Delivering Ransom

Posted March 5, 2009 in Arts & Culture

In a small alcove of Pitzer College’s Lenzner Gallery, William Ransom’s carved-wood sugar droplets appear to pour out of the wall and ceiling. Shaped from scraps of fruit wood, these elongated forms suggest elasticity, and to Ransom, they reflect the dependency of all living things on the most basic unit of food: sugar.  


The sugar drops are part of an extensive installation which eludes categorization: a sprawling, open-ended investigation of biological processes and sculptural objects. Ransom, now in his third month as Artist-in-Residence in Pitzer’s Emerging Artist Program, rather than presenting a collection of static objects, has used this format to explore the connections between his sculptural practice, which employs craft in a conceptually engaged manner, and his interest in the biological cycle.  


Ransom’s sculpture, typically constructed from scavenged pieces of wood, contains ideas of excess and recycling. His installation at Pitzer embraces these ideas even more fully, mirroring a system of death and rebirth, consumption and regeneration. Wood shavings—the by-product of Ransom’s sculpture—along with scraps of orange peel, and compostable dinner plates and flatware from the opening reception, feed a compost heap which sits under an elegantly primitive lean-to in Lenzner Gallery. The lean-to, fashioned by Ransom out of mulberry branches, also shelters a few small planter boxes and some seedlings which are enriched by the compost.


Adding a layer of unpremeditated complexity are the bugs which have been happy to feast on portions of Ransom’s work. Whether they came in with the mulberry branches, the food scraps, or the soil, they are there, eating the plants under the lean-to, and consuming the lean-to from the inside out. Looking closely at the mulberry branches will reveal bore-holes.  Ransom has seen a few insects crawl out of the branches, and the soil is crawling with pill bugs.


Of the sculptures in the gallery, one may be seen to represent the entire installation: on the wall next to the compost is a tusk shape which circles around to point into itself.  


IE Weekly recently caught up with William Ransom to discuss his work and influences:


IEW: Your work fits between categories; while influenced by conceptual art, your work doesn’t neatly fit—and that may be part of the problem: our need to classify. Your entire enterprise seems sparked by whimsical ideas that you entertain and act on, not entirely knowing where they will lead. And your discipline is influenced by multiple concerns: material, biology, and scientific inquiry. Could you comment a bit on your process, and what in your training or education provided the foundation for your approach?  


WR: The foundation for most of what I do comes from having grown up on a farm in Vermont. Every day on the farm required a multi-layered, multi-tasking approach. A farmer is the quintessential Jack-of-all-trades: weatherman, soil scientist, carpenter, mechanic, veterinarian, and inventor. You may not always have the appropriate tool at hand, so you improvise. You may not have the part you need, but you make one using intuition and the material available. You are accustomed to the routine of daily chores but are ready for whatever comes along: weather, sick animals, births, deaths, broken machinery, missing cows, or downed fences.


I have always had a fascination with and interest in understanding biological processes, especially those that impact my daily life. As an undergrad I studied ecology and biology, along with sculpture and architecture. I veered toward art instead of science because in many ways it allows for more freedom. I can explore my interest in science without the rigorous demands of scientific inquiry. It is more a satisfaction of curiosity than a search for knowledge. So yes, in a sense I do follow whimsy but my exploration is not frivolous.


As far as pinning down what I do, I feel as if I have never fit neatly into any category—not that anyone does entirely. As a bi-racial, farm-raised, hands-on, material based artist—by which I mean that I center my practice around a traditional "craft" material—no one, myself included, ever seems to be able to classify me or what I do. I am comfortable straddling categories, and I use that ambiguity to my advantage.


IEW: Do you think an artist has a responsibility to an audience, and if so, what does that look like to you?  In the extreme, advocating art for art’s sake can lead to aloof, effete work—do you think audiences sense this as antagonistic?  


WR: I do feel a responsibility to the audience.  I want them to be interested and feel a sense of engagement. I also feel responsible to the material; I am a maker. I enjoy developing a relationship with whatever I have my hands in at the time. I can understand an audience’s sense of antagonism when it comes to what you call effete work. I often feel cheated by the unwillingness of an artist to exert energy. I value sweat equity—skinned knuckles and dirty hand—in my own work, and I appreciate effort in the work of others.


IEW: Do you create most of your sculptural objects by hand, or is it a combination of hand and power tool work? You mentioned that the sugar drops in Lenzner Gallery were lathed and shaped by hand. What about the butterfly joints and the mortise and tenon joints in your work?


WR: I use both hand and power tools to make most everything. For the fruit drops, I used a lathe extensively and finished the forms with hand tools and a spindle sander. The butterfly joints are mostly cut and fitted by hand. The tenons for the lean-to were made with a tenon cutter attachment for a power drill. I am no purist when it comes to working with wood. My interest in the craft of woodworking extends only as far as learning the necessary tools and techniques to solve the problem at hand. By doing so I build my knowledge of these methods, but I don’t obsess over perfecting them.


William Ransom: Artist-in-Residence at Pitzer Art Galleries, Lenzner Family Art Gallery, Atherton Hall, Jan. 29–March 27, 2009, (909) 607-3143;


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