Briefly describe the work you do.
I begin with a topic, mostly political and social issues, and think about ways to approach the material that will also be visually engaging. Form varies, sometimes I make a group of work on paper that sits on the wall and other times I make books, both altered books and one of a kind artists books. There’s an element of ambiguity to most of my work, that I think serves to invite the viewer to engage with the material. Recently, I’ve been making work about income inequality that I’m titling “Homilies for the 99%” and I’m also working on an ongoing book arts project about Muslims in the USA.
I usually begin with photographs that I’ve taken that are fairly neutral images. I use photos to make prints that are incorporated into collages with mixed media or become artists books. I combine them with additional imagery and texts to give them a context that speaks to the issues that interest me.
Tell us about your background and how that has had an influence on your work and on you as an artist.
I grew up in a housing project in the South Bronx in New York City. I always loved art and remember fixing up other children’s pictures in kindergarten. I was always the “class artist,” selected to make the posters and murals in elementary school. The world of my childhood: loving art, reading constantly to escape into books and living in my imagination has stayed inside me. Likewise, I’ve continued to identify with people that haven’t been given a lot in life despite living most of my adult life in suburbs in New Jersey where I raised my children. I also spent 18 years as an art teacher, working in poor, urban school districts. I’m interested in making art that reaches out beyond the often hermetic art world into a broader dialogue.
The concept of the artist studio has a broad range of meanings in contemporary practice. Artists may spend much of their time in the actual studio, or they may spend very little time in it. Tell us about your individual studio practice and how it differs from or is the same as traditional notions of “being in the studio.”
Being in the studio, making physical objects is central to my art practice so I’m quite traditional in that way. I need to see, position, cut, and tear physical images on paper to grow my work organically. I have some workspace ( 2 large tables and a blank wall for hanging work) where I live and do my computer work, and some collage and book work there. But around five years ago, I became tired of traveling to different print studios in Manhattan or New Jersey to make prints and finally bought my own etching press (which I love). I joined a feminist artist collective in my neighborhood with a communal workspace to give my press a home. After a few years, I wanted more space that was just mine and recently moved into my present studio that I share with a musician.
What roles do you find yourself playing that you may not have envisioned yourself in when you first started making art?
I didn’t think about the constant effort to get work out into the world. Making art is just one piece of the process and a lot of time and energy goes into presentations, proposals and searching out opportunities that seem like a good fit.
When do you find is the best time to make art? Do you set aside a specific time everyday or do you have to work whenever time allows?
If I’m working on a print project, I try to go to the studio pretty early in the day so I have a big block of time for working. I also work on random projects at home, sometimes I get a second wind late at night, and at 11 pm will start working on my computer, photoshopping images, or glueing paper down, etc.
How has your work changed in the past five years? How is it the same?
The subjects that engage me have continued to evolve. A long time ago, I was working in a special needs school with a lot of children that had traumatic lives. I made art about them and wondered, if I changed jobs, would I have anything to make art about? I don’t worry about that anymore. My engagement in the world is a continuous thread through my work. I’ve moved into working in a more painterly manner in some of my most recent collages. I think that’s a result of an artist residency last spring in France, where I just did work on paper and it forced me to rely on my hand and eye rather than photographs for material.
How have people such as family, friends, writers, philosophers, other artists or even pop icons had an impact on the work you do?
I’ve been lucky having parents that visited museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Frick (they were free at that time) and many paintings are old friends to me. My mother recognized that art was something that was deeply important to me and managed to buy me art supplies and pay for art lessons for me. One of the reasons that I married my husband was his consistent support of my art and recognition that making art was central to my life. He’s always there for me. I’m inspired by the lives of women artists who’ve been creative into old age, continually evolving like Louise Bourgeois.
Have you ever been pulled in the direction of a pursuit other than being an artist? What are your other interests?
About two years ago, in Feb. 2013, I took a poetry workshop. I was thinking about making an artists book in collaboration with a poet. It then occured to me that maybe I could write poetry for the book. I had played around with writing a bit, and loved reading but I had never studied creative writing. Art has always been my creative focus. I discovered that I really love writing poetry, and it’s entirely different type of process from making art. Poetry is very much about revision. I’ve taken several workshops since the first one and attended some writing conferences. I had my first publication in May 2013 and since then I’ve had poems published in over 30 journals.
A native of New York City who now lives in New Jersey, Aileen Bassis holds a BA in studio art from SUNY Binghamton and an MA in creative art from Hunter College. She has been awarded multiple artist residencies including the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Frans Masereel Center in Belgium and a Dodge fellowship to the Vermont Studio Center. She has received a fellowship from the NJ State Council on the Arts and a grant from the Puffin Foundation. Widely exhibited in galleries and universities, Bassis has had solo shows at Rutgers University, Moravian College, University of Pennsylvania and Ohio University. Her work is in the collections of Wellesley College, the Newark Public Library, the NY Public Library, Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp, St. Stephen Museum, Hungary, and the Nelimarkka Museum, Finland. She creates work in book arts, printmaking, installation and digital photography and is also a published poet.
All images copyright of the artist and used with their permission.