5 Questions with Lara Shipley

The fourth installment of NMWA’s biennial exhibition series, Organic Matters—Women to Watch 2015 is presented by the museum and participating national and international outreach committees. The exhibition’s artists redefine the relationship between women, art, and nature. Associate Curator Virginia Treanor spoke with emerging and contemporary women artists featured in Organic Matters.

Organic Matters—Women to Watch 2015
Artist: Lara Shipley
Nominating committee: Greater Kansas City Area / Consulting curator: Catherine Futter, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

1. Organic Matters includes art that refers or responds to the natural world. How do the works from your series “Devil’s Promenade” (specifically, In the Ozarks there are Lights and False Lights) relate to the theme of nature?

Lara Shipley; Photo by Daniel Coburn

Lara Shipley; Photo by Daniel Coburn

“Devil’s Promenade” is about the relationship between rural culture and landscape, specifically Ozark culture in Southern Missouri and Northern Arkansas. The project is framed around the story of a mysterious light on a wooded road, called the Spook Light. It is seen in an area referred to as Devil’s Promenade and it is said the Devil also lives on the road and steals wanderers’ souls. In this place you can either find redemption or damnation. These are two very extreme options, and it’s a fate lacking in volition. Whatever happens, happens to you.

This story takes place in one of the most consistently impoverished areas of the country, where limited opportunity creates a struggle for agency. I find it fascinating how certain physical locations become the settings for specific stories, and by going there, you are able to reflect on their significance to your life.

The two pieces in the Organic Matters exhibition reference the story of the mysterious light in the woods, putting the viewer in the vantage point of the wanderer. But in neither image is it clear if the light will provide good or harm. In the frozen state of photographic time we have no resolution to this question.

2. Are these works representative of your oeuvre? How do they fit into your larger body of work?

All of my work focuses on rural American community and its relationship to physical place. I also am a portrait maker, a writer, and a bookmaker. For me the final project is a combination of all of these elements.

6_Shipley_KC_in-the-ozarks-there-are-lightsweb

Lara Shipley, In the Ozarks There Are Lights (Devil’s Promenade), 2013; Inkjet print, 30 x 37 in.; Courtesy of the artist

3. As an artist, what is your most essential tool? Why?

Open eyes, open ears, and an open mind. They keep me from just remaking what I already think I know. Which is very little.

4. Who or what are your sources of inspiration and/or influence?

Really too many to name! Some of my initial inspirations came from novels. Growing up in the country I didn’t have access to a lot of culture. My mom was a librarian and has always been a voracious reader, and to entertain me as a teenager, would give me novels that were perhaps a little adult for my age. Through writers such as Virginia Woolf, Margaret Atwood, Steinbeck, and Gabriel García Márquez, I began to understand symbolic thinking. I remember the excitement of first tapping into this coded language, like discovering a hole in the floor to another world. This really put me at odds with the evangelical community I grew up around, which looks at the world, and the Bible, very literally. Both fascinated me, but it was very confusing trying to reconcile the two. This tension is very present in my project “Devil’s Promenade.”

5. What’s the last exhibition you saw that you had a strong reaction to?

There are two great group exhibitions up in Kansas City right now. American Soldier, a photography exhibition at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, and Making Histories, a primarily video exhibition focusing on global events at H&R Block Artspace. Both do a fantastic job, in my opinion, of bringing together artists who take a wide variety of approaches to topics more frequently relegated to journalism. The pieces in these shows are both beautiful and challenging, and the experimentation present was really inspiring and gave me a lot of hometown pride!