IC Interview: Laura Noel

We wanted to check in with some of our grant winners in a series of art interviews. Laura Noel's work looks at chance encounter, the public and private, and the idea of time. Her work travels from photography and words and now to sculpture. 


Where were you born? Atlanta

What are your favorite materials to work with? I love all sorts of paper, including lists, bills and notes found on the street, shipping labels, construction paper and old books. I also love stencils that have been painted over a hundred times. 

In the past materials were not as important to me since I was working mainly in photography. Now that I am branching out into installation art and collage, I am getting interested in fabric. I recently made a series of four ponchos for a project called The Empathy Experiment that is showing at ArtFields in April. Each fabric is made of a different material that represents an emotion or economic status - burlap, wool for a man’s suit, satin and this odd padded upholstery fabric. So I really like the way the fabric suggests a story line - visitors are encouraged to wear each poncho and imagine themselves in someone else’s life when they wear the pieces. 

What is your motivating factor in creating artistic work? I am obsessed with the passage of time - the futility of trying to stop time from progressing really distresses me. Creating art or writing or producing something that has the potential to outlast me is a kind of bulwark against time. I am also really interested in language. I hear phrases on the radio all the time that inspire projects - just yesterday I heard someone say “blood and treasure,” and while I haven’t thought of anything to make in response to that phrase yet, I know it will percolate in my mind until something is formed. About half of my photographic projects began because of a phrase I heard. Oddly the phrase usually comes first, then the work - it is not about naming something I have already created. A new photographic project about the strange inability to know your own self is called The Inside Dog Barks the Loudest - hearing a friend utter that phrase, gave me clarity for the project. 

What do you like most about the art that you make? I have the ability to notice moments and details around me, and this gift of seeing is in my best photographs. I always go through phases with my work where I love it, I hate it and then after some time goes by I can objectively edit the good from the ordinary.

Sometimes I am touched by the permanence a really special piece of art has for me - it seems less temporary than some relationships or events.

Who are your influences?

My first artistic loves were the great street photographers: Robert Frank, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Alex Webb, Gary Winogrand, Diane Arbus and Sylvia Plachy. I still love street photography and shoot all the time, but most of the time when I photograph life moving around me, I am building an archive of images that I will use later in some kind of narrative way. Making photo books is another passion. There is this brilliant photo novel called And Every Day was Overcast by Paul Kwiatkowski that really socked me in the gut. My style is nothing like his snapshot aesthetic, but the way he was able to combine text and images in such a moving way inspired me to do something similar in my own voice.


The first art you saw that informed your practice and let you know this was possibility to become an artist? Having an undergraduate professor show the class The Americans was groundbreaking for me. I was a junior and had never seriously taken photos before. I was a Public Policy major, but after that class, I pursued photography in a very single minded way. The idea of making art was new to me. I assumed I’d be some kind of professional person like an attorney or a political consultant.

What do you feel you are trying to communicate with your work? Though ideas about time and its inaccessibility is a current that runs through a lot of my work, each project I do has a different meaning. My work is not always about one intense overarching theme. I made several bodies of photographs about American individuality. I admire people who have a strong sense of themselves and fully inhabit their own stories - though I am more interested in people who do this quietly than in activists.

As an artist, do you think you work is political? Sometimes my work is political, but my own viewpoint is often neutral within the art, itself. I do make art about public policy decisions and social trends/changes in society that affect people. For example, I spent 10 years off and on photographing smokers in light of the ban on public smoking. Some would say that is a political issue - health care is political. I am more interested in the psychological reasons people smoke and the idea of being a kind of social refugee forced into solitary spaces because of a habit, though of course, it is a deadly one.

I did go to both political conventions last summer - I am just now putting that work together - it’s called Outside Convention - I was not credentialed as media, and I was interested in what was happening on the fringes of both Cleveland and Philadelphia - the theater of the street. Big events like conventions heighten the drama that is already present and good pictures reveal themselves.

What are you working on currently?  I am working on several projects. Most importantly I am putting the finishing touches on my book, The Lookout, which I received an Idea Capital Grant for. The Lookout is a book of found poetry and street photography. The viewer senses the presence of other people in the images and reads their spoken words, but can’t see anyone. It is beautiful and eerie all at once. I am about to shop the book to publishers and apply for various contests for book dummies. 

My second major new project is tentatively called Books That Won’t Open - this is an assemblage piece made of books that have been altered in sort of brutal or very permanent ways, like being painted shut or reshaped as sculptures.

And last but not least I have spent the last two years working on several new bodies of photographic work that are showcased on my new site - www.amaterialwitness.com. The work is very different from my previous photographs that were all based on places and people that are around me. The new projects use still life images made formally in the studio and work that is created inside software to address issues of time and the self. I am interested in the idea that a person has to get to know themselves, even though they are their own inescapable subject. This sort of internal monolog needed to be explored in ways that are new to me, which is why I have shifted the way I work so much. 

Those new bodies of work are called Marmoreal, Crawling Backwards and The Inside Dog Barks the Loudest.