Conversation with Hannah Givler

By Katherine Harvath

Failed Corners
Hannah Givler makes sculpture in unexpected ways, often revealing the potential of common fabrication materials. Her thoughtful use of form, interest in myth, and creating puzzles to be solved leads to objects that call for a slow read.
You often use unusual material solutions, sometimes transforming commonplace construction materials into unfamiliar things – what interests you about showing new facets of these raw materials? What materials and forms interest you?

Since I’ve been out of school, working part time as a freelance fabricator has led me to learn more about cabinetry, rough carpentry, welding, exhibition design, and currently scenic design for live theater. I’ve found each of these has a respective kit of go-to glues, fasteners, hardware, ways of working that are compatible with the demand for the job. For instance, the set building job I’m working on right now uses stuff called “powergrab” to face steel with light wood paneling quickly. It’s a thick, pasty glue that I’ve been squeezing out with a caulking gun, and it provides a grip as strong as a hand hold in just a few seconds. With it, I can lay up a piece of material, align it, press for just a few seconds, then confidently let it go, it stays in place on its own, while I grab another tool to fasten it in a more permanent way. Anyway, I guess that’s a short ad for Powergrab. The names for materials can be pretty evocative. “powergrab” for instance sounds gnarly and aggressive to me – I guess it does leave an impression. 

The way I see it, there is a lot of subtle and not so subtle messaging in the language used around materials and the way they ‘perform.’ I could go on about this, but what is most of all interesting to me is to have the chance to draw these and other details out about a material that is often underneath or hidden around us. Stuff that may be known to a small group of professionals but applied widely in our world. To find and show elemental qualities of materials, what they are like even outside of practical use, feels like another way to learn and to pay attention. When I began looking at how things were built when I was a kid, it felt like a secret code that I was trying to solve. The more I learn, the more I see there is to learn.

In my studio, I am drawn to materials used in construction or architectural treatments, like cork, mild steel, wood veneers, tacks, nails, masonry string, fir and pine, but also durable woods like white oak and walnut because they are near me around the Midwest. I tend to find forms as I work, sometimes they come up on the side of a project, or in a hurry at the end of the day when I want to try something new. I’m used to having a dialogue between my teaching and my freelance jobs and my studio. I try to make use of off cuts or demos (parts that I find as I’m learning about something new) to bring back with me. I think because there is not much division between the ways I work, I feel a kind of relationship to the materials and can live with them in a long-term way. I get curious about them and move them around sometimes for years until I can situate them in a way that draws out the qualities that attracted me to them in the first place.
Failed Corners  - front view
Failed Corners  - detail
victorine - front view
victorine - side view

Growing up in an unfinished house was like living in a project. There were times when that was embarrassing as a kid.

You’ve written about the unfinished American Foursquare house with exposed studs you grew up in and its relationship to your work – how has that visual experience informed your practice?

Growing up in an unfinished house was like living in a project. There were times when that was embarrassing as a kid. In the early 90’s when it seemed that so many houses had carpet and wallpaper, it wasn’t always easy to explain to friends who came over, the various subflooring, plaster tape and open stud walls. Then again, the friends I had were totally down with it and my family, and so in a way, maybe that was a helpful thing. The house was an emotional space and I think being immersed in that project with my family for over a decade, I began to draw a strong relationship to process as something meaningful. Not only that, but the puzzle solving I mentioned before - this space was ripe with connections. I could look at a stud wall from the floor and see very clearly how it was girding up the ceiling. I could see the way surfaces were treated and layered to appear finished. We spent hours sanding. In a way, the embarrassment and eventual owning of that unfinished object became a part of how I make things. To reveal time, labor, mistakes, pencil marks, big or small decisions in the studio object has felt like an integral part of the final work.

A Limes Time
You sometimes use veneer and plating in nontraditional ways – are you interested in upending illusion?
Conventionally these plating and veneer materials are used to treat surfaces and are often used to conceal another material of lesser value. In my experience growing up in anglo-protestant Midwest culture, materials are often valued for their usefulness. I’m interested in how that value is distributed and by whom. Plating and Veneer, thinking of these two materials broadly as surface treatments, they are a kind of interesting compromise for material hungry humans. Veneer can save a lot of tree life, plaiting processes saves the mining of metals. Making objects with these materials in a way I am trying to point them out, and yes, for sure part of that is drawing a curtain back on the illusion of the surface. But also I like to use a bit of illusion myself if it helps to draw out the curiosity that brought me to the material in the first place.
Glyph Frame
Glyph Frame - Detail
nuance can help build up a tolerance or even a welcome for the in-between-ness of things
Your objects are often surprising, using misdirection, or not exactly what they seem at first – are you interested in slowing down the viewing experience, inviting viewers to figure things out a bit?

The pace is important to me. One of the core interests in my studio is to create time for understanding. Misdirection is, oddly enough, a way that I am going about that right now. I am interested in creating objects that are not easily defined by language. Can creating distance between naming and knowing things be helpful? I am hoping ambiguity and nuance can help build up a tolerance or even a welcome for the in-between-ness of things.
Daphne Fragment
You have a piece referencing the mythological Greek nymph Daphne’s transformation into a laurel tree to protect her from Apollo – what’s the significance of that myth for you?

Each time I consider the myth of Daphne and Apollo, different aspects stand out. As I understand it, Apollo is lustfully pursuing Daphne, she does not want to be pursued, but the chase is so long and he is about to overtake her. In desperation she prays for help, her river god father answers her prayer by turning her into a laurel tree. She is rooted to the spot. By becoming something else, she seems to evade Apollo's grasp. But it doesn’t end there. Apollo is under a spell, his desire cannot be settled. Unsatisfied, he cuts her branches and adorns himself with them in competition, in one version, he wears them at the Olympics. As it turns out, dáfni is the word for laurel in the Greek language, and more generally the story offers an origin of the laurel wreath, still in use today as a symbol of accomplishment, a mark of honor, routinely used as an icon for awards, on trophies, etc... Making the clay and plaster pieces has been a drawing practice meditating on the snares of the story.
You also have a piece quoting the female figure in Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe, using model Victorine Meurent’s outline, flattening her and repeating her form. Manet was famous for flattening. Can you talk about why this at-the-time controversial depiction inspired you?

For me, the original painting of Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe raises questions about power, agency and class through the postures and relationships of its subjects. Victorine Meurant was an artist, a contemporary of Manet’s, but the first way I met her was as a controversial subject in his paintings. I guess I’m saying the social stuff surrounding the production of the painting rather than the image itself, is what drew me to it initially. I’ve been curious about the analysis of the image and recognize that this painting has been parodied many times.. When I made this in 2017, I was interested in the grid as an enforcer of order, and what that superimposition on this destabilizing figure would do. In space, as you move around it, the grid inside appears to shift. I was interested in the ambiguity of this flattened female subject as a surface on which we cast our present moment concerns and repairs.
You’re an educator and an immaculate fabricator – do these other ways of operating inform your practice?

I do think that these two roles definitely inform my practice. Talking with students and figuring things out for demos is one way I also learn. And fabricating keeps me on my toes, every job is a little different. I use parts from jobs and from classes in my sculptures, and parts from sculptures in my classes. I like to teach things that I’m actively figuring out as a way to share the application of whatever technique or material we’re focused on in class. In this way I have a cycle of materials flowing through the personal space of the studio and the semi public space of the classroom.   
Part of the reason I make things is because it’s a way I learn and process. Being in an educational setting allows me to share that and encourage that tendency in others.
And lastly, seen any great exhibitions lately / any other contemporary artists you're excited about?

I saw a striking immersive video installation by Bleue Liverpool at the Center for Afrofuturist Studies before the winter started. Since then I also read a book about naming and nature writing called Landmarks by Robert McFarlane.

Hannah Givler grew up in London, Ohio in an unfinished American Foursquare house with exposed stud walls, plywood floors and unpainted drywall. The interior was equally raw and refined, revealing a logic of materials and wood frame construction that continues to inform her interests to this day.  Her formal experimentation with materials and installations began with a degree in Sculpture from The Ohio State University and continued in Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she earned her MFA.Ongoing teaching in higher-ed, workshops, and collaborations within her creative community disposes Hannah to a theoretically engaged practice, deeply invested in learning and sharing knowledge about materials. In 2012, Hannah developed the inaugural wood and metal shops at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts at the University of Chicago where she also designed/fabricated for Logan Exhibitions and co-created workshops with Arts and Public Life. She has been an artist in residence at the Chicago Artist Coalition, Vermont Studio Center, 8550 Ohio, The Center for Land Use Interpretation, ACRE, and Umoja Center for the Arts in Arusha Tanzania. Her works have been exhibited nationally and internationally at venues such as The Cultural Center in Arusha Tanzania, The Banff Centre, 4th Ward Project Space, Logan Exhibitions, Chicago Artist Coalition, Riverside Art Center, Flatland Gallery, and DEMO Projects. These experiences have fostered work that varies in scale, often taking the form of architectural installation, sculpture, sound, and the collaborative organization of conversations and events.

Katherine Harvath is an artist, curator, and art worker based in Chicago. She is interested in finding meaning in material and form. Quick gestures, familiar objects, the history of painting, and the semiotics of color all play a role in her painting and sculpture. Harvath received her MFA from the University of Chicago in 2013 and BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2009. She has been included in exhibitions at SPRING/BREAK, Los Angeles, 2019; Outback Arthouse, Los Angeles, 2018; Produce Model, Chicago, 2016; and Spears, Chicago, 2016. More about her at