Charmaine Spencer on Overcoming Artistic Obstacles and Channeling the Unconventional

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Cleveland: come for the sports, stay for the arts, because our fair city, thankfully, is lousy with culture. There are galleries, museums, storefronts, pop-up exhibitions, et alia. There are several studio complexes around this city where artists work in their respective disciplines either alone or in collaboration with each other and/or in groups. These are highly disciplined, hard working people, and artist Charmaine Spencer is definitely one of them.

Every Third Friday of the month, Cleveland is treated to the art walk at the West 78th Street Studios, which houses over sixty art studios and galleries. The event is free to attend and the city is invited to mingle and meet the artists in their element. Each time I go, I find myself standing in front of Spencer's third floor studio door. Her work is potent and powerful and I'm intimidated for no other reason than my own social awkwardness. Spencer has an easiness about her, which made it a pleasure to talk about her processes, her thoughts, and her work.

"Obstacles come in waves and you need to create your path by forging through them," Spencer says, "It happens with incorporating new elements into the work, happy accidents, I need this material over that material, or can I afford one material over the other and what can I do with it? This career is heavy on networking, which can also be viewed as a hurdle. You have to spend so much time on self promotion. I'm extremely interested in what people think when they experience my work and I love sharing with them, I'm just not so huge on the administrative side. Social media over art is not what I was imagining when I thought about what it is to be an artist."

Spencer's motivation comes from finding unconventional materials and contemplating how to use them. "You live with the materials for a while and figure out how to make something else with them. With many of my sculptures, I look at my materials and think, 'How am I going to make a piece out of that?' With Revival my first thought was to make a labyrinth, something someone could walk through. The end result of it becoming a wall piece actually came from having to move it and that's how I came about installing it on the wall. Why does this work have to be on the ground?"

Being an artist does not come without a little apprehension in the studio. "Bronze work was an intense kind of work. That was the work that scared me, the myriad of things that could go wrong. I was consciously aware of every step. It was very intense. I do like working with wood and turning my materials into something sacred." Spencer also makes use of compost, paper pulp, sand, soil, driftwood, electrical conduit, and jute rope as her media. "The idea and concept of taking something that is so important to live, but that is not thought of as a typical art supply, to making it into something you contemplate is exciting."

A graduate of Huron High School in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Charmaine Spencer received her BFA from the Cleveland Institute of Art. As a student she interned at the Sculpture Center as the studio fabricator for Portals from Everywhere, the last sculpture of its founder, the late David E. Davis. Also, Spencer was the woods and metals foundry technician and teaching assistant at CIA and built and installed exhibition framework in the role of assistant at the Reinberger Gallery where she was involved with the arts education outreach programs, as well.

Spencer's largest sculpture, Harmonic, is an undulating landscape of woven reed grass and stainless steel jewelry wire, hanging in between two floors at the downtown Hilton. The work is site specific, meaning Spencer saw where the piece would hang when the hotel was being built, which helped with her decision as to what materials she would be using. The sculpture was created to fit the space. She wanted to do something that incorporated the architecture with her concept of Cleveland and her style. She had to engineer a rope net in her studio in order to suspend the work in progress and hired assistants to help her fabricate in order to make the deadline.

"There are times in your life that you need certain things" She says, "If I got good advice too early it wouldn't have worked. That's a hard thing. Someone told me to learn how to be ok and not be embarrassed or ashamed in asking for help. If I got that advice early on, I wouldn't had took it. If I had gotten it later it would have been too late. I really do like Harmonic. It was satisfying to get up early in the morning and work on it all day and night. Getting to know it. The whole experience was what I imagined being an artist is; Making all day long. I first considered myself and artist when I was a baby playing in the mud. I always thought an artist would be like playing in the mud."

Check out Charmaine Spencer's work in Studio 302 every Third Friday or her website at

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