In Conversation with Portia Munson: A Feminist and an Environmentalist Voice Through Art

In Conversation with Portia Munson: A Feminist and an Environmentalist Voice Through Art

The Garden 1996-1998, mixed media installation. “Courtesy of the artist and P•P•O•W, New York.

The Garden 1996-1998, mixed media installation. “Courtesy of the artist and P•P•O•W, New York.

Portia Munson is a contemporary feminist artist who lives and works in Catskill, New York. Her focus on female sexuality and the environment through her sculptures, paintings, photography, and installations draws focus on the past and future experiences living as a female in today’s society. Portia’s large-scale installations of amassed pink plastic objects emphasize the way consumer culture has marketed to females as well as the environmental consequences by repeatedly acquiring such goods. In 2017, she had a solo show, The Garden, at PPOW Gallery which displayed her feminist and environmental works from the 1990s to the present. I'm excited to speak to Portia about her latest exhibition and what the future holds for her art.

Alexandria Deters: I really loved your latest exhibition at PPOW Gallery, The Garden, and found it a place of comfort after the presidential election. Your artwork has a strong environmental and feminist message, how did you feel having it open after the election? Did your works take on any new meanings for you?

Portia Munson: For me personally it was reaffirming to have such a positive response to my work after the election. The timing of the show being in the wake of Trump’s inauguration seemed to have crystallized the feminist and environmental dialogues that are an important part of my work. I think that there is so much meaning embedded in the stuff we manufacture, consume and throw out. The stuff comes loaded with meaning and through amassing, framing and organizing it into art works and installations, themes are able to be seen more clearly and  resonate. 

The Garden 1996-1998, mixed media installation. “Courtesy of the artist and P•P•O•W, New York.

The Garden 1996-1998, mixed media installation. “Courtesy of the artist and P•P•O•W, New York.

Your ongoing work Pink Project is a commentary on femininity, female consumption, and the environment. From its beginning in 1994 to the present, how have you seen it evolve? Have new issues arisen that you did not anticipate that have influenced the trajectory of this work?

I have always collected pink stuff. When I was a student at Cooper Union in the 1980s, I started to collect pink plastic objects as part of my art practice, at that time I was collecting it mainly as subject material for paintings. By the late 1980s in graduate school, at Rutgers, the Pink Project got its name and became a stand-alone piece. I exhibited an early version of the Pink Project: Table as part of my graduate thesis exhibition in 1989. 

Pink Project started as an investigation into female identity and sexuality as seen or dictated through ephemeral consumer commodities. By the early 2000s, I began to think of the Pink Project as an environmental piece. More recently the carcinogenic quality of plastics has become very apparent and important and is what inspired me to make Her Coffin.  

"Pink Project started as an investigation into female identity and sexuality as seen or dictated through ephemeral consumer commodities. By the early 2000s, I began to think of the Pink Project as an environmental piece."

Pink Project: Table 2016, pigmented ink on Hahnemuehle paper, 44 x 60 inches, edition 1 of 5. Courtesy of the artist and P•P•O•W, New York.

Pink Project: Table 2016, pigmented ink on Hahnemuehle paper, 44 x 60 inches, edition 1 of 5. Courtesy of the artist and P•P•O•W, New York.

Her Coffin 2016, plastic, tempered glass, and table, 22 ½ x 14 ½ x 70 inches. Courtesy of the artist and P•P•O•W, New York.

Her Coffin 2016, plastic, tempered glass, and table, 22 ½ x 14 ½ x 70 inches. Courtesy of the artist and P•P•O•W, New York.

My subway commuting experience was brightened when I saw your floral pieces in the NYC subway. Do you have any plans to make public artwork in other cities and countries; and if so do you want to continue with your floral works or with a different series?

I don’t currently have any active plans for public artworks but I certainly hope I will have the opportunity to do more. I love having my work out in a public setting where it is seen by more of an open demographic and not just an art audience. I can imagine making many types of work for public places including floral pieces.  I like the idea of bringing elements of nature and gardens into an urban setting by making work that can give the urban dweller a reminder of the inherent beauty and calming quality the nature.

NYC MTA Arts for Transit, Bryant Park MTA Station, Portia Munson. Photo by Rob Wilson/MTA.

NYC MTA Arts for Transit, Bryant Park MTA Station, Portia Munson. Photo by Rob Wilson/MTA.

Your art practice is famous for its use of the color pink and the meanings and emotions it can evoke. Your next series Contents of a Whale’s Belly is going to focus on blue plastic objects, what made you want to shift to this color? 

I have not stopped working with pink. Most of my work is made up of ongoing series that I continue to work on simultaneously. Working with blue plastic came out of thinking about the color pink in terms of societies gender coding, “pink is for girls and blue is for boys”. But when I looked closely at what is mass produced in blue plastic, and that plastic enters the waste stream,  I saw that the majority of blue plastic was not marketed at boys or men but was associated with water. 

I was interested in making work out of blue plastic because I believe that the environment is the most dire issue of our time and for me it is inseparably linked to feminism. If we cannot respect the environment and where we live, then how can we as a society respect each other/women/minorities...

I am currently working towards a solo exhibition at Disjecta in Portland OR. I will be creating a large floor piece out of found/discarded blue plastic titled Flood but it could have just as easily been titled Contents of a Whale's Belly

"If we cannot respect the environment and where we live, then how can we as a society respect each other/women/minorities..."

'Hibiscus', NYC MTA Arts for Transit, Fort Hamilton Parkway Station, D Line, Portia Munson. Photo by Susan Alzner.

'Hibiscus', NYC MTA Arts for Transit, Fort Hamilton Parkway Station, D Line, Portia Munson. Photo by Susan Alzner.

'Hibiscus', NYC MTA Arts for Transit, Fort Hamilton Parkway Station, D Line, Portia Munson. Photo by Susan Alzner.

'Hibiscus', NYC MTA Arts for Transit, Fort Hamilton Parkway Station, D Line, Portia Munson. Photo by Susan Alzner.

Besides Flood [Contents of a Whale’s Belly], are there any other projects you are currently working on? 

I’m currently working on a painting series based on the Pink Project and a drawing series based on the Functional Women. As well as other sculptures related to the Functional Women project.  

Feminist artists are starting to finally be recognized in the art world and in the mainstream for their contributions, what advice would you give to a young feminist artist today trying to establish themselves?

Keep at it! Follow your own passions and interests, stay true to what really matters and excites you personally and always be open to new ideas/observations. You will keep working if what you’re doing is a type of creative nourishment. Do not edit yourself in terms of what someone else might like or think. 

Lastly, don’t be a consumer of the given options. Take responsibility for creating not just your work, but your world. We are all creating or making up our lives, so why not make it a really good one, make it beautiful and thoughtful. You are the future of the culture!

"Take responsibility for creating not just your work, but your world. We are all creating or making up our lives, so why not make it a really good one, make it beautiful and thoughtful. You are the future of the culture!"

Functional Women 2016-Ongoing, found objects, dresser and table, 69 x 40 inches. Courtesy of the artist and P•P•O•W, New York.

Functional Women 2016-Ongoing, found objects, dresser and table, 69 x 40 inches. Courtesy of the artist and P•P•O•W, New York.

Follow Portia Munson on Instagram: @portiamunson

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