Where are you from and what sort of child were you?

I grew up in Regina, Saskatchewan.  I was an “art kid”; always drawing, crafting, building, and imagining stories.  I have wanted to be an artist for as long as I can remember.


Tell us about your first memories of being creative. What were your early influences and/or exposure to art and culture?

I come from a creative family; my mom was a primary school teacher and was always prepping for the amazing art projects she’d do with her class, my dad had a shop in our garage where he made much of our furniture.  My childhood was filled with creative activities and we always had art and craft materials to experiment with.  We visited the natural history museum, science centre and art gallery frequently and I was lucky to take all kinds of art classes from pottery to drawing to writing plays.  One of my early memories of crafting with my mom was reading a book about a little girl who made pigs out of nylons – and then we made our own pigs – SO many of them.  They all had different decorations and we gave them names and made up stories about them.


Describe your work in 3 sentences or less.

My artistic investigations propose hybrids of technological structures and living organisms.  They take form as abandoned technologies that have sprouted with new life, clever artificialities that imitate nature, or biotechnological fixtures of the not-too-distant future.


What brought you to sculpture? Was there a pivotal moment in your past where you discovered it?  Or was it a progression over a period of time?  How did your work come to be?

Early in my practice I wove willow branches into natural forms such as nests and pods which I installed in indoor environments.  I was interested in brining outside inside and worked with willow because it was reflective of my environment.  Willow soon became limiting to my conceptual investigations and the physical forms that peaked my interest. One day I was gifted a telephone cable collected by a friend from a construction site.  With hundreds of plastic-covered copper wires in a rainbow of colours, my artwork took on a new direction.  At first I welded metal structures and wrapped them in thousands of meters of wire, but after tiring of lugging sculptures that weighed hundreds of pounds and breaking a bone in my hand, I learned to weave the material.

Using telephone wire to weave has lead me down many interesting research paths: the history of electrification, recycling and waste journeys for electronic refuse, how neural networks and our bodies own electrical systems influence human understanding of electricity, manufacturing practice and politics, how electricians use colour coding, and historical and contemporary basketry methods (including those practiced by the Zulu people in South Africa who now make renditions of their traditional baskets using telephone wire).  I have experimented with loom weaving, crocheting, knitting, embroidery, and basketry methods before settling on a braiding technique which allows me to freeform my artworks.

This research as well as an intuitive response to other collected e-waste materials has influenced the many directions my practice has taken. In Post-Desktop, I created soft sculptures of larger-than-life circuitsIn Passage I made replicas of ancient ceramic batteries and wired them to run an iPod shuffle.  In a series of drawings, Adaptations, nature is paired with satellite technologies to imagine future devices.  In Cling, larger than life barnacles are situated on abandoned television satellite dishes.  Alongside my many interests, creating woven wire sculptures has endured as a constant in my practice and over many years I have developed two bodies of work, Systems and Things, with this medium.  Recently, I have begun to experiment with altering other waste objects such as plastic bottles and situating my sculptures as wearable artworks to explore the medium and its potential interacting with other materials and the human body.


Tell us something about yourself that would surprise us!

Many people who view my work assume that I grew up near the ocean or that I visited it frequently as a child, however, I didn’t step a single toe into the ocean until I was 30 years old.  Growing up in land-locked Saskatchewan, my only ocean encounters were through photographs in coffee table books, encyclopaedias, and National Geographic magazines.  Ocean life always appeared as other-worldly to me, as magical and full of imaginative potential as an alien landscape.  I’ve since experienced a few ocean dips, but the ocean landscape and its many creatures have not lost one bit of their magic.


Tell us about your first real break.

I’m very grateful to have received my first Saskatchewan Arts Board grant in 2006.  Two years out of art school, working multiple jobs, and uncertain of my next move – being recognized by my peers and receiving a sum of money towards a project meant so much.  The artworks I made with that funding also helped me flesh out a body of work which I have exhibited in public art galleries multiple times and which helped gain me admission to graduate school.


What has been the biggest challenge of your artistic career that you’ve encountered so far?

Being an artist comes with many challenges from problem solving artworks themselves to slogging through the business side of art, fighting for fair compensation for your work to trying to balance art and other work and life.  For me, the most enduring challenge is to maintain positivity, momentum and faith in my art practice through the many ups and downs of life as an artist.  I believe resilience is the most important skill that an artist can foster and for me this skill is consistently challenged and under development.


What does your average day look like and when are you most productive?

I start my day with tea and administrative tasks such as answering emails, exhibition arrangements and applications.  After lunch I head to the studio and work on more labour-intensive artworks.  When I need a break, I head out for a walk in the forest adjacent to my studio.  After my walk, I go back to the studio for a few more hours, then head inside for supper.  Several evenings a week I will work on my wire sculptures which I can do in the company of Netflix.  Ideally, I end the day with some stretching as art making is hard on many of my body parts.  My day is structured around when I am most productive for different things, for example, morning concentration and afternoon physical movement.  There are also many days where I’m teaching, providing workshops, or writing curriculum.  On those days, this rhythm shifts, admin goes out the window and I may spend the evening in the studio or curled up with my wire.


What inspires you to be your most creative self? And how do you overcome creative block?

My creative parts are easily excitable.  Barnacle on a rock?  I want to make a HUGE one.  Empty pop bottle on my table?  Soon to be an artwork.  Computer left on the street?  Now it’s a home for my sculptures.  I am blessed (or cursed) with more ideas than I will ever have the time to complete.  And, the more I work, the more one idea or project always leads to another.  Creative block for me surfaces more in the form of self-doubt: Has someone else already made this?  Who will show this work?  Is all this time I’ve invested worth it?  What is it anyways?  Why am a such a weirdo?  This is where the resilience piece I mentioned earlier is called into practice.  I have found the only way to work through these things is to just work.  Once I’m in the process of creating, it’s easier to put aside these worries.


What is your favourite place in the world? Is there anywhere you would still like to visit?

I was very fortunate to visit Tahiti and surrounding islands seven years ago and this was the very first place I experienced the ocean landscape in person.  It was the most magical two weeks of my adult life.  Beyond this experience, anywhere I can be immersed in a forest or a body of water is my favourite.  Aside from the trip to Tahiti, I have not had the opportunity to travel outside of North America.  There are SO many places I hope to visit in the future including New Zealand, Australia, Japan and Europe.


How would your friends describe you?

I believe my friends would describe me as energetic, creative and perhaps a bit impatient for whatever is next in my projects and in my life.


If you could give advice to your 20-year-old self, what would it be?

Ask for what you want, apply for the things that excite you even if you don’t feel ready, create opportunities where you want to see them (I think I’m still telling myself these things).  Also – invest in a good camera and take quality photos of your work!


Tell us about your latest work, and anything that’s on the horizon for you?

I recently finished a nearly 2 year in the making project, Cling.  Cling situates (much) larger than life barnacles on television satellite dishes.  I will be installing this project at the Kamloops Art Gallery in British Columbia in January.  It is my long-term hope that Cling will become a public art project where hundreds of barnacle-encrusted satellite dishes are installed on the exterior of a public building.  I’m also looking forward to the fall when I have an exhibition at the Okotoks Art Gallery in Alberta, and will be presenting as part of a panel, hosting a workshop, and exhibiting work at the Craft at the Edge symposium in Newfoundland.

Twyla Exner

ADDRESS Interview with Twyla Exner.