Paint Dances With Ideas

Because of the cerebral nature of her work, Lawrie Crawford describes herself as an “outlier” in the Yukon, where landscape painters predominate.

Measuring Space, Lawrie Crawford’s solo art show at the Northern Front Studio in Waterfront Station, opened at the beginning of October. However, Crawford will offer an artist talk at 5:00 p.m. on Tuesday October 14. She hopes this will provide a bridge to her work for a Yukon audience.

The talk will draw from Crawford’s Master of Fine Arts (MFA) thesis. Crawford completed her degree last April at Goddard College in Port Townsend, Washington. The low residency interdisciplinary arts MFA builds around the student’s art practice in their home community.

While Crawford travelled down to the school for intensive sessions, she learned mostly from her home on Crag Lake, helping coordinate critique sessions with the Southern Lakes Artists’ Collective, for example.

“It didn’t create the dependencies that sometimes artists in art schools develop,” she reflects.

Crawford “wanted an excuse to do some big paintings,” so four 42×59-inch panels make up the core of Measuring Space, along with the smaller studies they grew from. Paraphrasing artist Mark Rothko, she explains that you’re always outside a small painting, but larger ones invite you in.

When I visited her studio in late September, the canvases contained mostly white gestures on a black gestural ground, with a purplish-black mixed from three colours. Intensely coloured shapes, a line or a curve, provide contrast within this almost greyscale context.

For these multiple large canvases, all painted using the same colours, Crawford has to mix paint in big batches, to preserve the paintings’ unity.

“I feel like a cook,” she says. She mixes white with acrylic gel medium to get paint with “soft peaks” like egg whites, but not too stiff. This translates her brushstrokes into more interesting marks.

Her work has been growing more intentional over the years. In past work, with layering, scraping, and sanding, she loved the element of being surprised. But Crawford finds she “can’t build a practice on being surprised all the time.”

She takes photos after each layer of paint, so she knows what she’s sanding back to. Being able to refer to earlier layers also helps her know what colours to add next, to preserve the painting’s harmony.

That being said, her artist talk won’t discuss painting technique, but rather creative process and concept. These ideas cluster around the “panarchy loop”.

Drawn flat, the panarchy loop looks something like an infinity symbol. It’s a three-dimensional idea, a moebius strip intersecting with itself in the middle. Imagine a strip of paper with one twist in it, glued together to make a loop. If you draw a pencil line along the paper, you will come back to where you started, and unlike a flat sheet of paper, it just has one side.

Try it if you don’t believe me.

This brain-bending shape, like an Escher staircase, has inspired a number of thinkers from whose work Crawford drew her thesis.

C. S. “Buzz” Holling used it to develop ideas about ecological systems and resilience. Thomas Homer Dixon used it to think about innovation in international governance. Crawford enjoys how concepts expressed through this shape encourage diversity in problem solving.

This shape also influenced the thinking of Christopher Alexander, architect and mathematician, author of A Pattern Language, whose ideas shape Crawford’s painting choices.

But what is the panarchy loop?

“Accelerate, pause, accelerate, pause—” she dances her explanation.

For Crawford, this dynamic shape can also be found in the cycle of the seasons. Change happens quickly at equinox and stalls around the solstices.

Before Crawford starts painting, she does a dance warm up. She does all her first coats, her under paintings, tracing a full-body gesture of the panarchy loop.

The white marks on these paintings also emerge from the panarchy loops.

Measuring Space will be on display at the Northern Front Studio until October 27; Crawford’s artist talk will take place on October 14 at 5:00 p.m.

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