On defining an artist by Laura J. Lawson

This has shown up in my social media a few times during the past several weeks:

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The comments are totally full of stories about people being afraid to call themselves an artist to other people until they’ve hit a certain milestone.

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Just as I sat down to write out my own struggles with artist-identity, I was kindly invited by The Cedars Union to join a panel discussion on this very topic. (Since this event has passed, this post has been edited.) Erica Felicella moderated the discussion between Jeremy Biggers, Melissa Turner Drumm, Hatziel Flores, Riley Holloway, and me.



Here are some pieces from my story.

I have always been a bit of a Hermione Granger. I was good at school, and I have spent years taking comfort and pride in the fact that my GPA was a good reflection of the things I know. I did not major in art in college, and because of that I desperately needed some sort of academic validation when my art career chose me. (The wand chooses the wizard, Mr. Potter, and these references are never going away.) My MFA did so much for me in terms of becoming a better artist and actually feeling like one.

This is not a required path to become an artist. I look up to many artists who have no MFA, BFA, or formal art education. What matters is a dedication to one’s practice, and an eagerness to learn from peers and mentors, with or without an expensive document and set of robes.

The really magical bit was how I accepted my path in the first place. I studied abroad in Paris, where I took several art history courses, despite being a Psychology major. Out of all the unsmiling European ID photos I had to take, one in particular changed my life: an unlimited student pass for the Musée du Louvre.

Some of Madame Mandel’s classes met in a little classroom with tiny desks and a noisy projector, but most of the time we gazed upon the topics of her lectures in the flesh, at the Louvre. We would make it through two or three petits galeries in three hours, and after class I would stay. On days off, I returned. On weekends, I went back. Even when rooms were thick with tourists and noise, I wedged myself onto a bench, spellbound. I knew that somehow, I had to be a part of this.

Jardin de Luxembourg, 2009. These are not my flowers.

Jardin de Luxembourg, 2009. These are not my flowers.

There were many times between then and now where being an artist was so hard, I thought it impossible. I worked, I looked for better jobs, and I made terrible paintings in tiny apartments. Even when I thought my work was unshowable, I knew I had to keep making it. To give up art would be like giving up both lungs. Maybe I wasn’t a great artist, but I couldn’t deny that I was one.

Celebrating my life choices in 2016.

Celebrating my life choices in 2016.

Fast forward to today. The number of works I deem fit for consumption is exponentially greater. Rejections roll off my back and motivate me to increase my proposals. I am comfortable in this difficult and competitive field because I have stopped treating it like a competition, and started treating it like what it is: humanity’s creation of culture.

My peers at The Cedars Union have significantly different measuring sticks for what success looks like. If I used their stick, I would fall short, but if they used mine, so would they. We are finding success as artists by being true to ourselves on what we want and who we want to be.

Cedars Open Studios 2018 by Laura J. Lawson

My studio is open to the public this Saturday, November 17th, at The Cedars Union. Here’s a map:

My studio is open to the public this Saturday, November 17th, at The Cedars Union. Here’s a map:

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Location #20 is The Cedars Union, home to myself and several other incredible artists. I would love for you to come by, see my work, and ask whatever questions you have. If anything catches your eye, I can now process chip and magstripe payments with Square.

All of these locations are excellent, but I have a couple of favorites to point out. Location #15, Cedars Art House, is going to be excellent. Jennifer Kile Torres runs this incredible artspace that is home to many workshops and events, plus two artist studios. Many additional local artists will be there on Saturday, including Volta Voloshin-Smith, the talented artist behind Color Snack.

Park in whatever designated spaces are available— much of this tour is walkable, and there will be a shuttle service to help you get around.

Since it’s an all-day affair, I recommend fueling your stomach at Full City Rooster (for coffee), Sandwich Hag, and Melted. Even more art can be found at these locations!

On Exactitude in Science by Laura J. Lawson

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On Exactitude in Science
Jorge Luis Borges, Collected Fictions, translated by Andrew Hurley.

…In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.

—Suarez Miranda, Viajes devarones prudentes, Libro IV,Cap. XLV, Lerida, 1658

Process: printing paintings by Laura J. Lawson

Sometimes I print my river-based or border-based landscapes on metal using a process called dye sublimation. This process, often employed in commercial photography, is an image transfer technique that applies gaseous inks into the surface of the aluminum, rather than laying them on top like a printer. Beyond that, I'm not an expert-- this is something I have fulfilled by a print company after I scan my paintings at a high resolution. The result is a large, high-gloss image that reflects light and color in stunning detail.

So as a painter, why use this process at all?

First, it's important to understand the painting process of these works. Essentially, I work with pigmented ink on a nonabsorbent surface, and the settling of that pigment creates the textures of my landscapes. These tiny mounds of pigment are smaller than grains of sand. The images at the top of this post, in their original painted format, are all eight inches or smaller. Even if I paint larger sheets of plastic-- say, 20 inches-- the settling of the pigment does not appear any larger. If anything, the larger I go, the more they get lost in the composition.

At close range, the specks of pigment can feel monumental, like observing the landscape from an airplane. Unfortunately, an eight inch painting on the opposite side of the room does little to amplify that concept. By treating the painting like a photograph and enlarging it into a print, the minuscule hills and valleys can be seen at a larger scale.

Process: Marnay by Laura J. Lawson

Marnay , 200" x 80", acrylic ink on polypropylene, 2016.

Marnay, 200" x 80", acrylic ink on polypropylene, 2016.

Marnay, the piece pictured above, is one of my "atmospheric view" paintings. Totally abstract, the piece narrates what my summer in Marnay-sur-Seine, France, felt like as an immersive experience. This was a two month artist residency at the Centre d'Art Marnay Art Center (CAMAC).

Each morning, I woke early in my comfortable but cell-like room, crossed the 16th century priory through the library, and greeted the Seine on my walk to the kitchen for breakfast.

My Junes were always sweltering and oppressive, but these mornings were chilly, wet, and quiet. The Seine was murky and impatient, much like my Mississippi back home. Even when the sun reached its zenith, its rays were gentle, warming, and meek.

As the days passed, the Seine's flooding subsided, and river's sediments settled enough to restore the water to jewel-like brilliance. Wildflowers popped up in gardens and in gravel. The sun visited for longer and longer, with impressive sunsets past 9pm.

Everything about this place felt enchanting. The light felt more diffuse and sparkling. The persistent grey sky made every leaf and flower pop like an hallucination. There was nothing rugged or tough about the rural way of life-- even the cows were polite and content.

All of this went into my work. I matched my inks to what I saw-- the changing river, the plants and flowers, the cobblestones and tiles, the soil and sand-- and began to piece together how it feels to be wrapped up in all of these sensations at once.

The lightweight Yupo-- which I bought specifically to be plane-friendly-- was the perfect choice for representing this place. It flutters when viewers walk past it, and there is some hint of an iridescent sheen to it, even when saturated with ink. Compared to my other atmospheric paintings, it is weightless and unabashedly colorful.

This residency had the dépaysement I was looking for. CAMAC gave me the space and time I needed to work with a clear mind, and Marnay-sur-Seine gave me a landscape unlike any I had seen before.

Elements of Place: gallery views by Laura J. Lawson

Elements of Place was on view at the Dennis Gallery at Austin College in Sherman, Texas from October 9th - December 8th, 2017.

Austin College press release

The Austin College Art and Art History Department will host the exhibit “Laura J. Lawson: Elements of Place” now to December 8 in the Dennis Gallery of the Forster Art Complex, 1313 N. Richards Street, Sherman. Gallery hours are Monday through Friday 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. For additional information, call the Art and Art History Department at 903.813.2048. The exhibit is free and open to the public.

Lawson lived all over Texas growing up and frequent family road trips fueled her love of exploration. While earning a bachelor’s degree from Austin College, her studies took her to Scotland, China, France, Peru, and Ecuador, and she traveled to New Orleans and Chicago after graduation. She earned her MFA from the University of Memphis and spent two months in residency at the Centre d’Art Marnay Art Center (CAMAC) in France. She has since returned to Dallas.

Her residency on the banks of the Seine in Marnay-sur-Seine helped Lawson explore ways of thinking about place. Though nearly 5,000 miles away, the area sometimes reminded her of American towns she knew, including Sherman. Rather than create works about the people and cultures of the places, she was compelled to investigate the physical landscapes, which existed before the places were ever settled. The places are examined in her exhibit through a satellite view, an atmospheric view, and a navigational view.

The satellite-view paintings explore how land and water shape the landscape and form significant relationships for these regions: the Seine is a major artery for France, and the Red River feeds the Mississippi watershed. The atmospheric paintings investigate Lawson’s personal observations of being present in the place. The colors and patterns tie directly to light, water, soil, building materials, wildlife, and other elements that make the area what it is. The navigational view uses regional maps that Lawson has cut into miniature webs of roads. These sculptural drawings highlight years of human effort to make these regions both navigable and livable.

“Ultimately, the physical elements that make up Sherman and Marnay-sur-Seine are the seeds from which their people grew,” Lawson said. “Cultural ways of living can (and should!) cross borders, but the landscape itself can never be truly replicated.”

 

Photography by Mary Cyrus Photography.

Depaysement: gallery views by Laura J. Lawson

Dépaysement was on view at the Fogelman Galleries of Contemporary Art at The University of Memphis from October 21st - November 4th, 2016. 

The University of Memphis press release

Dépaysement is the MFA thesis exhibition featuring the work of Laura J. Lawson. Dépaysement, a French word with no direct English translation, describes the feeling of being out of one's home country. The exhibition addresses her three years in Memphis contrasted with her recent artist residency in Marnay-sur-Seine, France.

Lawson's paintings are made with ink on translucent plastic. The result resembles cartographic endeavors, separating the viewer from each place with an aerial perspective. Her two largest works layer these paintings in front of cut paper maps in a grid formation, creating shadows of highways beneath the landscape-like surface. In other works, Lawson has drawn directly on the painting to mix the universal qualities of topography with the arbitrary shapes of borders and roads. The color palettes of all of these paintings are specifically derived from either Memphis or Marnay-sur-Seine, but the characteristics of these places become lost in the similar and strange elements of geography.

 

Photography by Katherine Stanley Photography.