Grace Weston, Photographer
Grace Weston’s gorgeous, ironic, and often darkly funny photographs give the viewer both sensual and intellectual delights. Using miniature props, she creates vignettes of metaphorical psychological narratives, which she then photographs with vivid color and beautiful lighting. The result is as alluring and hypnotic as a lucid dream, and as revealing of our subconscious fears and desires.
An award-winning artist, Grace Weston’s work has been exhibited and collected widely in private and public collections in the United States, Europe, Scandinavia, and Japan. Her editorial clients include O, the Oprah Magazine; More Magazine; Discover Magazine; and several regional magazines.
Grace currently has a show up at Sugarpill in Seattle. In April, she will be showing at Waterstone Gallery in Portland, Oregon, and at the Affordable Art Fair in New York City. To view more of Grace’s work online, visit her website at GraceWeston.com.
Grace talked with Constellation617 about her development as an artist, the themes in her work, and what inspires and sustains her. This interview took place on November 21, 2013, in Grace's home/studio loft in the Columbia City neighborhood of Seattle. In person, Grace is forthright, funny, and radiant with energy.
C617: Where are you from?
Grace Weston: I was born in New Jersey, and when I was in my twenties I moved to the West Coast. First to the Santa Monica/Venice Beach area, then to Portland, and then to Seattle two years ago. But I definitely feel—as my Jersey girlfriends all say—you can take the girls out of Jersey but you can’t take the Jersey out of the girls. That always is part of who I am. The kind of humor I have and way of relating to the world, I identify as being from the East Coast, especially the New York area.
I love the West Coast. I was drawn to it and I’m very glad to be here. But, especially having moved to Southern California from New Jersey … it’s very touchy-feely and about consciousness and stuff. Where I grew up, they’d be like, “Aw, get over it.” Here you get to process and focus on stuff that feels touchy-feely but that I think is important, great stuff. So, I love having the mix of the two.
C617: With your artwork, do you feel that you bring your East Coast sensibility with the irony and humor?
Grace Weston: I think that’s in there. I grew up in a working-class family, and there was tragedy. I had a brother who died and another brother who was sick. There was a lot of struggle. The way my family coped was through bucking up, I think for survival, with a sort of dark humor. Not about those incidences, per se, but about life in general.
In some ways, that attitude can work against you if you take it on too seriously—that life is limited and that’s all it’s going to be, and the best thing you can do is laugh at it. On the other hand, it is a great coping mechanism to get through stuff.
I think all of us are very influenced by our family of origin, and that’s influenced by the region you’re from, and so there are things that I can now look back at and see how they come out in my art. Now I can embrace that stuff, even stuff that when I was younger, I wanted to get as far away from as possible, which is what I did. I went all the way to the ocean on the other side of the country. But as I said, you can’t take it out of me completely.
C617: When did you start making art?
Grace Weston: I’d always been a creative kid. I always knew I wanted to be an artist. I really had that yearning, but I didn’t know what kind of artist. I remember being little and wanting to be an actress, and then I suddenly decided I wanted to be a writer, and I would type out on a typewriter—not anything good. It was more like putting on the costume of “this is what it would look like to be a writer.” And then I read this book about Luther Burbank and thought, “I want to be a botanist.”
Every week it was changing. But I always had this desire, a real deep yearning to be an artist. I didn’t really know how or what. I drew and dabbled in all kinds of things as a kid. But I had a mother who would say, “Don’t make any messes. Don’t do this, don’t do that.” And even with my drawings, she would correct them. There was a lot of stuff that stopped me and sort of chomped down on that freedom to explore and create. I certainly learned early that there was a right way and a wrong way to do things, which I think was very counter-productive. It took a while for me to break loose.
In high school, I hung around with the art kids, I took the art classes, I started doing silk screening, stuff like that. I’m one of those people that when I start doing something, I usually have some good beginner’s luck. At the beginning, I’ll do really well and I’ll get some recognition and that’s great. But at that time in my life, I didn’t have any stick-to-itiveness. As soon as something got hard, I would say, “Maybe I want to be an actor!”
C617: How did you start doing photography?
Grace Weston: In college, I took a basic darkroom class. At the same time, I was taking a painting class, and I found painting really hard. Because again, you had to stick with it for a long time, and it wasn’t working. But when I took a camera out, I was able to get really good results quickly, and then it came down to editing.
Also, I’m one of those students who does not do well with teachers who put you down, thinking it will make you fight back. It just makes me want to quit. I do much better with the model of encouragement. My photography teacher saw something in me and thought I really had an eye and encouraged me, and it made me just take off with photography. It was very rewarding, and I guess I needed that recognition and reward.
C617: How did you move from doing black-and-white photos outside to the colorful, staged vignettes?
Grace Weston: When I did the black-and-white work in my twenties, I was doing that in New Jersey, and I could really find and see what I wanted. When I moved to West Coast, I sort of lost that vision. I was struggling a bit.
I decided to take dance, and then from dance, I ended up getting into acting and singing. So I had a short, small career in performance in L.A. That just kind of came about, because with dance, you need to audition, and I was trying to do commercials, and then you needed to sing. I loved it all. I loved the craft. But I hated auditions. I hated that part. And the business itself is—ugh.
So I came back to photography for a second time. That’s about the time I moved to Portland. I picked up with black-and-white again, and then started shooting some color stuff just out in the field.
I had an opportunity to assist a studio photographer in Portland, and that’s what changed everything from working outside to working inside. It felt like starting from square one because I had to learn about lighting and larger format cameras. It was just working in a different way. I loved working with a blank canvas, because I had a lot of ideas, I just didn’t know yet how to construct them. Instead of what I call “treasure hunting”—going out in the field and looking for what catches your eye and what says something to you—this way I was starting with a blank canvas and I could create an idea from my head. Of course, it took a while before I could hone those skills.
C617: It sounds like that acting work you did ended up playing into the new direction of your photography.
Grace Weston: It does, really. When I look back on my childhood, I did a lot of staging of things. I used to make characters out of pipe cleaners and crepe paper costumes and move them around a stage, and I used to set up scenes with odd props I had or make a trailer out of cardboard. I’d make a display and look at it until I got tired of it and changed it to something else.
It’s so funny, but I hadn’t made that connection until I was doing the vignette work that I do now. It wasn’t until I sat down and wrote my artist’s statements—which definitely make you sit down and think, “Why do I do this?”—that I started to make the connection and realize that this is something I always did as a kid.
C617: Your artwork has so much story and depth. What are you exploring in those pieces? What seems successful to you when you put pieces together?
Grace Weston: I started to realize a number of years ago that my pieces are psychological. Like most people, or maybe I do it more than most people, I’ve got voices in my head. So much ties back to my being a kid—I was pretty isolated as a kid, and we lived in the woods. I’d run around the woods and have these out-loud conversations. It wasn’t imaginary friends, but just scenarios in my head of something I would say to somebody. Even to the point where my father once shouted out the window, “Who are you talking to?” He probably thought that somebody had accosted me in the woods. But I just called back, “Ooooh, it’s nothing.”
I had an active imagination and I’d act out scenarios. I even catch myself now, if I have conflicts in my life—this is embarrassing, maybe I shouldn’t say this—but I’ll be in the shower and suddenly I’ll say out loud, “Well, screw you!” [Laughs.] So, on some level, this stuff goes on in my head, and it’s not all adversarial, but anyway, I think a lot about predicaments that come up or ironies in life. Those kinds of things get under my skin, but they’re kind of funny, too.
In our society, there are so many contradictions, things that don’t make sense, or assumptions we make about one another or ourselves that are only assumptions. I love questioning that kind of thing or getting that out in a picture. An older, really straightforward example is the “Nitey Nite” picture where that little girl is in bed and she’s got three devils floating around her head. We’ve all had nights like that, haven’t we? I have. Where we’ve woken up, not being able to sleep because of anxiety, things I’m concerned about or worried about.
Right now, I’m looking at the image “House of Atlas,” and there are so many things in that picture that crack me up. Because here’s the housewife tasked with the mundane details of cleaning the carpet, but she’s carrying the weight of the world, and the T.V. shows the world blowing up. The cat could give a shit.
C617: I like how the vacuum cord is around her ankle. It’s like a noose. It’s like we’re screwed.
Grace Weston: Yes. We’re screwed but the house will be clean! And again, it’s this way of coping. Almost fooling ourselves into thinking that we actually do have some control. I love playing with that—the illusion that we’re in control. Because in the big picture, we’re not. But as humans, we’re all rushing around doing the best we can to try to hold on to things, and I find that very funny. To me, that’s the cosmic joke. So, I hope that’s what I get to in my imagery because that’s the stuff that occupies my mind.
C617: And of course, you can control everything in that image that you’re creating.
Grace Weston: That’s right. So it carries through to my actual practice. I think it’s true, as an artist, sometimes what drives us is the sense that in this world of mine, here, I can control it, I can create it, and I can make it turn out the way that I want. It’s almost a metaphor—in this part of my life, I can be in control, even if I do have to work another job, or answer to other people, or have clients, or whatever—right here I create what I want to.
There’s another thing I’ve observed about my art that again ties into the way I was raised. I’ve studied and read books about classism, and one thing that’s interesting to me, being raised working-class, is that in working-class families, you’re not recognized for your thinking, for your brain. There are so many times with my art where I’m struggling and thinking, “Why don’t I do something easier?” But I realize that it’s very rewarding for me to be recognized for my mind. For better or worse, that’s something that drives me, too.
We’re all driven by different things. It doesn’t matter what. Especially as artists, we are delving into all kinds of psychological past stuff, certain needs. Who cares what drives us? I don’t put any judgment on that. Any of it is great if it’s coming out in a creative way. We’re not out shooting people. At least I’m not driven to do that!
C617: I think it makes one very vulnerable to put those things out there. And in your work, there is a lot of dark humor, and a lot of beauty. The colors are so gorgeous, the lighting, it’s a beautiful picture. But then when you look closely, you realize it’s not a perfect world.
Grace Weston: I like my pictures to be beautiful. I do like lighting to be gorgeous, and colors. It’s part of drawing the viewer in, and then they get to look at the actual story.
C617: Can you talk about your more recent work?
Grace Weston: The neo-noir work. In that work, everything is really soft focus. I started it on the iPhone. I just was kind of stuck with my work. Because it does get very intense and controlled, almost too much. With the iPhone, I was just goofing around. I have this macro lens and in a very lighthearted way, I was shooting characters very softly, letting them be out of focus, and letting the background be blurry, just stripes of color that might suggest something. They started to look to me like pulp fiction covers, but very soft focus, or noir films. They seem to have a darkness or a mystery. It wasn’t spelled out what was going on, but I felt there was a little tension in there. So I continued with it.
Again, since I can’t help but examine my mind all the time, when the series started to form, I was able to look back and see that no wonder I’m shooting this stuff. I’m in this new city [having moved to Seattle two years ago]. I felt that I couldn’t find my feet. I literally didn’t know how to get places, didn’t know people. Everything seemed mysterious and foggy to me. It just made sense that I went in this direction with the work. Now, I’m having a harder time keying into that, and I think maybe that series is done because I feel that I am finding my feet and I want to return to the more detailed vignette work I was doing. It seems that every time I’ve made a major move, it’s affected my work.
C617: How do you get your ideas?
Grace Weston: Sometimes I find a prop that inspires me. Or sometimes I find a prop that I feel one day I’ll use, and I put it in a drawer of my props. It can be years later that it shows up. Sometimes I have an idea first and I keep a little sketchbook where I’ll jot it down. Sometimes I’ll get a title first, and I have no idea what I’m going to do with it, but I’ll write it down because it sings to me somehow. Sometimes I’ll sketch a little idea, and then I’ll have to find the props or make the set and prop that will support the idea.
Things change when I’m putting it together. Sometimes it’s spot on to how I imagined it, but usually it evolves.
Some people who do miniature scenes like I do work in the same scale all the time. I let the props I find dictate the scene. If I find the perfect prop, that’s what everything has to be built around, to relate to that. Or sometimes I mix scale within an image just to make a point about power play or whatever. For example, I have an image of lovebirds with a couple in a cage and the birds are giant on the outside [depicted above].
When I first started the vignette work, my first shot was human scale. It was a bird cage on a stand and a curtain. That set me in the direction of the narrative vignette, but that was the last time I did human scale. I have more control over smaller props—there’s less storage involved, I don’t have to have an assistant, and sometimes I can move things and reach them as I look through the camera.
C617: What are some themes you explore?
Grace Weston: I think making art is a lot about learning about yourself, and not in a selfish way, but in a conscious way. It’s a way to reveal things to yourself through the work. I think that helps the viewer discover things about themselves, too.
I know what the message is to me in my pictures, but I don’t like to spell it out all the way because the viewer can bring different things to it. Lots of times there are multilayers of meanings. For instance, in “Happy Hour,” the man is sitting in a club chair with a drink, but he has no head, and the window next to him has lightening on the outside, and he’s got a suitcase or briefcase next to the chair. That can mean so many different things and people bring different interpretations to it. It can be the man who isn’t there, the absent father, the traveling salesman. Or is he in his own home and the storm is outside and he’s finally there? Or is this a hotel room? I like the fact that it’s not completely spelled out. So, there are themes of isolation, being confounded by the world. It’s the daily struggles.
It’s almost as if we live on these two planes. We’re out in the world, interacting with people, doing our banking, doing our grocery shopping, keeping our lives together, having everything going, but I feel that we’re all walking around with our inner lives, too. It would be so interesting if we could really hear what everybody was thinking about in their soul. Not just their grocery list, but their questions about life, meaning, and connection, all of that. That’s what really interests me. And the fact that it is covered over with all the mundane things we do is fascinating to me, too.
Some of my pictures have an almost nostalgic, vintage look—the housewife, the 1950s father. It’s iconic. It represents a certain way things are supposed to look. I like when it’s the way things are supposed to look—but not. I like the idea that there’s this whole underground of feelings and thoughts and questions.
C617: What kind of art are you drawn to?
Grace Weston: I’m drawn to miniature work and work that is expressive, socially conscious, and narrative. I’m drawn to narrative a lot, for example, my friend Eva Lake’s collage work, which is very feminist. She did a series of targets with famous women. Now she’s doing this series called Anonymous Women that’s just great.
My friend Lisa Kaser makes little characters out of found objects and wax and felt, and they’re just amazing, quirky. She illustrates also, but it’s her sculptures that I love. They’re very offbeat, weird little creatures. In her illustrations, they live in this kind of utopia. They’re having picnics or counting blades of grass. They’re dis-formed, and they’re somehow so appealing because they’re so unattractive. They’re very flawed and have foibles and yet they live in this wonderful little world where they all love each other. I don’t know how to explain it.
We’ve actually collaborated. We did one shot together, called "Suburban Flight," where she created the character and I built a little suburban cul-de-sac, and you’re looking down from the sky, and this little character is floating up on a big red balloon and escaping this little cul-de-sac. It was really fun, and we’ve talked about doing a children’s book together or a video.
C617: Do you have any shows coming up?
Grace Weston: I’m in a show in Colorado right now. In Seattle, I have a show up at Sugarpill on Capitol Hill in winter 2014. I'll be in the New York City Affordable Art Fair in April. In April, I'll also be showing at Waterstone Gallery in Portland. Other galleries I show with include Wall Space Gallery in Santa Barbara, Paci Contemporary in Italy, and Vault Gallery in Cambria, California.
C617: What sustains you as an artist?
Grace Weston: Having a supportive partner has made all the difference in the world to me. I feel that I have an art career because I have somebody who believes in my work. As an artist, you have to risk and do things and approach things in your art, where, when you’re right in the middle of it, you think, my God, this is awful, or stupid, or doesn’t everybody already know this? Or it’s obvious or redundant. But I don’t think you’re working your edge at all if you don’t have doubts. It’s great to have someone who says, “You know what you’re doing, keep going.” That makes a world of difference.
Visit Grace Weston's website at GraceWeston.com.
Watch a video interview of Grace Weston and see how she builds her props and sets.
©2014 Christine Waresak. All rights reserved.