“My artwork grows itself like children. I set the path, feed them as needed, and create the right environment, then you’re good to go. Monitor and tweak as needed. You just enjoy what happens after that. There are many unknowns after that but that is part of the joy of trusting and letting go.” ~ Natalie Majaba Waldburger
Bio: Natalie Majaba Waldburger’s current art practice is open-disciplinary and seeks to understand the complexities of respectful collaboration and participatory work in the context of anti-colonial research. In recent years, institutional critique has become the focus for collaborative art practices as a co-founding member of The Drawing Board. As an Associate Professor at OCAD U, Natalie has served as Chair for a number of programs in the faculty of Art including the inaugural Ada Slaight Chair of Contemporary Painting and Print Media and, most recently, Interim Chair of Sculpture/Installation and Life Studies and Grievance Chair for OCADFA. The Life Studies area was the focus of Natalie’s appointment at OCAD U. Life Studies is a specialization positioned in the Faculty of Art that brings together the arts, sciences, and humanities to cultivate interdisciplinary studio art practices. These pedagogical approaches speak to Natalie’s own art research practice positioned at the intersection of sustainability, social justice, and ecologically-respectful art practices. [See full exhibit LINK]
Interview with Rachael Grad:
RG: How has your art changed during the pandemic?
NW: My work changed in the last year. I don’t make my own work when teaching, except for the collaborative work with The Drawing Board in which we talk about kids, work, and everything that’s happening in our lives. We are all mothers, teachers, administrators and artists and The Drawing Board became a way to support each other beyond the studio and outside of the institution. It is an entity and a collective that is porous by necessity and a way to support each other as whole people with intersecting pressures that come with the different roles we have. The Drawing Board is where we can be silly, make commentary and give ourselves permission to try things that might fail. I am currently returning from a sabbatical from teaching at OCAD University. This opportunity allowed me to get out of the school/work grind, go offline, get back to materiality in art.
RG: What was your most recent collaborative project?
NW: The Drawing Board had a collective exhibition at the Red Head Gallery in Toronto during the height of the Omicron wave of the pandemic. We bubbled together and created work in the gallery. We invited 9 other artists to zoom in and participate. Six out of nine of the artists were moms. The guests gave us assignments and directions while we made art together in the gallery. We allow life to come in as commentary as well in our work – the things that happen in our personal lives, our working lives and our individual artistic pursuits.
RG: What was your most recent individual project?
NW: I just finished a Bio-Art Residency at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. It was 6 weeks on my own, which was difficult for my family. I worked in a Level 1 Bio Lab.
RG: How did you get interested in biology and lab work?
NW: I started art and science work right out of OCAD seeking out anatomical studies in my figurative painting. Then I got interested in other scientific questions about what makes us human, like the human genome project. I later moved into installations then microscopic and cellular based works. I explore things that grow and ways in which materials grow themselves like having a child where you set the conditions, care and nurture the beings, and let them grow the way they want to. The surrounding environment impacts this particular work. My work has used wheatgrass, bioplastics, mycelium (the roots system of a mushroom). For my most recent project, I took molds of Victorian ceiling medallions that represent traditional Toronto architecture and also colonialism. I then filled them with mycelium while in the lab, allowing them to grow into these ornate forms.
RG: Why mycelium?
NW: I wanted to continue with a material that, once started, would grow autonomously and introducing an element of the unknown to the process. After doing some research I found that mycelium was used in research to predict the growth patterns of tumours. Because mycelium grows more quickly, in 2 to 3 weeks, it is a useful predictor of tumour behaviour. This resonated with me because my son has a brain tumor, diagnosed at 9 years old. The symptoms manifested initially as paralysis effecting his face, then arms and legs on the right side. He had to learn to walk again and undergo surgery, rehab and chemotherapy. It’s been challenging and yet amazing to see him grappling with this while still being a kid in school and eventually succeeding getting almost straight A’s in school. The disease has been unpredictable, and we never know what to expect. I’ve learned so much about Neurodiversity and navigating both the health and education systems.
RG: will you continue your research now that you’re back in Toronto?
NW: I’ll continue exploring but I don’t have the same lab access in Toronto. Life Studies will be able to build a mini-lab through a generous donation from the Joan and Clifford Hatch Foundation so that I can introduce some of these processes to Life Studies students. We can purchase an autoclave, which is a big giant sterilizing machine, alongside our current microscopes. Next for our order is DNA sequencing equipment and growing equipment for plants. Interestingly, Life Studies was partnering with MaRS and Sick Kids and while on a tour of the SickKids research area I saw the lab housing my son’s tumor, two years after his surgery. Frequently, my research has mirrored and predicted what happens in my life.
RG: What’s next for you?
NW: In October my most recent residency work will be shown at Art Quarters on St. Clair Avenue West in Toronto. The works, alongside mosses and terrariums will likely be installed on walls, not hung from the ceiling as in New York.
RG: Anything else you’d like to share on motherhood and art?
NW: Being a mother is why I explored this way of making. At first, I used a paintbrush and encaustic – body-like materials that do their own thing. Having a child encouraged me to give up more control and make the unknown even more the driver of this work. I enjoy being open to results and thinking about how both science and art practices speak to each other. My materials are experimental, and I employ the same letting go and relinquishing of control that is necessary in the collaborative process and in parenting.