As an only child, Gretchen Lee Coles' father, a civil engineer taught her to read a map and navigate before she could read a book. She realizes her art through a performance/mapping process.
Gretchen started mapping in art right after performing in the 1975 Theater Festival Fringe in Edinburgh, Scotland and finishing a sculpture commission for a private collector in Brussels, Belgium. Before that she graduated in 1974 from Indiana University, Bloomington with an MFA in Sculpture/Performance Art (choreographing sculptural props with performers). While in Europe she also gave performances and performance art workshops in Antwerp, Darmstadt and London. However, after graduate school she was already looking for a way to ground sculpture/performance art when discovering the work of Robert Smithson and Richard Long at London's White Chapel Gallery completed her European experience.
Gretchen soon started wondering, How to learn mapping? In 1978 an engineering firm hired her as a roadman on their land survey crew. They worked on Boston's Red Line Project soon to become the Big Dig. She started making sculpture about mapping in her loft at Fort Point Channel studios and then returned to graduate school. This time at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. In addition to being in the geography department while working on an MA in Cartography, she worked with Walter Hamady and the book arts in the art department. This experience in the book arts lead her to establish The Great Circle Press in 1982 and to continue developing her mapping art form.
After 4 years of coursework at UW-Madison she left for Santa Fe and started familiarizing herself with the mapping and land survey community throughout the State of New Mexico. Her first intent in Santa Fe was to make a glorious art map of Santa Fe. Instead, she spent 6 years starting the city of Santa Fe's geographic information system (GIS) and leaving at the top of her cartographic career as their new GIS Manager to return to making art full-time. In 1989 she finally graduated with an MA in Cartography from UW-Madison and in 1992 her first showing of art maps took place at the Birger Sandzen Memorial Gallery in Lindsborg, Kansas.
On her way to living in the California Bay Area Gretchen worked with the Palace Print Shop at the Museum of New Mexico on a grant from the New Mexico Endowment for the Humanities to design and produce a 31-inch by 25-inch, four-color sheet map. In the spring of 1993 with grant in hand, they published The Mountain Man and The Fur Trade,Their Rocky Mountain World, 1820-1840.
Gretchen's first art mapping installation, Large-scale Map of My Back Yard opened in 1994 at the Meridian Gallery in San Francisco, California. By the time this installation was exhibiting she was living in Chicago and starting to work in ceramic sculpture again. Along with keeping her studio going she soon returned to teaching sculpture in the art department at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Illinois.
With great joy Gretchen spent a total of 7 years at the College of DuPage teaching where two of her prairie inspired art maps are installed including Greetings From Lindsborg, a purchase prize from the Michael Sosulski Memorial Fund and Turn Right at Clay Center. In 2001 the Elmhurst Art Museum, Elmhurst, Illinois exhibited her ceramic art mapping installation, Reading Shadows and new ceramic sculptures for Nuevo Bosque, an art mapping begun in 1998 and developed from her original idea of a Santa Fe art map.
By 2003 Gretchen was back in the desert southwest's magnificent spaces, heading to Marfa,Texas for her art mapping installation, apples and oranges which started in Chicago with ice sculptures of Laurie Anderson, performance artist, and continued at Terlingua House Projects in Alpine, Texas. On her way to living in Marfa, she briefly returned to Lindsborg, Kansas (where she graduated in 1970 from Bethany College with a BFA in Sculpture) as an artist-in-residence at the Raymer Society. Bethany and Lindsborg were formative for her in art with dedicated professional artists, craftsmen and students in Bethany's art department creating art during the tumultuous years of the Vietnam War.
Because of this unique experience in Gretchen's education and active involvement in a small art community she knew it was time to settle in Marfa,Texas. In 2005 she installed taking measure an art mapping of Marfa streets, and in 2006, line-up a ceramic art mapping, each in HWY 90 Gallery. In 2007 she installed Watching (an art mapping outdoors) on ⅓ acre with 5,000 red survey flags.
In 2011 the University of Texas of the Permian Basin invited her to curate MARFANS, an installation of 15 Marfa area artists for their Nancy Fyfe Cardozier Gallery. The following year the Marfa Public Library accepted her installation, Library Bill of Rights. In January 2013 Gretchen's solo installation, Wayfarer opened at Greasewood Gallery in Marfa with a new group of art maps/performance props.
The Greasewood Gallery in Marfa invited Gretchen to install mapping Greenland from the greenroom in October 2014. By spring 2015 this installation and interactive work went on to become a second installation and performance filling the Nancy Fyfe Cardozier Gallery then a performance short on stage at the Crowley Theater for Marfa Live Arts that summer. Finally, Gretchen collaborated with Lower Left Performance Collective in Secondary Surface Rendered at the Crowley Theater during August 2015.
Gretchen was invited to participate in a Self-Portrait Invitational by the Birger Sandzen Memorial Gallery in Lindsborg, Kansas, scheduled for the summer of 2016. Currently she continues as the Director of the Ayn Foundation in Marfa opening with paintings by Andy Warhol and Maria Zerres in 2005.
Gretchen Lee Coles Bio