Briefly describe the work you do.
Most of my work stems from direct observations within my immediate environment. I understand the work as an investigation of nature—a documentation of the way in which humans move, shape, and transform their surroundings. I frame the landscape to uncover stories that may be overlooked at first glance, whether it be defunct landfills that are now public parks or the unpacking of the intricate story behind Boston’s road salt, my most recent project.
Tell us about your background and how that has had an influence on your work and on you as an artist.
I was a double major in Environmental Studies and Photography as an undergraduate at Bard College (‘06). At the time, the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island had recently closed, so New York City was exporting their trash on barges to other states. Shocked by this fact, I began researching the history of solid waste management in New York City, to try to figure out how this happened. Both my artwork and my academic research began to intertwine. I worked for the Sanitation Department of New York as a summer intern and I began to understand how the city undertook the immense task of getting rid of their trash, a system that was largely unknown and un-phased by the average New Yorker. My environmental studies work was a written paper about the economics, politics, and history of the New York City waste management system, while my photography work explored one aspect of it—covered, out-of-use landfills. I photographed numerous areas in New York City that had once been trash landfills and the project expanded landfills across the country. I wanted to show the idea that trash was everywhere and still continues to shape our landscape. Fast-forward nine years and my current work is still exploring how humans affect the landscape. I am still finding myself working within urban systems and public works departments.
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.”
For me, the studio is essentially an office that I can escape to—a clean space where I answer emails, coordinate logistics, and edit film and photographs. I go through phases where I will be primarily shooting in the field, then phases where I am editing constantly. These phases can last several months.
What roles do you find yourself playing that you may not have envisioned yourself in when you first started making art?
I spend a significant amount of time on the computer, sometimes making artwork, but always managing logistical details related to my artwork. I’m coordinating my next shoot, doing research, working on applications, entering submissions, or writing emails. I never envisioned myself spending so much time in front of a screen, though it has become a necessary evil that also enables me to create and share my work.
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?
This is a tricky question since I am transitioning out of graduate school, but having a morning routine has always helped my self-discipline, productivity, and focus. Currently, I am part of an Ashtanga yoga community that practices early each morning. The yoga practice facilitates a daily routine of movement and meditation that prepares me for the day and alleviates the adverse effects the computer work has on the mind and body.
How has your work changed in the past five years? How is it the same?
Five years ago I was working on an organic farm in the Rio Grande in northern New Mexico. At that time, I had a photography practice, but those photographs felt more like a documentation of my life, rather than my artwork. After undergrad, I took many years off from making artwork seriously, living in different places, taking a variety of interesting short-term jobs—something I do not regret.
How have people such as family, friends, writers, philosophers, other artists or even pop icons had an impact on the work you do?
Highly Influential: “How Crayons Are Made” Sesame Street, Edward Byrtinsky photography and film, Ben Rivers’ films, everything by Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Berndt and Hilla Becher’s “Water Towers,” Werner Herzog’s “Lessons of Darkness,” the writings of Robert Smithson, Hokusai’s “36 Views of Mt. Fuji,” my family, and my fairy-godmother Susan.
Have you ever been pulled in the direction of a pursuit other than being an artist? What are your other interests?
YES, definitely. I love learning about how things work and about being a human. Before going back to graduate school I learned how to grow food, help women deliver babies, and teach kindergarten, among other things, all of which have been valuable in my personal development.
Allison Cekala is a filmmaker and photographer currently based in Boston, MA. She holds a BA from Bard College in Photography and Environmental Studies (2006) and an MFA from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and Tufts University (2015). Her work is an investigation of nature, a documentation of the way in which humans move, shape, and transform their surroundings. Recent solo shows include, Road Salt: A 4500 Mile Journey, at the Museum of Science, Boston, and Salt Mountain at the Howard Art Project, Boston. Her work has been reviewed in the Boston Globe, WBUR’s Artery, among others. She is currently a teaching fellow at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
All images copyright of the artist and used with their permission.