5 Questions with Vanessa Platacis

The artist at work. Photo by Bob Packert.

SAVANNAH-BASED artist Vanessa Platacis was recently chosen to commission a large-scale installation at Boston’s Peabody Essex Museum, one of the premier art museums in our country.

This is a huge honor for Platacis, who cut her teeth in Boston making art under the name PIXNIT before “killing off” the artist and moving to Savannah. Platacis is the first woman to be commissioned for such a project.

The Peabody Essex Museum is known for its collection of historic objects, and “Taking Place,” Platacis’ installation, considers those objects in a contemporary context.

We spoke to Platacis about her research process, creating anonymously, and using hand-made stencils.

1. How did you get involved with the Peabody Essex Museum and this installation?

They selected just three contemporary artists to create installations. They’re just so intelligent when it comes to how to interpret the objects, and they’re also taking risks and decided to bring in contemporary artists. Lydia Gordon, the associate curator for the museum, reached out to me and asked if I would be interested in putting in a proposal, and of course I said yes.

For this particular project, the important consideration was that the galleries where my work is installed sits right between the current museum and the new 40,000 square foot expansion. It’s creating a literal bridge. A lot of the overlap between the historic references, material culture, pattern and decoration, and then the objects they actually have on view in both sections of the museum are through my contemporary lens.

When you’re in a project, you don’t realize the big picture. I went through this proposal process and did a site visit and pitched my project to the director of the museum and the deputy director, who was a tremendous advocate for the project. We went through a lot of rigorous discussion to get to the point where we started executing the project in the studio, and it was a year in development in the studio. A lot of site visits, viewing the historic homes and viewing the objects and rendering drawings from those, a lot of discussions with curators about the context around the objects, and my work process, what it would like to do the actual installation.

2. Let’s talk more about your process.

The process I engage in is very similar to how my entire career started as a street artist. I still hand-draw and hand-cut all the stencils that are used to make the larger-scale paintings. In spite of them being tools that are great for reproducing an image, I’m really painting with them. For one stencil I might use upward of 7-10 colors. There’s also effects that I work with where I might be pressing the stencil down to get a crisp edge, or I’m letting it flutter off the wall to allow more atmosphere and softer edges. Sometimes I’m working with multiple stencils or using one stencil that is almost like a puzzle piece, where I combine that stencil with seven other stencils to make one enormous image. For me, with my background in painting, they become these artifacts because they start to accumulate paint and develop their own character over time.

3. Tell me a little more about your background in street art. I’m interested in that because street art is not really a thing here.

Street art wasn’t a thing in Boston when I started, either [laughs]. I grew up around a lot of street art, graffiti in particular. I used to do quite a bit of wild style and freehanad can work.

Walking around Boston, there’s a tremendous amount of historic architecture that’s visible through the ironwork, through carvings and stone and the tops of a transom—it’s similar to walking around Savannah. You get a sense of the craftsmanship and the history that’s very forward-facing on the street.

I really started with the question while I was in Boston: “I wonder what would happen if I took that delicate lace curtain that we place on the interior of a domestic space and I installed it on the exterior of buildings?” It wasn’t long before it shifted the conversation pretty significantly about who makes street art, what was the aesthetic rooted within that, who was making artwork in Boston—it was a little bit of a mystery at the time. I worked anonymously for five years. It’s very freeing to let go of that ego and association with your work. After Tufts University, an incredibly rigorous program, I walked away feeling uncertain about the artist I was supposed to be versus who I was. By working anonymously, it didn’t matter if my work was going to sell in galleries, it didn’t matter if it was going to get me into the museums. It just became a way of making the work that I was interested in at the time and free of any of the associations or what people expected of me.

4. How did you prepare for the installation?

Working with a large art institution or museum, I’m very interested in who that community is, who are the collectors who have contributed to the museum, the material culture and stories behind those individuals and families.

Through part of my research, it wasn’t just looking at the material culture and the objects in their collections. I was also really interested in their namesakes behind a lot of the galleries and notable collectors because they’re deeply rooted in New England history.

One of the galleries where my work is installed is named after Mrs. Copeland, and in my research I found that she had donated a huge amount of Asian export art, specifically developed for American connoisseurs to bring these Asian exports to America.

Doing more research on her, I found out that she turned her estate into a wildflower conservation center. So a big part of material culture and certainly the decorative arts in particular are these depictions of floral elements. In my studies, I found so many idealized floral forms and the kind of flowers that have been cultivated for hundreds of years for their prized beauty.

I went to the gardens and did a lot of my drawings there, so a lot of the floral elements that are in the installation as a whole are based on wildflowers.

As I’ve shifted gears now from this last project, I’m really looking again at the local architecture in Savannah. I’m in this contemporary context but I’m finding all these threads of history that relate to how interconnected the entire east coast is.

I’m really enjoying that research aspect right now. In fact, one of the things I’ve found with my research too is with the last hundred years of manufacturing, to some degree, the viewers’ sensitivity to detail gets numbed. When I’m looking at these historic objects, it’s not on the craftsmanship and detail that went into the plasterwork, the ironwork, the wood carving; it’s the level of intricate detail and the complexity within them that is really visually compelling. I don’t think I’ve fully appreciated that for a while.

5. Tell me about your physical process of making the stencils.

The fact that I’m hand drawing and hand cutting these is much more reminiscent of how the sometimes nameless artisans articulated the original object. Laser cutters are available to us to facilitate that, but I much prefer the hand drawn hand cut method. There are certain aspects that I can get from the hand rendered work that I actually can’t get from a laser cutter. I can cut cleaner than I can draw, and that’s always been the case. I’m very comfortable with an X-Acto blade.

I’m physically manipulating these stencils. Some of the canvas stencils are seven, eight feet big, and I’ll use four of those seven-foot stencils to make a singular image or aspect of the composition. There’s physicality to maneuvering the stencils that way. They’re only put on the wall temporarily, and I can manipulate how flat or how much atmosphere I can get from that.


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