Asa Mease’s work in printmaking, sculpture, and book arts explores the production, re-production, and collection of objects in the Anthropocene. Originally from Williston, Vermont, he received his BA in studio art and biology from Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. He currently lives and works in Milwaukie, Oregon. His work has been shown nationally, including in Portland, Knoxville, Pendleton, and Snowmass, and is included in public and private collections. In 2019 he was awarded the Glean Residency through Metro and Recology of Portland.
Brittany Vega: What themes are you most interested in exploring in your work?
Asa Mease: Since I moved to this side of the country, western landscape and nature have been an underlying theme in most of my work. I am drawn to the American West and my conflicted feelings as an object-maker in this environment. I am interested in representations of nature, or at least a sort of anthropomorphized nature – one translated through industry and consumption, and reflected in memorabilia and artifacts.
The images I am attracted to are often things that can be both dull and splendid, like a bird, or a Sudoku puzzle, or a fragment of asphalt, or a waterfall. And my materials are often discarded or mundane.
I am interested in how materials can misrepresent themselves or simulate the surface of another object—how veneered particleboard can mimic hardwood, and concrete can impersonate stone. I want to both reveal the facsimile and also lean into its fakeness. And by selecting and processing these objects or materials with care, they can all resonate at a higher frequency.
Some questions I often consider in my work are: What happens to an object if it is made and then re-made again and again? Or when it is removed from its original context? Or when it is used for a different purpose than intended?
BV: Through your own processing of your relationship to nature and communication through objects, are you aiming to offer a sort of perspective for the viewer?
AM: I guess the perspective I am trying to position is: Look at us looking at things. Look how odd, and complicated, and fraught our relationship with the land is. Look at the things we fill our lives with, and the places we imagine ourselves inhabiting. How disconnected and morphed those landscapes have become. It’s kind of a peculiar compartmentalization that I hope comes through in the work.
I see my work as an investigative process by which I accumulate and curate existing images and materials for the viewer to inspect. The images and materials are, for the most part, unmediated. I am trying to point to these items – to highlight them so when a viewer encounters them later, hopefully, there is a spark of recognition and appreciation.
BV: When someone asks what you “do,” how do you answer?
AM: When I was strictly making prints it was easy to say that I was a printmaker. And, while I consider the tools of printmaking fundamental to my art-making, I make drawings, books, digital work, sculptures, collections, and weavings as well. I usually go for “artist” because it contains multitudes. It allows me to be a naturalist, woodworker, collector, or gardener – all under the canopy of art-making. That is what I most admire about other artists, like Mark Dion, or Taryn Simon, or Tom Sachs – an ability to delve into unfamiliar territory with a novel set of tools. Often times it can be a playful approach to a world that doesn’t usually allow for tools like metaphor, poetry, or humor.
BV: You work with a wide variety of media. What does your process look like for choosing materials?
AM: I find that I meander among a lot of materials and methods in about two-month cycles. There are definitely processes I have a strong affinity for: printmaking, woodworking, drawing, electronics – and materials I am drawn to: asphalt, veneered building materials, water pumps, and found images.
Any project is really rooted in a conceptual approach, though.
I get an idea first and then figure out what kind of materials will work best to convey it.
I was fortunate to have access to the Metro Central Transfer Station through the GLEAN residency last summer. As part of that program, I was able to pick materials at the dump, collecting things from a seemingly unending and variable source. It was really fruitful to discover which materials I gravitated to, within the cacophony of objects at the dump. I stockpiled a lot of materials – things like blower motors, MDF, advertising posters, tools, and laminates, and they are all, for the most part, organized in my studio by kind. So when I am working on a piece I experience feedback between: What do I want to accomplish? What do I have on hand? And what do I need? And those bounce back and forth and get re-adjusted until it’s done.
BV: Do you have any tips or personal habits that help you to better utilize your time during a residency or maintain focus on your goals?
AM: This was my first residency, and it is different in a lot of ways from the traditional residency model, where an artist is provided with time and space to dig into their process away from distractions. The Glean residency is different in that it provides materials, a stipend, and a group show as a culmination of the 5-month project. I think it is a really effective model, but life continues around the program, and it can be hard to balance work, personal life, and an artistic practice. I had a lot of guilt around how I structured my time. If I wasn’t actively making art, I felt like I should be. Or when I was, I was unsure if those were the right things to be spending my time on. Sometimes it felt like the barriers to entry into the studio were insurmountable, especially at the end of the workday.
I have learned that just being in the studio, for no matter how long, is the most important part of productivity. It’s about putting time into the work, but it’s also about putting time into the space where those things are made. A lot of ideas get worked out when I am sweeping and rearranging, and organizing materials. And even if it’s just an hour vacuuming, or tearing down some paper for a print, that’s an hour that I don’t have to spend in the future.
BV: Has your work or process ever surprised you?
AM: My approach is fairly controlled. I do a lot of planning on paper and on the computer – if its printmaking I will organize my image and layers out in Photoshop. If it is a sculpture I will work through a few versions in SketchUp before making it. I usually have an ongoing checklist of steps that need to happen before I complete a piece.
When I try a new process or an unfamiliar material, I am surprised when everything goes well the first time. Especially pieces with electronic components that I want to do something like spin, or light up, or inflate, and reliably do that task for the duration of a show. They can end up being a huge time-suck or a dead end.
In the piece “Hitting and Eagle, Driving East on I84”, I had this great taillight that I found at the dump, and I knew I wanted it to flash on and off like the hazards were on. After consulting YouTube, picking up some compatible bulbs at AutoZone, and finding a 12-volt laptop charger in my container of cords, I put together a relay circuit that I hoped would work. When I plugged it in for the first time it clicked on and off beautifully and I couldn’t stop watching it. I would turn it on in my studio while I was working on other things just to watch it go.
Even when bouncing around among materials, I have noticed threads that tie works together. I am often surprised when looking at my body of work that there are ideas that permeate subconsciously – a sculpture that feels like a woodblock print, or an image that is echoed in another piece by accident.
BV: Is there something in the works that you’re able to tell us about?
AM: I have been working a lot on converting my garage into a functioning studio. I have used a lot of borrowed studio spaces over the last few years, whether it’s shared print shops, a friend’s woodshop, or incredible studios like Anderson Ranch Arts Center or the Whitman College Art Building. In those spaces, I didn’t have to think about proper ventilation, or dust, or if I had gloves or tape, or whatever I might need.
Last summer, during my GLEAN residency, I had an idea of the materials and types of things I wanted to make, but I didn’t have any tools or a space to make them. I remember screwing in the couple hundred screws that hold the top of “A Waterfall is a Fountain” at around 8 pm on the side lawn of our rental, and carefully pouring the resin surface for the waterfall poster in our carpeted living room. I spent more time than I would like sweeping and vacuuming and moving things out of the way.
So I have been taking some time to make a space that is more compartmentalized, and meets my multiple needs, within the constraints of a single-car garage with one electrical outlet, and allows me to get my rental deposit back when we eventually move out.
Other than that, I have been trying to finish up some pieces from the last few years that are about 85% complete but didn’t get finished for one reason or another. They are works that I have sunk a lot of my time into, and have been on the back burner, but are pieces I still really believe in.
1. Asphalt I & II
Asphalt, plywood, dowel, spray paint
11" X 6" X 3"
2. Asphalt II [Detail]
3. Asphalt I, II
Asphalt, plywood, dowel, spray paint
11" X 6" X 3"
Waterfall Fatigue I, II, III
Asphalt, adjustable wrench, MSG, plywood, caning, found image, plexiglass, aluminum, acrylic paint
9" X 11" X 3"
4. A Waterfall is a Fountain
Kiddie pool, found image, water pump, wood, aluminum, resin, paint, hardware
60" X 60" X 50"
5. A Waterfall is a Fountain [Detail]
6. Hitting a Golden Eagle, Driving East on I84
Plywood, found image, automotive tail light, cast iron window sash weights, electronic timer
16” X 18” X 36"
7. Hitting a Golden Eagle, Driving East on I84 [Detail]
8. Give Us This Day, Our Daily Bread
Reduction woodblock and etching
8" X 10" - edition of 6
9. Grist Mill, Missed Grill
Reduction woodblock and screen print
4" X 7" - edition of 12
Monoprint, transfer paper, and graphite
15" X 22"
Monoprint, transfer paper, and graphite
15" X 22"
Photo credit: Mario Gallucci