Prior to this summer, artist Blair Saxon-Hill had never visited Nevada. But during her summer artist residency at Sierra Nevada College, she found herself immersed in the varied landscape of Northern Nevada, the combination of flatness, mountain ranges and Lake Tahoe.
As such, the work featured in her upcoming show, Laid Me Out, is based on her first observations of the region.
Born in Eugene, Oregon, and currently living in Portland, Saxon-Hill uses a combination of sculpture, painting, drawing and photography. Her residency began in late July, right after she experienced a painful breakup. The residency was short, just a couple of weeks spent at the Sagehen Creek Field Station in Truckee. During that time she made some preliminary sketches, then it took a while for the ideas and the overall concept for a new body of work to emerge.
She found inspiration in an unlikely material: towels. The initial thought came when she saw towels labeled “reserved” on the beaches near the hotels, making the lake itself feel both within reach but also inaccessible. This material became the focal point of the whole show, and Saxon-Hill said that was unusual.
“Repetition like that doesn’t occur often in my work,” she said.
Saxon-Hill bought used towels from a thrift store, drew silhouettes onto them, and cut and formed them to resemble humanoid beings in various positions—prayer, work and exercise, for instance. She used different materials, such as plaster imbued with fiber or fabric stiffener, to harden the towels, and then painted over them with different colors. She made additional details, like hands and feet, from an array of materials such as fanny packs, sweat pants and rope. Once she arrived at SNC’s gallery, she assembled the pieces, matching the hands and feet with the silhouettes, and mounted them to the wall.
One such piece is inspired by the construction prevalent in the Lake Tahoe region during the summer. Saxon-Hill’s construction worker is identifiable by uniform, but she added surrealist details, such as multiple arms and a paintbrush, depicting the construction worker as an artist.
She considers her work to be “social practice,” which she sees as “something that intentionally engages the public, either through the creating the work or experiencing the work,” she said. “The work itself requires collaboration. And it often has a social and political focus. … I really wanted to look at matters of climate change.”
This includes her choice of materials, many of which are reused and repurposed.
“There’s an interesting conversation in art about ’recycled’ and ’found’ materials,” she said. “I prefer the term ’borrowed.’” When selecting sustainable materials to reuse for art, “it’s about choice and intent.”
Another recurring theme in the show is the color blue, and how this relates to an ecosystem like Lake Tahoe, in which shades of blue are found everywhere. The Keep Tahoe Blue campaign struck Saxon-Hill as a phrase with more meaning than the obvious.
“There’s this idea that if something is blue, it’s therefore clean,” she said. “So ’keep Tahoe blue’ can mean ’keep it clean’ or ’keep Tahoe a Democratic place. Blueness has an enormous range.”