For over thirty years India has held a strong attraction for Stein. [As an undergraduate at UC Berkeley, she completed a degree in Indian History.] “I always feel more alive there,” she told me.
We talked at Stein’s Oakland studio surrounded by her recent work, large canvases and prints inspired by her most recent visit—her fourth—to India earlier this year, where she spent three weeks as a visiting artist at M.S. University in Baroda, Gujarat.
I’m interested in your Gandhi series. What attracted you to do these?
Well, it’s part of my longer story with India. When I was an Indian History student at UC Berkeley, I read Gandhi’s autobiography Story of My Experiments with Truth and was very taken with it. This was around 1970 during the Vietnam War and everything else. Gandhi just seemed so fascinating to me. He
wasn’t trying to be a God. He was really a seeker. He had a lot of imperfections, and that was appealing, too. One of the things that he had was this lesson of humility. He didn’t come from an untouchable family, obviously, but he would clean toilets. He tried, in many ways, to lessen the caste
RW: He was totally against it, wasn’t he?
LS: Yes. Totally against it. And against
suttee, which is where the widow throws herself into the funeral pyre. He wanted to abolish the caste system, as well as get rid of the British. He did a number of things in the non-violent, passive resistance movement, but one of the things was to teach people to spin their own cloth, the kadi. There’s still a lot of kadi, beautiful cotton that’s made in India. He wore it, and people started wearing it. They stopped looking like British puppets.
Apropos of Gandhi, I had this landlord when I was a student at UC Berkeley. She would be out on Dwight Way in a mink coat cleaning up dog doo. I thought, “Wow!” You know, I was twenty years old, and first of all, nobody was wearing fur coats, but that was beside the point. I could see that she had a lot of dignity, but she would do what was necessary.
I’ve lived on Shattuck Avenue off and on for the last thirty years, and when I first got here I’d be out front cleaning up all sorts of trash. I’d be a magnet for people staring at me. Everyone who drove by seemed to wonder why is this woman cleaning up trash? I always thought of Gandhi. If Gandhi could clean toilets, I could easily pick up a few pieces of trash on Shattuck Avenue. It’s this lesson—if you have dignity, then you can do almost anything. Other people deserve dignity too, and being treated with respect. This all goes hand in hand.
So anyway, when we were in India this time we visited his ashram in Amenabad. It was a very peaceful, lowkey kind of place, a sacred place. It’s still in use. There was a meeting of people who have invented really light wheel chairs, like from those patio chairs. There’s a movement in India to give disabled people, who can’t afford regular wheel chairs, this type of wheel chair. So there was a rally there on the grounds of the ashram. There were all sorts of speakers and music. Then there is a library, which houses a lot of old photos, and a bookstore. I spent some time there and did the tourist thing. I bought some postcards, a new copy of Gandhi’s autobiography and also an abbreviated version, a synopsis, that has a lot of quotations.
There was a tremendous amount of interpretive, scholarly literature there on Gandhi, too. So when I got to my fellowship at Baroda, I was in the studio they had set up for me and I just started looking through the imagery that I’d accumulated the first couple of weeks I’d been in India before getting to Baroda. It just seemed really natural to take out one of the postcards and make a drawing of Gandhi. I thought, “Oh, this is just really satisfying.”
That’s how it all started. I found I would have different thoughts every time I would approach the subject. Every time you sit down to work there is something different that comes about.
RW: Could you say more about that?
LS: When I was working there, I was doing large pieces in charcoal. I thought that they were interesting and I brought them home where I worked on them a little further. I found myself wishing the world could have another Gandhi, or that the world could be more of a place that was receptive to Gandhi.
I’m sure that that was part of it, because I’ve been feeling so desolate since the Bush years have eroded our lives so much. He’s taken us down such a bad road. So that was an aspect, wishing there was another Gandhi.
Then, while working at Dominican teaching monotype, I’d often stay a little later after my students left and do some work there. It’s a beautiful environment to work in and my stuff is already set up. With my Gandhi monotypes, I felt like I was pulling the image out of the ink, which is kind of a subtractive way of working with monotype. It’s kind of a painterly way, a way that doesn’t require a bunch of different colors, or a lot of bells and whistles.
I’ve been printing for so long that the bells and whistles no longer interest me. I mean, every once and a while I get an over-cooked piece that feels really decorative and yet, for the most part, I have been working at simplifying my thoughts so that I don’t have to get into all the wasted, messy areas of my mind. If I go too far that way, I try to reel it back in and hone it a little to try to get at the essence of what it is.
When you’re doing that kind of print making and you just roll a bunch of ink out, then start pulling it away with a cloth or a tarleton and looking at a picture of something with its lights and its darks and trying to extract something, it’s like pulling out the life, pulling out the meaning, the same way a sculptor does it in three-dimensional form. The little monotype pieces that are extremely limited in the colors I used, or any technical stuff, are very satisfying. There’s an intimacy in the smaller prints that isn’t there in a large charcoal drawing. I find it’s still a way of pulling some meaning or life into the figure. If you succeed at that, you’re succeeding at giving your own life something, obviously.
I mean most artists aren’t exactly altruists. They do the work because they need to, and they love it. They can’t do it any other way. So it’s compelling. The Gandhi image has been very compelling. Some of it becomes Gandhi the person, and some of it is symbolic. Some of it is just Livia trying to make sense of the world, I think.
RW: It’s interesting about how artists are often compelled to take this time and how it’s not necessarily altruistic, as you say. That has to be true. But I wonder if there’s not something valuable for others in this situation where the artist is compelled to search for this thing the artist wants or needs?
LS: Oh, yes. There’s a common link. Obviously it’s given me great satisfaction that the Gandhi image has resonated with a number of people. Yes, because we’re all suffering right now. Everyone I know is psychically and spiritually struggling right now with how wrong the world is. I don’t know a person in the Bay Area I can even barely have a conversation with where it doesn’t come back to that. It’s something, what we’ve been going through in the last four years. One can hope that one will have belief again, that things will improve.
RW: With Gandhi, what better figure to symbolize what one person can accomplish?
LS: Yes. And someone told me that in India there were some current films on Gandhi. Some were almost comedies, but I haven’t been able to get a hold of them yet. I did see, earlier in the year with one of my colleagues who was teaching at the university in Baroda, a catalog of a group show. I guess last year must have been some sort of centennial for Gandhi, or something. There was a group show where a number of artists had done work in honor of Gandhi.
RW: You probably know more about Gandhi that I do and looking at your prints and drawings of Gandhi, there are many different faces. What do the different faces reflect for you?
LS: I did know more, but I would need to reread now. The most interesting face for me is one that is quizzical, the one that has an intelligence and a sparkle in the eye. A lot of people thought he was this poor, frail little guy, but look at the power he exuded! You know, things are seldom what they seem. I think that’s the most interesting guise of Gandhi.
So many pictures of Gandhi, he’s looking down, he’s meditating, just about smiling, you can’t quite tell because he has this funny little mustache and he has these horn-rimmed glasses, but there’s just a twinkle in his eye. There are people you come across in life who have that same sense of aliveness and clarity. It’s truly amazing.
I met this one man shortly before he died who had a real twinkle in his eye. He was going through chemo and the whole thing. I thought, this is a wonderful person! I hope he recovers. He just had a twinkle, that love in his eyes.
Then I ran into someone recently at a wedding, my friend who I went to India with when I was twenty. Her son got married, and there was a woman there who had been married to my friend’s father. Of course, she was much younger at the time. She had left the convent at around thirty and had married my friend’s father. She was always a very warm, lovely person and she had never had a teen-hood. She went from high school to the convent for fifteen years, and then came out of the convent and married this man who was quite a bit older. Eventually they had two children and then divorced.
She was around seventy when I saw her at this wedding. She was with her two children and she had this clarity, this clear vision in her eyes, that was absolutely piercing. Obviously, she didn’t find the enlightenment in the convent, but she must have been a seeker of such things, and had spent many years making mistakes like everyone else. Finally she had found some closeness with her children and her grandchildren on a long, convoluted path. My friend, Gita, agreed with me. She said, yes, Janet has just some sort of clarity that is powerful to be around. You felt it. And that’s what Gandhi was about.
RW: That reminds me of a man I met. He was a stranger to me, but it’s really something when you run into somebody like that. There was this powerful spark of life. He was in his eighties and I had to interview him, Charles Bigger. It’s on the Web site.
LS: It’s kind of important to be open to that. So I think that’s the Gandhi I see.
RW: It’s so interesting, your comment that things are not always what they seem. Gandhi. Here’s this little man, but he was a giant.
LS: Yes. You know the Gilbert and Sullivan song from H.M.S. Pinafore? “Things are seldom what they seem. Skim milk masquerades as cream. High lows pass as patent leathers. Jackdaws strut in peacock feathers. Very true, so they do. So they be, frequently…” It’s this whole thing. It’s like I would tell Theo [Stein’s son], “Don’t believe it just because you’ve read it in the newspaper. Don’t believe it just because you saw it on TV. Dig deeper, because things are seldom what they seem.”
You’ll read novels about people who have all sorts of inner lives that no one even dreams exist. And yet, that’s the mystery of every human being. Even the most meager person has thoughts that, at times, are maybe grand and ennobling. I would like to think. Everyone has their secrets, their thoughts and dreams and their disappointments. We only see the surface, even with people we’re close to. There are just moments when we glance that.
RW: Are there any particular images here that you’d like to say anything about?
LS: Each one that I’ve done is always a surprise. If you had asked me five years ago if I’d ever be doing the figure, I probably would have been flabbergasted that I’m doing what I’m doing now with people and animals and some sort of interaction among us. With these Gandhi pieces, there have been a few things in my life that have started to come full circle. I didn’t really know what I would pursue in terms of my art making when I went back to India this last time. Juliana [Togonon] wanted me to concentrate on the India body of work for her show [Livia Stein at Togonon Gallery in San Francisco] so I had to do a lot of writing. Someone interviewed me for a little exhibit catalog, and that started bringing a lot of things of my own journey to the surface. That was why I decided to send this proposal to the international conference in arts at the University of Kassel in Germany. I realized the “India on My Mind” idea would make a good presentation. It just naturally grows out of what I’ve been doing in the studio the past year and it’s a way of explaining this drama in a visual sense. And the conference coincides with Documenta, this year, too, which happens every five years in Kassel.
RW: The drama of your own journey?
LS: Yes. That’s what my slide presentation is going to be at the arts conference. So I’ve been spending time culling through photographs that I took in 1971 and juxtaposing them with early artwork, and then doing the same thing for the other trips I took to India. It’s also important to mention that it’s not just all about me and India. India was there sometimes and other issues were there at other times. But it was like an ongoing conversation with an old friend.
RW: And that old friend was who?
LS: The old friend would be me, and my experiences in India, and how it continues to shape my life. The conversation I’m talking about is what I’m doing with my art life. That’s what propels me to keep deciphering myself. ∆