The City As Canvas: Contemporary Artist Carlie Trosclair

Our quest to discover the draw of the creative ethos in St. Louis brought us to artist Carlie Trosclair, whose creativity stretches far beyond anything that could be framed on a wall. Originally from New Orleans, Trosclair originally came to St. Louis for a Master of Fine Arts degree from Washington University’s Sam Fox School Of Design And Visual Arts.

Since then, Trosclair has remained tethered to St. Louis as a home base, using the city itself as her canvas: one body of work led her to create specialized installations in abandoned houses, peeling back layers of paint and wallpaper to show the many lives and variety of inhabitants who once lived in the structure, which was dying when she came across it. Upon graduation, she discovered affordable studio space in St. Louis, funding for artists and the opportunity to attend residency programs all over the country.

We chatted with the artist as she prepared for a one-month residency program at MASS MoCA. She was in the process of creating “skins” of the architectural elements around her by pouring latex, waiting for it to dry, and peeling it off, a technique she discovered while at a three-month residency program at The Bemis Center For Contemporary Arts in Omaha, Nebraska. Keep reading to learn about her process and why she chose St. Louis for her edgy art practice.

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You’re originally from New Orleans. What kept you from returning home or exploring another city once you finished your MFA?
There is so much funding available for artists here: The Regional Arts Commission offers $20,000 for 10 artists per year, which is a no-strings-attached grant. They also have a quarterly grant for artists working on specific projects, if you need additional materials or something like that. They award 15-20 artists anywhere from $500 to $3,000. You turn in a progress report midway and at the end, but they understand that projects evolve. Things can change. They’re very lenient over what that looks like. Not all grants work that way.

Every two years CAM puts out a call to local artists to apply for a $20,000 grant and solo exhibition at the museum (Trosclair was a recipient of the grant in 2014). It entails a solo exhibition with no strings attached. You’re provided the financial support to buy materials and plan whatever you want, but you’re not having to turn in the checks and balances to make sure the money went a certain way or not.

What have those kinds of opportunities meant to you and your studio practice?
What that has done for me is provide the confidence that I’m being noticed for my work—for the work I’ve already done, and the promise of what I will do moving forward. Your art practice is something that grows and evolves, it expands and contracts—there are ups and downs, and things change. Individual artist funding is a real investment in the individual. When you have that many local opportunities paired with the low cost of living, it’s a formula for a really fruitful, experimental art practice.
That citywide investment in the arts is very unique to St. Louis, from an individual artist to a mid-size organization that’s eligible for grant funding to museums, like the St. Louis Art Museum. It makes everything much more accessible.

What do you think would attract other makers to St. Louis?
Other than the monetary funding support, probably access to space here. Because property is so cheap, we’ve seen that it’s very easy to go in on a rental space or buying a building and turning it into an arts incubator or running it from the ground up. Sustaining that has its challenges. But when people are visiting—artists who are coming in or traveling through—everyone’s first response is, they can’t believe how cheap rent is. And I think that openness allows for—well, not that money isn’t a factor, but when it’s less of a factor, it opens up your mind to more possibility about spaces you’ve thought of running, or that you’ve enjoyed seeing in other places. It becomes more real.

It’s still hard because what a lot of artist-run spaces are trying to provide is an experimental opportunity that’s non-commercial to expand the visual art practice—a slightly more formal extension of the artist’s studio. It’s appealing because there aren’t as many restrictions as a commercial gallery; you can play and explore. Sustaining that over time is the challenge, but the possibility and the spark makes those opportunities even possible.

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As a maker, what is the deeper significance of living somewhere with a low cost of living?
There is an ease about living in St. Louis which is fairly common to most Midwest states. People take their time. They say “Hello.” The pace is similar to New Orleans in that people don’t briskly walk or rush—they stroll. As a creative it is important for me to take notice of small things, to not have to rush everywhere. I don’t have to hustle too hard to make rent, and therefore I can hustle to make artwork.

Affordable living allows for more time spent with the creative process, which is important for risk taking. Over the past few years, I’ve been able to have the luxury of cheap space, allowing for a large studio, the ability to run a gallery with colleagues, and having a large enough apartment to where I could dedicate an entire room to my studio, which is how I am practicing at the moment. You don’t have to have a trust fund to run a gallery or own an arts incubator that houses 12+ artists studios. Being rich in real estate enables artists to create more opportunities for themselves outside of institutions, which fosters more experimentation.

Where do you find inspiration in St. Louis?
The inspiration that I pull from St. Louis architecture is endless. My studio practice involves a lot of documentation as research. I am constantly driving around until something catches my eye, which involves hopping out of the car to take photos of architectural facades and details of brick patterns. I go to estate sales almost weekly, hardly ever to purchase items, but to get the chance to peek into someone else’s home. There is an intimacy in the decorative elements of the environment that people live in daily. I bring my camera and document the wallpaper, maybe a unique architectural nook, an odd juxtaposition of a lamp against wood paneled walls and gaudy floral curtains. I have a running hashtag on Instagram from the past few years of this series titled #EstatePortraits.

carlie trosclair installCarlie Trosclair installation

Tell us about your new studio development of creating “skins” from latex.
I began by laying down a floral wallpaper, left over from the larger project I was doing. Then I’d lay down plastic and pour latex house paint over it to mimic the pattern within the wallpaper, leave it to dry overnight, and pull it off after it was dry. Then attach it to different architectural components in the building and juxtapose it with different elements throughout the space. I’ve been doing it for the past four or five months.

I’m creating works that are more stand-alone and architecturally inspired, so I’ve been pulling those elements of sight specificity, while trying to merge my work with exhibiting in a gallery or a museum. I’ve been thinking, ‘How can I translate those components that I’m drawn to into a space that’s potentially more accessible, that I could actually show in an art venue?’

I’ve also been expanding on this other layer of “architectural skin.” I’m interested in the existing architectural skin of paint peeling or walls or plaster, thinking of paint as a layer of skin but expanding that beyond what exists. I actually just made a latex mold of my fireplace mantle. I’m really excited about this other element, even though the rubber latex isn’t of the existing architecture like wallpaper or paint would be, like I used to use. It’s this transfer of an existing architectural skin into a new skin. That’s been really exciting to learn that process and have this new medium to work with.

I’m leaving next week for a one-month residency at MASS MoCA (the Museum of Contemporary Art in Massachusetts), and I’ve been prepping with these latex skins. I’ve been pulling brick skins, too, and creating installations with these residual skins of architecture to explore the question, “What does that mean when I pack up a latex skin of a fireplace mold on a 100-year old building in St. Louis and transfer that to a new space in Massachusetts?”

What are your favorite parts of the city?
I spend a lot of time in South City. I’ve lived in Tower Grove East for 5 years, and it really is the best neighborhood. From my neighbors to Tower Grove Park, the architecture and small businesses—I really couldn’t imagine living anywhere else in St. Louis. The majority of the homes in my neighborhood were mostly built in the late 1800’s, so it really is picturesque.

For more information about Carlie Trosclair, visit her website.

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