What happens in the studio shouldn't always stay in the studio. Studio Visit is a series that profiles artists in their studios. We ask them questions, they provide answers, and then we have a nice discussion about their work. This month: Laura Spalding Best, whose solo exhibition "Vanity" runs through August 31 at Practical Art.
Where most people have a living room, Laura Spalding Best has an arts studio. Entering her small home in the North Garfield neighborhood not far from downtown Phoenix, visitors spot an intriguing assortment of art materials.
Most recently, it was a trio of large ironing boards, set side-by-side atop a table to form a triptych. They’re painted with her characteristic take on urban landscapes – infused with dreamy blues, melting imagery, and utility poles.
Odds are, you’ve seen her work around town in recent years. She’s painted murals in Roosevelt Row and historic Grand Avenue, and she’s shown work at both Phoenix Art Museum and Tucson Museum of Art. Most recently, she’s been busy making art for her solo “Vanity” exhibition at Practical Art.
The show comprises more than 200 works, which form a single installation with Best’s triptych as its centerpiece. Half the works are tiny oil paintings done on circles, arranged in a row that runs the length of the exhibition space at Practical Art. The rest include domestic objects such as teacups and vintage irons, amassed through regular trips to thrift shops and antique stores.
Best paints nearly every day, from around 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. By day, she’s the busy mom of two children, ages 4 and 8. Their artworks hang in the kitchen just a few steps from Best’s painting easel. Best was making art at that age, too. “I first knew I could draw when I was 9 or 10,” she says. “I used to draw Disney characters like Ariel and Belle.”
She started out drawing portraits, in part because her mother cared for infants during the day. “I drew their portraits, with pencil on paper,” she says. Best was born in Ohio, but also lived in Illinois before heading west to attend ASU’s Barrett Honors College. She did mostly large-scale, figurative paintings at the time, earning her bachelor of fine arts degree in 2003.
That same year, Best found her first art studio, inside the Citywide building that’s best known today for the massive Luster Kaboom mural that looks like something out of the musical Little Shop of Horrors. It was a hotbed of budding artists at the time, including Colin Chillag, Rachel Best, Sue Chenoweth, Karolina Sussland, and Edna Dapo.
“I started doing landscapes in 2003,” she says. “The neighbor Rueben would throw metal stuff over the fence.” Naturally, Best painted on them. When she ran out of canvas while traveling through Canada, Best turned found objects like rusted coffee cans and a tractor seat into artworks. Nowadays, friends give her things they find, sometimes simply leaving them on her doorstep.
“I’ve probably painted thousands of objects through the years,” Best says. “I’m putting things that don’t have much use into a form that almost assures they won’t get cast aside.”
For the “Vanity” exhibit, she’s focusing on a very specific type of object. Despite looking dainty, they tie women to particular roles. “They’re loaded with the trappings of femininity and domesticity,” she says.
Even so, the objects reflect a common thread in her work: Things aren’t always what they seem. At first glance, they appear as ethereal landscapes. But closer inspection reveals an intriguing twist – a bit of desert floating in water, perhaps. “I paint different visions of the Southwest landscape with dreamy moments of paradise that also have some disturbing elements.”
Best is heavily influenced by the Hudson River School, a mid-19th-century art movement with New York roots. But she’s also drawn to other painters, such as Grant Wood, and to several artists who use objects in their practice – including Julianne Swartz, Nick Cave, and Betty Saar. She’s worked with several of them through the years, while serving as exhibitions manager for Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art.
Between family, making art, and her museum gig, Best keeps plenty busy. But she balances it all beautifully, as an artist who’s perpetually poised. Here’s what Best has to say about her own art practice, complete with clues about how she manages to keep it all together.
Tell us about your work in haiku format.
Someplace in between
The mirage and paradise
Fleeting answers lie.
What artist(s) are you really into right now?
I love to look at marine painters and the Hudson River School artists. The Valeska Soares exhibition at Phoenix Art Museum was my favorite exhibition so far this year. I love the way she employs found objects in her work and I appreciate the saturation of her installations. Locally I admire too many artists to list fairly.
What are you reading?
I just reread Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood while traveling.
What's the last TV show, film, or video you watched?
I watched Steven Universe with my kids before bedtime, and Last Week Tonight with John Oliver with my husband after that.
If you could collaborate with any artists, alive or dead, who would it be? And why?
I would have loved to collaborate on murals with WPA artists. To be a part of something vital that had funding and support and gave artists a chance to reflect their vision of America back on itself would be an incredible experience.
What was the last exhibition you saw and what did you think of it?
The Arizona Biennial at Tucson Museum of Art. I went there for the opening and was so proud to be in the company of so many strong artists. The scope of the exhibition was large in content and themes, I thought it painted a beautiful, multi-faceted picture of Arizona.
Jeff Koons or Marina Abramovic? And why?
Marina Abramovic, her work is challenging, important, and uncomfortable. Also, if I have to choose between two superstar, problematic artists I’m happy that one of them is a woman, it’s some kind of step forward towards art world equality.
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What's the best advice you've ever received?
When I was younger, an art teacher told me that artists never retire, they get to be an artist their whole life long. I relax when I think about that. It’s calming to know that I don’t have to be at any point in my art career by any specific age because I get to do this forever. When I am stressed out or worried about making time for my work, it helps me to think about that and get perspective.
What are you currently working on?
This month I’ve been making a lot of new pieces for my upcoming exhibition at Practical Art. Most of the paintings are experimental, small studies. It is the kind of work that is a joy to make because I’ve been thinking about some of the ideas for a long time and the small pieces I make now will lead to new bodies of work. I’m also finishing up a few murals.
What's your most valuable tool as an artist?
Tiny brushes and time management.