ALEXIS GRANWELL, PHILADELPHIA, PA
Interview between Amy Boone-McCreesh and Alexis Granwell, June, 2022
Amy: Where are you from/ where did you grow up? Do you feel like your formative years influence the art you now make?
Alexis: I was born in New York City and grew up outside Washington, DC. I was always making art throughout childhood (dioramas, drawings, Sculpey sculptures), but in high school I started painting more intensely. I painted landscapes and figures, investigating how paint could be pushed around to capture different qualities of light. I loved the visceral qualities of oils.
Although I began as a painter, I’ve always been interested in working with materials beyond their typical means. As a student, I experimented with dimensions in my paintings by using insulation foam, which could be painted and carved into. In another body of work, I painted on curtains to see how images might move, shift, and alter the space around them. These works connected me to non-representational imagery and process.
My work has come full circle from the early days. My new sculptures are incredibly gestural and bodily. I can see the connections to my early years with painting.
Where is your current studio and how long have you been there?
My studio is located in South Philly at the 1241 Carpenter Building. I’ve been here close to 10 years and in Philly for 17 years. It’s a fantastic studio space with a lot of natural light. I appreciate the community, and the building has good energy. Plus, there are great tacos down the street!
What does the perfect studio day look like for you?
I like to go for a walk first and observe nature and then cook a big meal and head to the studio all day. Having a full day in the studio is ideal because it can take a while to get completely into the zone…to let my mind wander.
In the most intense periods of lockdown, I was working at my kitchen table and then I’d run upstairs to teach on Zoom. I loved living with my work and living with the process. Waking up and working first thing in your pajamas is the best way to get focus.
Can you talk a little bit about your materials – maybe past and present?
I started out as an oil painter, which then led me into drawing and printmaking. I deeply connected with intaglio because of the act of control when carving and the elements of surprise when printing. However, I’m more painting-minded, and I pushed myself to make the prints bigger and more gestural.
In 2010, I received a grant to work at AS220 printshop in Providence, RI, to create massive intaglio/ monotype prints on a six foot press, one of the largest in the world. I used monotype, dry point, and spit-bite and then printed with multiple plates and multiple layers, combining thin veils of color and mark-making.
This whole process led me to making my own paper because I could not find paper large enough and cheap enough for my project. I began working with Tibetan papermaking, one of the oldest forms, where pulp is poured directly into the mould. The vertical drying process captured the movement of pulp as gravity pulled fibers down, creating chance“events” in my finished prints that let me fuse texture with my etched marks. I was drawn to the relief elements of the Tibetan paper and the idea that paper could be a textural image and not just a substrate.
After AS220, I began working with paper pulp in more sculptural modes, building these skeletal architectural forms with abaca fiber. Then, in 2016, I got a grant to work at Dieu Donné in New York, which is a paper mill for contemporary artists. At Dieu Donné, two master paper makers, Amy Jacobs and Lisa Haque, taught me about pulp painting techniques and the laminate sheet casting method. I’ve been experimenting with these methods ever since. Using linen pulp, I work with highly pigmented colors. The pulp is so responsive, absorbing my movements as I work, and can be printed, stenciled, sprayed, and layered to create complex surfaces that transform the paper in exciting ways. It’s an endless rabbit hole of play and experimentation.
With the wall pieces, they are more immediate. Some of these works are made quickly with pulp painting that is then folded into a form while wet. Some of the works have embedded fabric pieces, placed into the pulp when forming the paper.
The freestanding works take more time, sometimes several months. I build up forms with mesh and papier-mâché. Then, I create a series of pulp paintings with linen and cotton fibers. These paintings are wrapped and collaged on top of the sculpture. The paper dries around the forms, creating a painterly skin.
I also work with other materials including wood, cement, and found objects. The wood stands were made at Philadelphia Woodworks, where I have been taking classes.
Do you think about the space your pieces may occupy when you’re making them?
Not really, because I am constantly making work and I don’t always have a show lined up in the making process. However, when I install, I think about the grouping in a space and the void spaces too.
This August, I have the opportunity to make something site-specific for a solo show at Bill Adair and Tom Grammer’s School House Projects. The space includes a beautiful historic schoolhouse and a garden. I’m excited to see how my works will interact with the flowers and the wildlife.
What is the driving force behind your work – what do you hope it communicates to viewers?
Process drives the work, particularly my interactions with paper pulp and pigment as a means to reflect the sensory and the tactile. People always ask if they can touch my sculptures and I love that. The forms are communicating something within their surface. There’s a sense of mending and repair; they’re bodily, psychological, but also like rock forms or small landscapes. Color and texture suggest processes happening to them or within them–an experience like being a human.
Elements of the domestic are becoming more present in the sculptures. Working at the kitchen table during the pandemic informed many of my new shapes. I started exploring these handle shapes that suggest a cup or vase. One new piece has engulfed a stool, another is a headboard shape.
What do you do when the studio gets tough; do you have any coping mechanisms? How do you combat the negative inertia that can take hold of the best of us?
Drawing–really quick drawing. Also, sometimes I just need to destroy something.
I think before the pandemic, I did not prioritize being outside or going on walks. Having time with plants and trees has created balance in my life. I’ve also been growing a garden since May 2020. Plant forms continually inspire me. Right now, I’m obsessed with my Baptisia leaves.
Within the last year, I started reading poetry. I find poetry, particularly the Zuihitsu form (translated as “running brush”) to be really grounding. And it feels kind of like a drawing–the fragments of poetry I find similar to what I do with the various paper pulp paintings that are collaged into sculpture. The fragments create an atmosphere.
Sometimes it’s also about NOT being in here for me. It’s hard because it’s compulsive.
Do you have anything coming up you’d like to promote or another artist you think we should be watching?
In 2023, I have a two person show at the Amelie A. Wallace Gallery at SUNY Old Westbury College with Eleanna Anagnos, who also works with paper pulp in experimental ways. The exhibition Shift. Breathe. Expand, curated by Tally de Orellana, highlights the process of paper as a flexible and emotive medium that is painterly, sculptural, and energetic. The show will take place in three separate galleries in the 2500 square foot space, and each gallery will have a different theme related to the experience of papermaking.
I’m also participating in a project in Mexico City in 2023 called Where we left off – The Tiger Strikes Asteroid network has partnered with a group of Mexico City artists. Artists will be paired together to collaborate in different modes. There will be two shows-one in CDMX and one in Philadelphia. This project is curated by David Ayala Alfonso (CDMX) and Tally de Orellana (London).
My former studio neighbor and dear friend, Jess Perlitz, is a brilliant artist to follow. She plays with ideas of the monumental, the body, desire, queerness, and heartbreak. She’s in Portland, OR.