Tiffany Lawson and the art of learning to sacrifice control

The artist’s new exhibit, ‘Contemporary Coloured: The Redux’ and ‘The Crisco Effect,’ opens at Sean Christopher Gallery in the Short North on Saturday, Nov. 5.
"What da Manna?"
"What da Manna?"By artist Tiffany Lawson

Tiffany Lawson experimented with an array of mediums for her new career-spanning exhibit at Sean Christopher Gallery. There are elaborate collages, deeply textured hangings constructed of recycled materials and paintings built on cured soybean oil stains. There are also a pair of bronzed sculptures created through a process that accidentally revealed a thread running through the diverse works on display.

“It’s a whole process of surrender,” said Lawson, whose new exhibit, “Contemporary Coloured: The Redux” and “The Crisco Effect,” kicks off with a 4 p.m. opening reception at Sean Christopher on Saturday, Nov. 5. “With the metal, there’s a whole alchemy to it … but it’s uncontrollable. And there’s a freedom in knowing that you can’t control it, but whatever comes out, you can work with it.”

An understanding of forces beyond one’s control surfaces in myriad ways in Lawson’s work, revealing itself in the majestic landscapes depicting nature’s brute power (wide canyons, volcanic eruptions) woven into “What da Manna?,” pictured above, and the epic tidal waves in “Muva Drum,” which are reminiscent of “Under the Wave off Kanagawa” by Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai.

“I think that’s a big part of life. You’ll never be able to control every aspect of everything. What you can control is your reaction to it, and what kind of stimuli you allow in your life and how that changes you and what it does to you,” Lawson said. “I think for me, especially, that just means you’re putting your best out at all times, whether you’re creating art, speaking with somebody, or even the thoughts you feed yourself. … It’s [recognizing] those uncontrollable moments of power and beauty and doing your best to shape it, to harness it, and hold onto as much of it as you can.”

When Lawson exhibited at 934 Gallery in March 2021, a majority of the works centered on imagined characters. A trio of those pieces reappear here, including the powerful “Dragon Slayer,” who emerged in the artist’s mind fully formed during the height of stay-at-home regulations. “Who are you? What do you want?” Lawson recalled thinking at the time.

Similar characters surface in newer creations, though the inspirations are often more personal, the roots more easily excavated. Such is the case with the soybean oil and pastel portrait of a destitute man wrapped in a plastic blanket and framed by dangling metal loops – a feature meant to echo the shackles Lawson hears daily in her work at the Franklin County Municipal Court. “It’s pretty much poor people's crimes: misdemeanors, traffic offenses,” Lawson said. “And people have a hard time paying their way out, and it becomes this cycle where you see the same people over and over.”

Even so, Lawson has seen a more hopeful turn in her artwork in recent times, part of which she traced to her shifting hours, offering that she has become less of a night owl as she nears age 40. “I used to work into the wee hours of the morning, where now I’m going to bed at 10 [p.m.] and I’m up at 4 [a.m.] in my home studio figuring things out,” she said. 

As a result, Lawson said she now approaches the canvas with a refreshed mind rather than carrying a full day of baggage into the creative process – a renewed sense of hope and wonder evident in “What da Manna?” The piece, inspired by a bible passage and brought to life via collage, is a wondrous mix of vibrant patterns, gorgeous nature scenes and Black faces that captures a sense of the heavenly beauty present on Earth. Crafted in the early half of the pandemic, Lawson attributed the work’s more natural leanings to the sense of escapism provided by the outdoors at a time when gathering inside was a fraught proposition.

“You had to choose when to take your walk, and it was important,” Lawson said. “But it was also about more than a walk in the park. It was about gardening, about taking pride in your surroundings. And then also nature in regard to yourself, your individuality. What is in your nature? And that has become more of a focus, as well.”

Lawson’s internal focus is most evident in works such as in “Muva Drum,” a piece that emerged from the artist focusing intently on the way her heart beats. “It’s a very strong heartbeat, if I do say so myself,” she said, and laughed. “And … that strength wasn’t something I realized until one day when I was laying down and maybe having an anxiety attack, and maybe not, but I realized how hard and loud my heart beats, and the power behind it.”

This power is harnessed in the painting’s massive tidal wave, which Lawson described less as a destructive force and more as one capable of cleansing, creating fresh ground on which to build – an idea that mirrors the way in which she creates these days, often shuffling into her home studio in the hours before the sun rises.

“It has been a more hopeful thing to rest and wake up with a refreshed mind,” she said. “Especially, again, after working at the courthouse, where you come home after hearing shackles all day, seeing the same people and their woes and foes. It’s a better place to start and build these stories, rather than telling the same ones over and over again.”

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