Lisa Ragland embraces the spark of inspiration in raw new exhibit

The artist delved into her sketchbooks for 'My Heart Is Trying to Tell Me Something,' which opens today (Friday, Dec. 8) at Secret Studio in Franklinton.
"My Heart Is Trying to Tell Me Something" by Lisa Ragland
"My Heart Is Trying to Tell Me Something" by Lisa RaglandCourtesy the artist

Among the items on display in Lisa Ragland’s new exhibit at Secret Studio, dubbed “My Heart Is Trying to Tell Me Something” and opening today (Friday, Dec. 8), is a framed sketchbook the artist kept in 2016.

The last entry in the book, which is only about half full, reads, “I stopped making art in 2016.”

“At that point, every desire that I had ever had to create just completely shut down like a steel trap door,” Ragland said in early December at the Franklinton recording studio and art space. “And it was very scary, because my whole life, my identity had been wrapped up in being good at art – good at art, right? Not enjoying art but being good at it.”

In retrospect, Ragland said the shutdown needed to happen, and that the time away allowed her the space she needed to figure out who she was and what she valued absent art.

An early breakthrough arrived when Ragland took part in what she now describes as “a leadership cult,” which is where she first met Secret Studio cofounder, the poet and artist Amy Turn Sharp. In these sessions, which Ragland said featured “lots of crying,” she started to realize she had long devalued her relationships with family members and loved ones. In the months and years that followed, Ragland focused on her health, got divorced, and entered into a new relationship. And then, after a couple of years, the art started to naturally reemerge.

“And when that spark came back, it came back in a different way,” Ragland said. “I slowly started journaling and sketching, doing it for pure pleasure or therapy, without the feeling or need that I had to be perfect. … And sometimes between those scribbles, there was something I wanted to see unearthed from my sketchbook, something I wanted to see the light of day.”

These comparatively unfinished images form the backbone of “My Heart Is Trying to Tell Me Something,” an exhibit that allowed Ragland to take an approach she said she has long wanted to, mining her sketchbook for half-formed ideas, rough drawings and quickly completed sketches that carry that initial jolt of still-untraceable inspiration. “I’m such an overthinker that I’m desperate for those moments I can be like, ‘I can’t explain any of this, and I don’t want to,’” Ragland said.

In the past, Ragland said, she’s been prone to overworking her art, tracing this trend in part to her high school years in AP art classes, and later at CCAD, when teachers and peers led her to question the “fast and sloppy approach” she often took while creating. “Everybody around you tells you that you can’t do it that way, and I would get in trouble in classes for divulging that I only spent a fraction of the time on something as my peers,” Ragland said. “It didn’t matter the quality of it; there was this standard of time that other people were putting in. … And when I start to overwork things, I start questioning every decision and worrying what other people will think.”

As a result, the artist’s exhibited works tended to exist at a remove from the source, from her heart. This latest Secret Studio show serves as a corrective, the closeness to that initial jolt reflected in everything down to its title: “My Heart Is Trying to Tell Me Something.”

When Ragland returned to artmaking following her 2016 hiatus, she said she initially reconnected with the tactile sensation of putting ink to paper, or the simple pleasure of making marks with a paint color she loved. “It was more of a physical process than a mental process,” said Ragland, who in those years she went without drawing found a similar physical connection in unexpected places, such as sweeping the floor with a broom.

In a way, the experience of again picking up a pen also brought Ragland back to how she felt when she started to draw in elementary school, recalling how her classmates would chase her around the playground, begging her to ink “tattoos” on their arms.

“I would draw when I was processing something that happened around me, or if I was just making up stories. Or sometimes I would draw when I was stressed out and didn’t know how to talk about what was going on, and I would just draw scary monsters or something,” Ragland said. “And I guess nowadays it’s not much different. I’m drawing to entertain somebody, drawing based on observation, drawing to process emotions. But, yeah, I would say the fun has finally come back.”

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