Samantha Parker Salazar’s paper installations take on a life of their own, a life where light, shadow, color and form vibrate with movement. Her pieces can sprawl across entire walls and ceilings or envelop an entire room.
Within these dancing forms, a story unfolds: Informed by the life and experiences of her ancestor, Cynthia Ann Parker, Salazar explores and exposes a story that has been forgotten over time.
In her conversation with Newfound, Salazar shares the story of Cynthia Ann Parker, her work with paper as an art form and her newest work:
Courtney Simchak: The work you’ve been showcasing this year has roots in your family history. Can you tell us more about how your family history has inspired your work?
Samantha Parker Salazar: I am incredibly intrigued by the story of Cynthia Ann Parker, an ancestor shrouded in mystery and controversy. My interest in her story was prompted by the lack of a written account of her life, leaving a multitude of possibilities regarding her character and intentions. On the one hand, she was held captive by the Comanche who raided her family’s land, but on the other hand she married the tribe’s chieftain, Peta Nocona, with whom she also had several children.
Cynthia Ann was captured around the age of 10 and by the time she was discovered by Texas Rangers she had completely abandoned Western language and customs to live as the Comanche did. A portion of her contemporaries viewed her with pity while the others assumed she was a deserter, a harlot. Time has washed away the significance of her story; today, her only relevant contribution to American history was giving birth to the last Comanche Chief, Quanah Parker.
My recent work is a visual exploration of each facet of her life and personality. I am not looking to tie up her story with a neat bow, but see myself shaking the dust off a piece of forgotten American history that I feel is especially pertinent to women.
Simchak: What do you enjoy most about working in paper and sculpture? Do you find it easier to work in three-dimensions? Why work with paper?
Salazar: I enjoy the challenge of making a material do what it’s not meant to do. Paper has this amazing ability to be malleable yet it is rigid enough to hold a form. The unexpected act of taking using it for sculpture has me excited about the process.
Paper is also a metaphor for skin, perceived fragility, basic human material. When I cut into it repeatedly with a scalpel it feels like I am performing a surgery or an ancient ritual. The paper just feels so simple and familiar to the touch—anyone can relate to it as a material.
Simchak: I think that is what makes your work so moving—it’s simple, yet complex. Delicate and strong. All of the contradictions found in seeing an everyday material contorted in new and unsuspecting ways. Do you think you’ll ever work away from paper? Or do you think it will be a lifelong interest?
Salazar: I suspect paper will stay with me from beginning to end. It started with paper—from my childhood fascination with the papery seeds that fall from maple trees to summers spent drawing in my grandparents’ greenhouse. In high school, I was primarily interested in drawing and took a drawing/printmaking course at when I was 16. That was when I was first introduced to the supple, smooth material that comprises fine art printmaking papers.
Through college, I drifted back and forth between works on paper and sculpture, never really reconciling the two. It wasn’t until the end of graduate school that I realized I could make sculptures out of paper—that the two ways of working with materials could become one. Paper became the perfect material to use for sculpture: I found it was lightweight and portable, would yield easily to physical manipulation yet strong enough to hold a form, and it was a material that was distinctly human.
Simchak: Lighting seems like a very important aspect of your work, in the way it plays up or down the contrast, the interpreted weight of your materials and color. Do you work with the galleries or do you have complete control over the lighting with your work?
Salazar: Light is always important and I appreciate when that aspect is not overlooked by the viewer. Sometimes lighting the piece can be the hardest part of install and is typically a collaborative step between me and the gallery.
Generally, I prefer to take down most of the lights before installation begins, adding some back in as the sculpture grows within the space. At the end of install all the lights are adjusted to illuminate particular areas in the composition, much like creating a drawing or painting except it is happening within our three-dimensional world. It is always challenging to adjust lights at the end because you have to deal with this large physical obstruction of paper and monofilament, especially when lighting work from behind or within the piece.
Simchak: Can you talk about why you to turn away from colorful sculptures to the stark weight of the black and white paper? I am thinking of the pieces in “Wakeby Night” and “Iceberg.” Do they all belong to the same narrative or do they work in and from different avenues?
Salazar: It may seem that way, but I wouldn’t say that I have turned away from color. In 2016 when I made those sculptures I was just getting used to the move from one studio to another. The first studio had an amazing print shop where it was easy for me to run color flats on paper components. Without having the advantages of printmaking, I have had to find new ways to add color into my work. I exercised this practice of painting and collaging found imagery onto paper by focusing on 2-D work in 2017. By coming back to a traditional way of working with paper, I was able to focus on new methods of applying color to the page.
Currently “Iceberg” is in the phase of becoming a new piece, “Arctic Turbulence,” for ArtPrize. It will include much of the original white forms with a gradual transition to a deep, royal blue. Simultaneously, I am working on another installation that delves into the intricacies of color. That piece will debut in 2018.
Simchak: How did you get started in art and installation? Have you always been interested?
Salazar: Learning printmaking was a big push toward installation art because of the ability to make multiples. The quickness of making monotypes lended itself very well to making large scale works. Tired of my lack of direction in graduate school and feeling unchallenged by my then-current work, I made the very first cut into a stack of prints that had been sitting in flat files for several years.
Simchak: What is one of the most challenging things you face as a contemporary artist? One of the most rewarding?
Salazar: I think it is both challenging and rewarding to navigate the financial aspect of being an artist. This isn’t something that’s talked about often enough in the art world. Working as a full-time artist, you have to learn how to market yourself, brand yourself, and decide who your audience is while at the same time trying carefully not to give the (taboo) appearance of being a sell-out. The fact is, if an artist is to make a living by their work, they need to get paid. Once you find your niche and client base, however, it is very rewarding. I could not think of a dream greater than supporting yourself and your family by doing what you love.
Samantha Parker Salazar creates site-specific paper installations and mixed media works on paper. She received an MFA from The University of Texas at Austin in 2014 and a BFA from Bradley University in 2011. Salazar is based in Columbus, Ohio, and is currently a Studio Instructor at the Dayton Art Institute.
Courtney Simchak lives in Texas. She received a Bachelor of Arts in English from Texas State University in 2016 and has been the Visual Arts Editor for Newfound since 2014.