Lance Letscher is renown for the paper collages he has made for more than a few decades in his home studio in the Brentwood neighborhood of central Austin. Not so different from Letscher’s materials, Brentwood is an older Austin neighborhood, with the patina of age, history and change.
In 2015, Letscher’s collage technique expanded to create an outdoor metal collage mural, The Big Eye, now on view at South Congress Books. Here, Letscher talks shop, including the specifics of changing media and scale. The process of making the mural was documented by filmmaker Sandra Adair in The Secret Life of Lance Letscher. This is a big month for Letscher. The movie will be screened on Wednesday, October 4 and Thursday, October 5, 2017 at The Contemporary Austin as part of the Rooftop Architecture and Design Film Series. In addition, Stephen L. Clark Gallery will host a solo exhibition of Letscher’s work opening Saturday, October 14 from 6-9pm. This solo exhibition celebrates new work Letscher made for Austin’s new main library opening to the public on Saturday, October 28. (Opening festivities begin at 10am and the library opens to the public at 1pm.)
Madeline Irvine conducted this interview on Saturday, September 3, 2016 and September 26, 2017.
Madeline Irvine: Tell me what first led you into paper collage?
Lance Letscher: Probably printmaking. I used to be a printmaker.
MI: So that started a love of paper as material? Printmakers have a heightened sensitivity to the qualities of paper.
LL: Also, it is a layering process…much as collage is. I guess that would be the parallel. When I first did collage it was based on drawing… and I started cutting them out to make space. Technically that’s how I started doing collage. It seemed a really natural transition from printmaking.
MI: How did The Big Eye metal collage mural come about?
LL: It’s a long story. I am friends with Sheri Tornatore who owns South Congress Books. Her landlords, Patty and Brant Howell, got interested in my work and they commissioned the piece.
MI: So it’s not a sign for South Congress Books but for the location.
LL: It started out as a commission for another piece and gradually…it evolved and changed 2-3 times and finally became The Eye.
MI: How did it become The Eye…what was it before?
LL: It was going to be a pattern-based abstract piece. Somehow along the way, the idea just presented itself, to be The Eye. Patty and Brant were happy with that transition.
MI: How did the pattern-based abstraction turn into an eye?
LL: I don’t know. It is kind of a mystery. One day the idea just changed. I was cutting parts for the original commission, and laying them out, and I realized I had enough of one color, the bright magenta pink, to make a big circle. That is the color of the iris of the eye.
MI: For decades, your work has been abstract. Now you are using many recognizable images as well. The Big Eye is an image itself with a lot of resonance and history, especially religious history: the eye of Providence, or the all-seeing eye (God). In ancient Egypt, it represents the divine as the Eye of Horus, the earthly protection of royal power, and individually, good health. Did you have any connection to the symbolic history of the eye?
LL: No. I didn’t have any idea that was based on a historical reference. The thing that made it interesting to me was interaction between the audience and the artwork, to have something looking back at you when you looked at it. I liked that idea. At first, some people saw it in the studio and they didn’t see it as an eye. That was funny too. As the image resolved itself, it started to happen: people started feeling scrutinized by the eye, and some kind of dynamic kicked in.
MI: Has The Big Eye come to mean more to you?
LL: I think it has taken on a life of its own in a weird way. I don’t think about it as mine anymore. It is something that is out there. We have been there several times to look at it, since they installed lights, at night. And people are there taking pictures of it and they are taking selfies with it.
I like the idea of thinking about it with the other murals in Austin. I like thinking about it as representative of Austin. I don’t mean to sound grandiose at all, but it has a peculiar kind of feel to it that fits in with South Congress, and the location is such a high traffic location, I like that people don’t know who I am and that it acts independently of me.
MI: How do you like working on a larger scale?
LL: I like it a lot. It is not the first piece I have done that is large like that. I did a 9 X 14 [foot] paper collage piece for the Dell Children’s hospital. This one, there is a physicality to it. It was really hard to cut, and it is held together with staples. The act of cutting it and stapling it is much more strenuous than paper.
MI: What was the difference in touch between paper and metal?
LL: It is thin gauge metal, so I used buckets and pails and signage and all these different sources—like aluminum litho (lithography) plates—and I used tin snips to cut it out, so it was physically very taxing to cut the pieces out. There’s…a lot of metal. There are four panels and each panel probably weighs 120 pounds. And then stapling: I used a roofing stapler, so it is a pneumatic industrial grade tool that shot 1inch staples. So it is not like a stapler that you’d staple canvas with. It’s a stapler you’d staple shingles with. It took a couple of weeks to staple it up, eight or nine or 10 hours a day.
The paper collage is…applying glue by hand and using the press. It is just concentration and eye-hand coordination.
MI: Is one more meditative than the other?
LL: I don’t know if I would say more. It is very similar. You get in kind of a groove. The metal piece was much more immediate. I could hold a piece where it was going to go shoot a staple in and step back and look at it—and shoot 12 more staples in and move on. It is much more like painting: an immediate application. [With] the paper work…I lay things out without glue first, then memorize where it goes, and then take it back apart and put it back together again with glue. There’s an extra step that is more stressful and risky.
MI: How did you get interested in working with metal?
LL: It was a solution to a problem and the problem was how to make something that would withstand the elements.
MI: I was surprised, when I first saw the mural, that the pieces were flattened, much like paper.
LL: I worked it with a body hammer. It is a rounded face hammer for auto bodywork. They use it to take dents out of cars.
MI: The paper materials you used to use were “well-worn, well-used and well-loved.” What would you say about the metal materials you used for The Big Eye—they seem to be discarded or thrown out materials.
LL: There is a degree of wear that is consistent, though. The metal was beat up and rusted and had a similar sort of wear that I look for in the paper.
MI: What does wear mean for you?
LL: It’s a patina of use. I think that when the metal is discarded, there’s rust, peeling paint, dents scratches. It’s been through the mill of human touch.
MI: Do you see yourself making more metal ones?
LL: Yeah, I’d like to. The hard part is accumulating the materials. I have a large trove of paper.
MI: Why is metal harder?
LL: It is more expensive and not as prevalent. The criteria that would qualify it as an art material qualifies it down: it needs to be thin, it needs to have paint, it needs to have typography that makes it interesting. The metal on a car is too thick. The metal on a stop sign is too thick. It has to be thin enough to cut and to shoot staples through.
MI: How has The Secret Life of Lance Letscher affected you, both personally and in your work?
LL: Well, I’ve become a lot more social. I have a much wider group of social contacts now because of the film. I am less isolated.
It has given me a lot more confidence in the work. The quality of the new art seems to be much stronger than before. It’s primarily the color, which has become a lot stronger. There’s a mood shift. The general mood of the work has become more positive. For a long time, it was about anxiety and dis-functionality. Now it just seems to have a more positive vibe. I can’t put my finger on it.
MI: I am surprised you felt that way, although other things in life can affect our confidence. It isn’t always an inside job.
LL: Yeah. I agree.
MI: When you speak of being isolated in the past, I always thought that you were working and that you focused your non-work time on family, reading, and close friends. So that didn’t feel isolated to me.
LL: I think there wasn’t that much interaction with family and friends. I’d work and Mary would come home and I’d spend some time with her and go back to work. I’d read before bed, but that wasn’t much time. There wasn’t that much interaction between family and friends.
MI: What would you say is the most unexpected outcome after the film?
LL: Just the amount of goodwill and people responding to it. It has kind of served as a big boost and endorsement to my self confidence. People have responded in a kind and generous way to me. I am more aware of how many people are interested in my work.
Madeline Irvine is an artist living and working in Austin, TX. She received an MFA from RISD and a BFA from the Maryland Institute, College of Art. From 1994-1996, Irvine was the lead visual arts writer for the Austin American Statesman, where she wrote 3-5 articles a week (except for SXSW). She has worked in the arts as a professor, curator, a writer and critic, and as director for School 33 Art Center, an artist-run visual arts center in Baltimore, MD.