At Home With the Avant-Garde Sculptor Simone Bodmer-Turner

by Emma Leigh Macdonald

On a recent snowy day in Western Massachusetts, I picked up a book of essays by the art critic Martin Herbert, and flipped to one about the artist Agnes Martin, titled “On and Off the Grid.” The name and the subject feel appropriate, given that I am visiting the designer and artist Simone Bodmer-Turner's new home, which is very much off the grid—and will soon become a formative part of her practice.

Bodmer-Turner took the leap of buying a house on her own from a friend in the fall of 2021—just months later, she unveiled her first solo show titled “Take Part In” at Matter Gallery’s Matter Projects space in New York City, featuring new works including chairs, lighting, and a whimsical credenza—all of which have grown out of her sculptural work. In this world unto itself that Bodmer-Turner is making her own—and has so graciously invited me into—we spoke about what she hopes to create, her transition from a design space to an art space, and taking time away; among other topics that get at what’s most important in life (often soundtracked by the Amélie theme music played by Bodmer-Turner on the piano).

Congratulations on your new exhibition at Matter Projects. How did the show come about?

Jamie [Gray, founder and creative director of Matter] visited my studio maybe three years ago now, before Covid. I had just finished my first chair and he was interested in selling that piece and working toward a larger show. Covid slowed us down of course, but I was finally able to start working on the pieces in this show about 9 months ago. Matter has expanded their showroom to a loft above their old space and turned their old showroom into a rotating gallery space, Matter Projects, where the show is currently installed on Broome Street.

There is one piece in the show that Matter fabricated. Are you interested in exploring other modes of fabrication that don’t rely on your hands?

I am! I’m not too precious about my work. I’m just precious with my time, and am too curious to keep working on one body of work for too long, and working with a fabricator who is making a piece I designed in another material means I get to continue to make new work and get to experiment. I also would love to teach myself to sculpt digitally. The look of a piece varies so much, even across the two mediums I use most—ceramic and plaster—because of the ways of building (additive-heavy with bits of subtraction in ceramic, subtractive-heavy with bits of addition in plaster in my practice). I’m interested in experimenting with different methods of bringing an idea from my imagination into a tangible form to see how that alters the look of the form.

We've talked a lot about the importance of rest here, as I’m visiting you while you're taking a couple days in the woods to recover from the intensity of finishing the work, installing, and presenting this show. Is that something you’re thinking about a lot at the moment; part of how you are conceptualizing what’s next for your practice?

Taking intentional leave feels really important, especially in this content-driven world we inhabit and, unfortunately, rely on. I sometimes regret installing Wi-Fi here, but I’m working on self-restraint rather than forced removal, because I want to train myself long-term rather than only while “away.” Being connected has been integral to growing my practice to a place where I can make the work I'm really excited about making, but it’s also taken a lot away from me in time, ability to concentrate, and added a specific flavor of self-consciousness and comparison.

As your work moves from the design sphere to the art sphere, do you feel there is more room for time spent solely on ideating new work—removed from production and the more social aspects of the job?

I hope so. The need to step away in order to enter into a super-focused state—whether that’s making physical work or letting yourself rest so that ideas can percolate—seems to be more understandable if not encouraged in the art sphere rather than the design sphere. For example: the entire idea of the artist’s residency. But I think it's up to the individual to set those boundaries and expectations. And of course we all have different financial and family responsibilities that dictate how much work we need to take on.

When I was managing a design-focused business, I couldn’t be away from the production or email for extended periods of time, let alone short periods of time, to make a sculpture uninterrupted without having a big team running the show; and in order to support that big team we had to take on more and more work. It’s cyclical and feeds itself. I’ve learned from trying that route of growth that in order to make the work I want to make, I need to work on my own, or with a really small team. Or else my role morphs entirely into managerial, rather than creative.I feel like we’re all encouraged to strive for growth, and I wish someone had told me to stay medium. Not everything needs to be scaled.

I ask about rest partly because of this new space that has entered your world. Tell me about this land and what you have been imagining for it.

I want it to be a place where myself and community can come to rest, be together or be alone on long walks, and, if they choose, take space to make work. The house is bigger than what I was looking for or would have designed for myself, but my plan is to turn all that extra space into studios. I’m unsure if I will formalize anything—I’m trying to move slowly and see how friends want to make use of the space to inform what I do here. But I love the idea of there being an exchange for help working on the house—gardening, cooking, painting, etc.—in return for a quiet place to work.

There’s a lot of woodland and pond around the cleared areas, and my plan is to put all of that into conservation. There are so many groups doing great work here, like the Trustees of the Reservation, and some of them support preservation and conservation for buildings as well as for the natural landscape. If the house does wind up turning into an arts center, I love the idea of being able to preserve both the center of arts and the land.

What are you reading right now?

[Laughs] I’m re-reading “How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy” by Jenny Odell, which makes sense.

Does what you wear change when you’re here in the country? Your clothing is seemingly so intertwined with your practice, and sometimes makes me think of Georgia O’Keeffe—how she made her own clothing and designed parts of her home in New Mexico.

I appreciate the reference, and [O’Keeffe’s] attitude toward dressing has been a great inspiration to me. I do enjoy the act of dressing and adorning myself, and I love being in New York, where so many innovative small designers begin and you get to see and wear some of the first bodies of their work. But here, all of that falls away. Mostly because of how immediately dirty I get upon arrival. The first thing I do, at least this time of year, is pile my arms full of wood (and not the clean wood you get from the grocery store — fungus-y, dirt-covered wood), and carry loads of it into the house to burn fires throughout the day and night. I made the mistake once of doing that in the nice sweater I had worn on the drive from the city and I’m still picking the wood chips out of it. There also aren’t really mirrors here yet, so I completely forget about how I look and just put on what’s comfortable and what can handle a roughening up.

The city is a theater though, and it’s fun to participate in the act of presenting oneself and one's work. I love both masculine, workwear clothes for every day—I rotate between a cream pair of Older Brother trousers and a black pair of trousers from the LES tailor DL Cerney, and live in a custom leather chore coat tailored by Thank You Have a Good Day in Red Hook that they made for me in cream. Lemaire is always a favorite. For dressing up, Cecile Bahnsen, Jacquemus, and I’ve been eyeing the sculptural, ruched designs of newcomer Róisín Pierce.

A closing event for “Take Part In” will take place at Matter Projects from 6-9PM on March 24th. In lieu of an opening, the event will include a book and printed posters designed for the show that will be sold to fund-raise for aid to Ukraine.