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An American Success Story: Brooke Lanier

Essay by David Frankle for

June 24, 2018

This summer, a few friends and I are taking a road trip across the country on a mission to find American success stories. We didn’t have enough money to do it ourselves, so we reached out to our favorite restaurant, The Cheesecake Factory, to see if there was a way to do it in partnership with them, and they enthusiastically agreed to sponsor our trip. What we didn’t realize is that The Cheesecake Factory is also an American success story. Over the course of the trip we will interview artists, craftspeople, and entrepreneurs who are dedicated to their work. We aim to highlight a diverse set of talents across a few different regions of the country including the northeast, the midwest, and the west.

We were lucky to talk to Brooke Lanier, an up-and-coming visual artist in Philadelphia, about what separates her from other painters in Philadelphia — namely her philosophy on art, her work-intensive style, and her dedication to the craft.

Everything she does demonstrates her persistence and commitment to making better art, from the types of paint she uses to the act of looking at her art. According to Brooke, a lot of contemporary art is “very bright and colorful and flashy, and I’m not saying anything against it necessarily, because some of it is quite good, but a lot of it is kind of quick read and very hip and trendy and ironic.” On the other hand, Brooke classifies her own art as, “very slow read art that you have to kind of get to know. It’s all about subtlety, and you like people who make things the way that you make them, and so I am drawn to other people who make thoughtful art that’s more invested in craftsmanship and subtlety, that isn’t just about the flash and the quick read.”

This ‘slow-read’ philosophy colors Brooke’s whole attitude on art, which is to draw attention to little things and nuances. “I see art as sort of a way of making records and being a witness, and by noticing things and committing them to an object in physical form, you can share them with other people. And by looking at them, the other people will hopefully see things in a slightly different way, like the colors and nuances that they walk by every single day and habitually ignore. They might think, ‘Oh, so this woman cared enough about the way this thing looked to make a five foot tall painting about it, so it’s a little harder for me to ignore this little tiny thing.’ And if it makes someone’s day a little better because they appreciate this little insignificant thing, then I think it’s an improvement of a certain kind.”

What got her started with this style? She was, “tired of seeing the same kind of art being exhibited,” so she “wanted to show a different kind of art” than she was seeing everywhere.” Because “if you don’t see what you want, do it yourself. Because someone else is gonna wanna see it.”

Sometimes, after she finishes a painting, she starts over with a minor change, painting a whole series of related pieces. She calls it “a pseudo-scientific method.” This is how it works: “I start out with something that’s a lot more traditional and representational, and I say OK I know how to do that. Now what happens if I change a variable, like if I change the brush strokes or the way that I’m painting it? Does that look good? OK, that looks good. Can I change the palette and the way the colors are working? Yeah, that looks pretty good. Can I do both of those things?” The fundamental question that drives this approach is, “What else can I do before it falls apart?”

And she’s finally putting the finishing touches on a painting she’s been working on for about ten years. She says, “sometimes I get irritated with my paintings when I can’t solve them, and I put them in the naughty pile. Like this one that I started about 10 years ago. I think that I might’ve finally hatched it, which is immensely satisfying, but sometimes it turns into something completely different than how it’s started, and sometimes that’s part of what’s interesting about it.”

What took her so long? “You have to figure out what’s keeping everything from coming together. And sometimes it’s what you think is the best part, and you have to sacrifice it, you have to kill it, because it’s sticking out and doesn’t match.”

Brooke is no stranger to sacrifice. She used to make a pigment out of bricks. She would take them to to her studio, wrap them in canvas, and hit them with a hammer. Then grind the smaller pieces into a mortar and pestle.

“It takes a lot of work, and a lot of time, to hand-grind this stuff with a paleolithic tool, but it’s good for adding body or texture to art. It’s gritty.”

Then she’d mix it with either an acrylic clear medium, water, or a damar varnish, to act as a binder. Sometime she’d sprinkle the dry pigment at an angle, to control how much of it hits and how it disperses.

But she has to be careful with using the material because it makes her really sick. It makes the air quality really bad. She has an air purifier, and she wears a mask, but sometimes she’d hit lead paint — it’s impossible to know what’s hidden in a random brick. She hasn’t been doing it much anymore because she’s worried about the long-term health effects.

The last piece of wisdom she wanted to depart to any young or struggling artists is something we think perfectly exemplifies her care, focus, and dedication to the craft: “You have to work really hard, and be consistent and diligent, and try to be getting better. And if you think that you know how to do something, you’re being arrogant, and you’re wrong, because there will always be someone who knows how to do something better than you. And that’s OK, because you can learn from them. And you can’t stop learning.”

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