With Her New Landmark Collection, Hannah Polskin Goes Global

Ten weeks at work in SCAD Lacoste’s Alumni Atelier has yielded a career breakthrough for the L.A.-based artist, whose new collection is an ode to the region’s plethora of century-old found objects.

Credit (all images): Patrick Moreno

By any account, SCAD alumna Hannah Polskin is an embodiment of university president Paula Wallace’s “no starving artists,” philosophy: her oeuvre is known for its near-universal appeal. The New York–born, L.A.-based artist has built a devoted following on both coasts, her body of large-scale paintings, wood carvings, mirrors, and menorahs charming collectors and press alike. Her use of shape and abstraction brings softness and spontaneity to what might otherwise be a severe palette of neutral tones, including a pristine canvas of Baltic birchwood and a dedication to hues of white, cream, and black.

Now on the heels of a formative residency at SCAD Lacoste’s Alumni Atelier, Polskin is in the midst of a breakthrough. “It was an exciting prospect and one of the things that drew me to the program, the question of how my aesthetic would translate in a medieval village in Provence.” 

With funding from Wallace’s alumni development endowment, Polskin embarked on a ten-week creative spree in the South of France. There, she created her new Landmark collection, swapping Baltic birchwood for century-old, weathered antique doors. The white walls of her West Hollywood studio gave way to limestone caves. From time to time, she even put down her paintbrushes and picked up a soldering iron.

Now back in California, Polskin is ready to reflect on her experience at SCAD Lacoste  and its inimitable sense of place. It’s already evident to her devoted Instagram following, who are quickly acquiring her new works in droves. The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Some people might say there’s something “quintessentially L.A.” about your work. Now that you’ve wrapped up  ten weeks in Lacoste, do you agree?

While I’m based in Los Angeles, the organic shapes I paint resonate with a range of collectors across a variety of spaces. I was enthralled at the idea of taking my work out of its L.A./New York context to see how it would land here. Environment can absolutely steer creative direction, and I wanted to remain malleable to the art going where it needed to in this setting.

Tell us about the site-specific nature of your Landmark collection. 

Landmark reclaims found objects from the region, letting the Luberon landscape leave its mark. It was important to remember that if I’m creating in a historical place that dates back to Roman rule, I needed to honor that provenance and work with local materials with the same heritage. It started with a tiny grain of an idea to use salvaged wood, whatever I could organically get my hands on in Provence, instead of the pristine Baltic Birch I’ve used for the last few years. By the end, not only was I painting on decades-old pieces of wood, I was transforming antique objects into works of art. 

My inner compass always points toward the nearest flea market, and Provence was an absolute treasure trove for antiques. Turn-of-the-century Pétanque balls, pre–Industrial evolution mallets, old masonry sieves, and ancient doors with original rusted hinges are just a few findings that I manipulated into something new. It felt like I joined in on a longstanding tradition of repurposing the past. 

Did you experiment with any new mediums or modalities?

There’s this great passage about the transformation of the Lacoste caves into artist ateliers in President Wallace’s memoir The Bee And The Acorn, she says “We added Internet and subtracted the scorpions.” The atelier studio was a 16th-century Limestone cave, unlike the level white walls I was used to, so learning to install into this type of material was an uphill climb. No two days were alike, requiring constant problem-solving and new techniques to repurpose old material. In one instance, with an old door, the wood was so fragile and challenging to paint I wound up burning the motif into it with a blow torch and soldering iron, and finished it with a layer of pastel. Each instance was so much more complex than simply applying paint to wood.  

I got very friendly with a new power drill and adapted my work to accommodate old stones jutting out of the walls, the curvature of the arched ceiling, or small windows peeking through the limestone. I love the way the setting shaped this collection. It marks my first foray into lighting made from salvaged masonry sieves and old wooden blocks, and is a direct result of the minimal light available in the cave atelier. I’ve always been very sensitive to light and it was exciting to see what this type of environment brought forth out of necessity for me.

Tell us about the shift away from Baltic Birch and towards reclaimed wood.

Early on in the program, I began to move away from sharp 90-degree angles and instead began rounding the edges and softening the outlines of my shapes. It was wonderful to work improvisationally, reacting to whatever the wood wanted: where it would let me paint, where it would be too bumpy or crumbly to take any pigment. This collection is a collaboration with the material as there were natural limits to what I could pull off. The result is an aesthetic that pays homage to the ancient limestone cave in which the works were made.

Materiality and sourcing is a crucial part of any artist’s studio practice; how did you approach that abroad? Are there local shops or small businesses you want to shout out?

Each town in Provence has a designated market day. Villeneuve-Lès-Avignon Flea Market on Saturdays was a favorite, and where I found ancient mallets that I transformed into mini vanity mirrors. Jean Chabaud in Apt, the next town over from Lacoste, is an outdoor depot of old house parts—architectural stone, fireplaces, terracotta tiles—I’d never seen anything like it. It was like walking through an art history textbook. The town L’Ile Sur La Sorgue felt like it was plucked out of my wildest dreams; the streets are lined with antique shops and flea markets. There’s a magical fabric shop there called La Boutique de Francines where I sourced scraps of old linen to complete my lamps.

How did local sights, geography, and culture inform this collection?

This collection is very connected to the land it came from, so learning about the region was key to my research. I’m a big fan of guide books; both Curious Histories Of Provence and Peter Mayle’s A Year In Provence gave me a solid foundation, laying out the quirks and charms of this place. My biggest education came from driving hours across Provence each week to find a flea market that someone at the last one recommended. It was very word-of-mouth. 

I was struck by the knowledge these antique vendors possess—they’re more like art historians. The vendors have this ability to identify each foreign object. There’s this moment of awe when they reveal what it is, and I wanted to capture that in my atelier. I had visitors guess the origin story of each piece and what it was before me. I named every piece in the Landmark collection after its original object and attached a signed map on the back pointing to where it was found. 

How did SCAD’s support impact the final collection?

The concept of the residency is incredible. Giving alumni the space, time, and resources to get outside their standard creative practice and uproot to a new place is magical. I’m endlessly inspired by President Wallace’s foresight to establish the university in Lacoste, a magical area of Provence that has inspired artists for centuries

The unique thing about this residency is that you’re in the midst of undergraduates in their spring quarter, so there’s a great open-door feeling to the atelier, where students popped in to borrow a tool, ask for advice, or weigh in on my latest. One such student, Patrick Morano, was a super talented photography major and actually wound up shooting the collection.

What’s next for you, in L.A. or beyond?

It was inspiring to be back in the SCAD family. In L.A. I really want to maintain that sense of creative community and connection to fellow alumni. I’m so excited to view these works in a modern setting. As stunning as the cave atelier was, the prospect of these rustic works inside my studio is intriguing. I’m sharing the 16-piece collection online and will be holding studio appointments to view in person. I was honored to partner with a local Provencal gallery, Maison Lorence, which exhibited some of the larger works. I’d love to stay connected to the French art scene. 

The SCAD Lacoste campus. Credit: SCAD.
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