Capturing the Intangible

Lisa Walcott, MFA | Assistant Professor of Art

Lisa Walcott can’t recall just what the item was. A blouse, perhaps? But she can picture the open drawer and the garment tossed across it. She was struck by the fabric’s fluidity — how much, draped there, it looked like liquid. But why would water trickle down the front of a bureau drawer?

Why, indeed? During Walcott’s 2020 solo exhibition at The Sculpture Gallery in Cleveland, that question must have come to people’s minds as they first glimpsed the central piece, “Sink In” (2020), whose gallery signage noted that the artist’s materials were dresser, epoxy, polyurea, silicon, pump, tubing, water.

“The past 10 years or so I’ve been chasing this potential of capturing the intangible: transitional spaces, moments that pass, a mood or a feeling,” Walcott says. “I know that I’m not going to be able to capture it, but I think the attempt gives me some really interesting results.”

She prefers for her work to “ask questions rather than make really grand statements.” It is quiet. Gentle. Neutrally organic in color. And a bit off kilter, because floor lamps seldom take the form of an inverted U (“Doubled Over,” 2017), or weep into a bucket (“Over and Done,” 2020), and it’s curious for folded bedding (“Kept,” 2014) to seem to breathe.

In Walcott’s 2010 gallery installation “No Vacancy” at Detroit’s Museum of Contemporary Art, bubbles emerged tranquilly through knotholes of a raised platform’s weathered wood. Smoke rose from a cigarette that seemed to have been left there moments before. By whom, and where’d the person go, and as they left, did they pull that hanging string that was twitching slightly in the air?

“I don’t usually include the body in my work, but I’m interested in the feeling of presence,” Walcott comments.

“The pull string is the hand that’s not there; it’s indicating that maybe someone just pulled this and walked away. It has that wiggle, like something’s just been here. Same with the cigarette: I was almost thinking of things from a crime scene. It indicates that someone’s just been there. The bubbles allude to possibility below the floorboards, memories of things left behind, places you can’t see . . . but there’s something happening there.”

Walcott joined Hope’s art faculty full-time in 2018 after three years as a studio technician and lecturer in the department. She draws, and her Cleveland show included watercolors, but she’s primarily a sculptor. More and more, she leans into kinetic work and installations.

Installation art is typically site-specific — conceived for the space it will occupy — and designed to influence viewers’ emotional response to the space as well as to the art within it. Walcott’s installations take various forms. “There are the really gestural, immersive ones,” she says, “but I do a lot of subtle installations as well. I want to create an experience — the sort of thing that asks the viewer to pay attention, and potentially implies beyond what’s actually there. Sculpture can do that, but there’s something about the movement and the interaction of the viewer that I’m really interested in.”

By gestural, she’s speaking of art that hints at a mood or sensation, just as a person’s physical gesture can. “If I wave to you, or if I stick something on the wall with a pin, or if I bend over because I have pain in my stomach, these gestures indicate something beyond the action,” she explains. “I really like when things can be two things at once alluding to the complication of categorizing things; the moments in between are, I think, many things at once. When it can be uncanny and beautiful, I’m really interested.”

Case in point: A curtain seems to ripple in a gentle breeze, but there is no breeze — and in some galleries, no window, for that matter. For this 2014 piece (“Thin Air”) inspired by the motion of a curtain in a TV commercial — That gesture’s really good; I’ve got to play with it, she remembers thinking — she made a wood-and-cord mechanism to manipulate the cloth. The mechanism is a visible, integral element, one that viewers can inspect closely if they walk behind the object, and it’s Walcott’s favorite part of this piece. “I thought about doing it with real wind, but I thought a marionette or mechanized wind was more interesting.”

Walcott’s preparation for her Cleveland show, which opened in January 2020, began in early 2019. Visiting the gallery was step one. Then came brainstorming: an idea, a theme, which existing pieces to include and what new things to make. She considered titling the show “Positions of Utility,” because the way she arranges her work in space often mirrors everyday life: something leaned against a wall, or on a ledge. “To me, the positions I find my objects in can become very sculptural,” she says. “The way things stack up, and you push something in the corner so that you can walk through, makes a composition within space.”

But instead, she made water the metaphorically rich unifying thread. She included three works with literal water elements, and other pieces that intimate it. “I was trying to unpack a lot. Water is definitely spiritual, the baptizing and the cleansing; hygiene and physical washing away, as well; the ability to hydrate, and give life; the way it can deteriorate and wreck.”

It’s a bear to work with, though. “Water is not forgiving,” she says ruefully. “Sink In” required lots of troubleshooting; she’d think she’d found a way to make the drawers watertight, and then there’d be another leak. “That would ruin the piece, and that would ruin the gallery, so I had to problem solve that all the way to December.” Ultimately, Walcott had a body shop spray the inside of the drawers with the plastic coating used on the beds of pick-up trucks, which turned the drawers, as she puts it, into buckets.

All artists problem-solve, but kinetic sculpture can demand an extra helping. Walcott finds that adds a dimension to her work with Hope students.

“I’m a self-taught machine maker, so I’ve gotten very frustrated in the process of making these machines — How do I attach these things? I know what I want it to do, but how do I get there? So I think I can relate to students when they are scared to use a tool, when they are needing to learn a new process. I have gone through it to a point where I can say, ‘Okay, it’s going to be okay. Let’s think this through.’ I can be empathetic to the frustrations of creative problem-solving. I also don’t use traditional materials, although I teach traditional materials — and it’s been really fun to open up what students think sculpture might be by showing them assemblage and motors and ephemeral materials and just how that can speak to life. I am going to be grandiose for a minute: Life is fleeting. Life moves on. When your sculpture does that, too, it can be really powerful.”

New pandemic-related pieces by Lisa Walcott will be exhibited at the Saugatuck (MI) Center for the Arts from February 12 through April 2. Her next gallery show is scheduled for June 11 to July 16 at the Brandt Gallery of the McLean County Arts Center in Bloomington, Illinois. (It’s a two-person exhibition with artist Susan Emmerson.) To view more photos and videos of Walcott’s work, visit her personal website.

Ann Sierks Smith

Author: Ann Sierks Smith

Ann Sierks Smith writes and edits for artists, publishers, colleges and other freelance clients.

Photography: Jon Lundstrom