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Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Making Art During the Coronavirus: A Chat with Artist Randy LeSage

Each year, WAM's Central Massachusetts Artist Initiative (CMAI) invites two artists who live or work in the greater Worcester area to have their art showcased in a solo installation in our Sidney and Rosalie Rose gallery, alongside other contemporary artists in our permanent collection. Randy LeSage’s four-part series Departure was featured from May-October 2019.

Randy LeSage has taught art classes at WAM for more than 25 years. While the widespread effects of coronavirus have paused in-person classes at the Museum, artmaking is not on hold. Randy reports from his home studio to Lauren Szumita, curatorial assistant of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs, with updates on his personal practice during this time and sage advice about freeing the artist within.

LS: How has the coronavirus and its knock-on effects, such as quarantine and social distancing, impacted your practice?

RL: I have been thinking of the nature of trying to make art these days. In some ways making art seems small in relation to the situation with Coronavirus. Yet it also feels like a natural response. Mainly, coronavirus has made venturing afar difficult to draw and paint. But that appears to be becoming less restrictive. I hope to feel more at ease working on site in open areas and park settings, with safe distancing and mask wearing as needed. One does feel some psychological challenge in adjusting to the changed reality.

LS: What is your studio space like?

RL: My studio is a small but useful room. Though cluttered, I try to keep it organized: materials kept in specific stations, some good lighting (a window and adjustable lamplights), a drawing table, an easel, and another plank board table. I can’t work terribly large, but when I’m painting, I can push it up to a 30x40 inch canvas. Otherwise, I can go outside to work.

A view of Randy’s at-home studio.

LS: You exhibited at WAM from May through October 2019. How has your work changed, or not, since then?

RL: Since my exhibition at WAM last year, I have continued with the visual dialogue between nature and the man-made. I continue to make art in other media (drawing, painting, printmaking, collage) related to landscape, figure, and abstraction. 

I recently created some small clay ‘human head’ sculptures, handled in an almost primal manner by carving basic planes, simple scoring, and pushing and pinching the clay without too much agonizing. Because clay can be so malleable, in the past I would get so lost in altering form that I often found myself ending up with a frustrating lump of clay. I recently heard a sculptor mention that clay always wants to go to nature. 

Not knowing quite why I felt inclined to fashion these sculptures, I reflect on how primary and vulnerable these little faceted ‘jewels’ of human form appear and wonder in what place they reside. I placed them together, on simple bases and backdrops. Then I set them against some old, grainy black-and-white photographs of past industry, a subject that has endured for me. 

This low-tech, somewhat childlike, almost anachronistic setting seemed to fit with them. The scale makes the clay heads appear large, yet they are vulnerable. They reminded me of the sculptures on Easter Island, only here the settings are old industry. Sentinels that are slowly deteriorating, noble, clumsy, enduring.

Fracture Sentinel II: Lapointe Machine Tool showcases Randy’s explorations in clay.  

LS: You've mentioned that explorations in clay represent a new direction of your work. When is the last time clay make a significant appearance in your work? And what’s the value of working outside of your preferred medium?

RL: Two years ago, I taught a class at WAM called “Your Primal Landscape.” While students mainly worked in drawing and painting, the Museum had a wonderful exhibit of contemporary Japanese sculptors creating ‘archaic’ clay vessels [Archaic Avant-Garde: Contemporary Japanese Ceramics from the Horvitz Collection, on view October 27, 2018 – March 1, 2020]. I brought the class to view the basic primary forms and how the artists utilized the nature of clay to exhume expressive directions. The students responded strongly to it, so we had a class working with the primal aspects of clay. 

As I recently created the clay head sculptures, I kept the freshness of the medium in mind. In that spirit of seeking directness and simplicity I placed these human heads against the backdrop of some old photographs and graphics related to labor and factories. It’s low-tech and kind of a hoot.

Working Sentinel is an example of Randy’s intent to seek directness and simplicity
 in his art by placing the clay human heads against the backdrop of old photographs
 and graphics related to labor and factories. 

LS: Many people are using their free time in quarantine to explore creative pursuits. From those who have years of experience to those just looking to get started, do you have any advice on how to unlock your creativity at home?

RL: I think it’s vital to try to keep challenging your creativity, working in new mediums and with varied points of view. Reflecting on and celebrating the wonders of life, nature and our interactions are primary. Whether as a pastime, or as a consistent way of life, we can find solace and advantage through art. It’s part of being a more complete human. I think we have a chance to better recognize the basic impact art can have for us and our environment.

As an instructor and maker of art, I must remind myself as well as my students that you have to make art to make art. Don’t be afraid to put paint on canvas, make a mark on paper, or push a piece of clay around. We all need to play a bit, stay open, and let something happen. It could be that sudden feeling of being taken aback by a color you put down next to another color, or the way one shape relates to another. It can feel remarkable, heavenly, provocative. As the musician, Chet Baker, put it, “let’s get lost.”

Randy captures a lone figure clutching a lunch pail against a desolate cityscape in his Walking to Work oil painting.

This monotype, Changing Landscape: Shifting Planes, features horizontal landscape planes receding in space. 

All images courtesy of Randy LeSage.

August 18, 2020

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