Lily Cox-​​Richard

Ann Arbor, MI | by June 7, 2011

Not every­one can say they grew up with a giant vol­cano slide in their back­yard. Sculp­tor and instal­la­tion artist Lily Cox-​​Richard can. Her fam­ily runs Cox Farms in Cen­tre­ville, Vir­ginia, an unpre­ten­tious “agri­tain­ment” complex—where you can get pump­kins in the fall or water­mel­ons in the sum­mer, enjoy a hayride, feed the goats, or slide down the vol­cano dur­ing the annual fall festival.

I recently vis­ited Lily at the Uni­ver­sity of Michi­gan in Ann Arbor, where she is part of a mul­ti­dis­ci­pli­nary fel­low­ship pro­gram that pro­vides her with a stipend, a teach­ing posi­tion, and a spa­cious indus­trial stu­dio over­look­ing a park. Over hot tea in the stu­dio, we spoke about the nature of artis­tic research, Neo­clas­si­cal sculp­ture, mush­room fairy cir­cles, and the farm’s influ­ence on her work.

Watch­ing her par­ents adapt cre­atively to the chal­lenges of sus­tain­ing their unusual farm seems to have instilled in Lily an opti­mistic prag­ma­tism that per­vades her prac­tice. “I remem­ber being a kid and one day at the din­ner table my dad say­ing, ‘I think the farm is too flat. Let’s build some hills.’ … The idea that if you fig­ure out what you want to do then you can fig­ure out how to do it really opened up a lot of pos­si­bil­i­ties.” So, when Lily left the farm for the Cal­i­for­nia Col­lege of the Arts for an under­grad­u­ate degree in jew­elry and met­al­smithing, she didn’t feel lim­ited by medium or cir­cum­stance. By the time she grad­u­ated in 2001 she was mak­ing work in a vari­ety of medi­ums, includ­ing sculpture.

Lily even­tu­ally moved back to Vir­ginia to live and make work in one of her family’s barns for a few years before attend­ing Vir­ginia Com­mon­wealth University’s renowned grad­u­ate sculp­ture pro­gram. At VCU, she began to refine her long­stand­ing inter­est in Amer­i­cana. Lily sees a con­flict “between the fan­tasy of what Amer­ica could be and the real­ity of what you see hap­pen­ing around you.” She felt “drawn to early Amer­i­can World’s Fairs, where ideas of ‘Amer­i­can­ness’ were first defined and pro­moted.” It’s no exag­ger­a­tion, she says, to see all of the work she has done over the last four years as “some­how relat­ing back to research­ing the his­tory of World’s Fairs, espe­cially the Columbian Exhi­bi­tion of 1893.”

Although we work in dif­fer­ent medi­ums, Lily and I share an affin­ity for stu­dio prac­tice rooted in research.  We also agree that defin­ing artis­tic research is a slip­pery thing.  She elo­quently sum­ma­rized the quandary: “I know when I’m try­ing to make sculp­ture, but I don’t always know when some­thing is research. Some­times research begins as just an explo­ration or rumi­na­tion, or even just a daily walk. Then I real­ize I’ve amassed notes, books, images and ques­tions. I stum­ble into research in a way that I don’t stum­ble into sculp­ture, but both seem led by a sim­i­lar curios­ity.”  A good exam­ple is Lily’s inves­ti­ga­tion of Spencer­ian script, the first uniquely Amer­i­can form of hand­writ­ing. She’s teach­ing her­self the script, but isn’t sure if the exper­i­ment will develop into a for­mal­ized project. “It’s cer­tainly not a project yet. I think it can stay sep­a­rate and still remain valid even if it doesn’t end up being a fin­ished project.”

And what starts as research for one idea often leads to some­thing else. In 2009, Lily spent six weeks learn­ing to carve stone in a quarry near Salzburg, Aus­tria. “It ended up not being about learn­ing to carve mar­ble, but more about try­ing to fig­ure out what a stone carver is think­ing about. There are con­cerns about sta­bi­liz­ing a fig­ure, but there’s also the dif­fer­ence between addi­tive and sub­trac­tive sculp­ture. With sub­trac­tive sculp­ture, you’re on a kind of one-​​way road—just tak­ing away mate­r­ial. That’s so dif­fer­ent from how so much sculp­ture is made today where you’re just adding, adding, adding. I knew going in that it was research, but I didn’t know what it was research for. That made it all the more interesting.”

When she returned from Salzburg to Hous­ton, where she was in res­i­dence at the Museum of Fine Arts’ Core Pro­gram, Lily saw Hiram Pow­ers’ Neo­clas­si­cal sculp­ture The Last of the Tribes. Her ideas con­cern­ing sub­trac­tive sculp­ture, mar­i­nat­ing after her time in the quarry, had found a vehi­cle. She began with the idea of recre­at­ing Pow­ers’ sculp­ture sans fig­ure. Only the base and the tree stump, which serves as the struc­tural sup­port for the fig­ure, would be present. It didn’t seem enough, though, until Lily intro­duced the bit of the woman’s skirt that touches the tree stump. The frag­ment of skirt and its con­nec­tion to the sup­port became the essence of the sculp­ture and opened up the project’s poten­tial. “That’s when it got really excit­ing,” Lily explains. “It became about this one spe­cific con­tact point and see­ing if that could stand on its own instead of pulling apart a sculp­ture that already existed.”

Before I left, Lily gave me a pre­view of her next project: an out­door site-​​specific instal­la­tion later this sum­mer in Wis­con­sin at The Great Poor Farm Exper­i­ment, an art cen­ter housed in a nineteenth-​​century Poor Farm—the rural equiv­a­lent of the Amer­i­can Poor House Sys­tem.  She plans to cre­ate a mush­room fairy cir­cle in the Poor Farm’s ceme­tery by cast­ing var­i­ous mush­rooms and insert­ing them into the ground, encom­pass­ing all of the graves. The project will be a med­i­ta­tion on var­i­ous forms of com­mem­o­ra­tion and draws on a wide back­ground of research from ear­lier projects.

Ulti­mately, Lily doesn’t want her work to exist solely as evi­dence of her research. “I’m really inter­ested in try­ing to make some­thing that you can’t take apart to tease out each thread of the research. The sculp­tures that ask a ques­tion I don’t know the answer to—those are the ones that work best for me.”

For more images of Lily’s work, visit her web­site.

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1 Comment

  • Ibrahim says:

    She looks adorable! That’s a great idea. Plus she can roll anorud and play and it wont mat­ter if she gets it dirty. My fam­ily used to host Hal­loween par­ties every year, and mak­ing cos­tumes was such a big deal. One year we made Wiz­ard robes for a Harry Pot­ter themed party. We also made brooms, snitches, a Fat Lady framed pic­ture, potion bot­tles, etc. We always started in the end of August. Now we’ve all got­ten older and it’s hard to get the fam­ily together for a party.

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