Ashley Pierce shares the ‘Lessons in Chaos’ she absorbed during COVID

The artist’s new solo show opens on Sunday at Lindsay Gallery in the Short North

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
"Keep Walking"

The first time Ashley Pierce staged a solo show at Lindsay Gallery in 2014, she was a newly single mother, having just recently finalized a divorce.

“I was starting a new life, and it was sad and exciting and necessary all at the same time,” Pierce said in an early December interview at the Short North gallery. “I really wasn’t sure what I was doing — I’m still not sure what I was doing — but I was coming off of a really big transition in my life, and the artwork spoke to that.”

Pierce’s new show, “Lessons in Chaos,” which opens at Lindsay Gallery on Sunday, Dec. 5, similarly documents a period of upheaval, though one more global in nature, with the artist reflecting on the various lessons she’s absorbed living through the coronavirus pandemic over the last couple of years.

“And I wrestled with that for a long time, because I didn’t want to do a show about COVID,” said Pierce, who, prior to the pandemic, envisioned a concept show loosely based on the idea of memory. “I didn’t want to live in that space, and so I fought it for a long time. Then it just got to a point … where I really had to sit down with myself and be honest about what I needed to do, and it became clear I was ignoring the elephant in the room. There’s a reason so many people are having shows and creating artwork in response to the last couple of years, and it’s because you can’t ignore it. It’s changed everything.”

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Pierce said her creative process has long been driven by her brain giving rise to a thought, which will then continue to ping, refusing to let go until she acts on it. This is how she came to spend most of the last year living with a mammoth six-foot sculpture covered in hundreds of fabric “leaves.”

“An idea will come, and it will pester me until I do something with it, which was aggravating with this one in particular because it was so big and I didn’t have anywhere for him to go,” Pierce said of the chicken wire and fabric sculpture, dubbed “the roommate” by her son, which will be on display for "Lessons in Chaos." “It’s kind of like [the scene] in ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ where he’s building that mashed potato tower. What are you making this for? Why are you making this? And I was like, I don’t know.”

Throughout the gallery, there are pieces shaped by Pierce’s experiences over the last two years, many rooted in an early brainstorming session during which she made a list of the lessons she had learned amid COVID, along with the various ways the numerous societal shifts had affected her. Foremost, she said she realized that she had become too comfortable in her previous job, from which she was laid off in the earliest days of the pandemic. “Being comfortable can be dangerous, and COVID snapped me out of that, which wasn’t entirely by choice but was needed,” Pierce said.

She also started to consider the idea of boundaries (an idea that surfaces most clearly in a painting in which a horned critter dutifully constructs a brick wall), as well as confronting the reality that our time on this planet is finite.

“I’ve lost so many people and so many friends, both from COVID, as well as other things,” Pierce said. “The awareness of time has definitely been a focus, and you can see that in the show. I just got really honest with what I do best as an artist, which is being really introspective and reacting to my environment. And once I gave myself permission to do that, the show came together.”

"Absolve"

There’s also a deep connection to nature prevalent throughout the space, most clearly reflected in the various imagined creatures that populate Pierce’s canvases. There are rabbit-like figures, horned, fauna-like animals and comparatively lumbering beasts covered in what appear to be leaves, but which Pierce described as accumulated memories. In one piece, dubbed “Illuminate,” one of these leafed figures holds a light to the shell of its past self as a means of acknowledging personal growth. (Extending the nature metaphor, the leaves on the creature's past self are painted in more muted colors, while its current self is brighter and more vibrant in appearance, reflecting this fresh blossoming.)

Pierce’s long-held fondness for the natural world took greater hold as she started to explore the Ohio park system in 2019, strengthening further when these outdoor escapes became a needed balm after the pandemic took hold in 2020, and then again earlier this year when she embarked on a three-week residency at Waubonsie State Park in Iowa. During Pierce's stay, she lived in a single-room cabin and hiked multiple times a day between painting sessions.

While on the residency, Pierce also learned about controlled burns, which inspired a pair of paintings on display at Lindsay Gallery: “Absolve,” in which one of the leafed figures is viewed ablaze, and “Renewal,” in which fresh growth can be seen springing from this same character after the fire has subsided. Beyond the idea that challenging times can also spark periods of renewal, there’s an acknowledgment that sometimes this must be an active process rather than sitting back and waiting for nature to take its course.

“It is very much a decision that I have had to make to actively participate in my growth,” said Pierce, who was recently accepted into her first artist residency of 2022, and will spend three weeks in September at Stones River National Battlefield in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. 

For Pierce, the show is best summed up by “Keep Walking,” which is also one of the first paintings she completed amid this current outpouring. In the piece, a fauna-like creature is depicted crossing a plane, emerging from the dark and stepping into what appears to be a clear, sunny day.

“It kind of summarizes … the past couple of years, where it was a matter of walking out of the fog or darkness I had been in,” Pierce said. “It’s like if you were in a relationship that just wasn’t right, and then you break up with this person and a few weeks later think back, like, why the hell did I stay in that relationship so long? What was I thinking? That is kind of like the past couple of years, in a way, where it was kind of this fog. And now I’m finally able to look back on it and be like, OK, now I can try and figure this out, because I couldn’t when I was in it.”