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Cultivate Featured Artist: Elaine Luther


The Cultivate Exhibitions Team is excited to share the work of Elaine Luther. Elaine is a conceptual artist whose wide scope of material collage explores topics ranging from mortality to motherhood. Her focus recently has been textile, but she has extensive experience in a mixture of mediums and materials.


Elaine shares her work and process in our interview. You can also discover more about Cultivate's Featured Artist Series below Elaine's interview.


Learn more about Elaine on her:

Youtube @ElaineLutherArt


Briefly describe your work or share your artist statement

I'm an artist who works with objects with the stories still in them and the patinas still one them. I work in textile collage, and assemblage, and I make prints with light reactive dye. To describe it as it appears - right now I'm taking vintage handkerchiefs and making prints, or photograms, on them, with blue dye. It's a light reactive dye. The result looks a lot like a cyanotype print, but it's a different product. I'm printing vintage doilies on to the handkerchiefs, and this is a symbol of women's invisible labor, which is often unseen and unappreciated.

In recent shows, we've pinned these works directly to the gallery walls with T-pins. I work a lot with found handwork left behind by other women. I don't un-do their work, I only add to it. I use a lot of quilt blocks in addition to the doilies and hand embroidered items.

Labor and care work have long been a part of my art, and more recently it's become one of the main topics. A project that's related to that is the Clocking in for Unpaid Labor, a public participation art project where folks send in a SASE for a free timecard, and then they write, paint, draw, whatever, on their card and send it back. Then the group of them go up on public display. There are also workshops where people come together to make them, and I'm open sourcing that, encouraging other folks to go ahead and have their own workshops (I'm writing a lesson plan to share).



A round assemblage is made of fabric cut in circles and quilt fragments from two different quilts.  The central piece is a large circle with custom fabric with text on it.  There's a quilted piece to the left of that, cut into a circle.  There's a small circle with a faux Dresden plate design peaking up between those two circles.  To the right of the largest circle are three small circles, two behind and one overlapping in front.  The three small circles are, from top to bottom: a piece from a rice bag, red striped fabric that looks like ticking, and a piece of an old quilt that has been overdyed teal.
"Not-a-quilt, "51 Hours"", found quilt fragments, fabric, rice bag, custom fabric. Image Courtesy of Artist

How do you go about beginning a new piece? Do you have it planned or is it more spontaneous?

Author Elizabeth Wetmore said, "Studio time is sacred, but what we do is play." I have dedicated, serious studio hours, where I play. Part of the time, I mess around and see what happens. From experiments, some things take off and some don't. Then, once a direction is clear, or there's a deadline for a show, I do more goal-directed creation of specific things. Right now, I'm printing round doilies with text. I have two so far, but I have a list of additional things I want to print. Of course, that's only part of what I'm doing these days. Having only one thing to work on, and knowing exactly what it's going to be, is less exciting. I also like to go into the studio and have no idea what's going to happen.

One thing I don't try to do anymore is to make things that I think will sell. Every time I try that, it's a complete failure. When I make the completely personal work, it works. That's the paradox of art making.

I don't usually plan a body of work. I make one thing, or two or three, and then look at them and go, "Oh, those go well together," or "you seem to have a lot to say about that," and then I keep going until it's a body of work. Sometimes I think it's done, as with Medals that You Wouldn't Want to Earn, and then I made two more in 2021. It's a very narrow theme. Something that's actually a medal, and also one that you wouldn't want to earn. One of them was in honor of a friend, who now has the medal, which makes me happy.

I really like to have deadlines, to respond to calls for art, and to book solo or small group shows, so that I have both deadlines and real walls, out in the world, to arrange art and share it with people.


What is a barrier that you, as an artist, overcame?

Two things - I don't draw and motherhood. I used to say "I can't draw," but people in my family believe that everyone can draw, you just have to practice enough. Okay, I decided I didn't want to practice enough. This means that any idea I want to express, I have to come up with another way to do it. Sometimes I wish I could just directly draw the thing, the idea! But it's okay. This is my creative constraint. Children are also a creative constraint. Raising children takes lots of time and energy. But being employed part time and also home with kids is part of what has allowed me to be an artist. (And they're great kids!)

In the past, I have also been a little weak in the digital design skills and video making department and am delighted to finally have made progress in both of those areas. I had an assignment to make a collage for the Collagists in the Archives Virtual Residency and planned to make it in an analog way and was surprised when I ended up making it entirely digitally.

This will sound weird, except to people with a background in craft. But I've had to overcome the training to do everything myself, and make everything from scratch. For my solo show last May, I bought a vintage apron, took it the t-shirt shop and had them put words on it. And I called it art. I think that makes me a conceptual artist, and that makes me deeply uncomfortable. Because, I didn't make it. I didn't sew it, I didn't even alter it or add the text myself. The majority of the show, I did make/alter myself. I still care a lot about technique and skill in making. But I guess I'm letting myself be okay with not doing the skill all the time every time.



On a white wall, a piece of muslin fabric about 4 feet tall and 3 feet wide has been stained with rust, in the shape of a piece of an old garden gate.  The same piece of fencing repeats three times, but each time it looks a little bit different.  On the left side, about at the middle, is one handkerchief with a sepia color photogram of a doily.  Below that, near the bottom of the larger piece of fabric is a white doily.  On the right side of the large fabric, near the top and near the bottom, are two additional hankies, with scalloped edges and photograms of doilies.
"Gates and Doilies", rust print on muslin, photogram imprint on found handkerchiefs, found doily. Image courtesy of artist.


What is your go-to music when you're working on art?

I like music with good singing and that's got a bit of a story to it, this helps me to focus on the music just enough. If I'm doing certain kinds of art making tasks, the music needs to be calm and slow. There are bands I like, but I can't listen to them in the studio, the speed and energy is wrong for the tasks.

What do you strive for as an artist? What form of recognition is important for you?

Ah, dancer, choreographer and writer Andrew Simonet said that he felt he should make a t-shirt for artists that said "You will never achieve the level of recognition that you feel you deserve." Something like that. He didn't mean it in a mean way. But I found it quite useful, to sort of let go of striving for things I can't control, and to focus on the things I can control. I can't fret about not getting a nomination-only award, or not getting things I've applied for. All I can do is apply. And make the best work that I can, for myself first.

In the past couple of years, I've been on a self-directed residency, a number of virtual residencies, and had two solo shows. And I was awarded an Awesome Foundation grant! Basically, I'm thrilled with any level of external validation, and encouragement. I love to travel and hope to go on more residencies. Positive feedback from fellow artists means a lot. My main focuses right now are applying for grants and submitting exhibition proposals. After applying to 12 residencies and receiving 12 no-thank-yous, I'm taking a bit of a break from applying for those, because the "hopeful and then hopes-dashed cycle" can be tiring.

I hope to be awarded more grants and residencies in the future. And right now I'm focused on doing the work and earning money.



A grouping of nine circle-shaped art works are on the wall.  The central element is not a circle, but is a kirigami shape, a sort of flat paper flower shape, with an opening in the center.  A quilt fragment, a string of hexagonal quilt blocks sewn together, goes across the shape and the opening.  Additional circles include an embroidered clock, a rust print, a quilt fragment, overdyed turquoise and mounted on a metal frame, a pie tin, fabric with text on it, a scrubs shirt that says, "Care work makes all work possible, and a doily, printed with blue dye to say, "Shadow work is work that you do that someone else used to get paid for."
"Women's Labor Wall", found textile objects, wood, metal frames, rust. Image courtesy of artist.


What advice would you share for artists? Share something that you have learned along the way.

Whenever I speak to a group of college students, I have three pieces of advice that I've made into memes. They are:

1. Control your housing costs. (Because housing is the largest part of your budget, and minimizing that, in whatever way you choose, even if its unconventional, can help you become and stay an artist. Actively look for those creative ways to live.)

2. Choose a supportive partner. (Ideally, one who can also provide you health insurance...) This is essential to the life of an artist. It's hard enough without a supportive partner and family.

3. Choose a sustainable practice that sustains you. This means that as part of your art practice, have a thing that you do that's so easy, you can do it on your commute to your day job. Or you can do it in the car while waiting for your kids at an activity. You can bring it on family vacations. Could be anything, for me it's a photo series, The View through the Windshield, photos I take from the car (safely, while pulled over to the side of the road). This started when my kids were little. There were in their car seats, so I could steal seconds and snap pictures. The rule was I had to be in the car, or if I really had to get out of the car to get the shot, I still had to be touching the car. This continues to be a creative practice, even though my kids are teens now. Always take the picture. This helped me develop my eye and helped me figure out what I like.

Another sustainable practice I have is art journaling. It's messy, there's washi tape involved, and it's just for me. No matter how badly my "serious" art practice is going, I can always collage in my art jourtex, smear paint around, and write. There will be fallow times, so go


ahead and prepare. Have another thing or to that keeps you connected to making. Perhaps that one is harder to accept as useful advice until you've been through a terrible fallow time.



A grouping of nine circle-shaped art works are on the wall.  The central element is not a circle, but is a kirigami shape, a sort of flat paper flower shape, with an opening in the center.  A quilt fragment, a string of hexagonal quilt blocks sewn together, goes across the shape and the opening.  Additional circles include an embroidered clock, a rust print, a quilt fragment, overdyed turquoise and mounted on a metal frame, a pie tin, fabric with text on it, a scrubs shirt that says, "Care work makes all work possible, and a doily, printed with blue dye to say, "Shadow work is work that you do that someone else used to get paid for."
A portion of "Women's Labor Wall", found textile objects, wood, metal frames, rust. Image courtesy of artist.


What is a work of art that is an inspiration to you?

Years ago, an art blogger wrote a post called, "Do you look?" (The blog is long gone, or I'd link to it.) It was about looking at other people's work and worrying about accidentally stealing. I made a conscious effort back then to look a little bit less at art history and art other people's work. And I saw so many artists making art historical referential pieces and I thought, "shoot, I don't want to do that." So I looked less.

Now, I'm in a number of online communities and active on Instagram, so I do see lots of people's art, every day.

I don't know that I have any works of art that I find to be an inspiration, but I'll tell you about two favorites.

One is "Using the Master's Tools," by Tiffany Gholar. For this piece, she went to Hobby Lobby and bought the materials to make an IUD. She also bought a shadow box there and put the receipt, and the IUD-like object, and the extra wire in the shadow box. It's just so perfect.

I also really like this work by Jennifer McNichols.

This work expresses the pain and loss that comes with having a C-section, that society absolutely will not allow women to have or express. I wouldn't have expressed it myself this way, with cake, but it's the perfect expression of this idea. Though the blog post at the link doesn't say that's what the piece is about, I remember that when it was in the show Mothers, at Woman Made Gallery in Chicago in 2010, that I read that that's what it was about.



Photo shows textile collages in the shape of circles.  Three overlap each other, two are separate.
"Women's Rights Wall", found textiles, found objects, and photogram imprints. Image courtesy of artist.


Who are three working artists that you love and would recommend?

Years ago, an art blogger wrote a post called, "Do you look?" (The blog is long gone, or I'd link to it.) It was about looking at other people's work and worrying about accidentally stealing. I made a conscious effort back then to look a little bit less at art history and art other people's work. And I saw so many artists making art historical referential pieces and I thought, "shoot, I don't want to do that." So I looked less.

Now, I'm in a number of online communities and active on Instagram, so I do see lots of people's art, every day.

I don't know that I have any works of art that I find to be an inspiration, but I'll tell you about two favorites.

One is "Using the Master's Tools," by Tiffany Gholar. For this piece, she went to Hobby Lobby and bought the materials to make an IUD. She also bought a shadow box there and put the receipt, and the IUD-like object, and the extra wire in the shadow box. It's just so perfect.

I also really like this work by Jennifer McNichols.

This work expresses the pain and loss that comes with having a C-section, that society absolutely will not allow women to have or express. I wouldn't have expressed it myself this way, with cake, but it's the perfect expression of this idea. Though the blog post at the link doesn't say that's what the piece is about, I remember that when it was in the show Mothers, at Woman Made Gallery in Chicago in 2010, that I read that that's what it was about.



A vintage white handkerchief is commercially printed with blue leaves.  On top of that, the artist has collaged real skeleton leaves, with themselves have handwritten text on them.  This fills most of the center of the handkerchief.  Surrounding the handkerchief are individual skeleton leaves, also collaged with handwritten text.  The leaves are individually pinned to the wall and point outward, in a radiating fashion.
"Hankies and Leaves", assemblage-textile art on found handkerchief, individual leaves, collaged with handwritten text on archival tissue paper. Image provided by artist


 

Cultivate Artists


A curated collection of emerging and midcareer artists. The featured artist program at Cultivate serves to share the artist's work and process with the community, inviting them to understand how and why an artist creates the work they do, to market and promote artists, and to connect artists to each other and to our network of curators, artists, and gallery owners.


These artists are curated together and represent the work that we exhibit at Cultivate. The artists are selected in January and June, and scheduled out for the six-month period. If you are interested in being one of Cultivate featured artists, please visit our open call for submissions.

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