On the Boundary of Calmness and Anxiety: A Conversation with Meghan Grubb
At a first glance, Meghan Grubb’s artwork exudes a soft sense of serenity. Often composed of earthy components like wood, moss and natural light, Grubb’s work presents a surface-level beauty that quickly gives way to a feeling of unease. An artist who deeply considers issues of climate change, consumerism and human impact on our environments, Grubb is, at her core, an expert at provoking thought and feeling about the world we live in.
In graduate school, Grubb made a transition away from making 2-D collages and mixed media work. “I did a complete 180 and started thinking spatially,” she says of her shift to making 3-D installation pieces that often destabilized viewers’ perceptions. In “Transitional Shelter for Groundlessness,” visitors stand in a wooden bunker with moss trailing up the walls and ceiling in labyrinthine patterns. To experience “Tunnels,” viewers stare down into a mirror box that gives the illusion of an infinitely deep hole in the ground.
A native of central Illinois, Grubb has frequently shown work in St. Louis, Illinois and New York. She was the recipient of a 2015 Regional Arts Commission fellowship and is also a founding member of artist-owned cooperative gallery space Monaco, which, since its launch in 2017, has quickly become an anchor of St. Louis’ art community.
Below, Grubb speaks about her experience-oriented art, her budding interest in slow textile industries and her process for creating work that engages with environmental and climate issues.
Image of “Tidewrack” courtesy of Meghan Grubb.
Guided: Did your transition from 2-D to 3-D installation work feel like a natural one?
It did, and it didn’t. As soon as I made that change, it felt like a huge burden had been lifted, because I was able to stop doing what I thought I should do and start doing what I felt like I knew. And even though I didn’t have all the skills in woodworking and carpentry at that point, that sense of building came naturally to me. I felt like I had a lot to learn, but it also felt easy to learn. Now I do that in all parts of my life, outside of art practice. I rehabbed my home and I built all the furniture and did all the tile work and flooring.
Guided: Your piece “Tidewrack” (pictured above) is a site-specific work in an abandoned building in St. Louis. What was your process like developing that piece?
[It started with] an invitation by Gavin Kroeber, who in the last two years initiated experimental art projects that engage all different types of practices. … He reached out in November of 2019 and was putting together a group of artists to engage with the idea of landscape in St. Louis—but thinking of landscape aside from the conventional way: red brick or the Arch. Instead, he was interested in landscapes of extraction, the history of nuclear project work here in St. Louis in Weldon Spring and projects really thinking through the human-environment relationship.
I’d always been really interested in the tensions between humans and their environments, but I’d never really keyed into that here, because in my mind there all of these more obviously conflicted places, like the Arctic or places where there are droughts, like southern California. I realized how much I had glossed over some of those concerns and conflicts that have existed here in St. Louis for a long time.
I was immediately interested in our relationship with the Mississippi. I’ll have lived here seven years this year, but I’d never really been up on the Mississippi, and yet it’s the defining feature of the region. I went on some self-guided field trips along the river. “Tidewrack” developed out of those close-hand experiences. I noticed that there are these lines of debris that have been left behind after past high-water events. There are all these material traces of when the river was at a higher level.
I was thinking about flooding and the human impulse to clean up those markers of higher-water events. When we do that, we give ourselves this false sense of safety or false sense of control. The physical remains of driftwood or trash left behind in topographical lines indicate that the river is in constant fluctuation, and the idea of a flood is human-invented. We define what a flood is based on when it impacts us in a negative way, but that doesn’t actually exist. I decided I wanted to reproduce that material that’s left behind after a water event and place that material in different locations to suggest the memory of something that may have happened.
Image of “Transitional Shelter for Groundlessness” courtesy of Meghan Grubb.
Guided: A lot of your work deals with anxiety-producing political and climate crisis issues, but there also seems to be a unifying calm tone. Where does that sense of calm come from?
I totally agree with that. The boundary between a real serene calmness and the something anxiety-provoking—the close edge between those two things—is really interesting to me. It’s almost like it’s more off-putting, more surprising and more direct and powerful when something you would never initially expect can provoke anxiety. There’s more potential for surprise in finding that tension between something that’s meditative or calm—something that lulls you—when you feel that crack where it’s no longer calming, and you actually find there’s something deeply unsettling in it. It’s like skirting the boundary between those two feelings.
I had some pretty intense anxiety and panic experiences in my mid-20s, and to some degree I still do. You always have the muscle memory for it. I drew upon those physical cues and physical sensations when I was making work in graduate school and after. Sometimes my experience of being quiet and focusing more on my breath, of emptying and being in a meditative state, can be one of the most anxiety-producing experiences. Something can creep in, and its impact is so much more disturbing.
Guided: How has your practice evolved over time?
Over the last couple of years, I’ve been resistant to art making as a practice because it sometimes it feels really self-indulgent and like an ineffectual thought exercise. Part of this is due to politics and being jerked out of the lull of thinking progress is happening. When I think about the pragmatics of it or the impact of it, it’s impactful for me, it feels important, I love being in conversation with and collaborating with other artists. But at the end of the day, in the past few years, I’ve really struggled with the question of what I’m adding to the world.
Image of “return to each other in waves” courtesy of Meghan Grubb.
Guided: What are you working on right now?
A friend clued me into a documentary called “True Cost” which examines the worldwide fashion industry and reveals how polluting it is and the negative human health and environmental impacts. The fashion industry is the second highest polluter behind oil and gas. I’ve never identified as someone into fashion … and always felt like I was opting out—but from watching this film, I realized that no one is opting out because we’re all making choices, whether we care about those choices or not. I’ve started doing more research into ethical garment making and slow fashion. This past year, I started making clothes for myself and my family, searching for the leverage I have in my own life, to apply the privilege I have, to push back against capitalism and consumption.
There are a lot of designers out there who are committed to positive, sustainable, fair-wage garment making, but what they can’t control is the actual textile supply chain. Once they buy a textile, they can pay someone a fair wage to make that garment, and they can choose a low-waste textile like linen, but it’s much harder to control everything up to that point.
It’s totally weird for me to be thinking in this more systems-related and entrepreneurial way, but I also think in doing it I can apply that perspective of thinking about consumption in all things in life as I move this new idea forward. I’m headed in a couple of weeks to the Missouri Hemp Association annual conference. I want to meet with people who are thinking about this and farmers and start to talk through this idea.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Featured image of “Tidewrack” courtesy of Meghan Grubb.