Payton Cahill

Interview by Nicole Seisler

At the beginning of my conversation with Payton Cahill, the artist told me that Mother Nature and human nature are the core of her work. As our discussion unfolded, however, I became increasingly convinced that it is specifically the forest that is the heartbeat of Payton’s practice.

Did you spend a lot of time outdoors as a kid?

My family had a small cabin that we would visit a lot when I was a kid, so I spent a lot of time playing in the woods. I didn’t really realize how formative that experience was for me until I started diving into my work more deeply during the past couple of years. The forest is a spiritual place for me.

Has living in a city influenced that realization?

There’s something different about walking through a family of trees in the forest compared to seeing a tree on a street corner. The city tree is a guardian marker — equally majestic to the trees in the forest — but when you enter a forest, there is a palpable connection between the trees. They are a network, they support each other, their density and scale feel incomparable. There are also so many cycles that can be observed in the forest, whether on a macro environmental scale or a more micro personal scale. The cycles of the forest help us understand the cycles of ourselves. I grew up in California around valley oak forests that shift from season to season, but in the PNW there are far less measurable shifts; things stay quite green year-round.

Does the ecosystem of the forest parallel ecosystems in your art practice?

During the pandemic it certainly has. Our society has a ‘go go go, work work work’ ethos but the forest goes into hibernation. Like the forest, I need to retreat into myself and put energy back into my roots, into my foundation (I think we all need that). And, like the forest, I’m now prepared for the next season — I’m ready to go, to blossom, to create and to connect with people.

My first spring in Seattle was during the pandemic, so I spent a lot of time looking at nature and figuring out how to be an object-maker who creates objects that are just as alive on the screen as they would be in-person. I often have growth periods when I don’t have access to studio facilities; this was a productive season of problem-solving that led to a lot of video work.

In my solo exhibition in the North Gallery I’m showing a time-lapse video of my house plants slowly moving their leaves up and down throughout the day. I had noticed the leaves in various positions and decided to closely observe their movement. When I realized what was happening, I sped up the footage to the point where the plants appear to be inhaling and exhaling. The video is an endless loop of breathing, formed by stills taken every four minutes for three days.

Do plants also play a role in your sculptural work?

Yes, I’m currently converting a chest of drawers from the 1880s into a plant drawing machine. This machine reads the electrical conductivity of house plants, converts that into motor speed, which in turn moves a series of scissoring levers that produce geometric drawings on paper. The paper is fed to the machine by a typewriter with an extra-large carriage that I’ve hacked to constantly scroll paper. The electrical impulses, and thus the drawings, change when humans touch the plant leaves, creating a visual representation of our interaction and collaboration with nature.

You’re giving these house plants a language. What do you think they’re communicating?

Every living thing is connected by the electrical impulses that run through them. I’m giving agency to these plants to harness that electricity into something tangible, observable. Drawing becomes their language for communicating what’s beneath the soil, what’s invisible to us, as well as their observations about us.

What do you think the forest might want to communicate to humans?

I was touring the Olympic Peninsula recently and saw a sign advertising a famous giant tree. I followed the signs down an old forest road (and followed and followed) until I suddenly arrived at the tree. It was labeled as the ‘World’s Largest Cedar Tree’ but it was a stark white skeleton with a sparse bit of foliage at the top; it barely looked alive. Apparently, this tree had been saved by loggers because of its outlandish size. This one tree was saved. You know what happens when you just save the king: his kingdom lies in ruins. The elements out on the peninsula are harsh; this one tree was never going to survive on its own. The singular is a meager symbol; we need to be taking care of the whole. When I see old 1800s wooden homes being torn down and replaced with modern components (which is what is about to happen to the house I’m living in right now), I’m concerned that the forests have been sacrificed for no point.

Is your use of found objects a form of rescue? How do you choose the materials that you work with?

I think that reusing old objects, particularly wooden objects, is a way of respecting the sacrifice of the forest. I choose to build with materials that already have soul. I frequently say that you can’t recreate the patina of time; the best materials are those that have already lived a couple of lives.

I have a particular interest in objects and furniture from the late 1800s. The cabinet I’m converting into the drawing machine is from that era, as is a player piano I once deconstructed into parts and hardware that I used to build yet another cabinet. I prefer to hack existing but obsolete objects and technology for what I need rather than building news contraptions. For example, a typewriter — every piece can be taken apart, cleaned, put back together in the same order, or augmented with mechatronics and new technologies like Arduino. It’s a way of caring for obsolete creations and breathing new life into old forms.

Do you also collect materials from the forest?

I forage everything from a good view to berries, mushrooms, and crystals. I used to do a lot of crystal digging — I’d search for a crystal vein, eventually find a pocket, and return home with a handful of beautiful little faceted gems. Rock and mineral crystals develop slowly in the earth, under pressure and in darkness. The moment that those crystals are unearthed they get to witness light for the first time in millions of years. I think that there are crystals within all of us and if we take the time to sit and dive into ourselves, to go beneath our own surface, we can grasp those crystals. That’s what the shimmering crystal-upholstered chairs in my thesis show at the Henry are predominantly about.

What has been unearthed in your practice during graduate school?

I came to grad school to discover what I didn’t already know. I used this time to challenge myself to step away from glass (which I worked with extensively for a decade before attending grad school) and explore other sculptural elements. Although I’ll likely bring glass back into my practice, I think this time away from it has been important. I came here to take risks and to be willing to fail. I have learned to embrace experimentation, and to be flexible with what I expect will happen versus what actually happens. I have stepped into the new.

Return to Payton Cahill’s profile.