JK: Your work deals mainly with upsetting the master narrative of our shared history by telling the untold stories or various non-dominant groups, and you seem particularly interested in women's history. Can you give us some examples of how your works materialize? What do they involve, and what is the end result?
TP: Well I also studied history at [Carnegie Mellon University], so that was a big thing. I didn’t have to go out of my way to find these things, they were just around, I really love doing research. That was my favorite part when I transferred into the interdisciplinary program that I was in… But I wasn’t necessarily so keen on the writing part… I would be doing all of this research, and finding all of this amazing material, taking notes on it, and getting all of this fantastic stuff out of it. But then I think “I don’t really want to write a paper on this.” It doesn’t seem to be fulfilling its full potential if it just sits on my desktop...
JK: Is it an issue of accessibility?
TP: Yes because no one is going to go online and read my 30 page research paper. No one is going to go to the Carnegie Library and look at my thesis. No one is going to do that. They just aren’t. Unless I use that to go to grad school, and keep pursuing that same research until someone sees it as being worthwhile to publish. It’s just too convoluted. So I think “I could just make art about this, post it on the internet, and put it up in a gallery somewhere.” The whole world isn’t going to see it but a lot more people are going to see it and learn about all of this cool stuff...
That’s always an underlying thing in what I’m doing; to make people aware of the inaccuracies of the things people have learned in their lives. I want that to be something they walk away with.
I don’t draw in my sketchbook, I take research notes. If someone saw it they wouldn’t think it was definitely an artist's.
JK: Out of any of your recent shows have you sold any of your work?
TP: I haven’t sold a lot of artwork. It’s not something that I have thought a lot about... People want to buy some of the books that I make because I bind books. People have approached me wanting to buy some of those, but those take a lot of work and they’re one of a kind… I would really love to be able to get access to a real legitimate bookbinding facility and actually be able to make small editions of things and sell those.
JK: What’s in the books that you make? Is it your written work?
TP: It’s not my written work … I did one last year that has the names of all the women that were killed in the Allegheny Arsenal explosion. During the Civil War Pittsburgh was an important location because it produced a lot of arms for the Union… There was a big arsenal where Arsenal Park is today in Lawrenceville. It was a big factory and it was only employed by women because that’s the kind of jobs that women worked while the men were at war. It was poorly ventilated, there were no exits, and there were way too many people in the building that shouldn’t have been. A spark blew the whole place up because of the gunpowder, and no one could escape because everyone basically trampled each other. So it was just this really awful, terrible, graphic thing that if you read first hand accounts of it, it’s just nauseating… So I laser cut all the names of the victims. You can’t find any newspaper articles on it because it occurred on the same day as the Battle of Antietam, so it didn’t get any coverage. That’s one of those instances where it is a one of a kind thing. All the names are burned into the pages, they’re all laser cut. And it’s big and it’s thick and it folds out into this beautiful accordion.
JK: Since your artworks are more like intellectual endeavors because they are research based and answering a question, do you think that’s why you are not interested in selling them?
TP: I think for somethings. I want to keep them handmade and to keep that same sort of feel, where it feels very intimate and it doesn’t just feel like you are flipping through a history textbook. To be able to reach a lot of people with that would be fantastic. Everyone learns about the Civil War. You don’t go through school in the United States without learning about the Civil War… When I got to college I said “no more courses on the Civil War.” I was not interested in war history at all. I saw it as being very macho, and I had no interest in it. So I was doing gender politics and women’s movements post World War II, and then I found all of this and I was like “whoa, hold up, this is really cool.” I thought I knew everything that I could learn, but I had no idea. I was relearning the Civil War through these women.
JK: Are you interested in getting into installation art?
TP: Yes, I think I am. Well we didn’t really talk about the Dolly stuff?
JK: Let’s talk about the Dolly Stuff.
TP: Ok let’s talk about Dolly… The official name of the piece, and before I say it, I was really proud of it. I went home one weekend and I was sitting in my living room watching Frasier with my mom. And I was trying to come up with a title, and I mentioned it right off the bat, like it needed to be on the label yesterday. And she went, “how about just Parton Me for My Love Affair with Dolly?”
JK: You’re mom said that?
TP: Yes, just right off the bat. First thing. And I lost it. So the official title is Dolly and I (Parton Me for My Love Affair with Dolly)... It started out as my history capstone which was about gender politics and country music, and women in country music and their relationship with the women’s liberations movement. So I looked at Dolly Parton, Tammy Wynette, and Loretta Lynn. And it broke down the similarities in their backgrounds that led to what they became. Their music and alternate messages that could be read in their music, and different songs that often get ignored… some really serious, heavy, political stuff, that people ignore because it doesn’t fit into the narrative, or view of country music being the genre of the right. And I have always really loved Dolly….. The original plan was to do a split screen video projection of a compilation of all this different material. But that didn’t seem like enough. I also had tons of memorabilia. I had fan letters that I had written her. So I thought “maybe I’ll just do an installation”, and it just became this flood of stuff. I painted the walls pink, and there was someone doing nails at the opening. I had my stone lithographs of Dolly, a lot of memorabilia, and the corset I had used on the wall. I had photos of Dolly and fan letters. It was a nice way to use all this different material in the same piece…. My number one goal was just to keep people engaged while they hopefully take in a little bit of all of it. I wanted to create a really fun and inviting space that was really reflective of Dolly, and what people think of when they think of Dolly, but to have all of this material that points to something different. Maybe she is a feminist, and maybe it’s wrong for us to exclude her from that category of women and people.