Angela Ellsworth on Her Ongoing Plural Wife Project, New Work, and the Museum of Walking

Angela Ellsworth is nothing short of an art celebrity here in Phoenix.

She's represented by Lisa Sette Gallery and is associate professor of Intermedia at Arizona State University, where The Museum of Walking (MoW), one of her current projects with Steve Yazzie, is based. Along with the launching of MoW last year, Ellsworth was named a recipient of the prestigious Art Matters Foundation Grant for Soundproofed, a solo performance that's part of her larger Plural Wife Project. And, to top it all off, an exhibition of Ellsworth's new work, "Volume I," recently opened at the Joseph Gross Gallery at University of Arizona in Tucson. Though these various projects and bodies of work are vast in the way they engage with history, movement, and space, there is a larger dialogue there -- a thread that runs throughout her artistic practice.

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In 2014, the leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints began publishing essays online that offered a new sense of transparency in regard to the officially abolished practice of polygamy. For the first time ever, these essays publicly acknowledged that Joseph Smith, the original prophet of the LDS church, had up to 40 wives outside of his marriage. Previously this fact had existed as a rumor, albeit a fairly well-documented one, that came especially to light almost a decade ago when Warren Jeffs became a household name and polygamy breaking news. Jeffs, leader of a fundamentalist Mormon sect that separated itself from the official LDS church due to disputes regarding the practice of polygamy, was the subject of a manhunt.

But prior Jeffs and polygamy making headlines, Ellsworth had begun digging into her own personal history as an ex-Mormon. She spent much of her life resisting the religion, its history, and her relationship with it. Ellsworth had begun researching her Mormon lineage during graduate school, but began looking closer as polygamy's media prevalence grew. Her research into her family history resulted in her discovery of 34 sister wives, women who had been rendered invisible. Ellsworth grew up knowing that one of those wives was her own great-great-aunt. With this personal connection in mind, Ellsworth began making performances and sculptures that writes these women back into history.

"All of my work is about unearthing these things that no one really talks about," Ellsworth says.

With the recent admission by Mormon leaders and the discovery of six more sister wives, Ellsworth plans to figure out where they reside chronologically. Her Seer Bonnets function as stand-ins for the sister wives, which means that now Ellsworth wants to "figure out where those other six are within the series. I'm mostly intrigued by who these six are that were somehow left out of the original equation."

Currently, however, Ellsworth's focus within the Plural Wife Project is on a performance called Soundproofed. In 2014, she staged Soundproof Laboratory, a durational performance/public forum at Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art featuring her sister wives trying to hear through walls by retooling everyday objects and using high-tech equipment. That experiment is informing her plans to stage an intervention at a Mormon-funded mall in Salt Lake City, Utah. Ellsworth was awarded a 2014 Art Matters grant for this project, called Soundproofed, which she's in the research phase of planning.

Ellsworth's newest body of work, "Volume I," is currently on display at the Joseph Gross Gallery at University of Arizona until April 10, 2015. The works are made from subtle objects that are often overlooked: a blank page, the spine of the book, or an unfolded cardboard box. Most of these objects are rubbed with graphite, providing them with a strange, industrial sheen. Though these works are quiet in comparison to Ellsworth's larger body of work that questions and disrupts Mormon history, they are as much about unearthing as anything else Ellsworth creates. These blank spaces that Ellsworth activates hint at a history; a history that warrants a closer examination. When Ellsworth began researching the Mormon past she had to look closely, digging for documents that may or may not exist. These works mimic that process.

Ellsworth has also been collaborating with artist Steve Yazzie on The Museum of Walking. Since its inception, programming has consisted of silent hikes led by Adriene Jenik, exhibitions at both its headquarters at ASU and Livery Studio Space, and conversations surrounding the act of walking. MoW is a small space located in a section of Ellsworth's office on campus, but its programming thus far has been big. "It's exciting for me as a professor to activate that office space which is generally hidden and is like a mystery space," Ellsworth says. It's an institutional space, but MoW functions as a critique of such a space. Its clear glass door offers a sense of transparency both literally and figuratively.

For 2015, The Museum of Walking is planning on continuing its exhibition programming and developing its library of books on the act of walking. This library won't be like your normal library, though. Since walking is an analog process that isn't always linear, the card catalog exists as a rolodex. There are also plans to house many of the books off-site at coffee shops and nearby homes, making the process more experiential. In the next couple of years, Ellsworth hopes to stage a city-wide walking event that brings together various art institutions in metro Phoenix. Unlike other group-walk events, this one is focused on the act of walking as a group itself and its inherent politics. There's often a romanticized idea surrounding walking, but MoW questions that. "What's left out is what we are walking on," said Ellsworth. "What is this land that we are walking on? What is the site?" Just as Ellsworth's other work queers history and object, MoW functions as a queering of space.

To keep up with what's going on at The Museum of Walking, visit Angela Ellsworth's "Volume I" will be on view at Joseph Gross Gallery at University of Arizona in Tucson until April 10, 2015.

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Mikey Estes
Contact: Mikey Estes