Artist Profile: Laura Ortman
Laura Ortman atop ‘Because Once You Enter My House It Becomes Our House’ by Jeffrey Gibson, Image by Audrey Dimola.
July 11, 2020
As part of the Park’s ongoing series of Artist Profiles, Socrates’ Summer 2020 Curatorial Fellow, Taylor R. Payer, interviewed acclaimed violinist Laura Ortman about Ortman’s artistic practice and her live-streamed performance on July 24, 2020 at the Park’s Online Celebration for Jeffrey Gibson’s Monument Unveiling. Learn More–>
[Edited for clarity and flow]
Taylor R. Payer
Tell me about yourself.
I’ve been in New York for 23 years. I am a visual artist; composer; musician; improvisor; and a licensed New York City hair stylist as my day job – which I really love because it’s still good to work with my hands and work with textures and color and not be like the lone artist, which is what I do the rest of the week. I live in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. Same apartment for 23 years. And originally I’m from Whiteriver, Arizona on the White Mountain Apache reservation. I grew up near St. Louis along the Mississippi River.
TRP: How did you begin playing the violin? l feel a bit of the connection with you because I’m Michif and Anishinaabe and grew up playing the fiddle. When I tell people that, they’re like: “Natives play the fiddle?” And I go: “Um, yeah, of course. Look at Laura Ortman!”
LO: Aww, well yeah, I come from a long lineage of musicians. My grandma was a violinist and you know grandmas rule – you want to be just like them. So I was just like “violin is awesome” so I could be closer to my grandma. She had a permanent smile and just an easy passion for something that came to her so naturally, that she absolutely loved.
I really loved playing in orchestras. I liked to see how the conductor maintained a unison and directorship for a bunch of people. We were all kind of eating and drinking synchronicity, all playing together. That kind of stuff just blew my mind!
It helped me go through school because I was shy and through music I had a language of my own. It gave me a way to express myself without having to blab all the time. Violin just came pretty naturally to me.
TRP: Have you ever gotten to see or work with a historic Apache violin? There was one in the museum collection I worked in throughout graduate school. It was beautiful.
LO: I used to know Chesley Wilson, one of the most famous Apache violin players and makers a long time ago. It was 20 years ago at the National Museum of American Indian Museum here in New York. That was really cool meeting him, I wish we had kept in touch.
At the National Museum in DC, I had to wear these purple latex gloves when I got to visit their collections. They had all the Apache instruments out for me to check out. There were very tiny ones like the size of my wrist and really big ones the size of my leg. They’re awesome.
TRP: Yeah, they are incredible. The one I worked with during school was so much older than I expected. It was from the turn of the century and I couldn’t believe it. I had no idea about that history. I think it’s too bad they don’t get put on display more often.
LO: Yeah, they are in so many different collections. I have one that my friend Drew LaCapa gave me that I guess was gifted to him. He was like: “What in the world am I gonna do with this? Laura will use it!”
So yeah, it’s been great. I’ve played it all over New York: I played it at John Zorn’s club, The Stone; I played it at the Music Hall of Williamsburg, which is mostly a rock venue – I said, “I bet they’ve never heard this before!;” and I’ve played it at the Whitney Museum of American Art. I’ve also used it for many soundtracks.
The name for the Apache violin translates to “wood that sings”. It really is like a breath. It is meant to be a solo instrument. You hold it so close to your body. It’s an extension of my body. I love that it sings.
Sometimes, I like to call the violin a smoke machine because of all the beautiful essences that smoke entails. The way the rosin hits the string and makes a cloud of smoke. The physical aspects of the violin brings up things that I didn’t even realize I knew that deeply.
TRP: I’ve noticed that collaboration is an important part of your practice, why is that?
LO: People are so fun and cool and inventive. To have other artists willing to work with your energy is such an intimate kind of relationship that wouldn’t happen unless you’re kind of magnetized to each other. Sometimes it doesn’t work at all in the end, but usually there’s something about the chemistry when collaborating. You know, some things keep me awake at night but collaboration lulls me to sleep. I’m just so happy to feel that comfort with relationships and communicating energies.
I’ve worked for many years with my friend Raven Chacon. I have boxes of four track cassette tapes at my house that no one’s ever heard. We are waiting for a really great filmmaker or third collaborator to work with us to make these recordings come to life.
Another long time collaboration is this collective I have with Nanobah Becker, a Diné filmmaker, and the New York City Ballet great phenom, Jock Soto (Diné). The three of us have shot two videos together with film, dance, music, and place. We’re going to be working on our third this year. It’s something we couldn’t each do alone.
Collaborators are like having a brother or a sister. Or you know, a boyfriend or a girlfriend. It’s a total intimate relationship. Collaboration is another word for love or family. It just comes naturally. It’s really important.
TRP: When it comes to your upcoming performance at Socrates Sculpture Park, is there something in particular that made you interested in collaborating with Jeffrey Gibson?
LO: I’ve known Jeffrey for a long time. He’s probably one of the very first Native artists I met when I moved to New York. We were in group art shows together at the American Indian Community House when it was run by Kathleen Ash-Milby and Joanna Bigfeather in ‘99. God, we were just babies!
It’s really nice to still be hand-in-hand and working together with the same kind of intentions. We’re doing it! But, you know, still with our own personal touches.
TRP: I’m curious about the role of place in your work. How does New York, Whiteriver, Arizona, your midwestern upbringing, and even the Socrates venue in Queens, inform your work?
LO: Ever since I was a kid, I was drawn to water and being along the river. Growing up along the Mississippi, one of the biggest rivers in the whole world, was cool. You respect the river, it’s in my psyche forever.
I live on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, you know it’s a huge street. I sit on my fire escape outside of my apartment and pretend Flatbush is my river. I watch the traffic go by and enjoy the sounds.
Playing at Socrates is really special because it’s right there by the water. Jeffrey’s piece is mirroring aspects of the big Cahokia Mound along the Mississippi, which I was familiar with growing up. Having that familiarity with the location and the attributes of Jeffrey’s monument… I’m just like: “Whoa! I’m seeing double” – in that full circle kind of way.
TRP: Do you create with specific audiences in mind?
LO: I do a lot of performances that are improvised. This takes a lot of practice and skills that I try to make really perfect. I work really hard on being malleable to the situation. That being said, before I go into any performance situation, I’m looking for what the atmosphere feels like before I play that first note. Sometimes you can feel a crazy energy. It’s hard to put into words, but I am always feeling what tonight’s gonna be about.
It’s gonna be pretty wild to play at Socrates without a live audience. This will be the first time I’ve done that so that’s going to be really special. And it’ll be my first performance during the pandemic. The energy is gonna be quite unusual for me. I’ll be drawing on the river, Jeffrey, and New York – so there’s a lot going on even though there won’t be a live audience. I can’t even imagine what it’s gonna sound like. You know, if the wind goes one way, where will I go? There’s so much to take into consideration.
TRP: What future projects are you working on?
LO: The most important thing for me right now is to keep an open heart – one that lets stuff in but will never shatter. That’s the greatest thing about the art and music world. It is very empowering, peaceful, and energized. It doesn’t let the doom of so much around us take over.
That’s first and foremost. Try to keep a really healthy attitude for others. That way I can cut your hair, make you feel good, and maybe work with you. Maybe I can be a part of your family too. Stuff like that is always on my mind.
And you know, we still have to socially distance. We could all use a big hug right now. But I’m still doing socially distant collaborations. This piece with Jeffrey is one. I also have a couple of upcoming soundtracks with Indigenous filmmakers. I’m soon going to start the roughs for a new solo album.
And then after all of that, I am going to find out a place I should move into – on the river!
Laura Ortman Bio
A soloist and vibrant collaborator, Laura Ortman (White Mountain Apache) works across recorded albums, live performances, and filmic and artistic soundtracks, and has collaborated with artists such as Tony Conrad, J0ck Soto, Raven Chacon, Nanobah Becker, Okkyung Lee, Martin Bisi, Caroline Monnet, Michelle Latimer, Martha Colburn, Tanya Lukin LInklater and Loren Connors.
An inquisitive and exquisite violinist, Ortman is versed in Apache violin, piano, electric guitar, keyboards, and pedal steel guitar, often sings through a megaphone, and is a producer of capacious field recordings.
She has performed at The Whitney Museum of American Art and The Museum of Modern Art in New York, The Toronto Biennial in Ontario, the Musée d’Art Contemporain de Montréal, and the Centre Pompidou, Paris, among countless established and DIY venues in the US, Canada, and Europe.
In 2008 Ortman founded the Coast Orchestra, an all-Native American orchestral ensemble that performed a live soundtrack to Edward Curtis’s film In the Land of the Head Hunters (1914), the first silent feature film to star an all-Native American cast.
Ortman is the recipient of the 2020 Jerome@Camargo Residency, 2017 Jerome Foundation Fellowship, the 2016 Art Matters Grant, the 2016 Native Arts and Culture Foundation Fellowship, the 2015 IAIA’s Museum of Contemporary Native Arts Social Engagement Residency and the 2014-15 Rauschenberg Residency. She was also a participating artist in the 2019 Whitney Biennial.
Ortman lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Taylor R. Payer Bio
Taylor Rose Payer is a 2020 ArtTable Fellow with Socrates Sculpture Park. Drawn to the places where art and politics meet, she has worked as a curator, educator, and arts administrator. Born and raised on the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Reservation, Taylor received her BA from Dartmouth College and MA from Brown University.