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Despite there being an estimated million words in the English language according Merriam-Webster.com, there are still emotions that cannot be properly expressed through words alone. Instead of grasping for the right one, one artist has turned to graphite, acrylic paint and charcoal to explore unexplainable feelings.

Lydia Gravis creates barely-there forms with obsessive lines throughout, leaving each piece open to interpretation as each viewer brings their own experiences to the art when they visit her current exhibit at Northern Arizona University’s Art Museum, Mark-making in Liminal Spaces. While individuals can find whatever meaning best fits their personal narrative or present head space, Gravis feels the theme is universal.

“The idea of liminal spaces refers to psychological spaces of human experience that aren’t easily defined, but that are undoubtedly felt,” she writes in her artist statement.

She depicts depth within these abstract ideas through repeated layers in a monochromatic palette. The subtle blue found throughout pieces like “Subtle Entrapments” and “Distilling the Enigmatic” is merely the byproduct of white acrylic paint mixing with her graphite marks and giving the impression of something familiar yet alien at the same time. 

“I think most artists match the concept with the most appropriate medium, but for me the medium is very integral to the concept in that the possibilities of the medium tie into what I’m trying to experience,” says Gravis.

She began experimenting with her current style during her first year of graduate school following an acquaintance’s cancer diagnosis. While she observed the deterioration from afar she created a five-piece series with the titles “Diagnosis, “Prognosis,” “Denial,” “Metastasis” and “Resignation,” representing the phases that might occur during treatment. When it begins with the diagnosis, golden yellow biomorphic shapes are dominant against grey and light blue intruders that are slowly taking over the healthy cells. By the time “Resignation” is reached, the paper canvas is void of any yellow, and a prominent emptiness is left with some grey outlines as the disease is allowed to spread.

Anyone who’s experienced the uncertainty of a serious medical diagnosis—either for themselves or someone close to them—knows that no matter how much mental preparation is taken and how much time is given to come to terms with it, it’s still not enough to fully grasp this large shift in their reality.

Gravis aims to illustrate this state of limbo with her art. When the cancer took her friend’s life just six months after the diagnosis, Gravis immersed herself in her newfound style as she tried to imagine what feelings might have occurred throughout the experience. This became the starting point for her as she continued to ask questions about psychological spaces, with the majority of her work in the years since describing less concrete ideas.

“It was much more specific, that series of five pieces, and was tied into specific emotions,” she explains. “Then I kind of became more interested in the potential of making and tying it into this abstract experience that we all have, feeling something but having it be on the periphery and not having processed it logically yet.”

Like those emotions, Gravis says she is never completely certain how her art will turn out when she begins a piece, allowing it to reveal itself to her along the way instead.

“I might have general ideas of forms I want to try to create in a piece but it never turns out that way,” she says. “Part of the process of making and not really knowing where it’s going to go is kind of a wondrous experience that I enjoy in the art-making process.”

Gravis created abstract landscapes before gravitating toward the invisible, though she admits there’s a common thread of the ethereal between her two styles.

“It’s a very different process, but atmosphere and space has always been important to me,” she says. “The abstract landscapes were not about specific places but more about the energy of the place, and that ties into my work now.”

“I think a lot of times people think of drawing as the something that leads to something else, like a painting or sculpture, and that’s how I used to view it,” she continues, “but I think with this idea of abstract drawing and mark-making, the potential of all these different mediums can be exciting.”

Lydia Gravis is the gallery director of the Mary Elizabeth Dee Shaw Gallery within the Department of Visual Art and Design at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah. Lydia Gravis: Mark-making in Liminal Spaces is currently on display at the Northern Arizona University Art Museum, 620 S. Knoles Dr. Museum hours are Tuesday-Sunday from noon-5 p.m. and Gravis will give an informal talk at the exhibit’s close Nov. 16 at 4 p.m. Visit www.lydiagravis.com for more information.

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