A conversation with PC–G Exhibiting Artist Erin Leland
Via email and on the occasion of her solo exhibition in PC-G’s Reilly Gallery, Erin Leland engaged in sprawling conversation with me, Emily Hurley, PC-G gallery intern and PC English major/Art History minor. A NYC-based artist who often works with what PC-G Director and Curator Jamilee Lacy refers to as the “theatre of memory,” Leland seems the perfect person to respond, on the occasion of the College’s Centennial, to a unique piece of PC history: The Thomas McGlynn Collection curated by Father Richard McAlister, OP. To learn and see more of Leland’s exhibition, visit this page on the PC-G website.
Emily Hurley: At the artist talk in conjunction with your exhibition “Catwalk Informed by a Priest” you told the audience that you have a fascination with images that have been removed from their owner or source, such as when images fall into the hands of other people. How does this pertain to your work on view at PC-G?
Erin Leland: In my current show, the idea of a conduit is present—the idea of a line of people who have spoken through one another. The exhibition references the recreated apartment room [in the Art Department’s Hunt-Cavanagh Hall] on campus that Father Richard McAlister built in almost exact replication of an apartment he had shared with the sculptor and priest Father Thomas McGlynn in Pietrasanta, Italy, and with whom he had established the Providence College Summer Studio Program, [a study abroad program that ran from the 1970s through the 90s]. One of McGlynn’s more famous liturgical sculptures is “Our Lady of Fatima”. This was sculpted in collaboration with a nun, Lucy, who had witnessed a reappearing apparition in Fatima, Portugal in 1917. Thomas McGlynn preserved Lucy’s touch in the molded clay and final marble version. Thomas McGlynn was a conduit for Lucy, giving voice to her sighting. Father McAlister is a conduit for Thomas McGlynn through the preservation of his voice within the recreated apartment, and I imagined that I could act as a conduit for Father McAlister, whose belongings are also intermingled in the apartment, and now visible in my exhibition.
Hurley: For the Watermill Center’s website described you as an artist who “treats the camera as a performative tool”. Do you feel that this observation is accurate?
Leland: The camera is a tool through which a subject can be seen, and most of all, through which the photographer can be seen, albeit while behind the lens. Taking a picture can be a performative action of deflected self-viewing. I believe that is the idea referenced in the quote on the Watermill site, and yes, I believe that is true.
Hurley: Your work does not reference religious missions; however, you took great care to be respectful and observant of Providence College’s history of religious affiliation. How did this inspire your approach to the subject matter?
Leland: I found that when I sat to talk with Father McAlister, the conversations were calming and carried wisdom. This tone of conversation carried into the tone of the exhibition, which was commented upon by viewers to be a reflective space.
Hurley: You also mentioned in the artist talk that people have commented that your exhibition is a very contemplative space, especially when looking at the art alone. Was this your intent, or do these comments come as a surprise to you?
Leland: It is always a surprise to me that a relatively minimal room could manifest from such a labor-intensive process, involving highly theatrical techniques such as decorative painting. In the end, those process techniques became much more subdued than anticipated.
Hurley: Earlier we talked about the contemplative yet decoratively made aspects of Thomas McGlynn’s reconstructed room on PC’s campus. How did this space influence your exhibition?
Leland: I drew inspiration for the lofted walkways and drop-down ceilings with skylights in my exhibition from architectural elements of Thomas McGlynn’s Pietrasanta studio. The studio in Italy was connected to McGlynn’s apartment, shared at times with Father McAlister, and it is this apartment that Father McAlister recreated on the Providence College campus. Ultimately, both the exhibition and the recreated apartment are quiet rooms.
Hurley: In the process of creating your exhibition, you utilized theatre and set design skills. How did you acquire such skills as an artist who makes exhibitions and how have these skills been important to your work?
Leland: Set design is not necessarily an important knowledge for any artist to have, but I do believe it is important for an artist to retain a certain amount of naivety towards their medium. For me, most recently this medium is theater. A lack of knowledge allows room for improvisation, and it is through this improvisation that an artist forms a voice. I only know a few fundamental methods of set building and theatrical deception. Mostly, I am developing my own working strategies with a lot of room to surprise myself.
Hurley: What role does photography play in your exhibition and what kind of camera did you use?
Leland: I used 35 mm color film in a Nikkormat camera passed down through my family. The lens provided a close crop; I was in close proximity to objects in the apartment room. It was almost impossible to take a photograph of the entire room, as there was not enough distance provided in the lens.
Hurley: Reverend Richard McAlister, one of the founders of Providence College’s Department of Art and Art History, hosted a Providence in Europe summer art study in Pietrasanta, Italy from 1970-91. The program was based at the studio of Thomas McGlynn, whose apartment is recreated here at Providence College in Hunt-Cavanagh. What was it like working with Father McAlister? What did you learn and how did he influence how the exhibition came together?
Leland: I first had an idea that I wanted to make catwalks in the gallery, and I asked Father McAlister if anything came into his mind in reference to a catwalk. He passed on a photograph to me of the lofted walkway and resting area in Father McGlynn’s Pietrasanta studio, accessible by a drop-down ladder. In seeing this photograph, I confirmed that the catwalks would form an architectural stage for the photographs in reference to his snapshot. Father McAlister was incredibly open to me, a complete stranger, and showed me his life.
Hurley: What theme(s) does your exhibition explore?
Leland: In addition to the idea of a conduit, and to the bringing forward of a female voice – that of the nun, Lucy, who had not previously written freely as a witness of the apparition – the exhibition also brings forward the idea of spending observational time in one place. Part of the appeal of photographing Father McAlister’s recreated apartment room was in the fact that I could spend many hours in the room, observing its interior. The camera reinforces the act of sitting still with the subject.
Hurley: Thank you so much for answering my questions and giving me a better look at your exhibition! Do you have any upcoming shows or projects that we can look forward to?
Leland: I am showing a piece in The Newest Romantics: Sculptors of Botanical Photography, a group exhibition at the New Art Center in Newton, Massachusetts opening in January 2017.
Erin Leland: Catwalk Informed by a Priest is on view in PC-G’s Reilly Gallery August 24 – October 10, 2016.
Erin Leland is an artist who lives in New York and works with photography, built installation and writing. Her projects have been exhibited in solo exhibitions including Everything Is Everything at Michael Strogoff Gallery in Marfa, Texas and Traces to Form Concrete Thoughts at Weltraum 26 in Munich, Germany. She has additionally exhibited artwork in group exhibitions at The Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, Roots & Culture in Chicago, and Ewing Gallery at The University of Tennessee, among others. Her fictional writings have been published through Mercer Union and White Walls in the artist compendium Blast Counterblast and through contributions to the international art journal and podcast Bad at Sports. Erin is holds a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Illinois at Chicago.