Liza Lou: Bead the World
Dee Perry–I'm wondering if beads have always been an important part of your life. Did you start out beading jewelry and the little things kids might have done with bead kits?
Liza Lou– No, actually I started as a painter. I walked into a bead store while I was a student and flipped out. My eyes boinged out of my head and I thought, "My gosh, this is the greatest paint I've ever seen." So I ran back to my studio and started gluing them onto my paintings. And that's where it really began.
DP–How did it progress from gluing them on to beading entire entities like toasters and lawnmowers?
LL–Well, it kind of developed. The first piece I ever did on a large scale was the kitchen. I began by making food objects in the kitchen. So as I was doing it I thought, "Oh it would be incredible to do an entire room. What would that be like?" And so I thought it would probably take about six months. Five years later I was standing inside a completely beaded kitchen. So it kind of developed. It grew in an almost organic way. If you have a cup of coffee, you need a table. If you have a table, you need a chair, if you need a chair, you need a room. So it just kind of kept building and building.
DP–What kinds of beads do you use? Are there a special sort?
LL–Yes, they are all from the Czech Republic. They're all glass. So it's kind of creating these crystal...you know, glass nature. This glass sort of universe. So I always use beads from the Czech Republic. Those are really the most wonderful beads on earth. You know it's funny when you hear it. A lot of people say, "Are you talking about bees as in the bumble bees?" No my friend. We're talking about the beads you see on necklaces and jewelry.
DP–That would be whole different kind of show. (laughs)
LL–(laughs) I've made bees out of beads! (laughs)
DP–Now I wonder about the cost. There are millions, literally, in the exhibition, that's on in Akron. How do you buy them? In bulk packages?
LL–I do, I buy them in bulk. Thank goodness they're not a dollar a bead, or I would be you know... I wouldn't be able to do this. (laughs) But I was thinking I should start charging a dollar a bead for anything I do. Can you imagine, I would be a... I'd put Bill Gates out of business. But no... I buy them in bulk. The people in the factories in Prague know me by now. They see me coming and they shut down for the day. They're very delighted to see me. But I began by buying them in very small packets. And now you know the truck comes, (laughs) and unloads them with fork lifts.
DP–I remember those small packets that came with the kits. I'm curious though how your teachers, your art teachers responded. You were in art school when you began this work. What did they think about it?
LL–They weren't very appreciative. They would say, "This is a good example" (pointing to something I had done) "of what not to do." (laughs) I remember turning several shades of crimson and thinking they're probably right, but there's something in this for me. Even though everyone sort of hated what I was doing, I knew there was something there, that if I could just train my hands and figure it out, I would get to the bottom of it, and learn something from this material. I think as an artist, in any endeavor it's hard to continue doing work when people are criticizing you. You need to have the time to decide what you think. And so I left school, and began making all kinds of bad, terrible things out of beads. You know, just kind of experimenting. And now they ask me to come back and give lectures at the university.
DP–(laughs) That's got to be satisfying.
LL–It is nice. You know, I kind of think criticism... it's not that we're meant to love each other. I think criticism does make us better. But it's kind of a catalyst, you have to ask yourself "Who am I in this situation? They don't like what I'm doing, but who am I really?" And, "What does it mean to me?" And, "Do I make things for other people's approval, or am I my own person?" So it really ... I don't discredit them for the criticism. They were probably right. It made me a better artist I think, in some ways.
DP–And it crystallized your thoughts too to say, "You know this is something I really believe in so I don't care what they say."
LL–Yes that's right.
DP–Now I understand that in the Akron show there are two major pieces - the kitchen, that you've mentioned and the backyard. Let's talk about the kitchen. You started, you said, with a cup of coffee...
LL–Yes, I began making these food objects and from there was making more and more objects for the kitchen. As I went along, people told me, "This is fine. If you're going to make objects that is fine. But if you're going to make a kitchen, well that's not so good, that's women's work. And you're going to be labeled a Ôfeminist.' No one is going to want to see what you're doing, you're going to go down the road as a feminist artist, and you won't be taken seriously." So of course that was even more inspiration. It turned out that I really wanted to make the kitchen a kind of shrine to women's work. To the labor that's thankless, the drudgery of life. You know, having to wash the dishes, and having to be stuck in the kitchen baking pies all the time. No to say that some people don't do that and enjoy it, but when something isn't an option it's not so fabulous. So I wanted to make a shrine to that, and that's what the kitchen is. A kind of three dimensional, radiant way of saying thank you to all of the women of history who've had to scrub the floors.
DP–It's absolutely gorgeous, and I should mention that we're not talking about a miniature kitchen. This is actually a life-sized tribute isn't it?
LL–You know, you think about the war sculptures. Historically we see these war heroes who've conquered in war on their steeds with their guns. And it's always large and grandiose. So I wanted to make something on that scale. Something grand, something amazing, only it was about the most mundane thing. What about people who scrubbed the floors? Even the dust balls are grand. So it's like taking this really mediocre... the drudgery of life and trying to make it into this huge, elaborate, sort of heroic shrine.(laughs)
DP–It really works. I'm looking at the picture in the catalog now. I'm curious about the forms you used to put the beads on. Were those the real objects or did you construct forms to sort of help the beading process along?
LL–I constructed the forms first. So first I designed what shape. If you're going to make a kitchen, what shape will it be? Will it be an L shape, will it be a long, narrow shape. What kind of kitchen is this going to be? First, I began by saying this is going to be a square kitchen. Kind of like what you find in the 1950's. A larger kitchen than what most of us have today in a more contemporary house. And then built things based on those drawings. I live in Los Angeles, so I was able to find stoves laying around outside on the sidewalk. So I just schlepped this stove in that I'd found and began to cover it in beads. So it's a combination. But when I took things that were actual objects they had to fit within what the design was. It wasn't an accidental process. It wasn't a haphazard... "I guess I'll bead this today." It was a very kind of disciplined activity.
DP–You talk about it taking five years, over time doing that beading. Do you remember the feeling you had when you put that last little bead in place and the piece was finally done.
LL–I do. I remember throwing up my hands like Zorba the Greek and dancing around my studio. It was an amazing feeling. It was almost a feeling in the pit of your stomach. And I watched as the truck drove away, that was really the last moment. It ended up going to an exhibition in New York. So the moment watching the truck drive away and going back inside my studio, which was completely empty. It was the end of a five year struggle, and everything that had happened to me. It was sort of like jumping out of an airplane. The feeling in the pit of your stomach like, "OK, Now what?!" So I just laid down in the middle of the studio, after dancing around for a while, and went to sleep.
DP–(laughs) That's great. And while you shy away from getting too philosophical. There does seem to be kind of tongue-in-cheek attitude about the American Dream. Are there statements besides celebrating the unsung heroines of the kitchen in your work, or are you just having fun with it?
LL–Well I am sort of pointing out some of our foibles as Americans. You know there's this incredible obsession with keeping the grass green...that we have of getting and consuming. We're really a consumer culture and you really feel that when you go to other parts of the world where it's not so strong. In this consumer culture, this striving to get the grass the greenest possible grass, I'm just one-upping everybody I guess, by making mine out of glass. It's kind of putting it indoors... a backyard inside a museum is a way of asking those questions. Who are we? What are we striving after? So it definitely has a point to it.
DP–Was that as extensive a project, at least in terms of years, as the kitchen was?
LL–It turned out to be. It opened after two years of working on it. And I continue to work on it ever since. It's had exhibitions and I continue to go home and add more and add more. It turned out to be a four year project.
DP–I want to talk about how you do this. I've got this image of you sitting on the floor, beading each one by hand. How do you do it? Do you have help putting this together?
LL–I kind of struggle with that, because I so enjoy the solitude of my work. The actual doing of the work for me is it gives me a tremendous sort of sense of self, sense of belonging. When I'm working I feel I'm at my best. It's hard to translate that when you have a lot of people around and you're asking other people to participate. I find that really, really difficult. So I find ways to work with other people on parts of things. And then still try to keep parts of it private and quiet. I don't like it when it gets really loud and crazy. You can imagine what I'm doing. I'm gluing these tiny, tiny beads one at a time. So you do need a certain sense of quiet. I mean I like to play a lot of music, but I don't like to have a lot of chatter happening. So I struggle with that. It's a continuing question mark. I'm not sure how to really do it well. To be continued, I guess.
DP–I guess you could say that you've suffered for your art. Not just in a financial way, leading up to the point where people started saying, "Oh that's wonderful." But also in the toll the beading has taken on your hands. Talk a bit about that and how you're dealing with it.
LL–Well when I finished the kitchen I realized I developed tendonitis in both of my hands. A really acute tendonitis where I couldn't hold a pencil and it was incredibly difficult to draw. And I realized I couldn't continue with the backyard. I was making these individual blades of grass, one at a time, out of wire. Threading beads onto pieces of wire. And a friend of mine came over and was watching me in the studio doing this. And he got out his watch and clocked how long it took to do a blade and said, "How many do you need?" And I said, "Well, you know, a million." So he worked it out and said, "Oh OK it'll probably take you about 45 years." And that was when I realized that coupled with the fact that I was in a lot of pain physically... but realistically I wasn't going to get it done if I didn't find ways to work with other people. So that developed into working with others. So having problems with my hands in way became a blessing. I so love the doing of it myself, it forced me to think about having other people. Not to mention the fact that I'd be 70 years old at the completion of the backyard. And in the end as an artist, if you want to make art you have to make sacrifices in terms of your personality. If your personality is to work alone and your want to make more than one sculpture in your lifetime, you're gonna have to change. So, I feel like I'm endlessly growing and trying to accommodate the work.
DP–There's another piece in the show in Akron. The portrait gallery, which features portraits of America's 42 presidents. What was the inspiration for that piece?
LL–Well, I've always thought that the way that we vote, how it all goes down is awfully superficial. If you look at the images of these people (who are always men, by the way.) We look at this superficially. We do vote historically... we don't have much choice, unfortunately. We vote on this exterior image and so "The Presidents," the series that I did, is really about their image, and trying to make them even look better. Real life never measures up to the big promise. We get all excited and toot the horn and wear the hats at election time, but then we are terribly disappointed the next day. So the portraits of the Presidents is just my way of trying to improve things. If presidents let us down, I've just made them look really good. And I've got to say that it's really important to have the right presidential hair. That when you do their portraits you realize the better the poofier hair. The more the poof, the more the power.
DP–(laughs) They'll be calling you before the November elections.
LL–(laughs) But it's true, if you look at it historically. Curly hair wouldn't hurt. I really think we need a presidential candidate with curly hair. This is an endless project for me. I'll be making portraits... continuing to add portraits, and I'm just not that excited about anybody's hair this time around!
DP–This will be something we have to talk with Washington about (laughs) But before I let you go Liza. I'm wondering if you see yourself as part of an artistic movement or in a category by yourself?
LL–Well I kind of live in a fool's paradise. I'm in my own world, so it's hard to feel like I'm part of anything (laughs) other than my own endeavor. But who knows, who's to say what's going to happen in the next ten years, and other artists and other things that are going to go on. You don't really want to put yourself in any category. You just want to keep making things and not to be too self-conscious.
DP–But beads are the way to go for you.
LL–Well so far so good. I'm fascinated with them. Don't get me started if we have to end now. I'll just go off on what beads mean to me!
DP–Then we'll have to talk another time. It's been fun.
LL–It's been nice to talk to you.
DP– Thanks a lot.