Interview conducted by Celia Draycott (Pitzer '23)
Sheryl Oring is an artist who explores and investigates critical social issues. Oring is also Professor and Chair of the James Pearson Duffy Department of Art and Art History at Wayne State University in Detroit. Oring takes inspiration from classic journalist, and thus focuses her projects around cameras, typewriters, interviews, pens, or archives. Her content in the past has focused on a diverse array of subject matter, from messages to politicians, travel stories, to writer's block, all of which showcase activism through art. Oring has been featured at a plethora of musseums and locations, from Bryant Park in Manhattan, the Jewish Museum in Berlin, to Art Prospect in St. Petersburg, Russia. www.sheryloring.org
How are you and how is quarantine treating you?
Thanks for asking - it has created a lot of new challenges that’s for sure! I am chair of the art program at Wayne State University and so there are a lot of issues to work through.
You have made sculptures, artists books, performance art pieces, and more, do you have a preference for one specific medium?
I love them all for different reasons. Books are near and dear to my heart and provide a more introspective way of working than my performances, which involve the public. Sculpture and installations tie into three-dimensional thinking and ways objects relate to space and are a different form of communication that I enjoy as well. Also, the scale of sculpture and installations is really compelling and is sometimes the best way to address a particular issue.
Going through your projects and pictures on your website, I noticed that the majority of the typists used seem to be women. Why do you think this is? Is it for historical accuracy?
That’s an interesting question. The role of women in service positions is becoming very clear in today’s climate. I have worked with a few men as typists over the years but the vast majority of people signing up to work with me on my larger projects with multiple typists have been women. I also think that society sees women as listeners and listening is at the heart of my projects so that may be a reason as well. But contrary to what stereotypes might suggest, I see women in these positions as very powerful people. I think secretaries and office assistants are incredibly powerful people and deserve our utmost respect.
You seem to represent a diverse array of focuses and interests throughout your past projects, such as immigrant experience in Chain Letter, travel stories in Travel Desk, university wishes in Alma Mater etc. How do you choose what the focus of your projects are?
All my projects tie into issues of personal concern or interest. At the heart of all of them are things like narrative, story-telling, and the power of listening. “Chain Letter” was created for the Eldridge Street Synagogue on the Lower East Side in New York City, a place where my own Eastern European Jewish grandparents once lived. And now I am raising a daughter who is the child of an immigrant, as her father came her from India. So it was a natural to do a project that would amplify the voices of immigrants through their stories. Travel has always been important to me, seeing the world and learning about different places and cultures. I’ve been to 49 states and 29 countries, so doing a project for an airport was a natural. Of course, these days we cannot travel. But even now, the memories of travel are something I turn to for comfort. And higher education is something I care deeply about, as a professor and administrator.
Your art, although representing several different issues, themes, and mediums, has always seemed to follow the track of typewriters, typists, and typewriting. What initially drew you to this art form?
I had a background in journalism and writing before I turned to art so the connection is deep. I love every aspect of the typewriter - the sound, the smell, the touch, the type, the look - and keep thinking of new things to do with typewriters. So until I run out of ideas… they will play a big role in my work.
Throughout your installations and art pieces, you tend to use other people as typists. In several of your works, the typists have worn a themed color or costume. In Travel Desk, you had typists dress in 1960’s era flight attendant uniforms, in Greetings from Tampa Bay typists seemed to wear a themed red outfit, and in many others, typists tend to look like they are wearing vintage clothing. Why and how did you choose this? Also, what message do you feel like this is sending?
For each project I start out with a brainstorming period in which I research ideas about costumes etc. Typically I am going for a look that matches the typewriters I am using for a particular project. Color plays a role in terms of how the performers look in a space or with the particular typewriters I am using (there are often different ones for different projects). But fundamentally once I choose the typewriters I try to choose outfits that match the era so it looks consistent.
With my “I Wish to Say” project in which I type postcards to the US President I do think that the costumes could be read as a sarcastic comment on the current administration and that’s fine too.
Your artist’s books tend to take a large variety of shapes, colors, textures, etc. How do you choose the most ideal way to communicate your message? Do you have a preference for one specific style, if so why?
Every project starts with a blank slate in terms of specific design choices and I typically work through things with a graphic designer. There are two graphic designers I have done a lot of work with over the years, Amy Mees and Emily Larned, both of whom I met in Brooklyn when we were all involved with a book arts organization called Booklyn. It’s been important to me to have strong design collaborators and the relationships we have built over the years make it really fun and easy to work together.