Valley-based artist Laura Spalding Best is driven by her interest in viewing, quantifying, and documenting community in the American West. Her paintings on found objects and installations uncover the commonalities found among everyday infrastructures and iconographies that define us, connect us, limit or empower us, as both groups and individuals. Most recently, her practice has been dedicated to exploring environmental issues and our relationship with natural resources, particularly water use in the urban desert landscape.
Hailing from the Midwest, Laura moved to Arizona when she was 18 and completed her BFA at Arizona State University. Since then, she’s been active in the local art scene, exhibiting work at numerous solo and group exhibitions in downtown Phoenix and completing several public murals across the Valley of the Sun. The exhibitions manager at Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art since 2006, Laura has also appeared on Arizona Horizon to discuss her artwork and received various grants to support her practice, including a Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant and a 2017 Contemporary Forum Artists’ Grant, which afforded her the opportunity to show work in a group exhibition at Phoenix Art Museum in 2018. We caught up with Laura to learn how her interests developed, what exhibition opportunities she has on the horizon, and how the pandemic has sparked new projects.
Here’s Laura Spalding Best, in her own words.
“I am always looking at the past, present, and future of our shared landscape and grappling with the looming effects of climate change, using the visual metaphor of the mirage to explore these themes.”
Courtesy of the artists.
PhxArt: Tell us about your background. When did you know you wanted to be an artist, and what continues to motivate you to create?
Laura Spalding Best: I’m originally from the Midwest, specifically Ohio and Illinois, and when I was 10 years old, I already knew I wanted to be an artist. I realized I could draw well, and I loved seeing the portraits and still-lifes I made come to life on a sketchbook page. I would fill them up and search for the next challenging thing to capture.
Thirty years later, I still make art every day. Now my inspiration comes from the urban desert landscape that surrounds and supports me. I am endlessly intrigued by power lines, transformers, commutes, canals, telephone poles, airplanes, and the way they all fit into the natural desert landscape of the Southwest. I have a busy life so I try to manage my time well enough that I can prioritize making artwork. That might be the secret to my motivation—I never take my time in the studio for granted. There is always a new series to chase, a new idea to work out in paint, a new thought that deserves to make it out of my studio.
Laura Spalding Best, Reckless Decorum I, 2018. Oil on found objects. Courtesy of the artist.
PhxArt: What are the primary media you work in?
Best: I work almost exclusively in oil paint on found objects. I love the flexibility of oils and the contrast of their precious nature on some of the objects I use as substrates. Found objects can be anything—I’ve painted on stop signs, silver dishes, spoons, irons, teacups, sheet metal, jar lids, and muffin trays. These items make their way to me from junk yards, thrift shops, and very often from people cleaning out their cabinets. I love reusing objects and giving them a new purpose and life. Found objects come to me with more history than a blank canvas. They have a starting point that can’t be replicated because they have lived a different life before they come into my studio, and the best way I can honor them is to give them a new purpose.
PhxArt: What do you like to depict in your art?
Best: I consider myself a landscape painter and think of my paintings as parts of installations. I am always looking at the past, present, and future of our shared landscape and grappling with the looming effects of climate change, using the visual metaphor of the mirage to explore these themes. Mirages are optical phenomena that twinkle on the horizon with tantalizing promise. They can be endlessly pursued but never reached.
Laura Spalding Best, Refracted Oasis, 2018. Oil on found objects. Courtesy of the artist.
PhxArt: How did you come to devote your practice to exploring this type of imagery? What initially sparked your interest in the landscapes and the mirage?
Best: As a child, I remember riding my bike on hot summer days and thinking I could catch up to the mirage if I went fast enough. That idea still captures my imagination, and now that I have spent more than half of my life in Arizona, I have found that I would choose this urban desert landscape as my home over and over again. The subject is endlessly interesting to me, and after years devoted to studying it, I realize now that when I am painting my local landscape, I am actually empathizing with it and attempting to convey what I imagine it must be feeling.
PhxArt: How has your work changed since you exhibited at Phoenix Art Museum in 2018?
Best: Showing my work at Phoenix Art Museum felt like a shift in my art career. The sheer volume of people that experienced that exhibition was staggering, and I worked hard to push my work to the next level for that show. Since then, I have found it easier to continue that practice and push the boundaries and ideas of my work even further.
Laura Spalding Best, Rise, 2019, Latex paint on decommissioned street signs. Image by Claire A. Warden.
PhxArt: Who are your greatest artistic influences?
Best: My favorite artists use humor in their work or found objects. Or they make work that is installation based. Locally, there is a community of artists that is thriving and supportive. My day job as an exhibitions manager at the Scottsdale Museum of Art has influenced my practice for the past 14 years and has allowed me to work closely with artists from all over the world. Working in person with artists like Betye Saar, Nick Cave, Julianne Swartz, Rivane Neuenschwander, and so many others has left an impression on me and changed the way I approach my own work.
PhxArt: What are some of the things you’ve learned on the job, and how does your work as an exhibitions manager inform your personal practice?
Best: In my job, I learn something new every single day; contemporary art is never boring in its methods or materials. My spatial reasoning and sense of environment and experience shifted almost immediately when I first started preparator work. I began to envision and design my own shows and bodies of work for specific spaces and started to see that my paintings could exist as installations, supporting each other and making a bigger impact together. I also learned some basics that should really be taught to all artists: how to safely pack and ship work, how to create installation instructions so that others can install work without me being present, how to light and hang work to its best advantage, and how to avoid a million little mistakes that take away from the focus of an exhibition.
Laura Spalding Best, Tributary I, 2018. Oil on found objects. Courtesy of the artist.
PhxArt: What’s something you’re currently working on or have recently exhibited?
Best: My studio is always full of new series. I am currently working on a series of teacups that will be on display later this year and a painted installation made entirely out of candy dishes in the shape of leaves. I just finished two large murals for OneAZ Credit Union in downtown Phoenix and have a few more mural projects on the horizon. I love shifting between painting in miniature scale in my studio to creating larger than life works outdoors. My field mural installation Rise, a temporary Tempe Public Art project located at Tempe Town Lake, came down this January and is now installed in a new location at Danelle Plaza in Tempe. The piece is made up of more than 100 decommissioned street signs that I have treated as painting surfaces and that together depict the sky shifting from sunrise to midday to sunset.
PhxArt: What can our community expect to see next from you?
Best: I’m in the process of creating a new painting installation that will be on view at Phoenix Airport Museum this summer. I’m also looking forward to a solo exhibition of new work at Walter Art Gallery this coming November and a public art piece that will debut in the fall. Additionally, I have two new murals that are still in the design stages. I hope to see those come to life sometime in 2021.
Laura Spalding Best, Kaleidoscope, 2019. Oil on found objects. Courtesy of the artist.
PhxArt: What advice would you give artists or museum-industry professionals just beginning their careers?
Best: It’s tough to strike a balance with work and life when you throw in the additional full-time career of being an artist. For me, working in the arts is the very thing that allows me to continue making work. My job is creative, but it doesn’t drain me of my creative energy as it might if I had to paint someone else’s vision for a living. I’m able to work with teams of amazing people to create museum exhibitions; there’s a lot of pride and satisfaction in that. It follows me home but doesn’t overshadow my time in the studio, and it allows my brain to be constantly working on the next idea in anticipation of that studio time.
We’re curious how creatives are navigating the time of coronavirus. Laura Spalding Best shares what’s giving her life as a creative during quarantine.
Best: My kids and my husband give me life. They are the three people I most want to spend time with on any given day, and we have had WAY more opportunities to do just that this year. Lots of reading together, family board games, and impromptu dance parties happen around here. They’ve also helped me turn my view inside my own home; my daughter asked if I would paint a mural in her room, and it kind of snowballed from there. Since last March, the walls of my house have become my canvas. Five rooms in our home now have murals with plans for a backyard one as well. My hard-working artist assistants are 7 and 10 years old and show great promise.