Earlier this fall, I sat down with Haylee Bolinger, who illustrated most of the stories in our anthology Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future, to discuss her work on Hieroglyph and other projects. You can learn more about Haylee, see examples of her work, and contact her at her website, https://hayleebolinger.com.
Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Joey Eschrich, Project Hieroglyph: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Haylee Bolinger: I’m originally from a small town in Wyoming, and I earned my BFA at the University of Wyoming in 2010. I moved to Arizona to get my MFA in Sculpture from Arizona State University. That was quite an adjustment because before coming to ASU I had never lived in a town of more than 30,000 people, so that transition was…interesting. Now I live and work in Los Angeles.
JE: How do you think your upbringing in a small rural community has shaped your work?
HB: A lot of my work incorporates sexual themes, and I wonder if that’s related to being just oblivious to subcultures, sexual or otherwise, and then suddenly becoming aware of the incredible diversity of people, first through the Internet, and then again when I started grad school in Arizona. Wyoming can feel small, closed-off, even isolated sometimes – although I met a lot of really open-minded, cool people there, and I’m always thankful that my parents are supportive of who I am and what I’m doing.
JE: What are you hoping to accomplish when you address sexuality in your work? Are you trying to provoke a certain kind of response?
HB: When I’m working with controversial themes like sexuality, I’m trying to present them in a way that feels comfortable for everyone. I guess I’m trying to make the topic of sexuality a little bit more approachable for people from all backgrounds, and I think growing up in a conservative community in Wyoming is part of that.
One way of making sexuality more comfortable is to address it to an object or product that is desirable, or well-designed, then alter that object in a way that is a bit more overtly risqué or sexual.
JE: A number of your sculpture pieces involve taking consumer objects and morphing them in a way that brings out something in the way they look or feel that connects to sexual allure. Why do you think you’re drawn to that kind of approach?
HB: A lot of the objects I choose are knick-knacks that might have decorated people’s homes in the 1970s and 80s. Once upon a time they were incredibly desirable objects, but now you can find them at Goodwill or the Salvation Army. They lost their allure somewhere along the way.
I alter these objects in a way that’s kind of juicy and voluptuous, but often really silly too. And that’s because I remember seeing these exact objects and playing with them as a kid and thinking that they were funny things to have in your house. Like why do you need an ornate steel basket to hold hard candy – and now I think, why were those specific one’s clearly so popular? I like the concept that the object was once desirable, before I ever came along and did anything to it. I capitalize on these well-designed objects by making either drastic or minimal alterations, to give them a new alluring personality. It’s kind of like dressing up your grandma in too youthful clothing; it’s a little awkward and funny.
JE: Are there other themes or ideas that you return to again and again in your work?
HB: I really like working with technology. To be honest, I’m not entirely tech-savvy, so usually I need a collaborator. But when I find that help and work with technology, it’s usually something that responds to the body. Recently I made a piece, “Peeping Don,” for the “Momentum: Women Art Technology” exhibit at the Night Gallery (in Tempe, AZ). The technology in that piece enables it to respond as if it’s alive, like it has a personality, but it really it only has one response and it only does it because of movement nearby. But it does give the impression that you had violated its space: if you get too close, it hides, like an animal – maybe a sea urchin. Something very simple can create the sense of a personality or a relationship with the viewer.
I’m getting more interested in pieces that actively provoke a response. You can’t always know how people are relating to the work intellectually or emotionally, but they do relate to the physicality of it. Maybe someone just walks by, no paying much attention to the artwork, but when it moves, it’s difficult to find a person that does not actively engage. “What is this thing? What’s it doing?” I actually had a few people scream. I don’t think it’s a scary piece, but they were just so surprised that they let out a little scream when it suddenly moved.
JE: I think as humans we’re always ready to give inanimate objects personality. Like you said, the piece only does one thing, but even so we want to imbue it with a selfhood.
HB: I think that’s very true, and it’s nothing new, even for things that don’t move. In my family, each person has a different chair that they always sit in. And there’s some identity built into that chair because that person sat in it all the time and maybe the left leg is a little shorter, I don’t know, something weird like that, or it has a special design that appeals to them, or expresses something about them.
I’m a lot younger than my siblings, so growing up I spent a lot of time by myself coming up with these alternate realities where each object in the room had its own life and did stuff when we weren’t around. I think people really love objects and so the idea that they have personalities of their own is really natural.
JE: Why did you get involved in Project Hieroglyph? What piqued your interest?
HB: I’m not a science fiction buff but I do read science fiction books and watch movies. And I didn’t know if I could do it. But I wanted to try. I bring my own crazy things to life in drawings and sculptures, and I wanted to see if I could rise to the challenge of doing it for someone else.
It was a lot harder than I thought it would be. I thought that I would read the stories, and the images would just be there. And I wanted to do things that were really original – I didn’t want to draw something that looked like the images that you expect to see in science fiction.
JE: What was your process in creating the illustrations for Hieroglyph?
HB: I would usually start by reading through a whole story in one sitting, and while I was reading I would make visual notes and sketches in the margins, write a few notes, and highlight some of the really descriptive lines. And some stories were harder than others because they were so visual, with so much information and so many good scenes to choose from.
David Brin’s “Transition Generation” is so visual that it could almost be a graphic novel. He is so descriptive and puts so many images in your head. In some of the other stories, the descriptions of the technology were a little less vivid.
JE: I know you spent a lot of time on illustrations for Neal Stephenson’s Tall Tower. And the sheer size, the verticality is such a challenge there. If you want to capture the enormity of it, you lose the opportunity to flesh out the details.
HB: You can’t mix the size and the detail in the same image, for sure. And I tried to zoom in, but once you’re zoomed in enough, you’re looking at such a small segment of the overall building. And even when I tried to stress how huge it is, I often had these moments where I said, “You know what? It’s still a lot bigger than it looks here.” I tried to draw a farm scene inside the tower in one of my sketches. It’s so huge, there has to be a farm in there somewhere, right? And finally I gave up on zooming in, and said, okay, I’m just going to draw it from outer space and really get the full impact. I really did get hung up there going through lots of different ideas.
One surprise was how often my spontaneous sketches ended up working much better than more ambitious color paintings. Things that were much less rehearsed ended up sticking.
JE: One thing I’ve noticed about your illustrations is how organic they look. This is really evident with the Tower – there’s a danger of it being very sterile and monumental, but the sensibility you bring to it is rounder, softer, almost messier. When we think of technology we often think angular, tight, efficient, but there is a gooeyness to many of your illustrations. Were you conscious of using that aesthetic?
HB: I felt guilty about that! After I had completed most of the drawings, I said, “Maybe I should go back and try some science fiction drawings.” So I went back and looked at them and I felt a little guilty because I just kind of went for it with my own style and I do like those gooey edges.
But I guess if it works and it makes sort of a distinctive impact, then good. I do like illustrations from other people working in science fiction that are very concrete and precise, but that doesn’t come naturally to me.
JE: What was your favorite story to illustrate?
HB: I really enjoyed Gregory Benford’s “The Man Who Sold the Stars.” There were so many options for illustrating that one, and I did get hung up on all of the choices for a while. I didn’t want it to look like the Star Trek version of space exploration. But those images are part of my visual memory bank, and it’s hard to think around them.
I loved the human drama of the story: that the main character was this guy that rose to the top from humble beginnings and then became rich, and maybe a little corrupt, and had to leave Earth, and ended up finding his way to another distant planet when he was 120 or something.
My reaction was, “Yes! I want to do that.” But then again, when he arrives at the new planet, there are all of these horrifying things everywhere. But he describes it as very beautiful. My reaction was, “How do you know that giant butterfly isn’t going to suck your eyeballs out?”
JE: They land in this giant, gross swamp but they seem to love it.
HB: I would be terrified. But they just laid down on lawn chairs or something and just said, “Okay, let’s hang out.” Maybe when you’re 120 it doesn’t matter, but….
I also really liked the relationship between the protagonist and his wife – she is so powerful and self-assured.
JE: It strikes me that you’re drawn in your work to things you find funny, where there is a sort of intentional or unintentional silliness, whether it’s a person or an object. So in Benford’s story, you have this guy lounging on a lawn chair deep in space at the end of his life, but he’s also this intense, intimidating venture capitalist baron. There’s something kind of silly there.
HB: I agree. With Benford, I didn’t put much thought into it at the time, but I can see that aspect of it, looking back now.
JE: It’s a serious story but it has these absurdist touches. There’s a resolute realism to the way that Benford writes, but also a bombastic quality to the story that verges on the absurd, in a charming way.
So what was the most challenging story? Was there one besides the Tall Tower that gave you a lot of trouble?
HB: I did a lot of research for Brenda Cooper’s “Elephant Angels,” mostly visual research into elephants – for example, I don’t see the back of an elephant that often. It was tough because I tried to do the illustrations in color and I ended up Photoshopping it into black and white and then working on the image digitally. In your mind’s eye, an elephant is grey, right? But they’re not. They’re a million different colors and to do the coloring properly would have drawn too much attention away from the drones.
Another one that was tricky is the drone camouflaged as a fly for Lee Konstantinou’s “Johnny Appledrone vs. the FAA.” He doesn’t describe the drones in detail so I had to make something up. I hope he didn’t imagine them as little quadcopters!
JE: That’s one of my favorite images. I love the fusion of the technological and the organic.
HB: I had a lot of fun with Lee’s story because of the Wyoming setting. The premise felt so true to me: rebels in Wyoming doing something weird and quietly subversive. The state has a whole rebel outsider history that most people don’t know about. And I was really familiar with the area where some scenes took place, so I tried to put some rock formations that I was familiar with in the background of the illustration with Appledrone’s RV.
JE: As you think about your own work and your aesthetic, what story or artwork has inspired you most?
HB: I recently read a biography of Andy Warhol and that was really fascinating and bizarre. Part of me was saying, “I want to be just like Andy Warhol,” and the other part saying, “I don’t want to be anything like Andy Warhol.”
While I was at the University of Wyoming, there was this amazing artist, Kaarina Kaikkonen, in residence at the university’s art museum, and she spent the whole summer making this massive sunrise out of coats [Editor’s note: The exhibition is titled “And It Was Empty,” and it was on display in 2007. You can learn a little more here.] She made it out of vintage coats that were going to be thrown away, and I don’t know why, but I was fascinated by it.
When she talked about a previous installation, “The Journey Home, 1995. Hanko Beach,” she told us a story about a boat accident that took place in her home country, Finland. The water was so cold that people were drowning others unintentionally, just to survive. And a few men did survive, but they were having trouble living with themselves because they had drowned people just to stay afloat in this icy water. A lot of her work deals with gender inequality and loss; I guess this piece stood out for me because she seemed conflicted about its meaning. Her work, and the way she talked about it, was a real insight into the layers of meaning that one artwork can embody.
And I think meeting her was part of it. Maybe if I just read about her work, I would have been less influenced by the magnitude of the installation, and the sincerity of her content. Since I met her and she shared an honest part of herself and her work, it’s become one of those things I won’t forget. I try to remember that when I’m somewhere showing my work and people want to talk with me and ask questions. If I talk to them, maybe the experience will mean more to them, and my work will become something that they will remember.
A few more images from Haylee Bolinger – you can see more of her work at her website.