Local artist Carlie Trosclair drags two folding wooden chairs up the stairs of an old, abandoned home in Gravois Park where she has created a lasting installation, frequently tossing around academic art buzzwords like “prescribed” and “essentially.” Long ago the walls of the room in which her piece appears were painted an unpalatable shade of waiting-room pink, ostensibly meant to cover up a number of wallpaper, paint, and plaster choices. Once, it served as a home for someone. Trosclair calls home, “the place where you are comfortable enough to be every part of yourself. You get to go there in a way that’s unjudged. You have the freedom to just be in that space.”
Now the walls have been ravaged by water damage, exposure to the elements, and general neglect, which has allowed the older layers of paint and paper to come forward, exposed. The house is a skeleton of what it once was. But from Trosclair’s perspective, to look at a domestic space that way misses the point. “Going into these abandoned spaces, you never know what you’re going to get. That’s why I’m so careful. I think a lot about what pays homage the best way … I’m not owed any kind of access to do whatever I want just because it’s dilapidated,” she says.
She remembers drawing exposed cutaways of rooms and homes when she was younger, so rather than seeing just the outside skin of a house, you could see inside. It’s a concept that has consistently intrigued her. “You have an intimate glimpse into a stranger’s life. That seems really special. And it’s sad, but it’s a privilege to be able to see how other people live, or to be in the place that once was considered home and now is completely barren, left to deteriorate,” she says, gesturing around the house.
For the installation, she delicately searched out places in the wall where the hidden layers of wallpaper and paint came forward, perhaps a scratch, a mark, a place where the thick paint panicked and bubbled up over the layers of wallpaper, plaster, and who knows what else underneath. She cut through them with an x-acto knife, as though performing surgery, adding no new materials whatsoever aside from the mark of her hand.
“I think it’s less about making it beautiful versus revealing the patterns of beauty that are already there,” she says. “We understand wallpaper to be decorative, flush, and fit the space exactly. What tends to happen over time, whether it’s water damage or neglect, is it starts to bubble out. It’s not failing because it’s not a completely wallpapered wall anymore. It’s changing. It’s evolving naturally, the way it’s crumbling down. It’s got its own pattern of deteriorating that still speaks.” The house still continues to evolve even after she has completed her piece of it, and it can’t be taken down unless the building is renovated or demolished. Trosclair completed the installation during the humid summer of August, and is now returning to it in the midst of a frigid January winter.
She has been running around without a coat on for a bit, and hastily pulls a bright red one over her shoulders now. The freezing air is creeping in through the exposed windowpanes. “Trying to be more subtle, I think, allows room to also notice what was already present, instead of creating something completely absent and separate from the space,” says Trosclair, reflecting on how she chose to approach this particular home, its barren wood floors and gaping, unplastered walls.
“It’s hard to not think about the lifespan of a human being. We’re not worthless when we’re older, when our bodies are deteriorating. There’s still beauty and importance in that evolution of a life span, and I think the same about architecture. There’s still so much that can be learned.” Trosclair hesitates to clarify what that could be. “I don’t know how to talk about the importance of or the power of beauty,” she says, slightly bristling.
She attended a traditional high school before transferring to the New Orleans Center For Creative Arts in her hometown. “That was the most eye-opening experience: being around instructors who were working artists,” she says. Trosclair stayed in New Orleans until attending the MFA program at Washington University in St. Louis, where she was awarded both the Tanasko Milovich Scholarship and a Graduate Fine Arts Scholarship. She has continued to stay in St. Louis and take advantage of the opportunities for artists, remembering her time here during graduate school and the practicing artists around her.
“I think that’s why I stayed–because of how inspiring it was,” she remembers. She wanted to see what it would be like to be a part of the art ecosystem firsthand. “I don’t want to move out of a city without feeling like I’m a part of the art community. The academic art community is more constructed in a way. This feels more organic. It’s been really supportive; it feels genuine. Everyone is excited about what everyone else is doing.” It’s been a few years now since she completed her MFA, and she’s in the process of discovering where her practice fits outside of school. “St. Louis provides the freedom and the resources to have a variety of opportunities. I can show in a gallery one day that’s been around 20 years and has a certain support base, and I can show in an abandoned building. There’s enough variety to keep me on my toes and always thinking about unconventional opportunities, and I think that’s the sentiment: thinking outside of major institutions,” she says.
Since graduating with her master’s degree, Trosclair has also continued to decorate her resume, with a number of prestigious residencies in New York and Vermont, a 2012 RFT Mastermind Award, a Critical Mass for the Visual Arts Stimulus Award, and most recently a $20,000 grant through the Great Rivers Biennial, a program presented through the Contemporary Art Museum and Gateway Foundation. Now, she’s discovering the art community outside of school. “You have a built-in community of people—I mean, you’re paying for it—but you have a built-in community of people who give a shit about what you’re doing. They’re always knocking on your studio door, because they know you were working on something last week and they want to check up on you. It’s not like that anymore.”
Trosclair much prefers to talk about her process, materials, upcoming projects, collaborations, and residencies rather than herself–it’s much more complicated to process her inner world. She pauses as the steady whirr of cars and trucks driving by reverberates around the room. “It’s weird not to be able to hide behind your work all the time,” she says, choosing her words carefully. A visual language comes more naturally to her. “The making of the work is incredibly intimate, and then it’s put out in public,” she says, looking at the places where she cut into the paint on the wall, the floral pattern behind it becoming more clear. “That action of making something in private and then exposing it to the public is very revealing, I think. But it’s a language I understand so it doesn’t feel as revealing, whereas with words I’m like, ‘Is that really what I wanted to say? I don’t know?’”
While Trosclair is the lone artist in her family, she nods to acknowledge that her parents understand the significance of the road she has chosen. Her mother is a supervisor at an eye clinic, and her father is a self-employed electrician. “They’ve trusted that I would never do something that I wasn’t 100% behind. They get that, and they support me being happy. They had that initial reaction of, ‘How are you going to make money?’ and ‘How are you going to sustain yourself?’ I think they know my personality. They know I’m going to make it work.”
“They still don’t understand the concept of, ‘So no one’s paying you?’ And I think that’s a very real thing for people who are not artists. It’s trying to understand what the drive is. So if the drive isn’t to make money, I think it’s hard to understand where that comes from.” This is something Trosclair answers for herself; it comes from a place deep within her. “My art practice is the forefront of everything that I do. It’s almost tunnel vision.”
Her parents built a house from the ground up when she was 8, and they moved in when she was 10. “My dad, he’ll do the wiring before the drywall. I just remember walking through even our own home as it was being built–like, ‘This is where the kitchen is and this is your room and this is the living room–’ It’s really interesting to walk through a space and imagine what it’s gonna be. And then, ‘My bed’s gonna go here … you start designing it before it’s at that stage. It’s a ghost of a home at that point,” she says, remembering the blueprints her father would use to prepare the wiring. “It’s only been obvious, I think, in the past two years, subconsciously where that’s coming from–my interest in architecture. This feels reminiscent of stages in architecture when it’s being built.”
As to whether she wants a family of her own, Trosclair answers in fragments. “I kind of hate that question, because how often are men asked that question when they’re talking about their art practice? It’s expected of you to want to have a family, to want those things,” she says. “I have a family. I have multiple families: the one I was born into, the ones I have mutually created with my peers and friends. I don’t think about ‘acquiring’ a family beyond conventional prompts outside of myself that assume my place within a gendered equation.”
The National Museum of Women in the Arts reports that of all artists represented by galleries, women make up only a third, even though over half of the MFA’s awarded throughout the country are earned by women. “I have to tread lightly here without getting too personal, I think,” she says. She lets it all out a few days later in an email. “My hesitation to address and answer questions regarding the relationship between my gender and my art practice is because the question itself holds implicit societal assumptions about normative gender roles. As a woman I don’t just get to be an artist. I have to explain what it’s like to be female, too. ‘What’s it like being a woman in your field? I don’t know how you do it! How does a family fit into your career goals?’ These questions cheapen women as human beings and perpetuate prescribed roles,” she writes.
But for now, Trosclair breathes, takes a succession of long pauses, and edges the conversation away from the rabbit hole of gender norms. She rubs her hands together to fend off the cold, or perhaps to momentarily distract from it, glancing around the house in its exposed state. “You learn a lot about people when you see the breakdown of the space,” she says.
“It’s interesting to me how there are two layers of wallpaper and then a layer of plaster over it … those decisions that people make,” she says, surmising how the internal monologue of the previous tenants could have progressed. “‘Well, I don’t like this wallpaper, so I’m not going to take it down, I’m just going to wallpaper over the wallpaper … well, I don’t like this wallpaper anymore, so I’m just going to plaster over it … it reveals so much about how we exist and live. I don’t know. It’s a bizarre thing that’s hard to explain: feeling really connected to people who lived here just based on what’s left behind.”
She again points back to her piece on the wall. It flutters around and creaks in the frozen breeze. “It reveals decisions, it reveals coverings … why would they cover up that floral pattern? It gets my mind wandering about who lived here, the aesthetic of the space. Why did they cover up that floral pattern with that ugly brown?” says Trosclair, with rapt attention. “They were never meant to be seen all together. See?”
For more information about Carlie Trosclair, visit www.carlietrosclair.com.