Interview: Sasha Bush on Block, Paper, Scissors


Sasha Louis Bush’s Block, Paper, Scissors opens Thursday, March 2, 2017 at the ICP-Bard MFA studios from 6-9pm.  24-20 Jackson Ave, LIC

Timothy Briner: Your photographs in Block, Paper, Scissors are rooted in a formal nature, depicting playful, yet educational elements found in the classroom. What is your thinking behind approaching this subject in a formal and structured way?

Sasha Bush: I’m attracted to geometrical shapes.  As a result of this work, rectangles, circles and triangles have been on my mind for a while.  I know these three classrooms well having visited them once a week for about a year.  Spending time in these spaces, I’m engaged in a process of looking deeply, a searching for something beyond the familiar.  I see these shapes repeated in endless variations.  But there’s also a constraint or limit to what you can do with them.  There are only two ways to orient a rectangular sheet of paper on which the kids make watercolor drawings, either vertically or horizontally.  The tension between possibility and limitation has served as a generative place from which many photographs have emerged.

TB: Leading off my last question, why did you choose to create work using Black and White film?

SB: I began making photographs in black and white.  Midway through my first year, a conversation with one of my classmates prompted me to work in color as well.  This medium reveals the vibrancy and excitement of the children’s drawings and paintings.  There’s a noise and energy level that radiates throughout the room.

In thinking about my solo exhibition my relationship to the work changed.  My interest moved towards thinking about the role of uncertainty inherent in teaching and learning.  I don’t want to provide answers but am more interested in asking questions.  As a fellow student, all of us have to sit with the unknown and make decisions on a gut level.  On a given Friday a child chooses to play with blocks instead of clay.  I choose to photograph scrap materials instead of the reading area.  Neither of us may be able to explain our decisions.  The process of creating, learning and teaching can be a contradictory one, at times happy but also frustrating and challenging.  My current aesthetic with black and white inhabits this space.

TB: While creating in the classroom, you work around the students as they learn and play, and although I feel their presence in many of the images, I’m curious why you choose to leave the children out of the frame of your camera?

SB: My relationship to these classrooms has evolved.  I’m uncomfortable with saying that they serve as my studio.  But I’d say that it’s a place both children and I come to and use for our learning where their activities often mirror my own.  I’ve knocked into a table’s edge and bumped my knee more than once.  It’s a reminder that this is not a space designed for adults.  I’m too tall.  I’d like you to look closely at my photographs as I do with the spaces themselves.  But in order to do that, I need to know them well. Not just from a quick scan of the block area, but really get down and look closely.  Before I include children in my photographs, I needed to ask what does an activity look like from their perspective?

TB: Something you wrote recently intrigued me, you said, “Children repeatedly return to the same towers of wooden blocks, drawings and paintings. If I know the beginning and ending of a story, what can I learn about the middle?”  This may be answered via the photographs themselves, but I’m curious what you were able to learn about the middle of the building process and how it influenced your work.

SB: To start with, I think of classrooms and schools within a linear framework.  Students complete each grade at the end of the year and move up to the next one.  Considering my photographs as stories, I’m more interested in the middle.  With the beginning you’re headed in a distinct direction.  With the end you look back and see where you’ve come from.  But the middle is where you can go in circles and turn around.  This is a place of not knowing exactly what you’re doing or why you’re doing it.  This relates to my interest in repetition, something I’m still exploring and working through.  As it relates to the kids toys and materials, the middle of the building process is one in which you can enjoy the engagement with materials on a physical and tactile level.  The wooden blocks are fun to stack one on top of another and it can be enjoyable to get you’re hands dirty and paint with brushes or crayons.

TB: Although the schools you attended are not Montessori schools, I get a strong connection to the mission statement that Maria Montessori created over 100 years ago.  Montessori promotes a model where students learn concepts from working with materials, rather than by direct instruction, and have the freedom to move around the space freely to build and explore.  What was your early education like?  Is this project inspired or influenced by your experiences?

SB: I didn’t go to a Montessori school but a similar, small private school.  The educational framework was progressive and has heavily influenced my outlook both in my practice and more generally speaking as a student.  The emphasis as you say was on learning through direct experience with materials.  The approach was also that each student has his or her own distinct way of learning.  This is an aspect that I’m only beginning to flush out in my work.  But by emphasizing the middle stages of creating, processing and building, I’m subtly critiquing the idea that standardized tests are the best and only way to evaluate a student’s experience.  I want to be clear, I value public schools and think it’s important to have a gauge for how students are learning.  But there’s a certain accounting that comes with standardized tests, data and numbers that in my experience, has a disconnect to the actual engagement with materials.

TB: You mention that the tension between possibility and limitation has served as a generative place from which many photographs have emerged.  Can you talk more about this?

SB: I like repetition as it gives me a certain amount of comfort.  In my practice, I need a strong framework of constraints to work within.  For example, bringing two rolls of film to use on a given morning in a classroom, only spending an hour to make pictures or just going to three classrooms.  Within these limitations, I find I have a lot of freedom to take chances, risks and to explore. There’s an appeal for me to taking pictures of rectangular blocks because there’s only so much you can do with a wooden block.  The material itself has a limitation.

TB: I’d like to know more about the inspiration for the sculpture in the show.  This was a collaborative effort between you and your father, yes?  This seems to me to be a nod to the conversation about the teacher and the student in the classroom.  You are also using some of the building blocks that are used to make the photograph in the sculpture, just as you are using the blocks and paper and chairs, etc. in your work that are essential learning tools in the classroom.  I’m thinking of the darkroom developer trays used in the sculpture.  What other materials are used in the process and what was your inspiration when conceiving of it?

SB: The sculpture was actually made with my grandfather’s help.  Over the years, he has made similar sculptures for each member of the family.  I wanted to make a piece that was inspired by his work.  I wanted to make a 3D representation of a gelatin silver print as it develops in a traditional darkroom.  I don’t consider myself a sculptor and in fact, I made this piece before I started the program.  But it was a useful process for the kind of thinking I was after.  It’s made from scraps.  Many of my current photographs are made in the art room and are also of scraps, extra pieces no one would notice.  I didn’t at first.  But after much time in the classroom, I started honing in on these small corners and bits and pieces throughout the room.  This was as a result of searching, a game I’ve played while in these spaces where I’m searching for something that draws my attention even if I’m not sure exactly what that is.

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