Laurie Frick is the rare artist who isn’t afraid of math. Her data-driven work often deals with numbers on a large, complex scale, as she turns statistical analysis into something pretty and pixelated, in a Mondrian sort of way. Armed with an MBA and MFA, as well as an engineering background, Frick is just as comfortable running a corporate meeting as she is installing her artwork in a corporate lobby.
A native of Southern California, she worked in tech in the Bay Area before moving to Texas over 20 years ago with her husband, Mark.
“We started off in Houston, but when you’re in Houston you start wondering how you can get to Austin,” she lightly laughs.
After cofounding a startup, Frick ditched her career in high tech and headed to New York City for graduate school, while still holding on to sunny Austin.
Little did she know her previous professional life would come in handy when pursuing her new line of work: “You only learn later that your art is all the little bits of who you are. My father had a machine shop, and he taught his daughters how to work on cars,” she recalls. “I was a maker, I knew how to build things. I had an affinity for technology, I was good at math, so none of that stuff scared me.”
Frick developed an expansive network of artists and contacts while studying in New York, and now she and her husband have a stake in both cities.
“If you live small in Austin, and you live small in Brooklyn, it’s not that crazy.” Bouncing back and forth between the two places is very doable, she tells me over the phone from her home in the Zilker neighborhood.
Frick hasn’t been back to her apartment in Williamsburg since February, when the coronavirus was already silently spreading through the boroughs. For now, many of her friends in New York are confined to their small spaces, unable to access their studios. Frick feels very fortunate to have a studio in her house in Austin, with art supplies delivered right to her door.
She does miss New York though, even if she prefers Austin over Brooklyn during the pandemic.
“There is a more rigorous and rarified conversation that goes on there than here,” she explains. “The benefit of being in New York is what you look at, where you set your sights, and what you want to be a part of.”
Frick acknowledges that it’s definitely more difficult to get your work shown in NYC, or to even get the right support, given the sheer caliber and number of artists vying for the same things: “I’ve gotten a lot more projects in Texas — mostly public art pieces and installations from businesses and companies that want Texas artists.”
With the recent economic fallout from COVID-19, however, a different kind of drought has hit Central Texas. Austin’s hotel occupancy tax, which feeds the city’s funding for the arts, dried up overnight with the sudden cancellation of this year’s SXSW.
“All the public projects have sent out notices,” says Frick. “Everything’s on hold.”
Things aren’t any better in New York at the moment. Margaret Thatcher Projects on West 23rd Street, which currently represents Frick, has no clear sense as to when they’ll reopen. The art world in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood has long struggled through a series of cataclysms: 9/11, the financial crash of 2008, Superstorm Sandy in 2012, which turned its streets into the canals of Venice and flooded galleries, damaging all sorts of art.
Perhaps the biggest disaster of all has been the completion of the High Line, an old elevated railway-turned-pedestrian park which attracts thousands of tourists each year to an otherwise unassuming area once considered too far west to walk to. Luxury developers have taken note: Art is out and upscale retail is in.
“Some of the galleries are holding on by doing virtual shows, they’re hosting Zoom talks,” Frick notes. “So the truth is, now you don’t even have to be in Chelsea.”
Back in Austin, Frick has time on her hands. The things driving her work before the global crisis somehow don’t feel appropriate anymore. So she started tinkering with something totally new: a glass kiln purchased last summer.
“It occurred to me that this is like a residency: no distractions, nowhere to go, I can work every day, I don’t have any deadlines — and I don’t have to produce anything good.”
Frick has been firing up her kiln every day, sliding bits and pieces into its 24 inch x 24 inch interior, eagerly waiting for whatever comes out. Honing her skills, learning how to program it just so: “When glass melts, if it’s too thin it shrivels up, and if it’s too fat it overflows. Some colors don’t mix well,” she explains. “They can turn brown or look garish.”
She’s been regularly posting them to her Instagram, happy horizontal bands of color across various strips of glass. As we speak she’s working on a few which are three inches wide by 12 inches high; there are seven of them, she says, one for each day of the week.
Frick has always been interested in time, how it is spent and how it is paced. Time creates your sense of self, she explains, as well as your sense of memory and place. “Even when I was studying Sienese Italian Early Renaissance art, I saw the artists’ unusual ability to deal with this sense of time in their paintings.”
Flash forward a few hundred years, and Frick describes a software developer — a member of the Quantified Self community named Ben Lipkowitz — who life-logged all of his daily time, tracking his every movement, for a series of projects. “He believes if you collect enough data about yourself, you can create a future version of yourself. An avatar that goes beyond you.”
I assume she likes the immortality of that idea, but she’s quick to clarify: “I like the obsession of it.”
When society started shutting down in March, Frick began considering time once again. What struck her most was what’s suddenly missing from time. Now, large chunks of our schedules no longer exist.
“Most of what I collect is about human patterns as opposed to generic data. I’ve been playing with the American Time Use Survey, a data set which gives you demographic information, and some detailed categories about how people spend their time.”
Sponsored by the Bureau of Labor Statistics and conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, the American Time Use Survey has been collecting annual data since 2003: how we spend our work days and weekdays, weekends and holidays. It measures the daily activities of approximately 26,000 U.S. households each year — information Frick is now alchemizing in her kiln.
“There is a tendency to want to make something directly related to the pandemic, but that’s too obvious,” she says.
Shakespeare, she points out, wrote most of his plays in the shadow of the bubonic plague, yet his work never specifically referenced the deadly scourge. Instead, an undercurrent of disease and doom runs throughout. “You must let it seep into your work. And what I’m working on is what we’re missing during this time.”
But it’s not all boils and plagues: Frick says firing the kiln each day gives her an emotional boost. It’s a 24-hour process, with temperatures reaching 1,475 degrees Fahrenheit before slowly coming down, as she checks to make sure the glass does not crack. Sneaking a peak at 150 degrees helps it cool faster, she explains, though you really can’t open it until it’s under 100.
“The kiln gives me something to look forward to right now,” she says almost giddily. “After this call, I get to go open it up and really see what I’ve got.”
I ask Frick if we might all be in a kiln at the moment, transforming into something we can’t fully anticipate until it’s time to come out.
It’s a good metaphor, she offers: “What you put into the kiln, you might get a semblance of the same thing. But what you get when it comes out is very different.”