Interview with Graceann Warn - (May 23, 2016)
Graceann Warn is a Michigan artist focusing on paintings and assemblages whose work has been exhibited in various galleries in the U.S. and Canada. In progressive metal, she is known as the artist who created "Theories of Flight," the artwork appearing on the cover of Fates Warning's 2016 album of the same name. Guitarist Jim Matheos adopted the flight-based phrase as the album title after coming across Warn's piece and being drawn to it as a "description of what some of the songs are about."
Q: For readers not familiar with your work, how would you describe yourself as an artist? When did you first start creating art and what style(s) are you best known for?
GW: I make paintings and assemblages. The paintings are encaustic on wood. Encaustic is an ancient medium now enjoying a bit of a resurgence. It is beeswax melted with dry pigment and resin, applied in its molten state, reactivated with a heat gun and manipulated with a palette knife. The assemblages (like the album cover art) are comprised of paper, wax and objects. I started with assemblages and later, once I figured out what I wanted to say, found my voice with paintings. Currently I make both.
My work would generally be described as abstract. Abstraction was always the style of painting that I was moved by as a viewer. The artists I looked at made marks and gestures on canvas that seemed like a secret alphabet to me, yet one that I could somehow read. My training in design probably cemented my interest in seeing form and color as being more relevant (to me) than representation.
Q: Where did you study art and what have been some of your more high-profile, or most meaningful, achievements and exhibitions in the art world – nationally or internationally?
GW: I have my degree in landscape architecture and also did graduate work, first in landscape architecture and later in Classical Art and Architecture (both at University of Michigan). I worked as a landscape architect for a few years after graduating but always felt the pull of art. I transitioned to art full time in 1986 once I found a way to support myself with it. I now show in galleries in the US and Canada. Frequently I have solo exhibitions with galleries, which was always my goal.
This art life has put me in touch with a lot of fascinating people and given me many opportunities. One of my most challenging and eventually satisfying projects was doing the set design for a major opera production of Orfeo. It was a massive two-year design project. I had never worked at such a colossal scale and I have always thought that this project provided a turning point in confidence which led to my making larger paintings.
Q: Is this the first time your art has been used for an album cover?
GW: I have done album art in the past, but it has been quite a while. My husband, Geoff Michael, is a recording engineer with a studio in Ann Arbor so I know many musicians and sometimes they ask for art. I think my first album cover was for a great Detroit band called Missionary Stew back in the early 90s. Fates Warning is the most "known" band I've worked with. I was very happy to have been contacted by Jim Matheos for this project. Similarly, I have worked on book cover art for a couple of published poets the most recent of which is Dan Gerber.
Q: Can you tell me about the piece Theories of Flight? When and how was it created, and how long did it take to make?
GW: Theories of Flight is one of a series of pieces I have been doing for the past couple of years that fall under a more general working title of "Distance and Observation." Much of my work is concerned with the sheer beauty of mystery. Bird flight falls into that category for me. I love to combine things from nature or science in my work. Many of these pieces may combine images that don't necessarily relate to each other in an obvious way.
Q: What is it about bird flight that particularly interests/inspires you?
GW: The flight thing goes back a long way. When I was 17 I took flying lessons until I ran out of waitressing money, but it was just something I needed to experience and I am glad I did it. Some people are fascinated by flying and I am one of them I guess. Just the fact that humans can't fly naturally and yet we go through unbelievable machinations to do so is amazing to me.
Q: Was the artwork modified, tweaked or expanded at all from its original form for use on the album?
GW: We had to tweak a little in order to accommodate the band name. I also added the number 12 to commemorate this twelfth album. For the most part this is the original version.
Q: One thing that caught my eye was the middle bird, which seems to be trapped in some sort of orb behind wire and nails. What kind of symbolism were you going for there?
GW: I'm creating a visual contrast between constraint and free flight. I used a lens over the middle bird image to create a sense of distance – literally and metaphorically. I also use lenses to tell the viewer to "look closer, don't miss this" ("this" in the bigger sense of the word).
Q: Can you shed any light on the meaning behind the writings – such as the Latin-type phrases or the numbers on the left side of the piece?
GW: The Latin text is all original to the astronomical imagery I'm using. These are copies of pages from antique cosmography texts that I collect. I like the obscurity that these ancient languages can provide and the text becomes almost a graphic image more than readable lettering. As I mentioned above, the 12 was made a little more prominent in honor of this album.
Q: Since you mentioned that Theories of Flight is part of a series of pieces under the working title of "Distance and Observation," can you tell me how many pieces are in the series so far and what are some of the other pieces in the series like?
GW: The "Distance and Observation" pieces are numerous and all unique, but I would say I have done maybe 40 or so in that theme. I've attached an image of four other ones in the series so you can see what they are like.
Q: Were you familiar with progressive metal previously? What are some of your favorite musicians in that or other genres?
GW: Admittedly, I was not aware of progressive metal, but now that I know about them I am a fan of Fates Warning!
Paintings generally have their genesis in a word or a line of words or music lyrics. Words connote images very powerfully for me. I have lists of single words or short sentences in journals, post-it notes, and random scraps of paper all over my studio (and car and house) awaiting transformation into a physical entity. I am constantly listening to music, reading, and looking for the zing of engagement with a word or two. Beginning this way generally gives me a strong sense of the direction in which I want to go with a piece, but sometimes things go awry, frequently in a good way, and I change course.
Music I listen to varies a great deal from Bach cello concertos to Neko Case, from Pat Metheny to John Coltrane. Depends on the day and what I need.
Q: What other artists have you looked up to, or been inspired by, during your career?
GW: The visual artists who have moved me the most are Joseph Cornell, Jasper Johns, Antoni Tapies, Robert Motherwell, Eva Hesse, among dozens of others. Poets include Pablo Neruda, Oliver de la Paz, Alexandre Vicente, Dan Gerber and Mary Oliver.
Q: What projects are you working on now?
GW: I am making a series of large (ish) scale paintings for some galleries that carry my work in Philadelphia, Aspen and Detroit. I have a solo exhibit going up on June 3 in a gallery in Cape Cod, and I am finishing those pieces this week. I am looking forward to this next few weeks as I just get to paint with no serious interruptions.
Q: Where can people go to follow, or get more information about, your work?
GW: I have a website: www.graceannwarn.com
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