Vermont Arts Council

The Art of Chance

Laura Jane Walker calls her pieces paintings and says the colored threads are brush strokes. The threads run inches or feet between nails in plywood. Some of the panels are brightly colored, some shimmer, some have only earth tones. The newest employ seed-shaped divots carved into the wood. All are built around a chance event — a spilled cup of coffee, an I Ching coin toss, a burn.

Hundreds of nails, hammered close together, surround the chance events and border all four edges of the board. As she makes the paintings, she makes visible a personal philosophy: that any chance happening presents the opportunity to learn, grow, and evolve. The lines of thread represent ways of moving forward. It is slow and deliberate work.

And Controlled. And Methodical.

Laura uses the words slow and deliberate more than once as she talks about her process. She also remarks she is “OK with controlled.” She moves methodically. “I’ve been purposely trying to evolve the work slowly. I want to pay attention to what’s working and what’s not, not make too many changes too quickly.” She spends time “playing with the same ideas.”

Detail from “Heat Index.” The image below is taken from a later work, “Carving #3.”

The earlier pieces are landscapes, panels of blues and greens, or a scene of orange, red, and blue. The hues are lighter on top than on bottom. Her first big move was away from color. Laura recounts, “I was really loving color for a while, then I decided to step away for a bit.” She clarifies, “That way I was just focusing on composition.”

She carries ideas from one work to the next. “I try to make little adjustments as I go … For the most part I make one (piece), then I make another. I’ve gotten to where I start to make a body of work together — at points I will be working on them all at once. But for the most part, they build off of each other.” Her burn series took her to the darker works. Heating the wood is another chance event, “… burning into it creates its own chaotic designs.”

After burning, she added carving, which “kind of complicated it in another way.” She still threw coins, outlined those on the board, then built from there. Laura explains, “What I tried to do is have the carving explode out from the coins. That creates the pattern for the carving.” The technique took a while to learn, and there were mishaps. “Plywood has different layers of wood, so the grain of the wood goes one way, the next layer … the wood goes the opposite way. So, when I carve into it, I’m exposing those different layers.” She shows me how the “orange bits” reveal what’s underneath. “The first layer of wood would just chip off sometimes. Which, again, whatever ‘flaws’ that happen, I try not to fix it too much, because that’s what makes it more interesting. Then you get your different colors and a little variety.”

PuppyMore and more, she pushes toward abstraction, working with “… whatever shape the spill makes. I don’t try to make it not look like something. People do that with clouds, you want to say it looks like a person’s face or whatever. I try to orient the work so it’s not an easy grab.” She gives an example, “I don’t want it to look like a puppy. If it does, then it’s fine, but I typically try not to have it look like anything too obvious.”

Looking Back. Or Not.

Laura understood loss of control early in life. At five, she was diagnosed with Type I Diabetes. So she always has to take care of her body, she “always has to move forward in a certain way.” She fully acknowledges the art she makes is influenced by the disease she has, but doesn’t want the art to be about her disease. “This is one way to think of it. If the spill is a trauma, there are ways to process it, and the process is to make a better self.” Laura is resourceful and creative in making her better self.

In elementary school, Laura “kept winning little awards for poster contests,” which encouraged her creativity. She reflected, “I think getting that attention early on made me interested in pursuing it.” She detoured through sports in middle school, returning to art in high school. Since graduating from the Pacific Northwest College of Art seven years ago, she considers art her career. To her, the fact she has a studio gives credence to that idea. Typically, she spends about 30 hours each week there; for now, she has surrendered three months of studio time to renovate a house with her artist partner, Justin Kenney.

As Laura speaks about learning to use the carving tool, she could be talking about anything she pursues: “You can only keep moving forward. When you go back and try to repair things, it just gets messy.”

See for Yourself

You can meet Laura and see her work in the Spotlight Gallery during Montpelier’s Art Walk May 5. On May 7, she’ll have an open studio at the Vermont Studio Center to cap off her week-long residency. Her goal for her time there is ” to get lost in the work.” But something’s cooking. “I have been playing with the carving patterns to make them look like waves.”

artist statement for Spotlight Gallery show

Laura Jane Walker’s website

Susan McDowell

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