This is a question I was asked in college, during a critique. My work consisted of about eleven pieces that were made out of layered film on cardboard and recycled plastic bags acted as a sort of frame. I created record-sized canvases out of these materials to paint upon, and the content which I created with pencil and paint had to do with cats and neural connections.
Why cardboard? Why did I feel an intuitive connection between recycling materials, cats and the plasticity of the brain?
Before that I used old food product boxes to draw and paint images of models from magazines upon. I added my own hair after a haircut and coated it all with two-part epoxy resin.
I called the round cat pieces, “Many Sluts” and I called the other body of work, “Pretties on Products”.
I’ve probably been exploring my identity as a woman and as a woman born without much money; wondering what sort of currency I’m allowed to have. As a birthright? Anyway, I have had some money in my life and Pretties on Products was bad because the message was too obvious. Pretty women on products, blonde hair... I even added mirrors to the bit. Cheesy, I admit, but I'm looking at it now in the context of the use of recycled materials.
The use of recycled parts is important to me. It always has been. The idea of making something out of what is thrown out is something I’ve fantasized about since the beginning of my thoughts. I guess I saw a lot of that as a child, and it wasn’t wrapped up in the package of a Martha Stewart show like it is now. Old things were made shiny with varnish and used as furniture. My family’s stereo console/living room central focus was always a wall made up of cinder blocks and boards holding a fancy Harmon Kardon stereo system and an entire set of Funk & Wagnall’s Encyclopedias and one blue dictionary. The coffee table was an old giant spool taken off of a utility truck and of course, varnished. In the mix of that was a creepy, framed, giant drawing of eyes my dad made by looking at an image (of Cheryl Ladd) from a 1970’s TV guide. My mom cut out images from magazines and wheat pasted collages on everything. She used every old tea kettle or cooking pot as a planter. Plants were always around. My clothes were handmade or from garage sales and most things were kept and adjusted as I grew older and bigger. She only used an antique Singer sewing machine. They could have bought a newer one, but this was important to my parents. I remember this. I remember people being impressed by my mom’s style and by my style and observing how we were perceived by others in our community because of it. I’m not saying things were great because of this, or idealizing it, I’m simply finding myself in this history.
As a teenager I moved away from these "roots" and found my way into the world of appreciators and collectors and buyers of things that are brand new, or at least neatly packaged and therefore valuable to everyone else. I like that world and tried to be that before I could actually grasp what I do as a writer and artist and maker; before I earned the right to be that. I’ve been around money and like I said before, I’ve even had some of it.
I don’t want to be known as a quirky “trash” artist. Something you see on a blog post and think, “...how clever that person is to have thought of that!” I don’t want to be that crazy artist who eventually buys a shack in the desert and creates a magical landscape of brightly colored and spinning bits of garbage that hipsters visit on road trips and post photos of on their blogs, because I am someone you would expect to do such a thing. I admire and am inspired by many of these people who go full-throttle and do things their own way, but fear of that kind of stereotyping (which would be easy to do with a "wacky" gal like me) is why I never became a Yoga teacher and probably why I eventually went to college to receive a Master’s degree in fine art. I'm fully aware the my ego is holding the reigns here.
Even though I’m trying to figure out the whys of it, I’m very comfortable with the aesthetic I’ve developed after all these years. I truly like my body of work and how it has communicated with the world. It’s doing mostly what I want it to do but I need it to do more.
Some of my favorite work was done on cardboard and I only have a couple photographs scattered on hard drives from this collection. They were drawings I did very quickly of lizards one summer during a break in art school. The photos were in a book on lizards that I checked out of the library. I was visiting my parents and my mom, at the time, was using cardboard to paint on and make collages out of. She says her art is simply her own personal hobby and so she uses cardboard because she doesn’t want to spend money on materials. In any case, she also had white tempera paint and after I drew the lizards I decided to paint certain parts of them.
I saw them as sketches but I thought they were elegant and lovely. I watered down a bit of the paint and so some areas of the lizards were more defined by the white. Some parts were ghostly. The cardboard looked forgotten but the drawings were cared for. I liked this contrast. But why lizards?
When I brought them back to my art studio, one of my teachers said she liked them a lot. She asked me, “Why cardboard?” She and other teachers and my peers said that I needed to have an answer to that question, other than, “I didn’t want to spend money on supplies,” because on a conceptual level, the material spoke just as loudly as my subjects. I also said that I chose cardboard because I liked the way it looked but they either knew better, or they simply refused that kind of answer. Now that I’m a teacher, I would also refuse that answer from my students. Is that okay? -Especially considering that I am writing this today, still trying to come up with a theory on my creative impulses. I mean really, why animals on cardboard?
I have some new ideas
My friend and I would talk about the “remix” a lot, a few years ago. She’s an artist too and she gets me. She was trying to help me mine a formal explanation, and I think I adopted a few through these talks.
-It’s a postmodern world and all that. No work is new work... commenting on our product obsessed consumerist existence. Warhol, celebrities, art found inside of product endorsements. Life as branding. Sports players and sports logos. All that and the family I was born into and later on the family that took me in who buys and collects things made by makers and creative people like me. Later on, my exposure to money when I was too young for it and believing that the purchases I made could define me and impress others... I guess that’s good and true. All of those things have been there.
Remember in Disney’s Cinderella when the animals make her dress? I loved that. I loved, loved, loved the idea that a beautiful dress could be made out of thrown-away parts. Forget about the prince and the pumpkin and the ball, I was stuck on the talking animals and the dress made the same way my clothes were often made.
Like I said, my mother repurposed clothes. She made new things out of old things in order to make things last. I don’t think I did that until I was in college, and by then I was thirty-two years old. I did it when I needed clothes that could express my level of my personal creativity on a budget of nothing. I started with t-shirts. I made a dress out of three of them. I went from there, creating so many pieces that I had work in our school’s annual fashion show by the time I was a senior. Someone back then called my collection, “Frankensteined,” and I like that.
Fashion is now part of my creative repertoire and I am bringing the same elements into this area. The “found” object, and I’m still trying to sort through and define my conceptual world with it.
It has to do with being poor and being rich. It has to do with wastefulness. It has to do with exploring creativity and resourcefulness. It has to do with my way of valuing my developed personal identity. But lizards and cats? (I'm currently painting lizards, but on a large scale and on canvas.) I still don’t get why I choose those subjects other than the fact that lizards have beautiful scales and I love to study natural form. Lizards are serious and still and attentive. I can’t tell what they are thinking and I also admire their stillness. Their poses are often elegant and graceful. There is the whole thing about the reptilian mind too, which I learned about after I focused my attention on these creatures. -The part of ourselves that acts instinctively; but that idea is in contrast to the sense of stillness and seeming self-control and mystic poise I derive from an image of a lizard. I like their alienness, their dinosaur-ish-ness, their monsterness–
And then there are the cats. There is the “crazy cat lady” I have often joked that I would someday become. As well as that, cats are independent and mean and super cozy and loving at the same time. Cats are viewed as feminine, cats have nine lives and they are all over the Internet. That one’s not so hard. A lot of people are focusing on cats right now.
Ugh. None of this makes any sense of my putting them on recycled bits and pieces so I’m just going to drop it and move on to something else.
For the past three years I’ve been in love with a remixer. Kenny remixes and makes sounds. He makes them fun to dance to. It comes naturally to him. In conversation he layers words and noises with what he hears in our day-to-day lives. Those moments are often funny and it’s meant to make me laugh but through this lighthearted practice and when he makes a song out of “parts” I am recognizing my own process of making in another form. -Doing something with what’s out there. It’s totally acceptable in music and I never hear anyone asking him what he was thinking about conceptually when he chose to mix one part of a gospel song with a man recorded selling beer at a street fair with an easy-listening hit from the 80’s. Is it because he makes stuff that people can dance to?
It’s not like he has it any easier though, which comforts me but then maybe he just doesn’t allow that question to enter into it? Maybe it’s there, but he just doesn’t allow himself to care and instead puts his work out there, allows it to live on its own and then moves onto the next one.
Can I blame this narcissistic exploration on my M.F.A.? Am I a narcissist?
I want my lizards and my cats and my monsters and my clothes (and my writing) to matter in the world of everything that matters; to be of value and I have trouble simply letting it all find its own way, I want to be in control of the how and why and what the work reveals about me and my life, and the fact of the matter is that it’s not entirely up to me. I guess that's natural and it’s okay to not have an answer that everyone else probably has (like Georgia O’Keefe’s "vagina flowers"). That’s what I’m terrified of, that everyone sees what I don’t and I’m drawing my vagina over and over again and believing that they’re flowers.
I suppose I'd be okay with that if my work were valued financially. Even I feel like my work has to be sold at a low cost because the perception is that it's a ton of fun, but it's not a hobby. It's very tricky to live in this expensive town because it's good for my life as an artist, and have a full-time job that takes up most of my time and yet barely pays enough for me to live in the tiniest space with no real art studio. So it comes back to money. Maybe I use discarded materials because my experience has shown me that I don't get back what I put in? I am frustrated.
Cardboard and cats, lizards and cheap paint, human hair and varnish, discarded clothes and thread– monsters and aliens, goats and flowers and a book about the Boogieman and another one about an unmet man. A poem about butter. A shop on Hollywood Boulevard. Carefully organized and evolving websites, disturbing art performances and bad Youtube videos. Puppets, teaching, crocheting and now octopi sculptures... I thought that by the end of this I’d have sorted it all out but I’m more confused than ever because to me it’s all connected and I can’t figure out how to translate that gut feeling to everyone else.
I don’t want to have to be the one to do it and I don’t think I have to so I'll keep plugging along. I’m stopping with that. Thank you for reading.
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My name is Linda Lay and I'm an artist, a writer and a teacher.