Freedom to Focus
A MacColl Johnson Fellowship is giving Associate Professor of Foundation Studies Leslie Hirst the freedom to pursue exciting new studio work while on sabbatical.
“Tapping into your studio practice takes such concentration,” says Associate Professor of Foundation Studies Leslie Hirst, who recently earned a $25,000 MacColl Johnson Fellowship from the Rhode Island Foundation in recognition of her fine art work. Now that she’s on sabbatical and able to put the new grant funding to good use, she says “it’s great to have this kind of time to come into my studio and think something through.”
Hirst works out of a large former mill space in Pawtucket, RI, where her practice focuses on the connections between language and the visual arts. “Obsessively collected” found objects – everything from eyeglasses to pressed four-leaf clovers to antique, handwritten letters – fill the space, offering fodder for her collages, paintings, artists’ books and installations. Overall, she’s interested in revealing unexpected relationships between marks and language, in part by emphasizing linguistic attributes such as accumulation, rhythm and repetition.
Inspired by Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges’ The Library of Babel, Hirst is currently creating a series of collages incorporating present-day graffiti and 16th-century lace. “I’m working with something very analytical and yet very organic,” she explains. “I’m looking at both the way we interpret signs and symbols, and the growth patterns that emerge from natural phenomena.” One of the organic forms in her new work is her replica of the graffiti itself, which she sees as vine-like – an attempt by taggers to “naturalize the built environment.”
Like Borges, Hirst is fascinated by the idea of alphabets and letters taken out of context. “My drawings often come from his gibberish,” she says. “Words and what they signify have nothing to do with each other. And I just love the odd shapes in written graffiti. If you take them out of context, they’re not letters at all.”
This fascination with accidental form surfaces in much of Hirst’s work. “Like a voice from beyond,” the nonsense characters spit out by a jammed laser printer move her as much as a pile of snipped paper accumulated on her massive worktable. “I take what is given to me,” she says. “I’m always interested in the leftovers, the ‘unshapes’ and the spaces in between.”
Hirst spent the early months of winter in residence at Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, NY and will soon travel to Venice, Italy for a two-month residency with the Emily Harvey Foundation. Due to logistics, she has had to shift her focus from the large-scale, delicately constructed and hand-stitched lace collages she had been making to more portable pieces that can travel.
“In Italy I’ll be working on drawings on light paper that can be rolled and shipped,” says Hirst. “I work in collage, spray paint, gouache, ink . . .. I start by painting these nonsense letters created from the shapes I cut out of my floating collages. Then I add and take away, building up layers and adding color. I never know what I’m going to end up with.”
When Hirst isn’t teaching or working, she’s often running or swimming – activities that allow her to tap into her subconscious and mentally “bank new imagery.” The ideas were definitely flowing during her residency at Yaddo, where she created six large drawings (including the three shown behind her in the photo above) and four smaller ones. “Yaddo provides meals and everything,” she says. “It’s amazing what you can get done when you’re not distracted by the tasks of everyday life.”
Thanks to the MacColl Johnson Fellowship, Hirst plans to hire an assistant in the studio to help with scanning and filing so that she can continue to focus on making work and on finding a place to exhibit before returning to teach full-time this fall. “It’s difficult to make work and not know where it’s going,” she says. “But when you’re in the studio, you need to filter everything out and focus on the making.”
Three local artists with ties to RISD earn RI Foundation 2017 MacColl Johnson Fellowships.
Photographer and filmmaker RaMell Ross—a self-described “liberated documentarian”—is now also a 2020 United States Artists Fellow.
President Somerson, Provost Kleinman and others address questions about the impact of COVID-19 on teaching and learning this spring.