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Contemporary Conversations

Local Artist Feature: Erin Schaenzer

Photo Courtesy Molly LaBeff

Photo Courtesy Molly LaBeff

Erin Schaenzer moved to Grand Rapids, MI five years ago to attend Kendall College of Art and Design and graduated with a BFA in Printmaking. Schaenzer’s poetic works are influenced by identity and relationships.

How would you describe your work?

My work is very personal and most of the content within it comes from my relationships with others, myself, and with everything else. Identity is one of the concepts I’ve been dealing with the most within the last year or so. Almost every one of my pieces consists of photo transfer, collage, and drawing. I have been called a formalist quite a bit. It’s therapeutic for me to create something that has balance because I’m a very anxious person. I pay heavy attention to forms and their relationship to one another, and color. Light and dark is huge. I find moments throughout the day and I take photos of them to use. I never really know what things mean until I’m finished with them. 

Who or what has been the biggest single influence on your way of thinking?

I’m hugely influenced by other people’s energies and moods. I deal with mental illness, which skews a lot of how I view the world, and it’s always changing. I have a few solid friendships that consist of sitting and talking for like, four hours about everything. We sort of just hash out all these things that we think about and deal with on a daily basis, whether it’s art, relationships, being a good person, or just our place in the world. I don’t know where I’d be mentally without those conversations. I also have to give a lot of credit to my printmaking professors at Kendall College of Art and Design. Throughout my five years at KCAD, they really made me challenge myself as an artist and as a thinker and wrap my head around some big concepts when it comes to being true to myself and to my work.

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Do you have a piece of work that stands out in your mind as something you are exceptionally proud of or that is particularly important to you?

The first collage that I ever did, “Found”, which now lives in Egypt actually, was so important to me when I made it. When I sat and looked at it after I was done with it, I was so proud, and had one of those breakthrough moments. It’s super simple and has three or four layers and some stitching, but conceptually sort of threw me into this year-long period where I discussed my first (and current) serious long-term relationship and who I was within it at the time. I am super interested in the dynamics within both romantic and platonic relationships, and how they change and grow over time. That was a turning point for sure. 

What new projects do you have on the horizon?

Right now, I’m just trying to keep myself busy and expand and change my ideas a little bit. I had a hard time adjusting after graduation trying to continue motivating myself to make work semi-frequently. Recently, I have been applying to some print shows both nationally and internationally, and some in GR as well. I am in a group show in October at Bend Gallery, a new space on the corner of Division and Weston, run by Madison May and Gina Masterson. It is called “More Than Anything”, and it’s centered on the complexities of relationships. My piece consists of one hundred or so 3x3 inch monotype prints dipped in wax and sewn together. That will be displayed on the wall, and a video will be projected onto it. The concept comes from personal experience, and the lengths we go to keep romantic relationships going, specifically unhealthy ones

What do you want others outside of the creative workforce to understand about careers within the arts?

There’s this stigma that surrounds all jobs within the arts whether it be fine art, music, writing, theater, or even culinary,. This idea that you can’t be as successful as someone who goes into business or whatever else non-creative people do that will make them a decent wage. The thing to understand about those who pursue a career in the arts is that we know.

The coolest thing about being in the arts is that it’s entirely personal, and we all (mostly) do it because we love it. It’s a part of us. So much so that we’ve decided to make it our whole lives. I just wish that could be respected rather than constantly judged and questioned about whether or not we’re making money, because it’s not about that. Making money off of your work is pretty cool, but it’s definitely not the most important thing. 

How can communities, specifically Grand Rapids, better support the creative workforce?

Be more open-minded. Hire us. The artists that I know are some of the hardest working people I have ever met in my life. Let us into your spaces. Make room for artists of color and trans artists, and not just to feel good about yourself. I would like to see less exclusivity within the creative community, and see art spaces bring in artists from all different backgrounds and concepts. Local is good, but not local is good too. Challenge dated worldviews. We live in West Michigan, after all

What are you passionate about besides your work?

I love solitude and relaxation. I am living alone for the first time in my life and I’m learning a lot about myself, both good and bad. I enjoy trying to improve my life and thinking about all the Big Questions. Music helps with everything. My friends and my boyfriend are extremely important to me and inspire me to be better in all aspects. Their success and happiness is a really powerful force that helps me through the hard days. I enjoy traveling when I can afford it. I watch a ton of TV and I’m not necessarily proud of that…but I tend to talk about it a lot.

What’s the best piece of advice you have heard and repeat to others?

A professor of mine once said to me “you are the only person who can make your work”. It helped me sort of get past this headspace of constantly comparing myself to others in the art world, and has helped me be happy (for the most part) with what I produce. It’s really freeing. Once you let go of that feeling of how badly you want to make work like other people, everything makes more sense. 

Looking for more?

Learn more about the artist here.

Local Artist Feature: Madison May

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Madison Nicole May is a printmaker and interdisciplinary artist who graduated from Kendall College of Art and Design in 2016. In the spring of 2017, May opened Bend Gallery on the Avenue for the Arts specializing in affordable gallery space for emerging artists. In June, she traveled to Massachusetts and completed her first artists residency at Zea Mays Printmaking. At the end of the day, if she's not working on a new project, Madison May can be found relaxing with her two cats, Taco and Turtle, watching awful cooking shows. 

How would you describe your work? 

I have been fluctuating between bodies of work recently. One body of work investigates traditional gender roles, abuse, and violence against women in my local community, while the other is an examination of conversations, thoughts, and emotions stemming from my personal and intimate relationships. Both bodies serve to exist as a proof of intimacy, honesty, and vulnerability in an increasingly isolated society. Using a combination of printmaking, collage, fiber, and sculptural processes I transform everyday items and create relatable imagery such as pillows, beds, clothing, and household objects. Signature materials in my work include beeswax, soil, thread, and grass seed. There is a sense of quiet stillness in my work which encourages a meditation on the concepts I am presenting, though the way I treat the objects, materials, and compositional choices can be loud and expressive, creating balance. 

Who or what has been the biggest single influence on your way of thinking? 

I would say that the biggest influence on my way of thinking is what I learn from intentionally being aware of the people around me and their essence. I often find myself watching, listening, and observing the way each person interacts with each other and the world differently. Above all else, human connection is the most important thing to me. I make a point to really try to listen and be intuitive and sensitive to the subtleties that make each person individual. When making such personal and vulnerable work I think it is integral to be learning about people at all times. Empathy and understanding is a virtue. 

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Do you have a piece of work which stands out in your mind as something you are exceptionally proud of or that is particularly important to you? 

Hm, not particularly! I am always looking for ways to improve and grow from what I have done. If I had to pick, my piece “Confronting the Cycle” as part of the (RE)compose exhibition in Artprize 2016 would be one of particular importance. The piece consisted of personal everyday items I had collected from women which were related to their history with domestic violence and abuse. I sunk the items in plaster, grew grass from them, and presented them in a row on shelves in a closet. This piece was very challenging and painful as I listened to each and every person I collected items from recount the pain, the anger, and the impact that their experience still has on them. I would say I am most proud of the conversations I overheard and had with the public during that exhibition. I observed visitors viewing this piece and talking openly and honestly to their children about the work presented. Some confessed to their loved ones that they had experience with domestic violence too. It was really moving to see positivity come from something so awful and be able to start meaningful conversations. 

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What new projects do you have on the horizon? 

I recently started a daily collage practice called Confessions, where I make time every day to sit down and create a collage. The collages are about my relationships, my responsibilities, and my thoughts. It almost serves as a visual diary and a timeline of intimacy and honesty with myself and others. It is really superb to see how they progress and evolve over time and I plan on showing them, along with new works exploring similar themes, after a year of collages have accumulated. 

What do you want others outside of the creative workforce to understand about careers within the arts? 

It is so much work! There are so many different hats you wear as an artist and business owner. To support my practice and my business, I work multiple jobs at a time. I love everything I do and wouldn’t give any of it up. This work is fulfilling, it is fun, it is exciting - but it is really a lot of work! 

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How can communities, specifically Grand Rapids, better support the creative workforce? 

Personally, I would like to see more involvement from Grand Rapids with the arts year round. There is always a big buzz in the art scene around Artprize in the fall, however, I would love to see a greater involvement from the outskirts of the community with exhibitions, events, and shows year-round in local galleries. It is something that both the community and the creative workforce have to work on together. I also think that there could be more diversity in our creative spaces, and it is something I am always consciously trying to work on. I would love to see more local galleries, businesses, and institutions work on reaching out to other communities to make events more welcoming and accessible to everyone. 

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What are you passionate about besides your work? 

Besides my personal work, I am super invested in looking at and learning about art, as well as facilitating others’ artmaking. I love doing workshops, demos, and volunteering to help others get as excited about making and their own work as I get about mine. That was one of the main reasons for opening a gallery. I love talking with artists and learning about what they want to make as well as helping them figure out how to do it. Creating a space where I was able to do that regularly was a big goal for me with Bend Gallery. I also make sure to find time to travel to different galleries, museums, and institutions to see different art shows and exhibitions, it is informative and satisfying to see what other people are doing. 

What’s the best piece of advice you have heard and repeat to others? 

When I was a student, I would talk through these ambitious ideas with my peers, my professors and my mentors. I would always be (and still am) nervous and hesitant to dive in and begin to make whatever it was, but I noticed the conversations would always end with someone telling me “Try it. See what happens”. After that, I would get right to work.

Hesitation and doubt is such an integral part of making. To me it means that the artist is considering every possibility, which is great. However, letting that feeling become so large that it gets in the way means that things do not get made, work does not get done, and happy accidents and discoveries are left unknown. Now I have noticed that same phrase is my advice to others if they are hesitant or doubtful of themselves. If it does not work out in the end, at least something happened and you followed through. You have that at the end of the day. You tried. That is something that I am always proud of. 

Looking for more?

Learn more about the artist here and check out Bend Gallery here.

Local Artist Feature: Mandy Cano Villalobos

Mandy Cano Villalobos is an interdisciplinary artist whose work spans performance, drawing, installation and fiber art. She was raised throughout the southeastern United States, and currently resides in Grand Rapids, MI.

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Her work has been shown in numerous venues including Van Der Plas Gallery (New York, NY), Index Art Center (Newark, NJ), the Wellin Museum (Clinton, NY), Maryland Institute College of Art (Baltimore, MD), the Ukranian Institute of Modern Art, (Chicago), The Museum of New Art (Detroit, MI), Hillyer Art Space (Washington, DC) and La Casa Pauly (Puerto Montt, Chile). Cano Villalobos has been an artist in residence at Vermont Studio Center, Post Contemporary, Wassaic Project, Ragdale, and ACRE. She has also received grants from multiple organizations including the Puffin and Frey Foundations. Her work has been reviewed in The Washington Post, Sculpture Magazine, Hyperallergic, Culturehall, Performa Magazine and Bad-at-Sports, among others. Cano Villalobos received her MFA from The George Washington University in Washington, DC.

How would you describe your work?

My work is formally versatile and conceptually coherent – at least, I would like to think so. I’m really interested in concepts of time: how we experience time, our understanding of chronological progression, corporate and personal memory, even a hope for an eternal Present that exceeds the elusiveness of passing time. A lot of my work reflects these ideas. Installations often explore a personal narrative that is set within a larger socio-historical context. Drawings are visual records of a repetitive process during which I try to open myself to the monotony of passing seconds, minutes, and hours. Similarly, I employ repetitious actions in my performances, transforming mundane gestures into a meditative ritual.

So, to give some examples, Undocumented Histories was a large scale installation I did with Site:Lab a few years ago. The project explored the personal histories of former Rumsey Street residents amidst societal change on the West Side of Grand Rapids. I collected all sorts of things people left behind – clothing, food, photographs, books, trinkets, even dentures – and created a home-like structure with a bed, kitchen area and front porch. I was trying to piece together the lives of those who were now absent. At the same time, the entire edifice had a make shift feel. It was an impermanent home that embodied the longing for permanence. In this way, Undocumented Histories spoke to the waning of the neighborhood, the private histories of past inhabitants, and the future renovations that would alter the entire community.

In my performance, Diminish: Brick, I file a brick to dust. The act itself is extremely boring and labor intensive. The back-and-forth movement, the unnoticeable progress, and the numbing of my hands reflect the greater question: why am I doing this? I’m quite literally breaking down the fundamental building block of human civilization. There’s a futility that undergirds so much of my work, a futility that I so often see in everyday life. Yet, for me, that dubious purpose goes hand-in-hand with a hope of resolution, of finding a significance in our work and life that exceeds our present comprehension. I reassign routine as ritual, discovering a transcendence within the commonplace.

Polluere, 2015. Performance. Photo Courtesy: Delph Photo

Polluere, 2015. Performance. Photo Courtesy: Delph Photo

Camus addresses a lot of these ideas in The Myth of Sisyphus, a book that has come to be very influential in the way I think about my art. In fact, a lot of my drawings are titled Sisyphus. Rather than concerning myself with the mere images I create, I’m very much invested in the ritualistic process of making those drawings. The Sisyphus series also uses my divorced parents’ wedding rings as a system of measurement, pitting the desires we have for marriage and family against the reality that confronts us. I employ ultramarine pigment, a color once derived from the precious lapis lazuli stone and incorporated in ancient manuscripts to symbolize Heaven. Now we can only get a cheap imitation blue. Again, there’s a desire for what is pure, or heavenly, but we always fall short. The hope and desire is there; the fulfillment is not.

So, really, my work touches upon personal and cultural memory, ritual, story, and longing. I wrestle with a desire for what you might call wholeness, or fulfillment, or redemption. All of that is conditioned by a cognizance of life’s ephemerality. I know my time on this earth is brief, and I simultaneously long for something that is unconditioned by my finitude.

Who or what has been the biggest single influence on your way of thinking?

Two experiences have really conditioned the way I think about things: my grandmother’s sudden death, and my military upbringing. When I was 6 months old my grandmother drowned. Because my mother and her sisters were still so young (my mom was 21), they have raised my generation with the constant awareness of our mortality. This ingrained understanding life’s temporary nature colors all I do.

Diminish: Brick, 2015. Performance. Photo Courtesy: Delph Photo

Diminish: Brick, 2015. Performance. Photo Courtesy: Delph Photo

Following my grandmother’s death, my mom joined the army. In total, I’ve lived in 14 states and I don’t know how many cities and army bases. As soon as I would make friends or come to think of a place as home, we would relocate. This transient lifestyle reinforced the sense that life is fleeting. Without any sort of generational or locational perpetuity, I’ve come to see life as a very temporary thing. That’s why my work often incorporates discarded items whose histories attest to their longevity, or songs and myths that have existed for decades or even centuries. I think that’s also why I had kids…

Do you have a piece of work which stands out in your mind as something you are exceptionally proud of or that is particularly important to you?

I’m particularly proud of the Elko Farm Project. This was one of my first major works after receiving my MFA from The George Washington University. At the time I adjuncted at four different institutions in the DC area. Exhausted, I would escape to visit family near Richmond, VA on the weekends. To get to my aunt and uncle’s house, I’d drive through country roads and past many different farms. There was one farm in particular that always caught my eye. It had a small white house, and several other buildings peppered with gorgeous oak trees. Coincidently, one day I was speaking with one of my students about location and home, and it turned out his grandmother owned that exact farm. My student introduced us and we soon began a collaboration that examined the history of their family, the history of the land, and the larger history of the rural South and its decline. I created an onsite installation at the farm, presenting these clouded histories through family photographs, personal possessions, land titles and farming tools. A curator from University of Maryland College Park took interest in the project and invited me to reinstall the work in their gallery. The night of the opening Mrs. Elko and her entire family surprised me by driving four hours to see the exhibition. They gave tours of the installation and showed gallery visitors how to use various plowing devices, and explained their familial lineage through school pictures and snapshots. I loved the confluence of art and non-art. So many viewers weren’t sure what to do. Here was a family that was touching the installation! They took things off the wall, they owned the work itself. The blurred boundaries threw everyone off guard, verging exhibition proper into the realm of social practice.

Undocumented Histories, 2015. Site Specific Installation. Dimensions Variable.

Undocumented Histories, 2015. Site Specific Installation. Dimensions Variable.

What new projects do you have on the horizon?

For years installation dominated my work. I’m now in process of modifying my practice to better meet my lifestyle needs. Last year I lost my studio, and without that space I am unable to regularly work on the large scale that I once did. I’ve tried to flip things around, turning my obstacles into opportunities. Right now, I’ve returned to my roots – painting, drawing and object-based genres. Lafontsee Galleries added me to their artist roster this year, and that has been both exciting and satisfying.

Sisyphus in Blue VIII, 2016. Watercolor on tea stained paper. 9x9 inches.

Sisyphus in Blue VIII, 2016. Watercolor on tea stained paper. 9x9 inches.

I’m continuing to produce Sisyphus drawings, experimenting with different colors, and referencing the global and cultural narratives that go along with those colors. (For example, white’s connotations of death, purity, power etc., contingent upon context). I’m also doing more performances, taking over industrial spaces that were once dominated by traditionally male activities, and enacting rituals that are intimate and domestic in nature. Grand Rapids has a lot of old factories that are either empty or repurposed for artist spaces. They’ve inspired a lot of my recent performances, and I’m looking forward to more this year. 

Sisyphus in White I, 2017. Gouache and ink on tea stained paper. 9x12 inches.

Sisyphus in White I, 2017. Gouache and ink on tea stained paper. 9x12 inches.