Debra Hampton is a collage crackerjack with as much to say in words as she does in pictures.
Tell us who you are and the background you come from.
I grew up in Southern California between Los Angeles and Orange County. Even though
I began university as a studio major, I switched to art history which seemed better suited
at the time for my intellectual and historical curiosity. I continued my Masters at NYU in
an interdisciplinary program where I cultivated my own structure consisting of art history,
post-modern theory, gender studies, and new media. During that time, I continued to
make art and eventually through an internship at a gallery I began to show these plastic
assemblage light boxes I’d constructed inspired by Joseph Cornell. As the doors kept
opening for exhibiting, I kept making work and today I keep a full time studio in Long
You are interested in a very broad range of issues. Is there any in particular
that you are currently obsessed with? And are there any that you find yourself
continually returning to?
I like to layer the issues and meaning so I don’t get tired of them and so far I don’t feel
that I’ve entirely exhausted the intersections of gender, consumerism, power structures,
and modern identity. I have expanded recently to include a new series of still lifes which
I’m really excited about. It seems a natural outgrowth of the portraiture and historical
attire that I’ve found myself creating. A sort of remaking or re-interpretation of classic art
You specify Goya’s The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters as an inspiration
for some of your work. Is the issue of today a lack of Reason, or something else?
When I was reintroduced to Goya’s etching some years ago, it struck me as relevant
on many levels. For me it’s significance lies in the metaphor that when we get lazy
or “sleep” we do not see reality in a clear light and therefore are more inclined to make
bad decisions (monsters) both in our own minds as well as in real life. I think many of
us are sleeping not only intellectually but also emotionally and we have indeed created
many “monsters” on small personal levels but also globally.
What do more people need to be awakened to?
A lot to choose from here. We could start with environmental responsibility and throw
in social equality for good measure. Really, the answer to this could earn someone a
dissertation and a few post-doc years of fine research.
What books were the most important in informing your worldview?
I’m sure there were plenty of influences I came across as a teen which I don’t recall in
detail like Carlos Castaneda, but as an undergrad in New York, in addition to plenty
of post-modernists on the syllabus, a few extra-curricular writings helped solidify my
perspectives including Angela Davis, Gandhi, Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., and a
smattering of Arundhati Roi and Noam Chomsky.
Any other media that really defined your perspective?
Having eyes glued to MTV when I was a preteen must have made an impact as well as
channel surfing between local cable stations where programs in non-English languages
captivated me for hours (and drove my mom crazy), not to mention the imaginative kid’s
shows aired in the 70’s like “Land of the Lost”, “H.R. Puff in Stuff”, and “The Bugaloos.”
And I know I’m going to get teased for this one, but I’m fairly certain that something about
the early 90’s rave scene in Los Angeles made it’s way into the fabric of my vision. At least
that’s what an early painting professor remarked on at our first crit which consequently
upset me since my piece was inspired by the beautiful and obsessive patterns of Gustav
Klimt’s classic “The Kiss.”
What is the process like for your intricate collages? Are the steps disparate,
such as the collecting of the materials and the putting them together, or do you
go back and forth between the steps? Are there any particular reasons why your
process works for you?
I actually work in a very organic manner so there’s no pre-planning of any sort. I don’t
sketch out ideas or create designs in Photoshop first. If I did I would never finish the real
piece because all of its secrets and lessons would already be learned. I think it stems
from a personal philosophy – make the most of what you have by being creative and
resourceful, embrace the “accidents” right away by turning them into something you can
use, and move on to the next “piece.”
In terms of technique & process I do have some structured regimens that help me keep
order off the canvas. I separate all pieces by color, size, and type. So the studio is filled
with bins of cutouts arranged methodically by their formal elements: body parts in one
bin, red motorcycles and jewelry in another, gold chains in another, and so on.
I always start a work by throwing down a sizeable smattering of ink because staring at
a large, blank canvas is rather intimidating when one doesn’t have a plan. Once I break
the visual ice with that it’s easy to build up with layers of cutouts, pen drawing, and
splattered ink paying attention to the composition, negative space, and overall feel of the
work until it reaches completion. The armor is created with a similar organic process with
the exception that I use a form underneath in order to get a base female shape. Like the
collages, individual pieces are placed 1 after another so there’s no going backwards if
I don’t like something. Instead, I have to work with any mistakes and make it part of the
Shed some light on your armor series. What is the connecting thread between
those and your collages and what inspired you to move into a 3-dimensional
The three-dimensional works in the last few years have all served as extensions of the
collage series. It’s a satisfying way to expand the concepts and media and seemed like
a natural step since my method is so constructive-based even on the two-dimensional
works. Basically, pushing the technique and ideas off the wall has been something I’ve
enjoyed for awhile but needed a strong idea that could stand on it’s own as well as
work well with the collages. The connecting thread is that the items could be interpreted
as remnants or material culture from this imaginary set of characters portrayed in the
portraits. But importantly, they have a message and experience which is individual as
well dealing with issues of commodity, consumption, environmental and gender topics
What are some of the important elements that you consider when doing
installations? What locations do you dream of giving your personal touch to?
Installations require a sensitivity to the way people flow through so keeping in mind
perspective and distance in regard to the work is critical. I’d love to work more with public
spaces in particular contributing permanent urban design to functional elements and
structures used by pedestrians and transit riders.
If you had to wear a piece of your own armor to ride into a battle of ideas, which
would you choose? What would be your weapon of choice? Any allies or would
you wage war alone?
I think I’d take something from one of the collages series actually because they function
like shape-shifters so I’d be free to dissolve and re-transform as needed. Weapon of
choice in any battle would be a keen intellect and plenty of allies.
Any upcoming exhibits or works that you’d like to plug?
I just completed a solo exhibition in Copenhagen so I’m replenishing my studio with
new works but I’m excited about my first “art product” which is a custom screenprinted
skateboard made in collaboration with M.A.K.E. Skateboards and that’s been making
appearances at pop up skate shops around the US.