Briefly describe the work you do.
Chiefly I am interested in the complexity and inherent theatricality of real and imagined human characters. I focus specifically on the identities of my rural appalachian family members, and the varied identities which haunt the words queer, lesbian, and femme. I’ve found that working in only one medium doesn’t satisfy my desire to express different thoughts in different ways. To investigate my areas of interest I cross disciplines, negotiating between printmaking, fibers, sculpture and performance. I tend to work on more than one project at once, simultaneously producing prints and experimenting with sculptural forms. Ultimately, I use visually seductive images, textures and forms to create hybrid pieces that are motivated by family, history, and identity discourse.
Tell us a little about your background and how that influences you as an artist.
I am very close to my 68 year old mom, and my mother’s side of the family, who live in the Cumberland Plateau area of East Tennessee. My mom and her 8 sibling’s rural, relatively poor childhood, in contrast with my sibling-less, relatively well-off childhood, have both influenced me and my work greatly. The characters in my extended family, especially those of the women, have made a distinct impact on the way I think about strength and femininity. Southern family is strange, interesting, and a tie that truly seems to bind. As far as I remove myself geographically or otherwise, family continues to pull some part of me back. The people, and the general way of life there spawns a way of thinking that constantly butts heads with the esoteric values of the art world. This creates a sense that I am of two minds, both an insider and an outsider to both worlds. Ultimately, I have decided that this split consciousness is a good thing.
The concept of the “artist studio” has a broad range of meanings, especially in contemporary practice. The idea of the artist toiling away alone in a room may not necessarily reflect what many artists do from day to day anymore. Describe your studio practice and how it differs from (or is the same as) traditional notions of “being in the studio.”
My studio currently is at home in a very nice, well lit little room. As nice as it is, I spend less time in this space than I would like. Partly this is because much of my more traditional printmaking work takes place in the University of Illinois’ Ink Lab, our recently established printshop. I enjoy the expansive table space and the sense of community that comes with a shared printshop. Printmaking provides a natural structure, and the shared space prevents one from feeling artistically isolated. I believe the work I do at home however, benefits from isolation. It tends to be more experimental, sculptural, and abstract. Although I enjoy the communal aspects of the shop and still plan to employ print, I would like to move my work towards the kinds of things I am producing in my home studio. My goal is to transition the majority of my work time out of the comforting confines of the printshop and back to my individual studio space, where I plan to push myself towards untested waters.
What unique roles do you see yourself as the artist playing that you may not have envisioned yourself in when you first started making art?
When I began earnestly making art I didn’t expect to become interested or excited about being a teacher. Teaching was not in my initial plan, although future plans have always been somewhat flexible. My current path in teaching slowly took form, and I am grateful to have stumbled into it. I love being an instructor at the college level, and believe it is something I am good at. Importantly, teaching like making art, rarely feels like work.
When do you find is the best time of day to make art? Do you have time set aside every day, every week or do you just work whenever you can?
I do set aside time, usually 2-3 times a week, when I am not teaching, to focus on my studio work. Life and work make it hard to stick to this regimen though, so I sometimes sneak studio time into late evenings, or do mindless studio activities – like sewing – while we watch something on TV. In general it is easiest to work first thing in the morning, or late at night.
How has your work changed in the last five years? How is it the same?
Past exhibitions like The Cecils of Scott County Tennessee, relied on sculpture and fibers to recreate a museum-like narrative space. My print practice in this show is in the installation’s details, the wallpaper and printed fabrics, and I plan to continue to employ print in similar ways as I move into new more sculptural territories. However, instead of jumping into a pre-defined, clearly representational body of work like The Cecils of Scott County, I want to experiment with my newly conceived sculptural pieces. In my home studio I have begun to explore forms that feel similarly plucked from a narrative but which are more obscure. These forms conceptually stem from a recent group of prints and drawings, made during the transitional period of our move, that respond to a “Southern Sapphic” sensibility. As someone who is equally deeply interested in her southern heredity, and personally invested in the contemporary discussion about queer “lifestyles,” I am excited about creating objects that, similar to these prints, combine a sense of antebellum kitsch in terms of fashion and femininity, with a distinct overtones of butch/femme sexuality, queer bodies, and gender jamming.
Are there people such as family, friends, writers, philosophers or even pop icons that have had an impact on the work you do?
As I said above, mostly I am influenced by my family, deceased and alive, in Tennessee, especially my mother and her six sisters. I am very inspired by my partner, and fellow artist, Emmy Lingscheit. I also think I am still highly influenced by my grade-school friend Emma with whom I made some excellent paper mache puppets and music videos in middle school. Illustrations, Archie comics, and old cartoons, especially Dr Suess’ Hooberbloob Highway, had a significant impact on me and my artistic tastes as well.
If you had an occupation outside of being an artist, what would that be and why?
I would like to think I would be an actress. Or hopefully I would be famous, possibly in some other, inadvertent way, like the Unsinkable Molly Brown or the double rainbow guy.
Guen Montgomery is an artist and performer whose work investigates identity in terms of gender, femininity, femme sexuality, and family mythology. Currently living and working in Urbana, IL, Guen teaches in the art foundations program as a Clinical Assistant Professor at The University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Guen received her BFA from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, and her MFA from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. In 2012 Guen and her colleagues transformed an abandoned vacuum repair shop into the Vacuum Shop Studios, a new collaborative studio space for artists, performers, and designers in Knoxville, Tennessee. Guen’s work, which frequently centers around printmaking, performance, and installation, has been exhibited nationally and internationally, and was recently included in the 10th National Print Competition at the Turner Print Museum, judged by Anne Collins Goodyear.
All images copyright of the artist and used with their permission.