We had the great pleasure of speaking with visual artist and New York City transplant, Claudia Sbrissa. Claudia works with issues of identity and culture, and her engagement with materials. She also works as an art and design professor at St. John’s University in Queens, NY. Claudia was born in Canada and now has been living in New York City for over 15 years with her husband. We (Kirra and Rachel) have both had the pleasure to have Claudia Sbrissa as both professor and mentor. We still remember her thought provoking and contemplative classes as undergrad students. Today, Claudia speaks with us on how her family and culture have influenced her career and what success means to her.
Can you tell us about your practice and work as a professor and how you became involved in those fields?
I come from a family of artisans from Northern Italy. Growing up with my grandparents, a seamstress and a carpenter, I learned practical skills along with a joy of handwork and a love of objects. Their workshops were filled with “things” and nothing was ever thrown away. Remnants of fabric and off cuts of wood were used and reused, salvaged by the process of transformation. My family cultivated within me a deep appreciation of the beauty within the ordinary. I was fortunate to have this work ethic and creative output as an example. It inspired in me the desire to also work creatively and so growing up I knew I wanted to do something in the field of art, though early on I wasn’t cognizant of what exactly that meant or the how to make it happen. Once I began making artwork as an undergraduate, much of the work I made was concerned with materiality and utilized found objects. As I continued making my work, I recognized how my early experiences and my culture influenced a great deal of the work that I create.
The paper weavings [on the wall behind me] are made from security envelopes. I began this project while on a sabbatical in Italy. At the time I was receiving my mail in these security envelopes. Opening them I noticed these beautiful patterns in their interior, which looked like printed cloth. I continued collecting them and one day began weaving them. It’s one of the many projects that I’m currently working on that pays homage to those early experiences inspired by my grandparents.
Teaching evolved slowly but organically as part of my career. After receiving my BFA, I decided to get a Bachelor of Education and so I enrolled in a program at Queen’s University called “Artists in the School”. Soon after graduating however I spent a few years travelling and living in New York so I didn’t actually start teaching until after I received my MFA from Cornell in 2002. After graduate school, my husband and I moved to New York. I got a job at a high school where I taught visual art and English. At the same time I was also hired as an adjunct at St. John’s University. Eventually and fortuitously that evolved into a full-time tenured professorship. I feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to make work and also continue to have dialogue with other artists and art students.
What is your success story? What brought you to this point in your career?
I learned very important lessons from my family about the value of hard work, discipline and commitment. I believe this is a big part of my success. I feel extremely fortunate to have had many opportunities and also to work with some incredible people throughout my life. Much of our success is about finding the thing we do best. You may desire to do or be something, but it might not be what you are called to do. Reflecting on my own situation, I recognize how my culture and civilization have greatly influenced who I am and the work that I create. The accomplishments of our human civilization are rich and profound; history, philosophy, art, architecture, and literature continue to inform and nurture my work and my life. I continue in that conversation through making and teaching.
What advice would you give another woman entering into your field?
I believe it’s important to show up. If you want to be a gallery artist you should begin by developing a community, a network of people that you share similar interests and goals with, so that you that can dialogue with them about work, ideas and opportunities. Also – Read! Not just about your profession but read history and great literature in order to expand your mind and contextual your work. See shows and lots of art; not just the work that you like but also work that you may not like. Always look to the great masterpieces and works of antiquity. Continuously be cultivating your mind and participating in conversation.
Attend galleries to support artists you know as well as to familiarize yourself with places you might want to exhibit your work in. Begin to develop a community of professional relationships as well as friendships with other artists. It is also important to have a social media presence. Instagram seems to be a popular vehicle for this and of course, a website. Once you begin to flesh out these areas and begin to figure out your community, honor that community by being present. Thank people and acknowledge when others are working for your benefit. It’s important to acknowledge people who are actively contributing to your growth.
What advice would you give to another woman who was seeking a life she deemed as successful?
I think we should work to develop our character and certain habits that can contribute to a meaningful life. These habits are based on virtues – patience, hard work, honesty, justice – which are important guides. The more you practice these, the more comfortable and confident you will feel in your life. These habits become ingrained in you and your life becomes less about reacting to life’s uncertainties and more about your ability able to navigate your life. These traits allow you to control how you will respond and react to events. Life is constantly changing and you can’t control that but you can control yourself, which is important. Just as you maintain a practice around your work, you must also practice developing your character. If you live your life in chaos it can be very difficult to move forward. Living a life of character allows for reflection and growth.
Another piece of advice I feel is important is to try to be present in the moment. Often people are worried about the past or thinking about the future. I’m sometimes in the future camp, often thinking about what I have to do rather than being present with the now. Reorienting ourselves to be present creates an ability to pay attention in order not to miss out on our lives.
Has being a woman affected your success? If so, in what way and how have you dealt with this?
I feel very fortunate to have grown up in a nurturing circle of intimacy and feminine power. I did not feel victimized but rather empowered, strengthened by my relationship with other women in my life. I grew up in a matriarchal household beginning with my grandmother who was a very strong woman, as was my mother and sisters. The male figures in my life were also influential, they were strong men of character. I learned early on that men and women were different but they complimented one another. I’ve been married for 18 years and recognize what my husband and I bring to each other’s lives, and how we learn from each other because of our differences. It’s testament to my growing up around women who respected themselves and respected men. I’ve never actually felt a barrier because I am a woman; rather I’ve always felt encouraged by the successful women around me both career women and women who chose traditional roles. One woman who I consider an important mentor is Joyce Kozloff, who I met as a graduate student. Joyce is a prolific artist who has helped many people throughout her career. She was incredibly supportive of me, which I am very grateful for. I hope to provide the same kind of positive mentorship to others on their journey.
You can view Claudia Sbrissa’s work on her website, http://www.claudiasbrissa.com/
All Images © Rachel King, 2018