Christina Maile is a printmaker, a painter, a sculptor, a writer–and a registered landscape architect. In the 1970s, Maile was a member of the Westbeth Playwrights Feminist Collective. She went on to design and construct community gardens, playgrounds, and park spaces. And she later set out on a career as a visual artist. Maile has been the recipient of a Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant and a Joan Mitchell Foundation studio grant. Her artwork is in private collections and also in the Art Base of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum.
Terry Stoller spoke with Christina Maile in February 2015 about the Westbeth playwrights group, her work in landscape architecture, her studies with artist Dan Rice, the influence of her cultural heritage on her artwork, her sculpture project in tribute to her sister, the fallout of Hurricane Sandy, and her current projects.
Terry Stoller: When did you come to Westbeth?
Christina Maile: We came in the latter part of 1970. I came as a playwright with my first husband, Tom Maile, who’s a painter. What was interesting back then was that since Westbeth was so new, they asked the tenants to form groups related to their discipline. I’m not sure whether that was the management office, or whether it was part of the Kaplan Foundation guidelines. So there was a playwriting group and a painters’ group and a sculptors’ group—which is how people got together in the first place. That’s how I met up with the Westbeth Playwrights Feminist Collective. Dolores Walker, who’s a natural organizer, took it upon herself to organize the playwrights. The feminist collective began really as a collective of playwrights—there were men and women who came to the meetings for the first couple of times.
For a number of years, the group produced work, including Rape-In at the Assembly Theatre on Jane Street in 1971. And it notably staged a feminist parade in 1975 in conjunction with the play Jumpin’ Salty.
The parade was celebrating the historic women of the Village.
Was it about 1975 when the group broke up?
Yes, and we didn’t break up because we were discontented or not in harmony. But we realized that we were opening ourselves up to looking at new occupations. Some people, like Susan Yankowitz and Sally Ordway, remained playwrights. I went on to landscape architecture, and Dolores became a lawyer, and Gwen Gunn became a poet, and one of our directors became a bishop. I think at that time, because it was the seventies, success wasn’t our main goal. It was celebrating feminism, celebrating women’s rights. That became part of our MO, and we realized there were other interests we had never thought about that we could try.
How did you come to think of landscape architecture?
I don’t know. I used to tell people I just fell in love with the supplies—I liked the triangles. That’s why I became a carpenter too, because I love equipment. I love tools. I dream about tools. If I see one and I can’t afford to buy it, I think about it all the time. In some ways, I did fall in love with the tools of landscape architecture. When I was in grammar school, I used to think a tree and a chain-link fence were the same thing. One day I was walking and saw a tree by itself, and I realized it wasn’t part of a fence. It was an astonishing moment for me. Eventually, my love of tools and this curiosity of nature came together.
You grew up in a house in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.
Yes, I grew up in a very crowded house.
Did it have a garden?
My father tried to plant things, but they all died. My siblings and I were really scared of the backyard when we were growing up. We lived in a very tough neighborhood, and our next-door neighbor was a little old lady who had a Doberman pinscher that she kept in the backyard for protection. Every time we went into the backyard, the dog would throw himself against the fence, trying to get at us. The dog killed her after a few years. And the kid across the way, who was kind of psychotic—he was the son of a minister—would throw rocks at us. I had six brothers and sisters. We were totally frightened and only went into the backyard because there was no room in the house. When we did go into the backyard, we built cardboard and wood shelters to protect ourselves from the dog and the rocks. And the kid who lived in the bar and grill next door kept snakes—and he would drop them onto the hedge in the front yard. So every time we’d go to school, we had to be careful of the hedge, because that’s where they would land.
It sounds like a scary childhood.
I didn’t know anything different. It was a relief to join a gang and find revenge. The gang I briefly joined was called the Halsey Bops. I learned how to smoke, do pills, and make a weapon out of a car antenna. It was a mixed childhood. Then I went to a Catholic school, and there was a whole other picture of hell.
When the playwrights group disbanded, you went back to school to study landscape architecture. After you got your degree, did you go right to work for the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation?
No, I worked in the South Bronx for a couple of years designing and building community gardens.
Do you see a connection between growing up in Bedford Stuyvesant and the impulse to brighten up the South Bronx?
There definitely was that. I learned a lot from the people who lived in the South Bronx. They were so hardworking. They had all these personal problems and family problems and kid problems, but they would come out and volunteer—not exactly knowing what the point was, but something in gardening stirred them. They would come out on a Saturday or in the evenings and help plant or build a fence or do a tire planter. In Catholic school, they tell you people are good, but you never believe it. But when you work with a community, especially with something as innocuous as planting—we weren’t marching in the streets; we were doing this benign, peaceful thing—it really brought out everyone’s essential goodness. That’s when I truly fell in love with being a landscape architect—because it was a vehicle that brought people together without too many words.
Did you have a concept for the gardens, or did you work with people for what their needs were?
It was a combination of both. In the South Bronx, it was mostly a lot of community meetings—and they were willing to do anything. Any idea we came up with, they would love. One reason was that people were paying attention to what they were saying—which is really important when you’re dealing with a community. Even if they come up with weird ideas, you recognize there’s a dream behind that idea. I did a tire dinosaur because they wanted a dinosaur in one garden. In another garden, they wanted a basketball court, which was not what I was thinking about, but we did a basketball court. In the South Bronx back then, there were a huge number of abandoned cars and abandoned buildings, so there was all this free, recyclable material. We could recycle old fencing, recycle tires.
Are the gardens still in existence?
They were around for a long time, until they began rebuilding the South Bronx. So those gardens fulfilled their purpose, which was to bring people together, listen to them, and inspire them. I think those gardens allowed people to be confident and to find their voice.
Can you speak about your work on the therapy garden for children with AIDS?
That was featured in Garden Design magazine. In the early nineties, an innovative organization that cared for infants and toddlers born with AIDS asked my partner, Parviz Mohassel, and I to design a garden and play area behind their building. The backyard was a very small space, about 12 feet wide and maybe 25 feet long. We installed flower boxes on the fences so that babies being carried could look at them at eye level. I designed a tunnel with elephant shapes on it for the toddlers. And there was a wall fountain with parts that moved with the water. Barbara Bush came to the opening.
By then I had been working for the Parks Department for some time. I worked there for twenty years. I did a lot of playgrounds and historic garden renovation. One of my last projects for the Parks Department before I became a real bureaucrat for them was constructing a waterfall in Morningside Park. I was a construction manager. We put in a huge waterfall that came down on one side of the cliff. Every time we dynamited portions of the cliff, we had to notify the nearby hospital so they could reschedule surgeries.
When you left the Parks Department, you went on to do something totally different. You’ve said in a past interview that the drawings you had to do as a landscape architect led to your interest in the visual arts.
In landscape architecture, you can do beautiful renderings, which are wishful-thinking illustrations of what you or your client wants to see in their open space. I had to draw and measure and use these wonderful tools and electric erasers. And sometimes I would experiment with watercolor. So that introduced me to the idea of painting.
And you studied with the artist Dan Rice, whom you call your mentor.
He was an amazing painter. When the abstract expressionist painters were all hanging around, getting drunk and yelling at each other, he was right in the middle of it. There was a play on Broadway in 2010 called Red [by John Logan]. The guy who was the assistant to Mark Rothko was based on Dan Rice.
When people talk about Buddhist sages, or talk about someone that speaks to you and uses the language you understand intimately—that describes Dan. His studio was in Connecticut. We drove up there every Friday for his class, which was two or three hours long. There were about seven, eight people, sometimes ten. It was a simple class. He would put up a still life, and while we drew, he would go down and listen to the baseball game. When an inning ended, he would come up and go over to each one of us and say the perfect thing about our work. Every now and then, he would bring out whatever he was working on, in this really modest way. He wasn’t teaching you how to paint from his work. He would say, This is the difficulty I had in trying to figure this out. He was acting like our student. He used to say no matter if you were talented or confused, heartless or passionate, confident or scared, you should always strive for perfection—knowing you will never reach it.
You’ve used the word landscapes to describe a series of post–Hurricane Sandy paintings about “water, running away, and sleeplessness.” Do you see the idea of landscape as a through line in your artwork?
I never thought about it consciously, but I think it’s probably a thread that’s run through my life. I like being in the country and within the landscape. I like all the secrets it has. I like knowing the names of the trees. I like knowing what a tree looks like in the winter and being able to identify it. I like the way insects interact and how birds interact with things.
My parents would tell us bedtime stories about their life before they came to the U.S. My mother was born in the West Indies, and my father belonged to a Dayak tribe of headhunters in what was then called British North Borneo. So they had stories about the spirits that lived in the landscape and how they influenced people, and how you could influence them in return. For me, landscape always conjures up something that’s very comforting. I do a lot of landscape because it’s escaping into a much more honest place.
There are recurring symbols in your prints and paintings, like the fox, birds, fish—and allusions to unseen forces.
It goes back to trying to make a connection with a world that exists in a parallel universe. I feel surrounding me there are various charms or beneficent spirits that you have to allay. So some of these prints and sculptures and paintings are a way of making these spirits feel not hostile toward me because I’m invading their space—to acknowledge that I want to be part of them.
In the past few years, you’ve been drawing from your cultural heritage in your artwork. Was there a tipping point at which you began to look at your family history?
When I left the house and went to college, I never wanted to go back. I spent my life up until that point trying to escape all this family stuff. That’s why I’m sorry now that it takes me an effort to remember some of these stories. But when you begin to write and begin to paint, that’s the point when you start looking into yourself, especially when you’re confronting a blank canvas or paper. And in my case, I realized there was a whole part of my life that I had ceased to acknowledge because it was so associated with chaos and misunderstanding.
In 2013, you created a piece about your sister Gladys, a series of effigy sculptures titled Gladys Elegy. And that was many years after she had died.
She was a year younger and the reverse of me. She was always full of life, trusting, and eager. But she didn’t have this ambition to leave the way I had. She died in her 30s of a drug overdose. At the moment that she was getting into bad company, that was when I left home. She had this really terrible life, but I don’t think I ever truly helped her because she would still be alive today. So that was one door I opened with that piece.
Can you talk about the format?
I started with the sculptures, which are made of wood. I thought of them as effigies of her life, from her youth to her death. So I divided her life into these six sculptures, and each one was representative of a moment. During the three months that it took to make them, my husband would say, You’re so quiet. I didn’t speak much because I was so involved in reclaiming memories of her. I spent a lot of time shaping the pieces. I did everything by hand—sanding, carving. Each one was like an altar to that moment in her life. Then I wanted to write something. And on each piece, I put a line of a poem. I didn’t want these sculptures to be anonymous. I wanted them to be exactly her. Not only did I want to include litho prints of old photographs, but I also wanted to make sure with that poem that I would understand what I felt.
In some of your work, you seem to exploring a frightening world. In one, you represent a choking victim. In another, obviously there’s some emergency, and a mother is about to put an oxygen mask on a child.
Those paintings of the mother and child—I used the airlines safety guide as a template—I painted after Hurricane Sandy. And so it was how one can save oneself. But these paintings are also about how cultures or ties are lost and can be found again. I use the mother-and-child template because that’s the bond—the Madonna and Child. And also the bond of culture and art, and the need to save it.
Are the words Dan and Tikar in the title of the mother-and-child painting from the Dayak culture?
No, these are from African tribes, and they refer to my mother’s culture. The West Indian culture is an amalgamation of so many things. My mother and grandmother went to a Presbyterian church, but they also believed in spirits and fortune-tellers.
You’ve written about Hurricane Sandy and what that meant for the Westbeth artists who lost their work and their studio spaces in the flooded basement. Do you feel that now, after more than two years, you have recovered from the trauma of Sandy?
I worked in the basement sculpture studio. A lot of my work was totally lost. And the pieces that were kind of not damaged, I threw away. Some people tried to salvage stuff. I didn’t. I think Westbeth has always felt like a very secure place, even though there are all these ups and downs with not knowing exactly what our future is. What Hurricane Sandy did was underscore that nothing really is safe. Not your work. Not your home. Nobody lost their life, but when you lose your work, you lose part of your life. As you get older, you wonder, What things will survive after you die? Who will want your stuff? And what will happen to the work that carries all your breakthroughs? In a way, Hurricane Sandy was like a death. All that you had worked for up until that point really did die.
It sounds as though you haven’t recovered.
I don’t think any of us ever will.
What are your current projects?
I’m preparing for a Westbeth printmaking show opening in October 2015 and an exhibit in Deer Isle, Maine, in July. And I’m doing a lot more images from my family’s album and trying to make a universal statement about being a stranger in a strange land. I am also working with Francia Tobacman Smith and Kyle Joyce on a film documentary about the kids who grew up in Westbeth during the seventies and eighties. I raised two kids here—Julian, who’s a musician, and Ethan, who’s an actor. It’s been fascinating to hear how the children describe this amazing environment of art and design.
Westbeth has been an oasis, a necessity for providing affordable housing and studios for artists. There are some serious issues here at present, and the voices of the artist residents must be heard in planning Westbeth’s future.
Terry Stoller is a Westbeth resident and author of Tales of the Tricycle Theatre.
Profiles in Art, Copyright 2015 Terry Stoller and Westbeth Artists Residents Council