INTERVIEW AND PORTRAIT BY AUSTIN McMANUS
DURING AN IMPROMPTU DAYTIME GALLERY STROLL BACK IN
2010, I unexpectedly stumbled upon an exhibit that inspired me to
organize a succession of field trips in the upcoming weeks. Come
to think of it, I don’t believe there has ever been an exhibition
that has lured me back for so many revisits. The spectacle that
was Tracey Snelling’s Ten Year Retrospective encompassed
a large gallery space pleasantly packed with her signature
large and small-scale multimedia installations, two-dimensional
photographs, projections, video screens, a barrage of audio and
one truly unique ice cream/popsicle cart. It was really too much
for anyone to digest in just one trip and, seeing how it was the
culmination of ten years of work, I assume that was Tracey’s plan.
LET ME EMPHASIZE THAT THE IMPACT OF TRACEY’S
WORK is best appreciated as an in-person experience.
Without visibly witnessing the flickering of the custom-made
lights and neons, hearing the moody and transfixing audio
clips, and observing the meticulous little details arranged to
give context to the structures and environment, it’s hard to
fully realize the scale of her sculptures in photographs.
I say this with the intent of motivating you to go see Tracey’s
work if the opportunity arises. Until visiting her studio for
this feature, I hadn’t seen her work since that initial show
and I found myself just as enthralled by her sculptures as
I was the first time. Aided and abetted by the best carnitas
tacos Oakland, and perhaps California, has to offer (I say
that with conviction and confidence), Tracey and I caught
up on how her interest in sculpture began, what guided her
career and why dilapidated buildings hold more interest
than new ones.
Austin McManus: As an Oakland native, what was it like
growing up in “The Town?”
Tracey Snelling: I was born in Oakland and we lived in
Rockridge until I was seven. Then we moved to Manteca. I
really liked the Bay Area, even as a young girl—so much to
do and see. Fairyland at Lake Merritt was one of my favorite
places. It's a small amusement park made for kids, with
sound installations and crazy interactive, life-size fairytale
displays that you can walk into. Another thing that stands
out to me from childhood is a garage door on a house in the
hills that had The Rolling Stones tongue painted on it.
When did your interest in making things begin? Do you
accredit growing up with a father who was a welder and
painter as being a significant influence?
I liked making things, painting and drawing as young as I
can remember. I imagine a good part of my desire to make
art comes from my dad. He built my sister and me a life-
size playhouse when we were very young. Also, I watched
him build an addition to our house in Manteca, which
was fascinating to me. Recently, we collaborated on two
sculptures, Bridges and C'est Bon. It was so great to work
with him! Since he lives an hour and a half away, we talked
about the work and sketched; he built the sculptures, and
I finished them with paint, landscape, video, lights
While attending the University of New Mexico, you
discovered sculpture as a new outlet for your creative
process. Do you remember a defining moment when more
of your attention became focused on this newer medium,
or was it more gradual?
I did experiments with sculpture at UNM, although the
defining moment came later. A few of the works I made at
UNM that stand out are a twisting mountain/cliff sculpture
with a small lit room on top, referencing a Dorothy Parker
poem, and a series of dangerous jewelry made in my small
metal fabrication class. The jewelry had spikes, and either
kept people at a distance, or, if reversed, would harm the
wearer. I really liked combining the conceptual idea with the
pieces, but I was chastised by the professor for doing such
dark work! Sculpture became an integral part of my work
in 1998 when I was inspired by a collage of mine to build
a three-dimensional house sculpture, completely covered
with collage and wired with lights.
I have an affinity for New Mexico and the region. The
topography, the culture and especially the food, is so
unmistakable. What was your experience living there?
I chose New Mexico because of the reputation of UNM's
photography department, and even more so for the mood
of New Mexico. I felt like I was living in a film noir movie at
times. The large expanse of skies, dusty brown littering of
adobes, green chili and the slow pace were fascinating to
me. One time, while scouting for a photo shooting location,
I came across a weed and litter-strewn empty lot with a
large side of beef, complete with ribs, encased in a plastic
bag, roasting/rotting in the sun. Strange things like this
seemed to happen all the time in Albuquerque.
While in school, you worked seasonally in the forest
I was a wildland firefighter for three fire seasons, putting
myself through school. It was a very exciting job, never
the same on any day. After a while, the adrenaline rush
becomes something you miss, and the smell of fire is a
welcome scent. It was ideal, at least for the time being,
as I always abhorred a regular job, having to do the same
tasks every day.
Do you photograph all your sculptures in real outdoor
environments, and what is your intention in doing this?
When I was at UNM, I had a small old house that I
photographed out in the environment, and I liked the
outcome. I had done some interior tableau photography and
preferred the feeling of using the real, outdoor environment
as the background. It felt less claustrophobic. For a long
time I photographed most of my sculptures in this manner.
But at some point I wasn't enjoying it anymore and stopped.
I started photographing them again when it felt interesting
once more. Now I just do it occasionally, when the feeling
strikes me. When I photograph one of my sculptures in the
outdoor environment, I'm giving it a place and mood. Mood
is very important in these images. It gives the sculpture
a different narrative, but also freezes it in time and place.
When one observes the actual three-dimensional sculpture,
it is more like a three-dimensional film, and time and place
are more fluid. I've since taken the idea of photographing
the sculptures out in the environment a step further by
shooting videos. Late last year, I made a film, The Stranger,
along with collaborator Idan Levin, using the sculptures as
the sets and green-screening an actor into the scenes.
Do you solely use building materials, or do you incorporate
found materials as well?
I primarily use building materials, but at times I also use
found materials, such as toys or props found at flea markets,
antique or dollhouse and model train stores. In Beijing I
used some of the leftover firework remnants and scraps
of material in a pile of rubble near the gallery. For the new
installation that I'm presently working on, One Thousand
Shacks, I'm using lots of found material to finish the work.
The installation addresses global poverty, and the use
of materials such as old food containers and cardboard
echoes the importance of found material in building the
living spaces in impoverished areas.
At what point did you start to incorporate light, audio and
video into your sculptures?
Around ’98 or ’99 I began to incorporate light and sound.
Piecing together the audio soundtracks was very similar
to when I would make collage. For both mediums, I start
by collecting images in magazines and audio clips off the
internet. I then start piecing it together and fill in the holes
at the end with more material that I need to search for again.
In 2004, I incorporated my first video into a sculpture. It
was quite complex, made of found movie scenes and video
that I shot of my sculptures, with a collaged soundtrack.
The thing I like about more complex audio and video work
is that I can get lost in it. I've also occasionally used motors
for movement, real water in sealed "ponds" and "rivers," and
even smell in my sculpture called Alley.
Is there a type of architecture that particularly
I continually find myself attracted to older buildings.
Often the buildings would be considered banal, as the
architecture may not at all be complex. Sometimes the
building that I choose or invent is more about the purpose
than the actual architecture, such as a strip club or mini
mart. When traveling in different countries, I still find myself
attracted to the older, more dilapidated buildings than the
new, clean ones. Still, at some point, I might choose to look
at the newer facades and the wealthier population. The
interesting thing with this is that these people still have as
many problems as those who are less fortunate, but there’s
often a cover of shiny veneer to masquerade it.
In my opinion, one of the best features of your
sculptures is the use of hand-painted signs and neons.
They communicate a lot about a place culturally and
economically. What is your attraction to them and what do
they represent to you?
I've always been attracted to old hand-painted and neon
signs. Even better is when someone paints the name of their
business on their building along with painted images, such
as a woman with a fancy hairstyle for a small-town beauty
salon. Hand painted signs can be found in just about every
culture and place and have so much character. They often
can capture the essence of a place.
I also really appreciate that you have incorporated graffiti
into a number of your cityscapes. It’s a subtle touch but
adds a lot of character. What initially inspired you to start
I've always liked how graffiti looks, and in some of the
settings, the graffiti is an integral part of the location. I feel it
makes the buildings look more realistic. I've never learned
how to do graffiti, so I find samples online or take a photo
and reproduce it by painting it or printing it out. For my
sculpture The Fall, which addresses the global outcome
if pollution and neglect of the environment continues, I
painted graffiti on the bottom part of the sculpture. The
graffiti was from images in Chernobyl and photographs I
took in Israel.
Even amid audio and flashing lights, your installations can
evoke a sense of desolation and loneliness. Could that
be because these ordinary places are familiar to all of us,
regardless of background?
It can, in part, be attributed to the fact that we all know
these places. Even more so, at the core of my work is the
examination of the human condition: the struggle, longing,
beauty and disappointment that we all face as we try to
make our ways through life. I'm also attracted to film noir,
fallen heroes and stories that don't always have a happy
ending but rather, maybe, continue on in mundanity or end
with a dilemma. This attraction seems to carry through in
What do you believe has been the most rewarding aspect
of your creative endeavors?
Besides actually getting to be in my studio and make work
all day that I love, the travel and the people I have met are
two great rewards from my art career. It's such a different
experience to visit a place while installing or showing my
work and to meet and get to know all the people who are
involved—curators, collectors and artists. As opposed to
showing up to a place as a pure tourist, I get to experience
a place and culture from a different viewpoint. I've made
some of my closest friendships through these exchanges.
With motels being a recurring motif in your work, I’m
reminded of a motel off the freeway in West Texas where
I stayed last year. Upon opening the door in morning, I
was greeted by thousands of dead roaches and there was
a man whose job was to casually sweep them up every
morning. It was surreal and my most memorable motel
experience. Can you explain their allure for you, as well as
any good stories from your motel stays?
That's quite an experience to have dead roaches outside
your door! Very surreal. I've been attracted to motels since
I was a young girl. I like the sense of travel and freedom, but
even more so the idea of a place that has an ever-changing
cast of characters. There are so many stories and history
in a single motel. Who stayed there? What did they do in
the room? I like to think about the various things that might
have happened. Usually it's not so extreme. Maybe a couple
stayed as they were traveling across country to relocate
and had an argument, so they watched some bad movie
and didn't speak to each other the rest of the night. Or
some people stayed and did drugs till the morning. Another
couple might have the motel room as their only place to
rendezvous. The variations of stories are never ending.
Once, while staying with an old boyfriend at a motel in
Southern California near the desert, we awoke to loud
knocking and a man yelling, "Let me in! I know you're in
there!" The door didn't even have a deadbolt, just a knob
lock and flimsy chain. We couldn't dial out, we could only
call the motel office and no one was answering. We couldn't
see who was out there either. This happened several times
in an hour. We wedged a chair under the doorknob and
eventually fell asleep. In the morning, no one was outside.
I used to try to stay at the old motels that are similar to what
I build, but now it's rare that I do. They're often very dirty
and can have questionable guests. But I still would like to
stay in this one motel that has a drive-in that you can see
and hear from your room. I think it's in Arizona.
For more information about Tracey Snelling, visit traceysnelling.com