Shop Conversations: Julia Paloma

Nathan Smith: Do you have a moment when you are like, ‘This is when I started making things.’ Or have you made things your entire life?

Julia Paloma: I think that it was when I was little, four years old—the early 70s—my mom was a budding feminist, and had just gotten divorced. So I think she purposely bought me this car that came with tools, it was wooden and the nuts and bolts were plastic, but I understood that you could use these tools to take it apart. And I definitely had the feel of—I liked the feeling of taking it apart. And even the sensation of when I had made it too tight, and how hard it was to loosen—there was something about that physical feeling. That was one of the first times. . . . And tinkertoys, I remember working with a lot when I was little. But after that there was a little bit of . . . well, you know, it was all kind of making. Cooking early on, and sewing, and embroidery for my stepmom, and you know, partly knowing to pay attention to how things were made. I was no good at paying attention to it, but I understood you could. And the more attention you pay, the better it looked. But probably, not really until . . . I mean, Ghost Ranch in New Mexico is the main focus for me of this kind of thing. I went—let’s see, it would have been almost sixteen years ago. I learned etching, and  I wasn’t really deep into it, but it was just kind of interesting listening to the artist who was teaching us talk about how she did it. It didn’t sink in very far, it was just a little week-long class, you know, that gave us this new experience.

 Ghost Ranch

Ghost Ranch

NS: Was your family there, or how did you end up going there?

JP: My folks are Presbyterian ministers, and it was run by the Presbyterian Church. I believe it’s still owned by them, but it’s its own thing now. So they used to go there for retreats and so on. And maybe around, it must have been the early 90s, they started going fairly regularly, and now go every year. So in the year 2000 they said, Come on everybody—it’s a big year! It’s the year 2000, we got a couple new grandbabies, I think my mom was turning. . . . I don’t know, they even wrapped their birthdays in there.

NS: So this place is not just an art space, it’s like you can do . . . there are many things going on there?

JP: It’s a real working ranch first of all, and they have space for hosting meetings or conferences or retreats and those kinds of things, and you could have several simultaneous gatherings. And in the summer they have several weeks that are dedicated to making art. So, the next time I went to Ghost Ranch a few years later, I did basket weaving, which was also very interesting. Why we picked these two classes you could never ever really do on your own—because it was so relaxing to do the basket weaving in particular—but you can’t really get the stuff at Michaels, and you have to special order miles of it. . . .

NS: Yeah, you have like an industrial amount?

JP: Yeah! Well, you know, for a little house in Chicago. . . .

NS: Baskets inside of baskets?

JP: Right. A few years after that, my mom, who had been doing welding all along, said: Just try the welding. You know don’t—I know it’s a little. . . .

 Ghost Ranch welding space - washed away in a Spring 2015 flood

Ghost Ranch welding space - washed away in a Spring 2015 flood

NS: She had been doing welding every year?

JP: Pretty much, yeah. She used to go often for two weeks, and do it for two weeks of the year, and then put it to the side. So that would have been probably almost ten years ago now, when I tried it for the first time. And I had no idea what I was doing, I was just melting stuff together, mostly just anything I made that year has by now fallen apart. And then the next year I learned a little bit more, and tried it again. You know, ever year I went back, and then it came to pass that my ex-husband and I divorced. So then it became the thing I looked forward to—it shaped the whole rest of the year. Just get to Ghost Ranch. You got to just get to Ghost Ranch. And then it got to be where I started thinking well, what I would do? And I would make plans—and all contingent upon what would the junk pile have, because we used all scrap metal. So that little scrap table there [motioning to CIADC metalworking department scraps], picture it about fifty times bigger. That’s what we would weld with, and pick through, and you know, chase the spiders and snakes out of the stuff. And then, I guess a year or so ago I said, you know, maybe I could do this more than just Ghost Ranch. I had actually seen the classes at the Evanston Art Center a few years before, and I thought, oh—that sounds way too structured, I don’t want to do that. Because Ghost Ranch is not, you know. . . .

NS: They just want to keep you safe and let you go?

JP: Safe enough, actually, because, you know, it’s guests coming for a week. So, they say: Natural fibers, closed toed shoes, long sleeves . . .

NS: Go!

JP: . . . if you have gloves, bring them. But we have gloves. Some of the other techniques they would teach us promoted more safety. We quenched the stuff every time we finished a weld, and so on. And there was a lot of close supervision, of course, but not strict teachers. But anyway, last year I said, let me just try this class. If I hate it, I’ll never do it again. And I almost didn’t take it. I went to visit the class in Evanston, and I met Dominic, and I watched the people working. And it smelled just right, it looked familiar, felt familiar. But the thought of sheet metal and bar stock and all that, just intimidated the heck out of me. I don’t think I can take a class, I won’t know what to do with that stuff, and I don’t have enough scrap, it’s hard for me to collect scrap in my daily life.

NS: Sure. [General laughter]

 Ghost Ranch scrap pile

Ghost Ranch scrap pile

JP: I do though, but—you know, if it turns up. I have some, you know, but I don’t really have the . . . I haven’t figured out a system to go find it, systematically. But I decided to—I should stay. There was something about the way Dominic talked about even his own art, just in that brief time that made me think: Well, I have something to learn here. And the people looked like interesting people to be around, and so it was. And so the one class happened, and that shop closed. I do remember thinking—aw, Dominic’s not going to be teaching welding at [CIADC]. He’s going to be teaching casting. Now what am I going to do?

NS: So have you taken welding here, or just casting?

JP: I said, well, I’m going to stick with the teacher!

NS: Nice, yeah. . . .

JP: So I don’t know, I wouldn’t say that, in the welding at Ghost Ranch, when I started to feel like, when I put pieces of scrap together in a certain arrangement, that it meant something to me. Like it started out making things that represented other things, you know, here’s a figure of um . . . you know the storyteller figure, it’s usually a woman covered with little kids?

NS: Yeah!

  Storyteller  by Julia Paloma

Storyteller by Julia Paloma

JP: So that kind of figure, I made one. It’s really clunky and full of brazing rod and looks like a beginner made them, and they were.

NS: But you were making things that were somewhat universal in figuration?

JP: Maybe, yeah. You know, a figure has these kinds of components, but then I started over the years, between visits to Ghost Ranch . . . I remember one year my daughter was studying mythology, and she had—I think she actually copied it, but it was a really sweet drawing of Aphrodite. And so I knew kind of what I might want. So when I got to the junk pile I could look for the shapes I had thought I would need. And they had a series of steel circles I would use for things. . . . So I think it was around that time that I thought, oh—now, now I know what I’m making. I feel like I’m saying something. I don’t know if says anything to anyone else, but I felt like I was saying something while I put these things together.

NS: And so that emerged when every step was intentional?

JP: Uh-huh. I knew enough about how it was working. In the beginning it was partly just the thrill of turning on the torch and melting the metal. Now I understand—or the way I do it, it’s a lot less about how the metal’s going to act with the flame. It’s more—where’s the connection going to be and how do I get it to stick together? How do I need to prop it? How do I need to balance it? And then when it falls apart—okay, let’s make it a different way!

NS: [Laughs for a bit.] So. The transition to learning casting, it seems to an outsider like a totally different thing.

JP: It’s very, very different.

NS: You couldn’t have started casting the way you started welding, right? You have to be very intentional the whole time. . . .

 Casting Department whiteboard

Casting Department whiteboard

JP: Yeah, yeah. You know, when I had the scraps of metal especially—and I guess when people using the sheet metal and so on, they have to have an idea of what they want the shape to look like before they ever cut it, they don’t have it already. So, when you’re casting, you have your pattern that you’re going to make a mold out of, but if you’re trying to change it, you have nothing. You’re trying to figure out to get—how do I get a mold made of this object that it can turn into the thing I’m looking for. And so it is all in your imagination, and you know, I think, when the class first started, Dominic didn’t use the whiteboard all that much, but now he’s using it more and more and more, because you have to draw it to see how it might work. And he’s using it to explain it to the rest of us too, about what his thinking is. But it’s inside out and upside down and backwards all at the same time and . . . what you’re doing will let you wind up with the thing you are imagining, but it feels so indirect, at least to me. And so I feel like I’m back in the beginning again.

  Hollyhocks  by Julia Paloma

Hollyhocks by Julia Paloma