Looking for amazing mixed media art is much akin to being presented with a Christmas stocking full of gifts. Most of them tend to be $5 trinkets bought hurriedly from the corner store at the last minute, but every once in awhile you are pleasantly surprised with what you find. When artist and builder Laura Christensen reached out to us, I wasn’t sure what to expect – an art history dropout with a penchant for pissing off other art academics? Clearly she is doing something right. Laura’s work is a mixture of imagination, history, family, physical labor, and rebellion – all of which climate in a beautiful cross-section between 2-dimensional and 3-dimensional mediums. We are grateful to have had the chance to ask her about the motivations behind her work as well as her artistic process. Take a look at what she had to say below:
I have to say that you work is very different than any other artist I’ve interacted with lately. How did you get your start as an artist? What’s the path that led you towards this tactile collage of wood and vintage photography we see today?
As a child I loved drawing from pictures in books. I learned how to draw what I see. Through high school and college I took art classes whenever possible, even as I studied Economics, German, and then Art History. Being an artist seemed like something other people did.
A few good professors helped me understand that I could be an artist too. Eventually I dropped out of a graduate Art History program to focus on making my own art.
During work as an M.F.A. student, I began collecting old photographs to use their decorative cardboard frames for little silverpoint drawings that I made. Each photo was removed from its frame and set aside.
One day I was stuck, suffering a sort of artist’s block. In an effort to make something, I tried playing with the old photos, drawing on them with a pencil. At first, this was only a little more sophisticated than using a black marker to mustache a glossy print of a fashion model. Humor, whimsy and a little rebelliousness ruled.
But my additions to old photos were not humorous to everyone. During a grad school critique, students and professors looked at my new, whimsical work, and no one laughed. You could have heard a pin drop. Instead, they were offended, saying things like, “What would that person’s grandson say about what you have done to their grandfather?”
It is easy to conflate a picture with a real flesh-and-blood person. A photograph is a piece of paper to which we often add great meaning. Altering old photographs had hit a little nerve. Listening to people’s responses helped me take my work more seriously.
Presenting the altered antique photos in mass manufactured standard mats and frames seemed so institutional and deadening, when these photos could seem so alive and unique. I wanted to give them each their own handcrafted architecture. Warm tones of cherry and maple crafted into delicate stands and cabinets enhanced the intimacy and vintage qualities of each old photo.
Fortunately the school offered a great class for beginning woodworkers where I learned to make small tables and cabinets for the altered photos.
What is it about the past that fascinates you so much? Do you ever use vintage photography from your family’s past? Or do you primarily visit antique stores and road shows to find the materials you need?
I am interested in evidence of time passing. People pictured in the old photos seem to look out from the past. There, but not there. Here, but long gone. Each person was unique, but now their image is somewhat anonymous. They can come to represent an every-person or a character in a myth.
I collaborate with these images to create new narratives from old stories.
Antiques stores and thrift shops often sell vintage photographs. eBay can also be a good source. Dealers explain that when families sort through their old photos, they often keep the ones they want and sell the others. I search through drawers and boxes full of old photos and pick the ones that speak to me for their oddity, their beauty, their composition, or how they might fit a theme I am planning. In a way, the ones I purchase and alter are rescued from anonymity.
I rarely use photos from my family because we have yet to decide which to keep and which to give away and because my work is not about my family, it is about all of us. I am not averse to using a picture from my family, especially if it is a photo of someone I do not know or recognize, but it would be difficult to keep the every-person idea alive if I were working with a picture of someone I recognized.
I’ve seen that you design your own cabinets for your projects – what is your process for determining the type of cabinet to make for each piece?
Choices of photo(s), what to paint, and how to design a cabinet usually evolve together through sketching many possibilities. The concepts of the piece usually dictate how complex a cabinet will be. Sometimes it’s enough to make a simple, delicate frame in which a painted photo appears to float. Other times it is important to consider a more complex cabinet with doors or drawers.
You’ve done what seems to be a fair amount of traveling across the United States and you have an interesting background with the German language and Economics. What is the interplay between these things and your work? What parts of your life do you find yourself drawing the most inspiration from?
It’s true, I grew up in the Midwest, moved to NYC, then northern Utah, the upper Midwest and now New England. Each place has influenced my notions of culture and nature. But perhaps it’s the small things of each place, the architecture of a home, the landscape out my window, the animals in our neighborhood that make an obvious influence on my work. For instance, our neighbor’s chickens regularly visit our yard. Last year, almost every piece I painted had a chicken or two in it!
Connections with people in all these various places, and maybe the sense of relationships lost or changed during the moves, also affect my work.
Studying German and Economics in college taught me how to think critically and problem solve. Unfortunately, studying economics did not help me learn how to earn lots of money!
The German degree included a few art history courses, which led to graduate study in Art History. That has been a big influence on my work. In addition to responding with my strong understanding of composition and symbolism used through much of western European and American art, I have painted copies or references to paintings by Raphael, duChamp, Mantegna, Velasquez and others into old photos.
Have you ever participated in a collaboration? Whether with an wood-worker or a photographer? If so – how did it work out? If not, is there a reason you avoid collaborations?
There are an astounding number of excellent photographers and woodworkers in the art and craft arenas today. I admire much of their work, but have yet to collaborate with any of them. Since I do like to work with my hands, and since I am interested in the cultural significance attached to old photographs, I am unlikely to pursue such collaborations. But I would be open to it if the right opportunity came along.
I have recently started collaborating with writers. This idea came about during an exhibition in which authors were encouraged to respond to visual art. Hollis Seamon wrote an astounding flash fiction piece in response to my piece, Nested. You can see both here: https://laurachristensen.wordpress.com/new-works/nested/
I am planning a book in which a variety of writers write in response to my work. And I am planning a picture book aimed at a more youthful audience. I am working with a lyricist to write the text.
Do you have any favourite contemporary artists? If not – are there any from the past that you constantly find inspiring?
There are so many artists whose work I admire. It’s difficult for me to separate influence from admiration and appreciation. Here’s a (not so) short list of some artist’s whose work I think about and want to experience again and again:
- Ann Hamilton
- Yamamoto Masao
- Eric Shultis
- Peter Sarkisian
- Lisa Nilsson
- Katie Miller (whose beautifully crafted paintings I have only recently learned about)
- Kerry James Marshall
- Bill Morrison (film)
- Ken Thompson (music)
- Todd Reynolds (music)
- Mark Strand (poetry)
- Lorna Simpson
- Andrei Tarkovsky (photos and film)
- Michael Gordon (music)
- Louis C.K. (stand-up and Louie series)
- Joseph Cornell
- Jackson Pollock
- Anselm Kiefer
- Gerhard Richter
- Piero della Francesca
- John Cage (music, writing, life)
- Terry Riley (music)
- Jan van Eyck
- Hans Holbein
- Leonardo da Vinci
Do you have any advice for aspiring mixed media artists? Your work is not the norm and I think it’s a fantastic point of inspiration for those willing to push boundaries and try new things.
Thank you for the kind compliment! Consider the meanings cultures already give to the materials and objects you might want to use. Find archival means of fusing diverse materials. For instance, when I painted with oils, it was imperative that I first seal the photographs or the oil would have soaked into the paper and ruined the work. If you want your work to deteriorate, that’s fine. But if you want to preserve your work, it is important to consider how you mix medias.
I would also encourage people to be inventive and resourceful. Copy other artists to learn, if you’d like. Then put those skills to use making what you imagine.