Artist and educator Molly Dierks (MFA '14) is constantly thinking about her place in the world, both natural and constructed. It's a recurring theme in her mixed-media sculptures and inspiration for the meticulously collected and organized found objects that she works with.
"Really what I'm trying to work out is, 'What is my relationship to nature, to my body, and to industrial production? Where do I fit in?'" she says. "I never really know."
From serene Finnish forests to the bustling center of Chinese industry and trade, Dierks spent the last two summers extending her education and exploring those questions through work with residencies abroad funded by postgraduate support from the Stamps MFA Graduate Program.
Recent graduate students can apply for the merit-based funding for exhibitions, residencies, and other projects up to five years after graduation. In 2017, Dierks received partial funding for a stay in Finland; last summer, she was awarded the full $3,000 to cover a five-week residency in Beijing.
Dierks moved to rural Texas after graduating to take a job as an Assistant Professor of Art at Tarleton State University. There, the natural beauty of her surroundings reminded her of time spent walking trails at the Leslie Science Center to collect materials as a student at Stamps or living in a wooded area on the shores of Ford Lake after graduation while teaching at Wayne State University.
She loved teaching, but she soon realized she also needed time away from it, time spent somewhere quiet and beautiful. "Being able to be in these unperturbed havens of nature brings me back to why I'm an artist," she says.
In Finland, Dierks found what she was looking for in its green forests with beautiful branches, mosses, and lichen cultures. She spent a month at the Arteles residency, a converted schoolhouse in the Finnish countryside with restricted internet access and a policy of cell phone confiscation for visiting artists.
There, Dierks revived a series of pieces she had started while at Stamps working with trees and found objects inspired by her mother's love for Japanese culture and ikebana floral arrangements. By subtly combining tree branches with synthetic materials — for example, insulation foam that resembles fungus — Dierks aims to confuse what's natural and constructed. The sculptures are then "planted" in plastic containers to resemble bizarre, hydroponically grown trees.
"That work is really tricky and difficult, but it's work that I love, because it incorporates all the different aspects of the ways that I think about who I am as a human," she says.
Dierks returned from Finland with three completed pieces and has continued to focus on the series. Today she has 10 different trees, which are grouped into "islands" of three of four and have been exhibited at Texas Wesleyan University and are on exhibit at 500x Gallery in Dallas through November 4, 2018.
The following summer in suburban Beijing, Dierks found herself in a much different environment: waking each morning to intense city heat, walking dirt roads flanked by stacked apartments and fields of rubble. She had hoped to explore her curiosities about where so many of the products readily available to us actually come from by going to the source, but getting access was difficult.
When her plan to get onto a factory floor proved challenging, Dierks made the most of her time and turned her attention to the city's large, outdoor markets for inspiration. There, she took to the many stuffed animals she found -- brightly colored and available in every shade, shape, and size. "The forms are really sensual," she says. "They also talk about the body and the vulnerability of the human body and the bodies that are producing them and sewing them in en masse."
Over the course of a month, Dierks deconstructed about 30 animals – large and small – and recombined them into four finished hand sewn sculptures (with three still in progress). The series, titled "Soft-Bodied," explores ideas of comfort, anonymity, and the artist's own suspicions of, and participation in, the global production system responsible for them.
"I continued and continue to wonder: 'How do I find myself at peace in this age where humans and machines are so intertwined?'" she says. "The stuffed animals were the perfect representation of a kind of in-between state — where material, process, and outcome contain elements that are both mechanistic and spontaneous."
Dierks grew up in Norfolk, Virginia. She received a bachelor's degree in psychology from Dartmouth ("My family is great, but my dad was a little worried for me to major in art," she says) before earning a post-baccalaureate in Sculpture and Extended Media from Virginia Commonwealth University.
When searching for a graduate program, she says the interdisciplinary focus of the MFA at Stamps appealed to her, as well as the school's offer providing teaching opportunities, which was her ultimate goal after graduating.
Working with professors Janie Paul and Carol Jacobson, who have respective backgrounds in psychology and feminist theory, Dierks says she learned to go beyond the materials she'd been collecting and obsessing over to get at the issues driving her work.
"When I got there, Janie helped calm me down a little bit and see that my work was about human relationships and to be OK with that," she says. "With Carol, I was really able to deconstruct my relationship with my mother and with my femininity and give it some theoretical structure."
She says the contrast of her two residencies helped her evolve as an artist and embrace the different interests and environments she finds herself drawn to, no matter how disparate.
"Going to Finland one summer and then Beijing the following year helped me understand how I can weave together different aspects of myself, and my life, through my studio practice,” she says.