‘Now Longer Lasting’: Casey Newberg Manufactures Pills and Pins That Promise to Cure Your Pain [Interview]
Casey Newberg’s wearable art is the strawberry sucker after the shot—it’s satisfying and it’s sweet, but really, it’s there to distract you from the pain.
Metalsmith and jewelry designer Newberg’s lewd “vending machine” items include gas station “horny pills,” packaged faux-diamond engagement rings, and smutty sayings on drape pins. She says of work, “Every piece I create has the voice of an angry teenager responding to trauma, fear, or frustration,” a strategy that allows her bright and bubbly designs to fly under the pain radar. “The sweeter these works seem (even if only on the surface), the more likely they are to be picked off of a shelf,” Newberg explains. “Once they are in someone else’s hands, they are no longer my burden to carry.”
Currently a graduate student at Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia, Newberg’s work reflects her school-related shift from the Midwest into another city. First shocked then intrigued by Philly’s infamous garbage problem, Newberg found inspiration in the discarded weed baggies and sexual enhancement pill packages littering the city streets.
Playing with ideas of ephemerality and permanence, Newberg uses a combination of plastic and steel to mimic the salacious items she sees around Philly. “The combination of easily weathered steel and plastic play a fun game, as one element will decompose around or inside of the other,” she remarks. Since her family was diagnosed with a rare, incurable neurodegenerative disease two years ago, Newberg’s work has taken a darker tone, eager to shock with foul language and rusted metal.
“My works have a desire to linger, both physically and emotionally,” she says, echoing a deep human need for immutability, even after death. Packaging her pain in bite-size pieces, Newberg insists on sticking around, as long-lasting as the horny pills she makes for mass consumption.
In Today's Q+Art Interview…
Casey Newberg discusses making sense of pain through art, sharing experience and knowledge with a generous spirit, and the allure of permanence in and outside the art world.
What are you trying to express with your art?
Casey Newberg: To be completely honest, I think I’m just trying to express pain. I don’t want it to be overt, and I might often be masking it with comical sayings and bright colors, but I (like many of us) am just a deeply hurt person and I’m trying to make sense of all of that. For me, pointing out that pain and frustration and “putting it on a shelf” is a way for me to think about getting rid of it. If I can make it consumable, if I can make it appealing, maybe someone will take it off of my hands for me. Of course, that doesn’t mean I no longer carry these things, but if I can express it, it tends to feel lighter for a bit.
What do you wish you learned in art school but weren’t taught?
CN: How to say no. The older I get the more difficult it becomes to say no, especially in academic settings. I want to say “yes” to everyone and every opportunity because I believe I wouldn’t be in the position I am in now if people didn’t continuously say yes to me. I’ve had so many wonderful and supportive mentors who have always said yes to every line of inquiry I’ve ever had, so now I find myself refusing to say no to anyone who has a question or wants to learn something from me, for better or worse. It’s hard to advocate for yourself, your work, and your time and I wish I knew how to do that better while still supporting the students and colleagues around me.
What's your biggest barrier to being an artist?
CN: Time, money, and patience. There are so many things I want to learn and make, and there’s just not enough time to really explore them all while having to work and support myself. Even being in a focused environment for the past few years I still find it difficult to set aside enough time to make and experiment with new things. I have a difficult time investing in prototyping ideas, which results in me preventing myself from making all of the new things I want to make. Instead, I find myself hard launching ideas and if they don’t work the first time, I often abandon them because I don’t feel like they’re worth the time or money it would require perfecting them. I find that this continues to be a problem for me and my ability to consistently create new work.
What does generosity mean to you as an artist?
CN: Sharing your time, knowledge, and experience. I think being a “master” in my field is a unique privilege and because of that, I believe it is my responsibility to share my experiences, techniques, and methods with anyone who is interested in learning with me. I don’t ever want to be the type of person who tells someone that has come to me for help to figure it out on their own because we can both gain something from learning and working together. There’s definitely plenty of value in learning from your failures and experimentation but if we build off of my failures and experiments, we can get so much further.
What role does the artist have in society?
CN: To feel and report. Artists have the incredible ability to translate experiences and emotions in unique ways and in broad contexts. I think they give people an escape, and even comfort without realizing it.
What’s the worst job you’ve ever had?
CN: Working sales at a jewelry store for sure. Fresh out of undergrad, I worked at a local jewelry store and I learned so much, but I nearly lost my mind in the year I worked there. The customers could be so cruel! I remember one client who came in the day before Christmas Eve and fell in love with two different rings from a unique company we carried and wasn’t ready to make a choice that day. By Christmas Eve she had made her choice and unfortunately, we sold the one she was thinking about that day. I was able to hunt down the only other version of that ring in the United States and worked to get it sent to me, but with Christmas the next day, it wouldn’t have gotten to the store for a few days, which I thought was completely reasonable.
It was not reasonable to her, and she absolutely chewed me out for not having it for her the day after Christmas and told me she would go to another store that had it (keep in mind the only one in the country was on its way to me) and my very naïve self told her that she should do that then. The look on my co-worker’s face when I said that let me know I probably shouldn’t have said that, but I was so disgusted with her lying to me and being manipulative when I was doing everything I could to help her. She ended up getting the ring from me a few days later but that situation still irritates me to this day.
If you had to pick one, would you rather be a historically significant or commercially successful artist? Why?
CN: This is a really tough one, but I think being historically significant. I get butterflies picturing people talking about my work when I’m no longer around. I think part of the reason I create the work I do is to let people know they’re not alone in their pain and to know that that could extend past my lifetime feels so motivating. The whole idea of permanence is something I continue to play with and think about, and I get excited thinking about how these pieces will last for years to come. What will they look like in 100 years? What will be left of them? I want people to be moved by their detritus in my place for years to come; I want people to point at them and laugh at what exists and what has disappeared in the same way I would.
What are you working on that you’re excited about right now?
CN: Well, I’m currently in the trenches of finishing my MFA thesis show at Tyler School of Art and Architecture. I’ve made somewhere around 200 different pieces that will be centered around readymade items like store racks, and slatwall panels. It all sounds pretty insane but I’m particularly excited about some of the new ring packs and keychain pins I’ve created for my monochromatic show.
The ring packs are similar to previous ones I’ve created, but I used COR-10 steel, which has this really beautiful desire to rot and decay. There’s something about rust I find myself constantly attracted to, and with these pieces the rust plays an integral role in the tone of the packs; they contrast so uniquely with the ready-made engagement style rings I seal to their surfaces.
The pins are new and something I’ve put into process pretty quickly. They have this incredible movement and are so familiar in form. Everyone has seen something similar hanging in a gas station or gift store at some point in their life and I am excited about changing their context from a rack to the body. Comically, they also are reminiscent of pin drape medals, which wasn’t intended, but in contrast to their content, very welcomed.
What do you do to maintain your mental health?
CN: Maintaining my mental health has always been very difficult for me. I’m very transparent within my work about my mental health struggles. Being recently diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I’m beginning to learn that the majority of my professional career has been dictated by manic and depressive episodes. For me, having the help of a psychologist and therapist has made such an impact on my life. Having that ability to get professional help is a privilege that I am so thankful for as a unionized graduate student.
I have found maintaining some amount of a schedule, physical activity, and always remembering to take my medication to be the most important aspect of maintaining my mental health.
How does your geographical location affect your work and/or success?
CN: I’m fairly new to Philadelphia, and moving here was quite a bit of a shock for someone born and raised in the Midwest. Honestly, what surprised me the most at first was the trash that litters nearly every corner of the city. I’m used to it now, but depending on the area, the content of the trash can be funny, surprising, and often concerning. There’s quite a bit of inspiration in the trash I come across. I find a lot of discarded sexual enhancement pills from convenience stores and “weed baggies” (marijuana is still illegal in Pennsylvania) that are always designed so loudly and wonderfully. I’ve always been interested in these “gas station horny pills” as I call them, but finding examples of them all around me feels like some strangely comical divine intervention.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. All photos published with permission of the artist.
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