Sunday, July 5, 2009

6 + 1 Interview: Lisa Kaser

He Was a Bona Fide Fan - © Lisa Kaser

Artist Lisa Kaser (click on her name for her marvelous website) tells us about herself:

I was and am a fortunate person I think, and not entirely because I grew up in Oregon. My folks are of a creative disposition and introduced me to museums and imaginative people and an ample supply of paper as part of my upbringing. Constantly conjuring ideas that I had to find ways of realizing was just the way I operated. Sometimes I feel that I could have gone in many different directions and been completely happy--a cook, a farmer, a dancer, a filmmaker, an animal care-giver, a writer, a nurse, an architect but something early on steered me in the direction of the visual arts and I have been happily creating what I do for twenty-five years.

Lobster & Canary 1. You enter the forest by way of a gate (rumored to be made by goblins), and after an hour or so, you come upon the meadow in the midst of those woods. You stop and lay out a picnic, bringing forth jam and cheese, kippers and freshly baked bread from your rucksack. Then you wait for your guests to join you for lunch. Who are they, how do you know them, what do you talk about?

Tuesdays Were Reserved for Sharing Recipes -© Lisa Kaser

Lisa: What an inspired setting! I would love to be joined by my favorite architecht, Terunobu Fujimori, my maternal grandmother, Ottilie Louise Joedeke, musician, Patti Smith, author and illustrator of The Magic Pudding, Norman Lindsay, sculptor, Theo Jansen, my mother as a child, creative, Maira Kalman and if one isn't already present in this lovely imagined landscape, a 2000 year old cedar tree.

Hearing everyone tell a favorite funny story would be a nice way to start, then I would just settle in to listening to what everyone is up to, what caught their eye recently, what do they like to cook or eat, what fires their imagination, an incident they will never forget, just sitting all together, touching knees, grass between our fingers, grazing shoulders, seeing who hums first...

L & C 2. Your style is so completely your own, your figures so immediately recognizable as part of your world, that I can only compare you in your uniqueness to, say, Sempe or Tove Jansson. When did the signature elongated noses and ears, for example, first enter your graphic vocabulary?

Lisa: My early saved drawings show large round heads, large oblong noses and two teeth emerging from under the nose with a wisp of hair on a great bald crown! The ears came later. I also started tucking the arms behind because I felt I couldn't draw hands, but that stance is something I still love--it is such a thoughtful pose-though now I love to draw hands too. So, this is how I drew from around the age of four on and always characters. I never delved into realistic renderings, and when I did, they were not very interesting or good. Okay, I do draw houses and house plans. This is an obsession I have had all my life and I do straghforward renderings of these, but houses are the exception! My father is a cartoonist, so I'm sure I was influenced by all his drawings and he had an Herb Gardner, Nebbish in his studio which I openly coveted. I have very distinct memories of drawing that big circle for the head, then I would join the body-nobody got a neck-and it is basically how I assemble my characters today.

Filbert's Toothbrush and Myron's Maiden Flight - © Lisa Kaser

L & C 3. Tell us about your first children's book, published in 2008? How did working on an entire book differ from doing an individual painting or print?

Lisa: It was a bittersweet experience. It was so exciting to be finally working on a legitimate book project and "The Three Little Pigs" was a great story to be asked to do. Sadly, I reined in my style and took a more conservative approach. Drawing for an intentional audience felt very different or so I thought it was different. All of a sudden I was thinking about these little seven year old Korean children, trying to learn English and being introduced to this tale told through my pictures and it made me a little nervous! That is one huge difference about drawing for myself, it is pure fun, and doesn't hold an ounce of anxiety or doubt as I never worry about what people might think. So, kind of a night and day experience of creating illustrations. At least I will know next time that I will only feel good in the end if I keep it strange and true to what I like.

L & C 4. You work in several media: painting, prints, textiles, sculptures. What is the same, what different, as you move from one medium to another?

Lisa: All my work in college was abstract or color driven compositions, and I still maintain some of that in my felts and fabric constructions,especially the importance of color, though more and more of my emphasis is devoted to narrative driven ideas with characters as the focal point. I am also a tactile freak, I think that is why so much of what I work in is textural and why I am so attracted to felt, even the collaged drawings have a certain depth that releases it from a traditional two-dimensional format.

L & C 5. You make your own prints, using archival ink and paper. Talk to us about the artisanal aspect of what you create.

Lisa: One aspect that is consistent between mediums is that I am emphatic about the process being evident and that simple constructive means are applied. I like the cut edges of the collaged pieces to be apparent as well as some of the initial drawing and pencil work left in my illustrations. My textile pieces are handsewn because I like the mark that handstitching produces and I love the physical act of sewing-needle, thread and cloth- so simple but it can exemplify the the most subtle of nuances. This applies to my sculptural work too. The armatures are made from steel bristles I collect on my walks that the street sweepers leave behind--these I bend and form with pliers and an anvil and secure with waxed linen thread. From there, I carve, stitch or fabricate the rest, finishing with layers of beeswax which supports and enhances the materials I use. Quality workmanship and thoughtful design are what I strive for--this makes for an aesthestically successful piece.

Her Heart Remained True to Pig - © Lisa Kaser

L & C 6. I love the way you conjure an entire story with a single image and your brilliantly conceived titles: "Mouse Offers Advice as Fish Adapts," "The Passion in Her Ganache was Unprecedented," "Tuesdays were Reserved for Sharing Recipes," "Grandpa's Teeth Gave Madeline the Confidence She Needed," and so on. Your juxtaposition of image and text reminds me of the European Renaissance emblem books and 18th-century collections of aphorisms. Which comes first for you: the image or the text?

Lisa: Usually the image. The characters come together, then how they are relating to one another or how a character just relates in the space, and I keep it pretty simple. I use minimal props. From there an idea will arise, something that will jell the whole together. The thing is, there is never a hard rule. I'll hear somebody say something, or read a great passage, come across a strange word or in conversation come up with an idea I like and then the words conjure the image. So a whole different intention occurs, but the end result is the same.

Lisa asks Lobster & Canary a question:

Okay! I am fascinated by your affinity towards the fantastical. When did you develop or recognize that an other-worldly realm would occupy your imagination? When did it become significant for you and how so?

Lobster & Canary: I have always, from my beginning I think, been entranced with the other-worldly. One of my very earliest memories-- I may have been four years old, possibly five or so-- is of poring over the picture-books of Norse and Greek myths by the D'Aulaires, in the middle of the night (I was one of those kids who read until all hours), lost in the reality I found on those pages. (I am delighted that the New York Review of Books classics series has brought the D'Aulaire books back into print.) From that same time comes also the memory of reading Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are. My father is a great storyteller, and used to make up all sorts of wonderful tales. My mother shared-- and continues to share-- a deep love of fairytales and folklore. So, I am one of the proverbial acorns that falls close to the tree!

That tells you "when" and "what," but nothing about "why." The attraction for me has to do with the search for what Gerald Manley Hopkins called "the inscape," the unique, authentic spirit within each thing. Susan Sontag, from another angle of approach, argued for a similar search, when she talked in "Against Interpretation" about a need to re-capture the magical, incantatory experience of art. Paul Klee knew about this, so too I believe the Mughal painters of miniatures, the West African sculptors in bronze, Mozart, Miles Davis, the Dutch still-life painters...

For me the point is reuniting with a prelapsarian state that is paradoxically forever aspirational. A place where metamorphosis is natural, hybridization the norm, and everyone (including the birds and beasts!) speaks the same tongue. A place where my "I" can ultimately rest knowing that the story will continue. A.S. Byatt discusses this theme in her superb essay, "Old Tales, New Forms," in which she highlights the evergreen power of myth and fairytale, noting its influence on the work of Rushdie, Blixen, Calvino, Bufalino, Nooteboom, Carter, Sebald and others.

Byatt puts matters so well that I can not do better than quote her to conclude my response to your question, Lisa:

"Children read stories as though they themselves are infinite and immortal. The old read tales knowing that they themselves are finite, that the tales will outlive them."

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