In Conversation With . . . Susan Malmstrom, Part I

Art, History, and Nature in the Tapestry of the Grand Design

Susan Malmstrom is an artist specialising in digitally produced photography. She grew up and studied in California, received a Master of Fine Arts in Visual Arts from the University of California at Irvine, and has lived in Canada since 2004. Her life’s work manifests a sense of wonder, curiousity, a love of memorablilia, an obsession with strangeness, and a delightfully twisted sense of humour. (Check out her amazing collection of portfolios here.)

Her current project, The Repository of Wonders, is a travelling exhibition built around the fictitious remnants of a 19th museum collection “inherited” from Dr. Mycenae T. Consonant, daughter of an Egyptologist and an archaeologist, who earned degrees in archaeology and art history before she embarked on the lifelong adventure of building her own museum collection, and travelled the world to collect artifacts before eventually going down with the Lusitania. Susan Malmstrom, now the museum’s curator, recently took the time to answer Wanda Waterman’s questions about what brought her to such an unusual undertaking.

“Through art, the relics of history, and the detritus of nature, we may glimpse the tapestry of the Grand Design? however fleetingly.”
– Dr. Mycenae T. Consonant

What first piqued your interest in museums of oddities and curiosity cabinets?
It was probably a segue from a youthful interest in “freaks of nature.” I was born with a physical deformity that required surgery at age 12, and this fostered an obsession with “freaks” and “freak shows.”

What elements in your childhood and early years pointed you toward art?
Becoming a reader at a very early age, which fostered curiosity. You can’t be an artist without a true, bone-deep sense of curiosity and the initiative to follow that curiosity wherever it takes you.

For your Repository of Wonders you take on the persona of a curator of a long-existing collection. Was that your first idea or did it evolve?
It has really evolved. The whole thing started as a bit of a joke. I was given the opportunity to exhibit anything I wanted in an artist-run centre in Nova Scotia in a space that measured exactly 9 feet by 9 feet. The idea came to me in the middle of the night that the perfect thing for that space would be a Victorian-style museum with as much stuff as I could possibly cram into it.

It was so much fun and was so well received that it took on a life of its own; It’s had five formal showings (in larger spaces), and has several sub-series within the overall installation.

What is it about your character and background that makes this kind of art project possible?
First and foremost, my inability to get rid of odd objects. Even after I’ve already used them in an art piece, I can’t part with them. So I write stories for them and formally accession them into The Repository.

What was your most beneficial educational experience?
For this installation it would definitely be the years I spent working as an administrator for an actual museum. I fall back on that constantly and work it to The Repository?s advantage. This includes how a museum is staffed, how didactic signage is created, and how installations can be interactive and educational.

What or who in your training had the most?and best?influence on you, as an artist and as a human being?
I would definitely say that as an artist that that would be my teacher/mentor and now Repository collaborator Elizabeth Kenneday. It was so important to have a female photography teacher who served as a role model and who also believed in me and in my work.

What is the significance of the latest exhibit of the spare eyes of Francine Descartes?
It was one of the most fun discoveries I’ve made in a long time. For each of the exhibits, first and foremost, there has to be a good story. And there has to be some element of truth, based in research, for each of the stories.

For the Rene Descartes one, I had this spooky set of glass doll eyes that I used a couple of times in my work and that still sat in a glass jar on my desk. I had always wanted to use them in the museum but never had a good story to go with them.

One day, during some unrelated research, I was reading about Descartes’s obsession with automatons (elaborate dolls with mechanisms that made them move and do things like write or play an instrument). The automaton was part of his overall philosophy of the inner workings of man, which was extremely controversial for his time, as can be imagined.

One of the biographies I was looking through mentioned a story, likely apocryphal, that said that the mechanically inclined Descartes had created a substitute daughter for himself after his real daughter tragically died at the age of five. Pursuing the story, I found it mentioned in a couple of places. At last there was a good base story for my glass eyes.

Note: Dr. Mycenae T. Consonant was a real person who died when the RMS Lusitania went down. Susan Malmstrom is also a real person. The Repository of Wonders is real and can be seen at Ross Creek Centre for the Arts in Canning, Nova Scotia, until August 28.