About the Artist
During 2018 Gracelee has been fortunate to attend six residency programs in the US and abroad with several more scheduled for the fall and winter. In late 2017 she returned from 15 months as a Visiting Artist in the Multidisciplinary Department of Art at Chiang Mai University on a Luce Scholars Fellowship. She completed her MFA in Sculpture + Extended Media at the University of Texas at Austin in 2016 and graduated from Guilford College in 2011 as a Principled Problem Solving Scholar with an honors degree in Sculpture. She is a co-founder of Pig & Pony, founder of the Virtual Studio Visit Network, a longtime contributing writer for the International Sculpture Center Blog and member of the collective MATERIAL GIRLS. In 2017 she had two solo exhibitions in Thailand and one in Pittsburgh, PA at Bunker Projects. Gracelee was 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 also an enthusiastic dancer, writer, cook, traveler, macramé enthusiast, lifelong horsewoman, and Bagel Babe.
2017–2018 Winter Residency
with D. K. Broderick, May 2018
What does it mean to be a macramé enthusiast? How does this inform your work, if at all?
That came about in quite an unexpected way while researching tobacco twine crocheting. I'm from Central North Carolina and that is a traditional craft of the area, something that would people would often do with the leftover tobacco twine after the processing of the crop. So I started getting into that and started to realize that there was this need and desire for people to learn about macramé.
I fell into the role of a macramé teacher by total chance. All kinds of different groups ended up wanting me to teach them macramé and I even ended up teaching workshops in the year I was living in Thailand, where I taught a group of Myanmar and Thai women macramé. It was so interesting to watch how it shifted depending on the group of people. In one case I was doing a residency in Houston and it was a group of Myanmar immigrant children. They were primarily boys between the age of 11 and 15. But because they didn't come in with this pre-gendered notion of what macramé was they had an amazing time with it. They went wild and were creating all these really interesting forms and shifting the craft into a context where they felt really excited and engaged with it.
It's something that I enjoy doing although it does not inform my work directly right now. I have recently started trying to create digital weavings, though. They're rendered weavings in digital space that I'll hopefully print and deal with in physical space sometime soon.
Before we get into the way you move between digital and physical space in your work, let's quickly return to macramé. You briefly called attention to the culturally and contextually dependent relationships that exist between craft and gender. Can you speak a bit more about this and how it specifically relates to issues that you are actively working through in your artistic practice?
Definitely. Well, something that I'm really fascinated by in terms of macramé is the history. It's the same thing with the histories of fruits and color that I deal with in my work. In America we often have strict gendered expectations regarding these experiences, objects, and colors that usually are based on prevalent beliefs from the past 100 years, or sometimes as recent as 50 or 60 years. If you look at the extended history of a thing like macramé, as far as folks are able to understand it began with a group of sailors probably from the Middle East and as they expanded across the globe they would share this skill and trade the objects that they made in port. This was a very niche skill that was primarily done by male sailors at the time. It then shifted into a Victorian fixation that was primarily dominated by women's craft. It was then revived in the 1970s with a similar tone.
I'm interested in the ways in which these things that are now so heavily gendered have swapped back and forth so many times in recent history. So I try to approach aspects of my work in the same way. I tend to use fragments rather than wholes because I feel like it is more conducive to moving between things, to switching with ease. Or maybe not even switching — that seems a little bit too tight. It's really more about shifting.
Are you suggesting that there is a certain kind of fluidity to a fragment that may not necessarily be present in a whole?
I think so. Fragments offer more options in that way, they don't lock in. They aren't complete. And also fragments don't ask for narratives to be applied quite so thoroughly. There's more room for questioning and movement.
Perhaps we can draw on our earlier discussion of craft in order to get into the materiality of the forms that you're making and the techniques that you're using to generate them. What roles do materials and technique play in your work?
Mass as an idea is very important to the work. They are often big things, body size or larger than body size that are taking up space in the world. In terms of practicality and material, I am working with things that can meet those requirements. But then in terms of process and material, the digital fabrication aspect plays a huge role. So many of these objects are created partially in digital space and partially in physical space and then crossed back and forth between the two over and over. But, in the end they become objects in our three-dimensional space, in our physical space. This is really important to me.
At the same time, something that I've been trying to think about and that I've been grappling with a lot lately is that I'm not really showing that process of crossover. I'm not showing the modeling, I'm not showing the printing, I'm not showing the CNC. That's important on some level, that viewers are presented with a smooth object that feels like it just emerged from somewhere rather than having gone through all these messy stages, but the stages are informing so much of what the work is about. So that's a boundary that I'm trying to handle and see how I can step around those questions a little bit.
In terms of the digital and physical treatments of materials are you working with both additive and subtractive processes? And what's the relationship between the objects’ surfaces and their structures?
Yeah, but comparatively speaking it's primarily additive. Things bulk up into cartoon bubbles more than they will shrink into rigid flat forms. In regards to the surface and structures of the objects, they're both informed by digital and physical processes. The two process really can't be separated, they can't be unwoven, they've always been together. The digital and the physically completely overlap at all moments. The actions of the objects also dictate the relationship between digital and physical processes. The capabilities of the materials are what dictate the possibilities of the material and by extension the type of digital and physical augmentation, textual or structural, that results.
This 3D-printed object — a hand made of chains — has these really specific characteristics. Characteristics that I cannot make with my own hand. This is new territory for me, as a sculptor, it requires that I think beyond my body in very material ways.
The materials and techniques I use also depend entirely on what the object is mean to do. This thing, that will be a fountain, the water will come out of this mouth and flow all over these objects, the needs of that action will dictate the materials and the techniques, digital and/or physical, that I use.
Listening to you speak about water and looking at this fountain in progress on your studio floor made me think about how smooth your finished work tends to be. There is an absence of visible marks and almost no trace of the various digital and physical processes that go into the production of the work. How are you currently working with and/or against the traces of your tools?
In all of my past work I've done absolutely everything that I can to erase all marks, to erase all tool marks, to erase all my hand, to erase all process, whatever I had to do to get rid of it all. I'm currently beginning to negotiate that in a new way. I'm not sure if I'm completely satisfied with that solution. In the past I was primarily interested in the output product and not my own hand, especially not my own skill. Which is one of the main reasons why digital fabrication is of interest to me. I was able to hand my work off to something else, I was handing it off to this series of processes and systems that were not at all about the historical or classical need of the sculptor's "hand" to be present in their work. I have never really been into that type of artistic claim.
But recently I've also pushed back against that too in the way that the various processes I use are at work. Sometimes I sculpt an object in physical reality and then scan it into digital space and continue to process it back and forth between the two so that my hand is always present and the same time always being altered by the processes and tools that it is using. The shifts that happen as a result have become more interesting to me now. I've only been working in this way for a couple years.
What pushed you into this mode of working? Can you trace the shift in your practice to a specific experience or project?
I was making a body of work that I knew was all going to be outdoors and I knew that I wanted them all to be fountains. It was the first time that I was making large-scale outdoor fountains in a public space. Prior to that, all of my work had been primarily comprised of organic, food-based materials. Things that were not supposed to have an incredibly long lifespan because they were supposed to show time and environment in an active way. I didn't want the work that I was making for the sculpture park to do that, and I didn't want the work to be melting and falling into puddles. Which could have been a potentially interesting choice but I wanted them to hold their form and deal with the context they were in and react against the pre-existing bronze sculptures in the park.
As I was trying to figure out how to make more permanent large-scale sculptures in order to have a different level of access, digital fabrication seemed like a logical choice. I was able to use image and capture that as a metaphor rather than just material metaphor in the work. That fountain project marked a really big shift, a lot of which was a result of practical needs in the beginning. Although my choice to incorporate digital fabrication into my practice now is no longer only a practical consideration and it informs the rest of the work in different ways as a result.
It's fascinating hearing about how the constraints and demands of that sculpture park, as a site, became the conceptual foundations for your next three years of work. You've made a number of fountains since then. Fountains are features that do not necessarily have set rules of engagement today. Does one go to collect water, wash clothes, toss a coin and make a wish, gather with community members, swim, sit and listen to the sounds of running water…? What is it about the fountain, as a form for cyclical processes, that compels you?
They're really not useful at all, at least now. I love that about fountains because at one point in time they were incredibly useful. If you think about aqueducts, which were basically fountains, they came into the middle of the square in a fountain-like form and provided water to a community. There was a clear purpose which in turn created certain rituals. It was extremely important. It was a place of gathering. And now, we're so far away from that and nobody cares or remembers. But, I like that idea of use, and the potential for use, that fountains have had and can have. So that's one reason why I'm drawn to fountains. These things have a job, even if it's an unnecessary job. My sculptures don't need to cycle water through them, there's no asset around that, except for that I can label these things as a fountain which gives them an activity outside of me and outside of my hand and my desire. Also, there's the possibility that as a result, they can misbehave within that system. Things will happen that I have no control over and I really like that.
But also the idea of the fountain as a way for humans to co-opt natural experiences and spaces is a funny line of thought too. A fountain is supposed to be like a waterfall or a stream. We're taking this natural landscape and trying to package it into a smaller object that we have complete control over. So in that sense there are a series of control questions that are interesting.
What are you working on now?
I'm working on three things.
One is a companion video to a work I made which is composed of female bronze forms with tears running down their faces. I compiled a lot of footage of male bronze forms crying, too, thinking about male and female tears. But I haven't really figured out how to edit it yet.
Another thing is this very compact fountain form which is pretty different from a lot of my other work for a couple of reasons. The first, which is not visibly obvious, is that these bubbly forms were all sculpted in virtual reality. So they're bridging the gap between digital and physical touch which is an exciting development. My hand is involved in the process but the primary output is completely digital. It's helping to answer some of the questions I've been having about those translations between physical and digital space.
And this other thing, it's still in a very early stage of its development, is more based off of a commemorative spoon or a memorial spoon form. I've been really enamored by these things as objects, they're so strange. Often really beautifully sculptural. So I borrowed a bunch from my grandmother and have been exploring their forms, thinking about what would happen if I scaled them up and removed even more of their potential use while adding more humorous elements into the mix.
One of my favorite objects at the Honolulu Museum of Art, up until it was deaccessioned, was a commemorative spoon that had an opihi shell (a mollusk shell) as the bowl of the spoon, an ornate stem, and the coat of arms of the Hawaiian Kingdom as the handle. The way that the opihi shell was captured by the framework of the spoon was so delicate and precise. It's amazing to see the contextually dependent ways in which everyday utilitarian forms can be reworked and embellished to reflect the specificities of place.
The history of commemorative spoons is really interesting to me, too. They're supposed to be related to showing status, showing these parts of your life that people wouldn't see otherwise in this very small but socially acceptable brag. That in and of itself is a funny thing. A thing that was supposed to be an innately useful object, silverware, that has been turned completely useless in these over-decorated forms.
This raises the issue of ornamentation. What role does ornament play in your work?
I haven't thought about ornament in a long time. One reason why I decided to think so much about surfacing and the smoothness and color of these forms is because I wanted to avoid questions about ornament. For example, if something is monochrome and feels as though it is seamlessly moving from form to form then it's harder to tease out the bits that feel decorative or that might feel applied if everything just feels like it's touching. Because the idea of the decorative is always so fraught. I don't think that's based in a completely valid line of logic but it is of course something that comes up. So I've tried to avoid the decorative.
The ways in which various modernist projects have taken up arms against ornamentation, especially in Europe during the early 20th century, is particularly disturbing. The work of Adolf Loos and Cesare Lombroso on ornamentation and criminality comes to mind. I definitely don't think of ornament as simply decorative or inherently degenerative although I can understand why someone may have thought this at some point, however misguided of a thought it was.
It's something that's always on the back of my mind. These questions are also involved in the democratization of form that's happening within so many different fields right now. I'm not necessarily convinced that democracy is the right end goal. That it felt like the right thing for a long time but perhaps it was a false and entirely impossible desire.
Regardless of whether or not democracy is the end goal, does having access to forms necessarily produce access to democracy? When you are speaking about the democratization of form are you also speaking about increased access to technology and decentralized forms of —
More like a lack of hierarchy. And in that sense I'm not sure democracy is even the right word to be using. I think equality of form is a better way to talk about it. But I think that in itself is impossible. There are these subconscious and innate hierarchies of form and object that can't be redacted.
What would your ideal context for your work be? Where do you imagine the objects that you produce “living?”
That's a really good question.
These objects are supposed to live indoor lives, they have delicacy to their existence that limit their ability to be in space and require specific spaces. But, because of their orientation, they both require a wall. Ideally they would also be on the periphery of space. So being in a place where there's activity in a central area would be great.
I was imagining them in a giant room where there's a constant, never-ending dinner party in the middle of the space. That feels like the right place for them to be. Where there's another activity always happening. Where there are relationships being formed and shifted and shared in space and these objects are also there to witness that. That feels like the right place for them.
No matter how hard commemorative spoons try to get away from themselves they always end up back at a dinner party.
Exactly. We’re all trapped in digital and physical processes.
Photos by Walker Esner