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Clara Lieu, Visual Artist

My first encounter with Clara Lieu's work was in the fall of 2010 at the Wellesley College faculty exibition at the Davis Museum. I was mesmerized. The drawings on layered Dura-Lar were exquisitely executed. But, I wondered, who are these strange, disconnected figures wading in the mist? To find out more, I saw down with Clara, who is the director of the Jewett Art Gallery, the teaching gallery of the art department at Wellesley College; and program coordinator of the Applied Arts program. She told me the story behind her fascinating work.

LOIS TARLOW: Tell me about your background.

CLARA LIEU: My parents were immigrants from Taiwan. I was born in Boston, grew up in Newton, and went to school there. Then I attended RISD for undergraduate work in illustration. After taking four years off, I went for a master's degree in sculpture at the New York Academy of Fine Art.

I understand that you curate the gallery here at Jewett?

I wear a lot of different hats. As a visiting lecturer, I teach courses in design and drawing, direct the gallery, and run a workshop series for the applied arts program. And I'm teaching part-time at RISD.

And you have two children. When do you work?

It's challenging to get continuous, uninterrupted work time. I make the best of it and work during vacations, and I have the summers off.

Your imagery suggests deep, internal struggles. If you are willing, please share how you came to this subject.

I have two projects I could discuss. The first one is Wading, the one you saw at the Davis Museum is about the feeling of being isolated in a crowd. My new project, which I started about a year ago, is called Falling.

Those projects originated for different reasons. As for Wading, I've always been interested in relationships between groups and individuals, why we group the way we do. For example, any time I'm at a social gathering where people are collecting, I find myself analyzing the actions between people, looking at how people are moving from group to group, who's where, who's over there. It's a feeling I've had since I was really young, I remember being six years old and noticing stuff like this. Those three people are clustering; that person is alone. I really don't much like grouping with people. I'm on my own a lot of the time. So when I'm in a crowd, I look to see who else is standing alone.

I understand that, and can relate to it. Maybe that's why the work affected me.

I think a lot of people equate loneliness with being by themselves, but [alone] is the most comfortable place I can possibly be. Nobody is observing me. That's very satisfying. Put me in a group with other people, and my anxiety level goes up. It becomes a place where you're being seen; you're being judged. I've spent a lot of time thinking about that-probably more than is healthy.

It's certainly not an uncommon feeling.

It started with my personal experience; but in the end, it was an intellectual take on the perception of loneliness. I never put myself into the work. The new project is really different; Falling is the most personal subject matter I've ever come up with. So, it's the most frightening. It's hard to say it's about me.

I admire that you deal with it directly and not metaphorically. That takes strength.

That project is about my personal experience with depression. I've lived with it since I was a young child, starting when I was ten. I didn't even know I had it. I figured it was just the way life was, and I would have to put up with it. When I was diagnosed with it last year, it was the shock of seeing myself clearly for the first time. Since I've been treated, I've been able to separate myself from the disease. Falling is about that experience, about being out of control emotionally, physically, and learning how to separate myself from the disease.

Do you ever regret sharing such personal experiences with the world?

No, once I made the decision to make that work, I had to accept that it would be part of the project. Before I started the project, I was really worried and thought, am I really going to do this? I decided in the end that I really had to do this. It was part of the project. Falling is a metaphorical gesture. One day everything is fine. Then suddenly you're falling and falling and it never really ends. I'm not doing drawings of figures that are really falling, but it's the idea of falling.

It's amazing that with your insight into depression you have the fortitude to do these anguished figures.

Since I've been treated, the depression starts to feel like a distant memory. That distance makes it possible for me to really explore that content. During one of my slide lectures, a student asked me, "Why don't you act things out?" I couldn't do that. It was just too close. So I've been working with a woman who is a fine actress and artist's model. I describe the depression, and she physically interprets it. It starts with a little shaking, and then it intensifies until the body reaches its physical limits, and everything is really out of control. Finally, the body exhausts what it's able to do, and it collapses. I'm using the actress's interpretations as resource material for the drawings. She has been very important to me. I am able to step outside of myself, and watch her go through what I went through. I had her do the whole film shoot nude. It took about two hours. As hard as it was to watch her, it was exactly what I needed for the project. She's able to look fragile and vulnerable, but also intimidating and powerful. This project is a lot about that feeling of being so vulnerable, but also about the insatiable need to express it.

In addition to the video, did you photograph her?

As I was shooting video of her going through the cycle a number of times, I also shot photographic film. Then I drew all the poses from the film shoot. Next I did a photo shoot of those drawn poses. So it went back and forth, eventually getting translated into a drawing.

The ink drawings on Dura-Lar are so bold and assured. Tell me about your process.

Dura-Lar is a really thick plastic. First, I sand the surface wiht very coarse sandpaper to make it a little translucent and not so shiny. Then I smear on etching ink with my fingers. So the first part of this process is just me moving the ink around the surface. I let the ink dry. Then I will use lithographic crayon in some of those areas. Next, I will crosshatch into the etching ink with an X-Acto knife. The part with the etching ink is very gestural and free form. With the crosshatching, I can tighten it up and be specific and detailed. It's a nice balance between the two techniques.

In the past, have you painted on canvas or used color?

When I was an undergrad at RISD, I was totally convinced that I was a painter. I spent a lot of time studying color. Then a few years after I left RISD, I realized the paintings weren't working and I just didn't want to do it any more. When I dropped color, it was the best day of my life. I was relieved from making something out of obligation, not because I really wanted to do it. There's something about the limitation of black and white that lets me feel that I can run with it.

My whole philosophy is that everything leads to drawing. Most people think that's what you do to ge ready for something that's bigger and better. I reverse it, because I use a lot of techniques that are seen as finished products, but I use them to make drawings. My monoprints and intaglio prints are preps for the drawings. Especially I've always made sculptures in order to make drawings. The sculptures are not very precise or accurate or detailed, but they serve a specific purpose.

In your work, the medium and the image are mutually enhancing and suggest losing control.

I feel that I'm doing work that nobody wants to see. But I hope the work talks about what people don't talk about-what people are afraid to say. My work has never been about showing that everything's okay.

Lois Tarlow
Sept./Oct. 2011 Art New England