Visual artist Gracelee Lawrence has roots in farming and gardening, which some may say is far from the technology driven works that she makes today. Lawrence’s current studio practice is made up of endless hours of tinkering with 3D scanning and printing, creating digitally fabricated mash ups of body parts (often her own) and produce grown from the earth. The connections and disconnections that lie between human emotion and the cycle of nature are at the root of her interests. Gracelee just opened an exhibition at Peter Gaugy Gallery in Vienna, Austria that will be on view until February 18th and will be showing at Turley Gallery in Hudson New York this Spring. Her recent works are a physical exploration of the ways we inhabit digital spaces and what that means for our own bodies and the ways we sustain ourselves in daily life. A recent studio visit with Gracelee Lawrence revealed more about her studio processes and her formative years as an artist.
Interview between Amy Boone-McCreesh and Gracelee Lawrence
A: WHERE DID YOU GROW UP/ WHERE ARE YOU FROM? DO YOU FEEL ANY OF YOUR FORMATIVE YEARS INFLUENCE THE WORK YOU MAKE?
G: I grew up in rural North Carolina, in the smallest county in the very middle of the state, where both of my parents are from. All my family still lives there except me. I grew up on a tobacco farm that has been in my family for five generations. I was there for the first ten years of my life, then we moved to Chapel Hill when I was ten. My worldview changed quite dramatically- I went from learning to work a garden, walking through sweet potato fields, hanging out with chickens etc., to being surrounded with the children of university professors. In Chapel Hill I was going to school with people from all over the world. I’m grateful for the timing and my parents’ foresight, my aperture opened to a greater understanding of the world outside of my hometown.
Being in a rural space my first ten years has deeply informed my work in terms of growth, reproduction and the ways all types of bodies engage with those systems- human, vegetable, animal- and the breaking down of the hierarchies between them. I also grew up riding horses competitively so that played into the breakdown of hierarchies and capabilities. And actually that’s coming into my work for the very first time for my current show in Vienna, Austria. The work ethic of being a horse person has come into the way I deal with sculpture, my own practice, and my teaching. Daily practice is something one must do to be a strong and accomplished rider, so I approach my sculpture practice in the same way. Six or seven days per week I’m in the studio, I’m learning and failing and moving through ideas.
WHERE IS YOUR STUDIO AND HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN THERE?
My current studio is in Troy, NY and I’ve been there for about 2 and a half years. Strangely, this is my first permanent studio since grad school in 2016. The time in between I was doing residencies, visiting professorships, etc. I’m currently full-time, tenure track at SUNY Albany so for the first time I have a permanent space and that change is suiting the work quite well.
HOW DID TECHNOLOGY MAKE ITS WAY INTO YOUR WORK – WHAT ROLE DOES IT PLAY IN YOUR CONTENT?
It’s probably 80% of the content. It operates both as a practical system and the conceptual frame of my work, dealing with questions about the (perceived) schism between digital and physical reality. In 2015, I used digital fabrication for the first time while working on my MFA at UT Austin. I received the UMLAUF Prize, a prize for a graduate student to do an exhibition at the UMLAUF Sculpture Garden & Museum. I hadn’t done much outdoor work and at the time most of my work was made out of food materials like juicer pulp and pineapple crowns. The base content of my work, thinking about the relationship between food and body, and the complicated, colonial distribution and system was very present but for the first time I needed to translate it into materials that could live outside in TX for six months and into visual systems that the public could ingest. These two lines of inquiry lead me down the path of digital fabrication. I had access to an amazing digital fabrication lab at UT Austin run by Eric McMaster, a true master of the medium. He taught me the basics of translating my work from this very mushy, material world into a digitally fabricated space. Instead of fruit materials, I was scanning whole fruits, 3D printing them, and translating them into CNC files to cut. I was very much thinking about the image metaphor versus the material metaphor, which was really the shift in allowing myself to use the image metaphor as a way of creating more accessible inroads for accessing my work.
This connects back to my origins and childhood- at the beginning I was thinking, if my neighbors from the farm saw this work, would they be able to find a recognizable point of contact? That question has been a guiding light for many years. I feel that in a gallery, there is already a barrier of entry into the context of the space and people enter with some idea of what they might be approaching. Outdoor work and public work, I want to ensure that there is an inroad. I use humor, image, recognizability, color, scale, etc. and these needs are also a part of the transition from material to image.
I moved to Thailand for the Luce Scholars Fellowship two weeks after finishing my MFA. Immediately, technology played a vastly different role in my life. It was a lifeline and means of connection and support. It held emotion that it didn’t have before because when I first moved there I didn’t speak Thai, I didn’t understand who I was in the context of this new place, so the technology I used for support reframed how I thought about what a digital space could do. From there I started thinking about how I could translate emotion and bodily sensation through technology and output a sculpture. Fortunately, I brought with me a 3D printer and scanner, but those were all the tools I had at the time. I was thinking about what happens when you press an emotional response through digital space and back out again, particularly through scanning and reprinting over and over and seeing what happens with data loss and data gain. I became extremely interested in the artifacting that happens along the way- something I am still fascinated with.
YOUR WORK SPANS FROM HANDHELD TO PUBLIC OUTDOOR SCULPTURE – DO THESE WAYS OF WORKING SHARE QUALITIES OF ACCESSIBILITY FOR YOU?
I see my work as operating in a many-petaled Venn diagram in terms of recognizability and access. I have an outdoor art practice where I think about the access of image, form, and creating a system of inroads. I also have my gallery work (usually larger and more abstracted) and then we get to smaller scale accessible open edition prints. The largest and the smallest are probably closest in terms of accessibility. The outdoor pieces are most often in spaces that are free and open to the public and the small scale print objects are priced with accessibility in mind.
Part of my desire with the open edition prints is that sculpture becomes something people feel they can bring into their homes- it’s not just for collectors with thousands of dollars or for institutional commissions. 3D printing allows me to scale, to do both open editions and limited editions; it has allowed me to create this system of access and distribution.
I want the object-ideas to proliferate and do their work! People living with the objects is a cultivation of the ideas behind the work. People talk to me about how it feels to be with the work and their interpretations, and that is deeply precious to me. I don’t want my work to exist in a world with limited access- it is able to play all sides.
CAN YOU TALK A LITTLE BIT ABOUT THE WAY YOU WORK – WHAT DOES A STUDIO DAY OR WEEK LOOK LIKE FOR YOU?
I approach my studio time as a practice that takes my own personal time investment. It demands that I put in the time in order to shape the work through experimentation and often it changes along the way. All of my work is completely done in-house, so I’m doing the 3D scanning, processing the files and pushing them in and out of several different softwares, manipulating/merging/mixing with other files, and then I chop it up into printable pieces, then put it in my 3D printer. I have ten 3D printers in my studio and I’m doing all the fabrication myself, which I love. There’s so much exploration and little moments of discovery that happen in the making process and outcomes I can’t foresee, so I have to be engaging with it on that level because I couldn’t explain to someone else how to shape a moment of uncertainty.
It takes countless unhurried hours, which is where the time investment comes in. The moments of discovery and uncertainty and slippage are so exciting and that is where so much of my work originates. Many people have a misconception about digital fabrication that it’s a direct A to B process, but that’s not the case in my approach. Perfection is not my interest, nor is linear result. My interest is in the making, the slippage, how data is interpreted by the various machines and softwares. These moments of shift and change, data loss and gain: those are the moments I find truly exciting. The decisions I’m making, the processing of the files, and the process of printing itself congeals in the final form. I have this huge rack of over 100 different filaments to test different colors and transparencies- it would be unreasonable to have someone else do all those tests and determine the result, so I deal with all those potentials. Some of the objects are singular prints, but larger pieces I can print 100-200 pieces so there is a whole process of labeling and organizing the files that becomes a deep part of the process. A lot of time in the studio lately has been packing and shipping for international exhibitions. Everything that happens in the studio matters.
YOU ALSO TEACH COLLEGE – HOW DO YOU MANAGE TIME AND EXPECTATIONS – DO YOU FEEL TEACHING RELATES BACK TO YOUR OWN WORK?
I’m fortunate at SUNY Albany in that I’m primarily teaching grad students, which is more peer to peer conversations. I feel so lucky to engage with these folks and that they’re bringing me into these granular conversations. I have a lot of one-on-one time with my grad students. As for the undergrad classes, it really depends. I’ve had experiences where I feel very challenged and engaged, and I’ve had classes where it feels like we’re just going through the paces.
The most obvious connection that I’ve been able to make is that a few years ago I started doing this pedestal-based project with my undergrad Beginning Sculpture classes in which a pedestal is made that deeply informs the object it holds. That directly translated into the pedestal kick I’ve been on in the past two years. How can you make a pedestal that is so referential to digital space it feels like it shouldn’t exist in our reality. I’ve taken the original prompt and pushed it into my world.
WHERE CAN PEOPLE VIEW YOUR WORK IN THE NEAR FUTURE?
My third solo show of the year is currently open in Vienna, Austria at Peter Gaugy Gallery until February 18th. I’m so pleased as it’s my first solo show in Europe. After I come back from Vienna, I’m moving studios which will be quite an endeavor but something I’m looking forward to. I also have a show April 8 through the 30th at Turley Gallery in Hudson titled PrtScn. It will include all of my small UV printed wall work and I’m looking forward to doing a deep dive into that way of working.
Gracelee’s work is also on view at Dickinson College’s Goodyear Gallery as part of the exhibition Not in Love with the Modern World, curated by Amy Boone-McCreesh