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Painting with Wood

Painting with Wood

Marquetry hybrid artist Alison Elizabeth Taylor’s studio—full of wood veneer pieces, tools, and a prized coffee maker—is where a spark of an idea is refined into physical form.

Painting with Wood

Marquetry hybrid artist Alison Elizabeth Taylor’s studio—full of wood veneer pieces, tools, and a prized coffee maker—is where a spark of an idea is refined into physical form.
Summer 2023 issue of American Craft magazine
Alison Elizabeth Taylor working in her studio.

At a large table, Taylor repositions a piece of wood veneer in front of Cheryl Before She Left for Maine, 2020, her portrait of Cheryl Benson. Photos by Shravya Kag.

Marquetry hybrid is a synthesis of painting, collage, photography, and wood veneer marquetry on panel. It is a slow and painstaking process. Hours of tedium are gobbled up; days drip away into weeks, months. Often work must be thrown out and attempted again when something doesn’t go right due to technical or aesthetic challenges. It is not a great medium for making art fair deadlines or posting on Instagram. It is glacial and demanding, it can’t be rushed, and it needs to be seen in person to be fully understood. The final form is heavy but very delicate. Transport is a nail-biter.

Marquetry hybrid piece of art of a canyon.

Marquetry hybrid artist Alison Elizabeth Taylor's Only Castles Burning..., 2017. Photo by Dan Bradica.

Physically, it is a workout, running back and forth in the studio, digging through piles of veneer, trying to find the perfect grain/figure/color for a shape. I stretch over tables for hours, taping pieces together prior to gluing, and trying to envision what woods will look like after they change when sanded and shellacked. When it is all done, the marquetry skins must be put on a substrate. Building and gluing panels for them is precise, heavy work with high stakes.

But when I walk through the studio door, a wave of relief washes over me. My studio is on the second floor of a warehouse in Brooklyn and has great light. But it’s not just that. It’s the comfort of knowing I’m here, in my space, and I can work. I still can’t believe I get to be here. I worked jobs I didn’t like for decades before beginning to make art full time. It’s been a while now, but compared to memories of busing tables off the Vegas strip, pathing out guitars in Photoshop for print catalogs, or welding fences in the hot Arizona sun, chasing around tiny chips of wood with an X-Acto seems like bliss. It is on my own terms in a studio space I can control.

Exterior of an industrial building.

The exterior of Taylor’s Brooklyn studio building. TOP RIGHT: Taylor’s woodshop with sander, circular saw, abrasives, drill, and wood veneer. Photo by Shravya Kag.

Sunlight pours into a woodshop with sander, circular saw, and other objects.

Taylor’s woodshop with sander, circular saw, abrasives, drill, and wood veneer. Photo by Shravya Kag.

Alison Elizabeth Taylor examines her work in progress.

In her Brooklyn studio, Alison Elizabeth Taylor examines a work in progress, choosing the next piece of wood veneer to cut based on what she has on the table. RIGHT: Taylor’s Only Castles Burning…, 2017, marquetry hybrid on panel, 58 x 63 in. A detail of this piece is featured on the magazine’s cover. Photo by Shravya Kag.

Taylor drinking a cup of coffee.

When Taylor gets to the studio, she makes a cup of coffee; here, she stands in front of the dry mount press she uses to flatten wood. Photo by Shravya Kag.

A drawing/sketch of a work in progress.

A preparatory drawing for a work in progress. Photo by Shravya Kag.

The studio is a place to bat away anxiety, dread, and depression and to feel hopeful and engaged in one thing I can attempt to control in this world: my work.

Alison Elizabeth Taylor

Speaking of control, dealing with temperature and humidity in an old leaky warehouse can be an exercise in planning and patience with the weather. Hours spent flattening and cutting wood can be wiped out by a sudden downpour; hydrophilic pieces of veneer start to curl right up and not fit next to each other any longer because different cuts and species of wood absorb moisture at varying rates. I’ve gotten better at anticipating the effects of outside conditions and being flexible in working around these types of days. Don’t cut on wet days (check the weather forecast)!

The first machine I am concerned with when I enter the studio is, of course, the coffee maker. I am very precious about how I dole out my daily allotment of coffee (I battle with insomnia and the doc says there are lots of rules around when to have it; never after 2 p.m.). I walk 1.5 miles in the mornings after I drop my daughter at the bus stop, but I don’t want to waste the caffeine on that walk. I get energy just from being on the street. I have a couple of sips when I wake up, to prevent a caffeine headache, and I make a cup of coffee when I get into the studio. Then I sit down to draw. I love this part. I wish all day could be that moment.

I rent space from the sculptor Ursula von Rydingsvard. Before I moved in here, I used to walk by this building and peer in through the roll gates and see her and her team cutting huge pieces of cedar. I would try to carry that energy with me as I walked to my old studio on the next block. If they could wrestle those huge blocks of cedar, I could handle these puny pieces of veneer. Over the years, I’ve seen the way she has maintained her studio practice through motherhood, illness, and personal loss. I never lose sight of the fact that as challenging as this way of life is, it is worth it. I can feel and hear the productivity coming from downstairs as a reminder that I’m not alone.

I have been told by a neighbor that this studio was a coffin factory in the last century. My space was meant to be an apartment, so it is divided into rooms. It used to have a stove, but the fire marshal ordered that away. It was fine—I don’t cook at the studio and have always been more comfortable with toaster ovens and microwaves when it comes to lunch.

Piece of art by Taylor that visualizes a woman reading near a pool and a man sitting in pool.

The Monster’s Lover, 2019, marquetry hybrid, 40 x 30 in. Photo by Dan Bradica.

Artwork by Tyler of someone getting their hair cut outside.

Anthony Cuts Under the Wburg Bridge, Sunset, 2021, wood veneer, oil paint, acrylic, shellac, 73 x 53 in. Photo by Dan Bradica.

I end up walking around Brooklyn a lot, and the thoughts I have on these walks I bring into the studio. Occasionally, it is an idea from something I saw on the way, or a new technique I want to try. Other times, walking is good for mulling over what I read the night before. I get my ideas when I’m out of the studio, which is located in a decaying industrial warehouse district full of concrete trucks and stone haulers. Dodging forklifts breaks my internal monologue and forces me to look around. I’m always seeing the bits of color and activity, sometimes from the spice importer or the marble vendor moving slabs. Engaging with the city, reading, seeing the world outside, those are where you can catch a spark. The studio is where you bring that spark of an idea and start to refine it into physical form. I first sketch in graphite, then paint in gouache, before constructing in wood.

Aside from the coffee maker, another piece of irreplaceable equipment is my vacuum press. The glue-up of a marquetry skin occurs after many hours of choosing, cutting, placing, and taping thousands of little pieces of wood veneer together. I glue them to a thin plywood substrate, which I build into a panel in a second glue-up. It’s nerve-wracking. The piece is very brittle; the veneer is 1/32 of an inch thin, and when all taped together it’s like a giant potato chip that can be 5 feet wide and 8 feet long. There is a lot that can go wrong at this point. I must spread just the right amount of glue on the panel and put the piece in the vacuum press before the glue starts to set up.

Taylor in front of a portrait of Javier Mendoza and Will Hunter.

Taylor in front of Javier and Will in CDMX, 2022, her portrait of Javier Mendoza and Will Hunter. Photo by Shravya Kag.

Image of canyon made with marquetry hybrid.

GSENM: Slot Canyon No.1, 2018, marquetry hybrid, 69 x 59 in. Photos by Dan Bradica.

After doing something high stakes, I’m tired and usually engage in productive procrastination—cleaning the studio, flattening wood, sorting veneer scraps, priming paper for paint. I would love to have a zero-waste studio. Sometimes this leads to serious procrastination, like attempting to make paint out of ground waste, crumpling bits of wood into compostable crumbs, and reusing things that should probably not be reused.

Another important tool in the studio is my eraser. I love big white erasers, gummy style, and especially the Mono Zero eraser with a 2.3 mm precision tip. I erase as much as I draw; probably one out of every two marks I make never happened. In addition to this crucial tool is the generic #11 knife blade. It allows me to cut drawings on all kinds of material, no matter the size. Finally, my Epilog laser cutter is essential. It’s only 18 by 12 inches, so I still have to hand-cut larger pieces of wood veneer. But I’ve used it for almost every artwork I’ve made in the past 18 years. At this point it’s like an old car: it breaks, I open it up and tug on a belt, and it’s good to go. It’s quite simple technology, and there is no repair service, so they talk you through the part changes over the phone. It’s frustrating, but exhilarating once you get going again. Any line I can draw, I can then cut with this tool.

The studio is a place to bat away anxiety, dread, and depression and to feel hopeful and engaged in one thing I can attempt to control in this world: my work. It houses all my tools, materials, and paints and is often the only witness to all those hours spent in pursuit of a finished piece. Like the air I breathe and the food I consume, it is necessary for my survival.

alisonelizabethtaylor.com | @alisonelizabethtaylor

Born in Selma, Alabama, Alison Elizabeth Taylor grew up in Las Vegas and now lives and works in Brooklyn. She received a BFA from ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, California, and an MFA from Columbia University. The exhibition Alison Elizabeth Taylor: The Sum of It is up through July at the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, Massachusetts. Her work is also being shown at the James Cohan Gallery in New York from May 19 to June 24.

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