Sensual Material


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In my studio I am motivated by attraction to materials and the pleasure I take in handling them. I make objects that confront my body and the body of my viewer with sensuous humor and some provocation. I am interested in the unrecognizable, the repressed. What is beyond our immediate reality? What is the mystery of our associative, psychological state in regards to our perception of what is underneath our skin? Often there are details of clothing in my work, zippers, piping, button holes, referring to the fashion we cover ourselves with, our facade. My work is an exaggerated reference to the body. It reflects the paradox of intelligence opposing bestiality, the body couture. Our facade is an obsession. The materiality, sensuality, and labor invested in my work are expressions of the body.

Glasschord editor Noah Post’s interview with Cynthia Atwood

To start things off, I would like to make note of the fact that there is a wonderful connection between your sculptures and your paintings.  I think you do things with your sculpture that you cannot do with the paintings, and vice-versa. Can you elaborate on this relationship?

First, I would like to thank you for being a viewer who sees the connection between the sculptures and the paintings. There is an actual physical difference in the working of each. The sculpture is labor intensive, if I want to change something, which is often, I may have to open a nearly finished piece all the way to its foundations to make a change. (Ripping, cutting, sawing, dismantling, reconstructing, etc.) The painting is physically easier, I can just paint over it, or wash off the paper. The paintings are small. In the paintings I can create a narrative of sorts, relationships between things, atmosphere.  I am more willing to make mistakes! It’s only paper. Is the word freedom?

The sculpture is “the word made flesh”, so to speak, one object at a time.  The viewer can have a visceral, tactile relationship with the object. This is a physical relationship, body oriented, fitting with our EROS puzzle. As the maker I also want this relationship, which is part of the urge to make the work.

I often have my viewers ask, “Can I touch it?” That is the urge I want to create. Ironically, in the regular hierarchy of art it is not all right to touch the art. I think this can work for me too- the desire to touch the art just as important as actually touching it.
It is important for me to see, from the question you asked, that I may be overdue for a thoughtful installation aspect of my work.

Small limb-like formations are scattered throughout your work; stubs and nubs and fingers and noses. It is interesting how often you reference our bodies, without dealing so much with the full human figure. Is “Leaving something for our imagination”, an important part of your creative process? explain.

There is an art historical precedent which I must have absorbed subconsciously of the “partial figure” or “part-object”. I had been making this kind of work for some time before I read the essays of Rosiland Krauss who uses the term “part-object” in her book Bachelors, MIT Press, 2000. The part-object could be considered an archetype, huge penises from Indian religion, many breasted goddesses and on.  Each part, separated from the body as a whole, with its own entity with its own logic- or no logic!- but the desires by which it is driven. Then we get into each part being the whole, etc…..

If putting limbs and nubs back into a whole is what the viewer’s imagination does with the information, that is one option. I can also imagine metaphorical meanings, exaggerations, separations,  and narratives. There is ambiguity driving this body of work.

Leaving room for the viewer also leaves room for me. As the artist even I wonder what things mean sometimes, or meanings can change.

On the topic of body parts, The Ear has recently become a major theme in your work- explain.

I began this project feeling that I needed to be a better listener. I realized how lovely it was when someone listened to me wholeheartedly. Their ear virtually bloomed toward me.

As a result of this thinking, when I paint the portrait of the ear, I get to enjoy that person thoroughly and to “riff’ off of them for a day or two, painting their ear into the center of a bloom. Prior to painting the ear I get to go around with my camera and ask people if they would like to be part of my ear community. That is as much fun as painting  the ear.
Noah, would you like to participate and send me a digital image of each of your ears?
This is a long term project. I hope to have hundreds of them. At this time I have 50.

The ear is yet another hole in the body through which we take in information, another fabulous orifice.

You use a variety of materials that involve a certain amount of handy work – fabrics,wood,leather,foam,embroidery,wire. The List goes on. How did you get involved with, and what is you specific interest in this variety of materials?

These are materials that are easily available and possible for me to work in my studio. I learned to sew when I was 9 and this skill is integrated into my life.

Fabric is malleable. I can push it together, or stretch it, it “grows”. The urge toward the visceral is a desire for vitality expressed through the handling of my materials. The diligence of needlework brings materials alive, stitch by stitch.

The way materials attract me, (again the Eros principle), is very important. Texture, sheen, sense of hand and color are all key. I want to touch them.

In a time when artists send their work out to artisans, I am still attached to making my own work.  Many viewers who begin by appreciating only my craft, will find it to be their entrance into the work.


The theme of this Glasschord issue is “Eros”- The God of Sexual Love. There is a plenty of Physical Sexuality in your sculptures; in the shapes, in the textures, in the colors. Sometimes with provocation and sometimes with humor.  I enjoy this duality because it is very realistic. Is there ever a certain feeling you intend to provoke from the viewer when you make a piece?  Are you ever surprised with some one’s reaction when they see your work in person?

What has been a consistent surprise for me is the way my work usually has a sexual reference and that is NOT always what I was thinking about when I made the work. When the sexual element makes itself apparent to me yet again, I submit, realizing it is essential to the world and to my work, this coming together, of ideas, bodies.       

There may be feelings I intend to provoke: a sense of seeing something unknown, so that the cells of the brain either accommodate the new oddity, or not: the humor of dichotomy: the grotesqueness of dichotomy: a one on one encounter with something that is surprising: but it’s out of my hands once it’s being viewed. As an artist I want to provoke or surprise myself. I appreciate a sense of play.

I get new information from people’s comments. Maybe I even change something.

I enjoy it when I see that the viewer is actually being seduced by a piece. The body to body experience is not possible with a photograph.

I have also had the following experience. Some years ago my niece visited Cuba and brought me a painting of a beach scape as a gift. I hung it in the studio. Those viewers that could not fathom my sculpture found solace there.

I know that you live and work in a very beautiful part of the country. The landscape there can be overwhelming. How does this effect your work?

I have lived in the Berkshires for 26 years. They are part of my fuel. Being outside refreshes me.
There’s been lots written about the process of walking and thinking. Studio problems can get resolved out there.

You have a new series in process- called “Alphabet of Weapons”- what is this series shaping into?

I have been working on this for 3 years. It is so slow. I spend more time thinking about it than making it. That’s different for me. I’m going to let it be slow.

I have never used a literary framework. I am making “weapons”. “A” is for Ask, “C” is for Charm, looking for double sided meanings, psychological meanings. I am going through the alphabet in random order and now have only 6 finished pieces, 4 more begun, and over half the letters decided. many of the selections I make are challenging in terms of their objectification. i,e,- how to make that concept into an object?

It is not as overtly sexual as prior work, although the body is still present.

I’m challenged. I’m wondering what it’s shaping up into myself.

3 Responses to Sensual Material

  1. Julia Chiesa says:

    Wow… I was taken on a journey through space, under the deep sea, and into the miraculous microcosmical life of bacteria, the formations of mold, the spaces of disease and back to the all so familiar human body. Why, I question, do the spaces and dimensions of the universe reflect the human body and mind? Or does the human body and mind reflect the universe? Love these works!

  2. Eileen says:

    What a haptically, delightful experience – I can only imagine what the impact of your work must have in person. I really enjoyed it.

  3. So sexy, So tactile, so lush
    Thank you for the words to go with the luscious images