OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Becca Lowry

Bows and Arrows
Mixed media wood carving
36" x 30.5" x 3.5"

BECCA LOWRY's "carved warrior shields" are a harmonious orchestration of color, texture and pattern. She carves away at planks of plywood with power tools, but the elegance of her final forms belie the lumber yard origins of her materials. Her  exhibitions include shows at David Findlay Jr. Gallery (New York, NY),Jeffrey Leder Gallery (Long Island City, NY), Galarie Zürcher (New York, NY), as well as repeated shows at Fred Giampietro Gallery (New Haven, CT), where she is represented. Her work is currently on view until August 23, 2015 in Summerset, a group show at David Findlay Jr Gallery in New York. Becca lives and works in Mount Rainier, Maryland.

OtherPeoplesPixels: Tell us a bit about your history with wood-working. Has this always been your predominant medium?

Becca Lowry: Wood was ever-present in my childhood. My father is a builder and, loathe to throw anything away, has always kept a vibrant scrap wood pile in the side yard. So I am quite sure that I have made art with wood for as long as I have made art. As an adult, I used plywood as a surface to paint on, in part because scrap wood was free and abundant, but also because I didn’t like the hollow feel of painting on canvas. 

I painted on wood for many years before it occurred to me to treat the wood as a medium in its own right, to try to carve it. I started timidly by incorporating very low relief carving, texture really, into the surface of my paintings. But as I continued to experiment, the carving became more aggressive and deeper relief until eventually the balance between painting and carving flipped. 

Although I grew up around wood and woodcarving tools, much of the technique I am using in my work now is quite new to me. Playing around with scrap wood as a child does not a sculptor make—nor a carpenter for that matter. What I’m doing now is much more akin to wood-carving than it is to wood construction, though there are still built aspects to my process. I’ve done a lot of experimentation over the past years, starting with tools and materials that I am most comfortable with and gradually incorporating input from the woodworking and fine art worlds.

Mixed media wood carving, upholstery fabric, wire
33.5" x 14.5" x 2.25"

OPP: What tools do you use? How do they define and expand the limits of what you can do?

BL: My primary tools for woodcarving are a jig saw and an angle grinder, which I use mostly with masonry grinding disks. I use a skill saw occasionally for very severe, straight cuts. For more detailed carving, I use a die grinder and a flex-shaft tool with various wood carving bits. I also have a handful of chisels and other hand-carving tools, but the bulk of the carving is done with power tools.

I have a long wish list, of course, but I like to add new tools slowly. Too many new variables all at once can be overwhelming. Each time I add a new tool, my work changes a bit as a result of the functionality of the new tool and the new kinds of cuts I can make. I open myself up incrementally, so as not to get overwhelmed with too many choices.

Red Right Return
Wood carving, oil, latex, spray paint
33”h x 30.5”w x 1.5”d

OPP: What role do addition and subtraction play in your process? At what stage does color enter the development of a piece? Is it purely additive, or does it ever get stripped away?

BL: Perhaps because I was initially just painting on plywood, I have developed a process of “sculpting” that is in some ways more additive than it is subtractive. At first I was carving low relief texture into one sheet of plywood and then, as I broke through the surface, adding another layer on the back of the first, and so on. Eventually I shifted to a thicker stock of plywood, but I still use the same process, more or less, of beginning the carving in one piece of wood and, as the piece starts to take shape, adding additional layers onto the front and the back. So the piece, overall, gets thicker as I go, not thinner, though I am of course carving away wood as I go.  

Color usually comes in after the shape is more or less solidified. There’s still some refining to the shape that happens after I start adding color, but I try to get the rough form sorted out before a lot of color comes into the picture. And then there’s an iterative process of carving and painting and patterning that happens until the piece is “done.”&

All of this
Crayon rubbing of original wood carving, oil on rice paper
24" x 36"

OPP: You also make crayon and pastel rubbings on paper of your sculptures. When did you first do this and why? Was it a practical or a conceptual decision?

BL: People had been telling me that my earlier low-relief carvings looked like the block of wood-block prints, and some suggested trying to take prints off of them. I did try but with little satisfaction. Upon the suggestion of an artist friend, I tried rubbings instead and found it to be quite magical. 

I started doing these rubbings as a compliment to the carvings and a means of having more time to play with texture and pattern. It allows me to select out elements from a carving and reuse those elements in new ways. And the paper pieces are physically less demanding, so when I feel I need a break from the carving, which admittedly is not that often, I can spend some time with paper. Increasingly these paper pieces lead me to new compositions that I’m interested to try out in wood. So the paper pieces may start to be part of a feedback loop of experimentation, where carving informs paper informs carving and so on.

RIP 06
Wood carving, oil, latex, spray paint, steel
39"h x 30"w x 2.5"d

OPP: For me, your work reads more as having a ceremonial/spiritual function, rather than a purely aesthetic one. The tangibility of the three-dimensional texture adds to this sense. Each piece beckons to be touched and used, not simply looked at. The material and the process carry references to totem poles and carved altars, and occasionally the titles—i.e. RIP 06 and Family Crest—hint at memorial functions. Admittedly, this is my particular lens. . . I'm very interested in the spiritual and emotional functions of art. What are your thoughts?

BL: This is really nice to hear. I always enjoy when someone comes away feeling that she wants to hold on to one of these pieces or that the work resonates on some level other than aesthetic. In my head, I’m making modern interpretations of carved warrior shields like you would find in innumerable forms across time and cultures, from Oceania to Europe. Besides the most obvious, G.I. Joe symbolism, there’s a ton of room to play with the concept of a shield.

I love that shields operate on both a symbolic and a functional level. For centuries they have not only served as a physical barrier between self and other, but their surfaces have been carved and painted with symbols and images meant to intimidate foes and flaunt the prowess of their bearers. And I love, too, that so much of this flaunting is a sham, that what we think of as bravery is merely fear masquerading. I am both fascinated and confused by what I see as a very fine and shifting line between vulnerability and strength, by the strange truth that often the bravest thing we can do as humans is to expose the most tender aspects of ourselves. These shields I am making try to speak to that, to the relationship between the soft and hard parts of the human experience.

Sometimes I am aware of making a shield for a particular person or being, as in the case of the piece you mentioned, RIP 06, which was made in honor of a legendary female grey wolf. But most often I have no idea what particular function the shield will serve or for whom. For me, this is what feels most spiritual about my work: that by some strange alchemy, in the pretend world of my studio, I am forging from wood some very vital protection for some very vulnerable soul somewhere out there in the world.

To see more of Becca's work, please visit beccalowry.com.

Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based, interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the relationship between repetition, desire and impermanence in cross-stitch embroideries, remix video, collage and impermanent installations. She is an instructor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and was a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Her solo exhibitions include I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (2013) at Klemm Gallery, Siena Heights University (Adrian, Michigan), Everything You Need is Already Here (2014) at Heaven Gallery (Chicago) and When Things Fall Apart, a durational, collage installation in the Annex Gallery at Lillstreet Art Center (Chicago). Stacia recently completed an installation for Chicago Artists' Coalition's 2015 Starving Artist Benefit and is currently working towards a two-person show, also featuring the work of Aimée Beaubien, for O’Connor Art Gallery at Dominican University (River Forest, IL). The show will open on November 5, 2015.