Studio Visit: Leslie Vigeant, MFA ‘11
UNTITLED Magazine visits Leslie Vigeant's Northeast Portland studio.
UNTITLED Magazine visits the working studios of PNCA students, faculty, staff, and alumni, taking a closer look at lives and spaces of sustained creative practice.
Sometimes it takes a little while for content to make its way through our editorial hopper and onto the page. Such was the case with this particular studio visit.
This past fall, Leslie Vigeant, MFA AC+D ’11, generously invited us into her basement studio to peek around and check out her (then) newest work. We joined her for a mid-morning tea and talked about dreams, doppelgangers, and exploring different mark-making techniques. Since then, most of the works-in-progress we saw that day have made it onto gallery walls in one of the numerous shows Vigeant has had since our visit. Looking at her website, you can see the finished versions of many of the pieces pictured below.
Vigeant came to PNCA as part of the inaugural class of the MFA in Applied Craft + Design (a joint program with Oregon College of Art and Craft) as a painter. Vigeant set up her home studio in her basement when she graduated in 2011 and has worked as a studio painter and illustrator since then.
“I had just gotten out of school and needed a place to be,” said Vigeant. “Nobody comes down here. I just kind of got all private. I’m alone and I like it. When I started the studio, I had other chairs down here, I thought it could be a little lounge. But I’m the only one down here. I don’t need four chairs.”
She looked around the space and grinned. “It’s a mess. It’s like the whole room’s about to explode.”
On the walls and shelves are evidence of past projects: vials of brightly-hued marmoleum powder and other glass bottles from her thesis project, Material Rescue League. A “lace” room divider made out of stretched and melted plastic bags. Cyanotypes and embroideries from artist friends cover the walls. Each project blends into the next.
Since graduation, Vigeant has returned to her painting practice.
“Painting was a skill I had and I hadn’t done it in a long time. Before I went to grad school, I felt I knew how to paint. That I couldn’t learn anymore. And then I went to school and realized how stupid that was. There’s always something new to learn.”
“I always do this. I work a lot, and then I start changing what I was doing… it’s just part of the learning experience,” she added. “I need to find a way to merge them and bridge these more traditional looking paintings with these more open spaces. But you can see the progression, where it’s all coming from, where it’s going.”
“Painting is something I always go back to. Maybe it’ll be a constant. Or not. Maybe I’ll be working with stop motion animation. But it’s the one consistent form of making that I’ve always done.”
When we visited, Vigeant was working on a number of paintings for a show at Lizard Lounge in NW Portland [“Strangers,” Oct 2012]. She points to a recently completed portrait of her mother and sister.
“With this painting, I let myself do things I was nervous to do,” Vigeant said. “I have to talk myself off the edge all the time. I just really let myself do it with this piece. I put some pencil marks down at the beginning and I wanted to erase them immediately. I get really precious about things immediately. I want everything to be so presentable, despite the chaos it’s all housed in. But I just let this one ride. I left the pencil marks. I mean, Giacometti left the pencil marks.”
“I love the freedom of that painting, how open and washy it is. Sometimes I feel the pressure to fill every space – there are so many layers in that painting. I work in layers, but they’re just so watery you don’t see them. It’s so open, but it’s framed, and there’s a contradiction there that I like.”
Vigeant took advantage of the two years of grad school by launching herself into unfamiliar media and subject matter. She worked with discarded materials (thrifted textiles, copper pipes, and plastic bags, for example), explored encaustic, and experimented with different branding strategies. Her graduate practicum project, titled Material Rescue League, played with ideas of recovery and rehabilitation through the treatment of discarded goods. Through an internship with Portland Recology, Vigeant sourced objects from the city landfill, transformed those objects into raw material, and packaged and rebranded the resulting material.
The project grappled with what Vigeant called “material classism,” which she defines as a prejudice or discrimination against certain kinds of materials based on their history, wear, or source location.
“I obviously like different materials,” she explained, “and like to express myself, to exercise skills in different materials, like collage. I love collage because I can be really wacky with it. Basically, if it makes me laugh, I do it. I love sticking people in little objects, or other absurdities. Whatever it is I can do [with collage], I’m really into it.”
The photo imagery Vigeant uses in her collaged works on paper has informed a number of her larger painting projects. She keeps the photos in piles, depending on how much she like them. A photo of a woman hunting appeared in Ego. Two women in classic Pendleton jackets appear in Emma and Aurora. Another example is a photo Vigeant sourced during her Recology internship. The photo shows a young girl, whom Vigeant has named “Sue.”
Something about Sue’s face, or stance, or solitude in the photo captured Vigeant’s visual imagination and she’s used Sue in a number of drawings and large-scale oil paintings. On one small panel, three Sues stand side by side as eerily identical triplets. On another, a solo Sue rests against a blue and white horizon line.
“I like to beat an image to death. I find every different way for me to get my arms around what I like about an image. I’ll do a big drawing, and then a watercolor, and ultimately make an oil painting. In some cases, I’ll have fifty versions of something.”
In many ways, Vigeant explains, she’s used the people she finds in old photos as a stand-ins or symbols for herself.
“I think of these as alter egos.”
Vigeant’s work recently shifted significantly when she began to use her own face in her paintings.
“I just had to face the facts,” Vigeant explained. “I’ve been painting all these other people and thinking about myself when I was painting them. I was avoiding painting myself.”
Currently, Vigeant is working on a series of paintings inspired by imagery from the Dust Bowl and jackrabbit hunting.
“For two years, all through grad school, I was having nightmares about tsunami waves,” Vigeant said. “These waves were huge, just huge. And then I was at Powell’s and saw a book on the Dust Bowl. Immediately, my stomach dropped. I thought, ‘Oh my god. That’s it. It’s that thing. That’s the image I see at night.’ It was almost déjà-vu. The waves in my dreams were on the scale of a dust storm, way bigger than a four-story building.”
She elaborated. “I think the dust storm dreams were about my feeling a lack of control in my life and over the things around me. The epic nature of the images of the Dust Bowl really resonated with my dreams.”
In her research around the Dust Bowl, Vigeant encountered stories of massive plagues of jackrabbits. In order to combat the hundreds of thousands of jackrabbits that overran the Dust Bowl states in 1935, some towns staged “jackrabbit drives” in which townsmen herded the rabbits in pens and smashed them to death with clubs and baseball bats.
“I saw pictures of all these people murdering, brutally killing rabbits. It was disgusting, but it obviously struck me,” said Vigeant. “I was interested in the symbolism of rabbits in art. Rabbits, in my eyes at least, always signaled wealth or affluence. Then there are ideas around rabbits multiplying and boxing rabbits… Which, interestingly, are usually female rabbits, boxing away over-friendly males. You wouldn’t think that. You think of Thumper’s girlfriend [from Bambi]. It’s a gender/role-reversal, the same way images of women in pants and holding guns in the 1920s reversed the usual order of things.”
Today, Vigeant is finishing up the last of her Dust Bowl/jackrabbit series in preparation for a class at Anderson Ranch later this summer.
“I’m working towards getting more in my head about what I’m making and why to get ready for this critique course.”
Vigeant is also playing with using words in her paintings. In her work for the Applied Craft + Design program, she’s been able to exercise a few graphic design muscles.
“I’ve never used text in a painting before because I felt people always looked at the word, not the image,” said Vigeant. “I always want to keep feeding myself, to keep exploring. I try all these different techniques and they all feed my painting. I learned to work with material and branding [in Material Rescue League], and then, a few years later, graphic design appears in my paintings. I learned Photoshop and now some of my paintings look like I’m manipulating them digitally. I learn these skills, and then bring them back to the painting.”
You can follow Vigeant on her website.