In Conversation with Artist Pae White
Pae White, a Scripps College alumna, revisits Claremont, bringing with her a new masterpiece. As she unveils her latest installation in CMC’s Mid Quad, a project steeped in reflection, White shares her personal journey and how she came to use CMC as a canvas with interviewer Miller McCraw ‘24.
In past interviews, you’ve mentioned artists from your youth that inspired you. What drew you to your particular style and how did you get there?
That’s interesting. I think one of the things that was really important for me as a kid was to take classes at the Pasadena Art Museum, now the Norton Simon. They had classes that weren't traditional drawing or painting where you had to emulate something realistically. It was just about materials. You could make stuff with tissue paper or fabric, you could make a building. It was just very, very open. There wasn't any hierarchy. And then when I went to Scripps, I also had that experience with one of my most favorite teachers on the planet named Paul Darrow and he also didn't expect you to be able to draw or paint very well. It was really just a mixed media experience, which is great for me. That opened up the world for me to make stuff out of anything and that has meant making work that's more architectural, making work that's very small and made of paper, making watercolors, making textiles, 3D prints.
And making this piece at Claremont was an opportunity. You know it originated in Venice. When I was invited to develop the project there, they said the people who are inviting you have a relationship with the glass craftsman in Murano. I thought, Oh great. If anybody could open a door for me with Murano glassmakers I would do it because I'd never really worked with glass. I just saw the opportunity. Even though I could have done anything I wanted, I thought, well, this is part of the process. Project materials, project forms are led by very unique and different situations along the way; I try to find the best possible ones that would be mutually beneficial.
Was there anything that surprised you about the medium, it being your first time working with glass?
Yeah, I was surprised. The glass is cast in metal molds and then goes into an oven. If it cools too quickly, it cracks, if it cools too slowly, it bubbles. The cooling process for something of this scale took a long time. It's something I'd never thought about, but when you have this kind of stuff needing to cool, you also need space. So those are certain variables that I had never calculated, which is why we could not do it on Murano, because nobody has that kind of space. So we ended up at an industrial facility, but that was a surprise, is that it's not just the making of the thing, it's the curing too.
A lot of your work seems to focus on the ephemeral. Do you think that glass was a good way to embody that? What do you think draws you to that phenomenon?
There's certainly a sort of permanence with glass, but what I did like to play with is this brick — this kind of material that asserts itself as something very practical, that's used to create stability or protection or architecture, and to make that assumption about that material out of something that is absolutely in flux. It’s a structure that might feel like it's made up of colored fumes, but it's supposed to feel formidable and floating, hence the clear ones on the bottom. I want it to feel like the density of colors just might be suspended.
So building on that transience, I saw that the inspiration behind this piece was the Gualala River.
Yes. I'm very interested in Jeffersonian walls, too. They have a kind of curvature that's self-supporting and in this piece I wanted to not have any kind of visible support other than the glass itself. So it was a combination of references. Actually, the piece was originally titled Pomona, just because it was a word that I felt was robust and felt like a seasonal change. I don't know, it just felt right. And in the Venetian dialect, it's a really terrible word.
Yeah, I can't even say it, it's so bad. Like, I can't even believe a word like this exists. The original commissioners said I needed to change it. So I named it this other thing that had a kind of lyricism in your mouth, like Qwualala, which is the original Pomo Indian pronunciation of the Gualala River. It's actually Qwalala, I pronounce it Kualala, but the Pomo call it Qwalala, like a Q. Little did I know the piece was going to end up in Pomona. It's so bizarre. I should have named it Hana Maui or something. The Gualala River reference is somewhat secondary.
At what stage of the project did you realize it was going to be at CMC?
It was years after it was installed. I think the original was up for two years before this discussion started to happen with the curator of the projects at CMC.
Did the project come out the way you initially imagined it or was it a build-as-you-go process?
It came out even better than I expected. It's definitely the same footprint as what was in Venice, but we were really strategic about making sure that it wouldn't be such an obstruction too. So we positioned the doorways, the Mayan doorways, in such a way that it was the maximum flow location between the dorms. There's that kind of passageway that would enable the students to get through the piece so it wouldn't be an obstruction, but there would be almost like this kind of very nice interaction, this very nice flow as the students go through this kind of gateway. So it wasn't a change, it was just a different orientation to maximize that opportunity.
In terms of the coloring on the structure, was there any specific way that came about? Was it just a part of the creative process?
When I was invited to develop a project in Venice, I went to a museum of ancient Roman glass. There was this interesting color story that was taking place there that I probably borrowed. These glass antiquities had a sort of a different color array than I'd ever seen. So I really kind of lifted from that. Especially the aquas for sure.
There's a quote that I stole from our CMC news press release where you say that colleges are a place to make art more interesting because they're home to minds that are inquisitive and open. What do you think is particularly special about building them here?
Having been in college, I know that this is where the brain is sort of the most expansive. The brain is really thinking of so many options, opportunities, people, it's the most extraordinary experience. Sometimes you wish there's a way to go back, to get back to where things are alive and feeling fresher and new. And so to have that kind of an audience is great. I think with having those kinds of minds interacting with the work in that kind of state, it's really optimum.
Of those four years of development, was there a moment that was the most rewarding? Was there a moment that was the most challenging? Is there anything that really sticks out in those four years as a pretty pivotal moment?
The big challenge was the earthquake requirements in California are very different than what's determined in Italy. The piece was actually supposed to be installed a year ago, and we had an adhesive that wasn't curing, But the most rewarding was to see the piece lit. We never lit it in Venice. That was the most extraordinary thing for me to see was the lighting test for sure.
Yeah, absolutely. Almost everybody I know comments on how beautiful it looks lit up at night. So I completely agree. It really is stunning with the lights.
That's so great.
As students at the 5C’s, it can be really easy to get bogged down in the day-to-day. Do you have any advice for aspiring artists here? Any advice on how to emulate your success or your unique vision?
I went to schools where art was considered an elective. And I always knew it was something I wanted to do. Don't let that prejudice you against the seriousness of it as a career. It's been an incredibly rewarding, also quite frustrating and challenging career, but you must believe in yourself.