Artist Wendy Domster is a found object artist and regular presence at the annual Bioneers conference. Mostly relying on natural materials, her installations provide beautiful, thoughtful ambiance in social gathering spaces. Her work at the 2017 conference will be, in her words, “the most exciting” yet. We had a conversation with Domster about her inspiration, message, and process.
You have a formal education in fine art, but you spent a huge chunk of your professional life working as a firefighter. Those two paths seem very distinct. Tell us how and why you made these choices.
I have not only enjoyed the contrast in what feels like my “many lives,” but seem to have taken advantage of the juxtaposition between my careers, jobs, passions, and adventures. Making the choices to pursue one over the other, like many people, has been a matter of timing, availability, necessity, and tapping into my capability and courage.
You’ve described, in the past, a bit of an artistic awakening that happened for you through the Bioneers Conference. Tell us more about that.
Artistic awakening was more like an epiphany!
I was a guest at my first Bioneers Conference. It was back in 1999. The Plenary session had just concluded, and my friend and co-founder of Odwalla Juice, Bonnie Steltenpohl, and I were walking across the large expansive decomposed granite conference grounds, discussing the amazing morning session and looking for a place to sit, talk, and eat our wonderful organic lunch that was served. This was well before lunch tents and chairs were an option. One of the few spots available was on the grass around the pond (that is if you could find a spot that didn’t have Canadian Geese feces all over it!).
My formal artistic background and concentration was in glassblowing, steel, and ceramics, which I had abandoned many years prior to make a living as one of the first woman firefighters hired with the City of Santa Clara in 1989. You may be able to take the artist out of circulation, but you can never take the creativity from the artists! While pursuing my career as a professional firefighter, I created installation sculptures on the property where I lived in Santa Cruz: art for art’s sake, art for birthdays, art for the winter solstice … more like art for Wendy’s sake!
During that first Bioneers experience, my epiphany was clear: I was to create sacred (used loosely) or spiritual space through installation/environmental sculpture for those in attendance. I wanted to give back something to all those “doing the work”: Bioneers. I wanted to provide a central space—a focal point to meet, converse, sit—on rented rice straw bales, shaped into benches—a space to share lunch with possibly a stranger! In the beginning, it was an installation that attendees drummed and danced around on Saturday evening … until the noise ordinance was clearly enforced and the dance party moved inside.
I sat back and cried that first year of sculpture at Bioneers 2001. Post 911, I wanted to depict re-growth, rebuilding, hope and a way people could have a voice by writing on hundreds of triangular prayer flags made from recycled, colorful sailing (spinnaker) cloth; by lighting incense at the base of a 40-foot tall golden potted bamboo rising up from an old set scaffolding 30 feet in the air, sitting on hundreds of pounds of salt, representing purification. Yes, I know, it was a lot of symbolism. Watching people dance within that piece on Saturday evening just brought me to tears. I knew my future as an artist would no longer be defined nor represented by traditional disciplines.
What do you hope to capture through your art? What kind of stories are you telling?
I like to capture the moment of awe through my work as an artist. However that looks, whatever the medium, no matter how subtle, it’s about slowing participants down long enough to pay attention and possibly question reason or re-identify nature in an uncommon way. I describe the viewers of my work as “participants.” I like to draw community into the work to touch, smell, and even use the work. The stories created are mine and yours … always changing. Much like the piece for Bioneers, I design and create a site-specific work with its own story that either flows with the theme of the event or totally causes a ruckus within a designated space.
What are your favorite materials to work with? Why?
I adore mixing natural materials with rusted steel. I definitely have an affinity for rusted steel. Then contrast that against stainless steel or blend it with the heavy-brown shades of redwood. I’m always experimenting with found materials. It’s my main inspiration. I’m just as comfortable in the woods as I am in an old, loud industrial area with lots of industrial waste. Too often, I get into trouble trying to force materials to work, so I really try to stay tuned to my gut and not my agenda.
What inspires you artistically?
I think my Artistic inspiration comes from my athletic background. I love a challenge. I was raised with artists, engineers, and a strong matriarchal influence. I’m capable of operating all sorts of heavy equipment. If there’s a will, there’s a way. As I’ve lived many lives as well as relationships, my influence and inspiration comes from reusing, recycling, re-living and remembering.
What do you hope people walk away from your art feeling or thinking?
A feeling of awe! A sense of the common presented in an uncommon way. Giving thought to nature and creative exploration. Perceiving the world around us with an open heart and mind. As well as being inspired to start creating themselves, if they have never believed they could.
Has there been a piece from your past that you’re particularly fond or proud of?
Every one of my sculptures, including smaller assemblage sculptures, has their own essential flavor and experience. All have posed different challenges. Some have involved many volunteers, and others have needed heavy equipment. Some have been champions, others not so victorious but harvested many lessons.
One of my favorite pieces is one that was temporary for a few days only, and one that I would like to return to and develop. The title was “Seeing Spirit.” A neighbor had given me some Aspen trees that he had to take down. I took three of them—approximately 25 feet tall and 8 inches in diameter—and took them to a farmer’s field on the coast. The weight of the trunks during transport crushed the tailgate on my pickup truck! I had two friends help me erect these recycled trees into the ground with large umbrellas at the top of each that I had fiber-glassed to the tree tops. Then I attached reused 30-foot-diameter parachutes over the umbrellas, which acted as the armature for the parachutes. As anyone who has traveled the coast knows, it can get very windy.
Once the parachutes were unfurled, they were just majestic at rest and wildly fierce when the wind picked up. They looked like giant land jellies that could be seen from half a mile away, dancing in the wind. It felt like a sculpture that should be present at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Whenever I watch that video, I go directly to that place of awe.
Tell us about what’s coming at this next Bioneers Conference in October. What can we look forward to from you?
The most exciting is yet to come. This year’s Bioneers Conference piece is designed specifically for this year’s theme: “uprising.” The installation is about the power in numbers when we band together. Its title is “STICK TOGETHER.” I’m presently still working on this piece. It’s consisting of 45 or 50 young Poplar trees that had died due to too much water. I noticed these trees being taken down around the pool where I swim. Maintenance said I could have them as long as I could remove them in a timely fashion. The timely fashion was right at the height of this past year’s winter storms. I knew they would come in handy and they have been sitting on my property. These trees will be banded together with recycled wine barrel steel rings, which have an uncanny color to the grey poplar trunks. I continue to work on and design the formation and, most important, the “how” portion. Constructing an installation that is only temporary for a weekend event poses its own set of challenges with material and resource restraints. With that said, you have now received a peek into my eclectic creative process and how inspiration manifests in my world.