Laura Sallade: Truth & Alchemy

Photo by Stefan Suchanec @stef.c.photo

By Ash Hoden

Laura Sallade’s first commission happened in art school, not long before her graduation. I use the word “happen” because that’s the impression I get in hearing her talk about it — that it appeared from the ether. Laura was working in a materials shop, she helped a woman who looked a little bit lost among the supplies, and the woman ultimately made a visit to Laura’s studio.

“She saw my work and her brother is an architect and she thought, ‘My brother needs to see this work.’ And he believed her. He didn’t think she was crazy to recommend some art student’s work. He came into my studio and he also believed in me and he told his client that he should put some of my art in his new house in Nantucket. Then this client saw my work and he believed in me and he wanted something even bigger than the architect was suggesting. It just kept evolving into something bigger and bigger.”

In her retelling of events it’s easy to overlook Laura’s role in making it happen. Laura is an exceptionally kind and loving creature who possesses a sharp, observant mind. When you speak with her she’s fully engaged, picking up much more than most. She will look you straight in the eye in a way that lets you know she’s for real. It’s powerful; a striking trait that catches me by surprise every time I meet her in person. I completely understand how one interaction with Laura could inspire a random customer to take the time to see her in action. From there the work spoke for itself. And when this first client wanted a piece well beyond the scale of her previous work Laura also had the good sense not to stand in the way. Allowing events to happen can be a critical step in making them happen.

“I didn’t really know if I could do it, but I told them that I could and then I figured it out. I’m very happy with where I am right now but I would never suggest to someone to do the things that I did. I did something very unwise and risky. I was very likely to fail. Just saying yes to that commission and saying that I could do it when I didn’t know if I could — I had to take the risk and take the leap and do that, because you get to a point where it really is sink or swim.”

That commission not only facilitated her transition from student to practitioner, it forced the transition. The piece was larger than any she had previously done and it was larger than her studio space at school. The pressure was on. She had to learn to apply her method of working with silver nitrate at a much larger scale and she had to find a studio in which to do so.

“When I moved into this space I couldn’t afford it at the time, but I was working on something bigger and I needed heat control. The sealants that I was using needed to be a certain temperature. They weren’t sealing quickly enough and it was really really humid and the silver was oxidizing. It was a terrifying experience for me. But then you figure it out. ‘Oh, I need climate control.’ That was something that I took for granted when I was in college. ‘Okay, I’m going to move into this space that I can’t afford and then hopefully I’ll get a commission to pay for it.’”

Laura’s deviant side comes to the forefront when we’re discussing art and her approach to it. Art is the main arena where she crosses social or cultural lines, which means she’s crossing those lines for a principled cause: seeking truth by way of self expression. There is purpose and exploration, not simply a vague desire to toe the boundaries of propriety. Laura will do what it takes. Straight from school she cut a deal with a developer to get a studio space in a building that was not yet legal to occupy, hoping to pay for it with future work. And years earlier a compulsion to explore glass as a medium led to a late night acquisition.

“I became a sculpture major and I got really interested in glass when I was in college because I found some in a dumpster. These huge…” She points to a large panel of glass in her studio, which is filled with power tools, sheets of glass, and an abundance of natural light streaming in from a wall of windows. “About five pieces like that. Architectural glass. And I just… I wanted it. I wanted it so badly and I didn’t know why. So I got some people together and we stole a cart from the school and we wheeled this stuff through the streets in the middle of the night.”

Photo by Stefan Suchanec @stef.c.photo

The five sheets of glass? That’s great.

“My studio at the time was probably 200 square feet, if that. I put the glass up on the wall vertically. I just leaned it there. And for a couple of months I was just messing around with the surface. I was really frustrated because I knew that I needed this glass. I knew that I needed it and I didn’t know why. I knew that there was something that I wanted to do with it. I can articulate now that I wanted to work with the material in a way that was intrinsic to its properties, but I didn’t understand that at the time. I didn’t know that I was really materials driven. I was drawing on it with wax. I was typing up these huge texts and putting them over and cutting out pieces of it so the glass would be exposed through. It wasn’t quite right.

“Something was missing and I saw this artist named Josiah McElheny on an Art 21 video. He is a glass-blower. He did this series of vessels that were all reflective and he’s talking about it and he says, ‘Oh, well it’s really easy actually. You put silver nitrate on the surface of these vessels, or inside them.’ I saw it and I thought, ‘That’s what I have to do.’ I instantly had this image in my mind of a piece of glass where a part of it is reflective and a part of it you’re seeing through — just having this wacky spatial experience in a two-dimensional piece of glass. I did some research on this chemical process, figured out what I needed to buy, bought all of this stuff online, and I started experimenting with this process. It was way harder than I thought it was going to be. I didn’t know how to get it on the glass. I didn’t know how to control the shapes that I wanted. I didn’t know how to keep it from tarnishing. I was just making every mistake possible. It was really really good for me to go through that process and take ownership of it. Now when I pour this chemical solution on the glass it’s more like painting than it is trying to figure out what’s happening. It’s very intuitive. You have to pay attention to what’s happening and there’re all these variables that go into this image that’s being created. Like heat. Sometimes the glass has very very slight depressions. So when the chemical solution pools up in certain areas it changes the rate of the chemical reaction. If the liquid is really thin it heats up really fast and it goes really fast. Sometimes it burns the silver and it becomes yellow and terrible looking. But sometimes it’s really great — if you get these hot flashes, like a splash. It’s so quick that it gets these bright, wild marks. It’s just accidents.”

Happy accidents.

“Yeah! Over time I realized that every time something breaks or every time I feel frustrated I need to just stop and look at what’s happening. What’s happening that I’m not noticing? Why am I trying to control this unwieldy material? Why don’t I let it just do what it’s doing and learn how to present this thing that’s already happening? And I did learn how to control it a little bit. But once I got that control, I slowly kind of put my hands off. A little bit. And then a little bit. It’s very tempting to try to go into those places of abstraction before you’ve mastered the technical aspects of your trade. You can get lost and you need to build those foundations for yourself because making art is so emotional. It’s full of highs and lows. When you don’t know where you’re at you need to know where your lighthouse is so you can go back and start over. Otherwise you’d give up. You have to be able to constantly start over and constantly come into the studio even though you don’t feel like it. Having those foundations is really good. I can say, ‘Okay, what are the two or three things I can do no matter what?’ Even if I hate everything that I’m making and I don’t know what I’m doing, something will come out of it. We want art to be the result of emotion but I think emotion is more a result of the art.”

You do?

“For me it’s more about putting that time in and then you feel something. You have to find balance between the two. You have to be here every day because you don’t know when your muse is going to show up and say, ‘I have to make this thing right now!’ If you haven’t been making art and that moment comes you’re not going to know what to do. You have to be disciplined. It’s not like the unicorn career.”

Is it hard to turn off?

“I’ve gotten better at it. I’m not bothered by the fact that I’m still thinking about my art when I’m gone. Sometimes I see the best solutions to my work when I’m not in my studio. You know, you’re in the studio, you’re in this mess, and I don’t know what’s next. Something is going to happen to tie all of this together but I don’t know what it is and I need to leave. I go on a hike and then I’m randomly like, ‘Oh, that’s what it is.’ You need to walk away.”

Did it feel liberating coming out of an academic high school and going into an art program where you can cut loose? I mean, you could sit there and have this piece of glass and not know what you’re gonna do with it but know that you have to do something. You’re in a space where that’s what it’s about.

“It was great. Some people were terrified by that — peers of mine. Once you get into the studio it’s a pretty good indicator of whether you should be an artist or not. It’s going to really excite you or maybe it’s just going to terrify you. Maybe you need someone to tell you what to do, and that’s fine. I wish I was better at following instructions.”

If somebody tries to tell you what to do is your natural response to defy?

Photo by Stefan Suchanec @stef.c.photo

“Maybe I’m reading a manual for how to put together this appliance for my house and I’m like, ‘Don’t tell me what to do! So bossy!’ Well, maybe not that far.”

I’ll make it how I wanna make it! What did you do after that first commission?

“I went to Europe for about two months after that. It was great. It was a really informative time for me. It’s interesting being isolated and decontextualized from everything that you’re used to. You think, ‘What’s fallen away and what remains?’”

You’ve always had this lineage of people that you’ve been surrounded by and you’ve always been seen as a certain person within that lineage. When you go away from it you’re free to explore. ‘Who am I in this world of people who have no expectation of me being anything but the person standing here right now?’ Was it that kind of feeling?

“I found that I needed people more than I thought. I was really looking forward to this time alone and I thought that I didn’t need anyone. Then you’re in a country where very few people speak any of the two languages that you know and you don’t know where you’re going. It’s very isolating. I found that I was appreciating what a human connection really is. That was cool for me because I think that human connection was something I had taken for granted up to that point. But also at one point I was traveling with a friend and I realized that you don’t get any alone time when you travel with someone. I really really love people, but also, I really need some alone time! Everyone should travel with someone, and alone.”

Just travel period. Break out of your thing and just be away for awhile. Did you find that when you came back it affected your art?

“It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how it shapes you as a person. It’s not like I’m going to look at the basilica and then do a painting of the basilica and tell you, ‘This is how it changed me!’ It’s more like I’m sitting in this park in Paris and I’m drinking a coffee and eating a croissant and that experience changed me as a person, and being changed as a person changes my art. It’s harder to know exactly how, but I think that I got better at recognizing when it was time to let go of an idea and when it was time to really pursue something. In art-making there are lots of things we hold onto that for whatever reason we really care about. And you need to shed those things. You need to figure out what you want to say because you’re going to have to make some sacrifices if you want to get at the core of something.”

What kind of sacrifices?

“Any given piece might have a couple of different things that it’s saying and sometimes those messages battle each other or cancel each other out. You have to be willing to let go of certain parts so that other ones can actually speak. Learning yourself helps you to have more visual clarity. With each piece I feel like I learn more about myself.”

Art is your exploration of self in that sense.

“Because everything is so personal and sometimes it’s more clear to me than others. Some pieces help me to realize what’s bothering me about something else that’s going on in my life. When you make art you’re doing it intuitively. I have to give you examples. So these pieces are the negative space of these ink splashes. For some reason I just felt like I needed to cut out the negative space — the non-content of the material — and I wanted that to be the content. I wanted to flip it around. I realized that it was because there was something in my life that was bothering me. I felt like the less significant thing needed to be more significant and I was trying to reconcile that in my head and my heart. That’s why I needed to honor these little fragile things somehow and let them activate this space and become something significant even in their fragility. I didn’t know that until I intuitively followed my gut and kept making these little things.”

What a cool thing to recognize. So you cut around the spilled ink?

“Yeah. It was spilled in the most catastrophic way I could make it.”

Is it hard to relate to other people?

“Sometimes. I think I might annoy people sometimes with my global perspective. Like when people are worried about certain things I’m like, ‘But you’re eating out in a restaurant?!’ Why are you upset?’ In that sense I definitely feel like I don’t fit into American culture. A really great example of American culture is Ikea. I go into Ikea and I get really lost, number one. And I become a little bit depressed. There’s so much stuff and they’ve placed it in this strategic way that you literally have to pass everything in the store in order to get out of the store. They’re convincing you that you need it. It’s just so consumerist. It’s so materialistic. Once I’m done making something the product is after-the-fact. It’s irrelevant. I’ve made it and now it’s done. Moving on. I think that’s the opposite of our culture. Our culture is about acquiring all of this stuff and convincing you that you’re not happy and that you need this dish detergent and it’s going to make your life so much better because your dishes are going to sparkle and your life is going to be amazing now. It’s really bizarre.”

In my 20s I put a lot of effort into, I’ll call it deprogramming myself. Since we’re assaulted by marketing and all of these market-driven social values from the day of our birth to the day we die I found that I had to strip away as much of the programming as I could in order to let my own inner voice have some space. It was basically a process of eradicating excess baggage from my brain’s wiring; stripping away old ideas rather than learning new ones. The learning new ideas phase came later.

“Oh, yeah, you have to identify the problems and say, ‘No, I don’t believe that is true.’”

Until you dig in and really explore your mind and your motives you don’t even see that you’re living by these programmed ideals. You have to untie the mental knots before you can think and process life in a more coherent way. Then I started getting frustrated with the outside world and it became hard to relate to other people. It felt like I was surrounded by automatons. But you keep digging deeper and the deprogramming becomes a process of accepting people as they are; giving them the space to be who they are and learning to find your way despite feeling increasingly distant from the majority. That’s why I asked if it was hard to relate. I can see that you’ve moved to a place with yourself that a lot of people haven’t.

“It can make you feel like, ‘Do I know myself? Because I’m not like you and you’re in this culture that tells you you’re supposed to fit in and do the same things as everyone else and wear your hair a certain way and have the Vera Bradley purse or whatever. Am I not with it?’ And then you come back into the studio and you’re like, ‘Oh! Yeah. I’m supposed to be doing this. That’s why I don’t fit in.’ And it’s fine.”

I think it would be hard to do meaningful, interesting work without getting to that place where you know yourself and you’re confident enough to take risks.

“It can be really scary because you have to fail. A lot of times. No-one ever told me I could do it, and I think that’s probably how it should be. Maybe if you’re supposed to be an artist then you should be giving yourself your own pep talks. The more and more I talk to young artists who ask, ‘How did you do it?’ I kind of want to tell them my story but I also feel guilty because I can tell you what worked for me but I don’t know if it’s going to work for you.”

Most likely it won’t. When you were growing up were you doing art from a young age?

“Pretty much. Looking back on it I think I probably was a pretty weird kid. I didn’t want to follow recipes when I was cooking, or coloring books seemed insulting to me. I started realizing that my ability to see and observe and then put down all of those visuals and just understand what I was seeing — I started to realize that that was not only something I loved but also something I could do well. And that happened from a pretty early age. I don’t remember wanting really badly to do something else with my life. I always kind of knew.”

How were coloring books offensive?

“I thought that it was an insult to my creativity and my intelligence. I just thought it was so juvenile to color in these shapes.”

I get it. I was punished for coloring outside the lines when I was in third grade. Did you have any tension with teachers or anything like that?

“I don’t remember having a problem with a teacher. Sometimes on my math homework or something like that there would be doodles on the side and I would get points off. I’d be like, ‘You don’t understand how much this helps me concentrate during class.’”

If your mind drifted off drawing would focus you back on the work?

“It occupies that part of your brain that’s visually so aware all of the time. When I’m doing this it helps me to think about everything else. It’s crazy the things that I’m able to process only by coming to the studio and working.”

It’s meditative in that sense.

“Exactly. Kind of harnessing that uncontrolled part of myself so I can think clearly for a second.”

Laura grew up in Reading, about an hour outside of Philadelphia. I ask if she had other childhood pursuits.

“I swam competitively. I was also very into singing. That was something that I probably could have taken further but saying yes to art and saying no to a lot of other things — I was okay with that. There is something a little bit sad but also empowering about saying no to a million other things in order to say yes to one thing. You mourn the loss of the fact that you’re never going to be an astronaut, you’re never going to be a ballerina, but look at all of the possibilities within this one thing that I’m focusing on. You can figure out who you are.”

From the beginning self contemplation was integral to doing art for you?

“I probably didn’t realize it until college. I got there and I started to understand myself a little bit more, and I realized, ‘Oh, I’m not a weird kid. I just didn’t have any of the right outlets.’ I was trying to fit myself into this mold of the very academic school that I went to. I look back on it now and I thought, ‘Oh, well that makes sense because when I was forced to teach myself the content because I had missed the whole chapter of the class, I actually excelled above my peers. So I had to reconcile that and figure out, ‘No, I’m not stupid. I just understand things in a very different way. I’m coming at it from a different angle.’ So when I went to a school where they put you in a white cube and say, ‘Okay, make something’ — a lot of people are really scared by it but I was so ready. That was what I needed at that time. I needed the freedom to teach myself what I needed to know, on my own.”

You felt like an outsider?

“In high school? Most definitely. I didn’t feel like I fit into any of the groups that were identified by something very specific. I spent more time alone because I was very introverted. But I didn’t really understand that about myself.”

I tend to be introverted as well. It’s less appreciated and I always had this feeling that if I was just spending time alone there was something wrong with that. Did you ever feel that being introverted was somehow wrong?

“Yeah, it’s like, ’Oh, I’m shy. I’m insecure. I don’t like people.’ None of those things are true. It actually has to do only with how you get energy. Are you getting energy from being with people or are you getting energy from being by yourself? If you don’t let introverts be introverts you’re gonna lose a lot of really great work that needs to be made.”

And great ideas.

“Those people need their alone time. I definitely felt like I was supposed to go out and do things when I just wanted to read or draw or do anything by myself — just thinking on my own. Honestly, I don’t know how people do it if they don’t ever have any alone time. I don’t understand. How do you think? But I guess they do. It’s just a different brain wiring.”

So the friends that you did have, were they from a variety of different groups?

“Yeah, a collage of friends; people I met from choir or a couple people who I got along with on the swim team or people I met in the art room because I was there all of the time. I had a lot of friends who were all over the place. I still feel that way. A lot of my really close friends don’t know each other.”

Different parts of who you are come out with different people.

“Most definitely. It’s really cool how different people can bring out something different in you that you didn’t even know was there. I love that. I’m learning to appreciate it more and more. It’s really nice to look back on your life and for things to make sense because of the way that you’re going forward now.”

You can see how all of these different things that didn’t seem to connect kind of do.

“Yep. I also used to collect random things when I was small. We lived next to this parking lot and I would just go out and collect old pieces of tire and little springs with weird metal attachments and stuff that used to belong to something. I didn’t know why but I loved this stuff. It makes sense to me now because artists are so intrigued by the stories of objects.”

Were your parents encouraging about going into the arts?

“They saw in high school that that was an area where I had some ability. I don’t think they would have let me go to art school if I was a boy. As a woman they kind of assumed, ‘Oh, you get married out of college and someone’s going to support you and it’s okay if you pursue art.’ My mom told me that later on. She was like, ‘But we didn’t know that you have the drive that you have. We’re so glad that it was just a fluke that we made that mistake.’”

Do they have more traditional ideas about life?

“I think there was this expectation when I was growing up that I was going to get married and have kids. It’s kind of expected. I’m happy with the way that things are and it’s a really powerful experience to have something to give back to your parents; surprise them that I’m doing art and supporting myself. I think that they have a new perspective on certain things because of what I’ve done with my life so far. And they’re so happy that I’m doing what I’m doing. I feel so indebted to them because of how much of themselves they poured into my upbringing.”

How do you feel about marriage and kids and all of that stuff?

“I don’t feel one way or another. I’m not opposed to it but I’m not really searching for someone to fill that need. I think that if I were to meet someone who accentuated what I was already pursuing in my life then that would make sense. I don’t want to be looking so hard for it that I miss out on what’s already happening and I don’t want to be set against it in a way that I miss out on something that could happen.”

That’s a really good way of approaching it, and speaking about it as well. It fits with the non-oppositional aspect of Deviation — not being for or against, just being open. So many people make such a priority out of getting married that it becomes one of their primary goals in life — almost like it’s a golden ticket to satisfaction. If you kind of just live your life then whatever works for you will come out. So you had that first commission, went to Europe, came back, and you’re having to find work again and—

“I’ve been in and out of restaurants a lot. Bartending is not a bad gig. I’m forced to talk to people, which is good. And I like working with my hands. It wasn’t too bad.”

Photo by Stefan Suchanec @stef.c.photo

In art as well, did you have to find clients and get into galleries and do those types of things?

“I think that first project didn’t lead to anything else for a little while. It did end up building my portfolio in a really helpful way for later on, but it was always random things that were coming together. It wasn’t linear. There was maybe a connection with a gallery in Philly and I showed with them — an emerging artists show. They responded well and slowly started to bring me on as a represented artist over the last two years. At the same time I was talking to Ryan and Radi (the founders of Massey Lyuben Gallery in NYC). I’m still not in a place where I feel like I’ve made it. I still think that I have so many more avenues to develop, and so much more stability that I’d like to create for myself as an artist. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. Sometimes I wonder if I should just be content with where I’m at and just keep making work and trust that things will fall into place. Or should I be pushing harder all of the time to figure out what the boundaries are so that I can cross them? I don’t know.”

From what you were saying earlier — you have this hunch or this compulsion and you just go and do the work and it comes out — I don’t see that you would be comfortable rehashing something you’ve already done. So in that sense is there ever a point where you’ve made it?

“Right! And the best stuff that has come my way was out of my control. When those things came along I was very grateful that I kept working even when I didn’t know if anyone cared. And then, ‘Oh, someone cares! Good thing I kept working because here’s all of this stuff that I’ve been making.’”

There might be a point where you have a more stable income and a more secure standing in the world but in terms of exploring I don’t know that there is a happy spot where it’s all done.

“Exactly. I think I’m always going to be itching to figure out what’s beyond the next door. I feel as though sometimes I’m trapped inside my body and I often think of prisoners and the way they make marks on the cells that they’re confined in. I sometimes think, ‘Well maybe that’s just what I’m doing.’ I feel like I’m confined in this body and sometimes, most of the time, I don’t know what I’m doing. So I’m just going to keep making these marks and it’s just gonna be this documentation of myself being here, doing things. It seems meaningless but you build up this foundation and then you go along with the monotony of life — when things don’t seem to make sense but we all have those defining moments when you figure out what kind of person you are. You don’t know what’s going to happen and you just have to look behind you at the things that you’ve done and accept that some things mattered and some of them didn’t, but they all happened.”

What’s one of those defining moments where you came to terms with something about yourself?

“At one point in my life I had the opportunity to parent and I decided not to. I went to full term and decided to make an open adoption plan. I think it was this fight or flight mentality. ‘Oh, this is the kind of person that I am and I have to figure out what I’m going to do and what I value and yeah, who am I? That’s a lot of what I’m processing now. ‘Okay, that’s what happened. I became this person when that happened.’ It’s interesting how the work is helping me to understand what happened. I’m really grateful for my work. It helps me to feel joy and sadness and all of these things that I can’t articulate in a normal way. If I was really good at articulating things with words I would have been a writer.”

I think you are very good at that.

“Well thank you, but I feel as though there are things that I want to say that I can’t say with words. Sometimes writing helps me to tie things together. I can have a thought about the material in a way that helps me to understand it. Like any surface, no matter how smooth or rough, is going to be a series of troughs and peaks. I realized one day that that’s why I love running my fingers over glass. It’s like a million mountains and valleys under your fingers. That moment of realizing why I love glass can help me figure out how I want to explore that material in a new way. So I’ll write that down. One time I was sitting in a window and I had a glass of water in my hand and the light was hitting the glass in a certain way that it was then hitting the floor. There was this moving piece of light on the floor. I wasn’t moving but my heart was throbbing. I realized that the way that the light was moving was my heartbeat. I had this moment where I realized that my exact heartbeat was on the floor and I thought it was so cool and I wrote it down. ‘This is why I love light so much. Because it is so mysterious and it reveals these things that are happening all around us in really mysterious ways.’ That was in the beginning when I started to realize how much I love light and how much I’m interested in the mystery of it and the fact that it doesn’t change and yet it shows the transience of everything around us.”

Is your interest in light what originally drew you to glass?

“I think so, because glass is a vessel for light. I mean there’s so many things that I love about the material, but yeah, I can’t imagine not having natural light in the studio.”

Catch Laura’s current, amazing show Deep to Deep at the Massey Lyuben gallery in New York City.

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