Rooted in Narrative: Lucy Gans in the StudioOctober 14, 2014
For twenty-five years, Workspace Resident Lucy Gans has been carrying the gnarled roots of a beautiful rose bush she dug out of her garden. Its remains have moved with her from house to house, and they’ve become tied to Lucy’s personal history. In her newest body of work, the roots appear delicately intertwined with her own hands and those of her female relatives, who she’s photographed over the past year.
Working in the etching studio, Lucy inks up the photogravure plates to lay them on the press bed. She plays with their pairings, rotating and flipping the plates to form various diptychs and groups. Small details, like a delicate bracelet on her niece’s wrist, and the heavy rings of her mother’s fingers, subtly define each set of hands from one another.
Lucy describes hands as the container of a person’s stories as they age. “It’s a nice way to express who that person is, what they do, and their kind of agency,” she says.
Tiled and grouped, the images are in conversation with one another, their figures contemplative studies of gesture. In one hand, a root is grasped like a beating heart, branches extending like veins. On some prints, faded and obscured layers of text subtly reveal the subject’s thoughts on aging, time, and loneliness. Her work creates a space where women’s stories are articulated.
As the director for the Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies program at Lehigh University for three years in the early 90s, Lucy witnessed women’s experiences of inequality and violence firsthand through research, lectures, and personal testimony. She was deeply moved by their stories. In her work, she confronts perceptions of feminine beauty and dynamics of the gaze, using her own likeness to symbolically represent all women. Through the dialog between layered texts and the repeated image, she unravels statistics of domestic and sexual abuse.
“My work has always had a kind of narrative to it, and I’m very politically active,” she says. “Sometimes I can only justify doing all this work if it’s got some kind of political content.” In her installation In Our Own Words (2007), four hundred ceramic heads of unidentified women fill an imposing wall. Viewers lean close to hear audio recordings of accounts of abuse which some faces whisper softly.
Physically smaller and softer in tone, this new body of work shifts its focus away from the stories of violence to a more personal account of family and their shifting perspectives on age and relationships. It’s a very different way of working for Lucy, and she’s using her time at WSW to experiment.
The photogravure prints, made from a photographic image etched onto a copper plate, are richly textured in warm and cool grays. (It was at WSW that Lucy took her first photogravure workshop in 2011, and has been taking classes at WSW to develop her work since 2009.) Lucy approaches the photogravure medium as a trained sculptor, building visual depth with imperfections, uneven edges, and plate tone to reflect her subjects’ layered narratives. While she’s at WSW, she’s also experimenting with blind letterpress impressions to add an additional layer of text.
“The challenge for me is that these are hands of people I know. And I’ve never used subjects before; I’ve always used myself,” she says. “There’s more of an emotional tie to them.”
After photographing her female relatives, Lucy asked them to write a letter reflecting on their relationship to their shared mother or grandmother, and to connect it with their hands. (As the project evolves, she sees it expanding to feature stories from her friends and network who are also in the mature stages of their lives.) Using paper plate lithography, she overlaps her mother’s letters with her gesturing hands, wrapped around roots.
Using their images and writings, Lucy has to negotiate her family’s reactions to how their stories are being told through her work, something that she wasn’t anticipating. A core principle of her work is maintaining her subject’s agency and communicating their narratives in a relatable way.
“I have a responsibility to my family, but I also have a responsibility to the work,” she continues. “It’s more about universal concepts and universal truths, things that everyone says about themselves.”
Lucy Gans received her MFA from the Pratt Institute, studying sculpture and drawing. She is a professor at Lehigh University, where she’s been teaching for over thirty years, and is affiliated faculty member of the Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies program. She currently holds the Louis and Jane P. Weinstock Chair in Art and Architecture and is the Chair of the Department of Art, Architecture, and Design. For more about Lucy’s work, find her on the web at https://lgans.cas2.lehigh.edu.