An Interview with Nicole and Greg Horgan
By Diana Rollins
Just a short drive from the world-famous manufacturing center of Pittsburgh, in a small town founded by the engineer who designed New York’s Brooklyn Bridge, sits the sprawling home and workshop of acclaimed leather artisans, Greg and Nicole Horgan.
Their latest work, San Pedro, is a large mixed media piece that draws inspiration from a psychoactive Andean San Pedro Cactus and the saint which it is named for. The work is made from leather hard formed in a modified centuries old technique which was then assembled into sculpture. The entire work is hand painted in incredibly detailed motifs that take inspiration variously, from St. Peters Basilica, Ukrainian Easter Eggs, and psychedelic geometry.
In homage to St. Peter, who according to legend holds the keys to heaven, at the foot of the sculpture are over 1500 keys.
The married couple documented the process of creating this artwork in a short documentary that explains not only the creation of the art, but also tells the story of the Catholic Immigrants from Eastern Europe who provided the workforce for their region’s industrial expansion.
The Pittsburgh region is a cornerstone of what is known as the “rust belt” a group of cities across the Northern United States that experienced an enormous economic boom in the years following the Second World War, and an equally rapid economic decline as industrial production shifted to lower wage countries.
The documentary that accompanies the Horgan’s larger work records the urban decay that beset their cities as the factories closed, and shows the interiors of numerous historic Roman Catholic Churches that demonstrate the longing for beauty and transcendence that lived in the hearts of the immigrant workers who paid for their construction.
Diana Rollins: Tell me a little bit about the process of working together
Nicole Horgan: We started doing art together almost as soon as we met. I spent many years as an art teacher, and by the time I met Greg, I knew that I wanted to move on from doing that sort of work. Teaching art and making art are very different things, and it took me a long while to realize that I wouldn’t find satisfaction in teaching.
Greg is very mechanical. He can make lots of things, taking things apart, playing one of his instruments, and he has lots of ideas. Even when we were dating he would make me this crazy cards with really detailed drawings.
Anyway, we made things together because it is what we enjoyed doing together.
Greg Horgan: Nicole and I would do things like use projectors to cast designs onto a wall and paint over that. Before we had access to large format printers, we would print images in little sections on our home printer and then put everything together with wheat paste. Things like that.
Only for fun, though.
DR: How did you get started in leather?
NH: Well, almost exactly one year after we got married, I had our first child.
Greg was supporting us by working as a metal salesman, and we got the idea that we might be able to do something in artistic metal work.
GH: I got exposed to some people who were using lasers to cut out really detailed parts. Talking with Nicole, we got the idea that if she could work up some drawings, I could arrange production for metal wall hangings.
NH: Greg was always looking toward the commercial end of things.
GH: So, we started doing that a little bit, and worked through some prototypes, but it ultimately didn’t work out. But we always had lots of dogs, and Nicole had made for them some hand painted dog collars. To make a long story short, we started marketing them own the internet, and learning about leather.
NH: Over many years, that small leather craft business we were running grew into a lot of different types of products. Today, for our company, we make mostly leather desk trays that we can put logos in. We’ve done that a lot for some very big companies.
GH: We were very hands on through that whole process. We have people who help us now, but for years, everything single thing we sold was made by our own hands. That teaches you a lot about leather as a media.
NH: Yeah, that’s it. The commercial side of our partnership is necessary because we have a family and the world works how it works, but there was always an artistic piece even from the beginning. At first, we actually tried to construct our more commercial business on that foundation, but we couldn’t do it.
As far as the artistic part goes, Greg likes to work in three dimensions, and I am an oil painter by training, so we each starting exploring the media from our own perspective. Right from the very beginning.
GH: I think the commercial part is actually an art as well.
NH: Oh, here we go (laughter)
GH: I mean there are two types of art, aren’t there? There is art in the form of product, then there is art in the form of process...a mode of living.
DR: You mean as a spiritual pursuit?
GH: to a certain extent, yes
DR: That actually leads me to my next question, What led you to choose St. Peter as a subject for this work?
NH: For us, art is the bridge from the personal to a larger world. We are also Catholic, which, as we’re taught from a very young age, is something we share with people from around the world.
GH: It’s a baseline, a point of common understanding.
NH: right, so by relating our art to a specific point of understanding, we can communicate more clearly across a wider group of people.
GH: To your question, though, as you probably know, St. Peter is understood in our tradition, to be the founder of the church. Metaphorically, because of his closeness to Christ as an apostle, he is depicted as holding keys, which are the keys to heaven.
The San Pedro cactus is an entheogen, a psychoactive plant which has a long history of shamanic use.
That this plant came to share a name with a saint, I think, says something about the ways we communicate with each other.
We use metaphor, we seek common understanding.
DR: Linguistically, you mean.
NH: Right, linguistically.
GH: There are traditions in the art of the Middle Ages where there a certain figure is always depicted the same way. For example, the lion and eagle motifs that represent the evangelists Mark and John in church sculpture.
My background is first in Cultural Anthropology, before Art or Art History, which I studied for a number of years as well, but I have had interest in symbolism and its role in creating the ways we understand the world.
DR: Is that an interest of yours, as well, Nicole?
NH: It is. But it is not as much of an obsession as it is for Greg! (Laughs).
But as for me, I tend to think about that from a more personal perspective. For example, a short distance from here, there is a church that was founded by Croatian immigrants.
GH: There is a little footage of it in the video part of our project.
NH: Right, and inside that Church, because it was constructed by a community that had endured so much strife only to send its strongest young men to the United States.
GH: To work in steel mills mostly.
NH: Inside that church there are murals in much the same style as Diego Rivera. Almost Socialist Realist murals, but they depict the struggles that the people who donated to build that church.
GH: And that’s the part that interests me. How the choice to hire Maxo Vanka to paint the murals, was very modern, but the desire to build a community church was rooted in tradition.
NH: What interests me is the personal side of it. To be an artist, it isn’t something that is necessarily socially constructed. A person can call themselves an artist, but to make art truly, you almost have to be married to it.
GH: That’s why we’re married.
NH: Right! (Laughter). What I mean is.
To be an artist is to never get away from the desire to create. I think, for me, that is the thread that I like to look for.
It cuts across time and social class.
The people who commissioned the murals I mentioned, they were laborers.
Mostly first generation immigrants.
But when they wanted to build a church, they made a very sophisticated decision...
DR: I think I understand what you’re saying. When you say “personal” you are basically referring to an individual level, albeit at a point in the past
NH: But also personal in the sense that I am not personally that far removed from that tradition in my own experience.
I knew my grandparents well. They lived a lot of the experiences of history. They were born in an age where horses were still a big part of life, and died in a time of computers.
GH: And I think, based on what you’ve said, you understood those people to be somewhat romantic in their world view.
NH: Oh definitely. Very much so.
GH: I think that is why Nicole and I work so well together, because the way we see the world is quite compatible. My fascinations. Of my whole life really, have been religion and human development.
Nicole is quite practical, but she has a real fondness, a loyalty, to the people who influenced her.
I think, correct me if I’m wrong, that she believes that their spiritual sensibilities were what helped guide them through life
NH: That’s not wrong. But it’s more than that, too.
DR: In what way?
NH: In the sense that it is fashionable to be cynical about what our ancestors believed, to feel that technology has advanced to the point that they must have been superstitious or naive.
GH: Or that people are only the products of the political or economic forces that were active in their lifetime.
NH: Exactly, most of my family came to the US to work in mines or factories, and there were economic reasons why they did that, but that does not tell the story of who they were as people.
Things like how they raised their families, how they explained to their children the differences between right and wrong.
DR: Is that where the religion portion comes in?
GH: Religion means very different things to different people in different times.
That is actually where the San Pedro cactus as a ritual object connects to our broader themes.
You see, in the United States, psychedelics have an association with the counter culture. There is a really fascinating history actually of the government’s involvement in the use of these substances, all of that is really a separate discussion from what interests me.
Which is, primarily, that the fact that the counter cultural association comes from a change in meaning.
In a Pre-Colombian context, this plant was part of a main-stream culture. What we call psychedelia is actually a co-opting, an illegitimate take over of something with religious significance.
Ultimately, though we all know that the words take on new meaning over time we think less about the ways that symbols change.
St. Peter himself is a figure who is symbolic of the papacy itself. But St. Peter was also a man. A figure of historical time who is not understood to be Devine.
As such, without a supernatural knowledge concerning the meaning of his life, he was simply a person.
A person who played an important role in history, but not in a way that was necessarily known to him.
NH: . That is ultimately what makes it art isn’t it? That there is no conclusion. Only that we are trying to voice a certain perspective. To start a conversation. The meanings change.
There are thousands of artists unknown in their own time who’s art today is the ultimate high status possession.
But, to those artists, their art offered them almost no status...it was a solitary thing.
GH: Because no other life would possibly suit them, which, if you think about it, is somewhat related to shamanism, isn’t it?
NH: There are others who became so famous that they paid for meals by signing their name to a cocktail napkin.
But either way, it is not something you choose. It is something the circumstances of your life lead you to. That’s how I connect it to my grandparents, or even as he does to something more spiritual.
You just make art because you have to, and in our case life wound up putting someone else with the same impulse in our path.
So we work. That is what we do, work.
SZTUKA POKOLEŃ, by Marta Jakubek (article in Polish with link to Translation)
Interview with Nicole and Greg Horgan of Four Robins Ltd.