October 28, 2014
Plymouth Church hosts the work of artist and Plymouth member Tracy Simpson during November in conjunction with church-wide theme “Gifts of Ministry.” Simpson will exhibit her monoprints in a body of work she entitles “give us this day.” Please join us for an artist’s reception, 4 to 6 pm, First Thursday, Nov. 6, in Hildebrand Hall. Refreshments provided. -Janice Randal
JR: Tracy, thank you for sharing your work with the Plymouth congregation and our downtown community during November. The church-wide theme is “Gifts of Ministry.” How do you visualize this body of work in the context of this theme?
TS: There are probably as many different ways to interpret the theme “Gifts of Ministry” as there are people to ponder it, so I will focus on how the phrase speaks to me at this point in time and do my best to connect it with the art I am sharing. For me, there are three central gifts of ministry, the first of which is represented by the part of the UCC statement of faith Brigitta shares with us through her benediction that goes something like “may we be saved from aimlessness and sin.” It is an inspirational touchstone that I return to over and over again. That we all need to be reminded of something so seemingly basic at least once a week is comforting to me in that I’m clearly not alone. How easy it is to stray in deed, word and thought. How easy it is to go through my days with no sense of purpose, just ticking off tasks as though that is what life is about. The reminder each week to come back to what matters is a gift.
The second gift of ministry is the time of confession, which functions to support the intention of being saved from aimlessness and sin. It’s a quiet time to take stock. What choices have I made that aren’t moving my life in a direction that truly matters? I used to bristle at the idea that we need to confess failing in seemingly minor ways that most of us fail each other and ourselves every day. It’s hard to fix what we don’t realize is broken and what we won’t admit is broken. Naming those broken parts and actions is a step toward living into that aspiration of being without aimlessness and sin, at least for the next five minutes.
The final gift of ministry is the assurance of grace, that blessing that insists we are loved and cherished and kept by something larger than ourselves, no matter what. For me, it is important this blessing is offered in community because that is how I think about being held by something larger than myself. God may be out there or in here somewhere, somehow, but for me the manifestations of the gifts of ministry, including the assurance of grace and forgiveness, are in my day-to-day life encounters with other people and the world around me.
These gifts of ministry that occur for me through connections with the world, and especially with other human beings in it, inform the art I feel compelled to make. Obviously this is a broad and not very specific statement that needs unpacking. The framework I typically use for my art is an abstracted month-long calendar, each day represented geometrically by a square or rectangle usually comprised of up to a dozen smaller squares or rectangles, each of which stands in for individual hours or moments. These calendar grids are important because things happen to people and places in time, they happen on the third Tuesday of October or the first Friday of August or maybe the last Sunday of July. Things like births and deaths and the collapse of factories. Things we are proud of and things we wish with all our hearts we could undo and things we still can’t quite believe happened. At its most fundamental level, my art ties in with the theme “gifts of ministry." It allows me to symbolically represent things that have happened to me and to others that tug at me, things I feel called to find a way to celebrate or mourn. Representing specific events in a calendar grid, I remind myself there were days before the event and there will be or have been days since the event. I remind myself that no matter what, we are held in a love much larger than our individual selves and that we will almost certainly be given another day to try again to live into that love better.
JR: Are all the pieces monotypes? Please explain your artistic process.
All the pieces in this show are monotypes, meaning they are unique pieces of art and not part of a series of identical prints. In the printmaking world, most printmakers use methods that allow them to make anywhere from 2 to 100+ nearly identical versions of an image. Some printmakers, however, use printmaking techniques to create individual, unique pieces. I make these prints with humble materials at the dining room table; acrylic paint, russet potatoes and paper. The manual off-set printing technique I use (really, potato printing) involves applying paint to the smooth surface of a piece of potato, stamping this directly onto paper or first onto a small section of embroidered fabric and then pressing the potato onto paper -- an ephemeral stamp. Embroidery on the fabric differentially pulls paint from the face of the potato so the image or texture is held in wet paint before transferred to paper. If you look closely, you can see ghost images of embroidered fabric threads on the paper.
JR: Why monotypes over other mediums?
TS: Really the questions are why the grids, why embroidered fabrics and why potato printing? The simplest, most honest answer is that although I often feel compelled to “say” things with my art, I am not gifted with the talent to draw; therefore, I need to come at whatever it is I want to say symbolically without direct reference to recognizable objects. First, the calendar grid enables me to represent an event or events in a literal time context with a before, during and after component built in. The grid also provides a physical structure that helps guide placement of each small print that goes into the whole. Otherwise, I’d be prone to muddled chaos. Though it is important to note that the grid does not function like a “paint by number kit.” There is plenty of room for choice and serendipity. Second, by using embroidered fabric and the particular printing techniques I have developed through trial and error, I can convey a delicate flower or a perfectly scribed circle without needing to render them myself, which frees me up to play with color and shape, layering and juxtaposition to express something about an event and the context surrounding it. Finally, although I probably could use other printmaking tools such as lino or wood to transfer images to paper, using potatoes essentially as stamps gives me a great deal of latitude since an individual square or rectangle of potato can be used dozens of times with different colors of paint and different types of embroidered fabric. Each time the paint is transferred from potato to paper, the face of the potato becomes an almost blank slate that can be used to set down another color and image. Stepping back from the particulars of my techniques, the other wonderful thing about printmaking is that it is indirect – there is no way to completely control how the image from the plate (or the potato or woodblock, etc.) will transfer to the paper and subtle variations and imperfections invariably come through. This is how things seem to go; most of our actions end up coming through at least slightly differently than we intend, sometimes worse than we hoped and sometimes better than we dreamed.
JR: Where do you find inspiration for your work?
TS: About 20 years ago, Laura and I waited too long to buy our 1994 calendar and all that was left in January had silly pictures of kittens and puppies. So I decided to make one. I made a relatively crude calendar using potatoes and acrylic paint; a somewhat more sophisticated potato print than I’d managed as a child, just barely. The act of making that calendar was incredibly satisfying and I have persisted month after month. Over time, I found that creating these increasingly abstracted calendars has become a way for me to make peace with the passage of time and events that color it.
The ten pieces included in “Give us this Day” are calendars I made over the past few years.
Some record heavy and sad events, like “Made for Bangladesh” and “Verdict,” which are about the Bangladeshi factory collapse that occurred in April, 2013 and the Zimmerman verdict that occurred in July 2013, respectively. “Slurry Wall” was made in 2013 to commemorate 9/11 and to bring attention to the vast underground wall surrounding the World Trade Center site that managed to hold the sea water back, preventing a far worse disaster. There is also a piece marking holy days, Good Friday and Easter (“Resurrection”) and a piece that symbolizes the International Day of Forgiveness, which attempts to convey how most of us need to look beyond a single day to achieve a lasting sense of forgiveness. Anything that moves me is fair game to incorporate into a print.
JR: What do you hope people will come away with after viewing your art?
TS: It is actually really hard to say what I hope people will come away with after seeing my art. I have so little control over how other people perceive what I do, whether it moves them in some way or leaves them cold. So I generally try not to worry very much about what others will think or how they will feel when they see my work. That said, if I’m being honest, it really is wonderful when someone enjoys the precision of the grid or has a sense that the balance of the shapes in the composition is spot on or that the colors and details of the embroidered ghosts are pleasing. Those are all aspects of my art that I work at and feel good about when they come together and it seems like a piece “works” from a distance and close up, in bright light and near darkness. It is also wonderful if at a deeper level someone understands that I am trying to find ways to represent what feels tender and needs to be remembered, and I’m putting it in a framework that helps keep it close and alive yet not overwhelming. Those tender parts are usually not very obvious since they are not telegraphed with clear representational images; like how few of us go through our days with our tender feelings or memories readily available or obvious to each other and how when we move in close with one another, we can usually see or sense something that needs caring and love. I hope my art can sometimes remind people that there’s always a great deal of depth and dimensionality below the surface and that when we look carefully or are invited in, we will almost always feel a sense of communion with what previously felt like “other.”