by Clara Lieu

The dramatic realization of why I’m making these drawings keeps pushing further every day. I feel a tremendous urgency about creating this work, that I have never experienced before. The emotions from the results of the US election still feel raw in this moment.

I’ve been far too busy with teaching my courses at RISD lately to actually start new drawings from scratch.  This is actually perfect timing because right now, I just need space to think about what these drawings are really about.

I felt awful when I realized how shallow my initial approach was to these drawings of elderly figures.  I let myself fall into the trap of the most cliche themes associated with the elderly:  aging and my own fear of mortality. I let myself get seduced by the visual aesthetic of the elderly figure, I was so enthralled by the physical forms of aging skin that I didn’t think to really consider who these people really were.  I was seeing the elderly figures just as captivating forms that were engaging to draw, but not much else.

I hadn’t taken the time to consider the unique personal histories which are so deeply embedded in each of the women who modeled for these drawings. Which now in retrospect seems so ridiculous: when I photographed the women to create reference photos for these drawings, I spent over an hour just listening to them speak to me about their lives. I was too busy shooting photographs to hold up my end of a conversation, so I just listened to them. All three women told me in their own way about their physical and emotional scars from their past.

So that’s what this project is about: #scarsthatspeak.  In an elderly face, every wrinkle and piece of flesh has a story. I want to show the “scars”that the older generation of women walk with every day.


I was nervous about making artwork that is even remotely political. All of my previous projects, such as Falling, were entirely based on my personal experience.  When your artwork is about an experience you know so intimately, there’s an inherent confidence in the subject matter because you know your subject inside out.  For me to create artwork about a subject that I have no direct experience with is very intimidating. I worry that I might accidentally misrepresent my subject, or worse yet, present a shallow interpretation that misses the point. I was really hesitant, but then artist Michelle Friars wrote this on my Instagram feed:

“As an older woman artist, I am especially drawn to your latest series. When previously you talked about the work in terms of decay, I admit to being a bit dismayed. But this… this understanding is exciting. I started in art school as a young woman in the 70’s, but left because of the sexual harassment of a professor I had to work with. Took me until I was sixty to finally go back. These scarred, beautiful images of strength truly resonate. Thank you.”


These drawings will focus on the “scars” of the older generation of women, but simultaneously, these drawings are also a proud acknowledgement of their quiet strength and powerful resilience.  One of my former students, Amelia Rozear, had this to say about the potential of these drawings to make an impact on the younger generations:

“I think these drawings will be very helpful to people, especially girls and women, who are very scared right now, and might help them feel better about the future knowing how women have been strong before.”

I didn’t want to feel that I was “leaving out” the younger generation of women, who most certainly have their own scars as well.  So Amelia’s comment made me realize that these drawings are actually for every generation.

Keeping in mind this balance of scars/strength, I’ve been experimenting with making these drawings much more sculptural, almost to the point of becoming installations.  Although the drawings are ripped and torn, they are also rising from the shreds of tissue paper.

I am well aware that I’m not even close to truly understanding what these scars really mean, or even to what extent their emotional depth is.  However, I do know that I am excited about all of the research, digging, and investigation that lies ahead of me. I’m ready to hear from these women.

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6 thoughts on “#scarsthatspeak

  1. Hi Clara,

    I love this post. I loved the last one too.

    I think in North America it’s difficult because the fear of mortality is huge, but I think what a lot of people don’t realize is that a large part of that is the way that we treat our elderly. In an attempt to banish death, we inevitably banish our elderly: put them in homes, hospitals, leave them to their own devices, when there is such potential for meaningful conversation, for hope and healing, for the transference of wisdom. Many cultures have traditions of passing knowledge through generations and in pretty much every case it involves the elders who hold positions of respect and power in their communities because of what they have been through, what they know, and what they can offer. You mention experience earlier in this post; nobody can really dispense wisdom about a thing unless they have experienced it. Here is a huge rich resource and it goes virtually ignored, and this is to say nothing of the impact on elderly people when they reach a certain point in their lives and they almost cease to exist. I believe that’s part of the fear: recognizing it in our own culture, and realizing it will happen to us, not when we die but as we are still living.

    I use the word ‘we’ in a cultural sense. I do not attempt to speak for everybody. This is simply my own view, and what I know from speaking to elders in my various communities, and working with elders as a teenager.

    I have tremendous excitement for your project. I love the direction it’s taking. I’m excited to see how it unfolds.


    1. Hi Breyonne,
      Thank you for your thoughtful and insightful comment, and I really appreciate your support and encouragement for where this work is doing. I recently read Atul Gawande’s book “Being Mortal,” which was one of my primary inspirations for this body of work. I highly recommend it, the book was absolutely riveting, and really called attention to the depth of issues with the older generations of people.

  2. Hi Clara,
    I love your work, and it has inspired me to work in a similar medium for an art project on endangered animals. I was wondering if you use a specific type of tissue paper?

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