Erin: What are you curious about?
Spencer: I am curious about everything! I’m a generalist and so I like learning about all kinds of random things and seeing them intersect in unexpected ways. This is really helpful in my process, not just on the conceptual level but on the technical; if I develop familiarity with a lot of different materials and their uses, I find myself better able to predict how they might behave when I push them in new ways. I think one of the greatest joys in life is discovering some whole area of knowledge that for whatever reason you've never explored before, whether it’s birds or the chemistry of household cleaners or knot tying. History is particularly interesting, insofar as it it enables us to observe how something with which we are familiar has changed over time, offering insights as to "how we got here."
As to what I’m curious about at the moment, I’m curious about solar energy. I’m curious about glue. I’m curious about our relationship to material goods (art objects among them) and the prospect that they may outlive us not just as individual people but as a species. I’m curious—and terrified by—fossil capitalism, how it represents an existential threat but also something with which we refuse to part ways. And I’m curious about human memory—I have a terrible memory, but memory is how we construct a sense of self.
Erin: Describe your art and describe your process.
Spencer: My process is mostly in my head, that is to say, the starting point is a confluence of ideas rather than an organic process of playing with the materials themselves. I am drawn to materials with strong emotional and cultural associations, and I imagine ways in which they can be transformed or recontextualized to prompt questions about those associations. There is always an element of surprise in creating with materials with their own physical properties, but usually I have a pretty specific idea of where I want to end up, so it’s about getting it to a place where the idea, the material and its transformation is compelling as a whole.
Erin: When I met you, human hair was your medium of choice. Tell us more about your Hairwork series.
Spencer: I’d wanted to work with human hair for some time, as I was familiar with its use in the Victorian era in sentimental crafts, and frequently in mourning. I like how it functioned as a relic and a stand-in for a person, so specifically personal but also so easily untethered from its original person-source. I like that the anxiety about that dissociation was there from the start of the practice. People sending their hair out to be made into jewelry by professionals were worried about it being swapped with a stranger’s hair, and people working with hair of a family member were fearful that one day it might fall into the hands of a stranger (it is surprisingly durable!). So mine began with hair from a wig shop that was already untraceable. It’s something of a commentary on how we are all destined for obscurity despite how tenaciously we cling to the idea of leaving something behind.
Erin: You received a Bachelor's Degree in Religion. How has this created a foundation for your work and how did you make the shift into full time artist?
Spencer: I did, and I also studied it at NYU later, thinking I wanted to be an academic. A lot of themes from that education crop up in my work—talismans, sympathetic magic, relics, ritual. And art is kind of like religion in that they both involve subjective—often quite powerful—experiences that are mediated by culture.
In retrospect I am really glad I didn’t go to art school. I considered it but was too insecure at the time, and stuck in a mode of representational work that didn’t really suit me. I ended up making a collage when I decided to leave grad school using the covers of my books, and it was the first concept-driven, abstract thing I’d ever done that felt satisfying, because it came from a totally different place.
Erin: You suffered great losses as a teenager and much of your work deals with grief, mourning and death. Yet you always appear upbeat and humorous. How has art helped you navigate these emotions?
Spencer: I think it is actually humor that helped me navigate those experiences. Not everyone appreciates it but I don’t know how I would cope if I couldn’t crack a joke about the worst moments of my life. I don’t know how anyone does! This kind of dark humor is also a way to let others in during a time when your pain is so immense it makes it hard for people to approach. So the humor has to be there in my art. Lionel Trilling noted that people often equate seriousness with solemnity, when comic seriousness can be so much more incisive than solemnity. Humor functions like beauty, in that it enables you to approach, to invite something that you might have been hesitant to engage with to touch you. I should probably say I don’t take the making of art too seriously but that would be a lie. It’s the most serious thing in my life, the most honest, the most vulnerable. And that’s as it should be.
Erin: You work in TI Studios where you've explored some challenging mediums (embedding heirloom wedding gowns into cast concrete). How has working in this shared artist studio space affected your work?
Spencer: It is such a gift to be in such a large community of artists, I’m grateful every day for the mutual support, and the cross-pollination that occurs in that space. It’s enabled me to try things I’ve wanted to do but lacked the technical knowledge or confidence to accomplish. And there is always someone around who has a glue gun or a needle or whatever it is you might desperately need.
Erin: Your newest project involves pastries made of ash and a Kickstarter for your Coal Comforts vending cart to be presented this October. Tell us all about it.
Spencer: I’d kicked around the idea of working with ash for years, on account of its connections to mourning. But after the 2016 election I found myself drawn to coal ash specifically because of my concerns about climate change. So I am creating a kind of “bakery” where all of the familiar bakery items— cookies, cupcakes, pie— will be cast in coal ash. It is meant to highlight the way nostalgia is toxic— it misleads people to think that because something is old-fashioned it is also harmless. Fossil fuels are (forgive the pun) as American as apple pie, but extracting, burning and exporting them is literally making frontline communities, and the planet as a whole, uninhabitable. All this happens, for the most part, out of sight, so we consume enormous amounts of dirty energy without conscious awareness. This is particularly ironic in a time when we are hyper-focused on what we eat, whether it is healthy and even whether it’s “clean.” The connection between food justice and environmental justice is only going to become clearer in the future— you can’t have one without the other.
Erin: What is the most important thing you learned and from whom?
Spencer: I’m not sure it’s the most important thing but this is one lesson that comes to mind: I had an artist friend who passed away a few years ago of cancer, at an early age. Several of us cleaned out her studio space, and as I was handling the works in progress she’d left, I was really struck by how much of it there was and how she had been experimenting with new techniques up until the very end. There was something vulnerable about those unfinished pieces and the unresolved questions they represented. I think there is this pervasive idea that you should try to leave the world with your to-do list complete and loose ends tied up, but the fact that her art never wound down even as her prognosis worsened was instructive. It was a testament to a sustained creative practice and openness in the face of tremendous uncertainty.
Erin: If you could collaborate with anyone dead or alive, who would it be with and what would it look like?
Spencer: I think I would like to work with someone in another discipline, like a writer or tailor or landscape architect, to interpret an idea across disciplines. I’m drawn to so many materials that have functional uses in daily life, I’d love to work with someone who has a different relationship and intimate familiarity with the material with which I am working, to explore how changes in context affect the reading of the work, and to expand it beyond the object in a gallery.
Erin: If you had one superpower what would it be?
Spencer: A really good memory. I forget the plots to books and movies within days, which makes it a lot more enjoyable to re-watch them but it would be really great to retain more information!