In the mind of an artist

Anmol Nigam, Photography Editor

What takes nature thousands of years to form, Natalie Lanese has created in a week. Engulfing the Immersion Zone in the Tinkham Veale University Center, Lanese’s creation—“Cavern”—was born.

Staffed with a rotating schedule of  student volunteers, Lanese worked around the clock from March 3-11 to paint the mural. Passing students broke their forward gaze and paused their haste to see the expansive installation—over 28 feet tall.

“What are you guys working on?” a passerby asked. A few minutes later, another passerby commented, “I love it.”

Fourth-year student Karl Mader stared at the colorful display of layered geometric patterns—characteristic of the optical illusion art Lanese’s work embodies.

“When I first noticed it, I was wondering if there was more beyond the geometric patterns,” Mader said.

The Artist

Lanese has an answer. She describes her work as being in a period of transformation from her prior collages to a geometric abstract style. The cut and paste collages that once defined her work have faded into the background. Lanese explains that she creates them a lot less lately, but has kept that finesse.

Her desire for accessibility drives the geometric styles and colorful stripes of her work. She makes an effort for her work to be appealing to people regardless of their background or culture.

“All of these people can look at it and enjoy it,” she said.

Lanese’s value towards accessibility is a byproduct of her upbringing.

“I think of my parents,” said Lanese. “My dad is one of those people everyone likes.”

When painting, Lanese starts from above and works her way down with every stroke of paint. She used a scissor lift to reach the higher portions of the mural.

But before she could mention her work, Lanese’s attire would give away her artistic flair. She wore charcoal overalls smeared with shades of paint, and wrapped her neck with today’s flavor of kerchief. She kept her hair tied back to keep her vision clear. The paint she works with was much of her style as the kerchiefs. Even the tips of her fingers were adorned with speckles of colors.

Many have appreciated Lanese’s prior artistic creations. Her installation at the “NEO Geo” exhibit at The Akron Museum of Art had a positive reception. When Case Western Reserve University Putnam Collection Director Kathy Barrie first saw Lanese’s style, she was awestruck. As soon as Barrie saw her work, she knew it was something special.

The Teacher

Lanese received her Bachelor’s degree in teaching at Xavier University. Both of her parents were teachers, and she followed in their footsteps. After her graduation, she spent a year teaching public schools in Denver, Colorado.

Lanese first came to CWRU for her Masters in Art Teaching. During that time, she developed elements of her signature style of collages. Lanese remembered when she made her first collage, distinct from the traditional style of paintings she had learned in her undergraduate years.

“It totally opened up a new dialogue for work,” Lanese said.

Since 2012, she has been a professor of art at Siena Heights University in Adrian, Michigan. As a teacher, what motivated her were the small successes that her students achieved.

“These moments happen in any given day,” Lanese said. “I’m especially excited when I see a student taking a risk and they make it.”

When asked about her favorite places in Cleveland, her mind immediately goes to the Cleveland Museum of Art. Second to that is the Superelectric Pinball Parlor: a location she describes as “the happiest place in Cleveland.”

The parlor remains true to its name. The core of its appeal is the array of pinball machines—the majority of which are from the ‘90s, ‘80s and older. Pinball was a major part of Lanese’s childhood. Nowadays she embraces the nostalgia. Through the flashing array of machines at the parlor, all ringing with pinballs, she notices the oldest ones—the ones with handmade designs. Even when Lanese is not talking art, she is thinking of it.

She is aware that most of the colorful designs on pinball machines are now digital. To her, it makes the old ones all the better. She appreciates things built by hand and the humanity of imperfections.

Even in her family, Lanese’s views are distinct. She jokes that she is the oddball.  

The Cavern

She received the inspiration for Cavern after taking a tour of natural caves in South Dakota.

Lanese first saw them on a road trip in 2015—during which she visited 13 national parks in 3 weeks.The goal of the trip was to visit historic towns that populate the midwest. Going off schedule she stayed an extra day to visit the Badlands National Park in South Dakota.

That was when she visited Wind Cave and Jewel Cave. She explains the luster of the mineral deposits in Jewel Cave was its namesake. However, she was equally mesmerized by Wind Cave with its calcite blades—interwoven in sharp geometric patterns to form what is known to cavers as boxwork.

In her recent work, the colorful chevrons attract attention, popping from an ambiguous black and white background. The subtitles in the implementation hint at her naturalistic sources.

“I decided to invert the pattern, like abstract stalactites dripping down the wall,” she said.

In other works, she used an upward peaked pattern—reminiscent of open mountain expanses. The first time Lanese saw a mountain was after college. Before then, she was confined to the tallest hills of Ohio.

The image of the mountain top stayed with her. The massive size energized Lanese. Her face lit up with interest when she described her desire for large scale interactive art.

Its Creation

During the creation of Cavern, a volunteer came to join the work. Lanese didn’t notice, lost in her smooth world of paint. The crew of volunteers already knows the drill, grabbing a brush and starting to paint in a stripe with a color labelled prussian blue. Minutes later, Lanese notices and greets her with interest.

During the installation of Cavern, Lanese described her life as “eat, sleep and paint.”

“I have to admit, I really love it,” she said. “It’s a real luxury.”

Heading back to work, Lanese grabbed more paint and entered the lift.

Her phone sang, “take a ride into the danger zone…”

The music faded to a murmur as the lift raised her back to her last stroke of paint.

For the student volunteers, she places masking tape on the edges to keep the lines neat. But Lanese embraces the slight imperfections making things by hand adds. To her, it is a personal touch. She wants people to see the humanistic quality.

With a slow movement of her brush, each bristle gave its paint to the wall, in time creating bold lines of color. These colorful displays paid homage to their source, retaining faint patterns of strokes passed. These imperfections and minute variations begged to be seen and noticed for what they were—evidence of its humanity.
On March 11, the mural was created—“Cavern” was brought to life.