Installation Artist Spotlight: Jen Spinner and Laurie McGregor

Jen Spinner and Laurie McGregor are both Toronto-based artists and graphic designers. Their installation Escapes will be on display on the upper level of The Theatre Centre during City of Craft...don't miss it! Also, keep your eyes peeled for several small sculptural fire escape interventions scattered throughout the Theatre Centre...


In your installation Escapes, you are planning to explore the structure of the fire escape both two and three-dimensionally. Can you talk about the relationship between both approaches?

JS: The installation is a collaboration between Laurie and I, which sprung from my obsession with fire escapes and our desire to work together as artists. We were discussing different methods of examining the structures and all of our ideas involved taking them out of their urban context in order to highlight their beauty. The collaboration has naturally separated itself in that I’m dealing with the 2D aspect using paper cutouts and Laurie is adeptly handing the 3D component via miniature models.

In context, fire escapes are three-dimensional objects that serve a specific purpose, but out of context, they represent secret, “other” spaces that we, as city-dwellers often overlook. The 2D and 3D examination asks the viewer to think about the wrought-iron constructions as precious objects.

The paper cutouts are based on my photos of fire escapes. This process reduces them from full form imagery to flat silhouettes, which is my way of interpreting the “in between” sections of my physical surroundings. Taking this a step further, I think these spaces are extra important in an urban setting as we’re often too occupied with day-to-day living to fully appreciate the beauty existing all around us.

LM: The 3D wire models of the fire escapes also serve the same purpose. By scaling down the fire escape into a small, precious object, we can begin to see how these structures are fundamentally beautiful.

Is there any particular reason that you chose to render your fire escapes using the materials you did?

JS: I have a thing for paper (that makes me a bit guilty given the environmental implications of producing virgin paper). I keep lovely paper that I find to make collages and am really picky about the types of paper I use to print or write on. The cutouts follow a rich paper cutting tradition of using one piece of paper to render intricate scenes. In this case, I loved the idea that such sturdy constructions could be interpreted into delicate, ephemeral versions.

Much of my work involves repetition, which I find very calming: creating paper multiples mirrors the structures’ ubiquitous place in our urban landscape, and like the handmade cutouts, no two are the same.

LM: There were several reasons behind the decision on my part to use paperclips for the 3D models. However in all honesty, the largest factor in the decision was cost. Paperclips are super cheap, and plentiful. That said, the size of the paperclips also helped me decide on the scale of the fire escapes, and I felt that they spoke nicely to the fact that Jen was using paper for her models.

You are both graphic designers...do you ever find that the lines blur between your art and design practices? How do the two relate for you?

JS: The lines do blur in that there are similar problem solving skills used for both disciplines. For instance, I tend to do my own illustrations for my freelance design, which are heavily influenced by my personal collage work. But, ultimately, when I am designing for a client it is to solve a problem that is separate from myself. Conversely, when I’m producing artwork, it is very selfish and a chance to indulge in whatever I’d like to express creatively. Since I have more control over my art, it tends to be grittier and more instinctual than my design work.

In the context of this project, we decided to make the fire escapes bright pink because it further pushes the escapes into the limelight and out of their dark, dingy homes between buildings. It also seemed logical because we both use this colour often in our design work.

LM: At the risk of sounding like Bill Clinton, it depends on your definition of the word "art." Personally, I wouldn't call my design work "art", but I would like to think that I occasionally incorporate my "art" into my designs. So yes, the lines do blur, and I think that the biggest thing that separates the two disciplines is intent and/or purpose. While graphic design may not be art, it is still innately creative, so it makes sense that a great designer's desire to create wouldn't just be satisfied by graphic design alone.

Are there any artists or designers that have been inspiring you as of late?

JS: There are so many artists who do incredible work with paper that have influenced me. I’ve been in love with Ed Pien, Libby Hague and Rob Ryan who all use paper and paper cutting in fascinating ways. I’m inspired with their ability to work with scale: both extremes of very large and minute. I also adore street art of all kinds. There’s a street artist who makes incredible collages as well as murals who I’ve been obsessed with lately: he’s based in Brooklyn and goes by the name Elbow Toe.

LM: I am inspired by so many people and things, including people and things that are completely unrelated to what I'm working on at the moment. I have a film degree, and film is where I have always found inspiration for a lot of things. A lot of my friends and acquaintances are artists and designers as well, and they all inspire and motivate me on a daily basis too. If I have to name names though, one of the people that continually inspires me is Charles Rennie Mackintosh, an Arts and Crafts movement/Art Nouveau period artist, designer and architect from Glasgow. His combination of clean lines and ornate flourishes is something that inspires me in both my design work and my art. On a more contemporary note, Stefan Sagmeister, a graphic designer based in New York City, is an incredible influence. He is definitely a designer that bridges that thin line between graphic design and art. The thing I probably appreciate about him the most is that he isn't afraid to take design off the computer. He is probably most famous for his poster design for an AIGA lecture - he scratched the text into his own skin and the photographed it. I suppose one of the direct influences for this specific project would be Alexander Calder, the American sculptor and artist who basically invented the mobile. He made beautiful, intricate wire models (on display at the AGO until January! You should go check them out!) which are definitely inspiration for the 3D models.

Do you have any favourite Toronto fire escapes? Or any memories that involve fire escapes?

JS: That’s like asking me to pick my favourite pair of shoes! I love them all because they’re each unique and beautiful. Like any obsession, once I started thinking about them as symbols of otherness, I see them everywhere and they’ve become a reassuring part of my city experience. One does come to mind, though: there is a painted white escape attached to a 10-storey building on the northeast corner of King and Duncan. I used to work around there and would visit it often on my lunch breaks. It’s particularly interesting because it is painted white to match the building and seems to recede into the brick fa├žade when caught in the right light.

LM: Obviously I would have to say my own fire escape! I live on the third floor of a house and my flat is only accessible by a light blue fire escape at the back of the house. It seems like an odd choice of paint for a fire escape, but because of this, it's fairly awesome. As for memories, in university I lived in a house where the landlord had a lot of bizarre and strict rules having to do with every aspect of the building, including the fire escape. We were not allowed on the fire escape unless it was to escape the building in an emergency, of course. As a way of sticking it to the landlord, we regularly sat out there and drank. We were always getting in trouble with her for various reasons, but I don't believe we ever got caught out on that fire escape.

For more on Jen and Laurie, check out the following links:

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