The following article was published in ‘Style of Wight’ magazine, April 2012.
Interview and words by Roz Whistance:
‘There’s a glorious dichotomy in Lisa Traxler’s work: hard and soft textures, small and large works. At the very end of the scale is a red thread, the gossamer tie which holds down the fleeting thoughts that, were they not tethered, would slip away forever.
At the opening of her recent exhibition at Quay Arts, Lives of Spaces, Lisa gave out badges with graphic ‘you are here’ blobs. “Everyone has to pinpoint where they are in life. The exhibition is an expression of where I am.” Where she is the blob on the badge. How she got there was described in the painting, sculpture and stitched paperwork in her exhibition.
You can’t help a sharp intake of breath when you see the large metal forms which Lisa calls her ‘exploded paintings’ – flowing, swooping shapes of hard metal made free by an idea. The solidity of is almost belied by its free flowing curves, and the colours, blacks, creams and strokes of red are, despite their industrial source, applied so tenderly they give the appearance of lace. It is an expression of huge joy.
“I think my friends will be relieved I finally staged the exhibition. I can change the chat!,” she grins. Branching out from two-dimensional abstracts, for which she is known, to sculpture in metal was, she says, a huge challenge, but one for which she wasn’t unprepared. “I’ve been painting for nearly a decade and before that I was a costume designer, then a fashioned editor, so for me to work in 3-D is not such an unusual step. I’m used to working around the body with clothes. I worked in that for 15 years, so it brings together all those elements.”
Bringing elements together is as much a part of the exhibition as the individual works themselves. There are stitched paper memories, using the sewing skills with which she started her career in fashion, and the bold gestures of her graphic art but this time on three-dimensional objects. And it all came together as a response to that most grounding of experiences, designing and building a home.
Throughout the three years of planning, architects meetings, choosing material – all the mechanical things that go into constructing a home – Lisa was responding to the things that she didn’t expect to – the play of light and shadow in the construction, the constant changes in the build and the changing constants of the landscape.
“I couldn’t help myself,” she says, with the warmest of smiles. “This is really my environmental autobiography – my emotional response to the house build. I just didn’t anticipate it being such an earth-shattering one.”
Lisa’s house build has been well documented, featured as it was on Kevin McCloud’s Grand Designs programme, but even she was taken aback by her reaction to that point in her life. “A project like that layers all sorts of points in your life, and I had to pinpoint where I was at the time.”
The move away from London, eight years ago, and the job she loved as fashion editor had been a huge jolt: she laughs when she said she thought her life was over when she left 19 Magazine, but it’s obvious how painful the adjustment to a new setting must have been after a job so loved. “I missed the magazine so desperately,” she says. And while building one’s own house could be seen as the most self-indulgent of activities, there was another side of the planning and designing which needed its own outlet.
So the exhibition takes you from explosive curves to the abstract paintings, and also to a draped sail of photographic images, machine-stitched with a red thread. The thread remains on its reel and is part of the exhibit, something which could be overlooked at first but once noticed is a stunning visual metaphor.
“I walk every day among the ancient woodland around my house, and I take my camera out. It’s my way of unravelling, to present what’s inside in an outward appearance. These are thought processes and the memories and the responses – but they are tethered to the ground before they disappear from your thought process.”
Getting out the sewing machine to hold down your thoughts is a wonderful amalgam of ethereal artistry and practical craft. “Stitching the paper can be quite meditative,” she says as she recalls the order with which she placed the photographs. “They repeat, as memories do as they come back to you – but sometimes they turn and become a different thought but with the same connotations.”
The resulting dreamscape drape, almost a still from a black and white movie of her life, might seem to be a completely separate project from the strong and bold sculptures, but actually they are very much part of the same project: “These [the dreams] are the ethereal bits that can leave you, and these [sculptures] are the grounding bits. I was working in the studio, painting stitching the paper work, and started playing with sheets of painted paper. I cut into them and created tiny threedimensional maquettes, and they helped me make sense of the 3-D project we’ve been working on that was the house. It was to do with the volume of the shadow and light and the spaces in between, and the emotional points of it.”
For the house build Lisa had clad part of one wall with a multi-layered metal panel, and had yearned to use the material again. The happy coincidence of finding a sponsor, and the willingness of metal workers A J Wells & Son to step into completely new territory, enabled her to make the sculptures from these little paper models. “I had to match-fund the money from the sponsor, so it was a project you had to have pure belief in. If you lose that belief you wonder what you’re doing, and I had plenty of those moments. But my partner, Linc [Lincoln Miles] is really cool and supportive, and you need that around you when you’re stepping through the fear.”
The practical matter of up-scaling from paper maquette to 4ft model needed its own dose of courage. To reproduce the sweeping brushstrokes, so effortlessly marked on small bits of paper, she had to tie several masonry brushes together. And it took many deep intakes of breath before that sweeping, carefree gesture, effortless on the maquette, was made.
The unlooked-for side of her collaboration with AJ Wells was the companionship of teamwork, a harking back to her magazine days. “It can be quite solitary being an artist in your studio, and it was a brilliant thing working with this team of people. I just really enjoyed the collaboration, having to respond, making big decisions, not working on a small scale. And it was incredible bravery on the part of AJ Wells. They could have said no, it’s not our thing. But they didn’t.”
As Lisa’s red thread suggests, there are always consequences which lead on to the next stitch. Being on Grand Designs led to new commissions: and for his Grand Designs Exhibition in London this month, presenter Kevin McCloud chose his 20 favourite projects out of the 100 he has featured over the years, and, yes, Lisa Traxler’s house is among that tiny handful. “I thought it would be cool to feature my sculptures, given that they were a response to the house build, and they’ve agreed!” she says.’