It’s a situation that will ring true for many of the artists who make their living as arts professionals: “I spend a lot of time helping other artists show their work and have opportunities, and I love my job,” says Lydia Gravis, director of Weber State University’s Mary Elizabeth Dee Shaw Gallery. “But sometimes people forget, and I forget: I’m an artist.” With the help of Kelly Carper, in Ogden, and John Sproul, in Salt Lake City, Gravis is reminding us, and herself, of that fact with two exhibitions opening December 6.
“Lydia’s work feels like pure abstraction to me, in that it’s abstract form inspired by abstract thought,” says Carper, who curates pop-up exhibits in the Ogden area, including a regular series of shows at The Argo House. “Rather than deconstruct a familiar image or particular idea like many abstract painters do, she’s creating a visual reference for intangible feelings and felt experience. In this way, her work can be more challenging for the viewer to dissect, which I think makes it more intriguing and exciting.”
Sproul, who runs Nox Contemporary in Salt Lake City, first saw one of Gravis’ drawings at the Utah Museum of Art’s yearly benefit auction this summer. “I was drawn to it by instinct and by the strength of the work,” he says, adding that, contrary to his normal practice, he even traveled to Ogden to see more of the work. “I find her work to be profound, and it moves me in a primal way with an archetypal resonance that I long to see and need to see in the art being made now, but that is often lacking. The work reflects a courage to open up and put herself in the work and from that willingness comes deep beauty and an otherness of being that I am looking for in the artists I wish to exhibit at Nox.”
Gravis’ work was included in Artists of Utah’s last 35×35 exhibition in 2016, was part of a four-person show at the Alice in 2014 and has appeared in a few juried and group shows in Utah over the past decade; but Touching the Void, at Argo House, and Tracing the Untraceable, at Nox, will be the first opportunity for most in Utah’s art community to look at the depth and breadth of her work. Though she has lived and worked in Utah since 2004, her work remains relatively unknown here: her responsibilities at the Shaw Gallery have certainly kept her busy; so have her two children, ages 3 and 5.
Born and raised in Spokane, Washington, Gravis was a competitive athlete in high school — basketball, volleyball, shot put — before the constant wear and tear on her body cut her athletic future short. ”I’ve needed a knee replacement since age 19,” she says. “To be young but to have a physical condition more relatable to a 75-year old was kind of an isolating experience.”
She moved to Alaska when she was 18, working summers in a fishing lodge. “I fell in love with the place — the vastness of it,” she says. She attended a small liberal arts college, where she met her husband, before transferring to Warren Wilson College in Asheville, North Carolina. “I didn’t take art seriously until athletics went away,” she says of discovering the joy of painting halfway through college. She graduated with a B.A. in Painting and a B.A. in Human Studies — “a combination of psychology and sociology — basically a social work degree.”
After graduation, Gravis and her husband came to Utah for a summer. “We were broke. Directionless. Trying to get back West.” She found a job working with kids in the juvenile offender system. That lasted three years before the strain became too much: “It was sucking so much of my creative energy, I didn’t have anything left for art.” As many young artists do, she patched together a living — with standard jobs, like waiting tables, as well as the less standard: “Have you ever tried to take pictures of 500 kindergartners in an hour and a half?” she asks with a wry smile.
Within a year, she was saved by a job at Weber State’s outreach program. She took advantage of the stability that position brought to enroll in a low-residency MFA at the Art Institute of Boston at Lesley University. “That was life changing. I don’t think my work would be what it is if I hadn’t been pushed to investigate it the way I was.” It was during this time she discovered her medium. Her previous work had been in oils — abstract pieces that explored the energy of a place — but skin problems forced her to drop the medium; and acrylics wouldn’t do what she wanted. She had avoided graphite, associating it with representational work, but with the encouragement of a professor, she discovered its capacity for layering and creating a sense of mystery.
With soft washes and hard lines, she creates an atmosphere of receding space, mostly in shades of gray, milky clouds alternating with cellular structures and tangled lines. There is something both macro and micro about her work, suggesting the vast expanses of the universe as well as the world seen under a microscope. But the world Gravis is exploring is emotional rather than physical.
“I think a drawing of the world doesn’t have to look like the world,” she says of her approach. “It’s my desire to respond to the complexities of the world that can oftentimes be profoundly … sad, emotional … things like grief and loss … How do you watch your friend’s child die? Making work is an act of empathy, but also an act of sanity. It’s about making sense of it all but really my inability to make sense of any of it. It’s a way to feel empowered when you have no power over the things you’re watching.”
Specific events may inspire her explorations on paper. She cites the October, 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas as an example. “What do you do with that?” she asks rhetorically. “How do you hold that without going crazy?” In response, she started a drawing thinking she was going to make 58 marks to memorialize each person that was murdered at the concert. “But that was too formulaic, so I let that idea sit in my head and just started drawing. The wonder of making took over the wonder of how to comprehend the insanity of the event and then the drawing took on a life of its own.”
Wonder is a word that comes up often when she discusses her work. “Sometimes it’s the wonder of how someone feels in a tragic event, the not knowing, that psychological liminal space — not understanding but feeling; sub-comprehension; the inability to grasp. But it can also be the wonder at the complexities of life and the world, about the awe-inspiring experience of existing in the world … And sometimes it’s just the wonder about the navigation of my daily life.”
That navigation includes the full-time job at the Shaw Gallery, which she began after finishing her M.F.A. “I’m not an art historian. I didn’t go to school for curatorial studies. I’m very much a maker. At first I was very self conscious that that would be seen as a liability, but I’ve really come to believe it’s an asset.” She’s learned to identify her own unique skill set, to embrace it, and to find others to fill in the gaps. “It’s very much a project management position,” she says. “Patching walls, writing grant applications, helping a student with a video setup: I’m preparator, curator, director, janitor.”
The gallery stages four to five exhibitions a year. Most come from within the university — faculty shows, BFA exhibitions, juried student work — but at least one a year is a curated group or solo show. “The best part of my job is working with artists from all over the world,” she says. Those have included Japanese artist Yasuaki Onishi, British-Spanish artist Isabel Rocamora and Lydia Okumura, from Brazil.
She’s gratified to see the response these shows elicit, good or bad. One of the most memorable exhibits was Elizabeth Higgins O’Connor’s absurd animal figures made from discarded materials. “It was a pretty crazy show. Not everyone got it or appreciated it, but everyone is still talking about it,” she says. She was gratified when during the run of Fahamu Pecou’s exhibit, a patron came in to personally thank her for highlighting the work of an African American artist. She’s also learned to take the negative responses in stride (especially the anonymous ones left in the gallery guest book). “[WSU art professor] Matthew Choberka and I curated a show about painting, and someone wrote in the guest book, “How many curators does it take to put together another bad painting show?’” She recounts the anecdote with a healthy laugh. She seems open, embracing, not easily offended or deterred.
“The job of an academic gallery is always this teetering between accessibility and discomfort,” she says of the Shaw’s role. “You need to remain accessible, but you need to address contemporary issues that may be uncomfortable.” She’s proud of the work they’ve done. “I feel like the shows we’re doing could take place in any large metropolitan area. We’re holding our own.”
She thinks her work as a curator and gallery director has — for the most part — made her easier to work with as an artist. Knowing what it’s like to be on the receiving end, she is more professional and conscientious about how she prepares her work, the materials she provides to a venue. At the same time, she can sometimes forget herself, trying to do the curator’s job for them, and confesses to having to write a letter of apology once for overstepping her bounds.
Her more than five-year stint at the Shaw Gallery has coincided with the decision to begin her family, a stage she entered with a sense of trepidation. “I remember this intense fear as a female artist about to have a child,” she says. “You get pissed off at feminism, you get pissed off at Title IX — like you’ve been fed this line that you can do it all and do it all perfectly — and then it falls apart.” It has been difficult, but she’s learning to grapple with the time demands of infants, and toddlers who want to collaborate on her pieces. “Sometimes you’re so self-absorbed as an artist in the studio, making work … it’s almost refreshing to get outside yourself and do the parent thing for a while.”
Last year, she embraced her return to an active career as an artist with an exhibition at Northern Arizona State University that featured 60 pieces. “It kind of almost killed me,” she says of making new work and preparing old work for the show. Getting back into the studio (or in Gravis’ case, the dining room table, late at night when the children are asleep) is not always easy. But she’s been intrigued by the results. “When I began making this new work I discovered it was very much different from the last time I had really made work.”
“There’s almost a sense of urgency when making the work now,” she says. “I don’t have the luxury of time I had before, in long stretches in the studio. The process is different and my vocabulary is different. It’s evolved. … I remember the first time I made a drawing after my return. It was a drawing I had started before I had my kids. The bottom layer was more meditative, the new one more chaotic, more urgent. When the drawing was finished, I felt it was successful, but I really had to work harder to earn it, be more intentional with the way I work.”
The exhibition at Nox Contemporary offers an opportunity to see the evolution of her vocabulary, with work created over a seven-year span. The Argo House exhibit will focus on new work, revealing an expansion of her media, including India ink, oil pastel and paper collage.
The recent past has also seen Gravis’ return to sports. After eight knee surgeries, she started mountain biking in 2015. She has relished the opportunity to get a high-intensity cardio workout; but the sport is also risky and she admits to falling more than once. “You get better about trusting yourself, and taking risks,” she says about the sport she’s eager to share with her children. “And it definitely helped my confidence in general.”
It’s a confidence that has allowed her to stage two simultaneous exhibitions of intensely emotional work — “I think showing work is a vulnerable act in and of itself,” she remarks — and to embrace her role as an artist. “It easy when you’re an arts professional to forget. You have to remind yourself: ‘Before I was a curator, before I was a mother, before I was a spouse, I was an artist.’“
Lydia Gravis: Tracing the Untraceable, Nox Contemporary, Salt Lake City, Dec. 6, 2019 – Feb. 8, 2020.
Lydia Gravis: Touching the Void, presented by Carper Contemporary at The Argo House, Ogden, Dec. 6, 2019 – Feb. 29, 2020.
The founder of Artists of Utah and editor of its online magazine, 15 Bytes, Shawn Rossiter has undergraduate degrees in English, French and Italian Literature and studied Comparative Literature in graduate school before pursuing a career in art.