"People are often intimidated to claim artist as part of their identity and pursuing art as a career that supports you financially is difficult, but I think the beauty of being an artist is that anyone can claim the title!"
"Bloom where you're planted," is a phrase found on one of Laura Brown's recent postcards. Over the last couple of weeks I've held and looked at her postcard many times. I get a lot of inspiration from it by holding it in my hand, reminding myself to grow and appreciate where I am in my life. I just became a member of her Postcard Club so that I can collect more of her postcards!
Laura Brown is a printmaker, book artist, collaborator and teacher. Currently, her work uses the vocabulary of ubiquitous construction signage as a way of investigating social and political upheaval in today's American society. She draws inspiration from everyday experience, from the most mundane and routine patterns of life. She holds an MFA from the University of Texas at Austin. She has participated in residencies at the Myren Graffikk in Kristiansand, Norway; the Kala Art Institute in Berkeley, California; Minnesota Center for Book Arts in Minneapolis, Minnesota; and the Women’s Studio Workshop in Rosendale, New York. Her work appears in collections at Yale University and the Library of Congress, among others. Her work has been shown internationally, nationally, and locally, most recently at the Soap Factory in Minneapolis, MN. She teaches at the Minnesota Center for Book Arts and is an active member of the print collective Proof Public, which aims to amplify marginalized voices through letterpress printing.
In this interview she talks about her installation work, what her first studio was like, goals she has for the upcoming year, what resources she uses as an artist, and more!
Jes: How do you describe yourself as an artist and the art you make?
Laura: I have a background in printmaking, and I mainly use silkscreen and letterpress printing processes. They give me a lot of flexibility in using color and producing work at a quicker pace and greater volume than other printmaking processes. I am working on integrating my print practice with my love of textiles and quilting. I have sewn since I was young and I see a really strong connection between printmaking and quilting in that they are both communal activities and lend themselves to socializing and connecting with others.
I am interested in knowing how you combine printmaking and installation work? When did these two worlds align for you?
A major shift in my work happened in grad school. There can be pressure in that setting to make Really Big Work. In my program, printmaking was not a cool media to be working in, and there was a lot of pressure to break out of just making prints to hang on the wall. This isn’t unique, there’s quite a trend of it in the printmaking community as well. I think this can be helpful, but I am not into making big work simply for the sake of it. But I knew that my program would be a challenge when I chose it, so I tried to embrace that.
Anyway, at some point, someone asked why my quilting didn’t seem to be connected to my studio practice. Until that point, I was keeping my sewing for myself and I didn’t want to directly merge the two in the grad school environment where I knew it would get criticized for being “craft” rather than “art”. But I saw potential for sneaking quilting practices into my studio work as a way to solve the challenge of making larger work. I started by printing on modular pieces of Tyvek and sewing them together to make signs that looked like construction signage, which was popping up seemingly everywhere. In the real world, the construction felt like a harbinger of upheaval, like inevitable gentrification. At the same time, I can see the potential for positive change, and I wanted to create work that explored that.
Graduate school felt really isolating to me, and I wanted to expand my making and showing from privileged art spaces like galleries and academia. So it all kind of naturally (and literally) grew from there, and my first installation was outside The Soap Factory, where people would encounter it anytime they were walking or driving by. That led pretty directly to the signs that are currently up in the skyway in St. Paul, a commission by the Minnesota Museum of American Art. Hundreds of people walk past them every day.
I can see a lot of potential for expansion with the materials and processes, which I’m hoping to pursue this next year.
Can you tell me more about your project Empathy Economy?
That project felt like such a serendipitous thing. I love the library, so when Northern Spark was slated to be there, I knew I wanted to propose a project. I am totally fascinated and preoccupied with money and the way it affects our lives in systematic and personal ways. Libraries are such a lovely alternative economy and it all got me thinking, what if there was a place where you could get what you need that wasn’t money? What does everyone need? We all need empathy and a space to be heard, I think. Cardboard seemed like an appropriately unsecure medium to house valuable resources, so I built a teller’s booth out of cardboard and printed a currency of encouraging notes and withdrawal slips with corresponding options. It led to so many amazing conversations! There were people who would step right up and tell me extremely personal things as they handed me their withdrawal slips and I was able to lend an ear and offer them a tangible thing that they could take with them to remind them that they are not alone.
I also pretty curious about Proof Public. How does belonging to a collective like this support your art practice?
A question I’ve been thinking about lately is, can community be an artistic medium? I mean, I think the answer is yes, and Proof Public is a place I get to explore that. I feel like the work exists in meeting and helping others express themselves through the medium of letterpress printing. It’s one of those opportunities where printing leads to conversations. Because we are all about providing access and encouraging people to print their voices, it opens the door to hearing about peoples’ perspectives, specifically around current events and issues. I love those conversations, and they definitely don’t happen when I’m working alone in the studio.
What was your first studio space like? What is you studio like now?
My first studio after college was in my parents’ basement! I lived with them for about a year. I can’t believe it now, but I bought an etching press on Ebay and set it up in a bedroom. They were really gracious to deal with the smells of ink and mineral spirits and me blasting The Arcade Fire. I’ve crammed my workspace (and that press! Though I eventually sold it) into a lot of different scenarios over the years.
Now I have a ridiculously gorgeous and big space in the Casket Arts Building where I sew, teach classes, and host events. I call it CHEER! because I want people to be encouraged to explore their creative impulse and find support to learn at any phase and level of interest. My long term dream is to have a space that is a storefront or something more accessible, where I can offer a community and resources to artists. I would love to have a reference library, coworking space for artists, and small residency.
I do all my printing at the Minnesota Center for Book Arts, where I also teach classes. It is a phenomenal resource and I have realized that a lot of people don’t know it exists.
Speaking of resources, what kind have you used to support your career?
I have tried a lot of things over the years, and I would say that some of the most meaningful choices I made have been to take classes. There are so many community education resources in the Twin Cities! I talk to people, I reach out. I show up and ask a lot of questions, which means I get to know a lot of people and learn from them. Mentors have been so important to me, especially after I left school.
Many years ago, when Kickstarter was brand new (and then later, when it wasn’t so new), I used it to fund some projects that really helped shape my practice.
Some of my favorite current resources are Beth Pickens, Jen Armbrust’s Proposals for the Feminine Economy. I listen to a lot of personal finance and business podcasts, I read books about business and habits.
What kind of advice would you give someone who is trying to build or start a studio practice?
I would say, just start! With whatever you have, wherever you are. See where it leads. Don’t get in your own way. I hear a lot of people (myself included) making excuses about why they haven’t started yet, or why they can get started, but the truth is, you have to start somewhere. Ask for help when you need it (you will need it!). Don’t be shy. Don’t overthink it. Enjoy it! Read Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. Post Sister Corita’s Rules somewhere where you can see them.
People are often intimidated to claim “artist” as part of their identity and pursuing art as a career that supports you financially is DIFFICULT. BUT I think the beauty of being an artist is that anyone can claim the title! There are plenty of professions where you have to take an exam or go through long education and training programs. Not with art! If you want to be an artist, be an artist! I mean, I wouldn’t suggest saying you’re an artist without actually attempting some kind of creative engagement or inquiry, but it’s an occupation/hobby/career/thing that is literally open to anyone and everyone.
I recently joined your Postcard Club which I am so excited about. I love to get little surprises in the mail! For those who don’t know, what is the Postcard Club and how does one join?
THANK YOU! I started the Postcard Club for a few reasons: I love sending surprises in the mail! I also wanted a regular reason to play and experiment with printing in ways I might not usually, and I am experimenting with creating ways for people to support me as an artist, as well as the growth of CHEER! as a community space and resource. Printing is a practice where all the work is in the set-up, so it takes almost as much time to print one thing as it does to print 100. This makes it a natural medium for reaching an evolving number of people. I offered pre-sales through my website, but new members are always welcome through Patreon. Other commitments have kept me from really engaging with the actual Patreon site, but some recent growth in my number of patrons has me thinking about ways to expand the club and offer more rewards and levels of support (the key is to engage and garner support without creating a ton of extra work for myself--a delicate balance!). This is a great time to join, actually, because I’m a few postcards behind and I’m just sending all of my future postcards to everyone, even if they just joined. I think I’m on #4 and I want to catch up to #8 (of 12) by the end of August.
I follow a lot of your updates via Instagram. How do you prefer to use social media when promoting your art? What’s your approach?
My approach. . . varies. I like to be personal on Instagram, and transparent about what my experience is like, because I think when we are open and honest, it invites others to do the same. I also try not to spend too much time looking at it, or letting it dictate what I do or how I feel about myself.
Thanks for answering my questions, Laura! Is there anything else you’d like to share?
Thank YOU for the interview! If people are interested in connecting on Instagram, they can find me at @laurabrownart and they can check out more of my work at laurabrownart.com.
All images courtesy of the artist.
Artists I Admire is a series of interviews with artists I think highly of.