By Shannon Gallagher
Lisa Frank, whose intricate, layered digital photo collages combine her passions for the environment, the outdoors, and photography, began her art career in a different vein. At the young age of 22, after completing her degree in Art Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Frank moved to New York City and pursued a career as a working artist, focusing on drawing and painting. First, she worked as a scenic painter for theater and opera, later moving on to more decorative, surface paintings for high-end restaurants and other hospitality venues. “In 1988, there was a stock market crash. People started spending less money on decorative painting, which tends to be a luxury item. Over the course of time, I started to retrain myself, because digital work started to creep in,” she said. Frank attended the School of Visual Arts in NYC and took courses in Photoshop. She bought a camera and a scanner and taught herself how to use them.
“Everything I do basically comes down to drawing and painting,” she said, “but throughout the decades, the context and scale have changed. Technology has changed; my interests have changed, as has what I am physically able to do. Working in theater is very physically demanding, so if I was doing that now, I’d be able to do nothing else.” She described her evolution as an artist as “one long conversation.”
Frank moved to NYC for an internship upon the completion of her undergraduate degree. “I stayed on the east coast for 25 years, and then decided that I wanted to be closer to my family. I have nieces and nephews that I really love. My sister’s family is here [in Madison], as are my parents. My brother’s family is in Chicago.”
In terms of how she began to work photographically, Frank adopted a German Shorthair Pointer puppy 14 years ago. “He had a tremendous reserve of energy, and in order to live with him, I had to spend a lot of time outdoors. It is fun because I love the outdoors. He has been a very patient photographer’s companion,” she said. Although spring and fall are her favorite times of the year, she takes photos in the woods during all four seasons. Several of her works feature patterns comprised of images of icicles. “I don’t go out when it’s below 10 degrees,” she said, “but all other times, I go out with my dogs. I don’t stop taking photos.”
The artist, who spends countless hours exploring nature and taking photographs, regularly visits several places for inspiration. “In Wisconsin, there’s a national trail that has similar status as the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails. There are segments of it that are nearby, and I go there a lot. I visit nature conservatories that are within an hour from Madison that are truly wonderful wilderness spaces, I also go to an arboretum and conservation park in Madison that I live close to.” The artist also listed Olbrich Botanical Gardens as a favorite spot. “When I go, I take my camera. Lately, I’ve also been going to a lot of zoos, because I’m beginning to use more animals in my work.”
When asked to describe what she finds frustrating about the artistic process, Frank listed technical problems. “It mostly has to do with printing, color management and having enough memory space for the work that I do. My work is very layered, complicated, and large, so in order to do versions, which I do, it takes up an incredible amount of memory. I’m always up against this task to create enough space for it, backing everything up, and protecting myself adequately,” she said. Frank also has an archive of over 30,000 photographs, which can be difficult to organize. “The taking of the photos and the actual making of the work is something that I love and it feels like a truly authentic part of me,” she said. “Organization and getting it to the point of putting it out in the world is where it can get problematic.”
Conversely, the most rewarding part of the artistic process for Frank is when people tell her that her something about her pieces have had some kind of resonance within them. “Also, I love being able to bring attention to things that many people cannot or do not see.” For instance, Frank often finds herself in the woods, closely examining the environment. “I take photos of mushrooms, moss, and rocks,” she said. “Not everyone is able to go out and explore like that, so I am very happy that I can use those objects as subject matter and show people that they exist.”
Last summer, Frank was accepted to and attended a prestigious residency at the MacDowell Colony, located in New Hampshire. The residency is over 100 years old, and has been host to some very successful artists, writers, musicians, filmmakers, and architects. “It was intimidating to go by myself, to be on the same property as some of these people,” she admitted. Frank went there with the intention of working on a specific project that she proposed during the application process. “I had a wonderful studio in the woods,” she said. “I worked and hiked and took a lot of pictures.
There were about 25 people in residency- writers, architects, artists, etc. We had communal dinners, people gave presentations.” The goal of the residency is to give creative people an opportunity to work on their projects in a way that is undisturbed. “It’s beautiful there. They really leave people alone. At noon, they deliver picnic baskets so that you don’t have to take a break to find something to eat. It was wonderful, just an incredible opportunity,” she said. The artist is very proud of the residency that was awarded to her at the MacDowell Colony. She also takes pride in having been an instructor at the Penland School of Craft in North Carolina. “In a similar kind of way, that was a wonderful chance to really focus on one thing,” she said.
As far as future plans and projects go, Frank is working on several interdisciplinary projects that include virtual reality content. In addition, this summer she will be teaching a course about exploring nature through technology at Peters Valley in New Jersey.
Lisa Frank’s work is currently on display at ZIA Gallery.