What's a Hose Guard? Francie Shaw and Kit Robinson in Conversation
The artist Francie Shaw and I met in San Francisco in the ’70s, and I’ve been a fan of her work ever since. Around that time, she painted a series of big wave-form abstractions, one of which hangs in my house today. Since then she’s experimented with other media in works that mix abstraction and figuration, including paintings of posed figurines (Playing Bodies), comics collage (Rex Works), and now assemblage (Hose Guards).
Kit Robinson: Hi Francie, I was going to propose we do this interview as a recorded tour of your garden, but since we are sheltering in place it seems like email is the way to go. Here is my first question: What is a hose guard?
Francie Shaw: You might think it is a row of British Beefeaters lined up protecting the Queen’s stockings. No. A hose guard might more properly be described as a plant guard. It protects garden beds by having some upright post-like barrier, usually a piece of metal or plastic with some little knob-type top. They are placed along the edges of the bed, between the path and the plants. When dragging a hose through a garden it is easy to have the hose travel on its own over your beloved salvia clevelandii, thereby crushing it. The post prevents that, unless you get on the wrong side of the post, but we don’t want to be on the wrong side of anything. The name hose guard is commonly used in garden catalogs.
KR: How did you come up with the idea for the series?
FS: I wanted to make a few hose guards for the practical reason of protecting plants. They started out as a wooden stake with an old tennis ball on top; I didn’t really want to look at those. I spray painted them green and it was an improvement — but I knew I could do better, because I have made junk sculpture throughout my life.
A few summers ago I made a duck/boat thing with pencils and other things coming out of it, entirely from junk in our shed — old Fisher-Price toys, one of my dad’s old duck decoys, broken parts of furniture, weird shaped hardware, etc. — as a holder for the voluminous number of named napkin rings we keep for every member of the extended family. It was amusing and whimsical and all my family members loved it; but I had so much fun largely because I was doing it for myself and the pleasure of making something. It didn’t have to be deep or relevant or even interesting to anyone else. It was just process and instinct.
I had been saving junk for my grandchildren to make things with. They love to use my little electric hand drill and bang nails and drip glue. Eureka, I could use the stuff, too. So I started saving more junk, from the house, the street, occasional thrift store purchases… there were so many cool things I just had to use them. Also, I found that the process was circular. I would put two things next to each other, let’s call them A and B, then I look over and see something else, C, and decide to put that with A instead, so then there were two pieces going. It went on like that. Berkeley has so much junk out on the sidewalk — lots of good material.
KR: Your Hose Guards remind me of various traditional forms from the Black Atlantic world, such as the Kongo tradition of bottle trees – trees garlanded with bottles, vessels, and other objects for protecting the household through invocation of the dead – or the iron Yoruba bird-staff with its proud bird perched upon a disk trailing inverted cones, an emblem of the healing arts. Bricolage is also characteristic of much American folk art. Were you influenced by anything like that? There are lots of other art world reference points: the assemblages of Robert Rauschenberg, Joseph Cornell, Joe Brainard, and Alison Saar, for instance. Your focus on family would suggest you were not thinking in those terms, but I wonder.
FS: I wasn’t referencing any art tradition. Actually, these days I am not interested in references. I just wanted to have fun using stuff around me to make things questionably useful. It is true I don’t think of these as “real” art. Because these pieces are made for private, not public, spaces, I wasn’t picky about a sloppy bit here or there, and since many of their materials will deteriorate over time, they are by nature in a different category from work made to be seen in a gallery. But fun is the basis. I guess I could say that I haven’t found my old-style art making much fun lately and I really don’t like the climate it lives in. I reject that context.
If anything is a context it would be outsider/folk art. There are a lot of artists in those categories whose work I love; it seems more honest and the materials are unpretentious. I like the obsessiveness of a lot of that work, even though I prefer to be messy and spontaneous. The truth is people have been putting things in arrangements for a long time, Picasso’s goat and Rauschenberg’s goat are just blips on the screen.
I grew up learning to revere classic Modernist sculpture (my grandmother was a sculptor) and I love all sorts of art. I have always had a soft spot for a certain kind of funky sculpture, like Red Grooms’s and Rauschenberg’s. There is a Philadelphia artist named Leo Sewell, a parent of one of my students, who makes great things with junk — look him up. My students adored visiting his studio.
Actually, I think one of my greatest influences has been all the kids I taught, the materials we used and the way I structured projects. One favorite project I did with many was shoe sculptures. Everybody brought in old sneakers. I had odd pieces of wood and other junk. They could saw them, drill them, nail them, and paint them. It’s hard to saw a sneaker! They had a blast. So it’s not always adults we should look to. Kids can have pretty amazing ideas, also. Maybe you don’t need “ideas,” just do something with something else, to paraphrase Jasper Johns. I like that he said that. It makes his work less cerebral. I don’t find much of his work interesting, except for his bronze trompe l’oeil paint brushes.
KR: I find your rejection of art-historical standards refreshing. I love the narrowing of focus to the local level of just making things to share. Jack London said, “Art is only consummate artfulness.” You and your sister, Susan Moon, created a 2020 calendar that features a color photo of a Hose Guard for each month. How many copies did you make?
FS: I think we only made twenty. Some are gifts for family and friends, which feels really good.
KR: I like your sense of making objects that are both entertaining and useful. I am reminded of art objects from various world cultures that are made for use, either in domestic work or for ceremonial purposes. How does the functional value of the hose guard figure in your sense of the work?
FS: I started out making them for our garden and most of them are still here. But I have given a few away to family and friends. The giving away really refers to my decision not to think of them like something I show in a gallery and maybe someone buys one. I am opting out of the idea that if I sell a piece of work it is more valuable than the ones I give away to people who want them. In my case anyway, this practice began when we moved from Philly three years ago and I gave away paintings. I was glad some had homes where people like to look at them. I also like knowing the person who has it. But it was harder with the Philly works as they were made with my ego firmly attached. It feels so great to leave that behind now.
With the Hose Guards, as I make more (though I haven’t made any since the virus), I will want homes for them too. Unlike a small painting, I can’t box up long, heavy works and ship them, it is awkward and very expensive, plus one arrived broken. Another advantage of giving them away is that I don’t feel I have to make them last down the ages. They will all break up at some point. The functional aspect may seem pretty minimal, but actually it provides a home for them before they are even created, so I am not left thinking, what the hell am I going to do with this stack of paintings?
Most of my friends and family have a bit of yard and the guards are small enough to go in an apartment. I would need to anchor them better but that is not hard.
Another thing I like about functional work is that it is something you see when you are in relationship with it, be it a salad fork, a hose guard, or a jungle gym. I like your reference to the ceremonial purposes. When I started my art making, I had grand ideas. I made weird costumes and batons. The trouble was, I never knew what ceremony to fit them into. Formal ceremony is not something I have maintained an interest in. Just daily living is special enough.
I have also been thinking about how important it is that most items on each guard were found. I like using the detritus around us. And there is a long tradition in this kind of work. You could call it found-object sculpture.
KR: How and where did you find the objects used in the Hose Guards? Did you go on scavenger hunts or just keep your eye peeled as you moved about?
FS: The objects come from so many different places. A box or small broken wood item, like pieces of furniture, that I had been saving, valuable enough to pack and move from Salt Lake City. Extra kitchen items; since we were merging two households there was a lot of duplication. Little figures from my small collection that I have been hoarding for at least fifty years. I started when I was in Jungian therapy and have used many since in still lives (like the dinosaur and dollhouse people). Yard sales. Many pieces of good Berkeley curbside offerings, from little figures to taken apart furniture. 4 ✕ 4 posts removed from a fence in our yard. Then also other people’s yards, and a few bought or scrounged at a lumber yard. Urban Ore, the salvage yard — but you have to talk them down from their ludicrous prices. Ace Hardware for really good glue, spray paint, and hardware for fastenings, also important thin rods for piling things together. There I did have to pay, but not much.
KR: Looking at Hose Guards, there is a wonderful tension between abstraction and representation, the play of colors, shapes, and objects, heaviness of base and lightness of superstructure.
Here are two unlikely subjects. A Statue of Liberty (green), a pair of dice (red), and a cardinal (red) on a green tower apparently made from pipe fitting. A multi-colored stack of gewgaws on a dark brown base with a gleaming glass doorknob on top. They could be bride and groom.
The exactitude of a coiled measuring tape, such that the numbers read sequentially both horizontally and vertically, evinces an almost maniacal precision. Emerging from the top of the coil, a possibly rusty toy soldier, weapon shouldered, and an old pair of pliers, mouth slightly open, stand guard against any and all interpretation. To the right, two doggies couchant on a rough green wooden triangle with a mushroom of sliced tennis ball and a piece of bannister topped by a strangely artificial, yellowy, non-maraschino cherry. Despite my best efforts, the Hose Guards are indescribable — you have to be there.
I love this one. It looks like you could play the grater like a güiro with the fork. Double take: I see now it’s the silver dress of a black queen. Do these interpretations strike you as off the wall? I guess beauty is in the eye of the beholder. How do you think about the narrative content of the Hose Guards?
FS: I love your descriptions. There is no wrong way to see these anyway. A couple of the HGs have a narrative in them, but not many. The Statue of Liberty with the dice one I see as a comment on who gets liberty and how arbitrary it is. So far the only political one. The truly narrative one is on the August page. It tells the tale of the cow that jumped over the moon (the broken mirror). I even made a little clay guitar for it. I did it because I had such a great fork and spoon to use and all the animals.
I started out thinking of the HGs as abstract sculptures, nice shapes of things out of context. I still like those best, but it is hard for me to stick to it. The first one was for April, the plumbing one. I like the tower especially because it came out of our bathtub in the apartment when I found a shiny chromed one. It must be a hundred years old, from 1920, when the building went up. I’m sending a photo of a newer one that is all about shapes and color [Playtime].
KR: In this time of quarantine, we poets, musicians, and artists are all trying to find ways to maintain our creativity in the physical absence of the people we normally rely on for communal interchange and support whether through readings, concerts, parties, or shows. You speak of “process and instinct” as key motivators for you, aside from any concerns about depth or relevance or reception. I feel like this gets to the root of artistic expression. It’s the basic urge to make stuff. So thanks for that reminder.
FS: I have been weighed down by the creepiness of our collective situation. Not so much by the possibility of illness but by our very creepy government. Are we really going to see the end of some sort of democracy in our own lifetimes? That would be a horror for my kids to experience. Anyway, it is really depressing.
As far as instinct goes, I think just plain desire for decoration is one of the foremost attributes of art. To make things, words, whatever, more pleasing. I really felt this strongly teaching kids. They understood that right off. Communication and spiritual expression are also important. And at a time like this, maybe more needed. I’ve been reading a book about the siege of Leningrad, not a good way to escape depression. But art, music especially, was important for survival there, as it is here.