The Blog

Portraits and ponderings from the writing desk of Jill Foote-Hutton.

Conversations at the Log #4: Lauren Mayer

Lauren Mayer completed a short-term residency at Red Lodge Clay Center this spring. Her residency coincided with the fifth anniversary juried exhibit, which featured her work, “J’ai Plus De Souvenirs Que J’avais Mille Ans” or, for those not schooled in français, “I Have More Memories Than If I Was One Thousand Years Old”. The title comes from Baudelaire, one of the poets Mayer reads in her research.
Experiencing her objects first hand invokes the sublime.

At least this was my reality, and it was so overwhelming and lovely and melancholic I feel compelled to share it.

Transcribing a conversation is tricky--trying to decide what to leave and what to take out without disturbing the subtext too much or monkeying around with the interviewee’s intent. And yet, a transcribed conversation is a peek behind the curtain of a mind to see what’s spinning therein. The conflict, especially with work so specifically focused on the experience of invocation, is the very real possibility of ruining the experience with too much talking.

I’m trying to be careful, trying to be respectful and give the work all the deference it requires.

The history of Mayer’s objects is immediately evident, as is the struggle and perseverance of humanity. She does not cloud our vision with color or gaudy embellishments. Not to detract from the exuberance of a good bling experience, but there is no room for it here. More importantly, no need or desire for it. When Baudelaire’s poem is read in its entirety, an eloquent symbiosis between object and text is tangible and almost makes me want to tell you the following conversation is completely unnecessary to read.

Words have a way of deconstructing just as sure as they construct, but I’m going to go out on a limb and share the conversation anyway. It may be indulgent. It may be too long, but it is enriching on another level. This interview is an opportunity to hear someone at the outset of their career expand on the motivations that propel them to make.

Now you’ve been warned.

Proceed at your own risk.

Shhhhhhhhh. Hush now. The time has come for introspection.

The reward may be your opportunity to revel in the ebb and flow of memory and reality.

To begin: an image and the poem.

A sensual conversation precedes the literal one.


I have more memories than if I'd lived a thousand years.

A great chest of drawers encumbered with bills,

verses, love letters, processes, romances,

with heavy locks of hair parcelled in receipts,

hiding fewer secrets than my dingy brain.

It is a pyramid, a vast cavern that bears

more corpses than a plague pit.

– I am a cemetery abhorred by the moon,

where long worms traipse like remorse

constantly molesting my dearest dead.

I am an old boudoir brimming with withered roses,

where lies a confused bundle of outdated dresses,

where plaintive pastels and pale Bouchers,

abandoned, breathe the odour of an open phial.

Nothing could equal the length of those limping days,

when beneath the heavy flakes of snowy years

ennui, the fruit of dreary apathy,

becomes as vast as immortality.

– Henceforth you are no more, O living matter!

than granite engulfed in a vague terror,

listless in the heart of a hazy Sahara;

an ancient Sphinx ignored by a dumb world,

forgotten from the map, whose wild heart

sings only in the rays of a setting sun.

WPS: Let’s jump off into the deep end now. I wanted to hear you talk about beauty. In your artist statement and in your thesis you mention beauty. Beauty can be a loaded word. I didn’t feel like you really unpacked your notions of beauty so I’d like to ask you to delve into that idea now and elaborate on what beauty means to you.

LM: Well I think, especially with the work I am doing now, it’s not the same as experiencing a beautiful tulip or a beautiful day. I think it’s more of a complicated beauty that I’m drawn to, one that isn’t necessarily recognized and identified by everyone. A lot of the things that interest me straddle the gap as polar opposites, and it’s that space in between that is interesting to me. The Ugly-Beautiful gap. I think my work captures a quiet beauty, something understated and unassuming. People might actually pass by this beauty without noticing. I’m not interested in making objects that scream, “I’m gorgeous!”

WPS: Did you ever feel there was a barrier to using the word beauty?

LM: I think, when it came to my thesis work, the baggage associated with the word, was not something I was distracted by. There were so many other concepts I was dealing with it was sort of a peripheral thing and I wasn’t really doing a lot of reading about that, my head was on the other side of things thinking about ideas of trace was and remains a central focus. It’s only now, two years later, that my attentions are turning to ideas of beauty and I’m beginning to seriously consider them. I have definitely been dancing around it or it has been dancing around my mind.

WPS: Does it strike you as odd that people react to your work as “beautiful”?

LM: Sometimes. Yes. A lot of the reasons for why I make what I make are very sad. There is something inherent in them about loss. For me the work is much closer to ideas of torture in some ways. And I think that takes me back to the idea of straddling the distance between beautiful and ugly. Something that is heart wrenching invokes a beauty beyond external concepts. Although, it’s not something that really bothers me. I don’t feel the need to respond by telling viewers, “NO! That’s not beautiful. It’s tragic! Can’t you see it’s in pain?”

I do think that when I get to talking about the darker side of things, it’s the beauty that disarms the audience and reels them in to get them to sit with the work a little bit longer. I think the ideas of aesthetics and beauty are not mutually exclusive; rather, they inform each other. The work would obviously be really different if I made the shelves bright green, chartreuse, and made the envelopes dark red. It would change everything, but sometimes…

I wish I could make something that is lime green!

It’s easy to get caught up in that tragic cycle. There were some very sad things in my life informing the work and in the last six months I’ve had to ask myself how do I make work from a happy place? Now, I’m in a very different place than I have been for the last two years and, I’ve had to ask myself, “How does this work?” Even though I’m interested in this mutated, tortured thing, how does that become about something that is in fact beautiful?

WPS: Do you think you’ll turn your perspective from an internal world to an external world?

LM: I don’t know. I always seem to cycle back on these things. That is a really hard question to answer for myself; what it would be like to make happy work when a lot of what I make is very, very sad and carries sad connotations with it rather than celebratory themes.

WPS: It sounds like you are just questioning whether or not operating from a position of sadness is okay.

LM: Kind of. But I do think there is a certain cycle that happens. A lot of the work dwells on things that I struggle with, so it’s autobiographical for me and it’s a way to work through things that I don’t understand about myself or about my situation or about memory or how the mind works or how the body works. It’s a way for me to figure things out and way for me to express, not necessarily the confusion but where my state of mind lies in trying to figure those things out.

So, I guess what I’m saying is that I suspect the work I make will always be internal. That seems to be my M.O. But as my internal perspective changes the work will change too. For example, a lot of the work I was making going in to graduate school was dealing with suitcases and luggage as metaphors for mobility and travel and transience. The suitcase was the furniture of mobility and not having a place to call home, more specifically, not having a permanent place to call home.

As I progressed through grad school, when I was in one place for the longest time since I left home, I started to use literal representations of pieces of furniture. The work became more about stability and things that were built into a house. I used images of objects that you wouldn’t move or weren’t easily moveable. In that respect it seems pretty clear that what is going on in my life informs the objects I am drawn to and I anticipate more of that happening in the future.

WPS: And yet every object, even the ones, which stand in for permanence and stability have an air of decay.

LM: I think one of the reasons I use clay is for the idea of permanence and impermanence. Clay, once fired, is this “permanent” thing that can still be broken. With the envelopes, they now become porcelain. They are permanent on one level, but they are so fragile they often self-destruct. In regard to the stability of the material, I like to play with that idea. Then envelopes, in particular, interest me because they are more fragile in their “permanent” state than in their “impermanent” state as a piece of paper.

WPS: And what of the chairs and their intentional instability?

LM: It’s not that I’m just translating the form [of a chair] from one material to the next. The fragility of the material is frustrating, but it’s also something that I love and embrace. The frustration that comes with the cracking, with things self-destructing and having to make them multiple times gives them multiple lives, but also often makes me unsure of how I feel about the objects. Instead of just walking away from them or throwing them in a pile I will purposely regenerate them, maybe even purposely break them, reconstruct them and refire them, however many times I need to. In this way, layers of history are built within the made objects. Most of the reason I begin with an object, like a chair, dresser, luggage or envelopes, is because of the embedded history already there. I embrace the failure and build on the pre-existing history of individual objects to realize something that, as a maker, I can be pleased with.

WPS: A quote from your thesis refers to, “An object[s] possess[ing] the capacity to act as a proxy for things beyond itself and its seemingly simple material existence.” I’m curious about when the concept occurred to you as a reality?

LM: Well I think the “object as a proxy” in the current body of work I’m doing is really different than when I was thinking about it in my thesis, even though both time periods and bodies of work are linked. For example, I was on a fishing trip with some friends and I gathered some rocks from the river. And the man I was seeing at that time was part of that group of friends and when I left the trip, I also left him. The rock became the memory of that time. Of course, I was originally angry, but later…

I thought I had thrown the rocks away. I couldn’t remember if I had or not or where they were, and I was frantically searching for these things. It made me ask myself, “Why do I care about this rock so much?” I knew the reason I would have thrown it away was because I didn’t want to have that memory. I did not want to be that memory, or have it sitting on my shelf and have to look at it and be reminded of that thing. Something I also think about a lot: why do people choose to keep things versus the things they choose to throw away? Retention versus disposal is very interesting to me.

WPS: The illustration brings up the idea you have about, “forgotten memories are more perfect than saved memories.”

LM: Yes. I think the enigmatic and ephemeral nature of memory is what initially grabbed my attention in the formative stages of making my undergraduate body of work. If you want to get to the bottom layer of my work, the idea of memory is the bare foundation. Marcel Proust talks about a madeleine cookie and each time he took a bite—with the first bite, the memory was so much more potent than the last. With each subsequent bite the memory dispersed. I read a book “Proust Was a Neuro-Scientist” and, among the many topics it covered was the idea that memory was a malleable thing. Every time you remember something or a memory is triggered the memory changes. A memory, upon each recollection, is reformed and reformed and colored by the moment at which you are remembering it. Each time we invoke a memory we alter it in some way, so maybe the best way to retain an exact memory is to forget it.

WPS: Do you see your object making as an act of re-remembering multiple times and the end result is what the viewer sees?

LM: In some ways. Maybe. When it comes to the dismantling and putting back together of an object. It is one of the aspects I like about the envelope installation with the shelves. Each time I present the work it’s completely different and the envelopes are probably more directly related to my ideas about memory than any other object. But, overall, the idea that memory is a living thing and that idea grabs me; memory can stop you in your tracks and that is what motivates my work. Memory is an intangible thing, which invokes a physical response, and science still doesn’t understand how it works completely.

WPS: The olfactory system is closely related to memory.

LM: It’s not that I think playing on the relationship between the olfactory system and memory is a gimmick, but I don’t think it’s an avenue I’m interested in pursuing. Maybe as an installation piece, if I wanted to have the smell of old roses and I’m not even sure what that smell would be. Maybe the interesting thing would be to find a room with a particular smell and everyone would have their own association with that smell and that would be the experience of the installation. There would be no pre-existing experience with the room or preconceived notions about how it should smell. It is interesting to think about: a smell that reminds me of my mom, might remind you of a cat. It could be interesting, but I don’t see myself incorporating it into the sculpture I’m making.

WPS: Tell me about the largest shift that has occurred in your work.

LM: I have tried to retrace my steps and ask myself how I arrived at using the chair. I’ve always had some sort of reference to furniture, or to things made of wood, or about storage. Last summer I was actually thinking about memory as a core sample and I was working more abstractly, making thin porcelain pancakes and stringing them on wire and knotting them around one another, exploring how a timeline can get confused. I left the process knowing that was too abstract a method for me. I need something to ground the idea.

One of the things I like about slip casting is the sense of reality that happens from taking molds off of an actual object embedded with history. There was a connection to the body that was missing when I was working in a more abstract manner. An example of a body connection is that we have all had the experience of sitting down in a chair that is too short and experiencing the brief moment of falling or picking up a milk jug you think is full, but it’s half empty and you think you are really strong for a second. There is a habit and a routine in the objects I use that is really about “body”. There are expectations of a chair’s ergonomics. We know when a chair is too short. All of this reinforced why it was important for me to use these object instead of working more abstractly.

WPS: So your objects are all narrative.

LM: Definitely.

WPS: You embrace the baggage the objects and the process bring.

LM: Yes, the baggage is the main reason I use them. The objects come with scrapes and marks and histories of wood grain I couldn’t get if I just fabricated the objects myself. When it comes to slip dipping, when I use a real paper envelope as the template and then paint it with slip and finally burning that envelope out there is a dialogue between duplicate versus original. There is now an object that is a duplicate, but also an original in it’s own right. By contrast slip-casting is a duplicate of a duplicate of a duplicate, over and over again.

WPS: In talking about the envelopes, a question arises and it seems to apply to slip casting, in that, the envelopes are not “living”—the envelopes were never “alive”. If art objects are not “alive”, but also not “dead”, rather you see them as “fabrications” or “duplicates”-- I’m curious about your perspective on the objects we do carry around with us, the objects we do hang onto, like the stone. Do you consider that object (imbued with personal memories) to be “alive” or do we give them life?

LM: Yes. I think there’s a distinction between the found object and the made object within that idea. When I talk about loss and the sadness of the objects, the conversation goes right to the root of the concept: these things are surrogates for themselves and the stone is still a stone. If I were to make a mold of the stone and cast it then that would be a “dead” version of an “alive” thing. So maybe in duplicating something, you have the reality of the object, in that it looks like the thing you might recognize, but it’s really not that object. So it’s playing with that notion of…

WPS: C’eci n’est pas une pipe?

LM: Exactly! I was just going to say surrealism. Yes, it goes right along with that. Maybe that moment, of not just translation into a different material, but something that looks like itself is still not really itself. A longing for the real object one will never have is generated. So, when it comes to slip dipping you are literally destroying the original object. It’s a pretty violent process, but then you have a permanent replica of the object. And yet it’s just a shell of the original. It is just a hollow representation of it.

WPS: Which is even sadder.

LM: Yes.

WPS: I wanted to ask you expand on this statement, “The significance we attach to objects can be a source for the need for privacy.” You were talking about the individual need to hide objects away and your use of bureaus.

LM: Yes, the bureau is a hierarchy of hiding and saving things. Those small intimate objects that people keep as tokens or a reminder of another person. I went through my grandmother’s things after she passed away and found a poem by Emily Dickinson in the back of her drawers in a little cigar box. The essence of the poem is, “I died twice,” and that, “living is all we need to know of heaven,” and “all we need to know of hell…” I don’t remember all of it, but my grandfather had committed suicide when my mom was about six. The poem is very evidently about that moment in time, it was very old and it was something she [my grandmother] had kept as a reminder, but it was hidden away from everyone else. So that object, hidden away in that drawer, drew a line between what was hers and what was public domain. The poem in the box denoted a line for her between the public and the private.

WPS: There are points of revelation. These retraces, recreation of things, are private things you are “outing” in your practice.

LM: It’s funny that you say that, because even just now, when I was talking about my grandmother and that poem, I question whether or not I should be revealing the story. It’s a very personal family history and one of the things that I don’t want, is for the objects to be an act of transgression or an act of trespass. Rather I want them to indicate that a habit exists and maybe it is a gross human experience for remembering something one does not want to remember all that often. Simultaneously, one does not want to forget it. In keeping the object, one allows the object to do the hard work and one has the choice, in always knowing where the object resides, to invoke the memory at will.

WPS: Do you believe in the role of the artist as shaman?

LM: Well, I think artists play a pivotal role in society. We make things, not just fanciful things, but we have a way of pointing at something that needs to be addressed. There is a voice, although I am not at a pulpit, but information is waiting to be read by somebody and every person is going to read it differently. Everyone’s interpretation is an indication of his or her story. I believe this draws attention to the differences and similarities of people as individuals and people as a whole.

I ask myself, “Why am I making chairs? Why am I making these particular objects? What is the importance of this?” I examine why I don’t simply make functional objects, like a cup. A cup is one of the simplest things and one of the most beautiful things and one of the most difficult things to make—something that someone will WANT to use.

WPS: Do you think this is a question for you because you were trained in traditional ceramics?

LM: I think so, yea. And because I began as a potter and I still believe objects have a job and need to work. However, my revelation was what that job could be—it can be about an idea. That’s what I’m getting to in regard to the importance of artists. Yes, they create visual stimulation, but I also think artists give objects meaning without an idea behind the object there is only hollow beauty.

WPS: Another question I had for you was about the white box of the gallery. Do you see your work outside of the white box? I ask because of the “job” you are talking about can only go so far in the white box, but it occurs to me that there could be some interesting spaces you could engage in regard to these ideas of memory and retracing that would enable you to move beyond the white box. Is there a space you have thought about?

LM: I think of the gallery as a destination for the work. The gallery is an architectural space that can conjure a space outside of itself. I think that’s most prevalent with the shelves and envelopes in that the work engages an entire space. When it comes to installation and using these everyday objects—you know everyone has a relationship with a chair or with a bureau and this personal relationship allows the space the viewer knows to be conjured. Where they are is not an actual space, but…

I’m thinking of the work of Charles Simonds.

Hmmm, it’s an interesting question. We have this space set up for art, a cube. And when it comes to the job of art for society what happens if people don’t go to the cube? This is the dilemma of contemporary makers.

Being in Red Lodge and seeing socially interactive work like that of Michael Strand, I can’t help but ask myself, “What is my work doing for people?!” His work is doing something and it’s doing something pivotal, but in a very different way than what a white porcelain chair is going to do.

WPS: There is certainly more immediacy to the interaction with an audience.

LM: Exactly, but I think there…

In some ways I’m jealous of makers who create work that is more community based or more environmentally based—work that is more obviously for the public good. Such work is not so much about the internal space of an individual; it’s more about the external. At the end of the day, I don’t think I could do what Michael does, but I do envy it even though I recognize that each body of work is playing a very different role. Each body of work has separate origins in the external and internal world of investigation. The things I am obsessed with—art sometimes starts with an obsession. Obsession seems a good place to start, but wherever the point of origin there is a cycle. Things begin internally for me and then I externalize the internal, giving way to internalizing again. It’s a cycle. In and out. In and out. In and out. That’s how it is most days. Am I in or out?

WPS: In and out brings us back to the question of location. Is there a space outside of the gallery you desire to see your work activate?

LM: Probably an old farmhouse, an old building, something that has a sense of antiquity about it. Because I am drawn to the history objects carry with them, this seems most natural. The closest I ever came to an installation outside of the gallery was probably when I was at Anderson Ranch. I made a paper clay chair and let it set outside in the snow. With every snowfall and every melt the snow on the seat of the chair would ebb and flow and as the freezing and thawing occurred the chair slowly melted. Such work exists as documentation, but the white space (and everything I make is some shade of white) the white snowy landscape where nothing was around was the best space.

I am really looking for blank spaces to allow room for memories to be invoked. So, the white of the gallery is the perfect blank space for me. In some regards, it is interesting to consider a stark white porcelain chair in an old, dilapidated building that is dark and filled with a musty smell invoking the olfactory part of memory; but that would operate in a very different way than coming across a chair in a gallery.

In Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road”, an apocalyptic tale with a father and son who are trying to make their way to the ocean. We never know exactly what happened, but there is a great conflagration and there is much danger on their journey. In their travels they go into houses that are now abandoned, and the story takes place about a year after the “event” and the idea of value has completely shifted. Money has no value. Food is important. In their search they comb through the rubble of ashen remains and the story left me with an image of what it would be like come across a stark white chair in the middle of all this ash. It is interesting to consider a world where people would take a chair over money. They would take the chair because it could be used for firewood. The value and intent of objects completely shift.

I do a lot of reading and watch a lot of film. “Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind” is a favorite, but it’s a film I can’t watch it very often.

WPS: Are you familiar with the memory studies of Joe LeDoux at NYU?

LM: Yes! Actually in my thesis I talk a little about memory receptors and explore the importance of forgetting. There is a need to forget. We would be overwhelmed if we were able to hang on to every memory. I think there is something incredible about the human purview and to know that every single sensory perception is buried within.

WPS: You really have a very rich minefield of information to plough in your work. Where do you plan to go next?

LM: I think with the chairs, with this body of work and thinking about these objects in relation to the human body I’m trying to explore them as a metaphor for the emotional human body. The very first chair I made was bound and wrapped with twine that was dipped in slip.

It was restricted, and while I’m not entirely clear on the human emotion such an object refers to, there is a definite conversation about being bound (obviously); but now, due to the nature of the material, the thing doing the binding is more fragile than the thing being bound. I think the hardest thing I have to figure out is identifying the metaphors for emotion these objects conjure.

WPS: Do you think you really need to solve that puzzle? Do you really want to label them?

LM: No. I don’t think that I do, but when it comes to titling or talking about the work I don’t want to oversimplify the layers because of a lack of understanding on my part. Within the series of chairs are the corner chairs and I want them to look as though they are being backed into a corner by itself or by some external force. They are shrugging away, hiding, scared; I feel there are all these other ideas circling around the obvious that are beyond human emotion. What is the thing that is causing the backing up; is it self-inflicted or external? What is the larger picture? What is the cause? What is the effect?

WPS: There is a ware cart sitting behind us with some cups you have thrown and altered to look like cut crystal? What’s going on there?

LM: Hmmm. Times when I need to let ideas formulate or when I need to let work dry are good days for throwing. It’s meditative and it keeps my hands busy.

WPS: But you then altered them, you must have been thinking of something.

LM: (smiling) Ummmm, whiskey.

Mayer’s work can be seen at the Walker Fine Art Gallery in Denver, Colorado as part of the “Intuition” exhibit until the end of the month, but keep your eye out for more…