hidden place surrounded by forest, where people had lived for
a thousand years, a place where no one lives now, whose last
inhabitant walked out in 1939 carrying the tin roof of his house
on his back. A place remembered, almost revered, in those mountains for a history of hard, harsh, continuous struggle with the
encompassing doubleness of place—the good and the bad of it,
the beauty and the pain. And the ordinariness of it, too, the
familiarity. The absolute beauty and unavoidably personal reality
of it: its power, I mean, of specific and undeniable place.
JB: What did you create there?
RN: I tried to mark that place and that power, that enduring personal place of old shared habitation. I tried to mark what that old
doubleness, that knot of nature and culture, had come to mean,
what it felt like now. To mark the doors between that place and the
encroaching forest, the fissures, the connectors, and the gaps.
The church itself, the school, the mill. Two valleys away, I found a
quarry and cut blocks of the same stone that was used to build the
900-year-old church. I brought those blocks to the site by helicopter
and lined them up as markers along the pathways.
JB: Following the markers in your work is like journeying through
time—and that is no less true of your studio, which has its own
undeniable sense of place. Can you point out some of the “charged”
forms that you often mention as key to your work?
RN: The charged objects are almost-public, private things, like the
Yaqui Indian mask, which is filled with presence. And that Bolli on
the table, a ritual object from West Africa. And the kayaks—full-size
and accurate replicas of specific Greenland Inuit boats that I made
and use on the Hudson. And some of the sculptures. But it is never
the object itself that is important to me. The objects that hold
me confuse me by oscillating between what they are and what they
can actually accomplish.
JB: That reminds me of the story you tell about playing with your
dog years ago, pitching sticks for him to retrieve, then putting
two sticks together and having an epiphany about the nature of
RN: At the time, that story had nothing to do with sculpture. I
was not thinking about art. I was thinking about communication
and the limitations of language. Those sticks somehow conveyed
specific emotion, did it directly and immediately. And that
amazed me. I realized that objects could communicate emotion
directly without a story or narrative.
JB: As I look at your object-laden walls, I’m particularly drawn
to three small, wooden constructions. Numerous similar forms
surround them, yet these wooden blocks intrigue me more than
RN: But if I moved them to some other location and surrounded
them with other pieces, your response might change—that is
what interests me most.
JB: Is that why you regard the pieces you make as tools—objects
to be re-purposed in a variety of contexts, each resulting place
generating different emotional responses?
RN: Yes, objects can create a place. And that place, I believe, is
what moves me.
JB: An emotive place?
RN: All places are emotive, and all are different, yet not all places
JB: But your places emit energy, just like Vière, the abandoned
French village. When viewers go into that place, they absorb it
or they don’t, depending on who they are and what they relate to.
RN: Yes, depending on what they bring. And what they see. Beckett
speaks of “A Place. Where none,” which means, I think, not a
virtual place, but an actual one barely touched by human meaning.
View of Richard Nonas’s studio, 2017.