October 15, 2018 § 3 Comments
By Nina Gaby
There’s an immediate familiarity to Lauren Gillette’s crisp and unsympathetic management of narrative despite the contrast to my own mixed-media micro-memoir exhibit one gallery over in the AVA Center for the Arts in Lebanon, NH. My work can be fussy – translucent porcelain sheets interleaved with text on rustic papers and old boxes of ephemera. Quite different from Gillette’s “Things I Did”– a collection of 12×12 inch mirrors mounted edge to edge, each with a five-line account of a life etched onto the glass, each written by a stranger from Craigslist who answered her call. Dozens of these mirrors surround the viewer at eye level on three sides of the exhibit space. The fourth wall is all window, adding street energy to the mix.
The exhibit, curated by AVA’s Mila Pinigin, involves four mixed-media artists projecting narrative in unique ways, talking about story, examining the interplay between the written word and the visual structure containing that word or object standing in for that word.
What was familiar to me was the simplicity of the project. I had run across Gillette’s earlier work, “Wish/Regret” in 2012, by chance on an artwalk in Portsmouth, NH. Once again spare and focused, Gillette’s small square book, beautifully produced by Plainspoke Press, accompanied the exhibit. I purchased it to use as a provocative template for the therapy groups I run.
In “Wish/Regret,” the Maine artist paired two mugshots taken with her Hasselblad. In the first image the subject states a wish, the second, a regret. It is up to the viewer to fill in the rest, which becomes the blank slate for projection of the viewer’s own story in the same way that viewing her mirrors, and her other projects, invite one in.
Gillette does not see herself as a writer, but echoes what so many writers say when they start a piece. “I start a project not knowing where it will go.” She states, “I put it out to the public and they never disappoint. They show me where to go. People–their poetic souls, their generosity. They always slay me. It’s amazing.”
On a brilliant October morning we dismantled our respective shows and went down the street for chai. I asked Gillette some questions:
Nina Gaby: Words are usually presented on the flat page, obviously you find shape in other materials. How did you make that jump?
Lauren Gillette: I’m a visual artist so the jump was taking the leap to ease more writing into the project, but to remind myself that if I go a little too far away from the visual I’ll need to make that leap sooner rather than later. I used to be a portrait painter and always thought there were stories but nobody knew them. Any way we can tell our stories is fine. I just hope to find that universal thread between people.
NG: It’s an intimate show. As the viewer gets close enough to read between the five lines of each story, they literally see themselves, in fragments, reading the story. What have people said to you about that experience?
LG: Good question. They start to make up their own list, they have their own thoughts. I don’t think much about what the viewer sees, once the exhibit is up, they see the pieces. I just hope some connection happens. In this world today any threads we can have between us helps. Our lack of connection is shows up even in children. Chronic illness, for instance, in pediatric cases earlier and earlier. Much of this can be attributed to how we distance ourselves.
NG: For those of us who work in microprose and flash, we would be interested in how you think about “less is more.” Does the visual replace the text?
LG: Visual is presentation, how you look at it. In this case more writing than visual went through a process to get to the simple vehicle of the mirror. Sometimes I just want to be married to everything I make or write but it goes against my nature to say, well that’s a nice sentence, why don’t I save it? If it doesn’t push the concept forward it has to go.
NG: So you edit.
LG: Yes. A lot. It takes me a long time to figure out I really don’t like something. “Things I Did” started out as embroidery. Very laborious, not that that’s bad, but it looked horrible and it just wasn’t pushing the arc forward. I never edit what anyone else gives me for the projects, not even the spelling. They edit themselves. But my own stuff, the visual, the writing, I edit a lot to make it smaller. More universal. That thread I keep talking about.
NG: Are you aware of the impact? I heard the Outreach Coordinator at the arts center had groups of young disadvantaged women in and this really got them thinking about how they would describe their own lives, led to some good conversation about how they want to look at their lives.
LG: I try to take ego out of it. I try to see it from someone else’s point of view. Like– is it interesting to people? Helpful to people? I’m thrilled if someone says something nice, but as we’re all trying to do as artists is let people be a witness to themselves. People respond to what they recognize. So that’s not about me. No one wants to be impressed, they just want to be moved.
To read more about Gillette’s work and how she came to this project, or to add your own five-line history, visit her blog at: thingsididproject.blogspot.com
Nina Gaby is a visual artist, writer and psychiatric nurse practitioner. She has exhibited widely over the past four decades, is published in a number of anthologies and journals and has been a frequent contributor to the Brevity blog. To see Gaby’s work go to www.ninagaby.com.