I was fortunate enough to chat with Burning Down The House artist Brooke Erin Goldstein about her childhood, artistic roots, process, the RI arts scene, and more. Brooke’s genuine enthusiasm for the arts is so refreshing and is certainly enough to get anyone up and moving to become a part of the lively RI arts community. Check out her guest post on PattyJ.com featuring a handy gallery guide for newbies and see Brooke’s artwork at the JAC through August 15.
How and when did you start sewing and quilting?
It’s actually a really fun story. I started sewing probably when I was about 6. My mom had an amazing old lady Italian tailor, Carmela. She would drop me off there on Saturday mornings to learn sewing. We’d watch Italian soap operas and it was a lot of fun.
I made Barbie clothes and Barbie furniture. It’s great because before that (learning to sew), I’d tape the clothes together with duct tape or things I found around the house, but I needed to upgrade, so I started sewing and learned on these amazing antique sewing machines. It was this really cool thing I was drawn to, and then I learned quilting in summer camp actually. I think I was 10 or 11 and I was obviously very into arts and crafts. I wasn’t really a sports kid, not anti-sports, but I wasn’t great at sports, so we would have elective periods where you could pick what you wanted to do, and the director taught me quilting and I went from there. I did a lot of it in college and you know.
I always wanted to quilt a whole room. In September I got to do it at AS220, and I just don’t want to stop. I want to do more and more and more! I want to do a whole house. I feel really drawn to the medium. You know what I really like about quilting? And also about weaving too? It’s very math based. It’s like a puzzle. Everything has to fit together. I really like the math of it all and working out the numbers and making it have to fit together into this huge amazing thing. I also think that… my dad used to tuck me in really tight at night with blankets, haha, so maybe that is part of the obsession.
I noticed when you came in to check out the space again, you had a very impressive schematic, could you talk more about the process, in particular for this piece and in general?
I have a really analytic brain. I really love math and science. Also we took a lot of road trips as kids, and I was always the navigator. My dad is really good at math. My sister is really good at math; She’s an engineer. We’d play these games, ‘okay we’re here… how long will it take to get here?’. I’d always have the map in my hand trying to figure it out, separating things out. I think quilting reminds me of that, and the maps are color-coded. Every thing I do, I look at it as drawing. The quilting is just drawing with fabrics. I love the immersive experience of art…covering the wall or room.
Part of my process is imagining a world and then breaking it down. I imagine a world I want to talk about. Pretty much everything I do has to do with childhood or childhood development, sort of what goes on behind closed doors: excitement, fear, vulnerability, empowerment. So the mapping is a process of breaking everything down. Taking a big world and drawing it out and breaking down the elements of it and making it make sense. The mapping makes me feel like I can do anything. All you need is more grid paper. In so many ways, art in general is about breaking things down and making it relatable and understandable. When you’re an artist you work conceptually with emotional imagery. Obviously if you are someone who is material focused or a minimalist, it’s not the same thing. That’s what you do in therapy too, you break things down so they become manageable.
To me, childhood is very tumultuous and when you are a child you are forced… just as survival, you have to trust that the adults in your life know what they’re doing and have your best interest at heart and can guide you. It’s not like there is a manual. I was a very intense child and a child that couldn’t be disciplined. I was born with a lot of spirit and really wanted to do things my own way. It made for a very exciting upbringing in many ways because I was very creative and would do things like take the furniture apart and make it into a carnival in my basement, which I think is amazing but I was probably asked not to come over and play at pretty much everyone’s house that I knew. But I didn’t see the boundaries of where the creativity and exploration should end.
And do you think that is where creating these boundary-less, immersive experiences come into play? You were discussing being “in” the art.
So in it! And to me it feels really real and always did. I had an amazing imagination. I had a lot of dreams. Very vivid dreams and nightmares and it was like childhood with the volume turned up to 11. You know it was very difficult for my parents and the other adults in my life to handle it. I also didn’t sleep as a child. I only slept about 2 – 3 hours a night until I was about 22 years old. I just didn’t sleep. My parents tried everything, so it got to a point where they’d let me stay up all night and work on art projects. I watched a lot of TV while working on art projects – a lot of Nick at Night. I’ve probably seen every Alfred Hitchcock Presents… not what a child with a very vivid imagination should be watching, hahaha.
Yeah, my relationship with quilting is so funny. There are so many paths that led me there. I don’t make traditional quilts that are used in the home as blankets. My quilts are art. I don’t look at my quilts as paintings. Paintings to me are very layered. I look at mine as drawings – block based, line based, shape based with a heavy hand.
I had an intense childhood, it wasn’t all rough dark and bad, it was very magical in many ways, my parents embraced it in many ways, and let me create this world that I could function in well. I’m also dyslexic, and am not a strong reader. Other kids had books, but I didn’t have that. I am a very slow reader – even today, so art and these immersive experiences were kind of what other people would describe as the similar immersive experience they get from reading – those worlds. This was my way of immersing and escaping – other kids have other ways of doing that whether it is sports or reading. I just couldn’t do that. So I created these visual worlds. I turned our basement into a Barbie, My Little Pony, She-Ra village. I would make everything for it, and I did take apart the furniture quite a bit. I loved taking things apart. I loved breaking things down to re-purpose. I was a very emotional child, and I think a lot of the breaking and taking things apart was an intense need to know what was going on underneath it all. I think it was more emotional, especially when you’re a kid and you don’t understand why you’re going through things. I was always getting in trouble. I don’t think I ever fully understood why what I was doing was not appropriate.
“Burning Down The House” looks at house and home – have a lot of your other pieces covered this theme?
Yes, it is a theme I am very interested in. I’ve been making dollhouses for a couple of years now also. House and home always has a nostalgic aspect to it and it thematically comes up in my work a lot. Especially the idea of home as a sanctuary and then that compared with what goes on behind closed doors isn’t always pretty. I think a lot of us grew up with that contradiction. I think a lot of us grew up with that, sort of contradiction where you want this home – safe place sanctuary where you can close your doors and have your own world away from the world. But a lot of times when those doors are closed, it’s not always safe. It’s something I’ve always been fascinated by and interested in exploring in my work.
What is the difference in how you approach filling an entire space with an installation as opposed to a single piece you hang independently on a wall?
I think that it is very interesting to work within the boundaries of a preexisting space. With the theme of house and home, many think about family, and I love this idea of ‘let’s cover it up!’ Conceptually it is so exactly what is going on – let’s cover it up, let’s make it look pretty, let’s accentuate certain things that we think are good and hide the others. In creating a site-specific installation, you ask are you going to cover the vents, panels and light switches? Or will you let those show through? I like the idea that at the JAC you can see the backs of some of the quilts. I want you to see the human hand in it – the fallibility. I want you to see the choices. I want you to see the labor. This is not gymnastics or figure skating; I want you to see the blood, sweat, and tears in it. That is so often what we’re trying to cover up, and I love the idea of playing with that.
Your studio is based in Providence. What is your experience with being an artist in RI?
I love Providence. I went to RISD and graduated in 2003. I’ve tried to leave, haha, but I really love Providence and RI in so many ways, I have other businesses, and I think it’s a really easy place to have a business. There is support for people trying to do their own thing and support for the arts and for showing artists’ work. There are so many artists here and people who support and care about the arts, so everyone really knows how important that art is, and it isn’t necessarily tainted by the trends and big businesses like NYC. In NYC it is incredibly difficult to support yourself as an artist. I support myself, and it is a really easy place for someone like me to have an art practice – have a thriving business. I think people really get that here. Most of my friends work for themselves, and that’s very unique for an urban environment in Providence to be that friendly to that.
I am an arts and culture junkie. I love music. I love live theatre – love it! In Providence and greater RI, art is so accessible. We have a subscription at PPAC and you can get $13 tickets to the same Broadway plays people are paying $175 to see! It’s a very cool place with so much going on.
Trinity Rep, AS220, experimental theatre and music – there are so many interesting things in all of the nooks and crannies – certainly in Providence and honestly in greater RI. I try to go to as many events as possible. For the NCECA (National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts) Conference, I went to 24 openings in two days.
I love the energy. For me, the most important thing is – well it is great to make sales, it makes me feel good when people want to buy my work – but to me, it is so much more all about connecting with people and inspiring people. I want people to draw. I want people to make art. I don’t care if they are artists. It makes me happy to know that people are out there being creative. I look at drawing and visual arts the same way people might look at dance – ‘everyone can dance’ – well, everyone can draw. It’s accessible. Even people without hands can draw. It is so important to me and I know it sounds very pageantry, on my platform of world peace, but I really feel that art can save the world. Art creates conversations that are so important to have about so many things in the world that we just don’t understand.