Laurel Roth somehow manages to integrate her love of science and nature with her artistic eye for detail. Without the typical water-color or pastel seascape that is immediately conjured in the mind’s eye when the words “nature” and “art” are linked together, Laurel’s work instead incites wide-eyed adoration and mind-rattling astonishment to each and every viewer that crosses its path. The use of unlikely materials in her work– acrylic nails, hair clips, walnut, crystal– results in surprising and inspiring work that has been sought after around the globe. But Laurel hasn’t led a typical art-track life. Having worked a variety of jobs to pay her bills, she took a risk by giving herself an opportunity to work solely as an artist and was greeted with open doors and an impressive and idealistic career. She is currently represented by Schroeder Romero and Shredder Gallery in New York, Frey Norris Gallery in San Francisco, and Packer Schopf Gallery in Chicago. She spends her time between her studio at Compound 21 Collective in San Francisco and the Double Down Compound in West Sonoma County. Petals and Bones adores Laurel, her art and the exceptional example she continues to offer those of us striving to live full and creative lives. - D.B.
1. Can you give some background on your life as an artist? How did you come to be an artist? What kinds of projects have you completed? Did you get a degree in the arts?
It’s been a roundabout path so far. I’ve worked in warehouses and cafes, done computer animation, worked making toy prototypes, been a nanny, built trails; done construction, landscaping, and design; been a park ranger, mowed lawns, painted murals… In 2004 my partner, Andy Diaz Hope, and I quit our safe and secure seeming jobs (he was an engineer, I was a park ranger) to move to India to do a design project for a friend. It was a kind of random decision, but random felt right and necessary at the time. When we came back 8 months later, we gave ourselves 6 months to focus fully on art. I tried to see it as an opportunity to develop something that I loved but had never taken seriously as a career possibility rather than a test that I might fail. I assumed that I’d go and beg for my job back after those 6 months, but it seemed like a rare opportunity that I’d never regret. We didn’t have kids, a car, or health insurance, so our monthly expenses were really low, and we knew that we could survive if we were really careful. Somehow we’ve stretched that into 6 years and have a lot of exciting prospects coming up, which is great because I’m pretty sure that our old jobs haven’t stayed open this long!
I didn’t really have the chance to go to college, other than taking some classes at SRJC. Anyway, I was too busy being an angry, hurt, scared kid to have taken advantage of what college has to offer. For a while going to college was a semi-secret dream of mine, and I carefully squirreled away bits of money towards that dream. After more than a decade I pretty much gave up on going to school, having come to rather like the wandering path my life had taken and not having a specific goal that school would help me towards. Two years ago I had the opportunity to put those savings and a whole lot of sweat equity into some property outside of Sebastopol with Andy and some partners. After a solid year of construction and repair and another year split between art and construction, we now have a great community of creative folks living and working there. There are still hundreds more projects to finish, including refinishing an Airstream trailer and building a studio in the redwoods so that we can start a visiting artist residency program. We recently received a grant from Southern Exposure to help us with this goal, and we’re excited to help create more flow and exchange between different art communities. We currently split our time between Compound21 in SF, which we share we several talented artists who work in a variety of media, and Compound Double Down in Sebastopol. Having these communities of people around is invaluable – not only do they all sympathize with the particular highs and lows of a creative career, but I learn a lot from everyone around me.
Currently I’m represented by Schroeder Romero and Shredder Gallery in New York, Frey Norris Gallery in San Francisco, and Packer Schopf Gallery in Chicago – all of which have been supportive of me as an emerging artist. Andy has a show up right now at Catharine Clark Gallery in SF that includes some of our collaborative pieces alongside a new body of his solo work. Some really interesting public institutions have included my work in shows or acquired pieces for their permanent collections – I love that the range of institutions is as diverse as The Museum of Art and Design in New York and the Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum in Hollywood.
2. How do you stay motivated to be creative? Where do your ideas come from?
I’ve got no shortage of ideas. Good ones are another matter! Maybe the most amazing, wonderful thing about art, to me, is that it lets you take an idea and really run with it without normal constraints. This may sound cheesy, but there’s no shortage of things to learn about, explore, and then respond to in the form of creative association and visualization if you let yourself create and be excited about it. My work usually feels like a sort of non-verbal term paper that comes together in response to me learning and thinking about a subject that fascinates me. You have to trust yourself to go out on some limbs if ideas keep reoccurring to you, but then make sure that there is a fairly rigorously examined backbone to the work as it progresses – or, at least, that’s my way of looking at it.
3. What advice do you have to someone who wants to be more creative or bring more creativity into their work?
At risk of sounding more new-age than I feel, trusting yourself and letting creativity develop seem to be key. Play, just make some stuff even if you don’t plan for it to lead to anything grand. Learn to crochet, sew something (even if you don’t really know how to sew), build a birdhouse or make someone a present, whatever. If you’re already someone who makes things, learn a new skill to jump start your brain in new ways. The act of creating, no matter how small and maybe even flippant, provides grounds for creative thought to flourish. But I swear that I’m not as new-age as that sounds – actually, in a society that depends more and more on store bought goods and specialization of skills, acts of creativity are totally linked to acts of defiance in my head. You have to demand a right to think outside the box.
4. How important is discipline to your creative output? How important is idle time/relaxation?
For me, breaking larger projects down into individual tasks is the best way to stay organized and get work done. That way, if I’m having a hard time getting myself started, I can just tackle a piece at a time and still be making progress without feeling overwhelmed. I like to make lists where things are broken down into tiny increments and then check them off. Those check marks give enough satisfaction that I usually pick up inertia and things start flowing more naturally. It also keeps me organized when sometimes I might have the tendency to do things a bit more by the seat of my pants.
I try to trust myself to know the difference between healthy downtime and unhealthy slacking. Sometimes I’ll have a project on that back burner of my mind while I’m doing something unrelated, but sometimes I’m just stalling and deep down I usually know the difference. That’s when just getting myself into the studio and working on small tasks or even just cleaning and organizing helps.
We place so much value on stress in this culture. Part of having a creative career has to do with taking charge of your life and deciding to do something that both drives you and gives you joy. I get a lot of happiness out of both art and construction projects, but if I’m not enjoying my life then I need to take some time to examine the balance of discipline and play.
5. What does a typical day look like for you?
It totally depends on the projects I’m working on at the moment. The day always starts with tea, breakfast, and some form of animal care (dog walking in the city, goat and chicken feeding in the country). Email business is first thing, plus checking in with Andy about the state of things we work on together and any materials sourcing that I might need for the next week or so (some pieces are more material and planning heavy than others).
In the city my studio is just across the courtyard from our apartment, so my dog, Fargo, and I spend most days in there. Recently I’ve had some help from some great assistants, but I can’t really concentrate with other people around. I’m a pretty private person and need alone time behind closed doors to help me get the inward focus and concentration that allow me to really get cranking on a project and develop ideas without second guessing myself. I’m still too self conscious for my drive to withstand other people’s gaze or input at early stages of any project.
Some of the carving I do is really loud and messy while other work needs a cleaner environment, so I try to compartmentalize those tasks into day-week chunks so that my studio can be totally trashed for a while, and then be cleaned up for other work for a few weeks – even occasionally really clean for work involving fiber or delicate materials. I may spend weeks on end gluing tiny objects to larger objects, such as with the nails and peacocks , or filing and painting those nails in preparation for assembly. I may be carving and sanding or setting tiny crystals . I may be testing stitches and patterns to make little crocheted suits for birds . When Andy and I collaborate, we sometimes spend all day at our computers or the living room table researching and sketching, or we might work in his shop if larger machinery and space is needed. Some work transfers easily to working in Sebastopol, so I spend a fair amount of time there as well, though it’s harder there not to get distracted by the 1001 construction projects awaiting fulfillment.
If I’m on deadline I’ll work pretty late, sometimes into the wee hours of the morning, but I try to be proactive about scheduling so that doesn’t always happen. Lately it feels like there’s so much more work to be done than time to do it, so I don’t take much time off. In some ways, having so many different projects going on makes it easier to work all of the time, because I can switch from project to project and keep it feeling a little bit more fresh and exciting, but one of my hopes for the future is to have a little bit more downtime to explore, play, and spend time with the people I care about. If I’m not on a tight deadline, Fargo is good at telling me when it’s time to stop working by standing next to my workbench and staring at me accusingly.
Oh – and I’m pretty reliant on audiobooks, NPR, and music to help keep me focused and to either inform the work or help sustain a mood throughout a project. I’m hopelessly addicted to This American Life and Radiolab. The excitement that the producers of those shows have for their subject material helps me feel like my own excitement about exploring and developing work might be valid and of interest to others.