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Rose B. Simpson’s artistic practice is rooted in her identity and home of Santa Clara Pueblo, New Mexico, and she reveals this perception of identity in Rose B. Simpson: Dream House. The immersive installation transforms the eighth floor at the Fabric Workshop and Museum (FWM) into “the most personal work I’ve ever done,” she says.
That’s saying a lot. Simpson’s artwork is emotionally raw. Her themes are family, gender, trauma, resilience, and exploration. Born in 1983 to a family of artists, Simpson is especially connected to her maternal grandmother, architect Rina Swentzell (1939-2015), and her mother, sculptor Roxanne Swentzell (b. 1962). They are artists, builders, writers, and teachers. Simpson is also versatile, working in fashion, performance, music, installation, writing, and customizing cars. She holds two MFAs: Ceramics from Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and Creative Nonfiction from the Institute of American Indian Arts. Attending RISD gave Simpson new appreciation for her heritage. “It made it more clear to me what it means to be part of a family of artisans,” she says. “It’s an honor.”
Simpson arms her ceramic figures—totemic vessels of ancestral pain, anger, and longing—with symbols, car parts, and other found objects. After her daughter was born, the works’ battle-ready stance grew more protective. “Becoming a parent has helped me to find power in softness,” she says. Her young daughter “changed my apocalyptic mindset. I want there to be a world for her, and I know how I want it to look.”
A vulnerable look
Simpson hopes her work “reaches humanity as a whole through personal experience.” She succeeds. Viewers are often moved to tears by artworks like those in Rose B. Simpson: Legacies at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art, which runs through January 29, 2023. Dream House is provocative in a different way.
“The show at ICA Boston says, ‘Look around yourself.’ The show here says, ‘Look inside yourself,’” says DJ Hellerman, FWM’s chief curator and director of curatorial affairs.
The Artists-in-Residence program at FWM supports experimentation, and Dream House presents Simpson’s first-ever architectural installations and video work. “It’s been incredibly inspiring, working with Rose,” FWM executive director Christina Vassallo says. “This installation is inherently vulnerable, and she also opened up her process to the FWM Studio team.” Karen Patterson, FWM’s former curator and director of exhibitions, initiated the project, organized by senior project coordinator Abby Lutz and Hellerman, in collaboration with Simpson.
In the Dream House
Dream House leads viewers on a pathway past an adobe wall and around four cabinlike structures, each standing for aspects of Simpson’s experience. The first three rooms are enclosed; they embody safety and comfort, dedication and growth, and abundance. The fourth room, an open pavilion inviting communal rest and reflection, is about awareness.
Dimly lit by two low-slung spotlights, the quiet entry space “represents entering a town: you see yards, piles of wood,” Simpson says, “bringing down the white cube [gallery] into a common, useful space.” The walk becomes a preamble to contemplation, as the arcs of light project visitors’ shadows before them. “When you enter the space, you’re working with your shadows, your subconscious,” says Simpson.
Along the walkways, visitors can look into the first three structures, but there are no entrances. The design echoes a site at Bandelier National Monument, New Mexico, where visitors can see into an ancestral building only through a window. There are “spaces that exist, but are not just anyone’s to access,” Simpson tells BSR. “The dream houses in ourselves deserve reverence.”
Despite the barriers, Dream House offers a lot to absorb; each space rewards a long look. Tints and oxides create a satisfying interplay of earth tones in the clay. Among the visual delights are the outer walls of reclaimed lathes and plaster. Rather than smoothing them, Simpson and the FWM Studio team let the plaster dry as it was, squeezed out between the lathes. Bowls, cups, lamps, rugs, fabrics, and walls are decorated with symbols of protection and direction; some of the furniture was built from designs by Rina. In the first room, ceramics are integrated into a quilt, a creative accomplishment that actually “came together pretty effortlessly,” says Lutz.
The world as a bowl
The silent videos, used deftly, flicker through back windows and doors. Large clay masks represent ancestral beings, “reminders that we’re never alone,” says Simpson. She created many of the ceramics at Philadelphia’s Clay Studio, a project partner (and where Roxanne has artwork in Figuring Space, opening on January 12, 2023).
The fourth room is gently magical. Visitors can gather in or near the pavilion, where pillows are scattered around a low wooden table. “The last space is the present, and the window allows us to be aware of the changing weather and light outside,” Simpson tells BSR. Looking up at her canopy of papier-mâché baskets, she says, “The world is a bowl, and the sky is a basket. The holes in the weave are stars.”
Dream House stirs memories, reflection, and wonder. What’s in our dream houses? What are our sources of belonging, nourishment, and empowerment? It’s radically comforting to imagine being cradled in a bowl together, rather than individually perched on a rock spinning in space.
What, When, Where
Rose B. Simpson: Dream House. Through May 7, 2023, at the Fabric Workshop and Museum, 1214 Arch Street, Philadelphia. Free (suggested donation $5). (215) 561-8888 or fabricworkshopandmuseum.org.
Masks are required (regardless of vaccination status) for visitors over the age of 2 years.
Entrance to the Fabric Workshop and Museum is barrier-free; an elevator is available, as well as ramp access to the gathering space in Dream House.
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