As an artistically inclined teenager feeling bored and marooned in the suburb of Vadnais Heights, Minnesota, Mel Nguyen did what any millenial in her situation would do: She turned to the internet for creative stimulation. “Even as a high schooler I was looking at all these graphic design blogs, seeing how the field was changing, and thinking, wow,” she says. As soon as she enrolled as an art student at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, she started her own tumblr, showing off her experiments sliding from 2-D into to 3-D and back again. She managed to build such a following on the site that her work went viral in certain online art and design circles — so much so that it’s hard to believe she’s only 21, and won’t graduate until this spring.
It’s not at all hard to believe, on the other hand, that she found success on tumblr, of all places: Her work shares not only the site’s aesthetic but its stream-of-consciousness approach. “My practice has a lot to do with chain reactions and triggers,” Nguyen explains. “I’m triggered by materials or imagery, and then once I’ve done something, I find what interests me about it and move on to explore that. It’s a series of connected experiments: If A leads to B, then what about this other thing?” The same formula applies to her physical process as well. For a recent project, which dealt with the idea of objects whose forms imply a function they don’t necessarily possess, she began by making small, vague items resembling material tests, then photographed them, then made printed cutouts of them, which she integrated into another piece.
That project also explored her current fascination with prototypes, models, and retail display tactics, which can manifest in her installations as elements that look unfinished or fake, or that are hung from department store–style grid walls, even when they don’t resemble anything that would typically be for sale. “I’m interested in the line between a prototype and a completed product, and in the backend of production and staging,” Nguyen says. “Everything I make is trying to explore the structural possibilities between art and design, trying to find my way between them.” We sent photographer Debbie Carlos to her Minneapolis studio to take a closer look.
“Being a photographer and being an artist working with materials like resin, plants, and glass — those two worlds should not really mix,” says Heidi Norton. “You have the camera and you have film and you’re trying to keep things clean and archival, and then you have dirt and glass shards everywhere.” Such contradictions are at the core of Norton’s work, from the immaculate glow of her photography to the dirt-under-your-fingernails feel of her sculptural pieces, which typically feature houseplants in some form or another. Norton started incorporating plants into her photographic practice several years ago in a series of still lifes. It was partly a way to bring the natural world she grew up with, in rural West Virginia, into the urban setting of Chicago, where she’s lived since getting her MFA at the School of the Art Institute in 2002. Those photos eventually inspired her to make plant-based sculptures that explore how we create, cultivate, and change ourselves. Therein lies the central paradox: “The idea of preservation, and trying to save the plant while at the same time killing it through that preservation, became really interesting to me,” she says. “All of the mediums I use deal with that idea in different ways.” Even her studio itself, shot by Debbie Carlos for part two of Sight Unseen's series on Chicago artists, is part of the process.
As a four-year-old living in Lenoir, South Carolina, Stephen Eichhorn refused to learn how to read. While everyone else in his class was singing their ABCs, he’d stubbornly deemed it unnecessary — he already knew he was destined to be an artist, communicating through images rather than words. “People asked me, how are you going to read your show cards or write press releases?” Eichhorn recalls. “My answer was, I’m going to marry someone who knows how to read! The resistance was so heavy they put me in a special ed class.” His protest didn’t last more than a few months, luckily, but his uncanny commitment to his future career did: At 14, for example, he interned for a group of Star Wars toymakers who taught him freehand drafting and craft techniques, and at 17 he attended a summer art program at SAIC before enrolling there a year later. Since graduating in 2006 he’s been living the dream instead of planning for it, working independently from a studio he shares with his wife in Chicago, which is where SU’s newest contributor Debbie Carlos visited him this past spring for our two-part series on Windy City artists.
It’s not every day that one of our subjects answers the phone by giddily announcing she’s just opened the mail to find the Legend soundtrack she ordered and proclaiming that 1985 Tom Cruise fantasy flick to be her favorite movie. But then San Francisco artist Sarah Applebaum has always tended to march to the beat of her own drum: Paying no mind when her work meanders back and forth between craft and art, she mostly uses dime-store materials like yarn, papier mâché, and felt. Unlike most crafters, she often turns those materials into three-dimensional symbols plucked from her subconscious. And yet unlike most artists, she's self-taught with a degree in politics, sells her objects at Jonathan Adler and in her own online shop, moonlights as a personal chef, and isn’t at all goal-oriented when it comes to gallery shows. When Applebaum makes things, alone in her home studio in the Lower Haight, it’s above all for making’s sake.