barbara bridges

Barbara Bridges, Three Waves, 2015, mixed media, 18 in. x 24 in. x 4 in.


How would you describe the work that you do?

I’ve been teaching for over 40 years, and my academic background and my teaching background definitely informs my work. I’m very committed to working on collaborative projects as well that develop fellowship and community. I would say that is the motivating factor. I’m a social practice artist . . . so the purpose is to provoke social discourse.

Are there ways in which you intend your work to challenge the viewer?

Yes, I just want them to think about what’s going on with our lives. What’s going on? Why is my friend getting sick and can’t eat wheat? You know, Europe isn’t having these problems; it’s because of our agricultural practices. The GMOs that are allowed to happen here in the U.S.  During my wheat project, I had Monsanto call [me]. . . . [They] wanted to be part of the conversation. . . . When you get a big corporation like that calling you, that means you’re on the radar and they’re afraid of what’s going to be said. Talk about the power of art!

Is there something you are currently working on that you are particularly excited about?

Yes! Three Waves is a little different than some of my organic work, but I loved working on it. . . . I know this is under debate, but I am choosing to see feminism as in three waves. . . . I did a lot of research on this and I enjoyed it so much because I had the opportunity to be a scholar again, which is fun for me. Christine de Pizan is the first feminist writer that we have on written record. I picked three quotes that resonated with me because I see them still happening now. That’s the first wave. . . . When you open the piece up, you see a tribute to the Guerrilla Girls, which is second wave . . . along with the book The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt. . . . For the third wave, I’ve included a print from local artist Kate Renee’s series called Beauties Behaving Badly. That is my tribute to the third wave.

Bridges' studio

What have been the greatest challenges to your art career and how do you navigate them?

My ex‐husband used to call my art “that funky shit” throughout my marriage. . . . That didn’t give me a lot of confidence. . . . Then I got to the place where I knew I was going to divorce, I had to make sure that I could support myself. Once I divorced him, I was a professor and I really had to pay attention to my job. I couldn’t be messing around anymore because I needed my job. So, it was a challenge and I didn’t make art for eight years and I hated it. It was a gaping hole in my life and I was becoming this person I didn’t like. 

Bridges' studio

I had a friend say to me on my 50th birthday, “When was the last time you made art?” and I said, “A while ago.” And she said, “Promise me that you will make art the next time you get a chance.” And I said, “Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, I will.”. . . So, about a week later, she sent me a MnSCU [Minnesota State Colleges and Universities] call for a proposal on technology and communication. . . . I erased it immediately because I thought, “Who had time for that?”. . . Then, my friend emailed me a couple of hours later asking, “Did you erase that? You promised!”. . . and I responded “Okay, okay, okay!” and I submitted a proposal and was awarded the commission that became Onion and hung at the World Trade Center in St. Paul for over a decade. 

I put making [art] back in my life. But even though I had committed to making art, I didn’t have time to be doing it. That’s when I started to live incredibly frugally, I learned how to maximize [my] property here and in Maine so I could generate some extra income and could retire early. . . . I’m doing it because I need to go back to my first love. Money isn’t everything. 

My biggest challenge is my age. . . . Kate [Renee] and I talk about this a lot. . . . Some things are the same and some things are not the same. . . . I was from Maine, so I went to New York City with my portfolio, which is what you did in those days. . . . [I contacted some galleries ahead of time and] there were several places that were interested in what I had to offer, . . . but when I got out there, they were not interested in what I had in my portfolio. . . . So, I don’t know if that casting couch crap still goes on, but it was definitely a reality check for me and this was in the early 80s when the Guerrilla Girls were first becoming active. They were my Girls. . . . When I am ignored or passed over, it diminishes my voice . . . and that’s what I’m interested in—empowering my voice and other voices of artists who want to change the world by using art as their delivery mechanism.

If you could meet your younger self somewhere and tell her about where you have been and where you are now, do you think she would believe you?

That’s a great question! I’ve had a difficult life . . . tragic divorce, familial addiction story and cancer survivor. I’m not a negative person . . . all the negative stuff that has happened has gotten me to where I am now. I’m in a very happy place right now. I’m excited about the contribution that I hope to make. . . . I think to my younger self, I would tell her to stand strong and persevere and don’t back up on your ethics. . . . I would say “lighten up” and don’t be so maniacal in terms of working because I was a workaholic. . . . Just kick back a little more than I did.

At Bridges' studio

What advice has influenced you or your art making?

Joining WARM at around 60ish as a protégé, after being a teacher and mentor for thirty‐five years, [influenced me]. . . . The first thing my mentor, Jill Waterhouse, said to me was, “In three sentences write what you’re up to, what your purpose is going to be here” and it was one of the most difficult assignments I’ve ever had because I wasn’t sure. . . . She and several other mentors said, . . . “Go away and really think about WHAT is it you want to do with this art.” When I came back, I said I wanted to change the world with my art. . . . She really forced me to sit down and figure out what direction I was going and that has been really valuable.

How do you know when you have been successful?

When a viewer, especially an uninformed viewer, tells me, “I never thought about THAT issue before I looked at the art and read the meaning of your work.”. . . I know I have been successful because that’s the viewer I’m after. . . . I feel as though that is who we have to reach, the uninformed viewer.

Does personal history make its way into your practice? How might who you are be reflected in your current work?

The fact that I’m a native Mainer and a Penobscot Indian definitely does. I have an affinity to the water and the ocean that could only be understood if you grew up on the ocean. . . . I am very concerned with what we’re seeing happening in our oceans as well as in our waterways. . . . My mother, being Franco‐American and Indian in Maine, the persecution was intense. . . . She grew up with this deep shame for that part of her heritage . . . and that really bothered me. . . . It gave me a connection to marginalized populations and a feeling of empathy towards them that I don’t think I would have if I hadn’t been raised by the woman I was raised by. . . . Ethnic cleansing happens all over the world to people who don’t have any power. . . . I have this mission about social justice. . . . White privilege is something that we don’t even think about it because we have it before we even open our mouths, even being a woman. . . . We know the rules . . . so, that part of growing up in Maine and the social justice piece definitely drives a lot of what I’m doing.

How do you identify yourself as a feminist artist?

Barbara Bridges

One thing that I’ve observed is that women seem to be the keepers of our history. We seem to be the ones that save the objects, . . . that have the shoebox of the kids’ camp buttons. . . . We tend to journal, . . . tend to keep the history. . . . It really bothers me that men seem to be empowered with their age and wisdom . . . [while] women become crones. . . . And I want to change that, . . . those perceptions. I’m trying to put something out there that’s going to cause cognitive dissonance, . . . that’s going to take ‘em and shake ‘em. . . . So, that’s the way that my feminist attitude plays out. I have never found it helpful to be slapping people in the face with my ideas, that’s never worked. My mantra: Everyone has an answer. Who asks a more beautiful question?



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