Arizona artist Laura Spalding Best creates oil paintings on found objects, exploring the intersection of natural and built environments while confronting the impacts of climate change on the desert Southwest.
A charming blue door for Laura Spalding Best’s artist studio hints at the landscapes she’s painted within, working at a white oblong desk dotted with found objects and tubes of oil paint. The studio sits inside her Phoenix home, where the walls are filled with works by other artists, and tarnished silver items she’ll likely paint one day are neatly piled atop nearby shelves.
We stopped by one Sunday morning in December 2021 to talk with Best about the ideas that inform her work and the materials she uses to give them life. Here’s a bit of what she shared, including reflections on how her art practice has evolved and shifts she’s eager to make moving forward.
Lynn Trimble: Tell us about the desert images we see in everything from your small painted objects to your large-scale murals.
Laura Spalding Best: I really like to look at the landscape and the environment, and where I always begin here is the Sonoran Desert. I’m always exploring the landscape in my everyday life, looking at utility lines and other infrastructure we create to make our desert cities livable. I like to show how functionality meets natural beauty.
Tucson Museum of Art recently acquired your ironing board triptych, which provides a fascinating glimpse into the materials you use. Why found objects, and how do you acquire them?
I love using something that had a history before me, that’s larger than me. Often those objects have been passed down, and they’ve been part of daily domestic life. I look for things at thrift shops and antique stores. I tend to hunt for things that have a natural frame to hold a landscape. I think of them as vessels.
I love finding things by happenstance. But family and friends, especially fellow artists, also bring me a lot of objects. I probably have over 1,000 of them because some are so small. I enjoy looking for multiples so I can use them to make a series that evolves in some way as I’m pushing an idea forward.
Your paintings always seem to alter the ordinary landscape in some way, such as filling a desert scene with water. Why is that?
I like to bring particular things forward in my work and talk about how we look at and care for the landscape. I’m thinking about what we experience every day, but also what we’re passing down. I’m also exploring my own use of resources, and my complicity in what’s happening with the climate. It’s so easy to take the desert for granted.
Early American shipwreck paintings were one of my early influences. I use a lot of fanciful imagery, which sometimes appears to be melting from one object to another. Both the oasis and the mirage are prevalent in my paintings. Some of my landscapes are terrible fantasies of what will happen with ongoing climate change. I want them to be unsettling, not comforting.
Tell us a bit about your most recent exhibition.
Lately, I’ve been playing with scale and manipulating objects. For my latest exhibition, I painted on objects cut by a welder so they appear to disappear into whatever surface they’re set on. It’s a way of thinking about something in the landscape that may change in years to come, and the fact that this might be our last chance to see it.
For one of the pieces, you painted a large grouping of muffin tins. Why does that particular object resonate with you?
I enjoy working with muffin tins because you only see part of the object when you’re looking at it, and because the tins are literally hot, which echoes living in the desert. I like using domestic objects that are associated with women, femininity, the household, and the many different burdens that are put on women, including the environment.
I’m utilizing muffin tins to show the burdens we pass down to our children, but also to question our use of manufactured objects and how we assign value to them. I love old things, and thinking about precious items that aren’t made anymore. It’s a way of considering things that shouldn’t be lost and passing them down like oral traditions.
What else have you been working on recently?
I’m doing larger projects at a shared creative space called Rocking S Art Ranch, where I recently made a commissioned piece using about 1,500 license plates. Now I’m working on three large-scale metal sculptures that look like folded-paper boats for a public art project. And I have a whole new idea for a series that will include using street signs.
I’m also continuing to paint murals in public spaces. I’m excited about extending into the public sphere and making more work that reaches into the community. It helps me stretch and challenges me as an artist.