An upside down redwood tree is hanging in the massive gallery space of Pioneer Works, the interdisciplinary art and culture space that is a focal point for Red Hook’s thriving artistic community. Several feet away from the tree, a surreal sand dune-esque sculpture of a breast complete with elegant, erect nipple sits atop fronds of grass; toward the back of the room, a towering, oversized wooden bed spills pillows and sheets down a grassy slope.
These textile-based sculptures are the work of artist Molly Lowe, but they are only half the story; the standalone pieces function like totems to accompany the exhibit’s primary piece, a feature length film called Redwood. Though Lowe has been actively involved with sculpture, painting, performance, video, and installation for years, Redwood is her first feature film, one that was directly inspired by the onset her grandmother’s dementia.
“The film is inspired my grandmother who passed away last spring,” Lowe said. “She was 97 and had dementia, but still had her verbal skills so we could talk on the phone. We were very close and there’s a lot of crossover between me and her. She was ahead of her time, a super-talented painter and kind of a wild spirit. She married this guy from Fort Bragg and moved into a town full of men who were all poor loggers. So she was trapped there with her husband, who was depressive and eventually killed himself. I definitely had this thing with her, when she would talk about her past I almost felt like it was my past, and when I would talk about what was going on in my life she would inhabit that.
The film incorporates this spirit of shared memory into a vivid, stream-of-consciousness film that uses a series of hand-painted masks to represent the span of a single woman’s life from childhood up until death. In Redwood, all of these memories are siphoned from the dementia-riddled grandmother to her granddaughter, and as the strands of family mythology unspool, the collective experiences dissolves into an ambiguous swirl.
Lowe began shooting the film on location in northern California at her family’s ranch, Mayacama, just outside the city of Healdsburg. From there, she returned to Pioneer Works to shoot some of the more complicated scenes using the gallery’s third floor. Her grandmother died while Lowe was in the midst of creating the film, but she continued, driven to something akin to creative exorcism.
“We were in full swing when she passed away,” Lowe said. “My last solo show was a very labor-intensive installation, but the whole time I was thinking about the film. It was really because her memories were haunting me, I would close my eyes and see them and I just needed to get that out of my system.”
Fortuitously, one of Pioneer Works’ directors, Gabriel Florenz, was searching for an artist who could incorporate the full, enormous space of the gallery for some exhibits this spring. Lowe completed a residency at Pioneer Works back in 2014, so her work was already familiar to Florenz. And while Lowe had initially been working with another gallery to complete the film, that gallery lost its backing ability right around the time Florenz came knocking at Lowe’s Williamsburg studio last year.
“I had already started making the masks at my studio in Williamsburg,” Lowe said. “When Gabe came by, and when I started telling him about it and he was immediately like ‘Let’s do it.’ I was under the impression I was setting myself up for disappointment, but instead it was the opposite, he was like “we wanna do a big project and this sounds like it could be really cool!”
Pioneer Works commissioned the film and sculpture series, and Florenz said it was the masks that initially drew his interest, along with the idea of incorporating large scale sculptures.
“She pointed to a mask on the wall and she was like, ‘This is my grandma,” he said. “Then she showed me all these different, amazing masks she was working on. She started talking about this Kobayashi film Kwaidan that’s this Japanese ghost story, Tchaikovsky’s The Mirror, and these weird stream-of-consciousness narratives. I was totally hooked, and then she started talking about this 14-foot, large, grassy breast, it was the first sculpture that we discussed.”
As for the film, it’s a vibrant, 58-minute clip that plays in an adjoining darkened room just off the main gallery. Florenz said he thinks the cyclical nature of the film is part of what tempers the tragedy in the story.
“It’s a twisted and lyrical, very modern surrealism, but with a humorous pop influence,” Florenz said. “It’s sad and really dark. There’s tragedy, but almost as much birth as there is death. It became not just a dark, tormented thing about her grandmother’s past, but a beautiful cycle, which I think was the central theme of it being called Redwood. It’s like, ‘Hey, things die, but saplings are born right out of it.’ She is her grandmother in a lot of ways. It’s a film about memory and how we translate each other’s lives, and carry on each other’s lives. The feeling—the movie, for me—is how I think about memory and dreams; sounds linger and follow, you try to capture a moment, and it disappears into another moment. It’s this endless quest, one hole falls into another hole.There’s an unconscious narrative but the whole thing is very cohesive. At the end of the movie, even if you don’t know anything about the story, you understand the feeling.”
Part of the impetus to unpack the story of her grandparents was even more personal for Lowe; those of us with darkness in our past know that wading into the fear of it can be what it takes to dispel the mythology and fear that time builds.
“There are a lot of things that I twisted and made weirder because of my weird fear of them,” Lowe said. “It is tricky because a lot of the memories start at a true memory and then get really twisted. Some of them are ambiguous and combined with memories that I’ve had. I never met my grandfather and I have so many scary stories about him, but he was also a sweet person, and those genes are inside of me. So there’s a lot of it that’s just personal, like ‘what do I have inside of me?’ Exploring this story had to do a lot with confronting fears about scary things in the past that I didn’t understand, but also looking to the future. It’s a way of expelling the demons a little bit while showing strength.”
Redwood is running at Pioneer Works through April 24.