Evidence of awe" is one way that Kansas City-based visual artist Linnea Spransy describes her work. This no doubt conjures up some of the best moments we feel in the presence of art—a moment when art becomes a mystery that looms close, conveying what other languages cannot communicate as directly as the visual. The best art arrests us, demanding full concentration, or leaves us with an ache, or gives the heady feeling that the edge of something has just been revealed. Truly, it is best described as an experience of awe.
But this is not exactly what Spransy means. Soft-spoken, articulate, and voraciously curious, Spransy is much more likely to view her work as a testament to the awe she feels in everyday life. The act of creation inspires her to further amazement. Long before anyone sees her work and invites an experience of awe, Spransy has felt that beginning the piece meant stepping onto "a path into an undiscovered country."
She uses humble materials—acrylic on canvas, and sometimes ink on frosted Mylar or acrylic and coloured pencils on paper—in "almost self-evidently simple ways." This simplicity imitates the patterns found in nature, since she uses fractals, patterns where parts are just small copies of the whole, like ferns, snowflakes or even broccoli florets. Spransy often uses these while introducing a dash of chaos. It's kind of like a RadioLab episode on canvas.
To witness these meek beginnings "transform into snarls of harmonic complexity" is something Spransy describes as "nothing short of awesome." They become something that "I—even with my admittedly overactive imagination—could, would and almost should not ever dream of inventing." These beginnings end up like Spransy's Ricochet—a commanding red acrylic on canvas whose overall impression is one of movement. The piece is four by six feet long, with one large pattern that looks like the chart of a dramatic wave "snarled" by another pattern reminiscent of a loosened skein of yarn. A closer look reveals buried galaxies of patterns. Beneath a layer of the skein lies a pattern resembling sea urchins or flower petals, and beside the skein dots have splashed onto the canvas. These harmonize and contribute to the overall impression of movement.
With pieces like Ricochet, Spransy designs the system first, establishing the rules she will use for the painting. She decides what to use as a module— a ribbon, stencil, graph or hook-and-eye pattern might serve the purpose—anything that is both simple and flexible.
For instance, in her painting Widget, she built the system using a grid and used a ribbon as her module. She set limits for how her ribbon painting would move down the canvas. She established how many points on the graph it would move, and in what directions. The length and number of lines would be constantly multiplying. For Widget, the result looks like a complicated cooking whisk. The systems are mathematical, yet simple, harkening to the work of Sol LeWitt and Bridget Riley, but employing a much different philosophy.
Does this process sound rigid? Dull, perhaps? If so, you're getting warmer. You're beginning to unlock Spransy's reason for giving herself limits. She wants to show her viewers, and herself, that limits are anything but rigid, dull or squashing. In her artist's statement, she declares that she explores the ability of limits to "generate surprise, even freedom, because these regulations, over time, build bizarre chandeliers of glimmering crystal, guide the catacomb construction of ant colonies, and shape the swoop of flocks and tidal currents with eerie similarity." She follows the systems where they lead, knowing the end of the system, yet still not quite knowing where she'll end up and what the painting will look like. Creating, she follows the labyrinth. Once the system is complete, she evaluates whether the labyrinth is complete as a painting, or whether it needs more resolution.
Her projects are reminiscent not just of nature, but of poetic forms, where limits are the very thing that produce rhythms and word-pairings otherwise unachievable. Her poetic counterpart might be Gerard Manley Hopkins, who used the sonnet mold, then shattered right through it. The directed freedom Linnea Spransy sets up for herself yields "consistent astonishment" for her.
In a statement for a recent show, which ran from January to February 2009 at Byron C. Cohen gallery in her native Kansas City, Missouri, she was particularly direct about why predetermined rules are part of her artistic philosophy. "Are we free?" she asks. Her art is a chance to cast a lanternlight on the shadowy questions of free will, to investigate what it means that there are boundaries that determine human existence. A lack of rules means a lack of shape, she muses. The rules of genetics, for instance, define being more than they limit it. "An orange is not free to be an elephant . . . true freedom is mere formless potential."
Here is where it gets really interesting. One might say that in her art, Linnea Spransy is playing God—in the best possible sense. Most often, that phrase cautions us against taking matters into our own hands, but for Spransy it just means she wants to know what it is like to be a creator—one who, like God, has sworn "to abide by certain constants." Questions spurred her experiment-turned-philosophy:
Is this kind of self-limiting choice the privilege of only the omnipotent, or can we peons also enjoy it? Is free will a delusion—a nasty trick of consciousness—or is choice actually possible, given the boggling thicket of rules surrounding all of life? To this conundrum, add the maddening contradiction that the steady God of Christianity also claims to be dynamic . . . responsive to human free agency. Is it true that opposite claims must always be exclusive?
Spransy writes that after brooding over it, she gave up. "Until the only thing left I could think of was to jump into the fray, try to clear a small space of artificial intelligibility and use it to imitate and run tests on the chaos and confusion of it all."
She has learned much in the process of running these artistic experiments. She has learned that even the yawn-inducing aspects of creating reveal God's faithfulness. Spransy's work takes time (Ricochet took five weeks of constant work) and involves a heavy dose of repetition because "you can't skip ahead; there's no cheating." She has to flesh out the system that she has created. This repetition, which can verge on boredom, demonstrates God's faithfulness. "I don't require inspiration in order to work. God doesn't require our faithfulness to be faithful." One manifestation of God's faithfulness is in keeping repetitive rules in place at all, because, as Spransy reminds us, "the known world would combust without them." Insights like this are why she's in it—they are the only motive strong enough, she says, to keep her hooked into the artist's lifestyle. "Without the vigor of discovery there is no motive strong enough to compel artistic practice—it's a lifestyle without obvious reward, save this internal joy of exploration."
At the same time, Spransy admits, "I hate boredom." Yet, she keeps drawing the lines her systems require, even when it gets tedious, taking comfort in a God who understands that we need routine, repetition and familiarity. "We can't handle cataclysms one day after the other. Children need routine in order to feel secure, and we are in the same boat!" And even when the routine is boring, she says, "you push your way through," and she finds the ending rewarding, as the finished product bursts forth with gathered momentum.
And so, running tests on this idea of whether we can be free within limits has opened out into awe. "In the end, somehow I have written an accidental symphony . . .scribbled one ordinary note at a time." Rules can be fun, ultimately, and Spransy reflects that "joyful people" are the ones who make them— because aren't games born out of rules?
"What makes me unique?"
At age thirty-three, Spransy—enigmatic and mind-blowingly intelligent—remembers plenty of games and fun during her unusual childhood, and she has traveled an unconventional path throughout her life to arrive at such a unique concept for making art. Spransy's mother grew up in a Swedish fishing village and Spransy has fond memories of baking on an open hearth when she visited her grandmother in that village. Spransy herself grew up in a Christian commune in Oregon, where people shared their possessions and an idealistic, simple and genuine lifestyle. During this time, her father played keyboard for Servant, one of the first major Christian rock bands (in which, incidentally, Linford Detweiler of the band Over the Rhine got his start).
Spransy remembers a confluence of rules and freedom in the commune, though she is sure she was not self-aware enough as a child to notice this blend. Reflecting on this now, she compares life in the commune to life in a city—where even the chaos follows certain rules. Mostly, though, she remembers that plenty of time to play and a free flow of new people around the dinner table blended with the structures of eating with the community at a certain time every evening in the same dining hall.
Her family moved from the intentional community in Oregon to middle America. The shock of the move and of entering public school led her to draw and paint in earnest, probably, she admits, as a means of escape. In high school, Spransy asked to be homeschooled, knowing she would be an artist and wanting to funnel her energy into that. She then attended Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, followed by Yale School of Art.
At school in Milwaukee, she gained the tools she would need to be a successful artist, but it was in graduate school that she really began to think about what made her unique as an artist. "Part of their shtick is rattling your cage," she says. Realizing the world is full of artists and being asked, "Why is what you make worth looking at?" Spransy realized it was essential to interrogate what made her unique. Up until this point, she says her artwork had been merely a knee-jerk response to others' appreciation of her talents. She drew mostly figurative pieces that were still whimsical, but had not yet reached down into the questions that uniquely concerned her. It was in graduate school that she began exploring the questions that form the cerebral yet compelling philosophy she engages today. It was a personal journey, she says, but graduate school "turned up the heat under the pot."
She spent a lot of time in the library, not looking at images of art, but mulling over the outside interests that could inform and seep into her work.
Now, having been based in Kansas City, Missouri for four years, she still keeps this up. "Books . . . are actually a means of time travel. Really! Think about it: the narration of another human being— who may have lived in Russia during the Revolution, or perhaps the sun-drenched Greek isles at the first flowering of Western Civilization—allows me to slip into the inner concerns of a person unlike me in almost every way." To nourish her creativity, Spransy not only reads, but also frequents museums, travels, listens to plenty of music and radio shows, and welcomes conversations with people whose experiences differ from hers. She recently spoke with a couple—a physicist and geneticist—who are trying to figure out if memory is a genetic function, working with fruit flies to isolate the gene-sequence responsible for memories.
Cultivating her outside interests keeps her thinking, and it is evident that Spransy's work is evolving. She began a new development in her Kansas City studio. In graduate school at Yale, she had begun introducing emergent systems into her work, imitating natural systems like anthills, but it was not until two years ago that she began inviting chaos, pouring rivers and lakes of paint onto her canvases.
Tight, protected patterns, she reasoned, are not the only truth of the natural world, and she wanted to test the elasticity of those patterns. "The natural world is a tangle of competing systems, some of which cooperate, some of which nearly destroy each other . . . Fragments and debris are everywhere . . . they overlap and interfere with one another." And so, she began simulating flotsam, jetsam and disasters by pouring paint onto the system and then letting the work recover from the new, disordered element, the way ants will bump up against each other, then react, recuperate and continue creating their intricate masterpieces. Chaos, given time, often sorts itself out. In some cases, there is entropy, but not always, and in her paintings, she can continue making lines that react to each other, even after a river of paint has coursed through.
These are the pieces Spransy now finds most delightful. The pieces without the splashing and coursing of spilled paint have "a much quieter music," but she finds the chaos more absorbing. "They integrate two kinds of time—instantaneous cataclysm and the almost geologic crawl of accretion."
As a professional artist, her pieces have been shown nationally and internationally. "My resume is the somewhat bewildering record of a wandering, but fortunate spirit," she says, and though one might expect her to cite the most exotic places her work has shown (China, for instance), or the most unexpected (Princeton School of Divinity), a recent show at the nearby White Flag Projects in St. Louis was her favourite so far. The gallery staff treated the artists well, and gave each piece "space to breathe," which Spransy says is rare. For her show, "All Systems Go," several large pieces hung from the ceiling, giving visitors the chance to walk a circle around the pieces and see them from different angles. White Flags Projects also showed her work as the process, which highlights what is so distinct about Spransy's work.
As she shows her work or invites visitors to her studio, one has to wonder how Spransy's concept of "playing God" has been received, especially when she is so bold and vulnerable in her artist's statements. Whenever she has people in her studio, intense discussions start, and she finds these discussions as creative and compelling as the acts of painting and drawing.
Confronted with beauty, Spransy says, people want to talk. Visitors want to know how she makes these pieces and why. It unfolds something, she says, and then the secular and scientific rationales for her art begin to weave in and out of discussions of what Spransy holds to be true.
What Spransy hopes a visitor would find, in seeing her work in any place from China to her own studio, is an experience with beauty—not beauty in the conventional sense, but the kind of experience with beauty that is key to the human experience. Moments of beauty, Spransy believes, are among the most powerful we experience— even if it is beauty tinged with terror. As she experiences awe in asking and experimenting with questions of freedom, the images she passes along promise to confront her viewers not only with beauty, but with nothing less than an experience of awe.
Peter Menzies is the Alberta-Northwest Territories commissioner for the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) and past publisher and editor-in-chief...