An Interview with Spotlight Artist: Meghann Riepenhoff
By Sarah Sunday
Sarah Sunday: Your process of creation seems very intricate and complicated. Can you describe it?
Meghann Riepenhoff: I hand coat cyanotype emulsion onto paper and then introduce the paper into the landscape, in waves, rivers, rain, snow, ice, etc. Elements from the landscape physically inscribe into the photochemistry.
Sarah: It’s incredible, your work is forever in a state of change, right?
Meghann: Cyanotype requires only water to process, so the images are fixed to the degree that they encounter water in the landscape. Some of them are washed thoroughly by heavy storms, whereas some retain a lot of latent chemistry and are therefore more subject to fluctuation. The works are continuously in collaboration with the environment around them.
Sarah: Some of your work in the past has had very unearthly, almost space-like elements, why is it that you’ve made the shift towards more nature-focused motifs?
Meghann: The sea, the sky, star stuff—all of these things are constantly on my mind. I let myself move between the cosmic and the earthly, as these motifs are, in reality, intrinsically connected.
Sarah: Your work speaks of natural creation and destruction, which speaks volumes to the environmental crisis we, as humans, are putting ourselves into. Was that a subject you had in mind when creating the art pieces?
Meghann: At the beginning, my focus was more on connecting with the environment, in a very literal and physical way. My Guggenheim Fellowship, which I’m working on now, allowed me to focus more on troubled bodies of water - water that is vulnerable because of human intervention, industry, extreme weather, etc. As is true for most work, the work has evolved to speak about what is relevant. Right now, few things are more relevant than the human impact on the environment. I was deflated when I started the Guggenheim work, because as I researched waters at risk, I confirmed that it is a ubiquitous issue, and that water is vulnerable nearly everywhere. I’ve worked at the Great Salt Lake, which is experiencing record low water levels and is divided in two by a railroad; The Puget Sound, where we’ve discovered traces of opioids in the shellfish, passed through human waste; Toxic Beach in San Francisco, which is littered with industrial remnants. These places are emblematic of what is happening everywhere—our unchecked impact is creating collective suffering. After some time with the research, I began to think in a more productive way, constantly acknowledging that we can (and in fact, must) live more copacetically within our environment.
Sarah: In what other ways is the work you’re doing risky? What risks have you taken in this project?
Meghann: I suppose it is risky to handle the materials in radically different ways than their intended purpose. I emailed one cyanotype expert at the beginning of the project and his gruff response let me know my misuse of the medium caused him frustration; I got a lot of pushback like that when I started the work. Maybe every time I print it is a risk: I never know what I’ll encounter in the landscape, or if I can find the space and time to pull some interesting work out of the collaboration, or if the weather will help or interfere. I appreciate engaging chance and opening up to the unknown.
Sarah: Is risk-taking in the art world something you’ve had to work at, or something that you feel comes naturally?
Meghann: I admire boldness in life and in art. Most days I come by my processes quite naturally, and other days I have to force myself out into a cold rainstorm. I feel better when I make art, even really bad art, and so I keep going, whatever the outcome.
Sarah: There’s an underlying current of chaos in your art work, although the images look beautiful and even peaceful, the name of the project is about breaking waves and action created by nature. In what ways is the art peaceful, and in what ways is it chaotic?
Meghann: I affectionately call my work, “chaos with a dash of control”. Some days the waves crash over me and pull the work out from my hands, some days I stand at the lapping shores of Walden Pond. There’s a well known saying, “you can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf”. That’s the mindset I bring to the work; entropy rules.