Translating White Noise with Kelsie Grazier
FEATURED: Kelsie Grazier
WORDS: Samantha Shaw
Photos: Christine Pienaar
Nestled in the top-floor studio of a floating home on the Fraser River, Ladner-based artist Kelsie Grazier paints abstract work rooted in gesture and intuitive mark-making. She arrives at the canvas without a plan, allowing her thoughts and hands to guide the way. Kelsie has a Bachelor of Fine Arts, a teaching degree in Secondary Art Education, and a Master of Deaf Education. As Kelsie sits and shares bits of her journey, it brings a deeper understanding of her work and how movement flows through every mark—little delights contrasted with significant life shifts—from the sun setting over the river, to navigating life after suddenly becoming deaf.
She pulls long lines across the canvas and my eyes trace them with ease. Sticks of oil paint are scattered across the table, and a collection of well-loved brushes sit in a glass jar toward the edge of the desk. There’s a Honey Tobacco candle burning an arm’s stretch away and the air around us holds light notes of its sweet aroma. A large window opens up to the Fraser River, BC’s longest river, flowing from the Rocky Mountains into the Strait of Georgia off the coast of Vancouver. Some days the water is rough and choppy, and others it’s still like a sheet of glass. Kelsie has found her rhythm with the river, briefly pausing between marks when the wake sends her studio into a sway, or simply letting the waves guide her hand.
Kelsie’s work is rooted in gesture and intuitive movement. Sights, sounds, and feelings find their way onto the canvas in abstract form. This method of creating focuses on the process of expressive mark-making, looking not only at what gets painted, but how it gets painted. “When I am working large, the painting is hung on the wall so that I can use a full range of motion with my body’s movement,” Kelsie explains. “When I am working small, the movement is more constrained to smaller, quick gestures.” By adding and taking away layers of oil paint on mylar paper, Kelsie intuitively processes and records deep personal investigations on identity and self.
She smiles warmly as she pours herself onto the canvas. I read her story in the lines that she paints.
Kelsie was twenty-four years old and studying for her Master of Deaf Education when she suddenly lost her hearing. “I was studying deafness while becoming deaf,” she nods to the irony. Kelsie was born with a mild–moderate hearing loss, but never considered the possibility of it getting worse. Her hearing dropped so quickly that it gave her a phantom ringing in her ears called tinnitus. The experience is different for everyone, but Kelsie describes hers as an old-school fire bell paired with static fuzz—a persistent, loud, and unrelenting ringing in her head from sun up to sun down.
For the first time since she was nine-years-old, Kelsie took a step back from painting. She continued to pursue her master’s degree while the world she knew kept on before her. “It was hard losing my hearing halfway through my life—losing what I knew and knowing what I was missing out on. It was a devastating change. Now I was deaf, only I didn’t know how to be deaf. I needed to learn how to live and advocate for myself in a hearing world,” she shares.
It’s been just over two years since Kelsie’s cochlear implant surgery, an operation that embeds a small electronic device in the skull to help transmit sound signals to the brain. She tells me about this one memory from just after her cochlear implant was activated. She laid on her studio floor listening to all the different sounds while her fiancé, Tyler, boiled the water for tea. She just reveled in it, observing and attempting to identify everything she could hear. There was one sound in particular that she could hear but couldn’t pin. “What is that,” she exclaimed as Tyler bounced around pointing out possible sources. It ended up being the dock creaking outside the floating home, and it filled her with excitement. She could hear something she couldn’t see! “When I lost my hearing, my eyes became my ears. My visual spatial awareness was heightened, because I needed to see to know what I was hearing. Since getting my cochlear implant, I had to re-learn what I was hearing. Now I can connect sound to movement, like the prehistoric sound the heron makes as it is flying by my window.”
Shortly after her cochlear implant, Kelsie started painting again. She fell back into the rhythm of those familiar gestures and motions, intuitively unpacking the ways her life has changed over the years. “It took me a long time to be ready to paint about my deafness, and to be comfortable enough discussing it,” she shares. In her current body of work, White Noise, Kelsie investigates her sudden deafness and her fluid relationship to sound and movement. She uses fine white lines to represent sound waves travelling through space, and layers of paper and paint to create depth, mimicking the experience of hearing sounds near and far.
Kelsie analyzes the realities of being a deaf person in a hearing world: “With my latest work, I am simplifying movement. That doesn’t only include the gesture of my arm holding the paintbrush. It is my head tilting to the side in efforts to hear you better, it is sound waves reaching my ear, it is sounds in my head, it is reading others’ body language, and it is the subtle nuances of movement within my new signed language.” Some pieces speak directly to experiences she’s had, and others pull movement and sound out of silence. It was an isolating and frustrating chapter for Kelsie, but her sudden loss of hearing has stretched her perspective. She now uses a language and artistic practice hinged on motion, where subtle gestures hold depth and weight. White Noise has become a way for Kelsie to process and bring beauty to something that doesn’t always feel beautiful.
Kelsie’s art moves full circle. She pulls inspiration from the world around her, processes it on paper, and then sends it back out into the world. She teaches what she learns. I think that’s what a lot of powerful art does—it takes and then it gives. “I struggle with knowing what to share, but I do know that we all have moral and social obligations to make a contribution to this world,” Kelsie says. “It is important that we do. I hope to allow the viewer the space to pause, learn, and consider their connection to this aural world. I hope to challenge the ideas and assumptions of what deafness is and can be.”