“How does this store stay in business? Who goes in there?” Kenny asked as we drove by one of the many giant faux-rusted, big-windowed shop filled with giant Buddhas made of stone that seem to thrive in L.A.
“Oh, everyone has a big Buddha in their house. That’s the first thing people do when they make a buck in this town is get a big Buddha. It’s a rite of passage,”’ I said.
Of course I pulled this out of my ass, kind of. I mean, it comes from somewhere. I’ve seen photos of homes here in L.A. where there are big stone and metal Buddhas silently guarding living rooms and gardens. One time I went to a viewing for an apartment I didn’t realize I could no-way afford and there was a HUGE Buddha in the main room next to the window. I think it was the Buddha itself that sent out some kind of subliminal signal that somehow, not only accessed my bank account and memories of being raised in a trailer park, but also turned me around and sent me firmly on my way out the door.
A few days later after our conversation about Buddhas and shops, Kenny and I attended a house party. The house was very nice.
We entered the house on our own after a good knock and no response. We heard festive chatter within. Upon entering we were greeted by others who were also guests and they were standing by (you guessed it) a giant Buddha made of stone. Once we walked inside we found painted portraits of that same Buddha. There was a beautiful green garden canopied by rows of twinkle lights and big-leaved plants and in the center was a big square stone with tiny, white, fire-holding pebbles resting upon it. We sat with the other guests, on cushioned cement slabs, around it. Kenny and I faced the Buddha that seemed to be watching us from inside with his iris-and-pupil-free eyes through the fire.
“See,” I said.
Kenny nodded his head and said, “Why don’t you paint Buddhas?”
“Why don’t I paint Buddhas? ...I wouldn’t mind painting Buddhas, actually. I like Buddhas.” That’s what went through my head and it made me feel excited and that excitement made me feel uncomfortable.
When I was young I was told by many people who didn't know me well, but knew I had creative inclinations, to paint lighthouses, sea otters and that tree in Pebble Beach, because we lived by such things and we also lived by the shops that sold paintings and tiny versions of such things. This used to make me mad. I didn’t feel compelled to paint something as simple as what people liked in their houses. My art explores what I don’t understand. My art is a mystery to me that I feel compelled to share. My art should lead humanity to new perceptions in regard to existential matters!
So then, why was I suddenly feeling enthusiastic about the idea of painting Buddhas? -The current equivalent of what lighthouses, sea otters and that tree in Pebble Beach once were to me.
In addition to that, a few weeks before, when my friend asked me to make a portrait of his dog, I said that I would and actually enjoyed the thought of imagining how I would depict him. I derived pleasure from considering the challenge of what I could do to make his portrait my own.
Back when I was younger, when lighthouses made me angry, a woman at a craft show offered me money to paint a portrait her Dachshund and I very nearly socked her in the nose for asking. I felt that she should understand from my work on display that I was not there to paint her dog or anyone’s dog. I was there to explore and to make philosophical discoveries that happened to make its way out of my psyche via paintings of demons and aliens that happened to look a lot like adorable Muppets. My ego was way hurt.
A friend at work (whom I consider to be cerebral) and I were talking and she asked me to teach her how to draw animals so that she could turn out some bucks by painting people’s pets and that’s when I found myself telling her about my new plan to paint Buddhas and that’s when I got it. It clicked. I understood the change. At least I think I understood the change. I either understand it, or I’ve lived without much money for so long that I’m finally setting my ego aside for the sake of possibly (probably not) earning a better living.
But, setting my ego aside (har har) let’s pretend I have undergone an actual catharsis.
Buddhas and dogs aside, I had been thinking, a lot, recently about my subject choices. I’ve been painting lizards and pro wrestlers.
Actually, it was one of the high school students I’ve taught that helped me realize something that perhaps had been brewing in my head for years since I left the tourist town I came from.
As my students work on their projects, I sit across from them at a big table but I will often paint, just to keep myself busy while I give them some space. It keeps the conversation flowing and allows them to work while I observe without being too overbearing. It’s more like a working art studio that way. (I teach one-to-one.)
The student I’m crediting with bringing me to the start of this new frame-of-mind noticed that my “doodles,” as I called them, looked a lot like lizard scales. He suggested that I make use of those scales and draw a snake or a reptile. It was a revelation!
Perhaps it’s because he was a teenager, as opposed to something I saw as an authority figure telling me what to paint- Perhaps it’s because he saw what I was doing naturally and suggested something the world could relate to, to place that work within.
There is more though. Time and (dare I say) education.
I went to college between the time I was at that craft show and wanted to sock that Dachshund-loving-lady in the nose and the time I found myself excited by the idea of depicting subjects that people buy because it captures something they feel they own or symbolizes some kind of spiritual space they want to inhabit.
Specifically though, things changed a lot during my undergraduate studies after I took a creative writing class about animals.
Our professor, someone I consider to be a brilliant woman, wanted us to understand that it didn’t matter what a writer wrote if they wrote about it from a place of authenticity. She taught me, through examples and through making us practice our own writing, that there is always more to it. The true artist is translated through the work, no matter the subject.
I think my ego received a great deal of comfort after reading novels that focused on horses, or fish or cows and simultaneously clocked me right in the gut with very human feelings and made me think about my very personal human experiences. She even showed us a quirky documentary film about the life of a type of mole and one about worms that told tales most conscious humans could relate to. I was in tears.
All that being said, here I am writing in my personal blog, as a human, and sharing it with the Internet in order to sort out something I am claiming to have mastered. -Letting everyone and myself know that I’m not letting go of what’s really important to me as an artist if I paint a Buddha, or a lizard or a dog, or even a lighthouse. I'm ridiculous.
There is something else, that until now, I failed to consider.
Developing a body of work over the years has given me so much. Constantly making and writing and drawing and most importantly, sharing, has allowed me to collect reactions to my work. It’s allowed me to decide what sort of responses I’m comfortable with and what I’d like to change. It’s caused me to accept and make friends with (sort of) with my own personal creative language. When I was younger I didn’t have the experience and so perhaps I had to protect and defend something I felt but had no proof of. Letting others purchase and make a painting or sculpture their own is sometimes a very important factor in creative growth. (Sometimes -being a key word. As I wrote that last sentence I thought about Henry Darger and others like him.)
My work is often creepy. That’s what people say. I don’t set out to make something creepy, and I have a lot more to learn, but I’m glad that I authentically translate what I see into something that can make some people feel uncomfortable. For better or worse, I have that and I’ve nurtured my process. I still set out to create something I think is beautiful, but I’m aware that it will most likely be seen as being creepy, or unique in some way. Experience has led me to this place of comfort where I know that if I paint a Buddha, it will most likely be a creepy Buddha. It will be my Buddha.
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.
Every morning is like leaving the party everyone wanted to be at and regrets the next day. The party I don’t want to go to, but wasn’t invited to anyway.
Young women clutching their elbows, shoulders slightly hunched. It’s usually chilly out and if our eyes meet it’s just our eyes. It’s too early for hello. If they were to say anything I feel as though it would be, “These heels were a bad idea,” and “I should have brought a jacket.” The young white men I see look serious and they walk, briskly. Sometimes they’re passed out on the sofas that are always left on the sidewalk, boxer shorts revealed, as their new pants have been attached mid-thigh since they got dressed the night before; their hair still stiff and spiked and coated in molding clay.
I live right, smack in the middle of Hollywood and nearly every morning, I'm up and out of the house with the sunrise.
I walk speedily onto the Walk of Fame in order to reach the nearest underground train stop because I teach art and creative writing to teenagers in The Valley; the same Valley I first heard about while living on the Monterey Bay, about a day’s drive north of Los Angeles, where I lived as a teenager.
When I was a teenager, I saw Moon Unit Zappa perform her and her dad's song called Valley Girl on a show called Solid Gold. The song was part of the soundtrack to a movie about teenagers who lived in an area near Hollywood. I liked it but I had a hard time understanding her performance at the time, as it felt like art, and I didn’t yet know what performance art was, and although I could recognize his name and face, I was unfamiliar with her dad’s experimental work.
Between movies like Valley Girl, Fast Times at Ridgemont High and the TV show, Square Pegs, pop culture was teaching me about the teenager who was glib, cynical, had more money than I did and hung out at the mall. She used a particular form of slang one could learn from the official Valley Girl handbook (sold at everyone’s local mall) if they weren’t from the San Fernando Valley, but really, you had to be from The Valley in order to not sound like a joke.
Now I teach a new generation of teens raised within that “cultural” landscape. I think that’s kind of funny.
Hollywood is the place where famous people live together. That's how I had always seen it, and I guess that’s how it is. I was about six years old when the TV characters, Laverne and Shirley decided to leave Milwaukee for California, and by California they meant Hollywood. They weren’t actresses, they worked in a beer factory, but they were going to make their dreams come true. It was in their theme song, so goodbye Milwaukee! I announced to my mother that I too wanted to move to California in order to make my dreams come true and was surprised to learn that we were already there. As a matter of fact, I was born there. It didn’t seem right at all.
Still, TV felt closer to my personal desires for a life, and by then I had learned that famous people get what they want, so Hollywood was going to make my dreams comes true. Hollywood would be the great leveler. I was raised within the perceptions that come from having no extra money and therefore opportunities were a luxury given to others. I was determined, however, to make a good life, a creative life, one that included art (which I was told I was good at), adventure and fun.
My parents dropped out of school at a very young age and maybe that’s why they didn’t allow me to embrace the academic opportunities that were presented to me, stating that because we didn’t have money, I was doomed for the same sort of life they chose. -It was a hard road out, but I wasn’t having any of that. Hollywood became a fairy godmother. That’s how I’m trying to make sense of it, anyway.
As I began to live through my twenties, the Internet began developing and I felt a connection between the access this technology gave regular folks like me and the energy of Hollywood; the place where one goes to be “discovered.” I truly believed that I could use both as tools that would help me develop, claim and share my importance, my value in the world and once I was discovered, because I would surely be discovered, I would not have to be a miserable worker who lives without art, adventure and fun.
I’m not an actor, and I’m not a rock star and I don't work in a beer factory. I’m now an introverted Los Angeles-based fine artist and writer who’s been online since 1996 and as far as I can tell I still haven’t been “discovered.” To be honest, I don’t even know what I’d be discovered as. A fancy pop culture blog once took my photo and labeled me as a tailor, which makes some sense as I had made the outfit I was wearing, and a poet magazine, for some reason, described me as an interior decorator. I am an outsider and I have to admit that I enjoy being one.
Right before I made my move to Hollywood, I hadn’t yet gone to art school and didn’t yet understand the history of my craft, or the value of it through time. New York felt exclusive, daunting, even though that’s where it seemed artists were supposed to live. I wasn’t ready for it. Contemporary painters I read about, who lived there, seemed to understand the importance of their work. I wasn’t confident enough to believe in or defend its value. I felt as though Hollywood wouldn’t know the difference.
Turns out it was a safe move, and I learned a lot. There were people in the art world here who began to teach me things, and after one full year, I was led to the Midwest, to school, to learning the importance of my work and those who came before me.
In Kansas City, where I went to school, I missed it. I missed the plasticity, the commodity and I still perceived it as a sort of freedom; a way toward “success.” I felt confirmed that pop stardom was a universal leveler of man kind, that anyone, if they truly believed, could reach “the stars.” Then I moved back to Los Angeles and into a graduate writing program led by a poet who loved Los Angeles but hated Hollywood and I continued to fight for its value in my life; its validity. It was going to give me that freedom I had believed in for so long. It had to. I claimed that the ridiculousness of it could be manipulated and perceived as something valuable. After all, it was what led me to trust my purpose as an artist and writer when no one in my day-to-day life did.
But now I have to admit that he’s right. I’ve been here for a while and I’ve observed a lot and I’ve made peace with what brings me happiness and that happiness most often does not come from anything that this town has to offer.
I also spend nearly every day with young people who are buying into what I bought into for so long, but in a new way. The monster has evolved. Notoriety and fame is close to these Valley kids, and I see that it doesn't really matter what one does in order to get it.
The people these children see, everywhere, receive attention for being terrible, vapid, thoughtless people and I can no longer pretend to see the good or humor in it.
I'm no longer able to ironically worship symbols of gluttony, apathy and greed because I've been faced with the fact that it hooks people into a cycle of delusion, undefined desire, destruction and neurosis, and the worst of it, for me, is when it sinks its teeth into those who started out being in on the joke.
I was recently sharing with someone my feelings of disinterest in regard to friends of mine who are making art and writing about the shittiest pop culture. I said that I was bored and feeling uneasy because for so long I believed in it, and now I'm making judgments. I said that I feel like I’m betraying something. One of them said that it's like being in a sausage factory. A lot of people enjoy a good sausage, but no one wants to eat one inside of a sausage factory, and that's it.
I was raised by people who guided me to form some kind of “keep it real” ideals while feeding me chemicals and preservatives (just like everyone else) and placing me in front of TV commercials, magazines and catalogs, advertising the godliness of stuff. I was told to not follow my dreams but then given access to Hollywood by way of the day-to-day media. The TV told me to “believe” while also telling me that I needed to purchase Oreos and gym memberships.
To survive like roaches or crows or rats; to be strong with the best and worst of what I’m given, and to thrive within the grime has felt like my life’s challenge. But what feels like the realest part of me, beyond what I’ve absorbed and been taught, wants to live with goats and chickens in a forest with tall trees near a brook somewhere. Perhaps I had to hold on to some sense of having a mission in life, and this is the one my conditioning brought me to.
Here in Hollywood I walk around and it feels like a hex. I feel like I’m in the root of the worst of all deals. Like the eye of a storm, I’m inside of it and standing still. At this point I’m just watching.
But there are those moments, and I’m having them, when I realize that I’m here– right smack dab in the middle of the life I spent my youth dreaming of. I’m right here. The Hollywood apartment, the “discovered” creative friends who honor me and what I do, the devotion to art-making, the parties (that I am invited to), the fact that I can wear crazy outfits and deal with anyone in almost any situation, with confidence. I’ve made it to this place, and I send it to her. This feeling. It may not mean as much to me now, but to her it was everything.
My name is Linda Lay and I'm an artist, a writer and a teacher.
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