By Anna Mirzayan
For an artist interested in the possibilities of space, it seems fitting that Sidney Mullis’ studio is in the basement of a converted church. As we go through the doors down to her studio, the journey still invokes hallow memories. Small ornate windows stand alongside large arched wooden doors— there is even a gargoyle carefully watching as we pass. Mullis’ studio itself is a modern steel and concrete rectangle in premeditated contrast to the aesthetics around it. Most of the space is taken up by several of her large and bizarre installations that seem to reach out as you enter, inviting you to touch their points, joints, and protrusions. Her materials are carefully tucked away in buckets beneath large shelves and tables littered with smaller works. One table houses a sewing machine, surrounded by scraps of the black pleather she is fond of using.
Daughter of an army father, Mullis moved around a lot as a child. She spent her childhood years in Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee, and North Carolina, and attended undergrad in Virginia before moving to Pennsylvania, where she now resides, for her MFA in sculpture. In the rural South, the gender roles and scripts assigned to her weighed heavily, and she became very attune to how social expectations changed and became more rigid as one aged. This first awareness informed the interest of roles and expectations that she now attempts to point out and subvert in her work. As a teacher of both studio art and art writing at Penn State, Mullis is keenly aware of the position of authority she occupies in the classroom. As in her art practice, she attempts to break down these power dynamics and focuses on having fun in the classroom. As a teacher, Mullis said she quickly learned that the worst thing she could do in adult space was “be childish,” so she asked herself why can’t silly “be here,” in this space?
Her work focuses primarily on recreating childhood spaces where one is free to create and imagine, asking how we learn the rigid roles we perform as adults and why we acquiesce to them so readily. She uses craft materials and processes, like sand, paper pulp (as in Purple Bush with Knuckle), Styrofoam and dried macaroni, along with unusual materials like gravestone dust (which she uses as a binder), and insists on doing everything by hand, to evoke the playful creation of childhood. Figuring out the processes for using the materials is itself a recreation of childhood play. The sand that makes up large pieces like Three Thumb Secret Keeper harken back to sandboxes and sandcastles and are part of Mullis’ goals of making landscapes as play spaces. The ingredients for the treated sand itself are kept under wraps like a childhood secret. The small spheres she uses as embellishments are made from individual wax grapes that are filled like molds and then cut apart one by one— a super laborious process that evokes the tension between play and tedium.
Mullis stumbled across one of her more macabre materials by accident. She was looking for somebody to drill rocks she collected to use as counterbalances for her trees and thought to try a longtime family-owned gravestone carver as a last resort. They broke every rock. However, the carvers were using leftover gravestone dust to cast small sculptures (one of them even made teeth for dentists on the side) and offered Mullis as much of it as she could carry. Mullis says she was fascinated by the joyful way the carvers created new objects from leftovers. Although losing a life is not quite the same as losing a tooth, both processes create some form of existence from death. “Parts of you die, parts survive,” says Mullis. Life is full of transformations. Her use of materials like gravestone dust to make playful objects reminds us that childhood is linked not just to joy but to loss as well. It is important to memorialize the dark and the difficult, and not to paint childhood with the rosy brush of nostalgia.
Her use of materials like gravestone dust to make playful objects reminds us that childhood is linked not just to joy but to loss as well.
Mullis makes sure to lean into the dark and the strange in her work. The center of her studio is populated by two large trees merging into an arch. The denizens of the “Forest” are made of starfish-like pillows made of black pleather. Because of the sensual material, adults who wander through the wood often read sexual innuendo into the works, associating them with queerness, leather, and BDSM. Mullis explains that she was more interested in the disorienting juxtaposition between the objects as pillows and their spiky appearance; however, she is also quick to remind us, pleasure is playful.
The works oscillate between attractive and repulsive, strange, and familiar. Some tower over the viewer, creating the scale of childrens’ vision, while others are toys that are strewn about the space, waiting on the ground to be discovered. The studio is an alluring sand and paper monument to the dwindling arts of childhood imagination, in both its joyful and nightmarish valences. Moving through Mullis’ invented spaces is a surprisingly intimate experience. She hovers on the periphery, allowing me to discover at my own pace. In the end, she gives me a small resin and gravestone dust keychain—one of a set made by squeezing the material until an impression of her hand remained— a memento mori, she says.