When botanical illustrator and dancer Meredith Feniak and photographer Risa Friedman joined forces as We Were Wild, an artist collective of two, they wheat-pasted their sly imagery on buildings around Denver. They later moved their practice within the limits of the law as part of RiNo’s Crush Walls, and recently used their art to document the time-ravaged Hut, a Park Hill home slated for demolition that still had a few stories to tell. The resulting installation wove imagery, history and art interventions into a multimedia reverie on the relationship between buildings and nature at Alto Gallery.
What’s next for this busy duo and their photography, collage, drawing, installation and performance? Learn how the founders of We Were Wild view their world and their practice as they answer the Colorado Creatives questionnaire.
We Were Wild: The city. Alleyways, cracks in walls, graffiti layers and plants growing up through man-made structures inspire us every day. Most of all, we find the overall life cycle of architecture and how it interacts with nature fascinating and worthy of exploring in our work over and over again.
People are cool, too. We both held a longtime interest in making street art, but it was the collaboration between Agnès Varda and JR showcased in the film Faces and Places that made it impossible for us to wait any longer.
Which three people, dead or alive, would you like to invite to your next party, and why?
Since we are two people, we will throw a larger party, with six dream guests.
Architect artist Gordon Matta-Clark will tell us more about the giant site-specific interventions he created and documented through photography in the 1970s.
We will share parenting tips with Ruth Asawa and then discuss craft as an art form and the amazing shadows her sculptures cast.
Definitely James Baldwin. He was so eloquent. We kinda just wanna listen to him talk, but would more specifically love his take on current American politics, especially issues related to gentrification and urban renewal.
It would be amazing if artist Mark Bradford would explain his process of making large-scale art from materials he finds in his immediate surroundings, including his use of layers.
We’d show street photographer Vivian Maier the current appreciation for her work and ask about her interest in capturing images of people in everyday life.
Dancer and choreographer Martha Graham! We’d ask about her bravery in changing her aesthetic over time and the brilliant collaboration she did with Isamu Noguchi.
The abundant sharing of ideas with a focus on process over product. For example, Koko Bayer shared her process with us as we first learned how to wheat-paste, and she’s still a mentor. We feel a lot of support here. We actually named our 2019 Crush mural that we completed with Anthony Garcia, Sr. "Tight Knit," because of the weaving pattern we incorporated, but also as an homage to our tight-knit creative community. The quick embrace of We Were Wild blew us away, and we appreciate the continued support and encouragement we’ve gotten as we try out new ideas and methods.
We’d like to see more constructive criticism in the Denver art world to help us all grow and get better. We’re happy to see there are more people willing to take on the role of art reviewer, such as in Genevieve Waller’s new art magazine, Daria (dariamag.com), but there’s still room and a need for more.
How about globally?
The best is how social media, especially Instagram, opened doors for national and international opportunities and networking. We find inspiration from work being produced all around the world, and constantly send each other exciting art pieces we’ve found online.
Risa Friedman: My favorite day during a recent trip to Italy was meeting up with Anna Masini, a Milanese illustrator friend I met on Instagram. My online crew of mostly female artists is as strong a support as the people I see regularly in person.
Meredith Feniak: My grandmother was an amazing artist who would be an Instagram goddess, so I’m always on the hunt for work that reminds me of her. Textile artists, figurative artists and miniaturists who share their process on IG are irresistible. The worst is Instagram.
We both love it. We value the small-town feel and enjoy running into friends at every art event we attend. At the same time, Denver is big enough for us to regularly learn about new artists we don’t know. We also dig that there are enough warm and sunny winter days that we don’t have to completely stop working outside during the cooler months. That said, we would love to see more funding to keep artists living and working in Denver. Maybe there could be a tax break that helps fill empty spaces with art studios and/or that allows established local art organizations to stay open despite rising property values.
What is We Were Wild all about?
When you bring together a botanical artist [Feniak] and a photographer of architecture [Friedman], you end up with a duo dedicated to exploring the dynamic relationship between the built environment and nature. We view ourselves as documentarians of the stories contained in individual buildings and architectural salvage. One of our goals is to make people look at things they normally wouldn’t spend time thinking about, and to see that everything, including buildings, have lives. We also share a passion for gluing stuff to other stuff. And cutting! We love cutting holes in everything — from small fragments of paper to giant crumbling walls.
It would definitely include funding to buy large, strong, loud tools. We loved working in the old home featured in our recent Alto show, Reconstructing Western Landscapes, and would be thrilled to do something similar with a different building. We dream of finding a new old space in which we would create site-specific art to ultimately feature in another gallery show. This time, however, we would use our new hefty tools to cut bigger holes and remove more significant chunks of wall and other architectural components to create art pieces and tell the story that emerges from spending time in the new space.
Who is your favorite Colorado Creative?
We adore Kelton Osborn. He experiments and breaks rules yet maintains a very recognizable Kelton aesthetic. His work is bold and has a grit to it, and he often surprises us with his masterful color choices. We connect with the elements of his art influenced by his previous career as an architect. His strength to continue working in between chemo treatments inspires us to work harder and not let our own personal health issues stop our practice. Bottom line, he’s a great dude and a great artist.
We are excited to curate a show at Alto Gallery, hope to participate in Crush Walls again, and are in the process of scheduling shows for 2021. We have recently created two large pieces for wheat-pasting on outside walls. One is taken and will go up this spring (more on that soon) and the other is available (any takers?). We’d love, love, love to find another building to use in one of our upcoming shows, and will continue teaching wheat-paste workshops.
Feniak: I am planning a solo show at Colorado Impact Fund and a few new botanical murals. Performance and dance continue to inform my practice, so I’ll be researching somatic movement theory more, especially while I refine techniques for ethereal charcoal murals. I will also continue teaching and designing new curriculum for the Denver Botanic Gardens' new classrooms opening this spring.
Friedman: I’m organizing and co-curating a traveling statewide maternal and child health-focused photography show for the Colorado State Department of Health. I also have a couple of residential photography installations in progress and want to experiment more with manually altering my photography prints — incorporating color theory, cutting and folding.
Who do you think will (or should) get noticed in the local arts community in the coming year?
Knowing and embracing your art’s imminent demise is unusual in an age of endless conversations around archival materials, so we are always drawn to other artists who are true observers of the life cycles of both man-made and natural beings. There are three in town that blow our minds:
Sacred Thistle’s mother-daughter pair Sydney and Cornelia Peterson work with cut flowers (including foraged clippings), a medium with a short lifespan that parallels the fleeting nature of our work with paste and paper. Their asymmetric arrangements mimic natural landscapes and truly feel wild and powerful enough to take over the nearest skyscraper. We also admire their individual artistic practices: Sydney’s mosaics and Cornelia’s wood carvings.
Alicia Cardenas creates fascinating ancient-inspired murals using recycled paint exclusively. Alicia is an indigenous artist and legitimately informed by her extensive anthropological research. She is also a badass business owner, tattoo and body-modification artist, mom, community activist and a Denver native. Oh, and she’s really freaking funny.
Learn more about Meredith Feniak and Risa Friedman online at meredithfeniak.com and risafriedman.com.