Discarded objects or some off-cut materials can become art pieces thanks to Juli Bolaños-Durman. The Costa Rica-born, Edinburgh-based artist works with glass at the intersection of art and design, creating pieces finding a midpoint between decoration and practicality. “I act as a translator between the material and the ideal of what the object can become”, she says. Currently exhibiting her pieces as part of the Re.Use, Re.Think, Re.Imagine exhibition at Hauser & Wirth Somerset in the UK, we speak with her about upcycling, experimentation and the influences of her upbringing in her work.
Glass is a rather ordinary material that we find easily in everyday objects and places. But how did you discover your passion for glass as an artistic and creative material?
I am mesmerized by the fact that it can be ‘fixed’ or transformed through various cold-working processes, especially when I encounter found objects that I see potential in and I act as a translator between the material and the ideal of what the object can become.
Consequently, by aiming to transform ordinary objects into valuable, timeless pieces or objects d’art, the process flows effortlessly to materialise into sculptural art with soul – or as I refer to in Spanish, ‘flavour’. By challenging and appropriating traditional notions of originality, the mixture of media and their juxtaposition, these end up attributing more character to contemporary compositions, portray a richer narrative and develop my artistic identity as a visual thinker.
Even though you have developed a personal style based on working with discarded crystal, was there some form of artistic expression prior to the use of glass materials? Like painting, illustration…?
Ever since I can remember, I understood the world around me through making things with my hands. From illustration, painting and having a collection of graphic sketchbooks to playing in the garden in a make-believe world where anything was possible.
Throughout the years, I have continued to use sketchbooks as a valuable tool. These become the principal storyteller of any current projects and the portrayal of the creative journey. It is a very personal space in which ideas are proposed without any restrictions. Consequently, these become frozen moments that synthesise the preciousness of that intuitive thought. Personally, the value of the bound collection of sheets is as precious as the final series of the sculptural objects.
You work with found and discarded objects that you transform into harmonious and unique pieces. Could you guide us more through your process? Where do you find those discarded objects and what do you do with them first? Do you sometimes collect several to make a bigger piece?
In Edinburgh, people have gotten to know that I really appreciate any type of discarded material, so people often collect it for me and very kindly donate it for me to use. Also, the Glass Department from the University of Edinburgh where I graduated from has continued to set aside the bits that are going to the bin (all of the off-cuts or the imperfect pieces from the studio production). Also, I am very fortunate to travel often, so I always have my eyes peeled for rare finds, odd-looking pieces that seem a bit lost in charity shops or antique markets; I pride myself in seeing their potential. In my studio, I give the pieces a second change where I can facilitate the magic of this transformation.
When I have collected several pieces, I use the saw to deconstruct and I spread it all out in my studio. Then, I let myself interact directly with the materials in front of me. Intuitive play is the decision-maker and I just flow in the process by being guided by my gut feeling while mixing colours, textures and shapes. The critical and judgmental sides are left outside the studio door and this is when the pieces start to take form in their most authentic way. I connect to that child-like curiosity, where vulnerability is the currency and where the final piece becomes completely unique. To me, each piece embodies the joy of the process.
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What part of this process do you enjoy the most and why (from going on the hunt for treasures to transforming them into new art pieces)?
I love the feeling when a particular composition feels just right, it’s a gut feeling. I become the facilitator for this transformation and the piece ultimately becomes its best version of itself, something that not even me could imagine. I like to think about it as if an ordinary jug wanted to grow up to be a unicorn; everyone would assume that he is crazy for thinking this. But by allowing the process to unfold free of judgement and preconceptions in the studio, the final object fulfils a potential that isn’t all that rational.
I am drawn to objects that look a bit lost and are in the lookout for a new identity. Such as imagining if the Ocean had a ‘lost and found’ box. Can you imagine what you would find there? Imagine all the treasures from millions of years of sunken ships; my cousin’s Go Pro that I borrowed that time without his permission; Zeus’ favourite toe ring. This is the type of wonder I value and try to bring to my work constantly. Life is sometimes too serious, and we can’t forget the importance of having a laugh.
Although your artwork is based on human-made materials, it constantly refers to nature, more specifically to flowers. How does nature inform your work?
I grew up in the tropics playing outside and remember being mesmerised by all the vibrant colours and intricate patterns found in our garden. I believe that, as an artist, I just have to stop and observe what is already in front of us because nature will always be the wisest and all the answers have always been just there all along.
What else inspires you?
I am also inspired by books, stories of mythology, studies of how different cultures appreciate the world. I am also a big fan of travelling, architecture, interior design and fashion. Well, that doesn’t narrow it down much, does it?
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You’re currently participating in the exhibition Re.Use, Re.Think, Re.Imagine, at Hauser & Wirth Somerset in the UK, together with other experimental artists and makers who work on textiles, furniture, found objects, ceramics or glass. Do you feel your art transcends the ‘no-touching’ art policy and has a more usable, practical approach somehow? Is your art to be used in addition to admired?
Some elements of my work transcend the ‘no-touching’ art policy. The final sculptures are objets d’art that are indeed very fragile. But for me, as a visual communicator, I am always trying to engage with the audience in different ways. With every project, I push myself to broaden the channels through which I communicate the ethos of my practice; this is directly linked to my background in graphic design. By developing videos, photographic series showcasing the playful element of my methodology and problem solving, I invite the audience to engage in different ways.
With this, I want to highlight the importance of fostering our curiosity and joy through making. If I am successful, my works will invite the audience to wonder and connect to our innate child-like curiosity and how the importance of play throughout our whole lives is fundamental to our emotional wellbeing.
In this exhibition, you share space with other artists like Charlotte Kidger, Lola Lely, Aimee Bollu, or James Shaw, among others. I see there are more women artists than men, which is strange despite the recent rise of a new wave of feminism. Do you feel like female artists are more keen to environmental-related art as nurturing, taking care of others and protecting is traditionally more linked to the role of women?
I hadn’t thought about it in this way, but it makes sense. I just finished reading Sapiens, by Yuval Harari (a must-read for everyone, in my opinion) and it highlights the role of women in society as the nurturer of emotional connections within our community because it ensures reproduction and survival. These are instincts that have governed our brain for years and years, and this is applied to every aspect of our lives, even our work.
Based on the title of the exhibition, do you believe that the art world is aware enough of the current situation and is trying to do something about it?
I think the art world is embracing the current social issue of our lifetime. More and more, we hear positive stories of artists that re-think and re-imagine the possibilities of waste material. Imagine if we all shifted this attitude of consumerism to repurposing discarded materials… it would have a massive impact on the issue and the survival of our species.
And this quote I read from fellow artist Victoria Sambunaris: ‘We have to re-evaluate the idea that this land is here for our consumption’ stopped me in my tracks. What entitlement we as humankind have to think that we are more important than any other species and we get to decide what to use and destroy for the sake of money.
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And, in general, are we sufficiently aware of the amount of waste we generate? Can art be a good wake-up call of the alarming situation of the planet?
I think we are all a little bit in denial on the extent of this situation we are finding ourselves in and ignore how much power we have over the consumption habits we have as consumers. But art definitely is a great tool that helps communicate the social issues of our time in poetic ways. These are all different interpretations presented to audiences to question the status quo and hopefully shift perceptions.
You studied graphic design. Did you do it because it was a ‘less risky’ option than studying fine arts? How does this background in graphics influence your current work?
I studied graphic design because my parents urged me to study something practical, something that would later on be useful to get a ‘proper job’. But later on, I decided to do a Masters in Glass. Having a BA in Graphic Design and work experience gave me an edge on how to communicate myself better, not only on how I particularly appreciate and observe the world, but most importantly, how I share this and invite my audience into this magical world of second chances. For me, this has proven very advantageous.
You’re originally from Costa Rica, but you live now in the UK. How do you think the different cultures of these two countries influence your creative practice?
Costa Ricans are known for being very laid back and to go with the flow (this is where our famous ‘pura vida’ saying comes from). It isn’t always the best approach to life to be too relaxed, but for me, this is how I produce my best work. I let myself flow in the process, disregarding if it’s a ‘good’ idea or not. Sometimes, it just needs to be that way and the outcome doesn’t matter; it’s there for a reason, and only with time and perspective we will be able to understand its meaning. Design is a process, not just the outcome.
Costa Rica is known for its wildlife and beautiful, vibrant nature. I grew up in lush surroundings and that is imprinted in me and my aesthetic as an artist. And one last characteristic that I think is very important is that, as a culture, we are very cheeky. We like to push the boundaries of what is supposed to be, bending the rules to understand the limits. This allows us to be inquisitive and push in different ways to solve problems and allows us to make the ‘unmakable’.
At the same time, people from the UK are very hands-on, problem solvers and productive people. They also have a great craftsmanship heritage, just like the rest of Europe, and this is where I have been welcomed and trained to be able to produce my work using glass-cutting techniques. Also, I have learnt the value of collaborating with talented individuals from different fields to foster new ideas, challenging our perspectives and communicating with people from different backgrounds. In my experience, this is a great way to spark conversations, innovate and challenge the status quo.
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How do you see the art scene in these two countries? Do you think you could have developed your artistic work and career equally if you’d stayed in Costa Rica?
Every country has its advantages and disadvantages. Costa Rica in particular and Latin America in general are fertile ground full of brilliant artists. But I wanted to come to Europe, where there are more opportunities to find funding, gallery connections, exhibitions and collaborations. The consistency and number of opportunities have allowed me to build momentum and gradually work towards building a successful studio practice, which is still ongoing. If I had stayed in Costa Rica, I wouldn’t have been exposed to the glass-cutting techniques that my work is characterized for and the community that I have built after living in Edinburgh for the past nine years, which have supported the production and development of my career.
On a global perspective, what’s the best and the worst of the art world?
The best of the art world is the celebration of particular perspectives yet universal traits that connect humanity: the overall sense of beauty and the poetry that it encapsulates. The worst is still the inequality of opportunities for minorities. Just like The Guerilla Girls put it (an anonymous group of feminist, female artists devoted to fighting sexism and racism within the art world): ‘Definition of Hypocrite: An art collector who buys white male art at benefits for liberal causes, but never buys art by women or artists of colour.’
To finish the interview, what projects are you working on now?
I am currently finalizing The Royal Edinburgh Hospital Commission in partnership with Gras Architects and Custom Lane. This will be on loan at the Scottish Parliament and set to be unveiled in April 2020.
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