Earlier this month we paid a visit to the studio of artist Hannah Celli. In a sunny stone filled space in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, we sat and spoke with her and Sydney Fishman, Co-Founder of the Lower East Side project space Duplex where Celli's first solo show is currently on view. Getting to know this thoughtful, considered artist through her work and process, we spoke about the contradictions and power of the heart, the ancient art of carving to memorialize, our shared hope in objects as healers, and found out more about her inspirations and what's to come in 2022.
Hannah at Duplex photographed by Sophie Schwartz
KB: What led you to sculpture and stone carving?
Hannah: I wanted to document and reproduce some of the abnormalities and deformities within my family. It started with my dad and his left hand which has two fingers, and also my own feet which I cast early on – I got surgery and wanted to remember what my feet looked like before and how they felt, so I made a cast of them. Then I started working with stone because the ancient art of stone carving feels like the ultimate way to memorialize something… And for me, I was interested in ‘memorializing’ things that were abnormal or may feel shameful. At first, I was casting stone dust with resin and I was never able to replicate the feeling of a stone sculpture, so I started carving stone, and I really connected with doing that.
The carving is not as literal as casting, it becomes your interpretation of something, you can riff a bit. Your work has such personality, and the stones themselves have so much character – they bring so much to it.
The color of the stone is really important to me and is probably the first thing I consider when I am picking out stones. I am good with color, but also as a painter I was maybe too uninhibited. The paintings I used to make were kind of chaotically colorful in a way that I ended up finding to be too much. I like using the color within the stone so I am exposing something natural instead of working to reproduce it in some way. Also, since stones are often used to make pigment which then become paint, it feels like carving a colorful stone is the original source of color.
For the Duplex show, I really enjoyed looking to see which stone you used for each sculpture. Different stones have such different properties, people believe onyx absorbs negative energy, alabaster can be healing and help with trauma, etc. Do you ever think about that when you’re carving, the other properties of the stone or where the stone is from?
Definitely! For this body of work, I was at first reluctant to carve outside of red alabaster and marble but once I did, I found that the diversity of stone types brought a new balance to the work. And watching people gravitate to certain stones was really cool. This is pipestone – it has a history of being a very sacred stone among Indigenous communities. It is used to make pipes for ceremonies – that’s why it’s called a “pipe” stone, people smoke out of it and it is found in South Dakota and Minnesota. The majority of stones I use are native to the United States – Marble from Vermont, Alabaster from Utah and Colorado… – and if I am using these stones, I want to understand and honor their histories. Another stone I love, my friend Kieron gave me – it’s a pink onyx. It’s a really big piece and I haven't been able to carve it yet. I need special tools because it’s so hard.
Installation view at Duplex
How did you decide to focus on the heart for Organ Player?
I started out carving all of the internal organs in the body as a way of externalizing my own obsession and fears about what was happening inside of my body. Especially in relation to taking care of my body – or not taking care of my body – and what the implications are of that, in ways that you can’t see… inside. Especially the heart – the heart has so many contradictions – it's the most powerful, fragile, strong, and the most delicate organ. It can overcome a lot of things, it’s the organ that keeps your body running. And it’s also the organ that has the most metaphorical meaning. Once I carved the first heart which is at Duplex, I was … really obsessed with that heart. I realized if you put it on your chest it could conduct the energy from your heartbeat so you could feel your heart beating in your hands. I would sleep with it, it was very calming, that specific one. My fascination with the heart led me to make the 27 sculptures in Organ Player. There are 27 hearts in the show but I made close to 40.
They are all so different, some more abstract, but the second you say 'heart’ everyone sees hearts. I loved looking at the different organs – and thinking what the hell does a thyroid look like, where even is my thyroid?
I carved a large thyroid which is in a show called Magic Mountain at Jack Hanley Gallery – it looks like a butterfly! It’s a weirdly repetitive shape in the body – these two circles attached with an oval shape – the lungs are like that, the ovaries, the brain. Where does that come from?
Sydney: People say that about nature too. There are only so many shapes in the world, these things are repeated, the same shapes over and over again.
I do think it’s interesting to address the ideas of the objects and healing. The objects being something that take energy out of you. Your experience with the heart the first time was this thing that connected more to yourself, connected to what was going on with you internally and recentered what was already happening within you, instead of this idea of trying to pull something out of yourself – which I think is a big difference with the stone and wonder if that’s about the properties of the stone and this idea of having these objects even it’s on the wall or something that you can put towards your body or towards your heart, how that allows you to refocus your energy and that meditation
It’s not so different from focused breathing and meditation, but that’s not necessarily something I do in a practiced way. For me, objects are how I connect with the world – and so creating an object that allowed me to connect with myself felt very important.
This (a carved piece of soapstone with the relief of a foot) was an early piece, the second piece I carved – the purpose of it was to be a foot stretcher. I was trying to make something that could actually be engaged with in a physical way – you can put your toes in it.
Something that Hannah was doing before, were performances – or playful interactions, like how you see the foot stretcher – there’s a lot of interaction, a whole other angle with human interaction and playfulness.
The last two years I've been so deep in sculpture, and in myself and being alone in my studio. I think it was because of the pandemic in many ways. And also meeting my partner Harry who is an amazing sculptor and really helped me to transform and industrialize my studio practice. I was doing a lot of work with communities and collaborations before that. I’m really glad I had this time to focus in my studio, but it is just one element of my practice.
I think that multidisciplinary practice is the contemporary artist, and that you really embody that in being able to have so many different things that are a part of what you’re making. And when you really look at it and experience the work you can start to see all those folds.
I did a collaboration – it was a year-long project – with 8 incarcerated men at a prison in Ohio where I was living. We made these wax candle-sculptures that were exact replicas of the men’s faces inspired by the ancient tradition of death masks – a process that began in the middle ages of casting a person’s face after their death (typically someone of high prestige) as a way of memorializing them. In the prison, it allowed us to circumnavigate the rule of not being allowed to bring cameras into the facilities, but it turned out to produce an even more ‘real’ replication of the men’s humanity. The casting process also allowed the participants to experience a momentary escape from institutional life. It connects to some of the ideas I spoke about earlier: fears and death and memorializing the body parts of the living and then the question: what makes something worth memorializing?
A lot of your work reminds me of milagros – religious charms, small metal representations of body parts that are given as offerings for healing. I love the idea that you can have an object, that you believe will heal you, a representation of that part of your body.
The object brings attention to that location of your body – like if you put the heart on your chest you’re bringing attention to your heart in a way that maybe you wouldn't be able to before. Or holding your ankle makes you think: how is my ankle feeling, can I focus my attention on it? This all comes back to embodiment or disembodiment. I’ve spent a lot of my life being disconnected with my body and I think that’s what led me to a lot of anxiety and fear – so I think that the work was about connecting with my own body. And the process of carving stone is so physical that you have to be aware – how do you feel? Are you hungry? Are you tired? Are you sore? How are you standing? All those things are relevant.
I was immediately drawn to the work, I wanted to touch it and own it, think about my heart, heal my heart, protect my heart.
That’s my hope with them – functional objects, functional sculptures.
I do like the concept that you can make something for someone else – you’re making the object, but the meaning really comes when the person who is going to have it, takes it. Something I’ve been thinking about with the hearts at Duplex, you did all the labor and birthed them, the creation, and now their final life is going to these homes, with the people who are going to take them on as their own. That was really the goal with having so many objects in the show, so people could access them.
Some of my favorite artists are sculptors who use repetition in their practice – like Eva Hesse, Alina Szapocznikow, Ruth Asawa, or Yayoi Kusama – reproducing the same thing over and over to understand it better or to come closer to some sort of understanding. There’s nothing like walking into a space full of repeating labor-intensive objects, the feeling is so specific, it transcends whatever the object is. As I kid, I remember being mesmerized and moved by Kusama’s infinity rooms and Charles Ledray’s show in the Whitney’s old location of hundreds of miniature vessels and hand sewn clothes. Those are some of the artists that impacted me the most as a young person and I think about them all the time when I make my work… I wanted to create a similar feeling for people walking into my show.
Installation view at Duplex
In a way they read as specimens in a group, they are all so different. When you start to carve, do you have an idea what the shape is going to be, or do you just know the scale – or do you just go for it?
I usually begin by looking at anatomical drawings of the heart and draw the basic structure directly onto the stone. After making a bunch, I knew the structure enough to know that there’s a right artery and left artery that loops around the back and a valve in the center.
That’s what’s repeating in your head, these are the lines.
Yeah, so for instance if I’m carving a heart out of this piece, I'm looking at this and thinking – that's already a line because the stone color changes at this spot so that might define my first cut. And then, once I have made the cut, the second artery emerges. I usually can see the heart before I carve it, but also so much is still left up to chance.
Do you ever do more abstract work?
No, my interpretation of something real feels abstract enough. There are a few directions that I’m thinking about for the next body of work, one is figurative and incorporates fabric and stone. I made one figurative sculpture that is wearing my old sweater, which feels like there’s spirit to it.
With stone, it could last forever, but fabric is so delicate.
Yeah, and stone can get so cold so it is also like my sweater can keep it warm. I hate clutter, but I also hate getting rid of things so it leaves me in a weird in-between. I either give my clothes away or put them into my work. I save a lot of old clothes and put them in storage – in that box up there I have old clothes from my childhood ready to use like old bathing suits and tennis skirts.
Something I think would be interesting to talk about it is the experience you’ve been having with letting go of the objects in the space, the concept of attachment, you go through the process of making these pieces, and how the stone could potentially not be available anymore, how it’s been for you, as people have been buying the work.
I didn’t expect to feel any kind of attachment to the pieces in the show, I put the original heart aside and other than that, all the hearts were fair game. But there were two hearts that I really loved that sold. It made me happy that they sold because people were so connected to them but it also was bittersweet. I love hearing how people want to display the work in their homes and makes me want to put a heart next to my bed… Imagining so many of these pieces going to so many different places is incredible.
Why 'Organ Player'?
I came up with it when I was under the knife getting a minor mouth surgery a few months ago. They gave me laughing gas and the doctor was having a field day. He was having so much fun, they were playing loud music, loud pop music, and I was high from the laughing gas so I loved watching him tear me apart. Being a dentist is like being a sculptor, it is sculpture. One time I got a tour of the back room of my dentist's office where there were old men making teeth at a workbench. They use the same tools as me! The same exact tools. And my dentist loves to show me his new diamond bits and dental tool catalogs. So the title ‘Organ Player’ connects the playful element of my process to the medical… It's playful – but also… it’s not.
What are you thinking about for next?
I have been revisiting Bosch’s painting, The Garden of Earthly Delights. It’s an amazingly complex painting full of symbolism, bodies, flowers and stories. I am thinking about this painting and a possible garden made from stone.
Do you have a lot of things you think are lucky, talismans?
One time my friend Kirsten gave me a tiny stone, a tiny rose quartz and she was like, “this is lucky you’ll think you’ve lost it so many different times, but you’ll never lose it.” I've had it and carried it around with me for years and I’ve never lost it.
Feb 2022: Organ Player closes this week. If you’re in NYC, we recommend stopping by for the closing event – Thursday February 10th from 6-8PM at Duplex.
Organ Player – Through February 10th at DUPLEX, 17 Essex Street, NYC
Magic Mountain – Through February 12th at Jack Hanley Gallery, 177 Duane Street, NYC
Hannah Celli is an artist and educator based in Brooklyn, NY. Working primarily in sculpture, Celli draws on personal history, mythology, and anatomy, to explore embodiment as a response to trauma. Her work has shown in group exhibitions curated by Duplex at Marinaro Gallery, Roll Gate Studios and Project ARTSpace, as well as at BravinLee Programs, Super Dutchess Gallery and PLAySPACE at UC Berkeley. As an educator, Celli has collaborated with incarcerated people at Grafton Prison in Ohio; and with court-involved youth at Recess Assembly with Shaun Leonardo. Her writing about art as social practice has been published in stop.gap journal, The American Middle Class Encyclopedia, and the New York Times. She is currently featured in Magic Mountain at Jack Hanley Gallery (through February 12, 2022). Organ Player is her first solo exhibition. Celli holds an MFA from Pratt University and a BA from Kenyon College.
Duplex is a nomadic curatorial project that supports and illuminates emerging artists’ voices by providing spaces for experimentation and exposure. Working closely and collaboratively with artists, Duplex conceptualizes site-specific exhibitions that challenge viewership and interaction with the work.
Founded in 2016 by Eden Deering and Sydney Fishman, Duplex has partnered with Visual AIDS, The Box, P.P.O.W., Marinaro Gallery, Sargent’s Daughters and the Zaha Hadid building on the High Line. Currently, Duplex occupies a space at 17 Essex Street on the border of Chinatown and the LES.