Judi Harvest is an American artist who works mainly with sculpture and is primarily concerned with environmentalism, craftsmanship, and preservation. She has studios in New York and Murano, Italy. Her installation, ‘Room of Dreams’, shown at last year’s Venice Biennale, was a quiet, elegant meditation on space and fragility. Her glass pillows garnered her a reputation for bold gestures delivered with sophisticated simplicity.
Art Zealous caught up with her in her Chelsea workspace to talk about her upcoming projects and her practice.
AZ: Tell us about your background?
JH: I was born and raised in Miami, Florida, I currently live and work in New York City and Venice, Italy. As a child, I painted and drew and enjoyed building tree houses and go carts, things with motors that moved. I also kept small bugs as pets and won the Smallest Pet contest often in elementary school. I did many projects not typical for a little girl but my family did not discourage me, thank goodness. Those mediums are still part of my work. Growing up mainly outdoors in Miami, is probably why my work is concerned with nature, gardens and honeybees.
I have a Masters of Fine Arts in painting. I studied at Tyler School of Art in Rome, Italy, the School of Visual Arts, New York and Urbino, Italy, New York Studio School and the Art Student’s League. From 1987-92 I lived and worked in Venice, Italy and studied glass making in Murano. Concerned with the ecological issue of Colony Collapse, I became a beekeeper in 2006. My exhibition during the 2013 Venice Biennale, titled “Denatured: Honeybees + Murano” united my interests in the importance of bees to human survival and the love of glass as a medium. I create sculptures, paintings, videos, and installations. I believe there is no difference between art and life.
AZ: What’s your morning routine like?
JH: I am not a morning person, mainly because I love to work at night! I walk to my West Chelsea studio along the Hudson River and see people, dogs, delivery trucks and construction sites and all the things that make up this crazy, exciting and difficult city. Then I enter my studio which is a refuge of peace for me. I can work 24 hours and not notice until it gets quiet and dark outside. That is when I focus and get the art done
AZ: Your studio is in a factory building?
JH: I have a little corner in the studio. First of all, they don’t really let women work on the glass, it takes four men to work the furnace. It’s a little like a dance – they don’t say anything, they just pass the baton between each other. It’s very heavy – it took three people to lift one of my pillows. But I’m there for every step. I mix the color of the glass; I have oversight. And I film it – so it’s part of my work.
AZ: Coffee or tea?
JH: I have a 6 cup espresso maker at home, the original Italian espresso makers that go on the stove top. I do not like the capsule routine; I feel it adds more pollution and recycling things. Having lived in Italy, the espresso maker on the stove is a kind of ritual. I like that continuity and ritual. It is old fashioned but it works for me and hearing and smelling the coffee rise up is a Proustian moment and always brings back good memories. I make a six cup giant cappuccino in a huge French coffee cup. That is it for coffee each day. I like tea in my studio when the weather is cooler or rains. I raise honeybees, so fortunately I always have real honey on hand. Both from my Murano Honeybees and my NYC rooftop Honeybees.
Honey is an art unto itself, the bees and flowers create it. As beekeepers, we are recipients of this gift they share with us. I do not take much honey from my bees but it is important to take some as they live to work and making honey is part of their work. Taking some of their honey gives them more space to create more honey. Like when collectors purchase art, there is more room in the studio to create. Honeybees and artists have a lot in common.
Art Zealous: We’re intrigued by the bees. Tell us about the role of bees in your work?
JH: Well, bees are endangered. If we lose the bees we lose 350,000 crops – they’re responsible for pollinating that much of our food. So the bees are fundamental to our existence – they’re fragile and taken for granted. I started taking a beekeeping class, and making art about bees in about 2005, when I heard about colony collapse disorder.
AZ: So you’re trying to raise awareness for the issue, as an artist?
JH: Yes, of course – I think a lot about preservation, in fact when I was working in Murano with the glass blowers, whose industry really is being decimated, I thought, ‘here are the bees going through colony collapse, and with the glass blowers it’s very similar.’ When I started working in Murano, the factory had 75 workers. Now there are 4. The bees make everything with their own body – everything’s made from flowers – and glassmakers make everything from within themselves because of the tradition, and the skills, are passed down from generation to generation. I kept seeing so many relationships between the two that I couldn’t stand it, and had to make art about it. I found this abandoned field near the factory – we excavated the glass, we bought soil, we brought four beehives from another island. I was doing this on my own, my Kickstarter campaign failed, but it worked! The bees adjusted quickly to the garden, and the men in the factory really couldn’t believe that I did this. It has helped a lot – it’s brought awareness to the bees, awareness to the factory.
AZ: What is it about glass that you love?
JH: I love working in Murano with the glass masters to create my sculptures. The privilege of working with the magical, historical medium of Venetian glass furthers my belief in the fragility of life and the search for beauty, the central theme in all of my work.
AZ: Do you listen to music while you are creating?
JH: Yes, I listen to Jazz and any dance music as dancing is also a passion of mine. To create the latest Waggle Dance paintings, I began the works by painting and dancing on the canvas on the floor of my studio. The Waggle Dance is the honeybees form of communication to inform the other bees where the flowers are. We should all communicate by dancing.
AZ: Zodiac sign?
JH: I am Pisces. March 7th. Being a water sign explains a lot. Both NYC and Venice are islands. I am happiest looking at or being near the water. I have a liquid sense of time which is why Venice works for me. I also love to swim, like all fish. Astrology is a passion of mine, and I check my horoscope every chance I get.
AZ: How does craftsmanship play a role in your work?
JH: The funny thing is that the artisans I work with are seriously challenged by my work. They’re used to making clowns, elephants, ducks and birds. When I came there with my ideas… first of all, blowing glass into chicken wire? I don’t think that’s ever been done. Not all metals can withstand the heat in the furnace – really only pure gold or pure silver – but I love this idea of the rich and the poor materials working together. There’s nothing more basic than hardware store chicken wire, and there’s nothing more precious than Venetian glass.
AZ: Venice or New York?
JH: Well I lived in Venice for five years and I tend to get work done there. I learned Italian, and I studied in Rome years ago at Temple University. I had a show in Venice, and some of my artwork sold, and I thought ‘this is a sign from God – I have enough money to rent an apartment here.’ And I did. But after five years I missed New York. There’s a great balance – they have a lot in common as cities. They’re both walking cities and, you know, they’re both impossible cities to work in for most people. For me, it’s almost like I experienced Venice in a past life. Everything just goes really well there.
AZ: In your work about 9/11, we saw a piece which was part of a severed shirt rendered in glass. It made us think about sculpture and memory, and the idea of preserving an idea or a message with a glass copy of a physical object. Could you talk a little the effect 9/11 had on your work?
JH: So I came back to New York from Italy on September 10th, and I lived very close to the towers. I had just had a show in Venice about fragility, the fragility of the city mainly, and then got back to New York the day before… The whole theme of my work is fragility – the fragility of life, the fragility of beauty. Perhaps this is why I work with glass.
AZ: Tell us more about your participation in the Venice Biennale
JH: For the 2015 Venice Biennale, I created the Room of Dreams installation with 21 Murano blown glass bed pillows placed on a round mattress base filled with lavender from the Honey Garden. The Room of Dreams exhibition has traveled to Milan and is currently on view in Barcelona at Foundation Valmont through September 2016. The next destination is to be determined.
I am invited to participate in the 2017 Venice Biennale with my ongoing Honey Garden and Murano glassworks project. The exhibition is titled “Beauty and the Beast” and will be at Palazzo Tiepolo Passi, Venice.
AZ: Where can we see your work?
JH: My work in the permanent collection of IVAM, Institut Valencià d’Art Modern, Valencia, Spain. Along with exhibitions of paintings and glass sculptures in Venice, I created three large glass-based public artworks in the city: Fragmented Peace, 2003 and Luna Piena / Full Moon, 2005 installed at the Vallaresso vaporetto stop, and Venetian Satellite, 2006, first shown at the Caffè Florian in Piazza San Marco for the 2006 Biennale of Architecture and currently on view in New York in the lobby of the West Chelsea Arts Building where I have my studio. More about my work can be seen on my website.