Cliona Gunter, Vulnerable Maker

This artist opens her home for the West Austin Studio Tour, but more to the point, she opens herself

BY SAM ANDERSON-RAMOS, FRI., MAY 20, 2016 (Austin Chronicle)


photo by David Brendan Hall

“Sometimes I have a question,” Cliona Gunter said, in what was the closest she would come to getting at the root of what drives her work. “They’re open questions. I’ll just go and sit and paint, and sometimes I get an answer, and sometimes I don’t.” She described a piece she made referencing a refrigerator that she would later realize was related to a specific moment in her personal history. “Sometimes it feels like my intuition knows something that my brain doesn’t know yet.” She gently tapped my forehead with her finger to indicate where her ideas can end up once intellect has taken over for instinct. It could have felt invasive, but it wasn’t. It was intimate.

You may be reading my writing here, but you don’t know the half of it. I’m mostly a fiction writer. It’s the closest thing I have to prayer, and may be the most honest thing about me. I’m guessing you hardly care. Well, you wouldn’t be the first. As any freelance artist can tell you, having your life’s work repeatedly dismissed (so much worse than being burned, because if someone is burning your stuff, you know it matters at least a little) is routine. In our America, you are defined largely by your financial success, by your accumulation of public acclaims. It can be demeaning, disheartening, and depressing. For that reason, I don’t like to talk about my writing much. It’s too personal, and too few people care or understand. This is why I was moved when I visited Gunter and she referenced my experience as a writer to explain her making process to me. With that simple remark, she acknowledged that we are both vulnerable makers and, by extension, vulnerable humans. This matters because I am not only a writer, I am also a husband, son, friend, and an individual hoping daily that I will be accepted by society and by other individuals. This aching can’t be unfamiliar to anyone reading this. If it is, you’re missing out, because our fragilities are what make us irreplaceable.

Gunter’s work is an ideal vehicle for accessing this fragility. As she walked me through her home, which will be open to visitors this weekend during the West Austin Studio Tour (see “West Austin Studio Tour 2016”), I frequently felt as though I was being shown things I shouldn’t see, as though she were an acquaintance describing a serious illness. Each piece expresses a damage done. Scribble House, one of a series of what she calls “spinners,” is a green, gray, and black object about the size of a cuckoo clock that looks like it was drawn by a haunted child. It is a house of horrors, made all the more so by the fact that it spins like a wheel of fortune. Gunter assured me it was based on a real place, but she didn’t need to tell me. We’ve all had a Scribble House or two. They can come in any dimension, any shape. Every piece Gunter showed me could be titled Scribble House, as they all seem to reference some misery, small or big. The work isn’t necessarily dark, however. Some are a kind of game, as in PICK ME, a large piece with multiple sections, and a spinner, labeled PICK ME, so that if one chooses to play, there can only be one result. Pain isn’t funny, but it’s good to keep a sense of humor.

Every wall, almost every surface, is decorated with her work. It is always changing and never boring. Like a cabinet of curiosities can have drawers of dead butterflies and shelves lined with jars of hands and fetuses, Gunter’s home unfolds into myriad oddities, the strange and bewitching dreams of a person with a seemingly unlimited imagination, and a compulsion to extract the most hidden and frantic parts of herself for the sake of her own well-being.


She is the pokey cactus I keep touching (l) and Queen of Broken Relationships

Gunter admits her output is highly personal, thus her work deftly strides the line between art and life. On one occasion, we stood in the hall between her living room and bedroom, looking at a series of paintings of crowns, a repeated motif that includes sculptures made from found objects and countless 2-D renderings. I shut off my tape recorder so she could describe the background for a certain piece. There’s no real need to know the story she shared. We don’t require the details of a person’s joys and sadnesses to see them. It’s in their actions, fears, and hallucinations, all of which are on display in Gunter’s home.

It is incredible that an artist so sincere can manage to make work that is so playful and outrageous. Often the play is in the form, such as with the spinners or the crowns. One crown sculpture is made with measuring tape she found in a homeless camp. Another is made with forks and spoons. (The fork has returned in other iterations, including being attached to the end of a pool cue labeled “Fork Cue”) When I asked her how she envisioned the crowns being displayed, she described people taking selfies of themselves wearing them.

The play is also in the text, another ever-present motif. When asked what she read, she didn’t seem to know how to answer. This is reasonable, as I can’t think of any writers who sound like her. Anyway, who cares? Choice titles include Ghost Crown – smells like chocolateQueen of Broken RelationshipsWeird inner child camera, and Barbie dream house is a pink prison. Very often, the text is quite literally in the work. She is the pokey cactus I keep touching is a cardboard box that is also a diorama. It hangs on the wall. “Doors” labeled SHE IS THE POKEY CACTUS I KEEP TOUCHING open up to reveal a giant cartoonish finger being pricked by a giant cartoonish cactus thorn, and the words, I GET PRICKED AGAIN. Gunter is admirably consistent, so much so that almost any piece could conceivably be picked as representative of her strengths, but She is the pokey cactus in particular manages to combine the formal, aesthetic, and textual dynamism that really makes her stuff hum.

Long before the end of the visit, I was overwhelmed – could hardly take any more in. We stood outside as it began to rain, looking at even more work, this time what was hung on the side of her shed. Gunter kept revealing herself to me, a stranger, because it is her nature, and because this revelation is essential to what she does. By the end, I felt like I knew her, as though we’d shared an intense experience, been taken hostage together maybe. At a certain point, she mentioned that she is into “celebrating things that aren’t really celebrated.” It was a humble declaration in the midst of a humble, spectacular collection. I’m celebrating her by writing this – by creating something honest, if I can – and by living honestly. We are all raw, we are all afraid, we are all loving. I’ve opened myself, the artist seems to say. Now look.

From Austin Chronicle Issue, Friday May 20, 2016

Written by Sam Anderson Ramos

porch/artist photo by David Brendan Hall