Clara Lieu: Search and Conquer

I did an interview with Michael Corbin, over at

Clara Lieu is a brilliant artist who is also a professor at the Rhode Island School of Design.  Her work is amazing, prolific and she has conquered many genres.  I wanted to find out what makes her tick.  Here’s our cool chat …

MICHAEL: Clara! Are you kidding me? Your work is SICK! I love it. Where do I begin? Okay, the sculptural works. I get the feeling that you want to make sculpture as human as possible through facial movement and expression and also, your figures aren’t just standing there, they are involved in activity. What are you expressing through your sculptural works?

CLARA: Hi Michael, Thank you for your response!  My sculptural works are a physical representation of my personal experience with depression. I want the sculptures to achieve raw emotion by exploring the physical and expressionistic extremes of the human face.  The feelings I associate with depression are brutal and savage, so I aim to create sculptural forms in the human face that can communicate these emotions.

MICHAEL: I hope that your experience with depression is in the past.  I look at those works and actually feel uplifted and inspired by your talent.  What does creating these works do for you?

CLARA: I think that the worst of the depression is over.  However, I have had to accept that this is a lifelong condition that I will always have to deal with. Things still fluctuate for me from time to time.  The difference is that I now have a concrete support system in place that I know I can rely on when things get difficult.

Creating these works has been important to me because the process has allowed me to separate myself from that experience. At the height of my depression, I felt buried by the disease and was unable to work with it as a subject for my artwork. Since I’ve been treated, the depression has become very distant, like a memory that belonged to someone else. Only through that separation was I able to get gain enough objectivity on the experience to be able to explore it visually. In many ways, creating these works has been a way for me to keep the depression into the past.

MICHAEL: So you’re a conqueror.  I’m glad to hear that.  Also, I think the “Waiting” and “Digging” sculptural works on your site are incredible.  There’s so much movement and activity.  They’re animated without the actual animation.  What was your inspiration for them?  They’re SO human.

CLARA: Digging began when I was brainstorming the idea for my MFA thesis project. For months, I couldn’t come up with anything for the project. I was under a lot of pressure because I would have to sustain my interest in the idea for an entire year. Every idea that I thought of seemed forced and artificial. In the eleventh hour, I realized that instead of trying so hard to find something, I should make art about the process I had just gone through over the past few months; searching endlessly for something, not knowing what it was, having no clue about where to even look, but knowing that I was so desperately trying to find it. I knew that I wanted to work with groups of human figures in the images so I tried to think of a gesture in the human figure that could represent this experience. After considering a number of actions, I came up with digging, which was an effective metaphor for a search.

Digging naturally led me to my next project, Waiting. In my visual research for Digging, I noticed that in almost every image I found of people digging, there were always bystanders in the scene. Toward the end of Digging, I started to lose interest in the diggers and instead became fascinated by these still figures who watched and waited. The final monotype I created in Digging depicted an empty pit in the lower half of the composition, with a line of waiting figures standing above the pit. The diggers had disappeared, and the focus was redirected towards the waiting figures. At that point, I realized that the waiting figures needed to be explored in much greater depth, warranting their own project.

MICHAEL: Wow. You know, you just said something interesting about your search for an idea. Why is it that we’re always searching outside of ourselves for something? It seems that the search always leads back within US. What do you think?

CLARA: There’s a common misconception that for an idea to be effective, we have to conceptually travel to some exotic destination. In my experience, I have found that the ideas that are the most poignant are often times the ideas that are sitting there right in front of us. In the case of Digging, I felt obligated to search far and wide for my idea because somehow that made the process seem more sophisticated to me. In the end, all of that searching eventually circled back to me. It’s amazing what you can find at home.

Some of the most powerful pieces I’ve seen my students create have been projects that were based on their own personal experiences. One assignment I give in my freshman drawing class at the Rhode Island School of Design asks students to make a piece that visually depicts six levels of pain. One student created a three-dimensional paper model of her childhood home, with black ink stains throughout the home to represent the past presence of her brother, who died when he was 13. Another student created six clay faces, which showed the various stages of strenuous face massages that she used to get when she lived in Korea. For many of my students, their narratives seemed ordinary to them at first. When told to an outside audience from their unique perspective, these stories became incredibly moving.

MICHAEL: Absolutely. What is it like being an art professor now in a world where art continues to be misunderstood, disrespected, underfunded and undervalued?  Of course, this isn’t always the case, but it’s certainly a reality. I guess art students and teachers have to be warriors, No?

CLARA: I’m very fortunate that I currently teach at one of the top art schools in the nation. I’m immersed in an incredible community of artists who are highly devoted to their creative pursuits. In my day-to-day life, I don’t worry at all about art being undervalued or misunderstood.

The period of my life where the disrespect for art was the most searing was in high school. The high school I attended was all about academics and sports, and if you didn’t excel in those areas, you essentially didn’t matter. I knew I had this incredible drive to create art, but I couldn’t find anyone who felt the same way to connect with. I developed intense feelings of isolation and a hideously low self-esteem. In my case, the complete lack of support for visual arts during those years was hugely painful.

MICHAEL: And so, how did you go from that pain to teaching at a top art school and being this great artist?

CLARA: Basically, the RISD Pre-College program saved me. It was a six-program that I attended the summer of my junior year in high school. Despite how brief the program was, that experience changed everything. Nothing could have prepared me for the dramatic impact those six weeks would have.  Even now, over 20 years later, I still consider the RISD Pre-College program to be one of the most important turning points in my life.

During the program, I found myself deeply immersed in an extraordinary community of artists. I savored every minute of my classes and worked on my artwork outside of class with feverish enthusiasm. For the first time, I had teachers who took me seriously. They treated me with the utmost respect and made me feel important. In the other students, I saw my own passion and drive. We fostered mutual support and pushed each other to stimulate artistic growth. I wasn’t seen as a freak anymore and I actually felt like I belonged.

Although having to go back to high school was truly horrible, I was different when I came back. That summer had given me a small taste of what my life could be like. Knowing that I could eventually return to that world gave me the strength I needed to survive that final year in high school. That year, I was accepted into the undergraduate program at RISD and the rest is history.

MICHAEL: You know, what’s the deal with society and the way it views artists? Creative people should not be seen as freaks, but rather as those who are seeking answers and might actually lead the way.  Anyway, how do you think the world or America, at least, views contemporary art?  What needs to be addressed? Many people are suspicious of contemporary art and sit in judgment.

CLARA: The prevailing issue I see is that contemporary art has made itself highly inaccessible to the average person. I’m an artist with education and training in the visual arts and I feel shut out of the contemporary art world most of the time. If someone with my background feels disconnected, then it must be even worse for the layman. The contemporary art world is extremely exclusive. Everywhere I go, it seems like I see the same ten artists in all of the major museums and galleries. On top of that, the presentation of contemporary art is often times very cold which makes it tough for audiences to connect. For this to change, contemporary art has to take the initiative and foster stronger connections with their audience.

MICHAEL: Totally. You works on paper are amazing. They’re dark, dramatic and the depth of field and perspective is great.  Again, your figures are active and moving. What’s the inspiration behind them?

CLARA: In the works on paper, visual contrast plays a major role in articulating the images. Limiting myself to black and white is one strategy I use to create this contrast. I gave up color about ten years ago, and it was one of the best decisions that I’ve made in my career. For many years, I was convinced that I was a figurative oil painter. In retrospect, color had been a burden for me and when I removed it from my process, I felt a huge sense of liberation and relief. I had been using color out of obligation, not because it was truly critical to the work. Black and white dramatically simplified my process and allowed me to focus on the issues that I was interested in.

MICHAEL: Yes. They really have a cinematic, documentary kind of vibe. I would love to see them almost turned into animation. Your work doesn’t move and yet it does. When you are involved in the actual process of creating art, what’s going through your mind? Is the process more intellectual, emotional or spiritual?

CLARA: The preliminary stages of my projects is extremely rigorous. I spend many months preparing to make the final work, solidifying my concepts and exploring potential techniques and materials. I iron out all of the potential issues so that executing the final works is generally very straightforward. Naturally, spontaneous issues do emerge in the process of creating the final work, but they are generally small. I usually don’t have to make fundamental sweeping changes to my plans at that stage. Since the conceptual elements of the work have been determined, I’m able to focus exclusively on the technical making of the work. I don’t engage emotionally or intellectually at all. For me, this would be a huge distraction and make it hard for me to concentrate on the physical process of creating the work.

MICHAEL: How do people usually respond to you when you tell them that you’re an artist and art professor? So many people still think that art has no real purpose.

CLARA: In my day-to-day life, I am always surrounded by other artists, so it’s usually not perceived as unusual and I don’t have problems with it. Growing up, when my mother socialized with other Chinese parents, they didn’t know how to react. Most of the Chinese parents took great pride sending their children to law school or medical school. So there was my mother, telling the other parents that I was going to art school. That usually shut down the conversation pretty quickly.

MICHAEL: What do you think it’ll take to get more people involved with contemporary art? So many people are suspicious of it and the art world isn’t necessarily the friendliest to outsiders.

CLARA: Art education is a powerful way to make contemporary art more accessible to the general public. I’ve always thought that it is very sad that visual art is frequently encouraged in young children, but that once people reach adolescence visual art is suddenly seen as a dispensable subject. The more the average person can interact with visual art as part of their general education, the more likely they are to engage with and appreciate contemporary art. Technology and media also has the potential to transform the way contemporary art is received. The PBS Series Art21, which features documentaries with contemporary artists, is an example of that. Through these video interviews, one is able to get to know the artist as a living person.

MICHAEL: When people see your work, what do you want them to take away from it?  Would you say there’s a theme that runs through it?

CLARA: In my mind, if someone experiences my work and they look at the world a little differently afterward, I’ve succeeded.

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