Born Westland, 1990 / BFA, College for Creative Studies / Lives in Detroit
It’s easy, and forgivable, to mistake mixed media sculptor Chloe Songalewski’s work as that of an architect. But in the series of sculptures that have become her signature —miniature geometric houses and cabins made of converging pieces of salvaged wood and other found materials — Songalewski is investigating something more personal. In fact, she knows next to nothing about architecture, which is partly why she smiles when people insist it as a source of her work. And most of what she knows about sculpting she’s taught herself, as a method of using her art, and art training, for something greater than commercial gain. Each piece she makes these days is an attempt to examine the meaning of home, whether it’s an actual space, a feeling, or a combination of structure and sentimental associations. “I’m finally creating art I want to make; art I need to make,’’ she explains. As a child, Songalewski moved around with her family so much, she never felt rooted. Art was then, she says, the only retreat she could find from the alcoholism that stole both her relationship with her father and ultimately her sense of home.
In Central Image (2017), she draws viewers into what looks to be a cozy cabin complete with an attached green space and a ladder for entry. But look closer and you notice that the coziness is imperfect. The ladder is broken. Windows are shattered. While the sculpture is not a rendering of any of the homes Songalewski actually lived in, aspects of the piece quietly juxtapose what she sees as romanticized ideas of home against some of the ugly realities that live inside the places, and people, we call home.
If there is one place that conjures a feeling of home for Songalewski, it’s outdoors, in the presence of trees and wild things that invite boundless exploration and rejuvenation. In Decay and Rebirth (2017), she creates a topiary effect, an almost conversational collage between plants, stones, branches and even a tiny skull, all found in northern Michigan. At first glance, Home (Voyage) 2018, is just a tiny tent and a clump of even smaller branches perched atop a slab of wood. Most viewers get lost in the whimsy. But to Songalewski, the sculpture is a reminder of a personally challenging time. She made the piece during what she calls the coldest winter of her life, when she found herself living in a house without heat. In art, she found refuge and a fiery focus. Scrap materials in the house, discarded fabric and wood helped her create possibility out of an impossible situation.
Just a few years ago, traditional creative success seemed imminent for Songelweski . She was, as the saying goes, on her way, designing vivid concert gig posters and album covers for singers and bands – some with known names like Iggy Pop and Nina & The Buffalo Riders. Work was becoming plentiful, well-paying, and her edgy yet elegant sketch-based prints were finding their way into group exhibitions such as “The Printer’s Devil” at the Scarab Club and “GIG:The Art of Michigan Music.” She was following a path begun as a life-drawing student at the American Academy of Art in Chicago and later at the College for Creative Studies, where she earned an illustration degree. She’d found everything except personal satisfaction. “As an illustrator, you plan,” she says. “There was no discovery.’’
So, she shut her laptop, put down her sketchbooks and nearly abandoned all things art, saved only by the discovery of a used book about the design of handmade houses. She lost herself in the images, each calling up an unsettled longing for a sense of home. But she couldn’t look away.
Instead, she started sketching replicas. Next, she found herself stockpiling wood, then tiny old tools, jigsaws and nails. Making a house of her own was inevitable. So too was the flood of memories of creating wood projects with her father, rare joyful childhood moments which she says might otherwise still be locked away if not for art. “I don’t try to make it obvious; I really want people to have their own experience,’’ she says, ”But I know it’s a very personal healing process that snuck on me. Now it’s my zen zone.”
In Protect Me (2017), a spare graphite and ink drawing on wood, Songalewski sly hints to the autobiographical nature of her work, with a handwritten plea in the center of the piece. “Protect me and give me courage,’’ she writes. By her commitment to making and sharing work, clearly Songalewski’s art practice is answering her call.
Nichole Christian, August 2018
Copyright Essay’d 2018