Bound for Glory
by Carol Caldwell
Lanie Gannon was a yankee. Her people moved down here when she was eight. Everybody’s new here now, but this was then and Belle Meade to boot. Her mother painted their house yellow. Nobody painted their house “a coluh” back then. It just wasn’t done.
She describes herself as an outsider. A witness, not a participant. What she does is sculpt mainly, and what she works with is wood. She wants to push the classical idea of the bust, crafting her subjects in wood, and oft times binding them with burlap, “The humble materials of the earth,” she calls them.
“I want to portray the dispossessed, exiles from their homelands, those people fleeing from war.” This is Gannon’s abiding theme when she crafts a work of art. She says the making of the thing is as vital to her as the idea behind it. “For the longest time I had this head. I carved the head long before I knew what he was going to be.”
“It’s easy to become enamored with the making of the thing,” Gannon says. “You get into showing off your skill and it’s easy to get lost. Lose track of the context—the big idea.” I asked her which comes first: the idea or the urge to get her hands on a big hunk of wood. “You mean the inkling of an idea?” she asked. “That does it,” I said.
“The concept comes from something I see outside of myself—I can’t stand people killing and oppressing other people. War, domination. I can’t stand it!” She says when she saw people fleeing their villages in Serbia, on the road, with nothing but what they had on their backs and what they had strapped to their wooden carts—“Then I knew what to do with that head. I tied the head with rope onto a wooden cart. I call him Girt.”
This larger piece by the front door, titled Duomo—“He’s an homage to the unsung craftsperson. I’m interested in decorative techniques on a bust. I wanted to carve in relief and a pattern was easiest thing to do. I realized while doing it that I was making a suit of armor for this figure—who might be the patron, or he might be the king.” Gannon says she felt like she was carrying on a craft tradition hundreds of years old while she was going at it. “You know. Where the artisan is supported by a patron. Not much has changed, really, has it?”
“To make art as a commodity is painful to me.” Lanie Gannon isn’t happy to have to put a dollar value on her work—“something I’ve put months into and then stick a price tag on it. Thinking of art as a serious pursuit, by the way, has not made one bit of difference—I’m never hit with great epiphanies—I just wish to make a figurative sculpture imbued with a sense of dignity. Does that matter in this world?”
You quit exhibiting your work, I said. Why? She said, “I couldn’t deal with the judgment. All the years it takes to get where you are and then the only requirement for a judge of your work is who can afford it.” Gannon has designed huge installations that she calls “art in a public space,” by which she makes a living. Like the most recent one, nearing completion at the Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital, a joint effort with her husband, Rob Ogilvie.
Lanie has befriended and mentored emerging artists from the Sudan, James Makuak and Bol Aweng, among others. “I want to pay homage through public acknowledgement of their plight.” A piece called The Overseer sits behind me, looking on. “Yes, he is the one who dominates others and snares them into human bondage. Who profits by their suffering?” What about the eyes that float inside him, I asked her. “Those eyes are the people he has enslaved, he keeps them locked in the dark. See? You can only see the whites of their eyes.”
Gannon often uses words like yoked, and bound, and fastened. Here is another piece called Apparatus. A naked man fastened to his bale. The apparatus is strapped to his back and bound under his breast. Even when he’s resting, he can never get shed of his burden. Another extraordinary work is titled Yoke, a man who is brought to his knees bearing heavy spikes fastened to his shoulders.
I said, I see you signed this one underneath. “They’re all signed,” she said, “where it can’t be seen. Sometimes I write the title, but I invariably put where it was made: Nashville, TN.”
“When I carve, I use jelutong, a wood from Malaysia. I started using it because poplar, which I was assembling with, splinters. It’s very expensive, the price of jelutong fluctuates. You get it in board feet—for this piece, I ordered 6” thick x 8” wide, 5’ long.” You have to pay attention to the grain or the carved piece might break.
“My grandfather was an architect in Michigan, a builder. He carved wood, made things for himself for fun. Years after he died, I was given his chisels—this was before I knew I was going to carve wood. I use his tools now. I call on him in my mind when I’m using his tools. I knew the ones he used the most—like a steel chisel he sharpened so many times it’s the shortest one.”
Lanie Gannon also paints. I comment on a picture she calls The New Deal. “I saw these three men one day and I wanted to do something about the dignity of work, the working man. They’re not from another time, they’re from our time!
“I don’t want to trivialize the expression of larger assumptions,” she says. “I’ve never experienced oppression.” Your work, I said, clearly empathizes with their plights. Lanie Gannon replies to that: “Yes, it’s a deep empathy, but I’m just the middleman.”