Clara Lieu is a visual artist like no other, with work that draws inspiration from social isolation and her personal experiences with depression, which create truly remarkable artistic work that makes one wonder how does an individual produce such work that is disturbing but yet so beautiful. ROUGH talks to Professor Clara Lieu who teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design.
Please describe your creative process.
My creative process places a very strong emphasis on the preliminary stages of preparing myself to create the final pieces, so much so that the preparatory process is significantly more time consuming than executing the final works themselves. For each project, it generally takes me about one year to both conceptually develop an idea and troubleshoot my technical process and choice of materials and surfaces. Conceptually speaking, it’s critical to me that I have a solid, fundamental idea that is also complex and layered with infinite possibilities. Since I have experience in drawing, painting, printmaking, and sculpture, I always devote large chunks of time to exploring and figuring out which materials will best inform and support the concept behind my project.
Tell us what inspires you as a visual artist.
I have a lifelong obsession with the human figure and face, and their infinite capacity to represent human emotions. I’m fascinated by figurative gestures and facial expressions, whether they are forcefully dramatic or quietly subtle. These gestures possess a incredible potential to communicate a vast range of emotions in a powerful manner.
Has your past or origins had any influence on your work?
The most influential part of my past has been my personal experience with depression and anxiety, which fueled the creative drive behind the “Falling” series. I developed depression and anxiety at a young age, and lived with the condition for most of my life before being diagnosed and treated just a few years ago. It was startling to see myself clearly for the first time, free from the disease. Only at that point did I have the emotional distance that allowed me to to be in position to address this subject artistically. I knew at that point that I felt an uncontrollable drive and compulsion to make the work.
What impact did the Rhode Island School of Design have on you?
RISD profoundly transformed my entire creative perspective and sense of self. With extraordinary teachers who pushed me farther than I knew possible, I developed an enduring artistic foundation that allowed me to gain insight into what it truly means to be an artist. As a freshman, I came to RISD with the burden of a horrible high school experience and a very low self-esteem. Over the course of four years, I gradually built a vital sense of confidence in myself as an artist that has been crucial to me at all stages of my life. RISD armed me with skills and critical thinking processes which was creatively empowering and exhilarating.
Your portraits of the human form are some what disturbing, but yet so beautiful, how do you achieve this balance?
I’m always looking to create a symbiotic relationship between my concept and technical execution. Although the majority of my work is emotionally disturbing, it’s always been a priority for me to create visually beautiful and striking images.
Tell us about the project “Falling”, does it have any political messages behind it?
“Falling” was an unusual project for me, in that it was told from a very personal, intimate perspective unlike my previous projects, which approached the subject matter with an emotional distance. Depression is something that happens privately, behind closed doors; it’s a secret that most people keep hidden and never talk about in public. Unfortunately here’s still a social stigma associated with depression that causes people with depression to conceal their true emotions from others. On a broader level, I’m looking to open a dialogue about a topic that is rarely discussed openly by exposing my own personal experience.
Why social isolation?
Social isolation is a concept that I’ve been preoccupied with since I was young. For most of my life, I’ve seen the way that my anxiety level heightens and intensifies when I’m in a social situation with a group of people. I feel emotionally isolated, invisible, and alone in a crowd. Palpable and oppressive, this is a feeling that I think about and experience all the time.
What are you currently working on?
I’m currently working on a series of fifty beeswax face sculptures, the second stage of works for my “Falling” series. The relief face sculptures are sculpted in ceramic clay and then cast into beeswax. The beeswax pieces are then lit, photographed, and then digitally manipulated. The digital image then becomes the final product.