Zoë Frederick: Softness Is Powerful Too

By Debbi Kenote

Zoë Frederick, Armor, 2016, bedsheet, cotton, muslin, thread, dye polyfil, 39″ x 44″ x 35″

Painting? I ask myself, as I sit across from Zoë Frederick, taking in her sculptural-concoctions that fill her small studio at the School of Visual Arts (SVA). I have seen the soon-to-be MFA graduate’s work online via social media and her website, but never in person. When I ask Frederick if she still sees herself as a figurative painter (as her site suggests), she explains that while she still gravitates towards painting and the mindset that comes along with, she has recently ventured into other territories. I look around further. A tennis ball sits in a pair of fleece-lined boots (toes touching) and large red X’s sit on a shirt made of linen hanging on a mannequin. There are more curiosities: a large, charming blob plopped in a corner and a strange sacramental suit of some sort made out of what looks to be a beach floaty. Although I come up short in the search for painting, I find myself in a much more interactive and amusing world.

I have long held the belief that it is the job of the artist to get under our skin. I enjoy work that is un-apologetically honest and that arrives at a place of synergy, work in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Frederick’s work certainly falls into this category. A subtle humor peeks out from each creation, as if to offer a quick wink or a slight smirk. Her departure from painting, diving into the deep end of zines, soft sculpture, and video, appears to be a natural fit. Traditional tools are not forgotten, as is evident in the building up of texture, color, and line through sewing and manipulation of surface. I would argue, however, that the unusual use of traditional craft materials and technique is born out of a place of necessity. After all, these are not traditional times. Frederick’s attention given to the body, ranging from wearable amorphous shapes to the appropriation of clothing and mannequins, evokes a history of femininity that is certainly in need of re-visitation in 2017. One need look no further than the streets of Washington DC, New York City, Los Angeles, or any other city in the country this last weekend, to understand why. The punchy-pop-reality-tv narrative used by Frederick highlights many all-to-real and immediate social concerns.

“I’m writing about this relationship between Trump’s non-reality, or altered-sense of reality, and the truth. And trying to connect it also to reality television, and lumps.” (laughter) “Still working on it.” -Zoë Frederick

Debbi Kenote: When did you begin making art and how do you think growing up in Virginia shaped your formation as an artist?

Zoë Frederick: So I come from a family of artists. My grandparents were artists and all their children, pretty much, were or are in some form [artists]. Both my parents are potters. So, for me it is a lifestyle that I didn’t necessarily choose and it was part of my upbringing. But, I do remember very distinctly calling my mom when I went to college, and being like “wow I really want to do this.” I had a painting class and it was the first time outside of my home, it was the first time–I grew up in a rural town, so it wasn’t like I had a great art program there–so it was the first time outside of my home where I felt challenged and excited about making things. But yea, I think I was really lucky to learn that art is a job. My parents went to their studio every day, my grandparents lived in a big loft in New York and it was pretty hard to go to the studio because it was one big room and it wasn’t a separate room. My grandpa, until he died, went, every day, 9-5, take a break for lunch. Even if he wasn’t doing anything, he was sitting there in his space. So yea, I think that was really important for me. And then, also, the craft-fine-art-conversation has also been a big part of my upbringing. Because my parents make objects which are functional, I think I have a different viewpoint on things like craft than other people might.


Zoë Frederick, Artificial Frills, 2016, fake gourd, rope, tulle, hair ties, tutu, thread, cotton fabric, polyfil, 13.5″ x 23″ x 20″

And you’ve made some art work about your Grandpa, correct?

Actually that was my other grandfather (paternal, non-artist) that I recently made work about, and he was a lawyer, but he took photographs as a hobby. And when we cleaned out their house we found all these nudes he had taken that we had never seen. He worked in the city and he would rent a studio in Times Square and take shots for women, sort of like head shots, and in exchange they would model for him. Which I guess was more normal at the time. When I first found them I was like “oh God, these make me so uncomfortable…” but I think that people were taking that sort of glamour photography all over the country and there was less of a critical response to that.

That’s very interesting, so it sounds like in some sense you come from creativity on both sides?

Yea, and I had never thought about it being on my dad’s side, because they were the more conservative family, so it was sort of exciting to realize that there was a strain of that too.

I noticed on your website that you said you see yourself as a figurative painter, and you also make soft sculptures and zines. I’m wondering how those all come together?

It is where I come from, so I am still constantly thinking about the figure and the body, and also, I feel like I did this in my painting too, I’m always looking to abstract it, and suggest it, rather than be literal. And maybe that’s what figurative means now in my work. Not only is it referring to the figure, but it’s also versus literal. That’s another way to think about that word.


Zoë Frederick, Hurly-Burly, 2016, pleather, tulle, acrylic, thread, polyfil, gutta, mannequin, leather, cotton, dye, indigo, 68.5″ x 30″ x 21″

So more like organic, or amorphous, sort of thing?

Yea, you know, there are elements of painting in the work I’m doing now, but it’s less obvious I guess.

And how often do you make the zines?

Well, whenever I have time. It is something I really love doing, but right now I don’t feel like I’m going to be making any this semester. Although, we have to make a catalog, for our thesis, so I have been thinking about if I could make that a zine or am I going to be too stressed and I’ll just send it to staples or whatever and they’ll print it. But we have this risograph machine across the street, which is what I made all of them on and it’s just a really lovely type of printing, because it is this soy based ink, so it’s sort of transparent in comparison to other inks. And it has really nice color, and is pretty easy to figure out how to use.

Have you taken them to anywhere to sell, like Desert Island…?

I haven’t, and it’s one of those things that’s been on my to-do list. Sometimes when you’re using a new medium you still feel a little, you know, unsure about it. So I’m like: would people really buy these? I don’t know…(laughter)

Zoe Frederick, 2016, I’m Zen With BenA Bachelor Zine, self-published, 18 pages, 2 color riso, edition of 20, 4.5″ x 6.5″

That sort of leads into my next question, what does painting mean to you? I’m curious what excites you about the medium and the history it comes from, and to add on to that, as you are moving more towards sculpture… how do you feel about that and how you fit into the history of sculpture…?

I feel like it’s where I’m always drawn… if I’m in a show I look at the paintings first. But, at the same time, I’m feeling challenged by being in this MFA program at this time, to move away from that. I think that’s where I feel comfortable, right, the image is a very comfortable place, even if it’s abstract, it’s still the most legible thing for me. So, making video, I feel like I’m stepping into this world I have always avoided in a way. I often would not watch videos in galleries, because it didn’t elicit the same internal reaction for me. And I’ve really been pushing myself to stop that too, to give everything time, because I feel like that is what being in grad school is, sort of letting yourself take the time to really look at things. So yea, I think the history of painting and the gesture, and the color, and all of that, is so central to my identity, but I’m also trying to shift and be open to taking it all in. And it’s really hard for me, to tell people that I make sculpture, because I still don’t identify that way, and that’s been a funny experience.

Yes and soft sculpture sort of has a funny place in the sculpture realm…

Right. And I don’t think of myself as a fiber artist, because those people have an intense knowledge about the material, that I would have to spend more time at a very specific place to understand, but yea, really I tend to say I make soft sculpture right now. Because everything has changed so much in the past year and a half that I’m like, I don’t know what I’ll be doing, in two years, you know, which is fine.


Zoë Frederick, Brave, 2016, Braves tee shirt, thread, polyfil, polypellets, 26″ x 15″ x 9.5″

And you also use writing in your work. I don’t see a ton of it in here, but online I noticed some zines, and with the Lactation pieces in particular, is that writing something that will be continuing on?

Yea, right now I’m thinking about where it fits in, with this work, like I think it’s maybe just in the titles for these, but I have thought about how text could be in these video pieces I’m doing, in terms of an audio track, so that’s an exciting direction to explore. But I feel like writing for me is more right now, the process. I went to Sarah Lawrence, and all you do there is write, and read, which really worked for me, and I think people would probably agree with me that everyone leaves as a writer. So yea, I think reading and writing is so much of where I start my work, that even if it’s not present in the work, it’s still there. My sketchbook is mostly writing, there’s very few drawings right now.

And does your writing ever take the form of poetry? Or is it more like short-story or essay, or just the titles, phrases?

More like phrases and note-taking, reflection. But yea, I sometimes write weird little things too, it’s sort of all over the place. And I think that’s what I really love about zines, is that it can be image and text and totally weird and nonsensical and that’s sort of how my brain operates anyways.

Zoë Frederick, Crafty, 2016, fake gourd, pompoms, cotton fabric, thread, polyfil, faux fur, stretch tinsel, ribbon, wooden crates, silk taffeta, polypellets, 36″ x 15″ x 12″

So, through the writing you also use personal narrative. And you talked about your grandpa that you made work about, how do you go about navigating that? I imagine it can be challenging at times.

Yea. I mean I think I really believe that everyone starts from the personal. And even if that’s not clear in the end product, we’re all operating from, our collective…eye. For me, I think the biggest challenge is how do you know if your personal history is relatable, or is communicating this sort of greater idea. I’m always trying to choose elements of my personal life that are speaking towards a bigger issue. So, you know, I have this series I did about my maternal grandfather dying and dealing with his art and his life and my family, and it was really about grief and loss. And even though the details were very specific to what I was going through, when I showed it to people I felt like I could really sense this connection that people were having with the work.

And you were at the Women’s March, correct? Do you think you’ll be making any work about that?

Yea, this work is very much connected to the election, and I had a really hard time figuring out what direction to go in, after Nov 8, just because it felt like I was already making work about the female identifying body and so, I was like, ok well now how does this work shift, and I think that was galvanizing, I’m sure for a lot of people. So yea in my thesis I’m writing about this relationship between sort of Trump’s non-reality, or altered-sense of reality, and the truth. And trying to connect it also to reality television, and lumps. (laughter) Still working on it. It’s a little all over the place right now. My last series was about The Bachelor [reality TV show], and so I really do feel like there’s this thing about reality TV involved in the election and our truth, and non-truth.

Women’s March 2017 with Aya Rodriguez-Izumi, Zoë Frederick and Kelly Gallagher


And tell me more about the “Bachelor” piece/ series.

Yea, so that was about demonizing women’s emotions. So a lot of imagery of women crying on the show. Those were my first soft sculptures, so they were more image based, it was sort-of like paintings on fabric that then I stuffed. I also made some quilts and some abstract rose-thorn pieces.

And were these direct imagery you took from the scenes of the Bachelor or more like interpretations of feelings you had after watching it?

The imagery was directly drawn from stills of the show. I watched the whole season.

That’s impressive.

(laughter) I made a zine about it and then I made all this work about it.  Because I really felt like it was an amazing correlation to how we think about romance in hetero relationships in our day-to-day lives and in society. And also, how we treat women when they’re emotional. Like, there’s just this fascination in the show, with watching women break down. And it doesn’t really…people watch it in different ways…some people are judging it, some people are laughing at the women, some people are actually feeling emotion too and are also crying. But yea, that sort of plays into the election too. This idea, you know, that Hillary’s too emotional, Hillary’s not emotional enough, it’s just how we’ve oppressed women for so long…diagnosing them with hysteria, or madness. I think it’s a topic that has a lot to mine.

Zoë Frederick, Engaged to the Patriarchy, 2016, bedsheet, faux fur, polyester slip, polyfil, thread, oversized coffee mug, GearTie loopable twist ties, 12″ x 14″ x 15″


It seems very relevant at the moment. Would you say you see yourself as a political artist?

I mean that’s such a hard thing. People hate that question I’m sure. (laughter) But right now, I feel like I’m making political art, which is unexpected for me. I mean I’ve always made feminist work and I think that is inherently political, but it felt like an off-shoot, it felt more like: you can interpret this as political if you want, but this is just my life and what I believe. But in the current moment I think feminist thoughts, work and lives are political just by being.

So my final question is about influences, but I’m also curious, going back to the history of painting and sculpture, and wondering how you see yourself fitting in as a woman? And if you do, if it’s challenging?

Yea, I think that’s why I was always drawn to using fiber. Similar to craft, you know, fiber also has an issue of being relegated to a non-fine art practice. Because it was primarily done by women. So it feels like a really good language for me to work with. I think that there’s just still so much room for growth in terms of representation of women in galleries and museums. We can’t ever stop trying to make all these different voices heard. I’m just always amazed reading female writers from the 70s, like Adrienne Rich and Hélène Cixous, and it’s like the shit they’re dealing with, in that writing, is exactly…well there are some things in the writing that I’m like ‘ehh I don’t know about that,’ it’s not as inclusive, but anyways, I think it is still full of things we are thinking about right now. Which is both sometimes frustrating and comforting, to read those texts and be like ‘yes, that is how I feel right now.’ And the piece I’m reading by Hélène Cixous, is all about how women have to write for women. We have to make our own literature, we have to make our own art. Because no one else can, and that’s a definite sort-of call to arms that I still feel is true.

Zoë Frederick, I’ve Come Undone, 2016, display torso, baseball cap, zipper, fabric spraypaint, linen, thread, oil paint, acrylic, 35″ x 17″ x 7.5″

And influence wise, do you have any other influences you want to share?

Yea, I’ve been thinking about Ann Hamilton’s work a ton this year. I went to see her show in Philly, she did this amazing publication with it, that I just keep on my desk because I go back to it again and again. She’s a person that writing is so central to her practice, and then she made this beautiful thing, sort of like a zine, it’s looking at history, all these archives, that she re-interpreted. I’ve also been reading Agnes Martin. I saw that show twice actually because I saw it in LA this summer and then I saw it here, which was really a funny experience, I think the Guggenheim was much less suited to her work. Let’s see, I mentioned Jessica Stockholder before, I’ve been looking at a lot of costumes too. Like the Bauhaus ballet costumes and debutante balls and the mardi gras indian costumes, I’m not sure if you’ve seen them before, but they have insane feathers and all this crazy beaded work, and really bright colors. Sort of like the same crafting colors that I’ve been finding, like the neon pink and blue. And then Dorothea Tanning, whose work I had never stumbled across before. She made these really weird…she was a surrealist painter, but she also made sculptures that were these sort of bodily stuffed things, and there’s this one really great one that is like a couch that then becomes this amorphous person. She was making surrealist painting from the 30s on and was married to Max Ernst, but it feels super contemporary. I’m always looking at a ton of stuff, but those are the highlights.

Zoë Frederick (b. 1989, Warrenton, VA) is a multidisciplinary artist interested in the portrayal of feminized emotion, handicrafts, and reality television. Zoë received a BA from Sarah Lawrence College and is presently an MFA candidate at the School of Visual Arts. She has shown in New York, Philadelphia, Italy, and London and participated in residencies in New Mexico, Maine, and Brooklyn.

Zoë Frederick: Softness Is Powerful Too

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