Thursday, March 15, 2007

Laura Shults and the Sculpted Sky

Laura Shults dislikes being asked why, why she builds airplanes, out of wood and plastic and lead, why she is fascinated with clouds, sculpted from foam and paper, why she is so taken with flight and air and sky. She dislikes the question because it's hard to answer, she dislikes it because she's not sure she knows, she dislikes it because she's not sure she, or we, need to know. "Why do artists do anything?" she asks, her smile challenging but friendly.

For Laura, art is process. In her Area 405 studio on Oliver Street, she is at work sculpting a new airplane. The building was a curtain and blind factory and when the company moved out, it left behind rolls of fabric and plastic—green vinyl and red checks. After Laura has designed the skeleton of her airplane, drawing out the plans on broad sheets of brown paper, and then has fashioned it together, she will cover the craft in a gold polyvinyl found in a room upstairs, padding and shaping out the plane with a layer of foam. This discovery of the gold material plays into Laura's love of experimentation, the serendipity of the find and the working out of how to use it. "Making the planes becomes art" she says, "as I look into the construction and form and how to use the materials to get there." With her drawings and sketches on the walls, models made from pipe cleaners and foam, this process of trial and error is in evidence everywhere in the studio.

A sense of humor, too, is necessary for Laura, who thinks of her sculpture, the clouds and planes, as toy-like, even a bit silly. "They are actually kind of ridiculous objects," she says, of the planes. "They are about flight but they will never fly. They can't fly." This tension between function and form goes back to her college days as a furniture maker. Then, she was intrigued with the sculptural possibilities of chairs and tables, playing with biomorphic shapes and colorful pattern, but the necessity of standard measures, of providing sufficient leg room or platform height, didn't much interest her. "I wasn't into being a craftsperson. I wanted to be imaginative and make sculpture that came alive but that was also a chair."

The clouds Laura makes, armatures of reed covered in tracing paper or, more recently, foam carved with an electric steak knife, seem an ideal subject on which to let her imagination fix. Again, the process of finding the right material, manufactured reed or natural willow, furniture maker's foam or closed-cell plastic, and then of how to use it is central. But we can speculate perhaps that this approach, one that relies on process more than conceptualization—"I work mostly subconsciously," she says, "start working and figure out why later"—is particularly suited to the subject of clouds. In the course of trial and error, of working out her ideas through material experimentation, is the construction of these ephemeral, almost otherworldly, and always-shifting objects emblematic of the imaginative process itself?

This may strike some as over-analysis—and fairly enough. What's clear though is that her airplanes, her clouds, the blue of the skies she sets them against, have strong associations with childhood play and imagination. She loves the retro look of old airplanes, their sometimes clunky, sometimes sleek, space-age design, an affinity for old things she developed partly by rummaging through her grandmother's attic as a girl, dressing up in the old clothing and jewelry she found. And the simplified fuselages and wings of her own planes do suggest a kid's idea of aircraft and flight, the wonder that those funny hunks of metal can fly at all. What's more, the wall of her bedroom as a girl was painted in clouds, clouds she now reproduces with the help of an old photograph for the walls of other kids' rooms.

The impulse behind her sculpture, then, is clarified, at least a bit, though the significance remains dusky. "Why do artists do anything?" Laura asks, and with some just cause. Were she to sculpt the figure—something she's never been interested in—would she be asked so often, as she is about her airplanes, Why, why people? "I don't like to think too much about it," Laura says. "You can end up stuck that way. There's a feeling I get when sculpting that lets me know it's working." She goes about her business, experimenting with wings, leafing through field guides to clouds, thinking about future projects with zeppelins and airships, and letting form, material, and fascination lead the way.


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