Interview: Stryder Simms

Interview: Stryder Simms

by Melissa J White

ON TUESDAY, AUGUST 16, 2022, 6-9 pm on the Santa Fe Plaza, Amp Concerts and The Drum is the Voice of the Trees present, VENERATION: a drumming circle and nature dance with celebrants wearing spirited costumes created by Santa Fe artist, Stryder Simms. I had a minute to ask Stryder some questions about his work on the development of these curious creatures.

Melissa: Tell us about the materials you use in your fantastical Shrubconscious costumes.

Stryder Simms: Nature is all we’ve ever used to make things. I suppose I could resort to any number of denatured products, but they would be left behind, choking landfills. When I’m gone and there is no one left to appreciate them, these creations will leave behind little more than they would have, had they been left standing in my yard. Perhaps this is the unspoken celebrated outcome alluded to in the vegetal content in these costumes.

How did you get the idea to make costumes out of plants?

Where would we be without the common plants that grow up around us? Unquestionably, the decision to work with plants in this art form comes from a commitment to using all natural materials, but alongside this ambition, I also had a longing to spend time with plants in nature, as our predecessors did since time immemorial.

How is the process of making the costumes going?

Now that I’m nearing the finish line in the studio, mental space is freeing up. I think about what impact this work can have going forward. I’m feeling optimistic about the outcome for reasons other than the novelty of the costumes.

Who will be wearing the costumes during the event?

They will be inhabited by an extraordinary group of celebrants. The word “celebrants” comes to mind because, unlike dancers, or a theater group putting on a performance, our goal is to simply make an offering for the well-being of the community by honoring the forests and trees.

A group first began forming ten years ago to practice Tai Chi under the tutelage of a gifted teacher, Jeff English, who has been training students in his method for over two decades. Jeff pioneered an approach to Tai Chi practice called The Way of the Serpent Power, ( The practice consists of meditation and Tai Chi in conjunction with cultivating an intimate connection with nature. Its aims align us with the cosmic energy underlying all creation. In a literal, bodily felt sense, the way of the serpent power trains the practitioner to listen for, recognize, and trust their own inner truth and to move through life with Spirit.

Only later did I learn that Jeff is a trained actor with lots of stage experience. He embraced the costume and character of “Valorio,” one of our first Shrubconscious creatures, for the short film “Scorched Ladders” (2016).

What do these costumes represent?

A forest or field is a model of creative collaboration. Like the soil in a forest or field, the creative process and creative collaboration is not only about the end product; it’s also about relating with aligned companions in the creative process. My partner and collaborator Phoenix and I were talking about this recently and I wrote down something she said that touched me. “It’s about the hearts, the intention, how we care for one another, how we honor and respect one another.” We all have our place in the collaboration and would not accomplish this without each one of us. We all have our own personal journey around this.

How do you foster the best in each other in this group?

Not by comparison. We come together with assorted skills. Each of us has gained mastery in a particular aspect of life that contributes immeasurably to the experience. We benefit not only from what we do, but from each other’s presence. So it is important to feel aligned and authentic. This is a constantly shifting balance that we learn in Tai Chi and it then permeates everything. Another quote from my partner Phoenix, “Our bond creates a current that runs through the presentation, a current that is only as real as that bond is between us.”

How long does it take to make a Shrubconscious “creature?”

For the past six months I’ve been making two larger-than-life fantasy figure costumes out of tuft grass, burlap and hemp twine. I would guess that I have put in between 600 and 800 of actual work so far and perhaps two or three times that if I count time spent figuring things out in my head. As a lifetime craftsman, I’ve found the studio work stimulating and relaxing for the most part but not without its challenges. I sing, talk to Holy Spirit, listen to music, recorded books, or podcasts when I’m doing the repetitive tasks. While I’ve used a lot of indigenous plants in my sculptures and costumes, never have jute and tuft grass been featured, so I have to invent as I go because there is a limited time until the performance and that means the experimentation must be focused on immediate solutions. I think about the past, when our predecessors had to make garments and costumes out of plants. There must be some remnant of their ingenuity that I can draw from in my DNA. And we also trust that everyone who sees them will find them familiar.

Do you collaborate on these costumes?

The first two costumes which were used in “Scorched Ladders” were created by a professional costumer, Tatyana de Pavlov. Before moving to New Mexico, Tatyana was brought up in the arts working on costumes for the opera. The costumes came out beautifully, on time, and in budget. We couldn’t have been more pleased, and the creatures she came up with: “Pith” and “Valorio” have delighted audiences ever since, even winning the Meow Wolf Monster Battle Grand Prize in 2019.

The next costume enlisted the skills of another pro, Joanna Becker. She, too, provided a costume above and beyond our expectations. It was completed last year and marks the beginning of my experiments with tuft grass. It’s quite intricate, with a mechanical component achieved with willow branches. I won’t give away what it does, but it is sure to delight the crowd.

How did your concept of these creatures develop?

After watching the artists who wore these first costumes perform scenes in front of the camera, it became my desire to create something lighter and easier that could be worn in more populated settings and events. I had been using Chamisa and Apache Plume, but grass is so lightweight and abundant. Because it requires minimal care and water, tuft grass takes up a lot of space in our yard, so I started saving it at the end of the season. When bunched together, it can be incredibly strong. I was immediately impressed with grass as a material but it was not a straight forward path from then to where we are now. At first, I designed the entire costumes to be supported by the head, almost a hat, that reached down to knee level. As each costume grew larger than life-sized, as was my aim, this became an issue. They turned out to be substantially lighter than the prior costumes, but were, unfortunately, more cumbersome to move around in, and hard to see out of. So I had to cut them into pieces and refashion the parts into components.

Did you have any down time in the creation process?

There was a two-week period where I didn’t touch the costumes, but I thought about them every day. In several imaginary processes, I cut and reassembled them for more ease of wear and mobility. It was difficult to make myself cut up the work that I had probably spent 200-300 hours making already, but when I finally did, it felt right.

Several hundred stitches later, the parts were realigned and functioning properly. The artist wearing them can move their limbs and joints more normally, plus enjoy improved visibility. In comparison to the former three costumes, these latest two feel nearly weightless. So three key objectives have been achieved, lightness, delightfulness, and mobility.

What do you think about the creative process as a whole?

I can’t think of it as a single process. The creative process moves to and fro along a continuum between vacuums of isolated searching and surging hydrants of enthusiasm. There’s time spent dreaming up ideas, then working them out in my notebook. Talking about them, doing research, gathering materials, accumulating collaborators along the way. That is a representative cross section. After decades of practice, I’m still learning to get out of my own way and let the unexpected encounters and unforeseen accidents inform the work.

Promoting the work when its finished is an aspect of the process that I have much to learn about still, so thank you Mel, for this interview for which you have so generously devoted your time. I always try to leverage everything I do by creating outputs from all my projects in 2D, 3D and HD. That’s a lot of moving parts and it gets overwhelming sometimes. You’re an integral part of this. Whenever I have worked on a shrub sculpture or costume for any length of time, I become conscious of the absurdity of what I’m trying to achieve. Then all these wonderful people get involved and we’re just doing our spiritual practice together, being creative and communing with each other. So, for instance, now here we are gathered to make an offering, for the well-being of all by honoring the Earth.

The Chamisa Creatures are Coming

The Chamisa Creatures are Coming

The likeliest segue that I can summon for this occasion, is to introduce the larger than life fantasy figures that I have been sculpting for the past decade. These sculptures came about out of a need to get rid of some excess boughs.

Every year, for fire safety, I trim the Chamisa bush back away from my house. The loose slash must either be strapped to a vehicle and carted off, or it must be made useful.

Misha 2007

I’m giving the definition of “useful” a pretty broad interpretation here.

However, in another dispatch, we will visit the shelter project we have undertaken since the fall in which we will demonstrate the viability of constructing quality shelter from the same native shrub, for survival through all four seasons, in high altitude.

Many seasons have passed since these native shrubs first began to be transformed into magical allies and indigenous dwellings here. Now, pretty much everywhere you look around this place you’re going to find one. They have accumulated. This is partly because, like the shrubs themselves, of which they are kin, the figures are incredibly enduring. The one in the above photo has stood outside for ten years and looks as good as day one.

This work is intended to engage your magical child. Be the first to invest your personal myth into my 3D image. Or give it a name, in your story, one that only you can reveal. It’s incredible how these figures seem to be real, breathing beings. Is it the landscape itself imparted in the sculptures that imbues them with such personality?

Forces of our imagination will want to always make these collections of boughs and wire into living, interacting magical beings. It’s the same part of the brain that our ancestors fabled in. I am merely cutting a shrub, rearranging it and making them stand again.

So you come across one of these larger than life figures in the southwest lands, which lend such mythological context and you say, hey, is this real, like some kind of spirit god or goddess, ally or totem figure that watches over this place? Surely this must have a magical purpose. What else could explain its existence?

The rest is up to you. For my part, I’m just waging war on weeds.

Well, you can’t blame me. My dog has a lush coat that is prone to snag every type of bract, burr, head-o-goat, you name it, whatever. I have had to painstakingly, remove the cling-ons, one-by-one, on more than one occasion, before I calculated it would take less time, and trouble, to pick those suckers out by the roots from the rubble, than tugging and tweezing it out of my dog’s coat every time he runs through the stuff.

Sometime after a late spring rain, I’ll go out and root out every horehound in sight. The first time I did it this I filled six wheelbarrows. Enough to construct this sculpture. People say it bears an uncanny resemblance to my dog.  

Horehound Hound 2015

Hammer Toes

Hammer Toes

Know why shoes became such a big deal to me? Me at ten years old cramming my feet into a certain pair of Buster Brown’s long after they were outgrown. I had eight brothers and sisters. The budget didn’t quite keep pace all the time.  In this photo, you can see my hammer toes. So when I say I’m a “shoe freak,” look at poor me, my toes are literally kinky.

It was my intention with this snapshot to infer that they honor feet at Goler, and good shoes are capable of offering so much more than mere protection. They’re symbols of identity, indicators of relative security. Silly as it may sound, evolution is what makes shoes and feet sexy. Combining art and technology for ambulating the body has a universally authentic ring. It’s a primal thing–another explanation for why, “the shoes make the man, or woman, or anything in between.”

This photo also makes light of a rather serious situation, but I did not intend it to trivialize the plight of the street people with this piece. My pose indeed mimics those unfortunate ones asking for hand-outs, with hand scrawled cardboard signs, perched on curb sides, whenever commuter traffic’s at high tide.

Someone told me they caught a cardboard sign holder making so much money the IRS went after him. I think that’s an isolated case. I don’t know what I’d do if I was reduced to begging. I can never just sit around.

The facts are, most people probably only do it out of desperation. Some do it out of habit, of course, others have made a total racket out of it, no doubt. Some beggars are creative about it. There’s a lot of panhandling that blurs the line. One could even argue that street performing, for passing change, is the same vice. More power to the troubadours. If they can get us spontaneously tapping our toes or bobbing to the beat, why not reward them?

Incidentally, no one came up and offered me work in exchange for shoes during this photo session. Good thing, too. I can’t take on any more for the time being. I’m in the middle of other projects which you will discover in future posts.

As an artist there are more pressing priorities, in real life, for me, then where my next pair of shoes comes from. So, when the idea came for the shoot, it began with the sign. I grabbed a random piece of cardboard in my studio, just to get it over with. It happened to be dotted with Christmas colored polka-dots and originally purposed for shipping presents through the USPS. Dots are fun. Now how can we make the letters pop on top?

Black tape is one of my current favorite line-making methods for sketching out big, bold figures in the most direct fashion and the least amount of time. If you draw from life, try to sketch a nude in life size with black tape.

You can’t always make tape do what you want, but if you let it do what it can, it’s full of surprises. So much depends on how you aim, fold, peel and tear. Making marks with it involves much more of the body and therefore, leaves behind kinesthetic evidence. This imparts dynamic tension to any text. The folds and wrinkles enrich the bold strokes with black-on-black detail. We can see and feel it. Lovingly piloted, the edge of the tape takes place of a pencil or stylus to establish the font’s pleasingly varied width and shape.

With slogan and sign in hand, then, it was just a matter of deciding where exactly on the curb to sit. I discovered that spot, not so much because of that big colorful window display, which I wrote about in the last post already, but because of the tiny BUY LOCAL sign in the bottom corner of the window just above my head.

The time of day was another decision. Santa Fe has so many moods depending on what the desert sky is doing. We got there just before sunset. Finally, throwing on the sport coat and tie I hoped would eliminate any inclination to read it pitifully. I have money in my pocket, most likely. Anyone can easily deduce that I’m just making a play for your focus, which will deepen, with time, and end up in the open door and the Goler store.

I had some lean times growing up. I thought I might have to go the homeless route more than once. Thankfully, I never have. Not so far. So the photograph is a sort of celebration of that fact. Even if you didn’t know that about me, I hoped you’d get a laugh out of that decked-out dude with his priorities skewed. If I ever do have to ask for charity, I’ll be grateful for times like these.

Art has many lives. My art is constantly reincarnating and redefining its purpose. There are so many ways I’d like to reach out and connect to others with mine that I haven’t even tried yet. It’s about time.

We will segue from my years in fashion and my fascinations with displays and shoes, to my past decade exploring sculpture, using indigenous plants, and how I am now incorporating them into architecture.