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Artist Spotlight: A Conversation with Sculptor in Residence David Page

Updated: Mar 21, 2023

By Abby St Jean

David Page is a Sculptor in Residence at American University as well as being an active artist in the greater DMV area. He was born in Cape Town, South Africa and holds a National Diploma in Fine Arts from Cape Tecnikon as well as an MFA from the University of Maryland, College Park. I sat with him this week to ask a few questions about his art and experiences as an artist.

In our conversation, we discussed his motivations as an artist and the life experiences that led him to become one. After growing up in South Africa, attending art school, and hand-crafting luggage to sell in a local market, Page moved to the US where he continued to pursue art. While met with its challenges, Page entered the art scene in the DMV where he teaches at the university level along with his career as an artist. Themes of Page’s art explore “labor and power” which is explicit in many of his larger installation works that attempt to navigate power dynamics as well as labor practices. Particularly, he discussed with me a piece titled “100 Years Without Progress” which comments on the exploitation of garment workers through a series of industrial sewing machines hung by various suspension mechanisms.

“Generally, my art is about labor and power, who gets to call the shots and who does the work. But then it’s also about power relationships, not just vertical power relationships but lateral power relationships as well” - David Page

After seeing one of Page’s sculpture installations in person, I can speak to the effect that the scale and magnitude of his pieces have on viewers, and the themes behind the carefully crafted sculptures are certainly not unnoticed. Interestingly, Page noted that his art often begins with the material, which he uses to bring him to an idea or theme that he wants to explore.

“I can look at a piece of canvas or a piece of felt and get an idea, so sometimes it’s as elemental as that.” - David Page

Continue reading for the rest of our conversation.

Interview with David Page

Abby St. Jean: What drove you to want to become an artist? Was there any particular moment in your life that impacted this choice, was it always something you wanted to do?

David Page: So, nothing in particular. It was just one of those things where I knew I had an ability, a visual and manual ability. But the thing that did it was I went to art school and I realized that art was more than just making images or objects. That was the realization that made me realize “Oh, yeah, that’s what art is about.” That there was something more to it than the making of things or depicting of things. I learned what it was to be an artist and to make things; it was about the meaning of being an artist more than the things themselves. It was an awareness of that.

AS: You grew up in South Africa and went through most of your schooling there. How did the opportunities for you as an artist differ in South Africa compared to now in the Maryland and DC area?

DP: I don’t know that they did initially. There [in South Africa], they had a market that had been the central market in the city forever, it was this cobblestone square, and you could make stuff and go there and sell it. So I’d make luggage and go and sell it in the market square, and it was a pretty good opportunity, because I could make income when I needed and wanted to. But there wasn’t that casual or informal sector, or I couldn’t find an informal sector. But I mean, when I came here I made a living as a waiter or a bicycle messenger or things like that, it’s difficult. In the end I suppose there are more opportunities to do anything in the United States, but it’s a difficult way to make a living either way.

AS: Can you talk about a favorite piece that you’ve produced? If not a favorite, then one that challenged you the most or that you feel most satisfied with.

DP: I did this piece “100 Years Without Progress,” it’s the one that includes the sewing machines. It can be a static installation, or it can be a performance, and I think that was the most gratifying [piece] to do. Mainly because it was one of the largest pieces that I did. Everything you do uses up all of your experiences and all of your discoveries to make that piece, so I’d say I had more discoveries and more experience when I made it.

AS: And the fact that it can be standalone but also a performance as well makes it more special.

DP: Yes, the discovery of that was great as well. Although it sort of started as a standalone piece which I did in the rotunda over here [in Katzen], and that was called “Ornamental Cookery,” but it was dealing with a lot of the same issues and had some of the same elements.

AS: How does your environment and what is going on in the world around you impact your art-making?

DP: Generally, my art is about labor and power, who gets to call the shots and who does the work. But then it’s also about power relationships, not just vertical power relationships but lateral power relationships as well.

AS: Do you think it’s more about your personal experiences or what you observe in the world?

DP: Both. Like I’ve never experienced a building collapse or a large industrial fire. But it’s about how I see the world around me.

AS: How do the implications of your art change when real people are used as a part of the performance aspect of it? Do you think that viewers have more strong reactions?

DP: I think it becomes much more urgent. One, because there’s going to be a limited period of time, so it’s sort of like figure drawing as opposed to drawing a still life. And then it’s also, the viewer projects themselves into the body of the subject, of the performance. And obviously there’s the whole business of empathy. So, yeah, there’s just much more emotion involved.

AS: Does your art process begin with an idea or a material, or both? And how do those initial ideas shift while you are making a piece?

DP: I think it starts with the material. And that sounds weird, because it should be about the idea, and if I was trying to impress somebody I’d say it’s the idea, but ideas have to come from somewhere, and in my case ideas sort of bubble up from the material and the process. Sometimes it can be the actual material itself, I can look at a piece of canvas or a piece of felt and get an idea, so sometimes it’s as elemental as that.

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