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Interview: Riley Goodman's Artifacts of Existence

Interview: Riley Goodman's Artifacts of Existence

Tell us about yourself, how did you become an artist?

I was raised in the Patapsco River Valley of Maryland, southwest of Baltimore. My family always described me as a child with an overly active imagination, and growing up surrounded by nature definitely fueled this in the best way. Constantly thinking up stories, creating characters, building forts, art became an outlet to bring my thoughts and ideas into reality. I was given a silver Nikon Coolpix digital camera the summer after 6th grade and sort of ran from there.

What is your background? and how did it inform the focus of your creative exploration or the medium you're currently working with?

I have my BFA in Photography with a minor in History from VCUarts in Richmond. I loved VCU because it not only operates as a great art school, but as a great art school within a great, larger university. Beyond being an artist I am a historian, and a background in history has been crucial in the research and subject matter of my work. Additionally, my fascination with history has greatly impacted the tactile element I strive to bring to a lot of my work. Working with museum collections and seeing hundred year old fingerprints still present on silverware, or a stain soaked into a historical uniform sparks a desire to incorporate a human element to a process that is largely controlled by machines.

What ideas interested you in the beginning of your practice, which ideas have you continued to explore, and where have they led you?

At the beginning of my practice I entered with a fascination of the past, I think mainly because I yearned to experience a way of life different from my own...but continuing to explore that fascination I was kind of like, okay why though? What’s the importance of this heirloom object or this old, abandoned house- and how does it relate to me as the maker of the work? And I finally fell into the personal importance of endurance, and related to it- this progression of endurance whether anyone chooses to pay attention or not. Initials carved in a door frame will continue to exist whether anyone takes notice, and for me, taking notice of this artifact of existence allows for a story to continue to progress forward. And I think generally, the creation of a narrative in my work has continued to be a recurring idea.


Who were and are the biggest sources of your inspiration?

I feel like I could talk for hours about inspiration, because I’ve gained it from so many different sources. Growing up my greatest inspirations were Edward Hopper and Frank Lloyd Wright- and they both continue to inform a lot of the artistic considerations I make in my work. Photographically I’ve looked to Alec Soth, Dorothea Lange, Stephen Shore, Carrie Mae Weems, and Alex Prager among others. Each has provided inspiration through their practice and largely again through this narrative image making I find myself drawn to.

A first installation of From Yonder Wooded Hill in 2018. Framed photographic prints accompany textual elements including an antique Maryland flag and familial handkerchiefs, along with a white quartz rock recovered from the Patapsco River.

Also my media has been great to connect so many creatives, and I have so many friends who are just making amazing work right now. It's great to get to visualize their processes and bounce back and forth in our own idea making. And beyond the art world, I have to mention my family as a huge inspiration for my work. Speaking specifically about From Yonder Wooded Hill, the series would not exist had it not been for the family I was born into and the environment I was raised- and for that I’m forever grateful.

Where do you find inspiration?

I’m a big reader so I think inevitably a large portion of my inspiration is derived from literature and historical text. To hear something described that to that point has only been written or spoken, and be able to use it as a jumping off point to create something visual is very exciting to me. With a career background in the museum world, a lot of inspiration also comes from the way historical objects and events have been documented and stored throughout time. Seeing the use of sheets to document archaeological artifacts in the field has become a huge source of inspiration as I tread the line between documenter and storyteller in my own work. Also I’ve always been fascinated with aspects of the unknown, and the notion of what unnerves or frightens us as humans, so the horror genre in both literature and film is a big inspiration. In that category, Robert Eggers’ The Witch was a big inspiration when it was undergrad I ended up writing my History of Christianity term paper on Puritanical folk belief because of it haha


Ellicott's Mills & Main (2017), the rocks here are bracing a hill partially washed out by floodwaters from the 2016 Ellicott City flood

Is there are a single work, project, or series that is pivotal in your current trajectory?

From Yonder Wooded Hill is the most pivotal series I have made to date- due in combination to its deeply personal subject, and its start as my undergraduate thesis and eventual transformation as a forthcoming book.

Death (2018)

How did it begin? and how did it evolve?

The series initially began in response to the 2016 flooding of Ellicott City, Maryland, in and around where my family has lived for generations. Months after the flood I stumbled on all of these scraps of fabric that had been left stuck in trees along the riverside as the floodwaters receded. Again this notion of an artifact of existence became ever present in my mind. So I started as a documenter of the aftermath of this event, but eventually began to shift to a storyteller as well. By exploring my family’s own relationship with the river valley, having worked in the mills and lived in the mill towns for generations, I began to see a connection between the environment, the people, myself, and the cyclical nature of history.

Recent work explorations of From Yonder Wooded Hill- again exploring the cyclical nature of history along with flood lines as artifacts of existence once waters have receded.

What were important lessons in the process that you’ve carried forward with you?

Hmm...well logistically always bring two camera batteries with you, especially when you’re in rural West Virginia on an old logging train with no stores for miles haha -- but for real, the most important lesson I’ve learned through the completion of this first major series is to truly exhaust every idea you may have, and take every image possible-- especially in building a narrative, you may see something and think, well that's a beautiful image but I’m not sure its relation to the larger story I’m trying to tell-- take the image anyway. You just never know how all of the pieces may end up fitting. Also to plan, but also be spontaneous and open to what the world shows you photographically. I’ve come to find that often I’ll scout a location for a specific image, go and take that image, but love an image I took on the way there, or on the way home, or of the house next door much more.

What are you working on now?

Currently I am deep in editing and sequencing From Yonder Wooded Hill as I prepare for it to be published this fall by Fall Line Press. Additionally more time at home from Covid precautions has afforded me the chance to spend a year ruminating and creating new work about Richmond, Virginia and my relationship to the city during a pivotal transition from 18 to 24.

If you could go back in time to the very beginning of your art practice and give your younger self a single piece of advice what would it be?

Explore contemporary, emerging, and self-taught art sooner. The art history canon is good and there are obviously reasons artists have become a part of it- but it is not without fault, and is severely skewed to educated, white, and male. So much amazing art and learning experiences are found outside of this narrow choice of who’s remembered and regarded.

About the Artist

Based in Richmond, Virginia

Riley Goodman inquires folklore, American history, and humankind's relationship with the environments they inhabit in an effort to understand what endures, and how this endurance exists in relation to his own presence in the canon. Goodman juxtaposes artifact and ephemera from his personal collections with the visual interpretation of researched, often folk-based, storytelling. When these elements combine, the resulting work forms a narrative that exists in an ever-occurring amalgamation of time. By establishing this crafted world, Goodman forces the viewer to question the tenants of authenticity, leaving the idea of 'historical truth' in an undisclosed middle ground.

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