“I got this idea to work with dough,” she said, planning to sculpt with it. She soon found the movement of the salt dough was more interesting than the material itself. It kept changing. (She also heard Rosen’s voice in the back of her head saying, “you are not listening to the materials.”) So she grabbed a video camera and recorded herself working with the bread dough to see how it moved.
Now, she uses her body to explore her materials, recording herself working with objects and the video becomes the exhibited work.
Performance art never would have occurred to her, before her time at Davis. She didn’t even like it, she said. And she didn’t know of Bruce Nauman, a noteworthy performance art graduate of UC Davis. She wasn’t familiar with contemporary art.
“Now, my work almost always comes from physical interaction, and I use my body to explore the material.”
Sometimes that means tumbling with a slant step, an iconic art piece from UC Davis that she re-invented with mirrors and plywood for a recent Sacramento exhibition; or acting out a scene in Guatemalan ruins wearing cheap plastic kitchen utensils she bought at a local market. Her work often contains subtle political commentary. Willetts’ video in the Guatemalan ruins that she shot while on a fellowship there, for example, pokes at issues with colonization and its effects on people.
She teaches art at middle and high schools in the Bay Area to support her 5-year-old son and herself while exhibiting her work all over the world. She also worked at the Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art, shortly after getting her M.F.A., planning education programs and developing the drop-in studio programs that have become a popular tradition at the UC Davis museum. She credits her time at UC Davis with launching her career.
“Every single professor was my friend, and they were great cheerleaders, while still giving a lot of critical feedback,” she said. “They inspired me, as an artist, to find the art voice in my head.”