Enjoying the sunset on a serene Bay Area country road in late summer while driving to interview Lisa Kokin, and pulling up the driveway of the secluded home she shares with her partner, I once again took note of how artists have a way of seeing the possibilities in things and places that others have overlooked. This was elaborated in our conversation about the many phases of her art career. Found and collected objects, the throwaways of our culture, have been the foundation of her work for many years now. After a tour in Lisa's recently built studio with many examples of her work, new and old, surrounding us, I asked her about the beginnings of her interest in being an artist.--Rue Harrison
Lisa Kokin: I grew up outside of New York City and my maternal grandfather was a self-taught painter. He copied Japanese masters, and Rembrandt and Chagall, in a very naive, very flat style. He had a little corner of the apartment set up where he painted. He gave me my first paint-by-numbers kit. My mother had wanted to be an artist but some teacher told her she had no talent, so she gave up. And I grew up going to museums. So what most people only saw in reproduction I got to see in person. I remember seeing Picasso's Guernica and Giacometti and all kinds of amazing art. I just grew up with art both in my family and in museums, firsthand. When I was a teenager my parents sent me to the Art Students League on Saturdays for drawing class. I'd go into Manhattan and take a class and then afterwards just wander around and see art. I think in some way my mother wanted some sort of vindication or got a vicarious pleasure out of my really pursuing it because she wanted to do it but didn't have the strength of will to resist being told she had no talent.
works: You were carrying on her dream.
LK: Right, although I didn't really realize it. I was very much encouraged by my parents pretty much since I was fourteen or fifteen.
works: It would be interesting to have the juxtaposition of the high culture of art at your finger tips but also to have your grandfather working in this passionate, but naive way-a wonderful juxtaposition of influences.
LK: It was-and the whole paint-by-number thing. It's very ironic.
works: Well, your work has nothing overtly to do with paint-by-numbers. Just the attention to be able to work and practice and have a sense of being in the studio working-your grandfather was doing that.
LK: Yes. He did these "copies," but they didn't look anything like the original. And they were wonderful!
works: Well, that's totally up to the minute now, too. Because artists appropriate art.
LK: That's right. And some of my favorite art is outsider art. I hate that term, but it's some of my favorite art because it is so unmediated by intellectual stuff. It is just straight from the gut and the heart onto the canvas.
works: It's from the gut and the heart, but it also has this quality of getting into something obsessively. It's not like Abstract Expressionism.
LK: Exactly. I like to say sometimes jokingly that I'm an outsider artist trapped in the body of an MFA-because of that word "obsession" you use. And I complain endlessly to my friends and my partner. Everything I do is so labor intensive and sometimes so repetitive, like the buttons, which I did over a number of years. I got to the point where I couldn't bend my fingers. I had to stop. Also, it was driving me a little nuts. But everything I do has that kind of repetitive, obsessive quality. People say to me, "You must really like it! No one is forcing you!"
works: That's what I was about to say! So I was wondering, when you have a whole day ahead of you free and clear, and you're going to be working on one of these new pieces, what's your feeling?
LK: I feel like it's a day just for me. It's a day I can just get really into it and shut out the world. I hadn't worked at home until we moved here to El Sobrante for more than 20 years. I always had a studio outside of the house. My last studio had no windows, so when I walked in there it was like being in a zone for 6 or 8 hours. Here I may have the whole day, but it's sort of chopped up.
On the other hand, I can work at 11 at night or I can work at 6 o'clock in the morning in my pajamas or, if I can't sleep, in the middle of the night. It's much more integrated into my life. But I love to have time to work, and balancing that with working for a living, has been, up until now, easy. For almost twenty years I have been teaching art in skilled nursing facilities and retirement homes
works: So do some of the ways you work personally translate into what you do there?
LK: Yes. In fact, let me show you. This is a project I'm working on now; it's a paper quilt. Most people make paintings. But this particular woman didn't want to paint. She is much more of a sewer. So I said, can you tear paper? And she said, "Yeah, I can do that." So she's making this collage and I'm going to zigzag all around it and put a little hook in the back.
There's a lot of sewing in the work I do. Some people only like to paint. Some people only like to make beads. Some people only like to sew. So whatever they like to do, I do with them. And many people have dementia, so there's different ways of working, different ways of interacting. I know how to approach each person in a different way. For those with dementia, I use my dogs too. I do pet therapy with them.
works: So it's very creative and artistic, but you're also drawing on skills that come from craft, like sewing.
LK: I do. And the women can have very severe dementia and still remember how to sew. I think it's in the hard drive. I work with a woman who is over a hundred. She has dementia and doesn't talk much, but she still knows how to sew. I gave her some burlap and some yarn and, with a Sharpie, she made a strange picture. Now she's stitching it. She's got a very strange, obsessive drawing style, too. They still remember.
works: I saw a short film of an Alzheimer's patient, a woman, who was obsessively folding the blanket on her lap, just like a woman would fold laundry, just folding and folding.
LK: That's right. It's just in the hard drive.
works: So there's something about women's experience of always working with their hands.
LK: And the repetitive thing. So even if they don't know where they are or who I am so much of it is in the eye contact or touching, and just being a warm, compassionate human being. I really love doing it.
works: So can you speak about this connection between your work and women's work and women's traditional work like sewing?
LK: I should also say that my maternal grandmother worked in a tie factory. She was a Jewish immigrant from Romania. She came to New York and like many of her peers worked in the textile industry. And my parents were upholsterers. They had a small upholstery shop and my father did the cutting of the vinyl-they called it leatherette at the time-for dinette sets and boat cushions...
works: Like Naugahyde...
LK: Naugahyde! Exactly! And my mom did the sewing on the industrial sewing machine, which I have back there [points to the far end of the studio]. It doesn't work real well, but I have it. I grew up an only child spending a lot of free time in that shop. I remember cutting out Naugahyde and foam rubber and just playing around with those materials. I got my first sewing machine when I was about nine. My uncle gave it to me. I was sewing my own clothes from Simplicity patterns. It was almost congenital. And then I had a career as a batik artist for about 11 years, doing representational, very elaborate batiks about social and political issues in Latin America.
works: That's where I know your name from!
LK: Really? Back in the 1980s?
works: Yes, I believe.
LK: I did completely different work then. About El Salvador, Nicaragua, Cuba, South Africa, the Middle East. I did that for eleven years. Then I stopped because I felt like I could do it in my sleep. I went back to school, finished up my undergraduate degree and got my MFA.
Because I grew up in a family where sewing was so integral, it was a natural thing to include it in my work. Sewing in one form or another is in just about everything I'm doing now. It's both a method of attachment and a form of embellishment. So it has many roles in my work. It's a very comforting thing and I feel like it connects me to my ancestors. I feel connected with women's work and work that's not traditionally considered to be art.
That whole craft/art dichotomy-I don't have a lot of patience for that. Who decides? It's like the term "outsider artist." Well, who's on the inside? And who's defining what the inside is?
works: I find it exciting to hear about the various parts of your background. We've already talked some about the obsessive, but also I thought of the meditative. Could you say there's some kind of relationship between producing these works that are so detailed and a healing aspect?
LK: I don't relate to that word so much, but I like to say that if I weren't an artist I'd be a menace to society. By that I mean I need to do it. It keeps me sane. So maybe that's my way of saying it's healing. These are things that make me feel good. I am not happy about the state of the world. I am not happy about the direction this country is going in and the world is going in. Most thinking people aren't.
This is my refuge from the world. But at the same time I need contact with people, too. I'm an introvert. I don't get a lot of energy from people, but I need to be a part of something bigger. So even if I didn't have to work, I'd want to do some sort of teaching and giving to people.
This is both a working studio and a teaching studio. I have lots of workshops and I lead two critique groups. I'm always having people come in and I'm always talking about art. I need that. But I also need a lot of alone time. I feel like if I didn't do my art I'd have to take some sort of drug.
works: I relate to that. The question that comes to me is why are some people, like you, able to do it while others, who could benefit from some serious time working alone, can't. They can't seem to get in the studio. I'm just reflecting on what an achievement it is to have an art practice-to have made that a pillar of your life.
LK: Yes. And I've based everything else around it, including my employment. But I see a lot of people who take my workshops, who really want to have that kind of practice, and either they work full time, have families, or they just can't seem to carve out that space in their life. So they come here for 6 hours on a Saturday and can do that. Hopefully they take that experience back to their home.
works: I see you're doing a mentorship program. It's almost like you're a special kind of therapist for people who want to develop an art practice.
LK: That's true. I work with people in different situations all of whom want to develop some aspect of their art practice. I have a person who wants to apply for an MFA program. So I'm helping her with that. Another person is submitting a proposal to her alma mater for a grant. I'm helping her with that. There are others who just want to have a one-on-one relationship with a practicing artist to provide a structure for doing their art.
The idea came from having been a mentor at both JFK and CCA for graduate students. So I thought, well, I can do it in my studio as well, because not everyone wants to go to graduate school or needs to.
I decided to make myself available in that capacity. It's part coach, part therapist, but you know, giving support. It's all from my own experience as a working artist all these years. I love helping people in that way.
works: How long have you been doing the mentorships?
LK: I just started.
works: It's a great idea. Now I'd like to ask about your other work. Which of these date back the farthest? [looking around the studio]
LK: The found photos-the babies, that's called Maternal Instinct. For a number of years I collected photos from flea markets. A lot of the time people give me the things I'm working with, like I might get a collection of buttons from somebody's aunt. And I collect a lot of old things. Each time I move my studio I have to get rid of a ton of things. I'm an obsessive collector.
works: You know, I want to back up for a second to the eleven years when you were doing a lot of batik. And I think you said those works tended to be political, right?
LK: Right. Overtly political.
works: So is it a kind of growth where back then you were interested in expressing political ideas overtly and then, as you said, you got to the end of wanting to do that?
LK: I got to the end of the technique.
works: I was wondering if there are still shades of interest in social commentary in your work.
LK: Yes, that's what I was going to say. In my twenties and thirties when I did batik, things were very black and white to me. As I've gotten older, there is also a fair amount of grey. I still have the same political ideas. I'm still much to the left of center. I still believe that capitalism is an inhumane system. I may not put it in my work overtly, but I still have those beliefs.
In the past, when I made those batiks, I was trying to educate people. Now, I don't see my art as a teaching thing. I don't want to tell people what to think. I want to just show them whatever I'm doing and whatever they take from it, they take from it.
I've relinquished control, which I never really had anyway, of how people interpret my work. It's not my aim to convince people of anything. But it's still my aim to bring social issues to the table, hopefully with some humor and levity, which I didn't really have in my batiks. I do definitely have it in my books, and I think I have it in some of the self-help work and some of the photo work. I think my work will always be content-driven in one way or another.
works: That's stimulating for you intellectually, I suppose.
LK: Yes. I love work that's purely formal and beautiful and aesthetically gorgeous, but I don't see myself making that kind of work. I'm interested in materials and aesthetics and making things work on that level of course, but for me there always has to be some sort of content. For instance, the portrait of my father [Passage] was motivated by the death of my father, and wanting to do a memorial to him.
works: Would you say something about your current work, the self-help books?
LK: I go to a recycling center nearby and there's a book exchange program there. You can bring and take books, however many you want. And they're free. My studio soon filled up with books!
works: And this is potential material.
LK: Yes, to alter and to work with. At one point, I was going to do a green book installation-an installation of books with green covers. I collected hundreds of them. And when I had to move my studio, I brought a whole bunch of them back to the recycling center. The people there must have thought I was really weird.
I go there a little bit undercover because, I mean, I do get books to read and I do return them, but obviously the vast majority of the books I get there I eviscerate in one form or another. Some people don't look very kindly on that.
I go there several times a week and I started noticing that there were many self-help books there. They were mostly in pristine condition, with dust jackets. You know: How to be this. How to be that. How to be skinnier. How to be richer. How to be happier. How to find your ideal love mate. It's always in six weeks or less, or eight days, or 30 seconds. There's often the five blabbity blahs to get to blabbity blah. There's a lot of math in this.
They looked like they'd hardly been read. I was interested in that. And this is often how my work evolves. I notice something. And this happened with the self-help books. I find it to be really interesting as a social phenomenon. The thing of wanting to be something that you're not.
I think there's something specific to the American psyche, the individualist thing, the pull yourself up by your bootstraps thing. If you're a failure it's your own fault. If you just buy this book it will fix the problem that's been plaguing you, and you will no longer have to deal with it. You will be a fully realized human being.
You know, self-help books did not start in the 70s or the 80s, I've gotten ones from the 20s and 30s. The Power of Positive Thinking. I got three copies of that the other day. That one is from the 30s or 40s, I think. With a lot of them Christianity is part of the deal. You see God showing up a lot.
Anyway, I became intrigued and I started collecting them. Then I pulped about 300 of them and made these rocks. I did an installation at the Donna Seager Gallery called Room for Improvement. Each book I put in a blender and I made papier mache rocks out of them.
works: For you, what was the inner meaning of taking self-help books and making them into rocks?
LK: It's kind of kooky. While I was making them I was thinking of the expression "between a rock and a hard place" and I also had this idea that maybe somebody could take one of them and put it under their pillow and absorb everything from the book by osmosis without having to read the damn thing!
works: Avoiding going through all that horrible torture and not being able to do it.
LK: That's right! The idea for the rocks actually came because I was walking around the Berkeley Marina one day with my dogs and I saw somebody had piled some rocks up near the water. I loved the way they looked. So I thought, I'll just make some rocks. And then I did.
works: You know, I'm thinking that since you often work with such detail, making these rocks must have felt very freeing. And to have it be completely up to chance, how each one would turn out.
LK: Well, it was. Totally. You're right. Although, of course, I had to make three hundred of them!
works: [laughs] That's true.
LK: But you're right. It was like dough, like cooking or working with clay. So it was a different kind of thing. But then there was the issue of quantity. I just couldn't make twenty. I visualized how at Donna Seager Gallery they should be all over the floor because quantity was an aspect I wanted to emphasize.
works: Because of how many self-help books there are?
LK: Yes. There's just no end to them. So I went from pulping them to reconfiguring them. Those pieces (points to new work up in studio) are not on my website yet. Now I'm only working with the spines. I take the spines and I make these sort of horticultural pieces. This red piece is called How to Stop Worrying and Start Living, which is a self-help book from decades ago. It's one that I probably should read because I am an obsessive worrier. The other thing is, here I am doing this social commentary, but I don't want people thinking that I'm above wanting to improve my own life or that I've solved all my issues. I read books by Pema Chodron. I read Buddhist books. Those are self-help too, in a way.
works: So you started with the photos and then moved on to the buttons and then into this work with books. Did you do any work with books before?
LK: Yes. I started making books in 1991. I was still a graduate student and we had an assignment to tell some sort of a personal story. So I made a book called Bones Down the Chutes, which was a story about growing up Jewish in New York and seeing films about the Holocaust and about not being able to assimilate them. Because how can you assimilate them, even as an adult? They were horribly graphic films that they showed kids back then. I don't know if they still show them. Anyway, I told this story that has to do with that. It had to do with Barbie dolls and wanting a nose job and wanting to be not Jewish, essentially.
I felt the book form was perfect for telling a very intimate story because it's a one-on-one relationship, usually, with the person looking at the book. I had no formal training as a book artist and to this day I still don't. I just figured out my own way of making very funky, one-of-a-kind books. I made books almost exclusively in the early nineties until I started doing the sewn objects, like the record sculpture there. But I always go back to books between other bodies of work.
works: So you did books before you did buttons?
LK: Yes. On my website you can see my earlier books, from the nineties. When I stopped doing the buttons I needed to do something relatively quickly so I did open-book collages, which don't take nearly as long, and plus there's a lot of different movements and ways of working that happen, instead of just sewing buttons for eight hours. I needed to do something where there was more instant gratification. I called them open-book collages and I've got a whole series of them. I've got the self-help books. I've got what I call reassembled books, which are pulped and reconfigured. I've done books in many different ways. I've got a couple of pieces that are little mini-books sewn together to form a train-like sculpture.
works: So do you see where you want to put vast amounts of your energy before you start making things?
LK: No, It's not that premeditated, unfortunately. I had to stop making the button pieces because my fingers were hurting and I couldn't bend this finger down more than halfway. And I was going a little nuts from sewing buttons together.
works: The button works come together at a distance and look different up close. They're fascinating.
LK: It's like pointillism.
works: The way that just with the colors of the buttons you get the shading. They're really complex.
LK: The button pieces are different from my other work in that there's a lot more color, although in some of the self-help work there's color. Most of the color in my work is found color; I rarely add color to something. A lot of my palette is fairly beige, which is interesting because I never, ever will wear beige. But it is the color of old book pages and so it appears frequently in my work. With the buttons I was all of a sudden using blue and green and yellow and pink. "Whew! So much color!" Also the button work was representational which was also not the way I was used to working. It was very personal, too, having to do with my father's death in 2001. Several years later, I realized I wanted to pay homage to him.
I had always loved buttons and they had played a role in my work, but never an exclusive role. I always thought I wanted to use many buttons, but never knew how until one day I went into the studio and just started playing around. I made a small head of my father based on a photo. From there it got bigger and I made a number of other heads of my father. Then I took out my own family photos, which were remarkably similar to the photos of all the other people I had been collecting at flea markets. There's this sort of sameness in family rituals and the events that get photographed. But I was making work from my own family photos so it was much more personal than some of the other work I'd done previously.
I'm in all of my work, right? But I'm in the button work in a much more literal way than in my other work. It's interesting to me that the button work is more blogged about than any of my other work.
works: It reads easier on a page and is more graphic than your more subtle work. The thing I'm sitting with is that your work is a wonderful amalgamation of so many influences.
LK: It's true. I am not just one-dimensional. Nobody is, right? ?
Lisa Kokin teaches a variety of classes and workshops focusing on the use of found materials in her El Sobrante studio. She teaches a one-day workshop each month on a specific topic, leads critique groups for more advanced students, and offers one-on-one mentorships for people wishing to work on a specific project or those who want a sustained mentor relationship to develop their work. In January she will launch a weekly class, Reuse Muse, in which participants will work with recycled materials to make books, sculpture and collage. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org or go to www.lisakokin.com/classes.