I am a Vermont Artist: Riki Moss
Speaking from a bird’s-eye view seems to come easily to artist Riki Moss, but it is earned. She has learned over the years to be light as a feather—light enough to see the world for all its vast materials, and to stay afloat through life’s storms.
Originally a Brooklynite, Riki started coming to Vermont in the 1970s amidst the back-to-the-land movement. It wasn’t until 2006 that she settled permanently in Vermont, when she and her husband, Robert Ostermeyer, bought property and set up a studio in Grand Isle. Through Studio Glow, Riki and Robert produced sculptures that gained the attention of the New York and Philadelphia art worlds and earned an invitation to the 2012 Smithsonian Craft Show. Their particular style of sculpture at the time proved hard to sell, and their rising star lost momentum—but both knew the answer. Stay light. Bounce back, and like their materials transform as needed.
Throughout her career Riki has worked in paper, clay, video and sound, and writing, where she is currently focused. She leads workshops for the Burlington Writers Workshop, which are offered virtually during the Covid-19 pandemic. Whatever her materials, Riki uses her art to explore our curious connections with nature, evoking the forms and forces that teach us how to adapt.
Riki shared her thoughts on being a Vermont artist.
How has living as an artist in Vermont affected your creative process?
Anyone who could fled New York City in the 1970s. We packed a U-Haul, got a dog and drove North. Vermont was The State Of Mind, New Hampshire wasn’t. If we couldn’t change the world, we could change ourselves. Everything would be plural, we would share and cooperate and live off the land. We put up tents, built a school, killed chickens and ate them, then vowed to be vegan. We baked bread, made tofu, wove our clothing, sold our pottery until it all fell apart and we renovated farm houses at the edge of quiet towns.
In the city, I bought my clay in ten pound bags, but here the materials for creation were there for the taking, red for bricks from river banks, porcelain smelling primordial in slippery fields buzzing with dragonflies. In the city, creation came from ideas or conversations or memories, but here in Vermont, once the silence became less fearful, it was the call from the landscape.
Defining creativity is elusive, it is call and response. You need to open up the senses, compose yourself, turn your hands into tools, sometimes even weapons, or medicine. What you hear in a call is a gift that, if not accepted, will desert you. Once accepted, it needs to be absorbed, transformed, and passed on without any message. Creativity is curiosity and wonder. The soil, water, ice, plants, animals contain layers of cellular mystery, hints of mutations not quite finished, an archeology to discover, transform and pass along.
What is something about your art that has changed over time?
At first it was clay, the day-to-day satisfaction of mastering the craft. We were artisans traveling the country, growing a reputation, and paying the bills. We were an ever-changing family of hundreds gathering at county fairs, city centers, museums, galleries, then retreating to our coupledom or solitude to hone our wares.
The clay on the wheel was hypnotic. There were times I wished I was Japanese, maybe 13th century, some quiet person dedicated to repetition, perfection in that wabi-sabi way. Then I wanted to be an abstract expressionist building ugly monuments that would earn my humble craft a place in the higher art called sculpture. But there was also the surface to discover. Over time, I began layering paint and encaustics, and what I was doing lost a dimension, was hung on a wall. Always curiosity, a short attention span, a fear of stagnation or disregard for paying the bills.
Unintentionally, over time, the art was driven by materials. Each one lighter than the one before. With each change, the need to find out what it was, what it would do, how we could partner—artist and material—to discover something new. Next was paper. Handmade abaca, cutting the fibers short for optimal shrinkage, layering it over armatures like skin as it shrank. Learning to create internal armatures by embedding inert things in the wet sheets for the paper to shrink against. Learning how the structures held light. Over time, from clay to wax to paint to paper to light and finally to words. Now, the material for art is the lightest of all, words. Words on paper, in song, in conversation.
What is your vision for the next several years?
Vision? After this year, at this age, in this time, is there any point? Can you hold a vision when over time what you learn is that you know nothing at all except that everything changes and you must walk like water if you want to make it through with any sense of joy? The vision is to slow down, also speed up, move sideways, in and out but never stop. The vision is like catching a ride on a magic bird wherever it’s headed and loving, loving, loving the ride.
Riki Moss explores the mutual gaze between humans, animals and nature in a layered archeology. Creativity slides and surges as a three-way conversation through a call, the artist’s response and, finally, the interpretation by the viewer or reader. There is no message or purpose, only curiosity and wonder. Throughout a long career, she has worked with various media: clay, encaustics, paper, night, video and sound, creating singular pieces and installations exhibited locally and internationally (Nagoya Japan and Holland at the Paper Biennale, light sculptures at The Smithsonian Crafts.)
Finally, the lightest, airiest and most dense material of all: words. She is the author of a novel An Obese White Gentleman In No Apparent Distress, first published by North Atlantic in Berkley, now out of print and self-published in a revised edition, and the editor of It’s A Lot Like Dancing with several anthologized short stories. She leads writers workshops for the Burlington Writers Workshop along with retreats. She is presently in lockdown in the Champlain Islands.
The I am a Vermont Artist series explores how artists’ creative expressions reflect their experiences of ethnicity, gender identity, religion, disability, or age. Covering all artistic disciplines, and a range of backgrounds—from New Americans to the state’s first residents—we hope to amplify voices that deepen our understanding of what it means to be a Vermont artist.