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Feature Friday: Danielle Schlunegger

Updated: Apr 20, 2020

I first came across Danielle Schlunegger’s work at a collaborative exhibition with Rebecca Reeves. The exhibition was at the Convent in Philly (fabulous space) and it featured these really interesting, highly detailed shadow boxes and resin casts. The theme of water seemed to be present throughout and the way that Schlunegger created such immersive and interesting pieces at such a small scale really blew me away. I was particularly drawn to her shadow boxes that presented small rooms, flooded by luminescent blue resin, and with ships or aquatic life taking over the space. I remember as I studied and ogled over one of these awesome pieces Jeremey Hush, curator of the Convent and rad illustrator himself, was kind enough to open one up so I could take a really deep look inside. Extremely well crafted miniature home and aquatic elements, water that really seemed to flow through the space, and internal lighting that added life to it all, it was just so cool. It’s well documented that I’m fascinated by people working at a small scale but Schlunegger’s work takes it to another level with all the detail she includes in such whimsical work. Every piece tells a story, some are straightforward, some feel like a novel, but no matter what they’re thought provoking and that’s what keeps you looking at this work.

I was really taken by Schlunegger’s work and I’m glad that I snagged a card from that show long before I began working with Plebeian so that I could do this feature today. She gave some extremely in depth answers that make for a great read paired with her incredible work. Take a look and see why I was so fascinated by this work because I’m sure you will be too. Enjoy!

1. To start off, I always like to ask about an artist's background. What got you started in art? Any Schooling? What drove you to sculpture? Anything that you believe has shaped you into the artist you are!

While I was always drawing and telling stories as a kid, my childhood was also filled with cake decorating (my grandmother made wedding cakes!), crafts, music, books, and building projects that exercised all of my 3D sensibilities. I was an only child and my parents and grandparents always had projects to keep me busy, so I was always making something. There are a few specific points in my life that felt really special and influential to me becoming an artist.

My parents worked in construction when I was growing up, and would often go with them to job sites. I used to make stories out of the scraps and debris. I mined for solder drippings and discarded “coins” from electrical boxes while walking through the framework of future walls and rooms. These places were surreal playgrounds to me. Thinking back on it, I realized what a powerful experience it was to see my parents build things from start to finish and be a guest in these often-unknown spaces.

The next big moment for me was in high school art class. While I was learning about shading and light theory something in my mind clicked. I went home from school one day and set up a still-life and I drew until almost dawn. I felt like I intuitively understood how to draw the way light hit the objects because I was thinking about the drawing in a three-dimensional way. It just flowed out of me! I struggled in so many other subjects in school but drawing and making things with my hands felt like pure bliss to me, and “artist” quickly became part of my identity. I was fortunate enough to have the support of my family and was able to (through many grants, scholarships, and loans which I’m still paying off) attend art school for my BFA.

My first year of college at CCA I took as many different kinds of classes as I could, but I realized that sculpture would let me combine all of my interests. For me, sculpture could be anything: it was objects, stories, and above all else it could be an experience. Through exposure to installation artists like Mark Dion, Kiki Smith, and Luis Bourgeois, I realized that I wanted to make work that was immersive, and took someone viewing the work into another realm or state of mind.

2. What initially inspired the nautical theme in your work and how does that change from piece to piece? Further, how do you apply that theme to each work? Is there a difference in imagery decision when working from one piece to another?

I have always loved anything from the ocean, especially sunken ships and the deep sea! I grew up near the beach and at one point in my life wanted to be a marine biologist/scientific illustrator. I didn’t start making art around ocean and water themes until I read Two Years before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana Jr. I became a bit obsessed with ocean voyages and naturalist expeditions in the 19th century, and it really inspired my work on a then-ongoing body of work entitled The Marcus Kelli Collection (2012), an interactive traveling museum I created for a fictional 19th century naturalist. As I was doing research for future installations around this work I began experimenting making coastal diorama scenes as a way to narrate the story behind the larger installation.

As time went on, I also read John Moallem’s Wild Ones, The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf, and The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Colbert. These books piqued my interest in examining what it looks like when conquest and conservation overlap, and I started to think about how ships and sailing vessels have transformed the world, not always in positive ways. My own initial feelings and experiences made me feel that ships were marvels of engineering, representative of fantastical voyages and the intrepid spirit of humankind. The more I dug in, however, the more I realized that view was short-sighted, and the reality is that ships can be also be heavy symbols of slavery, colonization, and the capacity for human evil. These are big, difficult things to talk about, so I feel most apt to speak about it through the lens of my own experience around climate anxiety by linking the symbol of the ship and the age of discovery to a pivotal point in history that triggered the climate collapse we currently face.

When I get an idea or a concept in my head, I usually either need to make a very big installation that takes a few years to tease out all the details and logistics, or I make lots of small pieces around the same concept as a way of exploring how the imagery permeates through a body of work. This was certainly the case in my work for Slipping Below, where the imagery is driven by the controversial symbol of the ship and rising water that represents feelings of anxiety and hopelessness around climate collapse.

After reading The Sixth Extinction, I became obsessed with bleached corals as they reminded me of the romanticizing of fallen civilizations and pale broken roman statues. I wanted to combine that concept with the double edge symbol of a merchant ship, so I sculpted the coral into the ship’s masts for Extinction Event/Monuments. Sometimes I like to bring very disparate objects or ideas together like in my piece Domestic Conquest. I knew I wanted to talk about how past conquests still inform and affect peoples’ lives by using a combination of battling ships disrupting a private space in someone’s home, like a bathtub.

3. Shifting more towards process, how does a piece begin for you? with your style are pieces carefully drawn out and executed? Or do you allow yourself to freely create and develop? Maybe a combination of the two?

When I get an idea for a piece, it’s often an image that pops up in my head that I try to sketch as soon as possible, or at least leave a note describing it for myself until I can. My sketches are usually pretty loose and not always very detailed. I like to allow myself the opportunity to use the sketch as a jumping off point and allow the piece to change, but every so often it’s very close to my original idea. For a more complicated project like some my man of war and jellyfish dioramas, I will do small tests to figure out how to get the color or technique right. Other times I start with materials; sorting or rifling through things I’ve collected to see what clicks and works together, and ideas are spurred from there.

4. How do the more straightforward scenes you create differ from the shadow box-type frames, and resin ships in terms of narrative and process? How are they similar? Do you consider these three avenues of your work as separate paths or facets of one overarching style/theme?

The core of all of my work is about having an immersive experience and being transported in some way, but I like having different avenues of working. Once my job at the museum took off, I started focusing more on miniatures and dioramas in my own work. Miniatures are incredibly captivating because they allow the world to be encapsulated and examined from all angles.

My small bell jars are usually fun and whimsical studies of larger pieces. Oftentimes I just enjoy creating multiples of little scenes and figuring out how to replicate them easily with mold making. This kind of work is easy and fun for me, and sometimes it’s nice to just make something for making’s sake. I want to have work that is affordable to other artists and folks who can’t spend too much money on art all the time. I like to think of them as little desktop escapes, a place to get lost in all the little details and go somewhere else for a few minutes. These are my bread and butter: simple experimental pieces that are easily reproduced and based on the idea of museum souvenirs. They are a nice way for people who like my work to own a little piece of it.

My shadowboxes and larger sculptural ships feel different and more like serious conceptual work to me. I’ve tested my techniques and styles in the smaller pieces, where-as with these I’m more concerned with trying to tell a story or convey a feeling. The ships in particular are technique heavy and took a lot of testing to get correct. These pieces are less about fun and escape than they are about confronting overwhelming feelings of climate-based anxiety. But sometimes humor and hope still leak in because of my sculpting style and color choices. The whimsical nature of miniatures is something that makes the work feel accessible and draws people in, allowing them to mentally explore before coming on an adventure with the more serious conceptual pieces.

5. Are there any new projects in the works? Do you think you'll continue to push your current work styles or is there something new you're looking to try? Maybe both?

I’ve recently been very inspired by underground rivers and flooded caves since I’ve read Robert MacFarlane’s book Underland: A Deep Time Journey. I have been a bit haunted by the following passage about a cave diving experience in Budapest he had while writing the book:

“I took a series of deep breaths, lifted my arms above my head, joined my legs, expelled the air from my lungs in a rush of bubbles, and slowly sank…Ahead of me in the water was the black mouth of a tunnel entrance, leading away into the rock, more than wide enough to engulf me, its stone edges smooth. The pull of the mouth through that eerily clear water was huge. Just as standing on the edge of a tower one feels drawn to fall, so I experienced a powerful longing to swim into the mouth and on, until my air ran beautifully out.”

The mental image from this passage has been lingering in my head for weeks - I’m just not sure what to do yet.

I’m definitely wanting to make more shadowboxes using more raw-looking “building materials” like bricks and ceramics, and also quite separately wanting to work on a small series where floating furniture and debris are used open ocean nurseries by young sea life, speaking to how intertwined human consumption is to the natural world.

There are a lot of concepts I didn’t have the skills for a few years ago that involve embedded LEDs in resin and other complicated elements. I have been making test pieces for these and I‘m hoping to get back to some of my original ideas, but realistically I’m probably going to be spending a lot of time organizing and setting up my studio space in my basement before I can get to most of these!

6. Finally, PLUGS! Where can people find you? Any shows coming up? Anywhere people can find and see you!

I have a show coming up at Idle Hands on April 11th with artist Zoe Keller that I’m very excited about!

I have a few pieces available at

Arch Enemy Arts, PA @archenemyarts

Ghost Gallery, WA @ghostgallery

Antler/Talon Galleries, OR @antlerpdx

The Convent, PA @theconventphilly

You can check out most of my recent miniature work and exhibit design on Instagram @Naturalistandco and older installation work over on my website


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