on it. I often work on a series or installation of works, and so it is rare for me to have only one piece going at a time. Residencies are really great for me because I am the most productive when I have a few weeks at a time to focus on making art."

Q. Can you share some of your philosophy about art and artistic creation?

A. "I feel very strongly that artists have a duty to be good local and global citizens by using their art to communicate positively with as many people as they can reach. My ultimate hope is that my art might have the power to create paradigm shifts for my viewers and promote positive change in the world; of course, at the same time, it fulfills my most basic need to create beauty and express my personal anxieties and desires."

Q. Has your art ever been published?

A. "In local magazines and newspapers, websites and in the catalogue for the 2005 Florence Biennale."

Q. What was your most important exhibition? Care to share that experience?

A. "I always believe my most important exhibition is right around the corner, of course. In fact, it is not always the prestige of the venue that makes an exhibition a watershed moment for me; many times it is more about the interactions I have with people at the reception, or sometimes it is about the particular installation of the work in an unusual space that makes me turn a corner and move forward with an idea."

Q. Do you have any 'studio rituals'? As in, do you listen to certain types of music while working? What helps to get you in the mood for working?

A. "I listen to music ALWAYS-- it is a must when I’m working. It helps me ignite the creative part of my brain and helps me filter out distractions. And, of course, dancing can help you work through a particularly tough artist’s block."

Q. Discuss your art. What are you thinking when you create it?

A. "The digital mixed media pieces I am working on now, tentatively titled the "Anoxia" series, begin with a digital print that I layer with acrylic paint and drawing materials. Sometimes I punch patterns into the paper, sewing through the holes with yarn and heavy thread in order to lend the otherwise alien aesthetic of the underwater subject matter a "domestic" element. Incorporated into some pieces are patterns from wallpaper or fabrics.

Most of these images have text relating to or taken from novels, sailors’ journals, scientific papers and other observations about our romanticized relationship with the ocean. "Dearest" and "My Love" can be read as love letters from a sailor to a spouse using Herman Melville’s gruesome descriptions of whale hunting from "Moby Dick." A potent mixture of fear and wonder is revealed as this character interacts with the seas largest creatures.

The smaller pieces such as "I am not feeling well" and "Don’t leave me" suggest another type of communication from the sea, begging for us to acknowledge the negative effects our collective human impact. Many of the pieces function conceptually as voices for marine creatures or habitats which do not themselves have the power to tell us what we are doing wrong."

Q. Do you have a degree or do you plan to attend school for art? If so, how did it help you as an artist? What can you tell us about the art department that you attended?

A. "I have an M.F.A. from Louisiana State University ( and I teach currently art full-time at Rollins College (, a great liberal arts school in Central Florida. Now that I think about it, I have actually never been away from college life since I started school in 1993, so I guess I must like things that way.
I enjoyed my time in graduate school, but my teaching career has proven to be yet another stage of life-long learning; it feeds my intellectual curiosity and drives my desire to create art that engages people in a larger debate about our global future.
My education has played a big role in the choices I’ve made to work collaboratively with marine biologists, physicists and even musicians in order to create my work. I have found that when asking really big questions, one must get information from a variety of reliable sources.
One of the advantages of teaching at a small liberal arts college is having access to like-minded faculty, excellent researchers in a variety of disciplines that also believe interdisciplinary discovery."

Q.Where can we see more of your art?

A. " "

Q. Do you have any upcoming exhibits?

A. "Currently, my work is on display at the L.A. Design Center ( in a group show called "Stream" with fellow Vermont Studio Center residents and science enthusiasts Rachel Sussman ( ) and Diana Folsom ( ).
I have a major solo exhibition coming up at the Cornell Fine Arts Museum here in Winter Park, Florida ( ) in the fall. It will open September 7th and close at the end of December 2007. The exhibition will focus on my "Wonders" body of work that explores our historically troubled and sometimes romanticized relationship with the sea and generates awareness of marine conservation efforts. It will involve lectures from visiting artists who also work with scientists to create their art like NYC photographer Rachel Sussman as well as visits from conservationists such as Philippe and Alexandra Cousteau from EarthEcho International ( ). They have also been invited to lecture in the galleries, using my show as a teaching environment. There will also be a panel of artists and scientists discussing their collaborations and asking the audience to consider the ways in which artists and scientists can work together to tackle environmental issues.

After that, I will literally "take my show on the road" and put up a version of it at the William Blizard Gallery at Springfield College ( in Springfield, Mass., in March 2008."

Q. Any tips for emerging artists?

A. "Go to school for art, but don’t complete your education just at an art college. Keep going to school until you get enough critical information to be able to create art that contributes to the positive things you would like to see happen in your world. And don’t give up. No matter what."

Q. In one sentence... why do you create art?
A. "I create art so that I have a voice in the world and in the dialogue that keeps the world moving; I am afraid if I ever stop making art, I will not be able to make a difference in my future and my child’s future."
I hope that you have enjoyed my interview with Rachel Simmons. Feel free to critique or discuss her work.
Take care, Stay true,
Brian Sherwin


Anonymous said...

I found the interview fascinating because Ms. Simmons has such a clear mission agenda, and has already implemented so many parts of it at such a relatively young age. It sounds as if her family was very verbal, and makes me wonder if they were readers, too. It's quite interesting how language arts seem to weave together nicely with creative arts. I thought her work was as bright and intriguing as a California tidepool.

Anonymous said...

Great passion....Simmons is an incredible artist and educator.

Anonymous said...

What beautiful work, and what a great inspiration. I hope to see more of Rachel's work soon.

JO said...

Your work is so beautiful!!! Too bad the person that made the last comment is such an idiot! The only smart thing she has ever said is how beautiful your work is.

Anonymous said...

I could be forever lost in the amazing intellect of Professor Simmons. She utilizes her gifts and with them she works to help mend a horribly injured world. She does not talk about money, she does not talk about prestige, she does talk about changing the world for the better through her creative mind. She is amazing, I feel myself lucky to have been able to be a student of hers.