Rescuer of Discarded Objects: A Conversation With Artist Rachel Lindsay

Rachel Swearingen
Apr 9, 2017 · 16 min read
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Something wonderful has been happening on the walls of my neighborhood coffee joint in Lincoln Square in Chicago. Beans and Bagels is located in a two-story brick building next to Rockwell Station on the Brown Line. You have to go outside and through another door to get to the adjoining sitting area, a small streetfront room with two long walls for artwork. Most of the staff are artists of some kind, as are many of their customers. A little over a year ago they challenged each other to a group show. Since then, they’ve taken turns showcasing their individual work, influencing each other, developing their visions as they go.

In January of 2017, I sat down with Rachel Lindsay at the cafe, in the gallery where she was showing her new work. The show consisted of a series of mixed media artworks: sculptural paintings using discarded eggshells from the cafe; a hanging textile made of carbon papers from order booklets; a wall sculpture incorporating plastic spools from rolls of receipt paper and drawings of phases of the moon; a sculptural painting made of layers of carbon-imprinted papers mounted on wood; and a mobile of gossamer feathers cut from plastic twine, and origami boats folded from the stiff backs of restaurant order books.

RS: You’ve titled your current exhibit Undiscard/Kept. Tell me about it. How did it come about?

RL: Something that’s always been interesting about working here [at Beans and Bagels] is the focus on trying to reduce our waste as much as possible. Even with things I’d never think about, like choosing not to carry products wrapped in plastic, or choosing to get rid of [plastic] tape and instead use paper, glue, and water tape. I haven’t been in environments where that’s been in the ethos before. It starts to affect you, and you start thinking, “We just throw this thing away, and it’s plastic and it’s never going to break down.”

RS: So, it was the sheer amount of waste that prompted the show? Because there’s so many people coming through the cafe?

RL: Right, I mean this happens in our houses too. It’s really interesting to think about what else we can do with these things. We just throw them away. So that was part of this [show], and then, in all of my work, I’ve been interested in selecting things and in saving them to use eventually for making things. This summer, I knew I was going to have a show here at some point this fall, and I decided I needed to give myself some challenges because I just wanted to have a platform for diving into new ways of making things, and into new work entirely, and so I chose a couple materials at the shop that we discard. Some of them we throw away; some of them we compost. So, those little plastic tubes [in a wall sculpture] are the center for the receipt paper. I had no idea what I was going to do with any of this stuff. And then it just started to accumulate, and then after looking at this stuff for a while, eventually I knew “this is what it’s going to be.”

RS: Is that how you normally start? Are your ideas usually based on materials first? Or is this new?

RL: I’ve always found materials that I was also really interested in whether it was actual physical things to make things on or materials to make things with. Or even as source materials, and I often save them for a year… most of the time I have no idea why. Then, it’s like this light bulb.

RS: Is it a visual sense? Or is the texture and feel? What tends to draw you towards materials?

RL: I think it’s mostly visual. And happenstance, like, yeah I think in the case of things thrown away, like in alleys, it’s wait a minute, this thing has been deemed no longer useful? I don’t know what the use is, but I’m pretty sure it wants to be useful!

RS: It’s like you’re rescuing art. Which makes me wonder what your work space is like. The compulsion to save things before you know how you’ll use them, that would be dangerous for me.

RL: It is. Yes, it’s absolutely dangerous. I have a lot of stuff. But, while being rather pack-ratish, I’m really organized too. I love organizing things. I have all this stuff, but it’s in piles.

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Image 2. “Eggshells 1, 2, and 3,” eggshells, wood panels, acrylic, 32" x 32" (2016)

RS: That makes sense to me. There’s an organizing principle behind your work, repeating patterns. I love the eggshells. They’re beautiful from a distance too. You can’t tell that they’re eggshells, and then when you get up close you can. There’s a real prettiness and ornamentation to your work, and yet there’s a tension there too. The jaggedness of the shells. The egg shape drawn over that portrait is initially soothing, and yet as I look at it, I’m not sure if the subject is emerging or hiding.

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Image 3. “Eggshell 1,” eggshells, plywood, acrylic, 32" x 32" (2016)

RL: That’s really interesting that you say that. So, it started with these pieces, the circular, more sculptural half-eggshell pieces. We use so many eggs every day, and we do compost the shells, which is great, but someone was cracking eggshells one day, and I looked at them and I’m like, “Can you save some of these for me?”

The idea for these pieces happened really quickly. I saved all these eggshells and washed them out, and then started putting them on the floor and was like, Woah. These are so beautiful. They’re so sculptural. I actually really like them on the floor. I may have to have them on the floor somewhere after this.

I’m interested in the tension that exists in their fragility — they could break at the slightest touch. To make something with them is really challenging, but I also think that they have this kind of waviness to them, like they could be porcelain, like I could have sculpted them.

[See images 4 and 5 below.] Then, in the bottom of the box were all these broken-off pieces of the eggshell.

RS: Is that what that is? Wow. I didn’t realize. I thought the mosaic was painted.

RL: I wanted to reuse materials, and I was like, “What do I do with these? Do I throw them out?” I’d done two pieces this summer in collaboration with one of my old art professors who had asked me to do works on the glass above drawings that he’d done and I really liked that, and I thought this is something I might use in my own work sometime.

And, so the eggshells happened right after. [I was thinking about] the shadows they might create, and again the fragility, but I’m also really interested in the observation you made about the tension of things. That’s something frequently said about my work, like this is calming and soothing, but there also seems to be some element of sorrow or pain or wrestling with deep emotions, and I’m not sure what’s that about.

RS: Is must be hard to hear someone’s interpretations. They might be seeing something subconscious in you, or projecting their own experiences onto the work.

RL: I’m interested in emotional dichotomies. Like how can we be filled with peace and sorrow at the same time. I think we experience those things a lot. At the root, a lot of my work is some form of self-portraiture and exploring my experience of the world, trying to make some sense of that, or make something from all the nonsense. And being a place of great beauty and great pain at the same time, which is really strange.

RS: You mentioned that most of your work is a form of self-portraiture. You seem to be moving away from self-portraits in this show, towards more abstraction, and I wondered if this was purposeful.

RL: It’s not purposeful, definitely by accident. When I started making work that was less representational, I was still doing work that was representational at the same time. More recently, because I’m often making things simultaneously, I started asking myself how and why should these pieces be woven together? How do they become one piece, this mark making that’s often representational, with what is non-representational and often repetitive? Or is it a case of things just existing next to each other in the same place?

RS: Is that a new question for you? Or have you always worked towards sets of pieces?

RL: Well, I can’t say that I’ve had many opportunities where I know I have this space and I could do all the work for this one thing. This is my third solo show. But something that has always been true is that I’ve never been someone who’s been able to focus on just one piece, and work on it until it’s done. I always have many projects going at the same time, and often at really different processes, and when I don’t I want to be sewing something or painting.

RS: So, it’s not just working on different pieces, but it’s actually working with different materials and mediums?

RL: Yes.

RS: Can you talk about the challenges you face working the way you do?

RL: Often I have a lot of things that are half done. Since I graduated from school that’s been normal. But on the flip side, it is interesting because I see where processes that I’m dabbling with all of a sudden become a salvation for a piece that I had no idea what to do with.

RS: So, you’re developing an idea in one piece, and then you’re using what you learned to finish another piece?

RL: Right. And I often find it helps me to be more productive because if I get stuck in this one particular way — let’s say I’m working on a painting and I’m stuck — I might feel entirely unstuck making a bunch of little triangles or putting eggshells on a piece of glass, so I can do that for an hour and then something else.

RS: Is there something you took away from this show that you’re now thinking of putting into future work?

RL: Yeah. I really enjoyed thinking more spatially and sculpturally. I’m thinking about installing something that fills a space as opposed to making something flat. Thinking about artists that I admire, and how their work uses space.

RS: Who are some of the artists?

RL: Anselm Kiefer. Doris Salcedo had a show at MCA a few years ago. Ann Hamilton.

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Ann Hamilton, “Carriage,” slices of paperback books, cheese cloth, string, bookbinders glue, binders board, museum board, bookbinding cloth, acrylic panels (2009)

RS: Have you seen Tara Donovan’s work? The direction you’re taking with your more sculptural elements reminds me of her.

When I first saw your show, you explained how the register spool piece looks different in this space than in your studio. [See image 6 below.] Were there other installation challenges?

RL: The time to install things was much greater than I anticipated for the star piece. [See images 1 and 7 .] After spending all this time making the drawings, and then not knowing what to do with them, my plan was to just hang the loose fabric away from the wall, hoping it would get enough back light. But I didn’t know until I brought it here that it wouldn’t get enough. I tried to hang it on a curve, and that did not work because it just wanted to be a straight line and hinder any area for people to sit.

Then I tried to hang it from the ceiling, but it was awkward shaped paper fabric, and it looked tacky, so now I’m here with this thing I spent a billion hours on, and I’m like, OK, now I’ve got to build something to hang it from, and so I go to the hardware, come back, put it together and then try to hang it again.

RS: The issue of a multi-use space is particularly difficult when you’re using such fragile materials.

RL: Yeah. It’s interesting thinking about how people make things for spaces and anticipate all the problems that are going to happen beforehand. That’s a new challenge going forward.

RS: Are you thinking of installations down the road?

RL: I would love to do installations. I think right now — I keep using the excuse that I don’t have spaces — and that’s not true because I have a plethora of spaces, I just need to be OK with the possibility that they [the artworks] might be damaged or taken.

RS: You’re reclaiming pieces, you’re trying to reuse things, and yet there’s the question of how you preserve them, or do you even want them to be preserved? And eggshells, that’s a curious choice because weren’t early pigments mixed with eggshells? I think it had to do with the minerals in them. It’s an interesting question. Where do you see it ending up, and do you even think that far ahead? In terms of someone collecting it, or having it deteriorate and perhaps end up in the trash again?

RL: This work in particular [See “20,168 Stars” above], I’m like what do I do with it? And these eggshell pieces, I could make them again very easily, with time, and they’re compostable, so I can just dissemble them and feel OK. But then I think these little boats , all that plastic, is that bad? I don’t know. But that’s art. Or is that a cop out? I don’t know. [See image 8.]

RS: I’m thinking again of how you gather materials. How do you store them? What is your studio space like right now?

RL: I work in my home, in my dining room.

RS: It must be difficult because you’re not just working on tiny miniatures at your desk. These are big pieces. How would you like to handle these space issues in the future?

RL: I don’t necessarily have to have that big of space. I just need to feel that it’s mine, that I don’t need to share, that I can expand into all the crevices. I enjoyed working in the same space with other people [in school]. It held me accountable, and it’s really nice to get immediate feedback. That’s been one of the most challenging things about my working space, feeling rather alone.

RS: Yes, aloneness can be so difficult. You need it, but not so much that you shut down.

RL: Or spiral. So, Tim Erickson and I are part of a group of artists that meet every other week to talk about work, and it’s great to have that, but I know for me to be the best version of the creative person I could be, it’s not cutting it.

I have been thinking about grad school, and I’ve been thinking about creating an environment with people who have the same mindset. Like a shared studio space, or set goals, such as going to shows together and every week we have a critique.

RS: You’re working here as well. How has that been?

RL: I really enjoy my work and my coworkers, and I can leave the work here. It’s nice, and I don’t have to dread coming, but my tendency is to want to be involved in a lot of other things as well. I’ve learned that I can’t work almost full time and then have three other commitments and expect to be a full-time artist. The thing that ends up going is my art, so this works for me, if I remember to keep it simple. I work, and I make art.

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Image 9. [From another show.] Repurposed plastic twine, pottery (2016)

RS. Let’s go backwards a bit. When did you know you were artist? Is there a memory that’s vivid to you?

RL: I didn’t consider myself an artist at all. I didn’t doodle as a child. In high school, you could have one elective each year, and I was in band, so I stopped making art after eighth grade, but had always enjoyed it and thought I would love to take an art class when I had time. When I got to my senior year, I decided I had had enough of band.

RS: It’s amazing that you had to choose between art and band, that you had just one elective.

RL: Because I was in honors classes, I wasn’t able to take more until I had finished all my advanced courses. I took a combined painting and drawing course, and a photography course, and I got two weeks into the year, and I was talking to someone in one of my classes about a senior seminar art class that they were in, and I just go so excited hearing about their projects. I was also thinking that they had probably taken every art class the school offered, and I haven’t done any.

RS: It’s funny that this can hold us back so early, that we think we’re already so far behind at that age.

RL: Oh, yeah. I was like I already missed it, but I asked this peer of mine if she thought I could join, and she said, you should talk to our teacher, she’s so great, and I introduced myself, and she had no idea who I was — her name was Mrs. Statts, and she…

RS: Her name was Mrs. Statts, and she was an art teacher? That’s lovely.

RL: She said, I don’t know who you are but I suppose you can be in this class, so I dropped my science course and by the end of the year I made as much work as everyone else had made in their four years. There were nine of us, and three of us went on to do art in college.

RS: So, you just caught fire and that was it?

RL: It was this part of me I didn’t know existed.

RS: So, what was your childhood like? Where did you grow up?

RL: I grew up in Upstate New York, in a really small town.

RS: And you came here for undergraduate work? How did you find out about North Park?

RL: I knew about North Park because it’s affiliated with the Evangelical Covenant Church, which I grew up going to, and that is the only school affiliated.

RS: Did you know about their art department?

RL: I came to know about it. I knew about the school because of that part of my upbringing, and one of my friends from high school was a year above me and went there, so I came to visit her determined I was never going to go, but if I’m going to go all the way to Chicago, I should do this official college visit. It’s a really interesting art department because they don’t get a lot of funding and it’s pretty small. We have three full-time faculty, maybe four now. The building is really out of date, and we don’t have a lot of tools or resources.

RS: And yet, it’s putting out some great artists from what I can see. You’ve got some dedicated professors.

RL: The professors are awesome. I was really interested in going to school in a big city, so I was intrigued.

RS: And you’ve been here ever since. Is your family supportive of you being an artist?

RL: Yeah. [Laughs.] I don’t think they understand, and they know they don’t understand, but I think my parents are both very logical, which I get from them. And so, I think they’re OK with it because they trust me, and they know I’m not going to be like, so I’m an artist and I have no money and I need to live with you. [Laughs.] Like, this is my dream.

RS: Start saving your trash, mom and dad, I’m coming home? Tell me about the shift to black and white. I know you worked with more color before. Was this choice just for this show, or is there more to it?

RL: That transition has happened in the last couple of years. A bunch of my drawings are just white on black. I don’t know the reason for this. I think it was more accident.

In thinking more about the color palette [in “Boats and Rain”], I wonder if it has something to do with wanting to maintain the integrity of the materials. I’ve obscured them, but in some sense the materials are still there. Those boats are still the same, they are still that material.

RS: Is the cardboard they’re made out of from cup holders?

[She shows me an order booklet from the cafe, how she used the cardboard backing for the boats, and the carbon paper inside for her star piece. Also, see image 9 below, where she made use of repurposed papers imprinted from carbon sheets within restaurant order booklets.]

RS: What’s your favorite part of art-making?

RL: I really enjoy tedious tasks. I’m totally content spending hours washing out egg shells and then painting them with Elmer’s glue so they’re a little bit harder.

RS: I get it. I actually love tearing down wallpaper for that reason, peeling long strips for hours.

RL: Yep.

RS: So, what’s your least favorite part?

RL: Starting, and finishing things. I’m starting a bunch of new paintings on hunks of wood and bowls and cutting boards and things, and drawing out the beginning and putting on the first layers, I hate that part.

RS: Why? Is it a fear that it’s not going to turn out? The unknown?

RL: It’s a meticulous task, drawing out the beginnings of something. Once I can get the thing covered in paint I’m so much happier.

RS: Favorite place in the city?

RL: I live in North Rogers Park. The lake is really nice. There’s this cathedral off the Chicago Red Line stop, right on State. [Holy Name Cathedral.] It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. I can sit there and feel very inspired. It’s giant, and so quiet. It’s one of those silences that so loud.

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Image 10. Holy Name Cathedral, Chicago

RS: One piece of advice for artists just starting out?

RL: Something that I continue to hope grows in myself is realizing the endless possibilities of making. Very often, as makers, we have this list of rules about what art is, and what is acceptable, and I think that’s why so many people aren’t artists. You think you can’t draw, but what you might be thinking is you can’t draw the way you think people are supposed to draw. Let your creation speak just as much, if not more, than you. It has so much it has to say to you, about it wants to be and feel, and too often we get in the way.

RS: Rachel, it’s been a pleasure. Thank you for taking the time to sit down and talk with me today.

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To see more of Rachel Lindsay’s work, visit

To read Part 1 of this series, visit On Origin, Rocks, and Painting with Fire: A Conversation with Artist Timothy Erickson.

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