Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Artist Interview! Celeste Diaz Falzone in conversation with Miranda Zhen-Yao Van-Boswell

The only red light I look forward to is the one at the intersection of Broadway and Manton, because I get to check out the Dirt Palace window installation from my car. This month the window has been transformed into the new temporary home of Muscle Man, Binky, If I Were A Woman It Would Take All Day, American Dream, Security Camera of My LIfe, Home Is Where, and Golfer (sculptural ‘characters’ created by the Pawtucket based artist Celeste Diaz Falzone). I imagine them coming alive in the wee hours of the morning for a quick tea party before Olneyville Square busies for another day. Today I have the pleasure of speaking with Celeste at The Elk Lodge, an artist live and work space that they have been transforming with friends since 2020. 

Miranda Zhen-Yao Van-Boswell: What antics do you imagine your characters getting up to in the middle of the night? 

Celeste Diaz Falzone: Hmm. I imagine them not doing a full action, but more of a guiding movement that implies something bigger. I always wanted to write a book but never felt like I could follow through with it because all I was interested in were these subtle dramatic moments, and then I’d want to move on. In a lot of my drawings it looks like there’s a story, but it’s actually just a snippet-  the rest is up for interpretation. I think the characters are like that too, where it’s just a moment or expression or micro-something, but that thing is kind of undefined. 

MV: I walked down to the window this morning and was really struck by Home Is Where, and how it looks like it’s mid dynamic movement. It’s in this really unusual backbend- would you say that’s an example of what you’re describing?

CDF: Yeah definitely, it’s implied something is happening, but it might even be the moment before something has happened, like the thing before an expression. That movement in particular reminds me of dance a lot, which is something that’s very important to me. That fluidity of free movement that doesn’t necessarily mean anything in particular. It’s just kind of like a vomiting. 

MV: The Home Is Where piece was actually supposed to tie into a question I was gonna bring up more towards the end because it feels a bit heavier, but since it came up I might go for it now?

CDF: Go for it!

MV: Ok so it’s to do with home…I read that you don’t really feel like you come from one particular place or have a sense of belonging. I relate to that because of being mixed and moving around a lot, and just having really intense feelings about home. So that piece pulled on my heartstrings! Could you talk a bit about how that non-identification of being from somewhere works for you, and how that comes into play with your characters?

CDF: Yes definitely. I was born in Texas but grew up in Massachusetts with lots of moving around in between. At one point we were living in my dad’s office, a cramped space with boxes of items from our house reduced to what could fit. Even now, going to where my parents live -which is not where I grew up- every time I sleep there it’s a different mattress. There were never those consistent comforts of like, this is what my bed feels like. So there’s that very concrete realm of not having a foundation in terms of place or items. 

And yeah the mixed thing I can identify with too, cus in some ways I don’t identify with either of my parents’ backgrounds (my mom is Colombian and my dad is American) and in others I identify with both. And not knowing anyone else like me while growing up either. Or just not meeting a lot of people growing up full stop! I was homeschooled until I was 12 by my parents who are both somewhere on the spectrum. So in that way too I was very isolated. I know I was difficult to teach, too. Whenever my mom would try to get me to do a workbook I’d lock myself in the bathroom. So I didn’t have a solid home foundation or formal education. I mean, I learned how to read when I was 12…but I got way away from the question!

MV: No no, we’re super on track. It makes me see your work in more context which is awesome. I’m wondering if the soft bodiedness and doll-like nature of some of the characters are maybe a way of you trying to compensate for the grounded childhood you never had?

CDF: Definitely. When I was little I didn’t identify with other kids at all. And now it can be hard for me to see eye to eye with other adults, so I feel a little split in that way too. I feel like internally I’ve always been the same age. So yeah I definitely like to play with themes of age and childhood in my art, and just make things that I find comforting because I skipped a lot of those comforting things in early life. When I was little I slept with a hard plastic rhino that was like, spiky. I think now I’m trying to have more softness in my life.

MV: Softness is such a worthy pursuit! Before we dig more into your work, this might sound kind of random but I wanted to ask if you’ve seen the movie Patterson? That’s not the question, that’s the leading question to my question. 

CDF: I think I saw the trailer…is it about a bus driver?

MV: Yes! Adam Driver plays this bus driver poet, and Golshifteh Farahani plays his girlfriend, a homemaker who has a ton of creative energy and is always working on these quirky decor projects. Anyways, I think about this movie a lot because I know so many people have difficulty making art under capitalism, and are struggling to find ways of having sustainable creative practices, myself included. My impression is that being a full time artist is one of the hardest and rarest lifepaths. How do you do it, and has it ever been otherwise? 

CDF: Yeah, in a big way this space [The Elk Lodge] is what allows me to make art this intensely. Although I moved out recently and just have my studio here now, not having to worry about rent really opens up your time. Making clothes and doing caricatures are what sustain me now. Caricatures are nice because I get to practice my illustration and have a 5 minute interaction drawing somebody. I generally spend one day during the week making stuff to sell, and then I vend at the flea on the weekend. Besides that it’s pretty free format. 

MV: It’s true, not having to pay rent is huge. I’m glad you have a space like this to support your practice, even if it’s just where your studio is, that’s still significant. 

CDF: Yeah, I moved across the street a couple months ago to have some distance. I want to be spending my time making work that is expressive. And although I’ve had a lot of ideas for this space, like where to locate the restaurant and apartments, I’m not a builder, I’m an artist. I’m not interested in tiling, scraping off lead paint, or moving large buckets of water! And a lot of that type of work is what needs to be done here. 

When I moved out it felt ironic because we had just gotten heat and running water. I was asking myself why I was leaving when the place had finally become livable and comfortable. And I realized it’s because there’s still so far to go, and if I stay I’ll just keep expending energy on things that I see need to be worked on. Now I just come here to be in my studio, which is all I really want to do. Connor just became available and is really into building. So I think having Sam be able to do that stuff with somebody else and me just pitching in here and there has been so much better for me. It’s also nice to just have some separation because it’s tough living and working with a partner 24/7. It’s nice to be able to leave and rejoin. 

MV: Yeah when Xander first told me about this place she described it as what Providence was like in the 90s…And I think at the time there was no heat or hot water. But you just said running water. There was no running water?

CDF: Nope! But one of the storefronts downstairs does, so we were carrying it in buckets up to the third floor to then put in a water filter. We were taking our dishes down three flights of stairs for a year, washing them in a tiny hand sink and then bringing them all the way back up. 

MV: Wow. What a system! Congratulations on the dish sink! 

CDF: Thanks, yeah, it’s like a big update that we have a dish sink now!

MV: Let’s turn back to your work. There’s this quality of the magic of a child’s imaginative world, but it’s simultaneously sophisticated because it’s combined with your technical mastery of materials. How did you come to crocheting and knitting in the first place? And, are there any mediums you would never fuck with? 

CDF: I started knitting because of this middle school class called Girls Around The World. I haven’t really developed my knowledge beyond what we learned in that class actually, like I never got into the backwards upside down stitch or whatever. It’s so technical and that type of stuff never interested me much. Later in life I’m sure I’d love to learn one or two more things, but just to be able to make a flat surface I found so helpful, and I use that a lot. 

MV: But you’re doing really interesting curvy, circular stuff?

CDF: So that’s with the crochet. With crochet I’m able to make forms and do sculptural things, and that’s actually very straightforward too. It took me about a year to learn how to finesse shapes. My friend Michelle taught me, she’s super talented and has a very professional hand. And is really good at knots! 

MV: Ah, knots! Such a cool skill!

CDF: Yeah! So she showed me, and I started off making bags, and then I was like oh, I can make that into a head! And just kept rolling with it. Everything I make with crochet is pretty intuitive. I usually have a conceptual outline of an idea, and then filling it in is just a means to an end of expression. I’m not super interested in the technical stuff. 

As for mediums I would never fuck with, I don’t want to say never but for the most part things that require intense machinery I’m not super interested in, like woodworking or metal or glassblowing. I’m interested in things that are very accessible, like something that you could teach a person in a day. I like those types of very inviting things.

MV: It’s so weird to hear you say that what you’re doing isn’t technically advanced because it does not look that way. 

CDF: I mean, it’s taken a lot of practice but it’s really just slip knots on top of each other, and after a while you realize what makes it go out, what makes it go in. It’s like the easiest building block in terms of textiles that I’ve experienced. Once you get the motor skills down, you don’t need to know anything technical. 

MV: Easier than knitting? Sorry, I don't really know anything about fiber arts!

CDF: Knitting I think you need to know some type of mathematics to be able to go beyond the grid. With crocheting you’re just building knots, and can go in any direction you want. So you can make complex shapes without math or measurements. It’s like clay, you can just feel it and build it and there’s no technicality involved.

MV: You’re making it sound very appealing.

CDF: It is very appealing.

MV: In a past Wedding Cake House residency there was this really interesting conversation where the artist Chrissy Jones brought up the importance of there being a feeling driving one’s work. In her case it was to communicate awe, mystery, a sense of there being things you don’t understand and that are much bigger than you. Horror and being a conduit for the paranormal are major threads running through her work. If it’s possible to sum up, what would you say are some of the emotions at the root of yours?

CDF: There’s definitely a lot of sadness and a lot of humor.  I think those are the two main emotions that I have. Being able to laugh is how I cope with loneliness. I’m trying to have more variation in my relationships now, like I don’t have to only be funny, which is kind of my defense mechanism. A lot of the expressions that I make in my sculptures and drawings are ambiguous, which is a reflection of me having difficulty decoding what people are feeling. Most of the time I really have no idea -that’s why being able to laugh feels so comforting. 

A lot of the time I don’t really feel a kinship to humanity, I just feel really observant of it. I can be hard to be around. I had been going to Mass Art for one year and wasn’t really enjoying it. I told myself I needed to work on being social, because I always felt lonely but put no effort into making friends. So I asked this girl if she wanted to go to Goodwill with me. It was a 20 minute walk but she insisted on waiting for a bus that was 15 minutes away. And I was like, I’m gonna kill myself. I just have no patience cus I’m always on my own wave, never having to accommodate anyone else. So yeah, I’m hard to move with. I’ve always had to be my own friend, my own mentor, my own biggest fan. And in that trying to be everything for myself all the time, it’s now made it hard for me to intermingle with others. It’s also given me a lot of strength, but at the expense of connection I guess.

MV: Where are you at with that now? Are you at peace with the way you are in relations with others? 

CDF: No, I feel like it’s a constant struggle, but I’m definitely getting better. I think it turns people off that there’s no cascading on or off. I have no rhythm. It’s just like yes/no, very matter of fact. That works for me and that works for the people that are close to me in my life, but it’s taken a lot of time. I think the biggest part of socializing for me right now is just self acceptance. 

MV: Well, I know this is a very particular format we’re in right now but I think you’re great to hang out with!

CDF: Thank you!

MV: I can’t help noticing the genderlessness of your characters, and also how as creatures they feel beyond human. Do you ever think of them as being from a time long ago, or a time yet to come? 

CDF: I think the genderlessness is something very familiar to me. There are definitely things about masculinity and femininity that really intrigue me, but that I also really don’t understand. And that kind of inbetweenness is something I identify with a lot when talking about gender. 

In terms of time, if anything I’d say they’re both current and timeless. They’re exaggerated expressions of energy that already exist. I think about them as being just a more honest representation of people I know and see, fragments of human behavior and expression. Some are definitely inspired by things that I’m dealing with. But none of them are direct self portraits per se. 


Miranda Zhen-Yao Van-Boswell is an artist of the Hong Kong diaspora, currently living in the ancestral homelands of the Narragansett Nation (colonially known as Providence, Rhode Island). Coincidentally born the same year as the Hong Kong handover from Britain to China (1997), Miranda is making one cyanotype a day for the next 25 years in anticipation of a nationhood death certificate issued July 1st 2047.

Miranda graduated from Brown University in 2020 with a BA in Visual Arts and works in photography, text, and mixed media. She’s interested in the triangular affair of translation, rituals of domesticity, and the intersection of personal and collective histories. Miranda is a Rhode Island State Council of the Arts (RISCA) grant recipient, and has work held in the Museum of Everyday Life’s permanent collection. She is the Work Exchange Artist in Residence at The Wedding Cake House.


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