Simulacra: Full Circle with Anne Lemanski

By Mark Richard Leach, Guest Curator

2015 Alumna Artist-in-Residence Anne Lemanski returns to McColl Center for Art + Innovation for her breakthrough exhibition, Simulacra – on view from September 18, 2015 to January 2, 2016. This interview, conducted by Guest Curator Mark Richard Leach in June of 2015, explores Lemanski’s creative process and experiences leading up to the exhibition.

Mark Richard Leach: What are the experiences and memories that you have of your youth and that you believe were formative in the development of your artistic career?

Anne Lemanski: I grew up in a town of 900 people, in Michigan. A small town called Ubly, it’s in the thumb. I spent my entire childhood outdoors. It was amazing that there were really no restraints on where I was allowed to go or what I did.  

I'd bring home injured birds and all kinds of creatures. I had a giant rabbit named Peanuts and I put a baby bunny that I had caught in the pen with Peanuts, thinking he would be it’s new mama. Peanuts chewed the bunny’s tail off. But one of my favorite things to do as a kid was just to sit and look through encyclopedias. 

I was close with my dad. He repaired hydraulic jacks on the side, and had a metal shop at the house – a big lathe, arc welder, and lots of other tools. I think I get a lot of my ability from my dad. After my dad’s untimely death when I was ten, my mom and I moved to Frankenmuth, Michigan [for me] to begin high school.

When I graduated, I went to Michigan State University for a year. I was very interested in graphic design, which, at that time, was still technically hands-on. There were no computers at all so I just cut-and-pasted, Xeroxed, and did hand coloring. After that first year, I went to the College for Creative Studies (CCS) in Detroit. CCS was the only school that offered private studio space to undergraduate students. So, during my last two years, I had the luxury of a private, locking studio to which I had 24-hour access. The Detroit Institute of Arts was immediately next to the school and Wayne State University was across Woodward Avenue. The public library was there, too.

Anne Lemanski working in her McColl Center studio, March 2015.

Your small collages are so meticulous. Your graphic design studies, what with the cutting and pasting, that exacting process, truly prepared you for your current work.

Yes. It’s amazing how things come full circle. I can run a thread from the work I’m doing now, all the way back to what I was making in college. Of course, the materials are very different, but a lot of the same concepts are still in place. In college I was using animal imagery, but by the way of found objects. Today, my found objects are the array of vintage papers that I collect to use as skin on my armatures. And most recently, I’m cutting the imagery for my collages from vintage encyclopedias.

In 1997, I left Detroit and moved to Chicago for about 7 years. The first job I held in Chicago was as registrar for Ox-Bow, a summer art camp run through the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Ox-Bow is where I made my first armature form. I was taking a copper forming class taught by my friend Ed Gray, and he gave me some rawhide to play around with. My instinct was to stretch it. So I made an armature shaped anatomically like a heart and stretched and sewed the rawhide to it. It was one of my light bulb moments.

In addition to the rawhide, what other materials were you using?

I was amassing a large collection of vintage papers and encyclopedias along with old photographs. I was trying to figure out a way to incorporate that 2D material into my 3D work, and the armature was a way for me to do that. So I started making armatures.

A lot of the first pieces I did were guns. The armatures weren’t as complicated as the ones I make now. Those had a clunky quality to them, sort of more reminiscent to folk-art. The first gun I made had vintage Valentine cards stitched to it, and I titled it “Love is a Loaded Gun.” 

Thinking about your Penland residency [from 2004-2007], what were the key things that you were able to accomplish? 

I decided I wanted to focus on the one of-a-kind pieces I was already making. It gave me the time to truly hone my craft and I met other working artists. 

Let’s shift gears and talk about the creative growth you experienced and the ideas that you explored as a Windgate Artist-in-Residence at the McColl Center for Art + Innovation in early 2015. What changed in your work? How did your creative process evolve and what technical challenges occurred during your residency? 

The year before, I made a wall relief installation, “Queen Alexandra’s Flight,” which consisted of 600 hand cut butterflies and birds. The images were digitally printed and I cut out all the backings from masonite, using a scroll saw. Over that period, I had ideas for new work in the 2D realm. I decided I really wanted to do collage. I sat down one morning, dove into my vintage encyclopedias, and started to cut and paste. Just then, I hit on another light bulb moment. I made the first collage on the blue geometric background from a 1959 math book. This led to the 12-print series titled “Blue Go-Go” which I completed [during my residency] at McColl Center.

SWAN DIVE, 2015, archival pigment print on paper, mounted to wood panel, Ed. of 3, 41.5 x 54.5 x 2 inches

The technique is the perfect combination of handwork and modern technology. I liked the fact that the background provided visual interest without being a narrative “landscape.” The collages became about composition, color, and pattern. The small collage to large format print technique enabled me to work in a way that is much faster. I can't remember the last time I had so much fun making art.

So now you’ve got a way to develop collaged papers, skins if you will, that can be stitched to armatures. How has this transformed your creative process?

I’m finding that the collage work is breathing new life into my sculpture. I’m now able to combine images and custom print the skins. It’s really gratifying to blend the two together. 

Your ability to make copper wire look like a graceful line you might make with pencil on a paper with intentionality behind it… I can imagine there’s an extraordinary intensity and duration of focus that you must maintain to achieve these results.

Yes, focus and patience. Most folks don’t know how my work is constructed, because you can't really see the metal framework through the stitching. I don’t keep sketchbooks or make maquettes. I will, however, draw a very crude outline to scale using a projector. I labor intensely. I want there to be a sense that something’s about to happen, like it's about to jump.

IMPALA (detail), 2015, Archival pigment print on paper, hand stitched to copper rod armature, 64 x 61 x 10 inches

We feel the tension in the line’s suggestion of musculature, and yet there’s no movement. There are so few indicators and yet each line infers so much.

That's why I use copper. I can bend it easily with my hands. However, with the Impala, the largest piece in the exhibit, well, it’s killing me! Its size requires me to use a thicker gauge copper, and I just can't finesse that 1/8-inch rod the way I can a lighter-gauged material. 

IMPALA in progress

I wonder if the kind of finesse you achieve – control, if you want to use that word – is your way of maintaining fidelity with nature? 

I think so. I’ve noticed I usually choose to represent animals that are considered less valuable, or a nuisance: snakes, coyotes, prairie dogs, jack rabbits. These animals are often killed by humans because they don’t fit neatly into man’s modern, developed environment. Habitats are disappearing. People live in areas where wildlife is present, and are shocked when a coyote gets into the back yard and eats Fifi. That coyote is simply adapting to its changing environment, one with an abundance of people and what [people] bring with them. This conversation is a complex one, and I could go on and on. Just ask my friends! 

The essence of my work is to try to get people to take a second look. Just how did certain things become less valuable to the whole? I am lucky enough to live in a somewhat rural area where I am completely immersed in my surroundings. I know every bird chirp. The connection that I have is really the core of my being, which sounds totally corny to me, but I think it’s true.


Simulacra opens on September 18, 2015 and is on view until January 2, 2016 at McColl Center for Art + Innovation. An Open House will take place on Friday, September 18, 2015 from 6-9 PM, and will include an Artist + Curator Talk at 6:30 PM.


A native of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, Mark Richard Leach is an arts writer, curator, and nonprofit fundraiser. He is the Guest Curator of Anne Lemanski’s exhibtion, Simulacra. Leach is formerly the Executive Director of the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art (SECCA) in Winston-Salem, NC. He is also the former Founding Director and Chief Curator of Charlotte's Mint Museum of Craft & Design.