ARTIST INTERVIEW: Ara Lucia
In the spring of 2014 I had the opportunity to curate the exhibition Nebulous Certainties featuring photo fables by artist Ara Lucia. The exhibition was shown at the OutCenter in Benton Harbor, Michigan. Just prior to its de-installation, I spoke with Ara about the work. Since then, Ara has released her first publication, a memoir. Catching up with her in the New Year, it was fun to learn she has returned to the studio following the book’s release and is presently developing work that remains relevant to the interview content. I am pleased to share the interview now, in 2015.
TM: We have artwork selected from two bodies of work that you produced. I thought we would start by you just talking about what's on view. What are we looking at in this exhibition?
AL: The first body of work is called Tala & Louison: The Woods Opening Through, which was my re-invention or re-interpretation of Little Red Riding Hood, done with two women as the wolf and Little Red. The next piece is called We Vow, which was in response to Prop 8, which happened at the same time as the 2008 general election.
AL: 2007 is when I created Tala & Louison. In 2008, I cried after the election for two weeks, and then decided that I needed to do something. I was actually already in pre-production for the body of what We Vow was, and I changed the story to be the narrative that would be about same sex marriage.
TM: Has your work historically been political?
AL: It had never been political before. That was my first time.
TM: So this was a big adventure for you. How was that for you as an artist, taking on something that might be personal, but was also a highly politicized and visible topic?
AL: Actually, both of these projects were the first time I'd ever really done anything that wasn't self-portraiture in one form or another, as far as my visual work. It had always been some kind of self-portraiture or self-storytelling. In a way, certainly We Vow had really very deep personal ties. I was so deeply and passionately immersed in the pain of the story at that time, and the situation that it felt so personal, even though it was political, that they were really very much entwined. When I look back on it now, in several pieces you can see the pain; you can see the anger.
There's shots that were not included in this show where Josie, the character that has the blue clothes and the blue hat, after the authority figure comes and breaks up the marriage, and pushes her and Cora, the woman that's in the more traditional wedding clothes, down to the ground - the next shot is Josie picking up this stick and literally whacking the guy. It was very crude. It was a really crude response. It wasn't sophisticated at that time. It was just like we have to fight back. We can't let this stand.
TM: Sometimes there's potency to that type of response. If you made it more sophisticated it might lose some of that potency.
AL: A couple shots later I wrestled back and forth with this about the gun. This was way before there were all these mass shootings that we were starting to talk about that made the idea of a gun as controversial as it is now. It wasn't in the public discourse, but I still thought it was iffy to do. I needed a visible signal, and what I wanted to say was, right now, meaning in 2008, it was a small segment, a very tiny segment of the Christian faith that was making this pain happen, and hurting this group of people. My belief and understanding at the time was that there was a much bigger number of people who were either ambivalent or were truly supportive. What I was saying is, they must stand up. The gun actually had no bullets in it, but it was a way of saying this. He never fires a shot. He uses it as a threat, saying we can't stand for this. That was the gesture I was making, it's like we need them to lead the way. Those ministers can't just sit idly by. They must direct this fight. That was what I wanted to say, as I was hoping to open a dialogue and to participate in discussion as it was happening. I don't know that there was really any discussion about that, but that was where I was going.
TM: Your previous work was mostly self-portraits.
TM: Was it narrative like these pieces are?
AL: They were somewhat narrative. I hadn't really thought about it like that until you just asked. For example, I did a piece that was a very large piece of cement, like six feet by six feet, where I laid down on it and I drew the shape of my body, like you would see on a crime scene. Then my garment was in a plastic bag. There was journal writing about the pain I was feeling at that time written across it. Then there were self-portraits. There were six or eight shots that I took of myself in that garment. They were taken in such a way that you could never see all of me. They were lined up along the bottom of the piece. There was a story that you could try to piece together, but they weren't narrative in the sense that it went from beginning to end. Does that make sense?
TM: That makes perfect sense.
AL: I think you could say that pieces like that certainly told a story, and had more than one image in them.
AL: One of the thoughts I had was the idea that many of these myths we find in more than one culture, they show up in different ways. The idea of repeating was intriguing to me. I thought, what if this doesn't just happen once? What if they don't just meet in the woods in this one occurrence, as if it just happens?
The idea of it became a game to me. What if they met and played chess, or what if they met and ... Then the idea of a duel or something came to mind. I got the idea that cards would work. Then I was sort of thinking about the storybook. Will the storybook be the playing table, that they would open a book? They're in the book; they're playing on the book, and sort of playing with the book or whatever. The cards were actually two different decks that were designed for them. They each had a unique deck.
I'm not a comic book fan in that I didn't grow up with comic books or as a fan of comic books, but as an adult I'm intrigued by the idea of them. I'm sort of jealous of the people who were into comic books. One of the things that I both like and am frustrated by is the idea that a character kind of never dies, they die and they come back, that repeating idea. I had this idea - what would happen if you think the story would end? What if Louison actually stole Tala’s box? You would think, wow, well that would be the end, right? Then what if Tala took her cards? Would it still be a stalemate? It seemed like kind of a comic book ending, so we wouldn't know what would happen next. It wouldn't be an ending, it would be sort of like in the comic books, you want to see what happens next, but it leaves you with an unsatisfied feeling. That was sort of what I was playing with there.
TM: Which seems to resonate with the whole going back to the actual political situation and the issues at hand. That's very interesting. You made this work years ago now. It's been a couple years. How has it continued on for you?
AL: When you first introduced the idea of doing this show, I thought, oh God, that work's old. In particular, We Vow. I look at it and I see it as very dated now. As soon as the work was done, very shortly after that, the situation became, as I saw it, legislative. It's just going to be a matter of state-by-state it was going to become legislative. I felt like the issue itself didn't have an edge anymore because it had moved into the public consciousness with enough momentum that there wasn't necessarily a need for us to talk about it. As an artist, I didn't feel like I needed to talk about it anymore. It's already happening out there in the Zeitgeist, it's happening.
What was intriguing to me when I stopped to look at the work, I was amused because I hadn't noticed the ways that books are thematic for me. I knew that trees were a deal, but I guess I didn't realize to what ridiculous extent, because I'm not a nature person at all. I couldn't care less about it. In fact I don't want to be in it. I think there was something about a singular tree that I romanticized, the idea of a single tree. I did, as a child, read in a tree. There was one tree that had a horizontal limb that I would read in. I did climb trees. There's something about the icon of it that for me has meaning more so than the idea of a forest or wanting to be in nature.
Most definitely clothes have been, always are and always will be of interest to me. It's a starting point. I've talked about that before in my blog. The images always start with what are they going to wear? That's how I discover who the characters are. Their personalities come out of the garment. I discover the garment first, and then the character shaped around the garments. I have a very specific idea of what each garment is like. Especially with We Vow. I worked with a phenomenal costume designer, Helene Siebrits. When we met, I wish our first meeting had been videotaped. Helene brought all these books. She knew what time period I was talking about within about 10 years. She brought all these history books, and we would open the book and I would say, I like this bustle, I think this sleeve, and I like this trim. I showed her five things that I liked, and then after I did that, we turned pages and she was able to say, you don't like this and you like this.
Helene knew me, she totally knew me. I was almost in tears. It felt like such a profound knowing, and also I was so giddy, I couldn't stop laughing. I know that partly comes from looking at Seventeen Magazine growing up, and trying out things. I would wear things that I saw in a magazine, and people would make fun of me in school. Then two years later of course they would be wearing that thing that they made fun of me for wearing that I saw in a magazine. For me, garments are absolutely expression. It's all expression. For me it's visual, it's theatrical, it's costuming, it's all of those things.
TM: In looking at your work, and in conversations that I've had with you personally, it seems to me that when you take on something artistically, there's a deep love of layers. Nothing is simple. You love complexities and layers upon layers. It's fascinating to hear that you start with the garment, and then how you move through these things. I never see it as like three layers, I see it as 150 layers. Is that a true observation?
AL: No one's ever put it that way, but what happens to me is there'll be a seed for something...
TM: You couldn't do a comic book, because there's narrative layers, but the imagery is too simple for you.
AL: You're totally right. It's funny that you should mention this. If I go back to my thesis for my undergrad, that was a performance piece so it was dance, but then it was two stories that were told simultaneously. That was layers too. One was a dream sequence and one was basically a myth that I had constructed. It went from the myth to the dream, from the myth to the dream, from the myth to the dream. Then there were also these projections. There were multiple layers there too.
Part of it is, for me, I guess as you ask it and I struggle to try to find the truth to answer you, I'm trying to get at how can I express the meaning? For me, I'm always reaching for it, and as I discover a new nuance I'm always trying to figure out, well how can I express that nuance? Then there's another layer that I'm adding so that I can try to express that thing. It's like the idea of that onion, except it's the reverse. Instead of peeling the onion, I'm building the onion. Every time I discover another layer, and then I'm adding it so that I'm, oh maybe they'll see this piece that I just discovered. I get excited about every new insight or whatever.
Then also it's something we've talked about before. One of my early heroes is a director who was very interested in using incredible, technical, visual everything to make his vision come true. I didn't realize until I was halfway through or two-thirds of the way through We Vow, oh duh, look what I've done here. He would bring in an amazing musician to compose a score, and amazing costume designers, and amazing set designers, and all these amazing people to create the vision, skills that he didn't necessarily have, and look what I had just done. I had this phenomenal team.
If I go back to the costume designer, when I interviewed her, I knew that was going to be for me the most critical creative staff member, because of the importance of the costumes to me. She clearly was skilled, there was no doubt about that. She was the head of various universities' costume departments. What I asked her was, if you had to tell me, are you the person who wants to be micro-managed, or are you a person who wants to be set free? To me, her answer to this was whether or not I was going to hire her. She said, well, I can answer that two ways. I've worked for visionaries. When I work for a visionary, I just submit myself. I become part of their experience, I embody it. I fully embrace wherever they're going and I become part of that. Then they're going to micro-manage the hell out of me, but it's part of making, realizing that to its fullest. She said, but I've also worked for people that they don't have time, so they tell me where they're going, and they just need me to run with it. We have a trust relationship, we figure out where we're going, and then we just go. I said, I need both; you're hired. That was like, whooh. At that moment, was the first moment that I relaxed about the project, because I knew.
TM: Sure. Well it sounds like one of the most amazing answers in all of interviewing.
AL: Yeah, it was like, oh thank God.
TM: That's fantastic.
AL: Yeah, oh thank God.
TM: I do wonder, as you were thinking about sitting down today and talking about this work which was done awhile ago, and you've moved on and you've had many projects in between and currently, what thoughts rose to the surface as you were thinking about this?
AL: I had originally thought that there would be three bodies of work, that there would be one more. The third piece was supposed to be a piece about a child and sort of a broken relationship with a mother figure. I had the vision of a carriage kind of thing that was being pulled by two ostriches, and the ostriches were in these vests. The child was leading the ostriches, and the mother was holding an ostrich egg. I wasn't really sure what all was going to happen, but it was going to be a narrative thing. There would be something; something was going to happen.
I don't think I need to do that piece anymore. I have come to know or believe about myself that the ostrich somehow represents security. I've grown since I originally conceived of that piece. So if I was going to do the piece, I'd do a piece about the ostrich and it wouldn't be that, but I don't know what it would be. If I did have the funding to be able to do a third piece, I would want to do it.
I micro-managed the hell out of We Vow. It was insane, and everyone submitted. I'm so grateful, I get choked up thinking about it, how much everyone turned over to my vision for what it could be. I also think in my growth since then, I think the third piece could be more raw and could be more collaborative. I think we could all have a lot more fun, in how much I've grown since then. The third piece would look really, really different. That's all I know.
TM: Okay. Thank you very much.
AL: Thank you.