Installation artist Megan Koeppel is interested in materiality above all else. Using pulverized paper pulp from her day job and textile scraps sourced entirely from SCRAP B-more, Koeppel challenges herself to make low-cost work that can be recycled, taken apart, and reconfigured to respond to the exhibition spaces. The resulting brightly colored, soft and lightweight sculptures are an exploration of found color and pattern, taking inspiration from sources such as the diamond plate pattern on storm drains and detritus in the Baltimore landscape. Weaving together the language of ready-made and up-cycle, Koeppel’s work rehashes and reinvents the familiar until it looks otherworldly.
A recent graduate of MICA, Koeppel works full-time at School 33 as an administrative assistant. She is also the curator at the John Fonda Theater Project where she focuses on giving other young artists their first exhibition opportunities. In this interview, Koeppel discussed puppetry, bonding with female artists over shared experiences, closets full of Poly-fil, and spaghetti self-portraits.
SUBJECT: Megan Koeppel, 22
WEARING: A jean jacket, black shirt, Chelsea boots, and plaid pants
PLACE: Charles Village, Baltimore, MD
Suzy Kopf: What is the most important art-related book you’ve read?
Megan Koeppel: Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit. The book was really influential to the way I navigate the art world, and I was able to bond/build relationships with many female mentors over Solnit’s writing. What influenced me was the realization that the language she used are terms I use daily to describe my experiences. Solnit gives us a lot of the language to articulate sexist experiences, which enables women to find commonalities in these experiences with one another. Her writing gave me a platform to engage with women I look up to on these topics, which in turn gave me the courage to begin addressing sexist situations.
A lot of problematic things have occurred throughout my education, to me and my peers, and now that I’ve graduated they continue to occur in a more social context. Reading Men Explain Things to Me made me feel comfortable to share these experiences with my female educators and mentors. These conversations turned into really healthy advice on how to deal with sexist encounters in a professional and social space moving forward, while simultaneously creating stronger bonds between myself and other female artists.
What was the worst career or life advice you’ve ever received?
A lot of people (artists and non-artists) have told me that teaching is the only field you can work in when you have a degree in the arts. Many young artists believe this advice, and feel as though the possible career opportunities or ways to apply their skills are really narrow because of this.
During my time as an undergraduate student I did a lot of different internships/apprenticeships where I was exposed to the variety of jobs an artist can have. There are a multitude of jobs in the nonprofit sector, along with plenty of public and community art based positions that I never even thought of until interning for nonprofit spaces, or independent organizations like FORCE. Through working at School 33, and in the Cultural Affairs department at BOPA, I have learned that artists work as programmers, administrators, curators, installers and as educators in a multitude of ways, not solely in a daily academic setting.
Did you have an American girl doll as a child? Which one did you want?
No, dolls scare me, I was a Polly Pocket kid growing up. I liked the brightly colored, artificial look of them, which kind of shows up in my art practice. I have always been into miniatures since my mom took me to see the miniatures collection at the Art Institute of Chicago when I was little. I went to see the Nutshell Series while it was up at the Renwick, which was amazing—true crime, craft and miniatures, what’s better than that?
What is the art supply/business related material you should buy stock in, you use it so much?
Having a closet full of Poly-fil would be the dream.
Whose career do you aspire to? Why?
My interest in visual art has really been shaped by other female artists who are involved in curatorial work and public art projects that have a political underpinning to them. The most inspiring and interesting career to me is one where an artist is willing to collaborate and able to juggle a lot of different opportunities. It’s difficult to pick one person because there are so many women in Baltimore who fit this description: Jackie Milad, Hannah Brancato, Katherine Mann, Marian Glebes, Melissa Webb, and many more.
Do you have what might be described as an unusual hobby? What is it? How did you get into that?
I took a puppetry class while I was in school, and it has heavily influenced my work and enthusiasm for performance. Ever since, I have been very interested in the history of puppetry, and try to attend as many puppetry shows in Baltimore as possible! I love going to see the puppet slams at Black Cherry, and the performances that Alex & Olmstead put on at the Baltimore Theatre Project.
The hobby mostly revolves around watching puppetry, but my work is heavily influenced by puppeteering. During the class I took as an undergraduate student with Valeska Populoh, I took my “gallery ready” soft sculpture and papier-mâché pieces and turned them into wearable works. I did a performance in a costume made of bright pink tentacles that had shakers inside of them. The performance looked like a germ multiplying or an abstracted underwater scene. My performances in the class lacked vocals, but were full of sounds and character/creature exploration. For the most part, my recent work has been stationary, but moving forward in my practice I hope to utilize my interest in kinetic sculpture and instrumental elements as a form of puppetry.
Whose work would you want in your home? Specific piece?
I want one of the “soft books” that Louise Bourgeois created later in her career. If I had a place to put it, Lilicoptere by Joana Vasconcelos, which is a helicopter covered in giant pink feathers.
If you had unlimited funding and the time and space to make it, describe the piece or series you would make.
I would make very large versions of my work, and costumes based off of my soft sculptures. Then invite people to perform in a giant parade/outdoor performance piece. I’m not a performer, I’m too shy, but I would love to see performance artists interact with my work.
Is there anyone in particular who is a dream collaborator? What would the theme of the work be? Is there a narrative or story you’re dying to tell?
I would be interested in working with dance groups or experimental performance artists like Call Your Mom. Pinning down a specific narrative is difficult because I think that’s where I see the collaborative element being most present. With my practice I feel as though a lot of times narrative comes out of the making, discussion, and experimenting with materials.
What are the last three emojis you used?
The brunette shrug emoji, the upside down smiley face, and the pancakes.
What was the most memorable assignment you were given in school? What did you make?
The most memorable assignment from school was when I was asked to make a self-portrait out of cooked spaghetti. My professor was Suzie Brandt.
Wait, I have so many questions about that: What happened to it? Did it rot? How did you hang it? Was there sauce involved?
The portraits were an in-class assignment, so all of the students were asked to take handfuls from buckets of spaghetti and create self-portraits. I created mine on the surface of the table, but some students worked on the floor or tried to make them by throwing spaghetti against the walls. The most difficult part of the portrait was getting my eyebrows right. At the end of class we shared our portraits and cleaned up the classroom.
What are three words you hate the people use to describe your work?
Cute, delicate, and shallow (shallow in concept). I also don’t like it when people say my work is “too” much of something. Like too colorful or too big or too crafty, because that’s sort of how a lot of my work is meant to function.
As a curator, at the John Fonda Gallery in the Baltimore Theatre Project and elsewhere, what kind of work are you looking for? What kinds of shows are you excited to put together? What is your curatorial vision?
I usually utilize the John Fonda gallery space as a way to invite young artists to work on their installation skills and language surrounding their work. I often invite artists who make installation based and modular work, so they have a sort of playground to set this up in, over an extended period of time. Most of the artists are around my age, so they usually don’t have the physical space to finalize the installations they are interested in making. The exhibitions are an opportunity for young artists to have a solo show for the first time, and work on the professional aspects that will help move their careers forward.
In your day job as an administrative assistant, is there anything that is inspiring your practice (aside from the paper you are recycling)?
My job at School 33 allows me to be around and in communication with artists all day, so it’s difficult not to get inspired by new mediums or methods of making. Most what I learn happens during gallery turnover when I’m able to assist artists with install and ask about their work. I have learned a lot about mediums that are new to me, from claymation to casting concrete. Additionally, I have learned a lot about installing various kinds of work, which is very helpful since the majority of my work is precarious and installation based.
Art AND is a new bi-monthly interview series from BmoreArt. Organized by Suzy Kopf, the series is a personal perspective into the lives of creative people that goes beyond “tell us about your work.” Designed to provide an in-depth look into creative makers’ and thinkers’ industry as well as their personality, experience, background, tastes, and opinions, Art AND moves away from the myth of maker-as-genius and focuses on the very human aspect of being an artist.