ARTWRITE #12: Pattern Part 3

Mills Brown, Kelie Bowman, Jeffrey Gibson, Natalie Lanese, Judy Ledgerwood Daisy Patton, Dee Shapiro,

Three months ago, pattern in art seemed like an interesting angle into the creative process, so I reached out to some artists for an interview. Little did I know that my love of wallpaper would lead me to consider heady subjects like identity, feminism, cultural traditions and appropriation, the beauty of mathematical laws, or the definition of art.  

Now, thanks to my inability to rein in my subject, my idea for one issue on pattern has become a four-part series. It's ironic, given how insistent the teacher in me used to be about narrowing thesis statements. "No, you can't write about Abraham Lincoln unless you want to write a book," I told a freshman comp student at the University of Arizona. "But you can write about his beard or how he was affected by having Marfan Syndrome."

In the first two issues, I focused on representational artists who use pattern in service of their subject matter. In this issue, abstract artists bring pattern to the forefront; it is the subject. There's also an interview with artists from both camps. What's left for part four? The Pattern & Decoration movement. It deserves an entire issue that you can find here.

One other thing that I underestimated about pattern: its power to inspire. Just as a couplet, haiku, or sonnet can provide a framework that sparks writers, the inherent structure of a pattern can do the same for visual artists.

-- Maggie Levine


Challenging modernism's aesthetics while putting a feminist stamp on abstraction, Judy Ledgerwood is a descendant of the Pattern & Decoration movement. Her vividly colored, large-scale paintings employ grids composed of ornamental motifs (chevrons or quatrefoils) and floral or quilting patterns, elements traditionally deemed decorative and feminine.

Dee Shapiro's early career is associated with the Pattern & Decoration movement. Her practice examines the intersection of pattern with nature, geometry, and craft. Shapiro's recent work explores biological and organic forms and borrows from other artists to create collaborative pieces.

Painter, muralist, printmaker, and book artist Kelie Bowman uses geometry to create fluid patterns and kaleidoscopic images. Straddling abstraction and landscape, Bowman's work "encourages a considered connection to our environment and speaks of shifting landscapes, rising waters, and exploring the vastness of nature."

Jeffrey Gibson combines contemporary multimedia art with elements from his Choctaw and Cherokee heritage, including patterns and native beadwork. The Brooklyn Museum is currently exhibiting Gibson's work alongside objects he selected in an exhibition entitled Jeffrey Gibson: When Fire Is Applied to a Stone It Cracks

Jeffrey Gibson, I Know You Have A Lot of Strength Left; 2017; rawhide, acrylic, graphite, metal tacks, and canvas on panel,  82 1/8 × 65 1/8 × 2 3/4"

In her paintings, collages, and installations, Natalie Lanese uses hard-edged geometric patterns with manipulated perspective lines to play with perception. Her large-scale work envelops viewers, creating a mesmerizing sensory experience. Along with Dee Shapiro, Lanese is featured in the interview below.


You’ve met Natalie and Dee.

Mills Brown uses decorative elements from family photos to revive rooms in painting and collage. Her work examines the relationship between time and memory, allowing her to re-examine the personal histories that existed within the spaces she reinvents. 

Multi-disciplinary artist Daisy Patton explores the meaning and social conventions of families, relationships, and stories. In Forgetting is so long, Patton’s painted patterns disrupt, reimagine, or re-enliven the subjects of anonymous family photographs.


How does pattern function in your work? What role does it play?  

MILLS: The subject of my work usually informs the use of pattern. When painting figures, I have to find the pattern that feels right for them. It's the same thing when I'm painting space. Often when I start a painting, I will have a few ideas for the patterns that will be incorporated. As I work through a piece, there are usually also a few unexpected patterns that come into the composition - whether it's a motif I make up on the spot because I need a pop of color in a certain area, a collaged element, or a specific pattern that the work inspired.

DEE:  Pattern pervades all the work I do and have done. I see patterns everywhere, in geometry, nature, in the body in our environment, made and unmade. My earliest work was simply overlapping images that resulted in surprising abstract patterns. Later, I became interested in the Fibonacci progression, which defines the Golden Mean. I used that system to create patterns by color-coding the numbers.  

DAISY: Pattern has several functions within my "Forgetting is so long series." It can underline relationships or create them, or provide ornamentation and beautification for the individuals in each photo. These embellishments provide additional formal painting aspects (shape, color, etc.) and also adjust the awkward compositions of vernacular photographs. Pattern is typically the last element included in a painting. It is the "finishing touch," though some more complex patterns can take as long as the rest of the painting did.

NATALIE: In my collages, I think of pattern as the “grid”--reinforcing the flatness of the picture plane. The collaged elements push against it, creating depth of space on a flat ground. Works like “The Body” incorporate pattern and collaged images in a strange figure/ground dynamic. In the abstract paintings, it’s more of a maximalist approach, layering patterns over one another to experiment with optical color mixing and creating vibrations between shapes and forms. “Iceland” (see above) is an example of this. In my most recent work, I create sketches by digitally manipulating images of old paintings, so the work is rooted in pattern before I even begin on the canvas, wall, or paper. Then I add and add more. In the installation, “Fever Dream" the patterns translated to natural forms at a larger scale within the gallery.

Repetition is an essential aspect of working with pattern. How does painting or drawing the same element over and over feel?

MILLS: Once I sketch out the pattern that I want to paint, the repetitive process of filling it into the entire space can be very relaxing. This point in my process is different than when I'm creating a composition and layering color - which feels exciting and often full of surprises. The work of filling in the detailed pattern is slower, more repetitive, and often also meditative. Sometimes I can zone out into an audiobook or have a long phone conversation with a friend. Other times I enjoy working in silence and escaping into a meditative state of mind. I usually leave a long session of painting or gluing patterns feeling deeply soothed. 

DAISY: I find painting pattern incredibly tedious, sometimes physically painful, and restrictive. Those words make it seem negative, but the tension of laborious painting combined with the free-form work I do as I build up the piece is a necessary part of my process. The monotonous aspect of painting pattern leaves space for meditation and contemplative devotion to the subjects.

NATALIE: I think I’ve worked with pattern as long as I have because of its repetitive nature. Physically, I’m a runner, skier, cyclist, paddler. I enjoy repetitive activities with my body, and in that sense, painting is no different. It’s meditative and infinitely challenging. As with all of these activities, I feel like I can do it forever and always try to get better at it. Total mastery is almost impossible. This infinite possibility is alluring to me, as Sysiphean as it sounds. And to me, that’s a good thing! I don’t see that as a burden. It’s exciting. 

DEE: There is a meditative quality that comes with repetition. I am often in that state when I work with small, obsessively composed pieces. I think that occurs when one is completely immersed in the work. 

below: Mills Brown at work

Do you use sources to find patterns, or do you create them?

DAISY: Initially, I was drawn towards 19th-century wallpaper patterns, such as William Morris, in the early stages of my "Forgetting is so long series." Now, I seek out patterns from my interactions with nature, where I document shapes that I find interesting for paintings. I also look at historical botanical illustrations.

MILLS: In “Sunday Tea,” I looked at dresses on Mod Cloth and found patterns there. More often, I will use patterns from wallpapers, linens, or rugs that have decorated the different homes I’ve lived in. In “The Impotent and Static Rage of Ms. Rosa Coldfield” I created the lace pattern by printing out a couple of different lace images to hang on the wall while I worked and creating a mixture of them all. 

I love the idea of the power clash! In my paintings, I like to push the number of different patterns I use to the max. I almost always have more than one pattern in a piece. It just feels right to me that more is better. 

below: Mills Brown

Pink Den, 2019; acrylic, flashe, oil pens, and collage on canvas. 48 x 48"

DEE: My ideas are sometimes intuitive and often come from other cultures. Sometimes a preoccupation with a particular pattern from biological forms will get a work going. It was the pejorative of craft (as opposed to high art) that led me to explore pattern more seriously. I used patterns that appeared in crafts like weaving, beading, quilt making, and pottery. 

MILLS: Like Dee, I have been inclined to reject the strict difference the art world draws between craft and fine art. I have also been inspired by patterns in craft, as well as in the feminist argument for ornamentation. An artist I admire, Britny Wainwright, explains this aptly in her artist statement: "Uncomfortable with decoration being excluded as a medium of power, I employ floral pattern in an assertive way to rewrite modernism’s hierarchy."

NATALIE: Originally, I appropriated wallpaper patterns in narrative, domestic collages. I took a turn with these works and pushed toward a more formal and abstract approach, and the patterns have evolved with the work ever since. Pattern has its associations with craft and decoration, and that’s where I find an intersection of formalism and accessibility in my work. A high/low dynamic is central to my paintings. It’s who I am. I aspire to be exceptional and likable simultaneously, and so I do the same in my work.

DAISY: I am also mindful of cultural appropriation in which patterns I do work with; the history of pattern is one of constant cultural exchange and refinement (such as paisley, which for centuries was Persian-Indian and was altered to its popular Western iteration in Paisley, Scotland). There are certain patterns that have specific cultural and symbolic meaning that I shy away from. When I work with pattern, I want to avoid inadvertently embedding additional symbolism. It's often why if I am working with a specific historical pattern rather than one I have created, I excerpt certain sections rather using a faithful recreation.

Do you have a particular method or approach when you're working with one or more patterns?  

DEE: I rarely have a plan. I start with a shape and color and allow that first mark to determine the next one. The piece evolves as in a conversation -- statement and response. 

The pattern is created within a shape and must work in an overall composition that is satisfying.

I worked on a grid for a while as a constraint. Leaving the grid opened other possibilities for creating patterns.  These days, I start with an uncontrolled pouring of ink or paint and work within the construct of the spaces that it creates. It has helped me be more spontaneous rather than tightly controlled. I stay away from symmetry, as I believe that nothing in nature is totally symmetrical.

Subject can dictate my approach. I had an idea to use iconic figures from art history painted by male artists and to appropriate them into my own patterned version using collage and paint. Covid has been a subject during these months. The idea that something that looks beautiful can be so deadly.

Dee Shapiro, It's Covid Everywhere, 2020; mixed media on panel, 24 x 18"

NATALIE: I agree with Dee. Symmetry never feels right. I create rules, trying to stick with some, and intentionally breaking others as I work. There are different strategies for placing shapes within the space of the picture plane. Color plays heavily into this (look at Hans Hofmann), but the scale of the marks, edges, and contrasting direction of the marks all assist in making some shapes recede and others sit in front. Using these strategies is the rule; how I use them and experiment with them is what changes as I work. 

DAISY: I am always reacting to each photograph, so it's a process that is always in flux. My method usually breaks the pattern from its rigidity in repetition into something a bit rewilded; I tend to eschew geometric patterning. I like the idea of pattern behaving like it has some life to it, weaving in and out of the fractured space of my paintings. It can shift how the overall scene exists, which I find both unpredictable and exciting. I enjoy that level of uncertainty as a painter and see painting as almost wrestling; I am not always interested in exerting control but rather letting the work breathe as it progresses.

To read the next issue about pattern:

click here

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