Clara Lieu is a visual artist and professor. She teaches in the Division of Foundation Studies at the Rhode Island School of Design. In the past she has taught at Wellesley College, the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, the Art Institute of Boston at Lesley University, and in the Illustration Department and Printmaking Department at RISD. Her studio practice explores themes of social isolation and mental illness with an interdisciplinary approach which involves drawing, printmaking, and sculpture. Read below for the full interview…
The stigma of mental illness is challenging as taboo even in the art world. Why are many so afraid to delve into the topic?
Clara: The emotions associated with mental illness are ugly, severe, and brutal. Socially, we are taught and trained to act happy and content despite how contrary that might be to what we are actually feeling. Like many others with depression and anxiety, I’ve spent nearly my entire life struggling to conceal my feelings because I knew there would be social consequences if I divulged my secret. When the idea for “Falling” started to germinate, I was faced with the difficult decision about whether I was going to make the artwork and in doing so, publicly reveal my depression and anxiety. Once I “came out”, I had the realization that the artwork could provide an important platform which enabled me to speak openly and open a dialogue about mental illness.
How has your Asian heritage influenced your work if at all?
Clara: Probably the most influential part of my experience as an Asian American was the intense feelings of isolation I felt growing up. As a young child, I felt that I was neither Asian nor American and that I didn’t belong anywhere. The loneliness and emotional distance I felt only became more palpable and searing as I grew older. This internal obsession I developed with isolation was later translated into my projects “Waiting” and “Wading”.
Upon viewing your finished prints, what are your thoughts now? Is it triggering, or can you genuflect in peace once the subject was finished for this project?
Clara: To be honest, most of what I do when I look at past work is pick at what I could have done better. I fixate on what I consider to be flaws in the work. For me, an integral part of being an artist is constantly raising your personal standards with every work you create. Unfortunately, this can frequently transform into a constant state of dissatisfaction, so rather than wallow in my own mistakes, I’ve become acutely aware of when it’s time to move on.
What fascinates you about Printmaking and why choose etching?
Clara: Printmaking intrigues me because it’s largely seen as a two-dimensional medium, and yet it’s highly sculptural at the same time. There’s something about the strength and power of the acid in etching that is incredibly captivating. The endless range of opportunities to innovate in the etching process is irresistible for me. As someone who is obsessed with black, there is no greater, deeper black than the blacks which physically impress themselves in the surface of the paper.
Can you please discuss your technique a bit? We jock technique hardcore on this site and a few of us are printmakers and art appreciators ourselves.
Clara: For the 50 drawings from “Falling”, I knew going into the project that I wanted to create bold, gigantic images that were simultaneously gestural and tightly controlled. My previous works were never able to possess both qualities in the same piece, so I was curious as to whether this could be achieved. I was initially doing a lot of sketches with lithographic rubbing ink, which worked for the sketches, but was too greasy to be the final product. I needed to find a medium that behaved the same way, but was more permanent long term. I eventually settled on etching ink, which possessed the same tacky, luscious black but was able to fully dry. With my fingers, I worked and pushed the etching ink in a bold, gestural manner on the surface of a sheet of hand sanded Dura-Lar, a sheet of plastic similar to acetate. After the etching ink dried, I scratched back into the etching ink with an exacto knife to create tightly controlled cross-hatched marks. Passages of lithographic crayon were also added to help clarify and define the form.
50 Drawings, 50 Prints, 50 Paintings – what is the significance of 50?
Clara: I teach at the Rhode Island School of Design, and there’s a drawing assignment given by two of the professors there to do a series of fifty drawings as the final project in Freshman Drawing. All of my previous projects tended to be 10 to 20 pieces at a time, and so I liked the idea of trying to tackle a challenge that seemed so monumental. I questioned whether I truly had the endurance and stamina to sustain and conquer such an immense task, and part of me was intimidated by the scope of the project. I knew that my initial fear of the assignment was a clear sign that I was headed in the right direction.
So many of these are listed as self-portrait yet clearly they are not you. Can you explain the anachronistic representation?
Clara: I wanted to throw out the traditional idea of a self-portrait, which largely defines a portrait as a representation of one’s physical appearance. To be able to make the artwork, I also needed to get some distance from the subject matter to get outside of my own head. This was critical, as being too deeply immersed in my own emotions would have made it impossible for me to attain the discipline and focus to make the artwork. To do this, I collaborated with an actress who I asked to act out her physical interpretation of the disease. In essence, I became an observer rather than the subject which made it possible for me to draw “myself”.
The drawings and prints in Falling and Sinking are so painfully visceral at times. Makes one wonder are they easy portraits to live with or do you maintain them at the gallery and in exhibition only?
Clara: I’ve been living and breathing these images for the past two years. Although they only maintain their physical appearance in galleries and exhibitions, the images are always with me to the point that they feel “normal” to me. I frequently forget that for many people, the images can be too intense and difficult to look at.
What advice would you give for a printmaker interested in pursuing a graduate level study?
Clara: To always maintain a healthy balance and relationship between content and technique in their work. Often I see printmakers who are so caught up in the technical execution of their prints that their attention to their subject matter suffers. The other advice I would give would be to choose your school based on the professors who teach there. It’s the people, not the facilities or reputation of the school that will truly define your experience at the graduate level.
What are you working on for you next project?
Clara: I’m working on the second stage of “Falling” which is a series of fifty self-portrait sculptures. I had a really rough start to this part of the project, marked by months of failed experiments with frustration. Now that I’ve finally developed a sense of focus, I’m exploring completely new, uncharted territory with photography and digital media. I’ve been sculpting reliefs of faces in ceramic clay, which are then cast in beeswax. The beeswax casts are then dramatically lit, photographed, and digitally manipulated to create a final digital image. I haven’t yet determined what the ultimate physical format for these digital images will be, but I’m excited and look forward to further investigation of the possibilities.
Want to know more about Clara’s work? Follow her cookie crumb trail below: