Paula Hayes is a force of nature. Born in Concord, Massachusetts, and based in Athens, New York, the visual and landscape artist has spent nearly 30 years designing outdoor sculptures, botanical installations, and private gardens with Mother Earth as her muse.
Known for her living terrariums, which enclose small ecosystems in hand-blown glass orbs, and her colorful stalagmite-shaped Gnomes, Hayes turns the art community’s attention away from the gallery and toward the garden. Her work has appeared in New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the Aspen Art Museum’s Crown Commons, and Taipei’s Museum of Contemporary Art, but each piece is made to withstand the outdoors. Using natural materials such as bronze and clay, Hayes creates durable objects that evolve with their surroundings.
In February 2018, she became the first landscape-artist-in-residence at the Baltimore Art Museum. I called Hayes at her 1780s Hudson Valley home to find out about her nostalgic relationship with upstate New York, her exciting dinner guests, and how she and her husband Teo are using drones to capture her latest work.
What drew you to the Hudson Valley?
The Hudson Valley is really special. It’s got this beautiful quiet vibe, so when you live here you let your armor off. I’m from up here and then I lived in [New York City] for 30 years. I was in the city yesterday and I have to be extra careful that I don’t get hit by a bike or something worse. I’m used to the quiet [now]. I also have my gardens here. Being very close, attached, and in them is an important thing. Being away from them is hard.
There is something about this particular town in that it is almost unchanged from the ’70s—though the house I live in is from the 1780s, and my studio is [from] 1860 and it’s three feet away. It’s very uncommercial. We have a nice bakery, a brewery, and there just isn’t a lot to buy here so you don’t have that overwhelming aspect of the city. I love that there are no malls, no advertising. I’m hearing all the crickets and the birds, as opposed to traffic. Flights are so high that you don’t hear them. It reminds me a lot of when I was a child. It does attach me to the landscape of my childhood—the soundscape. It’s the same kind of light and vegetation.
You’ve been an outdoors person since childhood. Was there a moment you realized that nature could be integrated into art?
I was on my horse, probably around [age] 12 or 13 and I came across this field of sculptures. They [belonged to a] family that had a farm in Montgomery County. I was dumbfounded. They were landscape but they didn’t have any other purpose but to be arresting to all my senses. They were doing something to the landscape that was so amazing.
What did they look like?
They’re not like any of the sculptures that I make. They were metal and tall and in uncut field. The family [who owned the sculptures] was from this area and they were amazing artists. Even though I was a farm girl, I was exposed to art.
How did that experience lead to your work as a landscape artist?
I went to Skidmore College and I studied textile art as a weaver. I had to be outside, so I had to find a body for this ethereal growing thing. I wanted to put [nature] into something that you can see through that was delicate but strong.
Hence, the living terrariums.
It was the opening—I had seen a lamb birth, so [I envisioned that] the terrarium side entry was womb-like. That was the thing that started this. To see [terrariums] proliferate in the culture was really wild for me to see. It was amazing to see them touch a nerve with the culture. It was this tribe of caregivers that elevated it in a gallery. They were in publications and in galleries. They were seen in the context of art. They were meant to go out and be free and replicate. They sort of accomplished what they needed to do.
I hear that you divide your time between Brooklyn and the Hudson Valley. How do you fulfill your outdoors fix when you’re in the city?
[My husband Teo and I] recently cut the cord to Brooklyn. We decided to let go and be here to fully immerse ourselves. We are nomadic New Yorkers. Now, we’re doing these big dinner parties [in Athens] where we host a writer, curator, or artist, and they stay in our studio. The social aspect of being up here is just great. People come from different parts of the area for a feast.
Who have you had over?
The list is getting long. We recently had Robin Cembalest, who is an Instagram influencer, Stephen Petronio, he’s a choreographer, and Marysia Woroniecka, one of the partners of Maria Cornejo. They did the shoot for the brand’s fifteen-year catalogue.
Sometimes it’s tours. The Denver Art Museum came this summer for a tour because one of the curators, Rebecca Hart, has a home here. They visited the studio and the house.
The house is also an art installation. The historical context works well for my work, actually. We were living in an art installation in Brooklyn, but it was on the thirty-fifth floor. It was a whiplash between the art installation in Brooklyn and Hudson. We’d have tours there. The bed would become the place where we’d have paintings. The terrariums were all over. We had a tour for The Cultivist. It was wild. Then for bed, we had to move things. Teo has to live in my mind. We collaborate, but I don’t know if he totally signed up for that. Every place we’ve lived in ends up being an art installation.
Many artists and designers are precious about the maintenance of their completed projects. You, on the other hand, let your work become enthralled by nature over time. How do you relinquish control to Mother Nature?
Control is a good word because it’s at the essence of [my work]. I see myself as a transformation artist—I transform something into something else.
Like your apartment!
I’ve been doing that since childhood. When I was seven, I would rearrange my mother’s friends furniture. That’s kind of how I roll. It’s fluid. I don’t like anything to be static. I’m always moving things around. I’m photographing my garden all the time. I can’t imagine anything just staying the same. I, of course, can’t think of choreographing every single thing. Everything that’s in motion has to come through that energy.
With plants, it’s like, “Grow the way you want it to.” With that said, when it’s in a terrarium, I would say that it would look better if the glass was really clean. It’s not about abandonment. There is a continued interaction on my part by observing. I’m making a decision. Is that control? The conductor in me is making a decision at one point. So I’m relinquishing it, but I’m having fun. I really like the point I’m at right now where I’m letting go in a bigger, deeper way and I’m really enjoying that right now.
I’m interested in learning more about your new artist-in-residence role at the Baltimore Art Museum.
The Baltimore Museum of Art is still kind of a secret thing. It’s such a big intervention. It’s one of many things that I’m doing where I’m working with a historical building. I live in a historical district, and it’s interesting that the work that I’m doing has a relationship to respecting the historical building. My goal is to connect the landscape of the museum to the city of Baltimore. It’s the “Front Porch of Baltimore.” I’m making the landscape more inviting and usable to the city of Baltimore and we’re working to do that. Baltimore is a fantastic place and it’s very sad when you hear negative things about it. How can anyone say anything about what that city is doing when it’s energetically working? I would say that this is one of the ways that BMA is trying to make this a connected city. I am very honored to be part of anything to do with the BMA and to be part of the museum is such a great honor.
You mentioned in a recent interview that you crafted the clay models for Gnomes with your hands, after several years of making models from 3-D programming. What made you switch to the old-fashioned method?
I’m working less with technology, other than small drones, but that’s because I want to get up high, but not with an airplane. I also want to go down low. I want the mobility and see the relationship between macro and micro. There are other things that I make first in clay. I want to form something cast in tried-and-true bronze that can outlast weather. As the seasons change, the focal point is changing. As the plants are changing, there’s something that’s meditation-like that marks a place, and the Gnomes are like that. They go into the landscape and they’re activated by nature. They change the material in some way, but the plants are all amongst them. They’re activated by their environment.
There was a period where I used CNC models, but now I need to be engaged physically. I think it’s being here. [In the city], there’s always a layer between you and someone else. Here, there’s more direct contact. It was a return to where I began, like with weaving. It’s so beautiful to work with clay, liquid bronze, and patina. I love doing the whole process of it. It’s ancient and beautiful and surprising. I love how it changes.
You mentioned capturing your work with drones. What materials have you been experimenting with lately?
I have this garden with a lot of flowers [called] “The Uninhibited Garden” from a house that was abandoned. [The previous owners] didn’t keep the lawn or do things with the backyard. For instance, all the wildflowers that grow here, like black-eyed Susans and corn flowers, all the things that pollinators like. I’ve amplified it by adding things that attract pollinator butterflies and bees. There’s this kind of freedom associated with childhood and that exists here. That’s associated with what has been amplified with the work that I’m doing. I’m not growing [my garden], it’s growing itself.
We just did a film on the website. Teo does sound and video work, so he did that with me art directing it. He did the actual editing. That’s how we collaborate on many things. I told the drone operator, “Just be a pollinator. Just fly up and see the river, and have fun.” He looks at me and said, “Really?” It was really great. For an hour, he was just a pollinator. Part of it’s in the afternoon and part of it’s in the morning. That’s really my direction and my pathway with gardens now. All that is free that we are losing as opposed to gardens as status symbols. You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. That’s what I want to be an educator and a promoter of. Doing video and seeing it from all different angles and soundset and other sensory ways to communicate this experience that’s not about the framed image, a still image, the objectifiable, something that’s static or a status symbol that one can own. It’s about freedom and seamlessness. So, I’m doing it from this backyard in this little town.There’s nothing high status about it—it belongs to the beautiful Hudson Valley.
Living here, you really see the migration of the birds and the butterflies and the interaction of all the animals affected by the climate crisis. Because we live in this particular town, it’s almost like you’re slowing the film down and capturing it. I feel like I’m really starting to get at it, amidst all this everyday Whac-A-Mole world. On the other hand, I feel like I’m really getting to the heart of my work through my childhood.
Speaking of the climate crisis, do you feel there’s more necessity for your work as our natural resources begin to dwindle?
Absolutely. That’s where the excitement is. You could be in denial or care even less because you feel helpless. I think that one of the reasons I’m really excited about coming to this place at this time is because it could matter! The climate crisis creates a condition that probably more human beings can see what I’m talking about [when I look] at weeds and say, “Oh my god, they’re real and they’re free!” There’s still something real.
I think that all of the doom and gloom can set the conditions to see something that wasn’t visible before that can be amplified. It’s happened before with the terrariums. People were like, “Oh my god, I must have that. I can take care of something that size.” It was like the biosphere, escaping into that world. It’s a decorative object that’s not spoiled by human beings. It was kind of at the beginning of that fear, but now there’s no place to go. What I’m trying to say is be free! Doing less and getting more of what exists already. Let’s all kill less, consume less. We see that nature does things on its own. It’s all there.
It all goes back to the battle of freedom and control.
The things will just find their own balance. Trust it.
Paula Hayes is a judge for the 2019 GRAY Awards. To get your tickets to the event, taking place on November 20 at Seattle’s Nordic Museum, visit grayawards.com. To enter your project before the August 23 deadline, and learn about entry categories, go to grayawards.com/submit.