Living Color: Chicago Artist Rachel Gropper
The revolutions of a mobile beget a quiet hypnotic quality—shape, shade and light conspire to soothe and stir the mind and eyes. The mobiles of Chicago artist Rachel Gropper—comprised of dangling geometric forms in black, white and a select few primary colors—appear simple, but in motion feel instantly choreographic, each piece dancing at a certain pace while synchronized to the rest of the company.
“I was given an education on function and form,” says Gropper, who earned her BFA in graphic design from Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, “and I’ve poured that background into my mobiles, website, everything I do.”
At the heart of her practice is the blog and retail site Curio, “an exploration of the elements that rule the way we visually experience the world.” Tiny painted tulips blink below a photo of a street curb; red-and-yellow palm trees pulse over thick outline portraits.
For all the ways she plays with perception—sculpture, photography, drawing, styling—the aesthetic coheres through a consciously sunny, quirky color palate. Gropper grew up near the Blue Ridge Mountains in Ruckersville, Virginia, a small town outside of Charlottesville, “always drawing and creating,” and soon ran out of art classes to take in high school. “Like any kid in a small town who is artistic, creativity was my whole outlet,” she reflects. Today, her apartment overlooking Humboldt Park also serves as her studio, her probing vision not only an outlet, but a livelihood.
Tell me about how you came to make mobiles—they remind me of scaled-down Alexander Calder.
I took some time off from the type of art I was doing all the time and just explored different mediums. When I made the first iteration of the mobile, I realized, “I really like this! I need to keep making these.” I usually do the mobiles in a batch—so it takes about a day to make each one if I’m completely focused. I lay all the pieces and strings out and look at them from every angle. “If this rope will turn this way, and this one this way, how will it look?” There’s no plan going into them. I literally string each piece one at a time.
Your work has a playful aspect that reminds me of Andy Warhol and Pop Art. What artists or movements have proved influential to you?
In high school, you find Andy Warhol and think, “This is the best stuff I’ve ever seen!” But I’ve almost grown out of it. Now I would rather see something else.
Like a lot of designers these days, I’ve very inspired by Henry Matisse—his cut-out works especially. Graphic design-wise, Stefan Sagmeister was a huge influence—he broke the mold of what graphic design can look like.
Clothes and fashion are also a big influence. I love getting dressed, and seeing what other people wear. The form and the movement come together. Similarly, with the mobiles, because they’re moving, they’re different from every angle. Everyone sees something different.
I noticed a skater motif in some of your work. Is that of influence to you?
Skateboarding is a creative outlet for one of my friends, and I’m always carrying my camera. Capturing moments of movement is such a big thing for me. Like when I photograph my mobiles, they’re in movement, so there’s just this little moment I’m capturing. I’ll take a ton of pictures to get the right one.
It’s clear you take great joy in things that are often overlooked—like movement and color.
We’re living in a time where there are so many sad things all the time. I’m a very emotionally charged person, and since life is short, I’m trying to be as happy as possible. Some artists see art as a way to get through hard times, but I just want to be happy with what I’m making, while I’m making it and with the final product. I want to make something in my home that will make me smile when I look at it.
How did the miniatures come to be? They’re so charming and humble as objects.
Everything is made of polymer clay—there’s no mold, and I make everything by hand. I have been drawing a lot, as a daily practice to draw whatever comes to mind. I can get really repetitive and obsessive. For a while, I was drawing basketballs and bananas all the time, and to take a break from drawing I thought,
“Why don’t I just make a little sculpture for myself?” I made a miniature basketball sculpture for myself, and the bananas, too. There’s something about the form and color of both that I’m obsessed with. I’m also really obsessed with their details—there’s something about getting detailed with something that can still fit in your hand. Some of my friends say that they should be ornaments, but they’re just made to sit on tables. It all seems to come back to a very deliberate, organic process.
In my head I call it slow art—because I don’t like to rush through it. I like paying attention to detail—getting it right through the whole process—so I don’t have to redo any part of it later. This philosophy has become a way to house any of my endeavors. My drawing, photography, embroidering, woodworking, making the mobiles—all influence and push each other. The focus on color ties everything together for me.