By Ashli Landa | Photo by John Schoolmeesters

Lela Pierce ’08, a visiting assistant professor of sculpture, was recently awarded the prestigious Jerome Hill Artist Fellowship, which supports early-career Minnesota and New York City-based artists who generate new work that takes creative risks in expanding, questioning, experimenting with, or reimagining conventional artistic forms. It emphasizes artists who embrace their roles as part of a larger community, and consciously work with a sense of service, whether aesthetic, social, or both. 

In Professor Pierce’s first year as a full-time professor, she teaches Sculpture I, Sculpture II, 3-D Design, and Art Activation.

How will this fellowship support your work? Any future plans?

I’m still in shock that I received the fellowship! I’m still learning what resources will be available. I believe there will be support for professional development and the production of new work.

How does your work as an artist inform your teaching?

I’ve been learning a lot from students just through conversation. I’m really interested in these methods of generating ideas, and how everybody’s path to that place is different. 

Through talking with intro-level students, or students coming from STEM who are not used to this very particular type of creative process, I find that they can carry a lot of fear around accessing their creative mind. I’m fascinated by that: what is it that makes it challenging to jump right into creating something? I don’t know if it has to do with a fear of potential—there’s a certain power that comes from creation. I don’t know if people are afraid of their own power. It’s something I’m very curious about and relates to my art practice right now. 

And how does your teaching inform your art?

Something that drives my practice is this idea that the persistent practice of imagining transformation is vital for seekers of freedom, because I think sometimes the purpose of art becomes very convoluted. There’s so much happening in the world, so what is the purpose of art? Sometimes it feels really frivolous, and I think a lot of people think it’s for this intellectual upper class that’s really disconnected from the woes and sorrows of the world.

But it’s vital that we continue to imagine transformation and the huge power there. Whether or not it’s directly changing something, there’s something about exercising that muscle of shifting systems, of shifting the way we think, of shifting patterns and habits, that’s vital for our society. The relationship of these conversations with students, investigating these fears, and understanding where our power comes from are things I’m exploring in my art practice as well. 

Transformation is a key theme of your work. What does that mean to you?

I think it’s always been there. During the pandemic, my work became a little bit more abstract—there was this removal of representation of the physical body. It’s still very present in my work, but the pandemic was such a disembodied experience for me. There was this ungrounded feeling of floating in space that was kind of unsettling. 

With the pandemic and all of these repeated, frustrating situations of systemic violence related to the uprising, there was this overwhelming sense of ‘stuck,’ or ‘why aren’t we moving? Why aren’t things improving?’ even though they are moving and changing constantly. 

Earlier in the pandemic, I lost access to my studio for a big chunk of time and that’s why I started making these smaller pieces—if I can’t access the spaces that I could before, I can try different parameters or working smaller or making blueprints.

The fellowship emphasizes artists that “consciously work with a sense of service.” How does that manifest in your practice?

When I’m making work, I’m always thinking about people in my life who I know, or don’t know—people who are and are not alive. It might be a little abstract, but I feel like I’m constantly in relation with people. My work is for people, and I’m hoping to inspire people.

What’s been rewarding about teaching so far?

Watching the students, working with them, and seeing them make breakthroughs or get over those fears and things that they’re grappling with has been really inspiring.

How do you approach creative risks in your practice?

I just try to go for it. I try not to limit myself. I have a very interdisciplinary practice—I do painting, performance, and installation work, and I sometimes find that people really want me to commit to just having one identity. I don’t do that. I try to be open to any possibility.

And those fears that I’ve been talking about when working with students, I try to address that in myself. In the past couple years, I’ve been trying to jump into and experiment and play with things even though I don’t know the proper way to do them, like technology that I don’t always feel comfortable with. Sometimes limitations can also be generative—working with what I know and not worrying about what I don’t know. It’s experiential learning.

February 24 2023

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