Visiting sculptor documents history through immersive installations

Photo courtesy of Natalie Tsur.

Sculptor Julie Ann Nagle visited Ramapo on April 19 to present her work from past exhibitions. She delivered her talk in front of an audience of faculty and students inside the Anisfield School of Business. 

Nagle considers herself an “unarcheologist,” as her rather avant-garde approach to sculpting creates layers of historical narrative for viewers to disassemble. They are asked to play the role of an investigator while standing fully immersed in the art, allowing for varied experiences and interpretations across all types of engagement. 

“I really want people who come to visit my work to be as immersed and excited and experimenting the way that I have been in my studio when I create the pieces,” Nagle said. “So I'm trying to create these experiences for them in a multitude of ways.”

The complete product of her work comes from a two-part process: field work and poetic output. Nagle dedicates months to researching a topic, which may involve reading, listening to podcasts or forging materials — all of which inform the complexities of the piece, including the viewer’s interaction with it. She pays particular attention to historical concepts, and constructs an immersive installation that challenges linear and regularly accepted narratives.

“For each project, I intentionally put myself in a situation where I'm a complete amateur and I'm starting from scratch,” Nagle said. “And that could mean that I'm investigating a new subject matter or a historical figure I know nothing about, or it could mean working with the material I had very little experience with.”

Throughout her process, Nagle finds she is often making a discovery herself, as she draws artistic connections to her personal life. For one of her projects, Nagle excavated a horse her family had raised on their Pennsylvania farm, and in literally digging up the remains, she had figuratively unearthed family history, as well.

“It was incredibly emotional, especially for my grandparents, and I had interviews with them and talk to them… about our family history, the history of the property, mental illness that one of my family members had suffered, and that they had been in a mental hospital for a number of years, and just never told anyone about it,” she said.

However personal, her work expands to a larger meaning — one that reckons with the human condition in the context of monolithic structures. Though, it seems that each piece carries its own story and reason for being built. 

When her father had been attempting to remove a groundhog from their backyard, Nagle leaned into her empathetic instincts, and imagined what the “subterranean space” would look like, especially after physically creating that void in her backyard. These layered connections render Nagle’s work one that is dynamic rather than static — it unfolds in ways that cross emotion and intellect.

“Blurring the lines between kind of really practical scientific mode of thought, and really emotional, even kind of whimsical choices that I'm making on my end,” she said. “That's a really big part of it for me too.”

The brief insight prompted Nagle to work with biodegradable materials she never used before, and she taught herself how to weave baskets for a larger project that mimicked a groundhog burrow. Though, this experimental mode is threaded across her art and allows the density of small-scale pieces to expand in a metaphysical way when not afforded the physical space.

“Artists are always responding to their resources, whether you have a huge community or you're working on your own, whether you have a budget or you have to be super thrifty,” Nagle said. “If you have a space that's really large to exhibit or you have a tiny corner, the projects are always kind of nebulous and adapting to whatever resources you have.”