Mixed-media artist Ingrid Aubol seems a little wired. It might be her raucous studio space, which is located in the noisy Thorpe Building just a few yards from a train line that sends locomotives rumbling every eight minutes or so through northeast Minneapolis. Or it may be how busy she is--making and showing her mixed-media prints around town (constantly from October through March), organizing an upcoming gallery crawl at her studio complex, and recently winning a position on the Northeast Minneapolis Arts Association board. But no matter the specifics, spending just a few minutes with Aubol is an intense experience. She speaks rapidly and shifts around the room as if phobic of standing too long in any one place. There is almost a sense that she's trying to make up for lost time.
"I don't sleep a lot," she says, laughing. "I'm kind of a caffeine addict...I can't sit still."
Aubol, who is 33 years old, keeps her brown hair in a wavy bob. She wears jeans and a sweatshirt and has an open and curious face. Perhaps her only nod to the out-of-the-ordinary, at least in appearance, is the pierced tongue that is occasionally evident when she laughs.
Aubol came to the Twin Cities five years ago from a home near Grand Forks, North Dakota, having grown up in a family with a wide-ranging and do-it-yourself approach to art. Her mother was a trained artist who sewed all the family's clothing. She taught Ingrid printmaking and sewing starting at age five. Her father, meanwhile, was an amateur woodworker who passed on his knowledge to his youngest daughter. "My dad, poor guy, had three daughters," Aubol says, "and he had to teach one of us to use power tools. Guess which one he picked? So I've been sewing with Mom and working with Dad all my life."
Partly because she grew up in a less-than-cosmopolitan setting, and partly because of the diverse outlook of her parents, Aubol became an artistic explorer at a young age. "Winter is long in North Dakota," she says. "I spent a lot of time looking for what's out there."
As a result, Aubol's interests today span a wide variety of media: fiber arts, printmaking, collage, painting, and embroidery. Her final images often include snippets of handmade paper where Aubol has printed a small image with some personal meaning. She typically then collages these elements to a sheet of pristine white paper, then stitches a pattern of lines over the surface, usually with black thread. Aubol's hand is delicate and subtle in these pieces, and her designs are well considered: The overall aesthetic is a somewhat Zen-like and spare artistic perfectionism that recalls classical crafts--Japanese woodworking, for example, or Art Nouveau. But even more important, there is a sense that the artist truly believes in her experiments with materials, media, and techniques.
"If I couldn't explore," Aubol says of her work. "I might just shrivel up and end up in the fetal position in a corner. I've always mixed stuff. My mom was the same way. We always had a variety of art supplies at home. It never was, 'Here's a marker.' So I've come to think that putting yourself in a box is not good. You end up with artistic claustrophobia."
The same artistic curiosity that pulled her out of North Dakota has also propelled her farther afield. "In New Zealand, there were all kinds of paper," Aubol says of a year spent studying abroad. "The Maori made a kind of paper called tapa made from beaten mulberry fibers. When I saw that, I said, 'Ding! Paper as fabric'...Banana fiber was very big there. I like the quality of cotton printmaking paper, but I also love the organicness of handmade paper and the different surfaces....When I came back from New Zealand, I started doing prints, tearing them apart, and putting them back together."
Despite Aubol's energy and optimism, the imagery in Aubol's art works often points toward darker currents, referring to domestic concerns and personal tragedies, at least in an oblique way. Safety pins and zippers appear frequently in her prints. Other works have self-referential titles such as "The Me Theory." A giraffe with a pierced tongue (a stand-in for the artist?) appears in a piece titled "Blue Giraffe." This image comprises three strips of paper pasted to a background sheet of mulberry paper the color of well-cooked oatmeal. Blue and green sheets of crumpled handmade paper are in each corner of the image, and a torn scrap of the giraffe print--the giraffe's pierced tongue exposed against a background of an Islamic tile pattern--splits the image horizontally. Stitches appear above and below the print. Overall, the work is spare and beautiful in its use of materials, but in imagery it is a mysterious rebus. We cannot be sure of the story behind the work--which is as Aubol prefers it.
"Some of the stories are actually pretty dark," she says. "But I didn't set out to say, 'Oh, my sucky life.' Most end up looking kind of fun....I like that people think what they want to think about my work. I don't want it to be too obvious. If something is too obvious, it's usually a snooze. If I can look at something and just get it, I don't need to see it again."
This effect is clear in another work by Aubol titled "1729," which is composed on a single sheet of crinkled mulberry paper, perhaps two feet by three feet in size. On the surface of the paper, Aubol has attached a snippet of reddish handmade paper on which she has printed a letter from her grandmother. Only a few words of the text--something about marriage--are legible.
This work, like many of Aubol's, refers to her own personal history--though much is left out of the story. Aubol explains that she was married at 18 to a high school sweetheart. The couple went on to lose two children in three years to a congenital spinal disease. They divorced then, and she returned to school to study art at the age of 21. The viewer can only guess at these events from the snippets of the letter, and through the artist's approach to the work. The bulk of the surface of the image is covered by a stipple--a grid of black, and a few choice red, raised dots--that on close inspection turn out to be French knots handmade by the artist. (In fact, the title "1729" refers to the number of knots in the image.) With so much hand labor, the effect is somewhat akin to a hand-sewn quilt: The sheer amount of work gives the creation an intimate connection to its maker and a beauty, too. The huge amount of repetitive effort also may have represented a way for the artist to work through a nagging set of problems--a solitary labor for an unquiet mind.
"I'm a little bit obsessive," says Aubol, "in case you can't tell. It's kind of an artistic bipolarness....I do fabric technique on wood and on paper instead of the other way around like most people. I do quilt patterns and marbling on metal plates. I've always done crafty things since I was a kid. I was doing embroidery on baby quilts." Her voice drops away suddenly at the mention of baby quilts. "It's why I've kept doing this, I guess. For them."
In a way, the studios at the Thorpe Building and the diverse Northeast art scene beyond serve as a perfect refuge for an explorative artist like Aubol. "I've been looking at a lot of stuff and have been exposed to things I wasn't before. Especially in Northeast, where you have a lot of exposure to other artists. We're always trading secrets about paper, and surfaces, and different things to print on."
Still, Aubol has not easily found a niche for herself. The distinction usually made between craft and conceptual art is a "tough one" for Aubol. She often finds herself pigeonholed, her work accepted for display only by galleries such as the Art Collective and Studio 56 that specialize in craft (as opposed to fine art) work. "Most of the shows I've been in lately have been 'fine craft' shows," she says. "It's unfair."
Local frustrations aside, Aubol's curiosities continue to drive her toward wider spheres of influence. When asked what plans she has for her art in the future, Aubol pauses for once before giving an answer. "I would love to go to Scotland," she starts. "I'd love to go to a place where a lot of fiber art is going on, and hand dyeing and things like that. There are so many different views of fiber arts, though. And places where a lot of printmaking goes on, too. Like Japan. I love to look at Japanese woodblock printing. If I gave you a full list, it would be too long for your article."
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