Preview: Gracyn Bird and Bodies of Memory

Over the next couple of months we will be featuring previews of artworks created by Dickinson College senior Studio Art majors.  The senior studio exhibition will open at The Trout Gallery on April 30th. 

Gracyn Bird, a Trout Interpretation Assistants who is also one of the talented Studio Art seniors, sat down with Emily Benson, another one of the Trout’s Interpretation Assistants for a virtual interview to talk about her senior Studio Art project. Gracyn was in her studio space, which is her home, specifically her kitchen and bedroom. As a result of the partially virtual semester, many Dickinson studio art students are working from home for at least the first part of the semester. For her project, Gracyn has been working on a series of oil paintings exploring the psychology of intimacy and hopes to complete ten by the time of the show opening. 

Emily: Gracyn, it is so good to be meeting with you virtually to talk about your art. I would like to start by asking how you go about starting a new painting? What is your process for creating a piece? 

Gracyn: Usually I start out in my sketchbook. I like to look through reference pictures I have saved for ideas—reference photos are an artist’s best friend! If I have a pose in mind that I can’t find a reference for, I might take a picture of myself so I can see exactly what I’m thinking. Once I have a rough plan, I’ll start painting. I build up a lot of layers with oil paint, starting with a really thin wash of color called a ground—this helps me pick colors that work well together more easily than working on a white canvas. Then I “sketch” out the figure on the canvas using paint and keep building up layers from there. It usually takes me about a week to finish a painting, but I’ll also be working on two or three at the same time, so I don’t get tired of one thing.  

Gracyn Bird, “Sketchbook,” Marker on paper, 2021.

Emily:  The Studio Art senior seminar is a full two-semester class, designed to give students the opportunity to fully develop a project.  How has your process evolved since the beginning of last semester? 

Gracyn: I started out thinking about self-portraits, since I knew I wanted to deal with the human figure. As time went by, I realized that what I wanted to focus on was one part of my identity—being a woman. This opened up a lot of ideas and I started working with the full body instead of just shoulders-up portraits as I had started out. Last semester, when I ran out of blank canvases I started painting on top of old paintings that I’d done years before. Sometimes, I could see the old paintings showing through what I had painted on top of them. This was kind of a happy accident because it led to some cool effects and got me thinking more about how memory can be physical as well as mental. With painting it can be literally shown through a layered paint  process. 

Gracyn Bird, “Two of Us” Oil on Canvas, 2021.

E:  Moving onto some of the more technical aspects of your work, I notice that you use a lot of pastel colors and emphasize light and shadow How do you decide your color palette and what process do you use to achieve these effects?  

Gracyn: At first, I was just using colors that I liked—I’ve always been drawn to soft pastels and I find them comforting. But as my work started taking on more complex and sometimes darker undertones, I liked the contrast that these light, pretty colors created in images that were strange and sometimes uncomfortable. Lisa Yuskavage is an artist whose work has influenced mine a lot—she uses color in a similar way to create a strong sense of space and atmosphere that kind of disguises or misleads the viewer in interpreting what’s really going on in the painting. I like to think my pieces take place in a kind of dream world, or in someone’s memory, where things aren’t quite restricted by reality and the space is ambiguous. The viewer can fill in the blanks about where a scene is taking place and its context. I like to use shadows and ghostly hands to suggest the presence of someone else, but they’re also not quite there. It’s like the figure is responding to them, but they only exist as a memory. When there are multiple hands in one piece, it’s like those memories are blurring together. It’s like you’re seeing these experiences through rose-colored lenses.   

Gracyn Bird, “for you,” Oil on Canvas, 2020.

E: Could you speak more about themes of vulnerability and memory in your work, maybe even how they appear in your process itself? 

Gracyn: I think all of the pieces I create are showing a vulnerable moment, whether that’s physical or emotional. The figures I paint are nude, but not necessarily in a sexual way. There are definitely sexual themes in some of the pieces, but I also want these works to be open to multiple interpretations. I realized that people suggest a lot of their emotions through their hands and eyes, and I think there’s a lot of vulnerability in the way the figures in my paintings are looking at something we can’t see, and in how those ghostly hands are touching them. I also like oil paint because unlike other mediums like acrylic or watercolor, the paint can be both opaque and transparent, depending on how you use it. I associate transparency with fading memories and opacity with something that’s concrete in the present, and a lot of the paintings have moments of both. I think there’s vulnerability in my process too, since the figures kind of look like me and there’s still some remnants of self-portraiture there, especially when I take references photos of myself.  

Gracyn Bird, “Carrion,” Oil on Canvas, 2020.

E: What do you see as the most prevalent themes in this body of work? 

Gracyn: I want to capture how women function in relationships—whether that’s a relationship with a partner, a friend, a family member, or even themselves. I think there’s a lot of ambiguity in relationships, especially in toxic relationships, where an interaction might not be completely positive or negative and can be interpreted in several different ways. You can read a single gesture as being comforting, or angry, or controlling, depending on your own experiences. I’m a really introspective person, so these paintings take place not during the actual events, but in the figures’ memories. I always think back to when artist Jillian Tamaki said in an interview with CBC that “women’s bodies are literally one of the most political things on the face of the earth.”1 So, when I started thinking about physical and emotional vulnerability, that inevitably led me to think about how I’m interacting with the canon of female nude portraiture. 

Gracyn Bird, “Deadwater,” Oil on Canvas, 2021.

E:  You still have some time before your show opens. Have you thought of titles for the works in your show?  Are you planning to start anything new before it opens? 

Gracyn: I have a really big canvas that I’m trying to work up the nerve to start on! Titles are tricky, but a few of my favorites are “Viole(n)t,” “bitter/sweet,” and “(w)hole heart.”  

Be sure to come see Gracyn’s and the other senior’s final exhibition at the virtual opening or in person on April 30th 

Visit Gracyn’s site HERE.


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