Artist Interview: CLARA LIEU

Intro by Shanon Weltman / Interview by Ray Jones

We were intrigued to learn about Clara Lieu, she was our first artist submission. Her art is contemplative of her personal observations about social dynamics and the human emotions that follow. She works in traditional mediums that allow for translucency, emphasizing the layered thoughts that go into each piece. Clara will work on a series until she feels she’s visually defined the thought or experience being conveyed, creating dozens of pieces in the process. This discipline carries over seamlessly in her other job as a professor at RISD. Read on to learn more about this fine artist and educator.


RAY JONES: First question. Who or what are your inspirations?

CLARA LIEU: Hmm, that’s a broad question.

RJ: What’s the first thing that pops into your head?

CL: Human emotions. Lately my work has been inspired largely by human emotions.

RJ: There definitely seems to be an interest in social dynamics and psychology in there. Can you talk about that a little bit?

CL: Well, in my recent work a lot of it has been about my own experience with depression and my own sort of internal struggle, but also how that has affected my ability to relate to other people.

RJ: Something I’ve really wanted to ask you, what is your first memory of ‘noticing’ people? I definitely catch all the observations on people. I saw your ‘Falling’ series was about depression and anxiety, ‘Waiting’ was about isolation. What is your earliest memory of that? Catching people in those acts.

CL: It goes back pretty far, I’d say all the way back to elementary school. I think, probably the fifth grade. For me, there’s a real sort of shift between fourth grade and fifth grade. Fourth grade, I just remember feeling so accepted. I felt like I had all of these strong friendships, feeling really good socially about the way things were going. Fifth grade was like somebody stuck me in a room with iron walls or something. All of a sudden all of that sort of free form connection that I had with people, that felt so fluid, that felt sort of easy just completely disappeared and I became very self conscious. Kind of aware of people and how I was relating to them. I’d sort of do this thing, and I still do it now as an adult, where anytime I’m in a social situation, a party or a reception or anything like that, first of all, I become very anxious. That’s the first reaction, then I do this thing where I notice the groups of people. Who is grouping with each other and I particularly notice who is not grouping. Who is by themselves, who is alone. I think I look for that, because I think of myself as being alone in that group. I sort of try to see if anyone else is feeling the same way.

RJ: [Laughs] Yeah, it kind of can’t be helped, people gravitate to each other really easily, certain groups.

CL: Right.

RJ: The interest developed, but when did you start to portray these observations in your artwork?

CL: I would say it started with the ‘Wading’ series, I guess that was back in 2009. The images came first and then the ideas came later. I started making these images of people waiting in water and sort of asked myself why I was making the images and what they were about. It took a lot of scraping around to figure out what those images were, and when I figured it out it made a lot of sense in the end. That was unusual because my recent project ‘Falling’ came with the idea first, then I made the images based on the idea. I’ve done different ways of approaching idea and image.


Unseen 2, Unknown 1, ‘Wading’ series


RJ: About how long did you work on the ‘Wading’ series? I noticed that all of the series that you have featured, there’s so much work. I’m also wondering, what did we not see? Do you make vasts amounts of work?

CL: [Laughs] The percentage that you see on my website and my blog is fairly small because I do a lot of preparatory work. For example, ‘Wading’, I think it was an entire year of sketches and preliminary pieces before I even began to figure out what the final pieces were going to look like. So actually, if I think about the sort of arc of the development of my work, the execution of the final pieces is probably a quarter of the experience. The preparatory process is rigorous. So, yeah what you see on the website is not very much. [Laughs]

RJ: Alright! How do you know then once you’ve done enough research or enough drawings? Before you get started on the actual series. How do you know once you’ve made enough pieces?

CL: Well, a lot of my projects, the preparatory stages are really long because I tend to be very picky about what exactly I want to pursue. So, a lot of it is just making a lot of mistakes and keeping at it until you find something that you feel you’re satisfied with. For some projects that’s fast, other projects it’s slow. I did a sculpture series in the ‘Falling’ project that gave me huge headaches. I mean, it was probably the toughest project I’ve worked on. It did not come easily, it was not intuitive. I spent a good summer being extraordinarily frustrated with that project. On the other hand, when I did the self portrait drawings for ‘Falling’, I just knew right away what I wanted to do. So clear. The process is very unpredictable, it’s very hard to know what’s going to happen.

RJ: The sculptures were in wax, correct?

CL: Right, done in beeswax.

RJ: What drew you to beeswax? That’s such an uncommon material, I feel.

CL: I’ve always loved wax because I have this sort of obsession with translucency. In my drawings, what I did is I would take clear sheets of plastic and hand sand them with sandpaper so that it would create this kind of misty atmospheric translucent quality. I’ve used translucency as a tool in my earlier drawings, so when I got to sculpture I thought ‘what kind of material can I use that has that kind of frosty translucent quality?’ Beeswax ended up being great because it had the slight color to it, it wasn’t like paraffin which is straight white. I sort of liked that little touch of color that made the image a little fleshier, a little bit less like a death mask or something. I did do a bunch of pieces in plaster first and they just looked awful. The material was so kind of white, so opaque, it didn’t breathe the way the beeswax did.


Hiding No 1, Hiding No 17, ‘Falling’ series


RJ: Ahh okay. This is sort of in line with what you answered, what motivates you to share so much of your personal experiences in your work, or even your advice column? You share such a sincere amount of yourself, what started that?

CL: Actually, I think a lot of it was initially inspired by my experience with my students in the classroom, because I think that when you teach you have these kind of big concepts that you want them to understand. I found that the most effective way for students to really get a handle on some of those concepts is to make those concepts concrete and real for them. So, in other words, you can open up an art textbook, read all you want about Michelangelo and how he did all these things. I think for a lot of students there’s this profound disconnect. They don’t know Michelangelo personally. I guess as a teacher I have these overarching concepts that I want them to understand, some of them are a little bit abstract. I just find that if you can tell a story, that it’s more understandable. When I was in art school, the impact that my professors had on me was so dramatic and I think a lot of it was because I knew them as people. They weren’t some kind of abstract art history persona that leapt out of a text book. I’ve found that those personal stories have an impact on people.

RJ: Definitely, very relatable, humanizing. Okay.


Self Portrait, ‘Falling’ series


RJ: Is there anything you wish you were told when you first started pursuing your art degree? And would it have stuck?

CL: Hmm… [Laughs] there’s a lot of things I wish I’d been told. I guess the thing I wish someone would have told me is that, it’s really hard to be an artist. And, not only is it hard to be an artist it’s hard to be an artist long term. Because, I think the thing that I struggle with the most is sustaining my studio practice. Keeping it present, keeping it alive is really sort of the thing I worry most about as a professional. I went to school with a lot of people who just stopped making their work after art school. They just never picked it up again. I worry all the time that that’s going to happen to me. So far it hasn’t, which is great, but I have this kind of lingering concern about that all the time. I constantly try to preserve that part of my life. There’s so many things that you just can’t grasp until you’ve actually experienced them yourself. Another thing I wish somebody told me is how insanely difficult it is to get into grad school. [Laughs] That was the shock to me, I didn’t realize the numbers that were in involved, that were accepted.

RJ: Where did you go to grad school?

CL: I went to the NY Academy of Art.

RJ: Were you saying it was hard to get into that school? Was there another school you were trying to get in to?

CL: Well, the NY Academy was my safety school. [Laughs] I just sort of thought, ‘okay I’ve gone to RISD, I had an awesome experience.’ I took four years before I tried to apply to grad school. I thought I had a strong portfolio, I had good letters of recommendation, but in the end it wasn’t enough. I was really surprised by that. I really shouldn’t have been, but I was. I wasn’t prepared to have to go to… not my number one choice.

RJ: Was it still a good experience though? Did you feel like you got a lot out of it?

CL: I mean, certain aspects that I got a lot out of. Definitely the technical processes. I learned a lot about casting, I learned a lot about sculpture which I’d never really done before. That part of it was very good. There were other parts of the experience that were really tough for me. I would say it was really kind of a mixed bag. The other thing is I had a such a great experience as an undergraduate at RISD. RISD was hard too, don’t get me wrong, there were definitely things that were difficult about it. Grad school, it just didn’t have the same kind of positive energy that I was sort of expecting it to have. That was a little bit disappointing in the end.

RJ: Say someone else is going through a similar experience that you went through, what kind of advice would you give them? Entering a grad program that maybe they weren’t really preparing for, but to encourage them to make the best out of it.

CL: You know, I actually would say to somebody, if they were applying to grad school now… it could probably take several years until they got into a program. That first time through, don’t be surprised if you don’t get in. I wish somebody would have told me that. Looking back on my grad school experience, I sort of regret that I went through it. I sort of wish I realized that it wasn’t the best fit for me. Maybe it would have been better if I reapplied the following year or something like that. I definitely have some regrets about that. Just to wait until you really find the best fit, because in retrospect I don’t think the grad school was the best fit for me.


RJ: Okay, down to our final question. Not serious. If you could only eat one meal for lunch everyday for the rest of your life, what would it be?

CL: [Laughs] It would definitely be the bowl of basic ramen noodles found at the Minca ramen shop in NYC.

RJ: That sounds delicious. I’ve never been, where is that place?

CL: It’s in Alphabet City, it’s like one of those hole in the wall shops. In there, they’re cooking the meal one, maybe two feet away from you. I love that place!