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Published May 7, 2024

Sidney Mullis in Pittsburgh: Sculptural Forests & Resurrecting the Inner Child

By Lexi Bishop

Lexi Bishop is a writer based in Pittsburgh, PA. For the past three years, she ran a small commercial art gallery called, ‘here.’ Prior to moving to Pittsburgh, she was an Associate Director at Nino Mier Gallery, Los Angeles and before then, she worked as a specialist in the Post-War & Contemporary Art department at Christie’s, New York.

Photo 1: Sidney Mullis in her Pittsburgh studio. Image by Anna Brewer Productions. Photo 2: Sidney Mullis, "Altar to Resurrect My Seven Year Old Self", 2022.

I met with sculptor Sidney Mullis on a characteristically gray day in Pittsburgh. Working out of the basement of a former Catholic church, Mullis’ studio space is filled with large and small fantastical sculptures. After five years running the Anderson Endowed Lecture Series at her alma mater, Penn State, bringing world-renowned artists to campus, while also teaching sculpture and critical theory, Mullis moved to Pittsburgh during the pandemic to take part in the Bunker Projects residency program which culminated in a solo exhibition.

Mullis is best known for her sculptural work with a non-hierarchical approach to materials. Her mostly monochromatic works are made of playground sand, uncooked pasta, felt fabric, teddy bears, and paper pulp made from kids’ construction paper and collected gravestone dust, to name a few–what she describes as “the materials of childhood,” that is, the materials we might associate with childhood. When exhibiting work, she displays these tactile, otherworldly sculptures in dynamic groupings meant to elicit the feeling of entering a forest. The resultant installations are landscapes of dreams and nightmares, both playful and eerie, sometimes even silly. These installations act as a fictional physical manifestation of an inner world–an inner child at odds with the looming demands of adulthood. However, these sculptural forests are psychological spaces that not only acknowledge the loss of childhood, but also suggest the possibility of its regeneration.

With work deeply referential to the experiences of childhood and childlike experiences, I immediately asked Mullis to tell me about her own childhood. Born in Virginia, Mullis grew up in a multi-generational military family of deeply entrenched ideas of traditional gender roles, conservative power structures, and Judeo-Christian beliefs. As an army brat, she spent most of her formative years in transit, from Belgium to Alabama. I was curious to know if she felt like she had missed out on some essential coming-of-age experiences, which her work tries to recreate. Mullis quickly responded, “No, I don’t think I missed out. I became aware at a young age that the performance of growing up is nearly the same everywhere. The same relational dynamics between children and the semblances of authority are being played out.” Perhaps kids everywhere are bombarded with the same authoritative mantras: color between the lines; keep your voices down; walk, don't run; stop daydreaming and pay attention. Ultimately, Mullis considers herself a wallflower and said she spent most of her youth simply observing. Influenced by an ever-changing environment and self-proclaimed role as witness, Mullis infuses her work with a deep sense of curiosity and exploration.

Details from Sidney Mullis' Pittsburgh studio. Images by Anna Brewer Productions.

Shortly after her move to Pittsburgh in 2020, Mullis specifically sought out job opportunities that involved working with children. She currently tutors children with a variety of learning disabilities, such as dysgraphia and dyslexia. Her interactions with children have provided her with a unique perspective on both the simplicity and complexity of their worldview, noting “kids are so aware. They can inflate and deflate their experiences into a one liner, digesting their environment in real time. They are unselfconscious and excited to share their vision of the universe…much more willing to let you in.” Her own experience growing up, alongside her work with children, has inspired and continues to inspire Mullis to create her sculptural landscapes that invite the viewer to engage with space and meaning as a child might, forced to constantly ask questions on how and why it works.

Raised as a dancer, while also completing her undergraduate work in both studio art and for a while, set design, Mullis approaches her installations as if setting a stage. She mentions how obsessed she was with how her set design professors could transform any material into something else. For example, fiber fill became clouds, PVC piping created a garden gate, and chicken wire combined with drop cloth formed a mermaid masthead.

Inspired by the surrealist set designs of David Hockney and the costumes of Russian Constructivist costumes, Mullis is deeply aware of how the viewer interacts physically around, through, and in-between her work. Mullis explains, “Sculpture is navigating ‘360 degrees.’ In dance and in sculpture, the question is ‘how will the body move around this?’ I'm placing objects in consideration of choreography and how the viewer will move around the objects.” Mullis’ description reminded me of other contemporary artists who use the devices and props of theater, such as Bruce Nauman in his 1970s corridor works, which were built like temporary props to contain the movement of the artist’s body. Thus much like Nauman’s corridors, to experience Mullis’ work is to collectively accept the illusion and body performativity of theater.

Ultimately frustrated by the strict hierarchy of the professional theater world, Mullis moved away from set design shortly after graduating college. However, her passion for the stage continues to reveal itself in the presentation of her work. By creating immersive environments that invite viewers to participate in the construction of meaning through a blending of sculpture, dance, and set design, Mullis is able to create dynamic works that challenge traditional notions of performance and hierarchy–hierarchy of materials, of theater, and of authority.

Details from Sidney Mullis' Pittsburgh studio. Images by Anna Brewer Productions.

When asked how she thought Pittsburgh has influenced her work, Mullis explains how in the past few years her color palette has become a lot more subdued–Pittsburgh makes the top ten list of gloomiest cities in America–and the importance of surface is ever more important. She points out that there is a very specific language of texture in Pittsburgh–aged surfaces are so much more visible, time is baked onto the literal sides of houses and steps, and soot adorns most historic buildings as a vestige to the steel and coal heydays of the rust belt city. Mullis further notes, “the friction of Pittsburgh equates to friction on the surface of my work…there is grit and darkness.” And the friction is not just about surface, but about living in Pittsburgh, the realities of juggling studio time with making money, and the world she sees working with kids who are trying to contend with and are well aware of the devastating effects of social media, climate change, and a polarized political landscape.

Looking forward, the fourth iteration of Mullis’ “forests” will be presented in 2025 at the McDonough Museum of Art, Youngstown State University, Ohio. Previous iterations include Purple Forest, Olin Art Gallery, Washington & Jefferson College, PA (2023); Sand Murmurs/Tongue Pockets/Thumb Secrets (Yellow Forest), Bunker Projects, Pittsburgh, PA (2020); and Of Ash & Ice (White Forest), Wick Gallery, Brooklyn, NY (2020).

After the exhibition at McDonough, Mullis wants to get back to experimenting with materials outside the restraints of the forest format while continuing to push the boundaries of her practice–a practice that has been preoccupied with the performativity of everything. When the show’s over, Mullis will look to new modes of material transformation and presentation hoping to offer new glimpses into the possibility of conjuring the inner child– “that inner child,” Mullis says, unequivocally, “she is always there.”

Learn more about Sidney’s practice and works now available on Testudo here.


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