Photographs happen in an instant and often without much thought or care. We photograph our club sandwich on multigrain and it’s filtered and shared with our Instagram followers in seconds. Artist Letha Wilson’s work may find its roots in photography, but her practice is nothing like your average Instagrammer’s or even your average professional photographer’s. Wilson seeks out her images, which are often stunning landscapes found while hiking. She prints these photographs herself, in a darkroom, and marries them with materials like concrete, wood and drywall. “I describe my work as landscape photography getting punched in the face,” she says.
Wilson’s art, an analogue approach to photography in a digital age, exemplifies patience. It’s a quality that bleeds into Wilson’s life – she applied for the prestigious Snowhegan art residency in Somerset County, Maine nine times before being accepted in 2009. The trajectory of her career is evidence that good things come to those who wait (and spend that time continuously honing their craft). This year, she’ll have works on view at the International Center of Photography in New York and, later, a joint show with Jason Middlebrook at Retrospective Gallery in Hudson.
At what point did you know you wished to pursue art professionally?
I decided in the 7th grade that I wanted to major in art in college and convinced my dad to let me do that by planning to major in graphic design. I changed my major to painting once I was in undergrad, however, it wasn’t until a few years after grad school that I had enough confidence to really take the risk of becoming a professional artist.
When or how do you know that a piece is finished and it’s time to step away?
Usually an individual piece has a pre-determined ‘finished’ state, yet after that it takes time to look at it and decide if it’s any good. Sometimes my first reaction to a new piece isn’t the best one and sometimes my expectations of what the piece should look like get in the way of what it actually is.
In what ways would you consider yourself a perfectionist in terms of your practice?
Some works call for more perfection than others. I am definitely a control freak and do have perfectionist tendencies. In a way my practice has evolved to work against those tendencies.
Is there a time of day that you feel most creative or inspired? Is there a time of year?
My brain works best in the morning, however this is not necessarily when I am the most creative or inspired. Inspiration seems to strike at odd times – when traveling to or from an errand, on a subway, a walk, at the store… in between places.
Are you deadline-oriented?
Often I don’t really have a choice, the deadlines are always there. Years ago I used to only make new work for deadlines, but now there is just a constant cycle or creation. The new work is always happening in some stage, deadline or not. And yet, a good deadline is a nice kick in the butt to get things finished!
What does your studio or work environment look or feel like?
It’s controlled chaos. I go from big mess to tidy-ish several times a week. My space is pretty small so I have to continuously move and clean and organize objects like a Tetris game.
Who is the first person you show your work to? Do you show people your work when it’s in process or do you wait until it’s finished?
Sometimes my artist friends – Kate Steciw, Carolyn Salas, Amy Feldman, Stacy Fisher, Rico Gatson, Jason Middlebrook. Maybe my sister or my boyfriend. I show them only when I’m excited about what I just made…
To what degree is your work pre-planned or considered and to what degree does it manifest itself as you’re working?
Individual pieces are pre-planned because I need to construct them and have an idea what they will become. Sometimes I make models for certain types of installations, and these models are tweaked until it’s right. Other pieces are studio works that are more process-based. I have an idea of what these will look like, but the end result always has an element of surprise. New ideas come out of these results.
What was the last great piece of advice you received in regards to your practice, and from whom?
It was a comment my friend Jen made to me in a studio visit years ago. She said I needed to make some bad art, and I knew what she meant. My work before then was too planned, too polished and figured out – there were no accidents or mistakes, and that’s what I needed. That advice really helped push me to change my practice and open things up.
How do you handle criticism?
It depends on where it’s coming from. Certain times I just counteract with my reasons why I do so and so, but the comment will tend to stick in the back of my mind. However, I have learned that I have to ultimately trust myself and my decisions in the studio, knowing everyone has their own opinions, which I cannot control.
Would you say that your art making is ritualistic – is there a standardized process you follow when producing work, or does it vary from piece to piece?
There is a certain process involved to some works, but I wouldn’t say it’s ritualistic, more just practical. And yet, I am always trying to change things up a bit, experiment and tweak. I try to be methodical on one hand but open to new ideas and aware of small cracks that I should follow.
If you ever feel creatively blocked, what do you do to overcome it?
Go on a trip, change scenery or take action. Moving or making things always opens things up. Go look at other people’s art.
In what ways, if any, do you alter your approach in response to context? This can refer the gallery a work is being shown in, the city or other cultural contexts.
Certain works I create are all about the context or even the specific physical site. Others are more modular and can be shown in a number of places. Context is also about the other artwork your work is shown with. I prefer showing my work alongside paintings and sculptures versus photographs. I think my work is in their language, but also benefits from the contrast to them.
In what ways has your practice has changed/evolved/improved in the time since you first started? Is it still changing?
Oh it’s changed a lot. I’ve gone from being in the studio 1 hour a day to being here 10 hours a day. Some things are the same – the way I need to make a frenzy then boil it down – but I have to balance a lot more things now that it’s my full time job. Tasks are often as much administrative or packing and shipping work as making it. Things that are part of my practice include going to the darkroom to print, traveling out West to hike and shoot, mixing and pouring concrete, and moving things around in the studio. My time spent at artist residencies has taught me a lot about my own practice and tendencies. It’s as much about learning how to work best with yourself in a way, and push yourself constantly as it is making room for inspiration, life and open spaces.
For more examples of time well spent visit Levi’s Made and Crafted