Natalie Lanese’s intricate creations are growing in scale and prominence – as is her artistic ambition
Story and photography by Michael C. Butz
Natalie Lanese’s art engages viewers in spectacular sensory experiences. Awash with eye-catching colors, it fascinates. Composed of ornate designs, it mesmerizes. Sometimes sweeping in scale, it envelops. To take in Lanese’s work is to immerse oneself in an intriguing and dazzling display.
Take her latest piece, “Cavern,” a 28-foot-by-29-foot installation completed in March in the middle of the Tinkham Veale University Center at Case Western Reserve University, her alma mater. From certain vantage points, it looks as though those who climb the staircase in front of it will traverse geometric stalactites to enter a portal to someplace extraordinary.
Or there was “Depthless Without You,” which wowed visitors to the Akron Art Museum’s “NEO Geo” group exhibition from November 2015 to April 2016. As the title implies, the piece, which covered the walls and floors of an entire gallery with mind-bending geometric abstraction, toyed with people’s perceptions and perspectives.
Those who haven’t or didn’t see either of those two pieces may have driven past “Cleveland, City of Light, City of Magic,” underneath the George V. Voinovich Bridge on either side just south of the intersection of Ontario Street and Carnegie Avenue in downtown Cleveland. Installed in 2012 across from Progressive Field, the collage is an elaborately detailed and nostalgic homage to the Forest City, and yes, its title is a nod to Randy Newman’s “Burn On,” a song that plays during the opening credits of the Cleveland Indians-themed movie “Major League.”
Common to all of those pieces is her signature zigzag pattern, which has been evolving in her work for more than a decade. It’s immediately identifiable.
“Yeah, and nothing like what I thought I’d be doing,” she says, laughing.
That may be, but there’s little denying her work is now nearly as high-profile as some of the public places in which it’s located. Her artistic career is well-positioned to ascend, both figuratively, and if she has her druthers, literally.
Across the Buckeye State
Tracking down Lanese requires a trip to Toledo’s Old West End, a well-manicured urban neighborhood filled with Victorian and Georgian architecture. A spacious second-floor apartment, carved out of one of the neighborhood’s large old houses, is now home for the 37-year-old Lyndhurst native. Her studio is a two-room affair in a sun-filled corner of the unit.
“I didn’t really know anything about Toledo before I moved here, I just had a good feeling about it – and I was right,” she says, explaining she hoped to find community there and did. “It was a good hunch. In this neighborhood, so many of my friends live here, it’s a dynamic neighborhood of a lot of like-minded people and also a lot of creative people.”
Lanese characterizes Toledo’s art scene as “tiny but also passionate,” and extols the relative ease with which artistic ideas can become reality there.
“If you have a great idea to do something on a whim, you can kind of just do it – which is an exciting space for an artist to be in,” she says.
Two public works of hers can be found in Toledo. “Island Sanctuary for the Ghost of Moses,” a 2015 collaboration with Douglas D. Kampfer that’s a block away from the Toledo Mud Hens’ Fifth Third Field, depicts Moses Fleetwood Walker, who played professional baseball for the Toledo Blue Stockings in 1884 – 63 years before Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers.
The second is a Toledo Arts Commission project in which Lanese was asked to lead a team of teenagers in sprucing up the outside of an abandoned, dilapidated house as a part of a larger, creative placemaking initiative. Her trademark zigzag helps liven up a slightly rundown neighborhood.
“That’s exactly the kind of stuff I want to do as far as a local community goes,” she says. “Public art has been on my mind a lot more lately. It’s a direction my work has taken in recent years that’s new to me but I really enjoy it – and I enjoy the different kinds of impacts it can have in places.”
Of course, Lanese also enjoys Toledo’s proximity to friends and family in Cleveland, on top of which she feels she’s very much a part of the arts community in her hometown.
“I feel like there’s a place for me there even though it’s not where my studio is,” she says.
Among her artistic friends in Northeast Ohio are David Spasic, Nathan Murray and Ben Haehn, perhaps best known as purveyors of pinball at Superelectric in the Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood, and ceramic artist Gina DeSantis, whom Lanese has known since they interned together in 2004 at the former Buzz Gallery in Ohio City. The two have since encouraged and supported each other as artistic peers.
“We have totally different paths and work in totally different media, but it’s nice to have someone in your field to bounce ideas off of and share struggles we both might encounter,” says DeSantis, whose studio is among the Screw Factory Artists’ Studios in the Lake Erie Building at Templar Industrial Park in Lakewood. “We started this years and years ago. It took a good six or seven years after grad school for both of us to be where we want to be.”
There’s also a place for Lanese in the southwest corner of the state, where her “Swing Around Rosie,” occupies the entire side of a building in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood. Completed in 2016, the mural depicts Rosemary Clooney – who got her show business start in the Queen City – and is named after the singer’s 1959 album.
The project was led by ArtWorks Cincinnati and involved several murals throughout the city. In the process, the project employed teen apprentices to help execute Lanese’s vision for the mural.
“As far as arts advocacy, that’s a great example of a project I like to be involved with,” she says. “Not only are they successfully putting up great murals around Cincinnati, they’re teaching young people the value of that kind of work – and that you should be paid for your work.”
As evidenced in part by the way in which “Swing Around Rosie” and the dilapidated house project involved young people and artistic novices, as did “Cavern” at CWRU, teaching – and learning – have played integral roles in Lanese’s journey.
School in session
Are there other artists in Lanese’s family who may have served as inspirations for her career? In a word, no.
“We always laugh about it, that we have no idea how I ended up doing this,” she says, laughing even now. “It’s not like we had another artist in the family or even anyone who did it as a hobby. Basically, my mom signed me up for art classes at the (Cleveland Museum of Art) in the summers when I was little. It was something I loved to do, so I kept doing it.”
Education, however, has been central.
Both of Lanese’s parents are retired teachers. Her father, James, worked as a Cleveland board of education researcher for most of his career, and after he retired from there, taught graduate-level courses at John Carroll University and Cleveland State University. Her mother, Delia, taught grade school, and after taking a break to raise Lanese and her older brother, Nick, she returned to the classroom to tutor in math and reading.
Lanese’s arts education took a leap when she attended high school at Beaumont School in Cleveland Heights, where she was accepted into a four-year program that afforded her time in a studio with teachers who were working artists or also teaching at the college level.
“By the time I went to high school, it was definitely something I wanted,” she says. “I think that was a big part of why I chose to go there, because I knew (Beaumont) offered a great art program. I can definitely credit pursuing art after high school to my experience there.”
Lanese would go on to earn a bachelor’s degree with a concentration in art history and education from Xavier University in Cincinnati and then a master’s degree in art education from CWRU.
Her time at CWRU – which included studio courses at the Cleveland Institute of Art – would prove influential. She credits three classes with helping chart her career course: an in-depth class on Andy Warhol taught by David Carrier that allowed her to delve deeply into one of her favorite artists; a “Style as Substance” course taught by Julie Langsam in which frequent class discussions about art changed the way Lanese thought about her work; and a Saul Ostrow-taught course that explored manipulating dimensions.
By the end of her studies in Cleveland, Lanese’s work had started to shift from figurative oil paintings to collages. She recalls assignments from the Langsam class that challenged students to show sensuality within their mode of work, and in the process, consider how their work would be identified as their own or how they would be identified as artists through their work.
“I’d always made collages as a hobby, or for fun, but had never taken it seriously as an art form,” she says. “I made collages for these homework assignments, and it just opened up this whole other discussion about what my work was – making something I could really identify with personally, whether through the palette or the medium.
“It enabled me to use humor in my work, which is a big part of my personality, and all of those things I think I struggled to do with just painting – especially figurative painting. That opened up a floodgate of possibilities.”
Lanese rode that wave of creativity to the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, N.Y. By the time she graduated with a Master of Fine Arts degree in 2007, the transformation of her work had significantly progressed.
“I started off by making these small-scale collage pieces that I’d begun at CIA, and in the course of two years, basically really got into the collage process but also reached a point where I felt very limited in scale because I was using all of these small images I’d cut out from magazines, mostly,” she says. “So that led to this exploration of figuring out how to work large-scale but still stay true to this process I’d devised. By the time I finished, my thesis project was a wall-scale installation that was paint and collage directly on the wall.”
Earning her MFA marked the end of her schooling but not the end of her time in a classroom. In 2012, she became an assistant art professor at Siena Heights University in Adrian, Mich., about a 45-minute drive northwest of Toledo. She’s also director of the university’s Klemm Gallery.
That Lanese’s parents were both educators influenced her decision to teach, but she also received a little motherly advice on the matter.
“When I went to college, I’d kind of flirted with the idea of being an art major only, but my mom wasn’t on board with that,” she says, laughing. “It wasn’t like she was forcing me to do that. I had an interest anyway, but she gently encouraged me to have a back-up plan for art, which was good. It was smart.”
Expanding her art
Lanese’s work in collage has evolved since its beginnings at CWRU and CIA. Not only has her canvas expanded to cover larger areas, but the elements she places in her creations have shifted. The days of cutting out photos from vintage, ’50s- and ’60s-era interior decorating magazines are out, and human beings are in.
Inspired by her travels and desire to visit as many U.S. national parks as possible, Lanese considers some of her recent works as landscapes. And now, a key element to her work is the way in which she places objects – and people – within the topography.
“Collage is still a part of it, it’s just not photographs, she says. “Though I’m not literally cutting and pasting, I do think about the way I position different elements in the work.”
A good example of this was the “Depthless Without You” installation last year at Akron Art Museum, which she described as “a painting you could walk into.”
“The idea that it wrapped around walls and covered the entire floor transformed it into an environment,” she says. “There was of course the anticipation that people would be photographing themselves in it. That’s not something I’m telling them to do, but I’m also fully aware they’re going to do it. Part of the thought process of that piece was how people might position themselves in it and create their own images of it.”
That dynamic – working the multidimensional – is what motivates Lanese most at the moment. Her mind wraps itself around the possibilities it presents for her art.
“A painting is an illusion on a two-dimensional surface, and then I’m creating through color and pattern an illusion of some kind of depth of field, whether it’s through scale or overlapping forms or perspective lines,” she says. “Then, with the addition of dimension – actual dimension – I can manipulate those things so that depending on where you’re standing, it can look like an object in front of you, or because of the pattern or way it’s painted, it might just blend in and flatten into the wall behind it.
“I love having fun with how all of those things work in concert with one another, so that as a person moves through that space, they can experience something sculptural, a painting, and something that kind of exists between those two things based on where they’re standing and what the illusion might be,” she continues. “And if you take a photo, then it’s cycling back around. You’ve created another two-dimensional image out of that experience, and I’m into that right now. That’s what I think about a lot.”
So where does Lanese want to take her art from here?
“Lately, I’ve wanted to paint an entire building – the outside of it,” she says. “I’ve been thinking about that a lot, and I think it’s very much inspired by the number of empty buildings I’m surrounded by, especially churches.”
In that regard, the sky may literally be the limit for Lanese. She jokes she sometimes doubts her ability to take on an entire building – namely when she’s 35 feet up in a scissor lift that’s swaying in the wind.
“But I think at this point, I’m addicted to working big, and I just want to keep seeing things bigger,” she says. “It’s really fun thinking about things that are dimensional and transforming them in a painted object.” CV
Natalie Lanese’s “Cavern” is on view at Case Western Reserve University’s Tinkham Veale University Center, 11038 Euclid Ave., Cleveland.
“Cleveland, City of Light, City of Magic” is on view underneath the George V. Voinovich Bridge just south of the intersection of Ontario Street and Carnegie Avenue (across from Progressive Field) in downtown Cleveland.
Lead image: Natalie Lanese paints in parts of the initial design for “Cavern,” which was later installed on a much larger scale, at her home studio.