Other Investigations: Letha Wilson

Letha Wilson, based in Brooklyn, NY, was featured on Make Space last summer (here). Freshly out of an artist residency, she gives us insight into her practice and talks about collecting, experimentation, and her relationship to materials.

On collecting and process:

Collecting and creating photographic images and sculptural materials are a major part of my process. However when I ‘collect’ images it involves going out into the world and taking those photographs myself. All of the photographs in my work I have have shot over the span of about 10 years, so it is an accrual process of those images which includes traveling, hiking, and camping to take photographs (often in the Western United States, near my home state of Colorado) to printing photographs in the darkroom which I then ‘collect’ in my studio. Sometimes a particular photograph will sit and steep in the studio / in my mind for quite a while before it becomes a piece, sometimes years. I also collect physical materials such as branches, rocks, wood, as well as building materials such as cement, concrete, glass, plexiglass – but try not to let this become too much of a habit, particularly in light of space constraints here in NYC. Its always a bit of a struggle between gathering and paring down both materials, and ideas. Breaking up my time with traveling and residencies also forces me to stop, clean up, regroup and then edit down.

I am also constantly ‘collecting’ thoughts, ideas, words, little sketches, in my notebook. I always have a notebook with me, almost at all times, and I have  done so since I was 18. Its functions include, to-do-lists, and gathering of ideas both visually with sketches and through language, and more personal writing. Whether or not this entire process of collecting is important conceptually to my work, it surely is, but its also difficult and perhaps unimportant to distinguish how one gets from point a to point b. Whether or not the journey that is behind the images is known to the viewer isn’t important but it is key to my own artistic process, therefore necessary, and I do believe that the process comes through in the work. My studio practice encompasses a broad swath of activities, and as far as I can tell, can’t be avoided but has to be just waded through constantly and always readjusted.

Letha Wilson smush-test

I work on several projects at once. I eventually hone in my attention to complete a specific piece, but this kind of focus is only (usually) after the idea has had a long time to sit and sometimes after models and smaller versions have been made. However sometimes I will do something very spontaneous and this turns out well – this might end up being the final piece, or a kind of ‘test’ that I then re-make more carefully or on a larger scale.

On my studio walls I always have several ideas for pieces I’m working on, perhaps 15-20 at a time. A few stay up for a while, while other photographs are moved around frequently, and I’m pulling out prints from my flat files constantly. I really need to SEE something before I know if it works, even if its a very crude model. Also to test out materials, and how they look, I will do smaller trials, for example pouring concrete onto photographs. My studio practice is not streamlined but a rambling trek of curiosity, although I also try to be somewhat scientific about certain processes (taking notes about materials and quantities) and I have also be organized in between. I also want to cultivate and allow the “what if ?” moments to happen – those situations can yield the most unexpected, and sometimes great, results. My practice allows me to always have something to do whether that be testing, making specific works for a show, printing images from old negatives, or shooting new ones.

On medium and materials:

My relationship to the materials I work with is very hands-on, and often becomes quite physical. Although I may use digital methods at times, I always need to have an object at the very least a model, to work through ideas. My conceptual approach to the materials is experimental in nature, and ideas often begin with an attempt to physically push a material or object or image to do something it wasn’t meant to do.

As I shoot and print my photographs, this process ironically allows the prints to become less precious to me, which allows me a freedom to “destroy” the prints. I intentionally try to remove the precious nature of the photographs (or remove their preciousness to me) as I work with them. Its a kind of love/hate relationship with the image of nature. The same can be said about materials such as wood or concrete – I’m attracted to the texture and realness of these materials  but am also curious of their potential when paired with an image. Often times I think of the photograph as a body, and about prescribing human tendencies to its form. Can these photographs bend, can they fall, can they be pitted face to face, back to back with an object counterpoint? Even though humans are rarely depicted in my work, the sense of humanness is there in their actions, and the photographs can become somehow animated through my manipulation of them.

Letha Wilson concrete-transfer

On research process:

I really don’t research much other artwork, although I did when i was in grad school and before that. I try to see a lot my peers and friends work here in NYC, and what shows I happen upon, but often run out of time to look at too many exhibitions. I feel a bit guilty about it but I think also its important for me to go through phases where I need to put blinders on and just be in the studio. At times I look at artwork that may be completely unrelated to what I’m going and I get ideas for my own, or often I’m inspired by the actual exhibition space and its architecture. One art-viewing experience that was quite memorable was seeing to Michael Heizer’s Double Negative in Nevada – the way to get there means navigating terrain that feels quite at home to me, and kind of brings together two modes of art context and the reality of that landscape. Often I think artwork may look interesting online or in books but to see it in real life makes all the difference and thats how I decide what is impressive to me – when the actual work has a force to it, in real life.

On space and site:

My time spent in natural spaces has definitely affected me and leads directly to my work – from annual week-long backpack trips in my youth, to now when I visit my family and our daily hikes and trips. My time spent outdoors is mostly concentrated to when I travel to Colorado – because of the busy-ness of life in NYC  and also my proclivity towards that particular western landscape. I try to schedule a couple of weeks each summer solely to travel and shoot out in the West. I have had a few occasions to have a studio in a more natural environment during artist residencies, and this has been helpful to allow me a more intense, daily experience with nature in close proximity to my studio. From these situations I began to shoot specific details i saw on my walks, not just the overview landscape as i had before. However my life in the city and its landscape also inspires me, and affects me on a daily basis. The architecture of the buildings, their history, and the materials used in their creation, both exterior and interior. Concrete, stone, wood and 2x4s, glass, steel, aluminum – I visually take in all these particular forms and surfaces, and think about how they could relate to what I’m working on.

Space is very important to my work, through all facets and stages. My ability to move and travel my studio ‘activities’ can allow anywhere to become my studio, although its also comforting to have my main studio space in Brooklyn with my tools and immediate materials at my disposal. Other spaces outside my studio also come into my work: not just the particular locations depicted in my photographs, but distances between spaces. I’m interested in how an object / image can change from one space to another. How layers of images and space can create a new space, that the viewer experiences in person. Space changes both with external variations (light, weather, persons, actions, whatever larger structure it is within) and also its perception as affected by internal variables, moods, emotions, thoughts. For me nothing is fixed about this very open concept of ‘space’ and I like to work within a discourse where these variations are allowed, nurtured and emphasized.