Lucy Plowe (BFA ’20) is a painter and sculptor who draws from cross-cultural mythologies, the subconscious and the earth in constructing her narrative-driven pieces. Her relationship to materiality is evident in her dream-like paintings and clay masks.

April 26, 2020

Unearthing the Subconscious: Interview with B.F.A. Senior Lucy Kay Plowe

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Cecilia Lu ’22: What have you been working on this year?

Lucy Plowe ’20: I was working on big paintings alongside some sculptural work, which was new for me. I started making these unfired clay masks, just out of raw materials that I picked up in the woods — twigs and dry flowers and pine cones. I used those to allegorize the human face and talk about life and death at the same time — you see the skeleton teeth, but it’s also blooming with plant life so there was a dichotomy. They had a relationship with the paintings as well, so I was looking forward to exhibiting them together.

CL: How did you start having this parallel exploration with your clay masks?

LP: I like to collect things and I had so many materials that I felt like I needed to make something. Sculpture was kind of foreign to me but clay seemed like the most accessible route.

I really wanted to play around — I see other painters that I admire like Maja Ruznic working across disciplines, and I can see how in other people’s work there are definitely relationships across mediums.

CL: While you were making these sculptures, how did your process or the way you approach making change?

LP: I started painting in a new way where I’d put down paint and eventually figures would start to emerge. I felt like I was pulling from my subconscious and whatever other magical realm.

It was a really fun way of working that I’m trying to keep doing [at home], but I feel like standing in front of a painting that’s eight feet wide is just a whole different experience than something that you can hold up in your two hands, you know?

Courtesy of Lucy Plowe

“Masks (Primordial Man and Woman)”, Unfired clay, dried flowers, leaves, seeds, glass beads, human hair. 8 x 13 in each. Lucy Plowe, 2020.

CL: Can you talk a little bit about this process of pulling things out from the paint?

LP: “Exile” started with a sketch of figures in a landscape. I drew it on the canvas first and hated how it turned out, so I pinned it vertically on the wall and started dripping very diluted paint — I would let gravity take them down the canvas and then they would mix with other colors.

It was a very natural process where I wasn’t really in control. After the paint dried, I could go back in, blur things and pull out the pigments while the white from the canvas became the highlight of the form. Then I’d flip it back to the right orientation and define things a little bit more. But it’s definitely a much more fluid process than what I used to do, where I’d work from a photo and take artistic liberties but be more focused on proportion and shapes.

Another thing I’d do was take a canvas I was unhappy with and paint over it to make a new composition. Some of the paintings that became finished pieces this semester were painted on top of old ones and also morphing older work. The biggest thing in the studio has been not being too attached to any idea of what the painting is going to be and just feeling my way through it.

CL: Your work feels very fluid in the way you paint but also the subject matter you deal with. Can you talk a little bit also about where you draw your imagery?

LP: I’ve always been obsessed with mythology and fantasy. A lot of the figures that I’m getting at are related to narratives that can stretch across cultures. You don’t really know why it’s familiar, because it plays into that universal human need for storytelling and finding ways to identify with what you see.

I’m also interested in the primordial, the ancient, what goes back beyond any record of human civilization. The color blue represents that because it plays into the subconscious mind and the idea of the ancient waters that covered the earth or the floods that would change things.

Courtesy of Lucy Plowe

“Eternal Lovers,” watercolor and pastel on paper, 10 x 13 in. Lucy Plowe, 2020.

There’s also a lot of dream imagery. I try to remember my dreams and I’ll try to incorporate the things that stick out. I also read a lot about anthropology, so learning about other cultures’ religious beliefs is really influential. And thinking about how humans make meaning out of their worlds and how magic is related to all of that.

CL: There are so many interpretations and religions in different cultures that have their own mythological backgrounds;  how do you pick through or synthesize?

LP: I try to expose myself to as much as possible and then whatever resonates with me the most gets put into the paintings. My family is Jewish so the concept of exile or the flood — things that come from the Bible — are really present in my mind.

It’s intuitive and as things are made, I can relate them to the myths that I’ve read and I can draw on them without saying, ‘Oh, this is Kali,’ or ‘Oh, this is Buddha.’ I don’t do anything too specific, it’s more like these archetypes.

CL: Yeah, that makes sense. It’s cool that you represent that through the figure, which is so universal.

LP: Totally. I had a complicated relationship to the figure too, because for a while, I’d use my own body as reference — sophomore year I did a lot of paintings with my boyfriend and I think a lot of people had a hard time relating because it was my story. It wasn’t anybody else’s.

Now I try to not be too specific about who I’m painting. It’s more about what the body represents than what the body is showing us. Like how the soul stands for the human without representing a specific human being.

Courtesy of Lucy Plowe

“The Path is a Spiral,” oil on canvas, 36 x 40 in. Lucy Plowe, 2020.

The most important thing with my paintings is that the process of painting is very spiritual. As I’ve become more aware of my own spirituality — I got really deep into yoga and meditation and being in that kind of space at Cornell — I realized that it’s pretty similar to painting. Being able to be present. Like when you’re painting, you can’t be on your phone!

I’ve realized that everything’s intertwined and as I’ve developed my spiritual practice, my paintings have also matured.


Plowe is the sister of Sun arts editor Emma Plowe. She was not involved in the publication of this article.

Cecilia Lu is a sophomore in the College of Architecture, Art and Planning. She can be reached at [email protected].