John Grade, Artist
John Grade’s abstract, graceful artwork ranges from drawings and midsize sculptures to large-scale installations. The installations are site-specific (interior and exterior) and sometimes travel to different environments, where he exposes the pieces to the elements until they are weathered, marked, worn, and sometimes completely disintegrated. Made in part of wood, paper, or other biodegradable materials, the pieces might be buried in the earth for termites to gnaw, sunk into a bay to collect barnacles, or hung in forest trees for birds to eat. He records the transformation with photographs, drawings, and videos.
The recipient of many awards and grants, including the Metcalf Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a Pollock-Krasner Foundation grant, John recently won the 2013 Arts Innovator Award from Artist Trust Foundation. He has a BFA from Pratt Institute (New York). To see more images of his work and find out about upcoming projects, visit John’s website at JohnGrade.com.
John talked with Constellation617 about the progression of his artwork, his interest in decay, where he finds inspiration, and how he turns his ideas into reality. The interview took place in John’s bustling new studio in the Beacon Hill neighborhood of Seattle on April 16, 2014.
C617: Can you talk about the progression of your artwork from drawing and sculpture to the large sculptural installations you’re doing now?
John Grade: When I think about the progression of my art, there are a few aha moments that generally followed having completed something. Earlier, I made drawings and sculpture that were smaller scale, just because that was within my means and how much time I had working by myself. In 2004, the Boise Art Museum gave me my first museum show. There was funding the museum had applied for that then came through, a Warhol Foundation grant, so they commissioned me to make a large piece. That was my entry into thinking about larger scale. I really liked it, but I didn’t know how much time it would take me. It took me six months, and I made a pair of objects, a kind of diptych.
At that time, I was relying on a lot of travel experience and I would look at things in the landscape—architectural or natural—and I would then make an object, kind of like how a landscape painter uses an object to evoke an aspect of a landscape. Instead of literally seeing an impression, it was an object that was meant to evoke something. Often, people would project themselves as small people into these worlds, which is kind of great, but I was yearning for people just to take the objects on their own scale and on their own terms.
When I finally made some larger objects that related to the body, there was less inclination for people to make the objects metaphorical because they took up space. People took the object for what it was, instead of as a model of something that’s imagining to be larger. It was that kind of thing that spurned on the growth.
I was also in love with decay and looking at things that were falling apart in interesting ways. Initially I created that decay, and then I realized that I could get insects to come in and actually wear away some of my wood forms. I had another moment of realizing that the insects don’t need to be housed in terraria, but that I could actually take my pieces out to where termites are. That was pivotal to my literally starting to engage these landscapes that were inspiring me. That’s probably the most important pivot for me.
C617: Were you worried that your work would be ruined or disappear?
John Grade: Yes, but I was getting frustrated making these objects that were so well crafted and preserved. It was much more interesting to see a progression or story. Economically, the other model worked; you had a show and sold these objects. I didn’t quite know how, economically, it would work to have these things go out and get kind of screwed up, basically.
It’s also a question of imagining something as opposed to walking the walk. By that I mean, until you actually have to do something, you often don’t do it. You don’t connect those dots. Each time I’ve put something out in the landscape, strange things have happened that I never would have anticipated. More and more I’m getting better at anticipating what’s going to happen, but there are still always additional things that happen. So it’s an interesting kind of dance. Say I’m looking for the termites, and then some other insect comes into play. Or for a piece that I’ve designed to be eaten by birds, squirrels start to eat it first. Those types of dynamics. You’re having a conversation because you’re engaging the landscape as opposed to reflecting on something with which you engaged. That step of removal has been taken away.
C617: How did you find an economic model to fund these decaying works?
John Grade: It was messy and I was trying everything I could. Even now, it’s a mixture. There’s still the gallery model and private commissions, for instance for a corporate collection, and then also museums. The museum model is a really different one. From my experience, I see museums paying an artist so the museum has something very interesting and compelling for a few months, so it’s temporary. That works nicely with the model of ephemeral things.
Then there’s the whole public art realm, which fortunately is really changing. It used to be that you made an object and left it there permanently. Now, for instance, with the piece I call “Vantage,” that’s a project where they asked me to make something that will last ten years. I’ve also been getting requests to create sculptures that will last a month or two or a year, with a reasonable budget, too. That really opens things up. For me it’s exciting for people to see an object change, which is so much more interesting than constantly trying to preserve it.
C617: You said earlier that you were interested in decay. Is that something you’ve always been drawn to?
John Grade: I can trace it back to after I finished school. I got a travel grant, and the travel kind of spiraled out of control. It’s all I wanted to do for a couple of years. I did drawings and some sculptures, but they were temporary and not very complicated. What I found myself drawn to and what I would seek out were different funerary structures, like the pyramids in Egypt or funerary towers in Peru. Oftentimes there are aspects about these funerary structures that aren’t known historically, and I found that really compelling. There’s a certain amount of research you can do on each of these sites, about why things were built certain ways and how it fit culturally, but then there’s a whole other aspect they just don’t know.
I loved to do drawings based on that unknown. They weren’t all architectural. For instance, there’s a forest in Vietnam that had been decimated by American firebombing during the Vietnam War. It’s a rapidly growing jungle area, and when I went there, there were small second-growth trees. So I couldn’t actually see what this forest had been. I had to imagine it onto this young forest. But before, there were large old-growth trees. When a person died, mourners would carve a big cut out of the tree, a scoop large enough to put a body. They would put the dead body in the tree, put a grate of sticks over it, and leave it there to decompose for a year. Then they would take the body out and never reuse the same spot.
I was drawn to this forest, which I thought of as the Forest of the Dead, because these trees came to mark one life that had passed, and they never reused the wound in the tree. The cut would heal over and you’d have this gnarled thing. I loved thinking about these sentries in the landscape that related to those lives.
I did a whole series of drawings and then sculptures based on that. But so much of it wasn’t what I was actually able to experience there, apart from an abstract notion of this ground that had experienced this. I’ve definitely felt things in places like Birkenau or Auschwitz, where horrible, intense things happened. You can just feel it in the ground. Not to the same degree, but you can feel some of that in that forest in Vietnam. The question is how to translate that powerful feeling in the landscape with some remnants, in this case trees that came afterward or what’s left of a funerary tower, and turn that into an object so that people get some sense of what was meaningful for you. Hopefully, you can communicate that.
That’s where this idea of decay comes in. So much of what I was looking at had deteriorated to the point where it wasn’t clear why choices were originally made. I really like that lack of clarity mixed with just enough of what you do know historically.
C617: Are the stories behind your pieces important or do your pieces stand apart from those?
John Grade: If the piece is successful, people don’t need the story. I hope they want to come and engage it with their bodies. Like with the current tree piece I’m making, I’m fascinated with what it would be like to look through the inside of a tree for a hundred feet. I just want my body to feel that. There’s that level, and hopefully that is compelling enough for people and they feel it’s an amazing experience. Then they want to know more of the why—for instance, why so much effort is going into making this. So for me there is always some kind of narrative.
I would prefer that there’s a hierarchy. That you experience it first with your body and senses and then engage it intellectually and relative to other pieces. Hopefully there’s a relationship with other work being made, probably not even visual art, but writing or music, so it’s part of a conversation culturally that’s wider than that initial experience with your body. That’s a successful piece!
C617: Where do you get your inspiration?
John Grade: It’s so varied. Usually I’ll have a set of expectations, like when I was invited to do a project in the north of France. I went there realizing I would probably find what I wanted to do while I was there, but I wanted to have something to start with. I was really interested in these structures that small ants made, so I was looking at the forest floor and had an experience where I was almost shot by hunters. That instantly became a spark. That led me to creating a structure, which then these wild boar started breaking apart! In the end, the piece became about wild boar breaking my piece, my repairing it each day, and them breaking it and me repairing it. It was like I was talking with these animals through my piece. It wasn’t as though I came there and had a clear trajectory that was linear. It was about having some sense of direction and then being flexible.
C617: Does that happen often with site-specific projects?
John Grade: It does. For site-specific pieces, in terms of formal, sculptural qualities, you want to make an object that relates to that specific space, like in a museum or the Suyama Space, where I had a piece. That footprint is that space.
Playing with that a little, I’ve had a couple of projects that were designed to move from one space to another space. Right now, I’m working on this Arctic project, where I’m going to each of the countries in the Arctic. I’ve only been to Iceland and Alaska so far, but I’ll travel to these places and make sculptural interventions. They will each be designed to do something, and simultaneously I’ll do an interior exhibition, which I’m pretty sure will be at the Smithsonian in D.C. in two years, where in addition to the interior exhibition there will be videos or stills of what’s happening in these other locations.
C617: How do take your ideas and make them into reality?
John Grade: It’s really messy! I don’t have a system, or I attempt a system and then it gets inverted or sidesteps the original intention. A lot of times it starts with imagining a moment. For example, I did a project called “The Elephant Bed” that went into the sea off of Brighton. That began with a little type of phytoplankton called coccolithophore, which has a small skeleton that is a fluted shape. You’d have the bloom of millions of these organisms, and when they’d die a week later, the fluted shells would slowly drift down and form a calcium layer on the sea floor.
I loved thinking about the mass of these things dying. What would that be like to be of a very small scale so they are all settling by you? I imagined myself underwater and a totally different scale so that each of these was twenty-five feet tall. I wanted to make something where I was looking up, because these organisms live just a couple of inches below the surface of the sea, and I imagined having one of them drop down and disintegrate over me. That moment spawned the whole idea of making objects like those out of a biodegradable material that could go into the sea.
When we put “The Elephant Bed” into the sea, we had a dive team that went underwater with a camera to get a video of the initial point of inspiration. The waves were too crazy, so we never got that video, but in the end it’s beside the point. It’s what inspired or sparked the whole thing, and then as I made it, all these different layers accumulated. It’s a question of sifting through what’s interesting and pertinent, and deciding what to draw in and make part of the intention.
I also love things that people find that weren’t part of my intention. They are clearly part of the work and have made themselves part of it without my intention. Some of that is because I have so many people involved in making the artwork now, either in my studio helping or by enlisting dozens or even hundreds of people to volunteer. By drawing on a wider community, you get everybody’s quirks, influences, ideas, and comments all filtering in in a way that one person couldn’t come up with.
C617: Was it pretty natural for you to step into this role of managing these people and processes?
John Grade: Well, it was very incremental. I wasn’t doing any of this ten years ago. In the past five years, it’s really ramped up. I think I’m pretty good with the managing part, but it’s not one of my greater strengths. One thing I’m finding that’s pretty interesting is that I’m having to pull on a lot of different parts of myself. My inclination is much more introverted. I loved spending my days by myself, just immersed in these repetitive tasks. That makes me very, very happy. So in terms of day-to-day quality of life, I think I’m compromising something.
But on the flip side of that, it’s been pretty neat to see that I can pull off some of the wrangling that needs to happen with bureaucracies in terms of convincing people why what you’re trying to do is worthwhile, and they can maybe make an exception to their rules. And learning how to work with a lot of other people and finding ways for them to be satisfied with giving everything to a project and be as committed to it as I am. I feel really fortunate that I’ve been able to connect with people who are contributing this special thing they do, and it’s not just a day job for them.
C617: I’m amazed how you can keep so many balls in the air and make your vision into reality.
John Grade: There’s a momentum. There are a lot of expectations. There’s money on the table and people expecting it to be delivered. The deadlines are set and you make it happen. Part of what keeps me pushing is that it’s really exciting to have all these people with all this expertise that I don’t have, and I couldn’t realize the work without them.
To me, the huge challenge in getting a creative career going is how somebody makes themselves follow through and really demand a lot from themselves without that external pressure.
C617: What do you see for the future of your career?
John Grade: I can see two different directions. One is that my projects keep escalating in terms of complexity and taking on these large group endeavors, and I kind of think that’s where it will go. What might end up happening though, is that I might pull back so that I have a year of greater reflection.
I was talking with one of my assistants, Nate, and he commented that I really don’t have much that I’m working on that others aren’t going to see. That’s a pretty important point. I think in a healthy practice that you can make some glaring mistakes, and I do. I make the mistakes here, but because I’ve got a lot of people helping me, we can correct them. But it is nice to make mistakes and let them sit.
When I had my old studio in Pioneer Square, I had a Room of Failure. Everyone should have that. It’s like a Márquez novel. [Laughs.] If I had sculptures that weren’t working out, I’d put them in the Room of Failure, and I had a bunch of half-finished projects in there. But now when I have something that is failing, I have to correct it. We need to make it work. I might even need to erase thirty percent of what we’ve done, but I have to keep going. But I think you can learn a lot from having a Room of Failure, where you can let unsuccessful choices sit for a while.
Visit John Grade's website at JohnGrade.com.
Watch a video of John Grade discussing his installation “Capacitor,” part of the Uncommon Ground exhibition series at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, Sheboygan, Wisconsin (below).