Audrey Bell was born in Colorado Springs, Colorado in 1988. She earned a BA in Studio Art and Anthropology from Williams College in 2010, and was a Core Fellow at Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina from 2013 - 2015, where she focused on woodworking and painting. She is a recipient of the Frederick M. Peiser Prize in Painting and the John H. Ohly Memorial Fund, and has shown work at the Penland Gallery in North Carolina, the Nave Gallery Annex in Boston, MA, and the Williams College Museum of Art in Williamstown, MA. She is currently a studio artist in North Carolina and runs her own furniture and upholstery business, Outline Designs.
The box of travel tchotchkes I found in my grandfather’s basement after he died sparked a sense of discovery and wonder in me, like artifacts from an ancient tomb or a tool lit up under glass at the Museum of Natural History. The objects we create and choose to surround ourselves with are important; they are access points into a life. These props give history texture in our imaginations, populating the vague idea of a time, place, or culture with tangible and specific activities. The most banal object can be inextricably intwined with a cherished memory. I make portraits that arouse a material sensitivity, display cases that stimulate the memory of touch and action, the desire to deeply picture an experience separate from one’s own.
My process evolved from my fascination with the history of human image- and object-making, and how we are able to envision the past through the objects left behind, be it stone tools, early decorative arts, or a discarded polaroid. Each material in my work is altered and combined in ways that reference the techniques humans have used historically, be it traditional wood joinery, sewing, or soldering. In a culture overloaded with imagery and consumerism, I am drawn to historical ways of making because they evoke a time when images and objects were rare and precious. My work is about truly looking and imagining, about stopping to experience the myriad of emotional and physical responses an image is capable of producing in us.
Q&A with Audrey Bell
by Emily Burns
Hi Audrey! Can you give us some insight into your process? How do you begin and how do you create the compositions? Does drawing play a part in those steps?
Yes! When I’m beginning a portrait, I usually start by putting together combinations of materials and objects that seem to have a sensitivity to the person I am painting. I start to imagine how the textures and colors will interact, and in playing around with these combinations I usually start to form a clear idea of what the painting will look like. These material combinations to some extent also determine the scale and composition of the piece, since I want them to have a certain relationship to the size and orientation of the body. I then take lots and lots of pictures of the person I am painting, or ask them to send me bunch, and then make drawings until I find something I like.
Would you describe your work as painting? Does that designation matter to you?
Yes, I think it is painting. I wouldn’t say the designation doesn’t matter but right now it doesn’t play much of a role in how I think about my work.
Can you talk about how the diorama influences your work?
To me, dioramas are a blurring of the two and three dimensional—a single view into a three-dimensional space, a mixing of imagery and objects. I am very attracted to anything that does this. A lot of my inspiration comes from Northern European miniatures, with their exquisite detail and elaborate frames, as well the incredible retablos of the Southwest I was exposed to as a child. Both of these have this strange dimensionality that I love.
Dioramas are also associated in my mind with museums, and the impetus to document and categorize human experience, to present fact and truth. I love museums, particularly those displaying historical everyday objects and costume. I love thinking about the lives revolving around those objects, taking place in those clothes, and I love the presentation—the glass, the spooky lighting, the little description cards with the museum’s cryptic cataloguing system. But I also think dioramas can be a great way to talk about assumptions of fact, truth, and the social and cultural function of museums. I recently saw Walid Raad’s exhibit at MOMA and was so blown away by his use of images and objects in the museum context as a way to play with assumptions about truth and personal and political narratives. I wouldn’t say these issues are directly present in my work but I do find them exciting.
How do you choose your subject matter? Do you use source materials or references?
For a long while, I painted portraits of strangers from found photographs. I now paint portraits of people around me.
You use collage in such a unique way—how and where do you find the objects that you include in your work?
I am collecting all the time, and some of the things I find are very special and I keep them for a long time, waiting for the perfect piece. But many are very banal—I really enjoy the process of altering common objects and turning them into something totally different. I have used the amazing colors and textures from things like old dodgeballs, linoleum, steel wool, packaging peanuts, upholstery stuffing, that sticky tape that goes around bicycle wheels. These kinds of things are being thrown away all the time and respond in exciting ways to alteration.
I know that I am always collecting stuff to use for future projects, but it is daunting to organize and store all of it after a while! How do you manage storing and organizing your materials?
Oh my gosh, I love organizing all my stuff! It was such a revelation that with only plywood, glue, and a brad nailer, you can seriously change your working space and system. I have also been amassing furniture and containers for some time that have tiny drawers of varying sizes, and at this point my studio is a mass of tiny cubbies. I have a lot of stuff squirreled away for future projects, so it is important for my mental space to feel like it is out of sight and somewhat organized.
What are the themes that you are most interested in exploring right now?
Right now I am thinking all the time about how we view our world and our possibilities. I have done portraits of people in my grandparents’ generation, my parents’ generation, and my generation, and I am wondering so much about ideas of hope and despair. Thinking about the lives these people built around themselves, and that I am building now, and how those physical surroundings reflect the potential and trajectory, or lack thereof, we see for ourselves and our world. About how we relate to others and where we place ourselves in the grand scheme of things. I am also interested in doing portraits of more of the women in my life. Painting someone’s portrait opens the door to hearing a lot about their experiences and sense of self, and I would like to develop a way of documenting that more precisely.
Subtle patterns and textiles seems to be a recurring theme in your work, can you talk about your interest in them as an aesthetic (or otherwise) element?
Pattern (via printmaking and textiles) holds an enormous draw for me. I studied printmaking in college, got back into it a couple of years ago, and also studied weaving. Printmaking is such a perfect method for honing pattern and color sensibilities, for breaking things down into their essential components, and I love working abstractly in this medium. Weaving is the same way—a method with distinct parameters for playing with color and scales of pattern.
I also just find textiles fascinating, not only in the range of fibers and techniques humans have employed to make them, but also as evidence of women’s daily lives in history (back to my fascination with history, everyday things, and objects as artifacts). Textiles are so diverse as a material—as fiber, texture, color, pattern - and hold such deep associations with almost all human experience and culture. They are at once something so commonplace and yet so wrapped up with history, myth, power, and cultural and personal identity. I really admire the way artists like Seydou Keita, Hassan Hajjaj, and Cat Mazza employ this in their work.
What is a typical day like for you?
I have an upholstery business, so I usually spend about three days a week doing that. I like it this way because then I can have focused days in the studio. On studio days I wake up early, drink coffee, and deal with all the necessary emails/business stuff, since there is a narrow window in the morning when I can be efficient with that. Afterwards I usually don’t look at email for the rest of the day. I am incapable of getting work done while simultaneously texting/checking email. I don’t get how people do it! I also live in rural North Carolina, so the internet is very spotty. The upside is that it is very quiet, and there are very few distractions. My studio is a shed-like structure right next to my house. I’ll take a lot of time experimenting with materials, but once I start a painting I like to get it done in as few sittings as possible, so that my original idea doesn’t have time to get too muddled. Sometimes I listen to the radio or audiobooks. I usually take a break mid-afternoon and sit outside and eat a lot of popcorn (which is probably bad for me but I love it) and then work again until 5 or 6. I’ll go for a run or go to the store and then make dinner. I try to eat dinner with my partner and other people as often as I can since I’m alone much of the day. I like to take the evenings off if I can afford to, but often if there’s a monotonous task with one of my materials I’ll work on that in the evening. Sometimes I’ll go to a friend’s studio and work with her. On good days I’ll take a bath and read and eat more popcorn.
You have been an assistant to a number of artists, can you talk about how those experiences have influenced you as an artist?
I think the best thing about assisting artists, apart from the skill-building, is just seeing that there is such a range of ways that people operate in their studio and in their life as an artist. There can be something so central to someone’s practice, or sense of themselves as an artist, or the trajectory of their career, that doesn’t even factor into another artist’s thinking. It’s been really refreshing to see that.
All of the artists I’ve worked for are also impeccable technicians, with backgrounds in the fields of printmaking, weaving and textile production, woodworking/furniture making/upholstery, and metalsmithing. It is so interesting seeing how this technical knowledge comes into their work, and for better or for worse, this has certainly influenced the way that I make things. It makes me really pay attention to construction, and is a large part of the reason I use so many different materials in my work. Having learned furniture making and upholstery from these artists, they have also directly enabled me to support my artistic endeavors through my business.
What are some of the biggest challenges that you have faced or overcome as an artist so far in your career?
This is a really hard question to answer. In general I feel very fortunate to be on this path, and I think of myself as being in an early/developmental stage of my career, so many of the challenges I have faced I think of as necessary in figuring out how to be a working artist. I’m sure there will be many challenges in the future. Right now I am struggling to meet other artists with whom I feel my work is in conversation, just because I am so isolated and know very few painters. Connecting with more artists is a big goal for this year.
What is your favorite studio-workathon food?
What do you listen to while you work? Is this an important part of your practice?
I listen to lots of audiobooks. I’m kind of sick of my music and without internet that is tough. Sometimes when I’m feeling unmotivated I have to watch that Justin Bieber Sorry dance video.
What are some of the artists that you look at feel that your work is in dialogue with?
I’m not sure if my work is in dialogue with these artists, but I certainly look at the work of Sylvia Sleigh, Dustin Metz, Arlene Shechet, Bruegel the Elder, Doris Salcedo, Hans Holbein, Honore Sharrer, Seydou Keita, Andrew Wyeth, Alison Kobayashi, Louise Nevelson, Giotto, Ed Pincus, Agnes Martin, Zurburan, as well as a lot of New Mexican religious art and furniture, American folk art, and medieval furniture and icons.
Do you have any exciting news or shows coming up?
I am having a solo show at the Carrack Modern Art in Durham, NC from March 7–20, 2016. It will feature a lot of my portraits as well as some collections of objects that are important to me. I also found out just last week that I received an Elizabeth Greenshields Foundation grant, so I’ll be traveling to Kyoto next fall to study mokuhanga with a master printer there. So excited to work more on creating imagery and patterns to work into my portraits, and to create a portrait series of people I meet in Kyoto!
Thanks so much for sharing your work and talking with us!
To find out more about Audrey and her work, check out her website.