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Awardee Spotlight: A Dialogue with Lily Cox-Richard
Lily Cox-Richard is a Virginia-based artist and teacher. A 2015 Houston Artadia Awardee, Lily creates sculptures that “engage familiar forms and materials that have become unmoored from their original contexts and roles.”
What made you decide to be an artist?
As a kid, if asked what I wanted to be when I grew up I likely said artist, but looking back, I had no idea what that meant. I grew up on a small family farm surrounded by home-grown projects and inventive solutions with varying degrees of success and practicality, like a hot tub made of extra cinderblocks. It was a culture where adventurous thinking was undeterred by the potential for failure, which gave me a lot of freedom and undoubtedly nurtured my creativity, but of course, I didn’t appreciate it at the time. I got as far away from the farm as I could, and studied jewelry and metalsmithing at California College of Arts and Crafts. There I was exposed to contemporary art and artists, and my work moved from jewelry towards sculpture.
What is your work about? How is it made?
I’m interested in how materials and forms can hold meaning, as well as the larger systems they are a part of: cultural histories, and questions of value, labor, and stewardship. The materials and processes I use depend on the work at hand, and range from carving plaster to hydraulically compacting scrap metal.
What were you working on when you received the Artadia Award in 2015? How has your work evolved since then?
The Artadia Award coincided with two other opportunities that made for a pivotal year in my practice. I was about a year into doing research for Old Copper Futures, which became a series of compacted bales of scrap copper from different American cities. Now that the project exists, each one weighs about 1000 lbs and is supported by a custom plinth that also serves as a pallet to move the sculpture. I hadn’t figured out how to realize the project—I had used all of my contacts and resources on a disastrous first attempt, and I was hitting brick wall after brick wall. I was working full time as the critical initiatives coordinator for the Core Program, which was super interesting and engaging work, but also pretty all-consuming. I found out that I was a finalist for Artadia and a residency at Artpace at about the same time, and I remember thinking, “if I can just get one of these opportunities, I know I can make this project happen.” Being awarded both Artadia and Artpace was indeed greater than their sum: not only did their combined support help me realize this project, but the affirmation of each was reinforced by the other.
My Artadia Award allowed me to buy more copper and funded a residency at RAIR (Recycled Artist in Residence) in Philadelphia, which helped me navigate the industry and find the right kind of baler. Having a studio at a waste reclamation facility also forged a more intimate relationship to trash and helped me better understand waste systems. After my RAIR residency, I headed to a two-month residency at Artpace in San Antonio, TX to figure out how these bales of copper can work as sculpture, and create other works for my exhibition Salv.
In addition to creating a new body of work, the concurrent grants and residencies made it possible for me to leave my job to take full advantage of these opportunities–still, that was a really scary decision for me to make. The recognition and support fueled a very generative year, and I couldn’t have taken the leap without these awards: I am deeply grateful.
Do you find that you are most generative while on residency?
There are so many different kinds of residencies. Longer term ones, like the Core Program, become daily life, while other residencies, like MacDowell, make the chores of daily life disappear allowing for sustained and intense studio focus. It’s easier to carve out time for deep work when other responsibilities and distractions are eliminated. Last summer, I moved to Richmond to teach at Virginia Commonwealth University. Now I’m trying to figure out ways to sustain that intensity of focus in my studio here without a formal residency.
Meeting new people and exploring different places always opens things up and shifts perspectives, which is incredibly generative in a different way. I’m in the second year of a ten-year (intermittent) residency at Yvonne in Guatemala City. This is a long-term experiment, and we’re not even sure if “residency” is the best word for it, but I will live and work with/at Yvonne for several weeks each year. So far, this has connected me to creative communities there, where I’ve gained a new understanding of, and deep admiration for, the contemporary art scene in Guatemala, as well as fresh perspective on my work and context. The first year, I made a series of prints with Taller Experimental de Gráfica de Guatemala (TEGG), and an exhibition, If not an hongo // Si no es un mushroom. This began with an investigation of a biological occurrence native to Guatemala: an abnormal growth (sometimes called a matapalo) that occurs on certain trees in response to a parasitic mistletoe. Often mistaken for some kind of mushroom, these intricate woody tumors are collected and sold as decorative curios. As I questioned guest/host dynamics in relation to parasitism and hospitality (and my own role as a visitor) I made a series of concrete sculptures that engage and respond to architectural details throughout Yvonne. If not an hongo, and perhaps my ongoing engagement with Yvonne, looks for ways to live under threat, finding models for necessary resistance that might, in turn, foster the growth of something beautiful.
How do you come up with your ideas?
I percolate ideas pretty slowly, which might be why I’m especially drawn to a 10-year residency. Much of my work has started with me noticing something that I previously overlooked, asking questions of it, and then rather than answers, just finding better questions. This has led me to other kinds of residencies where I’ve focused on research. I pursued RAIR and the Smithsonian Artists Research Fellowship for specific projects and lines of questioning that were already underway, and the access they provided was crucial to the development of the work. But being so focused on a specific project meant that I didn’t explore some of the tempting tangents that I could have followed. When I was at RAIR in 2016, I remember that there was a giant bale of tinsel sitting out behind one of the buildings. No one knew what to do with it, or how to recycle it. It would get covered in dust and debris, and then rain or wind would wash it clean, and it would become blindingly sparkly again. I think about this bale of tinsel all the time. Seriously, it has dedicated space in my mind’s eye. I called Billy Dufala at RAIR to ask what happened to it and he said it was still there, so I last week, I visited the tinsel bale. I don’t yet know where this is going, but it is leading to some pretty good questions!
You have said that you are interested in everyday objects and details that are often overlooked. Why and how are these important in your work?
There’s so much at stake in paying attention to what gets obscured by dominant voices and main characters. Attention to details and peripheries is one way I’m working to dismantle white supremacy and other systems of oppression. I thought a lot about this in my recent show Sculptures the Size of Hailstones at the Old Jail Art Center in Albany, TX. Like the hail scale, my sculptures in this series range in size from a pea to a softball. They were positioned on a massive plaster plinth that had cast woven baskets forming niches and craters. What seems small for sculpture can be lethal as a hailstone. Modesty of scale can make something easier to dismiss, but it can also grant the ability to go stealth: little things that might be mistaken for ornamentation but are in fact infrastructural, or just the visible element of an extensive vital system. By making the plinth so much larger than necessary, I wanted to insist on the importance of its supporting role and claim space for it. I installed Strike: Solitary Confinement in the adjacent room, a group of reclaimed lightning rods, their grounding cables woven between the bars of the cell. This room was not accessible and was best viewed by the security monitor near the front desk, reminding visitors that today they came to a jail because it had art, not people, inside.
What is your dream project?
I have a running list of dream projects: literally, artworks that I’ve made in dreams. I awake to think, “I should make THAT!” These include a collaboration with earthworms, a sculpture of the space between the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, and a glowing three-dimensional asterisk made of asparagus.
What is next for you?
I’m working on sculptures for an exhibition at Diverseworks in Houston in September, which will explore convergences of infrastructure and natural systems while challenging assumptions of positionality and value. I’m creating new aggregates that fuse crafted objects, found materials, and cast concrete. The space has a row of low, floor-level windows that stretch the length of the gallery. I think the ideal vantage point for my show will be kneeling on the sidewalk just outside the gallery.
And of course, thinking more about the tinsel bale.
Lily Cox-Richard’s sculpture engages familiar forms and materials that have become unmoored from their original contexts and roles. She mines this distance by digging into their cultural and materials histories and forging new paths between them. She has been awarded an Artadia grant, a Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship, a postdoctoral fellowship in the University of Michigan’s Society of Fellows, and residencies at the Core Program, Millay Colony, RAIR Philadelphia, and the MacDowell Colony. Recent solo exhibitions include Yvonne (Guatemala City), Artpace (San Antonio, TX), She Works Flexible (Houston), Hirschl & Adler Modern (New York), Vox Populi (Philadelphia), and the Hudson River Museum (New York). Lily Cox-Richard lives and works in Richmond, VA, where she is an assistant professor in the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts.