Creators, Makers, and Doers: Laurie Blakeslee
Posted on 7/26/16 by Arts & History
Laurie Blakeslee is an artist and a professor of Art at Boise State University. While not teaching full time and serving as a liaison for the university, Laurie dedicates her creative practice to the surprises found in photography and collage. Currently, she is developing a body of work focusing on her mother-in-law’s garden.
Can you start by telling us what your role in the community is?
I am an educator at Boise State University. I also think of myself as a community organizer. I think that’s what our teaching in a university is in a way. I organize people a lot and make connections from the university to the community and the arts community.
What is that you teach at the university?
I am the Coordinator of Art Foundations at Boise State in the Art Department. I run the first-year experience in the Art Department and I teach the first two art foundation classes. Mostly, they’re separated out by 2-D and 3-D, though we cross over into all areas in both classes, and then I also teach photography.
What is it that you enjoy about teaching and/or being involved at the university level?
I think it’s an instant community of artists, my peers, and the students. That’s a really great part of it. I am always learning from the students, and I really enjoy that because they don’t have all the rules. They don’t have the education that I have, which you’d think could be a good thing, but it can be stifling sometimes, if you have so many rules. Students will come up to me with a proposal and I try to stop myself from saying, “No, you can’t do that.” And somehow they come up with some really good stuff.
What do you focus on for your personal work?
I’m working with photography and color photography right now.
What do you like about photography? Why do you choose to focus on it?
You know, it certainly isn’t one thing or even five things that I like about photography, because I also have a background in painting. I got my undergraduate in painting, my BFA degree at Boise State. Oftentimes, I approach photography like a painting, like it’s a blank piece of canvas or paper. What I think I can point to—specifically what I like about photography—is that it continues to surprise me. I like the happy accidents, though that doesn’t happen as much with digital photography. I like to think about what happens within the frame, the juxtaposition of elements that would be unexpected. I like the paradox of our expectations of how descriptive and truthful photography is, but it absolutely does not tell the truth. It’s fun to play with.
How would you describe the work that you make?
Well, without getting all caught up in some of the photo-speak, right now my photographs are pretty straight-forward. I’m taking pictures of my mother-in-law’s garden. It’s really a huge garden. She’s been working the same land for over forty years. The project started a few years ago when I realized that the garden might be ending soon because she’s getting older, her husband was suffering from heart disease, and there is a chance that it is slowing down.
Even though I hadn’t worked in, what we call a “straight” photographic way for a long time, I realized that I really needed to be working out there in the garden with her as—not necessarily documenting the garden and what was happening, but find something there that resonated with me and maybe with others. Now, since I’m on sabbatical and it’s been winter, I’ve been really struggling with the garden project and trying to figure out how, what direction it’s going. I am not specifically telling a story, though, photography has that narrative quality. It isn’t like beginning, middle, end story, and not like a Eugene Smith photo essay that’s in Life magazine kind-of-thing. I don’t want to do that. So now that I’m on sabbatical, I’ve been working on the inside of her house.
My father-in-law died in the fall, and so they started to go through his things and take apart his office space, and I started photographing all the parts and all the boxes of stuff and the books. So, that’s what I’m working on now.
You mentioned this work is kind of a departure from your previous work, in terms of being more straight photography. What was the kind of work that you were making before this and what initiated that change?
Lots of things have initiated the change. Before, I was working with tabletop tableau narratives, but not specifically still-lives. Right before the garden series, I was photographing out of old Montgomery Ward catalogs, post-World War Two catalogs. And I worked kind of like collage. I would put objects on top of the catalog images and manipulate the lighting. A lot of the objects were like old toys and jewels or other things that I would juxtapose with the catalog images.
I was fascinated with the imagery in the catalogs coming out of World War Two, since that’s really the time that my mother was growing up. I was interested in looking at how she and the rest of women in our culture really developed this façade. The catalogs were a way to teach women how to act and how to portray themselves and I think a lot of that is still a part of our lives today.
What’s the importance of having a sabbatical for your professional practice?
I think it’s really important. It’s really important to have that opportunity to work without interruptions. It’s really challenging to work full-time teaching and maintain a creative practice as well, even though it’s part of my job. But the students are always right in front of you. There’s certainly times during the school year when I don’t get in the studio for long periods of time. It’s really hard for me to switch gears, too. It’s like, when summer comes, I’m pretty burnt out and it probably takes several weeks before I can really be back in the studio making something and oftentimes I’m surprised by what I see that I did last.
Can you elaborate a little more on what your creative making schedule looks like?
It’s sporadic. Oftentimes I’m, like lately, working with the garden, it’s summertime and I’m shooting a lot, a lot, a lot. So, mid-day is usually not the best time for light, so mornings, a lot of evenings, and sometimes I can look through my images and start to see what’s working and what’s not working and that will inform what I do the next day. Sometimes it depends on what’s happening in the garden. There will be some planting or something and I’ll want to be out there photographing that.
How do you come up with the idea, or when does that moment come when you know you’re going to commit yourself to a body of work?
I think that this is so funny. The garden project happened because I was using my phone to capture what was going on in the garden and at the time they were rototilling. I was showing the photos, at lunch, to my friend Bill Lewis, and he said, “Oh, you should do a whole series on that.” That made me think, “You know, you’re right.” It took me a while, but within a few weeks I was doing it. So sometimes it’s a suggestion like that. I think that I knew once I started the garden project and was working on it for a while, that the taking apart of the house that my in-laws lived in, would be something I would be photographing as well. When my father-in-law died this last fall, I knew, once they started going through his things and giving things away, I better start photographing. That’s where I am now, walking over there every day and photographing.
Do you typically work on multiple projects at a time or do you tend to really focus and dig in on one thing?
Typical? I don’t think there’s anything typical about my way of working. When I used to paint, I would always have more than one painting going, So, I think with the photography, too, I have to have something else to distract me. That’s when I start working with embroidery or something. If I get stuck on the photographs or the lighting isn’t good, that’s when I start doing some collage or something, some other project. It really helps, especially with digital photography. When I started… with the garden project… I switched completely to digital and I got the big, fancy camera and went all the way. Where before, I was just scanning negatives and working with analog and printing digitally. That was a big change, and I found that with digital, you don’t have the happy accidents as much.
Do you prefer shooting digitally now?
You know, I’m just starting to get film back into my head, because I don’t enjoy being in front of the computer all the time. I also enjoy working with my students and my colleagues in the darkroom all the time. Maybe it’s a bit of nostalgia that I want to go back into that world.
In general, what are your opinions of the arts community in Boise?
There’s a lot of artists in Boise. I actually did a project for the City with Karen Bubb, it’s been fifteen, sixteen years now, about why Idaho natives return. It was about a group of artists and why they come back to Boise to live. I think it’s still happening, that people are still coming back to Boise because it’s such a beautiful and easy place to live, and it’s an inexpensive place for artists to live. We’re really fortunate to have such a large community of artists. Also the university, and the big turnover in the Art Department, that’s attracted a lot of artists, too, to Boise. So, that part I think is really great. I don’t know if the community at large is aware of some of the great people that are here in our little art community because we don’t always get to see what they’re doing. They’re shipping their work off to somewhere else.
On that same note, what are some of the major resources that are lacking for such a robust number of artists here?
The university really does some great things to feature local artists. I would say more so than the Art Museum. I think it’s really important that the Art Museum features local and regional artists, although their role should really be to bring in some contemporary artists that push our ideas, that the community at large, of what art is, because we’re so isolated here.
Finally, do you have any words of advice or inspiration for other artists out there?
I’m constantly doing that with my students, trying to not necessarily inspire them, but motivate them to work. So, I’m always telling them, “You know, you’re not always going to make good stuff, but you have to work through the bad. Just keep making it.”
Creators, Makers, & Doers highlights the lives and work of Boise artists and creative individuals. Selected profiles focus on individuals whose work has been supported by the Boise City Dept. of Arts & History.