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Alison McNulty, BFA '01

Alison McNulty, BFA ’01, was one of three recipients of the 2022 Stone & DeGuire Award. In this Q&A, she recounts her creative practice, relationship with materiality, and the artistic value of investing in her own studio.

Q&A from November 2023

Where are you and what are you working on these days?
I’m based in the city of Newburgh, in New York’s Hudson Valley. I’ve just concluded an on-site project called “House Project: Newburgh.” This multimedia project engaged with a severely neglected house through the Artist-in-Vacancy initiative in Newburgh, a residency project through the Newburgh Community Land Bank that evolved over several months. I just finished documenting the project in its last stages, which included documenting at different times of day, through the shifting seasons, and finally collaborating with other artists to activate the installation and channel the deep histories of the site through sound and poetry. Now I’m moving objects and materials from the installation site to my studio, where I will continue to work with those material traces and the various forms of documentation for exhibition in a more accessible space and less ephemeral forms.

I also teach part time at Parsons School of Design and I am the gallery director at Ann Street Gallery, which presents contemporary art exhibitions and programming under the nonprofit umbrella of Safe Harbors of the Hudson. At the gallery, I create programming that engages community and promotes forward thinking, social and ecological responsiveness, and under-represented positions in contemporary practice.​​

How do you characterize your art practice?
My art practice is multifaceted, working in both traditional and nontraditional spaces and across media, and my projects often have a series of iterations. Much of my work is site-responsive or place-based. Sometimes that means I’m in an abandoned or neglected architectural space, while other times I’m working in the landscape. I bring traces from those explorations back to my studio, which may become works on paper, sculptures, or even documentation. All the work seems to begin with a curiosity that arises from noticing something material that is both fragile and connected to a place and time, often something that makes itself known and felt in my everyday life. I characterize my practice as an investigation of the ordinary, which I think can tell us so much about our lives and values.

You mentioned “traces.” What qualifies as a trace for you, and how does it show up in your work?
To me all materials, and even phenomena, are traces in the sense that everything embodies its histories — socially and ecologically — and is continuously transforming. There are always processes that led to this moment coming into being and about to be slightly different, and there’s value in observing the particularities of things and how they change over time. I am most interested in traces that are precarious in form and perhaps even shifting from a namable to an unnamable identity. The traces I work with can be from my body, like hair or eyelashes; architectural remnants, like wood flooring or dust from breaking-down bricks; or produced by nonhumans, like spider webs or parts of plants that are being shed. Buildings can also be traces of social history, neglect, lived experiences, and natural processes.

I think about my hair as a trace of my body, and also as a trace of passing time, of mortality, of lineages, as coming from one body and also having DNA from longer histories. I try to think like a geologist and break down layers across time. I work with traces in ways that tense extreme material ephemerality against materials or forms that suggest different cycles of human time and geological time.

Another example is the bricks I work with. There’s a social history: who made them, which is interwoven with immigration, the labor movements, and technological innovation. There’s geologic history: how giant ice sheets ground down the mountains as they moved through the region during the last ice age, leaving thick deposits of fine blue clay powder and sand that were later dredged from the Hudson River, combined, and formed into bricks. There’s the industrial history: the way the Hudson Valley’s brick-making industry changed the natural and built landscape. To look at an abandoned or neglected brick home is to see those bricks breaking down again, literally becoming dust again. I work materials like this in an attempt to reveal some of that history and the continuity and simultaneity of cycles.

Inside McNulty’s studio

Bricks are a main feature in your “Hudson Valley Ghost Columns.”
This is an ongoing series with eight iterations of hollow columns made of historic Hudson-Valley-made bricks and wool sourced from a Hudson Valley fiber farm. I’ve built them throughout the Hudson Valley and broader New York. From the late 1700s to the early 1900s, there were hundreds of brickyards operating here, and none of them are making bricks anymore.

The bricks and wool are dry-stacked; it’s just gravity and friction holding the columns together. In between the bricks, instead of mortar, there’s wool, which is another important industry in this area. The form of each one varies somewhat — some have little windows, some are reminiscent of chimneys, others resemble smokestacks, some appear to be coming apart, more like ruins. They’re on a scale that’s bigger than furniture but not quite architecture; they confront you in a way that’s just a little larger than your own physical scale.

There’s a contrast between colors, qualities of light and heavy, soft and hard, animate and inanimate. The wool gives them a more animate, more bodily, more animal feeling that’s unusual for architecture. My hope is that they feel ghostly and strange so that people come closer and investigate.

Much of your work the past year has centered on a significant art/architectural project with Newburgh Community Land Bank. How did that come to be?
Newburgh Community Land Bank (NCLB) is a local non-profit whose mission is to stabilize and revitalize abandoned properties in the city and create more equitable community. Through an initiative called Artist-In-Vacancy, NCLB opens properties that are being held for eventual renovation as temporary sites for aesthetic research, creative intervention, and community engagement. My residency project involved creating an evolving multimedia installation and architectural intervention in a severely neglected house using materials and images collected between that site and the Newburgh waterfront at the Hudson River.

This project is a good example of how I can use my embodied practice to sift through the layers of histories and connections that emerge in the (de)materialization of a site. There was potential to do something really experimental and logistically difficult in terms of how and where we usually experience art and what we might even consider of cultural value — I can’t even believe that I got to do it, to bring people into an architectural space in this state and ask, “what is the value of witnessing it?”

House Project: Newburgh, facade (image courtesy of Alison McNulty)

How did you approach working with “House Project: Newburgh”?
There are subtle and bold gestures in this house made by time, weather, animals, entropy, and accumulations. I’ve been able to experience it over a long period of observation, and then respond with a series of architectural interventions, material arrangements, objects, sounds, and illuminations — literally bringing in light in the form of opening apertures in the structure, illuminating fissures, breakages, and holes that are being knit back together by vines or spider webs, and projecting videos that emphasize the ecological entanglements of the house and the site within its broader landscape.

I thought a lot about the house as a body, and all the bodies that comprise it: tree bodies in the joists or floors, red iron oxide mineral bodies in crumbling brick walls, insects and spiders and birds who inhabit the bones of the house. There are all these great architectural terms loaded with metaphor, like “sleepers,” “sistering,” or “shoring up,” that have helped me perceive the house as an ecological space full of sacred relationships, and in its state of coming apart, to also draw closer to an experience of home that includes a broader sense of human habitat on the earth. I think often of Georges Didi-Huberman’s writing in Being A Skull, where he thought of dwelling, “…not as that which we inhabit, but that which simultaneously inhabits and incorporates us.”

My focus for the on-site part of this project was in making an experience that invited visitors to witness and be witnessed, to move slowly enough to notice the particularities of something as ubiquitous as dust, and to take seriously the agency of the house, the delicate balance of things, and the value of our attention to the ordinary. It was so interesting to watch how people would adapt to moving more slowly, especially considering they had to sign a liability waiver to enter. They immediately became more aware of their bodies, other people’s bodies, and the space, because the stakes were changed. I wish we could incorporate that awareness, engagement, and sense of an exchange into more galleries and museums.

What else did you notice as you worked with this project?
There was a lot of grief that unfolded in the different scales of neglect of the house, the neighborhood, the city, the earth, but also glimpses of resilience and mystery that I hoped to coax out or draw visitors toward.

People often asked questions about what I made versus what was already there. That was the question I wanted them to be asking, and then dismissing. The question of authorship ties into the broader context of the house as a connected, ecological space. My feeling is that it doesn’t matter if I did something deliberately or if nature and entropy did — we collaborated on it. If I’m working that collaboratively with natural processes, that feels like an important part of my job.

It’s been more than a decade since I was able to find a space in which to work like this. In the best way, we’re kind of confronting the edges of what we know or can know, how we might relate differently, how might we grieve, what meaning and grace look like amidst collapse, what art’s role is in all that. It’s pushed my understanding of what an art practice can be, or how it might serve. Even in the most basic way, what’s the job an art practice should do? I feel like I confronted that question repeatedly in this project, and invited others into that really messy process and open-ended exploration.

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House Project: Newburgh

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House Project: Newburgh

How has the Stone & DeGuire award affected your practice?
This award has done huge things for the possibilities for my work and propelling my career, and my sense of how I can sustain my art practice moving forward. Much of the award went towards securing a designated studio space. Over the course of a year, I was able to strategically make a practice that is visible, professional, and accessible to others. Before having this studio, inviting curators into my living space, or trying to have a group studio visit when the group couldn’t fit in the space, were very limiting factors. Having this dedicated space allows for larger, messier, multiple projects, plus the tools and equipment to make them. It’s increased my visibility in the community and improved how I’m able to network and pursue large-scale, on-site projects.

The award provided a supportive cushion of both confidence and resources. There are so many significant ways the award provided material support: tools, equipment, technology, materials, transport, assistants and collaborators, and a physical work space. And it was also a buoy in the way it empowered me. It shifted the calculation of risk. It bolstered me to make the commitments required to propel me into the next stages of my career. It’s so thoroughly transformative to know you have the support of an institution you respect and to have it backed up with resources.