Fifth-Year Emerging Artists: Paddy Mittag-McNaught on using materials to elicit experiences

The Olaf Messenger is running a multi-week series on the Fifth-Year Emerging Artists (FYEA) at St. Olaf. The program allows artists to create and display artwork, use St. Olaf studio space and remain in community with current students. This week we feature Paddy Mittag-McNaught ’20.

On what he’s been working on

I love to work with materials. I don’t work representationally. I don’t try to copy objects. Instead, I’ve realized that I like to use materials to try and elicit experiences. Right now, I’m really into bending wood and exploring wood as a material, experimenting with what it can and can’t do.

I think when I work with materials and don’t think about copying a particular object, it’s like painting a still life versus thinking about what I can actually do with the object, producing an image. It becomes a really individual and real experience. Like when you walk up to a sculpture and look at its texture and the way it moves — that is a non-representational experience, in the way that it is an abstract representation of a real thing.

On his decision to pursue the FYEA position

I decided to stay an extra year for several reasons. First, the spaces at St. Olaf are extremely unique and rare to have as undergraduate students. For example, we have a full lithography studio, and the wood shop is just beautiful and has great light.

I also think COVID played a large role. At the time, the program offered something solid, especially since it was so hard to find a paying job in the spring of 2020. In short, the program offered stability and became a great opportunity to continue making art even in uncertain times.

On the effects of COVID-19

I think the most challenging thing about the program right now is making work without the structure of a class. What’s probably more difficult is the really weird COVID vibe on campus. Not even just on campus. It’s the COVID vibe everywhere. While the other artists and I were here for all of December and January, we were lucky to have studio space, but it got lonely at times, since it was only us — us and Public Safety. We even started to befriend the Pub Safe people just because we’d see them locking up.

COVID makes it harder to reach people. Like gallery openings: they just kind of slide under the table now and nothing really happens. It makes me sad, because there is such an art to a gallery opening ­— there’s food and wine and your friends are there giving you high fives — but it’s especially frustrating if you’re an artist trying to show work. Right now, openings are such a major thing that we’re missing out on, because we’re also missing an opportunity to show and develop our work in a formal setting. Art is best viewed in person, and it’s tough that we can’t offer that in-person experience.

On the other hand, I can now send a Zoom link to people who live in different states and countries — people completely on the other side of the world — and they can come. My grandma can come, which is amazing. But it just doesn’t feel the same.

On his favorite project(s) so far

I really enjoyed the capstone work I did for my major. I have a background in construction and woodworking, so I made 59 of these stools which I call “V stools” that were all made with dry joinery techniques, which means that there weren’t any screws or glue holding a piece together. After all of them were made, I stacked them into a cylindrical shape so you could walk into it, although originally I didn’t have any plans for how the installation was going to look, simply because there was so much chance involved with the work. I ended up calling it “Community” (pictured at right) because — long story short — I have this obsession with modular objects and things that build off of each other, like bricks. For example, a brick in and of itself has its own characteristics, but 3,000 have a whole different set of qualities. That modular element reminded me a lot of how communities work.

I made that piece in April and May, when the COVID stuff was all new. Since then, I think the piece has only grown more important, especially with the death of George Floyd back home in Minneapolis where I live. When I watched that community form, I saw a really cool transformation when things came together.

I ultimately decided to donate all of the stools to an organization called Colloquate Design, which focuses on justice through the arts. I ended up raising about $2,000 for this group, which is amazing. Currently, the last of the stools are still going out to people. The piece’s meaning just keeps transforming, and it’s not done yet. It’s going to keep going, it really is.

On what the future will hold

Honestly, I don’t know. I will need to think more about this after I finish the program. I do plan on getting my master’s in architecture at some point, and I know ideally I would like to work for some sort of creative group that deals with design in all of its facets — graphics, buildings, furniture, everything. In general, I think I’d like to find somewhere that’s not as cold as Minnesota and hang out there for a while.