Interview with Alice Spencer

yardageYardage #1, Alice Spencer , acrylic and gesso on sand on board , 29″ x 41″, 2011

One of the things that I find fascinating about an artist is learning what they are most passionate about. In those learnings lie the core of their inspirations and the roots of their work. Alice Spencer has a passion for textiles, which is very evident in her work. It’s fascinating to hear her talk about the different places she has visited and the roles textiles play in their cultures. Alice’s paintings have always captivated me and I find myself wanting to hear her speak about each one and the history and inspiration behind them. They are layered, textural treasures, each with their own historical and cultural inspiration. After interviewing and visiting Alice in her studio, I left wanting to know so much more.

Thank you Alice for sharing your studio, process and work with us. You are an inspiration and leave us wanting to learn so much more. I look forward to our next visit!


How would you describe your childhood? Did you grow up in a creative family?

I had 2 aunts, 2 uncles and a grandmother all of whom made art of one kind or another. My uncle who had a career as a physicist started making and showing sculptures when he retired. He is now 90. I think my father would have been an artist if there hadn’t been so many pressures on him to live up to family expectations and make money. He made wooden rocking horses the size of Shetland ponies in our basement. The manes and tails were made of mop heads.

Growing up in the 50’s and 60’s I had a privileged childhood in a big family with 5 kids— a wonderful education and lots of travel. I drew and painted; I always knew I would be an artist. There was a brief effort to correct this notion when my father made me take typing lessons. Eventually, I got a teaching degree and taught art in public school as a bulwark against the clear, even to me, possibility I might not make a living as an artist.both-3

Left: Entryway Curtain, Japan, Tie dye [shibori), cotton Right: Shirt #1, Alice Spencer, 30″ x 22″, acrylic on gesso and sand on board both-2

Left: Panels from Shaman’s Robe, Ecuador, Embroidered cotton, wool and silver embossed paper Right: Altar Scarf, Alice Spencer, 40″ x 50″, Acrylic on gesso and sand on board


Left: Breast Wrapper (Kemben), Java, Indonesia, Wax resist (batik), cotton Right: Sarong, Alice Spencer, 51″ x 30″, Acrylic on gesso and sand on board

What inspires you? 

Over the last 35 years my husband and I have traveled and collected textiles in places where indigenous textile traditions still exist. On our very first trip to Guatemala there was a moment when I knew that textiles would become a core passion for me. It was not only because I was stunned by the beauty of the blouses worn by the village women, but that I began to understand the important role of cloth throughout history in creating identity, connection and meaning in communities all over the world. I also felt mystified by the process of weaving itself. It seemed beyond my reach to understand, almost alchemical in nature, and a rich vein to be mined. And, as an outgrowth of being a landscape painter for so many years, I was interested in exploring how woven pattern re-configures the natural world by reducing it to essential forms and rhythms.

Do you live with your textile collection? If so, how? 

Most of my textiles are piled up across a high shelf in our kitchen with their patterns and colors spilling out. Some of them are hung up around the house. I am not very reverent about how I care for them as many of them have already lived every-day lives in the houses and on the bodies of village people. Matisse called his textile collection his “working library” and that is what my collection has become for me.image-10image-13image-6

If you had to let go of all but one textile which one would you hold onto and why? 

I think I would keep our 5 color Ikat robe from Uzbekistan. An ancient tie dye technique was used to produce its 5 color pattern. It required multiple tyings and untyings of warp threads and immersions in dye baths. Although I have watched it being done at a modern facility (with fewer colors) it still feels magical. When you spread out the 3 panels of the robe it has the shape of a snow angel. It hangs on a wall in our house.I would also find it hard to part with the very first huipile (blouse) we bought in Guatemala because it comes with a good story and marks the beginning of our textile exploration. My husband, using sign language, admired the blouse worn by a women selling her weaving at the side of the road. She promptly slipped behind a bush, took it off (putting on another), emerged and handed it to him. After all these years it still smells of her sweat and the wood smoke from her cooking fire.

Do you have a daily routine in the studio or does it ebb and flow as the season change? 

I try to be in my studio for 4 or 5 hours and push other things to either end of the day. I try not go out to lunch or make appointments during that time. I work on several pieces at once. My pieces are not planned, aside from the constant of a grid, and my process is acretive and slow. If you were to slice open one of my pieces you would see something akin to geologic layers. In the summer I move to a barn-like studio at our camp on Kennebago Lake. My work tends to scale up there, sort of like carp when they are transferred to a larger pond.

How has Maine influenced your work? 

I was a landscape painter for the first 20 years of my painting life and my textile pieces still feel like landscapes of a sort. I think my color palette continues to reflect the Maine landscape. The best textiles are made with yarns dyed from natural materials so I suspect there is a tie-in between the colors of Maine’s natural environment and those of textiles.

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Left: Neckline #2, Alice Spencer, acrylic on gesso on board, 22″ x 15″, 2009-2011 Right: Robe #1, Alice Spencer, stenciled acrylic, 11″ x 15″, 2005

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Left: Kasaya #3, Alice Spencer, collage on board with hand-printed papers, 48″ x 63″, 2013 Right: Kasaya #4, Alice Spencer, collage on board with hand-printed papers, 35.5″ x 46″, 2013

Of all of the artwork you have created, which one is your favorite and why? 

I always seem to favor my current body of work as I hope it has developed a step or two beyond where it was previously. My latest body of work is based on the tradition of patchwork. The very first piece I worked on— and the one in which I was first finding my way— is my favorite. It took forever to make and kept getting bigger and bigger, quirkier and more complex until I had to say “enough”! It has a lot of the struggle of its making in it but that’s one of the things I like about it.

What would be the advantages and/or disadvantages of being an artist in Maine? 

I have mostly good things to say about being an artist in Maine. I love the small scale of the state and that a lot of the artists know each other. There have been wonderful opportunities to teach and to do meaningful community work involving art. Every artist, of course, would love to have more buyers for their work. But I accepted the idea long ago that it was a gift to lead a life of art making. You make art because it makes you who you are, not because it makes you lots of money.

If you could select any piece of art in the world, what would you choose?

I feel deeply connected to a George Hallowell painting that hung in my grandmother’s house while I was growing up. It depicted a single snow— shrouded maple tree in the early evening with a dim full moon shining behind it. My brother now owns it and I feel a pang of longing whenever I see it, not to own the painting, but for how it captures the fading winter light and reminds me of my grandmother’s house. I also love almost everything by Terry Winters, especially his early work with their earthy, cellular spheres and tubers.image-5image-16image-7image-4

What would you say is your greatest challenge as an artist? 

Time. Enough of it. I am sure for many artists finding time for work as a challenge. My best work comes when I have no other obligations and can immerse myself in it, eat a bowl of cereal for supper and go to bed. And it’s even better if I give myself an added cushion of time to generate ideas and store up energy to work. Because there are so many other things in my life I find meaningful and important I never have enough. An added problem is that I turn out to be more of an extrovert than I once thought. So clearly a lack of time is my own creation.

Do you always create in collections? 

I find it a good discipline to develop a “big idea” for any new group of works. It keeps me circling around and deepening into the same formal and conceptual ideas for the duration of making, say, 10-12 pieces. One recent body of work is called Yardage and as a starting point uses the imagery of cloth goods hanging in markets. Another body is called Fabricating Time and is about the layering of patterns on clothing as a way to reference the passage of time.


Would you please share some of your favorite Portland places:

For Lunch: Artemisia 

For Dinner: Boda

For fun: SPACE Gallery, if you are open to all the zany things they are up to!

For inspiration: Architalx

Other favorite places in Maine?

Rangeley Lakes, woods walk near Crescent Beach, Bold Coast Down East, Farmer’s Markets

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View more of Alice Spencer’s work on her website.