Gracelee Lawrence is a Visiting Artist in the Multidisciplinary Department of Art at Chiang Mai University on a Luce Schol- ars Fellowship. She completed her MFA in Sculpture + Extended Media at the University of Texas at Austin and graduated from Guilford College as a Principled Problem Solving Scholar with an honors degree in Sculpture and minors in Spanish and Art History. She is a Co-Founder/Director of Pig & Pony Gallery, the Founder/Director of the Virtual Studio Visit Net- work, Co-Founder of Cocina Migrante, a contributing writer for the International Sculpture Center Blog and a member of the collective Material Girls. In 2017 she has two solo exhibitions in Thailand, at Rumpueng Art Space in Chiang Mai and Bridge Art Space in Bangkok, and has held solo exhibitions across the United States. Lawrence is a 2016-17 Luce Scholars Fellow, a recipient of the 2015 UMLAUF Prize, 2013 Eyes Got It Prize, and the 2011-12 Ella Fountain Pratt Emerging Artist Grant. She is an artist, writer, cook, traveler, macramé enthusiast, lifelong horsewoman, and Bagel Babe.
For the digitally tethered, life is at the intersection of the virtual and the physical. Experience is continually tempered through a stream of simultaneous meta-interactions, archives, extensions, and reflections of ‘experienced’ reality. The separation be- tween the digital and objectness is the space between human touch and perception: the affect of contemporary technology. We train ourselves to process fragments of the digital world, recombining them into an almost infinite number of configura- tions in order to create the semblance of a whole. The truncated and disembodied limbs, fruits, and food packaging in the sculptures speak to the fragmentation and compartmentalization encouraged in digital space by questioning literal and meta- phorical touch, or even the sensation of closeness, between bodies. The increasing distance between humanity and physical reality bleeds into the infiltration of technology into our collective internet-based-smooth-pastel-dream-space, a place that I mine for both image and reference.
This work is focused on the ways in which bodies are both gendered and metaphorically fragmented in terms of the linguistic and image-based correspondence between capitalist-driven material desires, physical sustenance, and the digital spaces we inhabit. The sculptures are made using digital fabrication and human labor, the objects themselves coming into existence from the reciprocal translation of the digital to the physical (and visa versa), ending with a completely real physical manifestation. In our current globalizing and technology focused world, the action of physical making through digital means underpins my ultimate belief in both the potential of technology and the power of objectness, the importance of things that unapologetically hold their mass in the world.
Interview with Gracelee Lawrence
Questions by Emily Burns
Can you walk us through your process for one of your 3D printed works from beginning to end?
My present work is a series of translations from physical to digital space and then back to physical reality using a 3D printer and continued analog manipulation. I collect digital objects in three different ways: hand sculpting objects in physical reality and then 3D scanning them, building them completely in digital space using the software Rhino 3D, and finding or buying 3D models made by others online. These raw objects are morphed, cut, smashed, pulled, and recombined in digital space and formed into the compositions that make up the floor and wall sculptures. Once I have placed the objects in the digital composition, I split the final sculpture into cubes that will fit onto my 11 in² 3D printer bed. Each wall sculpture is made up of 8-12 3D printed chunks that are recombined (with glue and putty) into a whole and act as the skeleton of the final object. The 3D print is then mummified with many layers of sanded acrylic putty, epoxy putty and resin, and finally painted. Digital fabrication was originally appealing to me because of the ability to translate, recombine, and skew objects as accurately understood images. I feel that this process also parallels the translations and psychological travel that takes place between digital and physical reality. I am interested in the space between the screen and the earth and the complicated extractions that happen in order to transport our brains between these two places.
How do these relate to the larger, installed works in water or fountains?
The large outdoor fountain-sculptures marked my first foray into digital fabrication. I was preparing for the 2015 UMLAUF Prize Exhibition in Austin, TX and wanted to shift my work from a primarily material-based metaphor to image metaphor. Basically, I wanted to move from using food materials such a juicer pulp, gelatin, and pineapple crowns as the backbone of the work to learning how to scan, render, and digitally produce fruits in their recognizable “whole” form. Moving from materials/objects that need a backstory or narrative to direct references to recognizable objects also opened up the accessibility to the work. This move was a huge shift in my work, first initiated by material needs and subsequently unfolded into unexpected directions. I was looking for a way of making objects that could withstand extreme weather in the same moment that my work was materially moving from broken down organic materials to inorganic materials representing the organic forms. The fountain-sculptures were the gateway and seemingly the beginning of a lifelong learning curve in relation to digital fabrication.
While the fountain-sculptures are also dealing with the fragmentation and redefinition of the body in relation to fruit, the relationship between the reference and the sculpture is fairly linear and singular. I would choose a midcentury bronze sculpture to use as reference and recreate it using giant fruit bodies. There isn’t much cross pollination of either image or reference in that first two series while in the new work I’ve approached it in an intentionally knotty way. This work mixes/recombines/alters origins, bodies, objects, and fruits in ways that better reflect the digital and physical processes involved in the making of the work. It is the next iteration of the original gravitation.
In your statement you talk about the “digitally tethered” and that"the separation between the digital and objectness is the space between human touch and perception: the affect of contemporary technology.” What piqued your interest in our relationship with the digital and technology? What do you think the biggest effects of technology are on our culture currently?
While I came in to digital fabrication from a place of practicality, it’s impact quickly shifted towards informing an integral part of how I think about production, concept, and the affect of digital technology on our contemporary brains. In the cusp between digital fabrication as practical technology and digital fabrication as a core informing aspect of my work, there was a moment when this new thought clicked into place. It was early in my time in Thailand and I was keenly feeling the ache of separation from my graduate school community, friends, and family back in the US. Technology changed for me, it became such an all-encompassing focus and the source of nearly all of my emotional support during a challenging transition. I was feeling the ways in which it could both help and hinder my day-to-day life, the extent to which it affected or built or degraded relationships. This led me to begin reading about the effect of digital technology on our brains and to jump on this line of questioning with my work. There is widespread agreement that things are changing in this arena but no one is quite sure how exactly the long-term impacts will play out. With my work I can poke around in this fire and maybe even examine the embers on down the line.
What interests you most about "the reciprocal translation of the digital to the physical” and back again? What about the difference between our experience of technology and 3-dimentional space that you hope to explore in your work?
At that cusp moment I noticed a tension when switching back and forth between digital and physical spaces. I began to think of my computer and phone screens as places, particular spaces to explore with their own architectures, geometries, and rules of action. When the screen lights up, my brain travels to that digital space and my perception is tugged between the digital and physical. When I turn off the screen, I feel like a recalibration is necessary to fully reenter physical space. A tangible and simplified example: lately I’ve noticed when making notes in the margins of books or essays I have a strong desire to draw an emoji instead of writing a word or phrase. I’m concerned by this shift in my brain, like some wire has wiggled loose and plugged into a new little hard drive. The processes and images in my current work are dealing with this fragmentation, recombination, and overlay of digital and physical space with the processes and images.
In your view, what is one of the biggest impacts that technology is having on us as humans?
My primary concerns lie in the shifts that we are feeling in human interactions and perception, ranging from the recent phenomena of relationships primarily enacted in digital space to the changing value of objects to the slippery slope of social media and technology addiction. The diminished capacity for patience and delayed gratification is of particular concern to me and I have seen what I believe to be its effects on my students, many of whom are only a handful of years younger than me. With excessive use of technology, abstract thinking is often reduced and the boundaries between the information stored in our brains and the Internet are weakening. Not to be completely doom and gloom, as there have been a plethora of positive changes encouraged by the Internet, but overall I am concerned about the obvious and quantifiable dangers that researchers have already recognized in relationship to technology and the human brain.
What is a typical day like for you?
For the past five months nearly every day has been different than the last! Overall, on my ideal day I’ll wake up and drink many cups of oolong tea while answering emails or reading, bike or run for a bit, settle into a few hours of digital studio time, and then cook or hang out with friends in the evening. Since packing up my Thailand studio in July I’ve been working on renderings and videos that aren’t reliant on physical space. I’m thrilled to get back to a 3D studio space soon!
Who are some of the artists that you look at the most often or most recently?
Seven years ago I first set eyes on the work of Karla Black in Sculpture Magazine and have been enthralled ever since. I respect the stubbornness in her language around the work and the clear boundaries she has created around its sculpturalness, among other things. She refuses to allow her work to be labeled as feminine, delicate, or ephemeral and in that negation is shoving her fist into the socially engrained gender delineations around objects. Not to mention her palate, which has deeply informed my own. She speaks of pastels as “almost colors” striving for realization yet intentionally falling short. I love that thought and have coopted it into my work, although along with clear references around the historic/gendered nature of color that she has very intentionally denied. Laure Provost and Mika Rottenberg complete my trifecta. Every time I look at the work or writing of these three artists I delight in a new morsel, question or moment of superb alignment.
What are a few of the stimuli or experiences that get you really excited to get back into the studio, particularly if you have been experiencing a spell of minimal inspiration?
Reading fiction is an important part of finding inspiration and usually squeezes out a few drops of fruitful image/motion to make productive brain ripples. Being around people, outside of the studio, is also important. Working to understand others experiences around interpersonal interactions and active observing out in the world are equally as informative. As I’ll get into later, the act of making feeds itself. Daily work begets work and momentum is key.
Tell me more about your enthusiasm for macramé! Is this strictly a hobby or something that informs any aspect of your work?
Early on in graduate school I got into knotting while researching tobacco twine crocheting and macramé for an installation in Downtown Chapel Hill. I’ve always been interested in fibers and sewing, actually my first proper sculptures were sculptural dresses! On a whim I decided that I wanted a new craft project so I learned macramé, looked at hundreds of amazing fashion photos from the 1970s, and got pretty deep into it. While only one installation (titled Crochet Ricochet Macramé Cosmic Ray Hideaway) and one whale-like autonomous object have been made using macramé so far, it quickly became a hot commodity on the teaching front. I’ve been fortunate to teach macramé classes all over the US and Thailand, sharing this centuries old process with folks of a variety of backgrounds and ages. I’ve had it on the back of my mind to incorporate it into my rendering and 3D prints for a while, so stay on the lookout for that possibility!
You just had recent solo exhibitions in Thailand, at Rumpueng Art Space in Chiang Mai and Bridge Art Space in Bangkok. Can you tell us more about your experience exhibiting (and living?) in this part of the world?
This is a huge question that can be answered in so many directions! In Thailand I worked to understand the climate for contemporary artists, from the ways in which Thai politics affect expression, the education system, gallery and museum structures, to common conceptions of artists in different cities and countries around Southeast Asia. I spent time with curators, museum directors, writers, artists, activists, students, and many others who were generous enough to help me piece together my current understanding of contemporary art in Thailand. Contemporary art education is an extremely new field in Thailand and I was incredibly fortunate to be teaching in the first department of its kind in the region, the Multidisciplinary Department of Art at Chiang Mai University while in Thailand on a Luce Scholars Fellowship. Founded by the incomparable Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook, the department is defined by its encouragement of students to select from, integrate or work across an unlimited range of mediums, expressions, and concepts. I was primarily teaching third year students and while our first few months together were rocky at best, by the end of my time in Chiang Mai we had built strong relationships and an understanding of mutual learning by breaking down hierarchies. They taught me just as much, or most probably more, than I taught them! I could go on for ages, but will leave it at that for now.
You have adopted a uniquely fun and lighthearted approach to your identity as an artist, both on the visual aesthetic of your CV and website, as well as the friendly and personal styleof your artist bio. Can you talk about your choices to share your work and story in this way?
I wanted the aesthetic of my website to align with my work, holding humor and lightness. I think about my digital presence in a similar way to how I think about my work- I want to make things that look like the way I want the world to look. Color is such a strong line of engagement or disengagement for me, and the choices on my website and CV echo this ethos. The question of accessibility is something I’ve been batting around for many years and creating an approachable presence is one corner of my solution.
You have a lot of projects going on! Can you talk more about your house gallery, Pig & Pony? What prompted you to start the gallery and what are your goals for the space in the future?
A dear friend of mine, Adam Crosson, and I started Pig & Pony after a conversation the summer before our last year of grad school. We were talking about the limitations and frustrations we felt in and about the Austin art scene, primarily the insularity and the merry-go-round of the same artists being shown at the same spaces time and again. We were excited about using an alternative space, the unused front room of the lovely 1970s ranch house where I was living, and my wonderful friend who owned the house was also enthusiastic about the idea. Our guiding principles are diversity and humor, creating programming that mainly consists of two person exhibitions. We wanted to bring new conversations and work to Austin, thus only showed artists based outside of Texas. In each pair we wanted one person based in a “center” like LA/NY/Chicago and one in a peripheral place. This led to some really exciting combinations and dialogues that we had been looking for in Austin. For the past year Pig & Pony has been on hold because of my relocation to Thailand and Adam’s moves to Houston and now New Orleans, but we have plans to get it going again in the near future. A long-term plan is to have two spaces for P&P, one in New Orleans and one in the city where I end up. We want to continue to create programming collaboratively but engage P&P in two distinct communities. Pig & Pony marked my first engagement with curation and opened the door to several other projects in the US and Asia that have been so enriching and expansive. More on those in 2018!
How do you balance your studio practice and all of the other side projects you have going on?
Since my studio practice is very solitary, collaborative work like Material Girls, Mesa Fronteriza, and Pig & Pony act as excellent counterweights. These mutually delineated paths of connection to thinkers and makers who I hold in high esteem were particularly meaningful during my time in Asia. While my personal making is steadily and unyieldingly maintained, these other projects ebb and flow with some level of synchronicity. One will need more attention as another quiets down, etc. So far it has all happened very naturally.
If epiphanies occur for you, where and how do they usually happen?
Epiphanies always happen at unexpected times and places, like watching a rotisserie full of ducks or the moments right before falling asleep or while on a run. Radical solutions rarely come from inside the studio, they happen elsewhere and are hauled in to disrupt or change the flow.
Is there anything that significantly supports or destroys your groove or energy in the studio?
Music is the support and having people in the studio is the destroyer. My process is pretty messy and sometimes I need to arrange myself in strange ways around the studio or dance or not be fully clothed. Maybe the relationship between the object and my body needs to be tested and that requires me to examine belly fat or cellulite, to cradle an object against my skin. Unwatched space is key.
Has there ever been a book/essay/poem/film/etc. that totally changed or influenced you? What are you reading right now?
Fiction plays a huge role in my making and especially in the titling of my work. I’ve been on a short story kick for the past few months and recently happened across two incredible collections. This past spring I picked by When Watched by Leopoldine Core while in Kuala Lumpur solely based on the title and cover design. It had a huge impact on the work I made during that period (dealing so heavily with the gaze!) and also became the title of my show in Bangkok in August. Several months later I found Man & Wife by Katie Chase in the same bookstore. Again, my mind was blown as I was transported into a series of beautiful, wrenching, and raw stories about misled desire and the unexpected turns of the human heart. I should also mention A Girl is a Half Formed Thing by Eimear McBride and Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum, two more incredible novels that have affected the language around my work and lure me in to their opulently painful and productive speculative fictitious spaces. I’m currently re-reading those last two along with A Taste of Power: Food and American Identities by Katharina Vester and recently finished Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari and Eric Klinenberg and Little Emperors and Material Girls: Youth and Sex in Modern China by Jemimah Steinfeld.
I’ll extract morsels from these books or conversations with friends, phrases or words that stick in just the right way. They are compiled into a document and some end up morphing into objects or becoming titles for other work. That archive also expanded to include snippets of the Google translated essays sent to me by my Thai students. I love those poetic miscommunications.
Any advice from your past that has stuck with you or helped you?
In my senior year of undergrad a professor told me, “Whatever you do, keep making. It should be your first priority.” As simple as it sounds, it has been my absolute mantra and guiding force for the past six years. In week three of graduate school I emailed the same professor during my first ever period of paralyzing making uncertainty. I was in the throes of indecision and found myself unable to finish any sculptures even though my studio was jammed with a bundle of half-baked attempts. He sent me the famous letter from Sol Lewitt to Eva Hesse and firmly reminded me to make first and analyze later. The act of making in itself greases me out of the sticky spots.
What has been one of the most challenging aspects of your career as an artist so far?
The uncertainties are, at times, unsettling but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
What do you listen to while you work? Is this an important part of being in the studio?
Music plays a HUGE part in my making! There is always music (or a podcast) playing in my studio and I joke that half the time you’ll find me dancing around my objects. I’ve noticed that there is a correlation between the amount of dancing around any given work and my opinion of the piece when its finished. The more dancing the better, as it is somehow related to getting to know this new thing in the world. Dancy noises are always welcome (CSS, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, M83, Susanne Sundfør, Jungle Pussy) but the staples are Austra, Mitski, Boards of Canada, and the Cocteau Twins. Almost all of my graduate school thesis work was named with Cocteau Twins song titles and their music has become an underpinning in creating the right kind of studio environment. I also must mention my loyalty to WXYC, UNC Chapel Hill’s radio station. It has been an essential aspect of my auditory life for the past 14+ years and continues to be my go-to when I need musical inspiration or a bit of unpredictability. No matter where I am in the world I’m sure to stream WXYC for at least a few hours a day.
How do you navigate distraction in the studio and in life?
Distraction is an important part of my studio time. When I am in the workflow I embrace a particular type of distraction: jumping from object to object as it feels natural. I want my brain to get a little softer analytically yet hyper-focused sensorially. I’ll pay attention to the way light hits the trash on the floor or an action shifts a material: I’ve found this type of sliding attention to be most useful. That being said, phone distraction or another person in the workspace during the speculative phase absolutely kills that headspace.
Do you have any other news, shows, residencies or projects coming up?
This week I am headed to Pittsburgh, PA for a two-month residency at Bunker Projects, ending with a solo show in December. I’m thrilled to check out Pittsburgh and get a solid chunk of dedicated studio time after several months of international transience. In December Mesa Fronteriza will be making our first research trip to the Texas-Mexico borderlands and then January brings me to Austin for a Material Girls exhibition. I’ll be headed up to Vermont Studio Center for the month of February and after that it’s unfolding!
Thanks so much for sharing your work and talking with us!
To find out more about Gracelee and her work, check out her website.