by AM DeBrincat

I'm interested in the way you engage with materials - the materials you use are diverse and unexpected. Tell me about your decisions surrounding the materials you use and how this shapes your work.
As a child I often made things out of whatever was lying around. At the time, I didn’t think of them as sculpture, I was just making. My father was a pattern maker and carpenter. He would create the most wonderful objects and furniture out of leftover bits, and that seemed to stick with me. Why buy art supplies when there was all that great stuff lying around?

Sometimes I just want to see what I can make the material do, and sometimes the material itself feels laden with meaning that I feel perfectly expresses the idea I am trying to convey. The materials are often essential to the work. I think the material that a piece is made from contributes to its meaning and I love texture, especially aged used texture. No bright shiny perfect things for me. I love the additional associations that the use of unconventional materials brings to the work. For example, I used gut because it was not porous - it held water, it could be protective or a vessel, and precisely because it was animal parts. I loved the visceral quality of using intestines, and the dichotomy that when they dried they became paper like and ephemeral, strength in something that appeared so fragile. Gut has history - it has had a practical use for centuries as a fiber so in a sense I was taking a traditional material and seeing how far I could take it.



Some of your pieces create bundles or wrapped forms that hint at hidden layers of material and hidden layers of meaning. How is your work shaped - literally or figuratively - by those unseen layers?
I think of the forms more as a vessels that hold secrets. The wrapping keeps the contents safe, contains them. Occasionally I will allow a hint of what is within to show on the surface, to have some reference on the surface, and the material relates in some way to the meaning of what is hidden within the form. I often think of the form as transforming the contents.

The works are literally not shaped by hidden layers, but figuratively they are very much so. My work always contains some element of secret and transformation. I’m talking to myself as much as to the audience. I allow some information to be on the surface, and some hidden, unseen. When the viewer really gets it - understands and knows what is hidden- it is surprising and rewarding.



In addition to being a teacher, you are also an educator. How does your life as a teacher of art cross-pollinate with your work in the studio?
I love teaching. What good is knowledge if it is not passed on? It is exciting when you see the lightbulb turn on, when a student discovers the answers to a problem, or learns a new technique that they love. While this seems altruistic, it is actually very selfish. I feel that I talk as much to myself as to my students. In order to teach, I need to be very clear in what I am saying, both in the meaning and the technique. It is really an exchange that helps me to clarify my intentions. I only hope my students get as much from my teaching as I get from them.



You're a native of Brooklyn, NY and about 20 years ago you relocated to New York’s Hudson Valley. Does place play a role in your work or influence your process? Is your work informed by a particle environment - rural or urban - or is your work untethered from any specific location?
My Brooklyn neighborhood was not very typical, it was more like a small town that just happened to be in NYC. So I didn’t think of it as a very urban existence. However, that only held true for where my house was located -everything outside the neighborhood was very urban, which created a kind of dual existence. I do think that when I lived in Brooklyn, my work was darker, more graphic and bold.
When I first moved to the Hudson Valley, the first thing I noticed was how green it all was, and that definitely entered into my work. If a piece is about a specific place, my idea of the color of a place is a big part of the work. After the move, I was very interested in landscape. My subject matter became exclusively about landscape, focusing on the geometry and color of the places I was painting. Once my daughter was grown, I began to travel more often and for a time the work was all about the places I visited.
About five years ago I began making work that was more internally directed, more personal. I think I bring a dual aesthetic to that work, since it is in part what defines me. - I am still both city mouse and country mouse, and I still think of myself as a Brooklyn Girl. But place, in the sense of where I am in the world, does not enter into my thinking of it.



Take us through your process - how does a piece germinate, how does it typically progress, and how do you know when a piece is finished?
I keep a journal of sorts, just a notebook of random thoughts, sketches and to do lists (lots of lists). I don’t follow a regimen, sometimes weeks go by without anything. After a time, a theme emerges. choosing which one to focus on is an intuitive process. Looking back over the latest entries in my notebook I notice that there is one clear theme that I think and write about over and over, and that becomes the next series. It just evolves from a small kernel and grows from that. Once I decide that something is the theme for the next series, then the real work begins. I use the dictionary and the thesaurus a lot. I will start with a word that I think is my subject, and go from there. I develop a list of words that fit what it is Im trying to say, then decide on how best to express that word. What medium, size, how major or minor the theme is, what the underlying reason for the theme is - all that comes into play. I do a lot of thumbnails in the notebooks, do some research on the theme online, really think and gestate on it before I ever start physically making the work. Once I actually begin, the work comes quickly. I refer to my notebooks, but I am not dependent on them, nor do I follow the thumbnails exactly. I allow for accidents and surprises. There was one series I did based on photographs I had taken and I tried to faithfully recreate the images in paint. What a torturous experience! In the last painting, I put the references away and just painted. It was my favorite piece from the series, and the most successful. I learned a lot from that series, and no longer work directly from references, even if they are photos I took myself. One of the things I learned about myself is that the visual is just a carrier for the theme, not the theme itself. So I am not interested in producing a pretty image if the theme is not about pretty beauty. And it almost never is. I like decay, the story it tells, and the beauty to be found in that story.

I have worked mostly in series, although lately that is changing. Each series is individual and finite and has an arc - a beginning, middle and an end. I kind of get the sense when a series has run its course. I find that I am no longer interested in saying anything else about the subject, and to do more is repetitive and forced. I determine that the individual pieces are finished when I think that anything more added to them is just gratuitous decoration.



Tell us about the Transformations series.
Transformations grew out of the Clootie series. For years I had been creating work to be shown together as a piece, often for a specific venue or exhibition, and I wanted to investigate what it would be like to do work that was more open ended. The works are loosely connected in that they are all about change and transformation, but not a series in the strictest sense. Usually once I finished a series and it had been exhibited, I moved on to an entirely new train of thought. I wanted to see what would happen if I continued on, created an entirely new body of work with definite references to a previous series. Transformations relates to Clootie in that it is also about change, and draws from the motifs of Clootie, but I wanted the feeling of the pieces to be lighter, less serious and more playful.



Please tell us about "Nexus."
Nexus is about the connection of past to present. It followed the Clootie series and I was thinking a lot about my personal history, my family, and how that related to my work. I had also been thinking quite a bit about the connection between the various series of my work and the various media. I was looking to find some commonality between the three dimensional pieces and the two dimensional. I hadn’t done a print series in a while, and thought this was a good place to start. I often focus on a shape or motif in my work, and Nexus has that quality. I realized that this one particular image was repeated in several two dimensional works, and the shape mirrored in some of the three dimensional forms. The Nexus series had a good deal of self examination, and probably more thinking than making - Nexus turned out to only be a small series of prints and a couple of small encaustic paintings. For me, it served the purpose of acknowledging my past and moving ahead.



Let's delve into the Clootie series.
On a personal level, Clootie is most meaningful series I have done. It is the first series that was not based on some perceptual observation. It was totally internal, and very autobiographical. I was going through a lot of changes in my life at the time, my husband had bypass surgery and was deemed disabled and forced to retire early, my father was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and I had (intentionally) lost a good deal of weight. This all in the same year; there were good times and bad times. I made a series of paintings in which I embedded my “fat clothes” in wax, burying them and transforming them into something lovely.

I also wanted to create something that was more of an interactive, shared experience. My friend has a home in Ireland, and that is where I first came across a clootie well. Visitors to this sacred well would bring a shred of cloth, dip it into the well, and tie it on a nearby tree: the idea was that their troubles would leave as their cloth disintegrated. This idea resonated with me, it seemed the perfect way to express all that was going on at the time. The clootie well was sad yet hopeful, and I found it very moving. It summed up for me exactly what I was going through - worries and sorrows, mixed in with celebration and hopefulness. Normally I am a very private person, but this time I wanted to do a piece that was totally exposed, totally open. And I wanted others to share in this experience with me so I created an interactive installation I called Clootie. The installation has been exhibited several times now, and changed a bit with each showing.

The original installation took place in a small room in Beacon Artist Union. I constructed a womb like structure of deer fencing and hundreds of rags tied onto the mesh. The rags were mainly used clothing and linens that were dipped in indigo. The viewer was to write their wish on a rag, and enter the chamber in order to make a wish. I left no instructions other than write your wish on a rag and tie it on, but an interesting thing happened. The viewers created their own parameters for the experience. For example, they dutifully formed a line, and entered the room one at a time. If a couple went in together, they turned their backs as their partner placed their rags, giving them privacy, and a few people sat inside the chamber for long periods of time when the gallery was not busy.

The next showing of the installation was in a more conventional setting so I opened up the chamber to create a long wall. Doing this made it a less precious space, but also made the piece more open and hopeful, and more community oriented. Instead of hiding their wishes, people now willingly shared them, and showed them off to total strangers. What began as a very private, almost sacred experience has morphed into a celebratory sharing experience, and I am thoroughly delighted with the way the piece has evolved and continues to grow.



What do you hope your audience brings to an experience of your work, and what do you hope they take away with them?
I believe art is about communication. I am simply trying to be heard. I don’t need to be understood - they don’t need to “get it”. I want the audience to feel something, to respond in some way. It doesn’t matter if their response is positive or negative, so long as they are engaged by the work. A work is successful for me If I provoke that response.



Please ask yourself a question that feel intensely relevant to your practice right now, and then please answer it.

What’s next?

Family is very important to me, and in the past five years, there have been some major life changes. After my father’s death and my husband’s illness, I decided that it was all getting to be too much and that I needed to take a break. I put myself on what I called a “self-imposed sabbatical”, disassociated myself from the local galleries, and the other ones I was connected to either closed or are closing. I thought this was the perfect time to reflect and recharge. My plan was to take a year off, and have a fresh start. It took me a year to finish up prior commitments, and then my mother became ill. My parents deaths hit me hard, a loss not only of the people, but of identity. I am no longer anyone’s daughter. One year became two and a half.

Now that the dust has settled, I am ready to get back to work. The notebooks have started filling up again, and I think it’s time. For a few years now, I have been at a crossroad. After Clootie, the focus of my work changed from external to internal. The use of rags and old clothes has now become a good part of my practice. I’m less inclined to bury the layers deep into the piece, more willing to be exposed. Working on Transformations allowed me to remember what it was like to go into the studio without a preset plan and just get to work. I had gotten lost in the grind of producing work for shows. The last two years have given me the opportunity to pick my head up and look around a bit. Not having deadlines and obligations to make a specific volume of work for a specific place by a specific time is both liberating and frightening. I’m trying to work beyond the limits of the series and simply make, and excited to see what comes of it.

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See more of Lisa's work at lisazukowski.com.