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Clara Lieu, Visual Artist

When I visit your site, and particularly your blog, I get very inspired by your methods of working… how you continually push your images and chronicle both your successes and failed attempts. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems a lot of artists put up a stoical front that they are always in control. Do you get this sense, or do you think artists are generally open about the moments where everything seems to conspire against them?

In general the majority of artists don’t communicate the various trials that the creative process puts them through.  Let’s face it: it’s not glamorous most of the time to talk about what happens behind the scenes, which can frequently be a tedious and frustrating process. I would estimate that out of all the work I do, only about 50% of it is actually worth looking at, and only about 10% of that is really strong work; that makes for a lot of failed attempts.

A question related to my last one: You are very generous in terms of sharing your sources of inspiration and your works in progress. Why do you feel you are so vocal with this, as opposed to keeping your methods and references more secretive?

I’m open about my process because I’m also a professor.  For me both roles are closely intertwined, and so I view any creative experience that I have as being pertinent to my current and past students. The fact that it’s me, someone they know in person (as opposed to studying a historical artist from a book) is important because it makes the creative process real in today’s context. 

Another reason I carefully document my process is the fact that my blog is a structure that keeps me on focused and on track. When I have to verbalize my process in a blog post, it forces me to clarify and reflect upon exactly what I’m doing; it’s a method of self-analysis that  I find to be essential to what I do.

I really enjoy the ambiguity of your figures. They are quite impersonal (particularly in your Wading, Waiting, and Digging series), yet through this impersonality I feel that the viewer can almost step into them more readily than if they were specific studies of individuals. It’s an interesting paradox. Do you think people have a difficult time confronting specific personalities, and that these more removed studies are more approachable because of their less confrontational vagueness?

I don’t think it’s that specific personalities are inherently harder for people to process or accept, it’s just a different experience than when you interact with a more anonymous or ambiguous one.  It could also be argued that figures that are impersonal can be too removed from our experience and don’t create enough of a relationship with the viewer the way that a specific personality can. In “Wading”, my goal was always to convey the experience of anonymous individuals in the context of groups. The ambiguity in the figures for me has always been about creating a sense of mystery and intrigue so that I could approach these broader themes on social isolation.

Something that also inspires me about your blog is when you share your unusual choice of materials and experimental methods with which you sometimes work. I think it is difficult for an artist to branch out of what they deem their comfort zone because they are afraid of the unexpected results. You seem to thrive on this. Has it always been this way for you, or is it experimenting something you’ve gradually let happen in your process?

Experimentation has always been essential to my work process. I never know in advance what materials are going to be right for any given project.  Generally each project demands that I spend many months researching and experimenting with a range of materials and surfaces to figure out what is going to best articulate the topic of the project. This creates a situation that is very unpredictable and full of surprises- exactly what I get excited about. Fear is always a part of this process; in fact, fear is usually the first signal that I’m headed in the right direction. 

I was surprised to discover that in addition to your fantastic visual art, you are also a musician. Did music come before visual art, or vice versa? Also, how do you think that these two arts inform one another in your work?

I was trained as a classical musician at a young age, starting with piano when I was six, and starting the oboe when I was nine years old.  Even early on I always knew first and foremost that I was going to be an artist.  I could have easily gone to music school, but that option never really entered my head because I was so certain about being in the visual arts. There are many correlations between these two areas, but the one that I keep coming back to is the immense self-discipline and focus required for both. They say that to play principal oboe in an orchestra you have to have “nerves of steel”; I think it’s the same in the visual arts, it’s just played out differently.

What have been some of your greatest moments in your career as a visual artist/teacher?

One of the most important experiences I’ve had was a few key people who believed in me early on in my career.  When you get out of grad school, and you’re just starting out, it’s so hard to break into the field, especially in terms of getting a teaching position.  Michael David, who is chair of the Fine Arts Department at the Art Institute of Boston at Lesley University was the first person who wanted to give me a college teaching job.  I met him by chance at a portfolio event at the Southern Graphics Conference.  He immediately embraced the work I was doing and asked me to send him my materials; within a year, I had my first job teaching at an undergraduate program. The other person who has been critical to my development is Andrew Raftery, who teaches in Printmaking at RISD. Andrew taught a drawing class when I was a sophomore in the Painting department at RISD. For over sixteen years he’s stood by me through every event, failure, advancement, and development in my artistic career. We all need people like this in our lives to keep us going.

As a teacher, there are too many moments to count, but one experience that continually surfaces is my experience reading my students’ midterm and final self-critiques.  Every semester I give students a form to fill out that asks specific questions about their process and development so that they can reflect upon their experience during the semester.  I’ve had students write some of the most wonderful, funny, heartfelt, amazing things to me on these self-critique forms.  They write things that would be hard or embarrassing to say in person but that come across beautifully when written.  

Do you feel that teaching art has helped to inform or enrich your own art?

Absolutely.  Overall, it’s incredibly stimulating to be a part of such an active, creative environment and dialogue. Teaching is an organic process which is just as unpredictable and thrilling as the artistic process; you have to be highly alert, on your toes all the time, ready for anything at any given moment. A more specific example would be my choice to work with lithographic crayons in an extensive manner. My students in my drawing class at RISD begin the semester by drawing with lithographic crayons.  The material looked like so much fun when they were doing it that I thought that I had to do it myself.  

One thing I feel guilty about as an artist is when I’ve hit a brick wall in one of my paintings or prints and destroyed them. I used to take a Stanley knife and cut things up that weren’t working, or cut Zinc plates in half if they felt irretrievable. Looking back, it seems like such a waste because now I almost always find ways around issues no matter how hopeless the piece may have seemed. At this stage in your career, do you ever destroy things, or do you find that you can always salvage a project you’ve already put many hours into?

I get rid of artwork all the time now.  I’ve never felt a need to take a knife to anything, but I’ve certainly made good use of the recycle bin on a regular basis. When I was a student, I used to be very precious about what I kept.  After many years that’s become enormously impractical with everything that I’ve accumulated.  Now I have to accept once I’ve made something that I’ve learned from that experience, and that it’s time to move on. I tend to have a very short attention span in terms of trying to salvage a project.  Generally speaking, it would be rare for me to invest many hours into a project and not have things work out; my preliminary process doing sketches and studies is so extensive and rigorous that I’m usually more than well prepared when I start working on the final piece.

Any favorite books, or a good one you’re reading now?

I recently read a book called “Loneliness” by John T. Cacioppo and William Patrick which helped me a lot thinking about loneliness and social isolation for the “Wading” series.

Which contemporary visual artists are you most excited about right now?

I continually turn to Sarah Sze and William Kentridge for inspiration. They are both incredibly innovative in terms of their ideas behind the work and their interaction with their materials and media. The complexity and richness of their approach to their subject matter continually surprises and inspires me.

I’m a big fan of quotes. Even taken out of context, the beauty of words never fails to move me and often inspires images. Do you have a favorite quote?

It’s not very romantic, but I like this quote a lot: “Don’t complain, work harder.” From Randy Pausch, the Carnegie Mellon professor famous for his “Last Lecture” video.  I definitely recommend watching this lecture; (which you can find on Youtube) it’s very genuine, smart, funny, and intelligent and pertinent to all fields.

Where are you from?  Can you tell my readers a little bit about your roots and why you chose the path in the arts that you have?

I’m from Boston, Massachusetts.  My parents were immigrants from Taiwan and I was born here in the US. As a first generation Asian American, the decision to be an artist was a highly unusual one, in a culture that generally sees being a doctor or lawyer as viable professions. I burned into my brain the need to pursue visual arts at a very early age.  It’s silly, but I remember feeling competitive about my drawing skills when I was in the first grade.  I constantly pestered the other kids about wanting to have an “art contest” because I wanted to show off my drawing skills.  

The experience that really solidified my path early on was attending the RISD Pre-College program the summer of my junior year in high school.  The program only lasted six weeks, but that experience had a profound effect on my decision to move forward with visual art in a serious way.  High school was a dreadful experience, and I was angry and miserable. The Pre-College program was the first time when I felt that I had teachers that understood me, who valued what I wanted to create, and what I had to say about it. That experience opened a lot of doors for me and ultimately led me to where I am now.

March 30, 2011
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