The power of art

The life and passion of graphic design professor Laurie Grace

By on February 19, 2019

Money, appearance, popularity, knowledge, self-indulgence and even fear—these are some of the values that guide people through their lives. Many people survive and find a form of success with even the most superficial of values. But according to graphic design professor Laurie Grace, passion and fun must guide our lives to make them worth living.

Morgan Tencza | The Quinnipiac Chronicle
Grace, from Moorestown, New Jersey, is an assistant professor of graphic and interactive design at Quinnipiac University. She created art and graphic design throughout her life, for both her career and simply for fun. Although her professional work includes art on a wide variety of subjects, she is known for her art of animals. This passion isn’t something that materialized over time—she discovered it in kindergarten and it never left her.

“In kindergarten, I was in my class and we had to draw a bird,” Grace said. “I did this bird and it was amazing. I couldn’t believe how good it was. From then, I knew I wanted to do artwork with animals. That was exactly what I wanted to do and it’s never shifted.”

After getting her degree in graphic design at the University of Connecticut, Grace went backpacking in Europe for a year, where she stumbled upon an art studio that hired her to be an illustrator for German television shows. When she returned to the United States, she did design and illustration work for a multitude of different companies in the New York community, including Newsweek, Forbes, Scientific American and Time Magazine.

At Scientific American, Grace made the shift from analog to digital illustration when computers started becoming mainstream. Though the software took time to learn, she ended up enjoying digital art thoroughly.

“The best part about the computer is that I could put away the art supplies that always made my house such a mess,” Grace said. “Silk-screening, painting, everything. There’s all these chemicals. But then you put everything away, and everything gets neat. And then you can be really creative.”

She was one of the first to learn how to use digital illustration programs. Soon, she was teaching others how to use them. At Pratt Institute, she began teaching students how to use graphic design software. From there, she became an adjunct professor at several universities, including Quinnipiac, as she continued her professional career in illustration. Eventually, she became a full-time faculty  member at Quinnipiac.

On the side of illustration, design and teaching, Grace has had her artwork shown in many galleries. Her art consists largely of animal paintings, drawings and mixed-media art. Grace has always felt a deep connection with animals, and she creates art to express her love for animals while also trying to send an important message to society.

“It’s the idea of becoming the other,” Grace said. “If you can become the other you have an understanding of empathy. That’s what my art is about. I wish people would realize that animals aren’t that different from us. They suffer. They feel joy. If you’re gonna eat an animal, make sure it has a good life and its death is pain-free. I don’t want to be in pain when I die and I think the same should be for animals.”

Even as a child, Grace had a protective stance on animals. Her mother trained at the University of Wisconsin-Madison under Harry Harlow, an American psychologist known for his controversial experiments studying the effects of maternal separation.

“He did experiments on monkeys, taking babies away from their mothers to study nurture and the foundation of emotional growth,” Grace said. “It was a horrible approach to study a subject, in my opinion. But my mother, as well as many publications, applauded his research. This is an example of how people didn’t think about the consequences on another being—in this case, baby monkeys. They all ‘ate what was on their plate’ and normalized cruelty without question.”

Grace uses the phrase, “Don’t eat what’s on your plate,” to encourage students to look more deeply into things to try to understand them. She uses the phrase metaphorically to cultivate critical thinking in her students to make them well-equipped to navigate the world and try to make it a better place.

“My main goal, aside from teaching the material, is to make them think,” Grace said. “Don’t just eat what’s on your plate—question it. We sort of listen blindly. For instance, it makes me crazy when people buy food because they heard that it’s really good from an advertisement. But the advertisement doesn’t say all these animals had to die to make sure you don’t have a lawsuit.”

In addition to making her students better critical thinkers, she cares about making them confident too.

“What I want them to do when they leave my classroom is be confident,” Grace said. “If you’re confident, you can solve problems and you can go onward and do better things, instead of being shut down and thinking you can’t do something. It’s like me with that bird. The teacher made me feel like I did the best thing in the world and I walked away thinking that was what I wanted to do with my life. I came across the drawing recently, and it doesn’t even look like a bird,” she said, laughing. “But it made me confident. That’s what it took.”

Between teaching at Quinnipiac, making and exhibiting her art and doing agility training with her dogs, Grace is very busy. But, the tiredness she experiences is a small price to pay for getting to do what she loves.

“I’m lucky,” Grace said. “I really am. Because what’s the point of all this if you’re not having fun? You gotta have fun,”

Grace tries to make the world a better place with her art and her teaching, and she hopes that her students will do the same. She believes that art—especially art that is beautiful or humorous—has the power to inspire change in the mindsets of society.

“After I got my MFA, someone walked up to me and said, ‘I have such a new respect for animals because of all the presentations and the paintings you did. I understand life from their perspective so much better now,’” Grace said. “Art has the potential to tell us who we can be. I don’t think people understand how powerful it is.”

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