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Illustration by Petra Collins

Petra Collins turns to art in search of sanctuary

‘I’ve never really felt home/safe/or in a sanctum place – so I’ve created that by making art’

Photographer Petra Collins has curated the very first exhibition at SFAQ [Project] Space ahead of its launch tonight. A social sculpture and miniature institution in California, the space will feature a roster of arts and culture programing over the next four months. Titled Comforter, Collins has enlisted the work of artists Carlotta Kohl, T.V. Wade, Claire Milbrath, and Nguan, alongside her own, to explore the dualities of home/transience and sanctuary/chaos in our everyday lives. Collins’s own life experience was the basis for looking into these binaries. Growing up in the Toronto suburbs before moving to New York, she says: “In both spaces I have had this despondent feeling that out of the tranquil sanctuary called home would come chaos; that at any minute things could just change – and things did change and will continue to do so.” Below, we speak to the photographer, curator, filmmaker and designer about chaos in the suburbs, anxiety and Virginia Woolf.

What was behind your decision to go with these themes of duality?

Petra Collins: This show was very impulsive and organic for me and I basically just curated it based on my feelings of the moment. Winter is always really hard for me and it just really got me thinking of my place in the world but also my place physically in my home.

Where do you tend to find sanctuary? Alternatively, where do you find chaos?

Petra Collins: I guess the same place I find chaos. I think ultimately I'm happiest when I'm surrounded by both.

The duality of tranquility/chaos is a pretty female-centric binary. Females are their own tranquility/chaos. You mostly work with female artists and creatives, but what is it in your opinion, that women bring to this theme that a man couldn’t?

Petra Collins: Totally! I mean I think thats where a lot of tension builds – when we try to stick to our gender roles – because being traditionally "feminine" or "masculine" doesn't make sense and it requires you to live a double life and constantly contradict oneself (which can be a good thing when practiced differently). The sculptural pieces in the show are mostly everyday objects – a book, blankets, wallpaper, welcome mats, a picket fence – but each piece is a little off. It’s either handmade, or has a completely different sentiment to it once you look a little closer.

I think in terms of "what women can bring to the theme that a man couldn't" has to do with how we (women) feel about the spaces we occupy (or the spaces we don't have permission to occupy/landscapes that we are not part of). Traditionally women artists were confined to their homes, because they were not part of or allowed to be part of society – specifically art wise. One of my favourite essays Three Guineas, by Virginia Woolf kind of explains the tension between public and private space perfectly. “Behind us lies the patriarchal system; the private house, with it nullity, its immorality, its hypocrisy, its servility. Before us lies the public world, the professional system, with its possessiveness, its jealousy, its pugnacity, its greed.”  

Tying these dualities of home/transience and sanctuary/chaos into your experience living in the suburbs before moving to New York, would you say the suburbs are a sanctuary or are they chaos, compared to the city?

Petra Collins: Oh definitely way more chaotic! There is something about peace and silence that is so frightening. The "suburbs" has a system to it. It’s very sterile, which is scary. There is kinda no room for wrong? I had pretty bad anxiety/OCD as a kid and I always had this looming feeling of a tragedy about to happen. Like the house we lived in was so nice and quiet and clean and on paper was perfect, but what was going on in my life was so chaotic and that is where that confusion and stress came in. I've never really felt home/safe/or in a sanctum place – so I've created that by making art.

Comforter is on show until 11 April at SFAQ [Project] Space in California. For more information, click here