Everything you can imagine is real.
– Pablo Picasso, Spanish painter, sculptor, printmaker, ceramicist, and stage designer
The Power of mixed media
Lauren Ari’s use of mixed media, as opposed to any one medium, allows her to express what she is trying to say. While the Richmond-based artist likes working with different materials, her foundation is drawing. Working in mixed media, therefore, enables her drawings to be three-dimensional. Throughout her prolific career, Lauren, 46, has produced some amazing projects, as well as collaborative and interactive pieces of art.
Two years ago, she collaborated with an artist to build an eight-foot-tall structure made of clay that resembled an old-fashioned opera shell, which housed a singer and a butoh dancer –performing a postwar Japanese dance that rejected Eastern and Western dance in order to search for a new identity that would establish meaning for a defeated society. Lauren and her co-collaborator invited the community to make parts that would be attached to the structure. “I’m really interested in the interaction,” she said. She likes people to interpret her work by themselves and to bring their past to the experience, rather than being told what the piece means. This is exactly how she wants people to view her Dictionary Project and Bedscapes.
Begun in 1999, Lauren’s Dictionary Project was informed by the fact that she wasn’t stimulated in school. Looking back on her education, she jokingly wondered if she could have learned everything from an encyclopedia. Playing with that idea she envisioned getting a dictionary and painting and learning from it. “It just went into motion and moved forward,” she recalled. When she went to the El Cerrito Recycling Center’s free book exchange shelf, she found a “big, beautiful, old dictionary” on the ground. “I’m a really good ‘manifester’ of stuff,” she said, of her serendipitous experience at the recycling center.
Since the beginning of the project, she has “fallen in love” with the dictionary – its words, the images on the pages, the edges of the fine paper. “I like the contrast between the delicate, old papers and printing, and my intuitive, quick, impulsive, first thought, best thought, down on the paper, don’t edit – boom,” she explained, punctuating each word. “The complement works really well.” The Dictionary Project – numbering some 200 paintings, which are in her own gallery, galleries in San Francisco, and in private collections – is an ongoing project for Lauren, who said, “I can’t get away from it. I just love it.” This project speaks to how prolific she is.
In 1997, Lauren was moved by a “brilliant” art show in London that dealt with the topic of sleeping. A quote from Cervantes’ Don Quijote de La Mancha, which was printed in the pamphlet, inspired her, as did the notion of sleep as death: “All I know is that while I’m asleep, I’m never afraid, and I have no hopes, no struggles, no glories – and bless the man who invented sleep, a cloak over all human thought, food that drives away hunger, water that banishes thirst, fire that heats up cold, chill that moderates passion, and, finally, universal currency with which all things can be bought, weight and balance that brings the shepherd and the king, the fool and the wise, to the same level. There’s only one bad thing about sleep, as far as I’ve ever heard, and that is that it resembles death, since there’s very little difference between a sleeping man and a corpse.”
Lauren was flooded with a lot of images, but she didn’t translate them, along with the quote, until circa 2004 when she began her Bedscapes Project. She embraced the concept of everything being at the same level when one is asleep as well as the ambiguity between sleep and death. The bedscapes run the gamut of emotions – some are tongue-in-cheek, of which bright colors are used to depict humor. But as viewers look more closely, they see that the message is not “funny.” “I think of them as Venus flytraps,” Lauren said. Some are humorous, some dark – with Lauren’s penchant to mix them up. She views them together on the wall as a quilt, involving sewing, quilting, and piecing together. While mostly made out of clay, the bedscapes may move to a different media, according to Lauren. She is still working on them – so far, she has created approximately 30 – for a show planned in May 2014 at the FM Gallery (483 25th Street, Oakland, CA 94612, 510.601.5053).
The subjects or the different “stories” for the Bedscapes Project find her – including her experiences and things that concern her. “War Babies” was made at the start of the Iraqi War. Early on, she would conceive an idea and create a bedscape. Nowadays, with less time and energy, she will ruminate on ideas, although the bedscapes are still intuitive and spontaneous. “I like for them not to feel labored and to just come together,” she explained. “I like it to be somewhat rough or imperfect – with a feeling of freshness.”
Although her art is not labored, it has a certain freedom that’s difficult to get to. She created two bedscapes that deal with the Chevron refinery in Richmond, called “Rooster’s Wake-up Call”: A giant bird is looming over a man in one bed, while two people covered in a black oil slick lie in another bed. A pile of people on a bed is a visual representation of the history one brings when sleeping with another person. For a bedscape addressing global warming, her tongue-in-cheek “solution” was to give trays of ice to a polar bear in a bed. Another bedscape entitled “Sleeping with Death” depicts a woman sleeping with a skeleton. “These are visual poems for me,” she said. “These are things I feel that I can’t figure out, that I feel are too big a subject matter for me to take on.”
Finding your own way through art
Lauren has spent most of her life volunteering and teaching. Her high school encouraged students to volunteer. “It always sat well with me that you give back,” she said. Lauren is a painting instructor at NIAD (National Institute of Art & Disabilities) Art Center (531-551 23rd Street, Richmond, CA 94804, 510.620.0290), a contemporary studio art program and gallery serving adults with developmental and other physical disabilities. She also teaches at the Richmond Art Center (2540 Barrett Avenue, Richmond, CA 94804, 510.620.6772), a nonprofit arts education and cultural institution, and Great Clay Adventure, which brings clay instruction to schools.
As was the case with the girl at Children’s Hospital (see Part I), she has experienced illuminating moments as an instructor. Lauren was teaching art to a kindergarten class when the teacher approached one girl, who had smashed her clay, and asked her where her penguin was. Lauren intervened and helped the girl verbalize her thought process. When the girl responded that the penguin was under a rock, Lauren celebrated her out-of-the-box thinking. “That is just as valid; I don’t have to see a million penguins for you to be right,” she said of her initial reaction. “That’s how I’ve modeled my life.”
Indeed, Lauren entreats all artists to not listen to anybody but themselves. “Be okay with making lots of what I call ‘ugly’ art. It doesn’t have to be perfect; you just have to be in there doing it,” she said. She tells students in her children’s classes that being an artist is akin to being an investigator, with artists using their eyes. “There’s no wrong way,” she insists of the creative process. “You just need to find your own way. As long as you’re not hurting anybody and you’re finding joy, just go for it – this is your one life. Enjoy it and see what’s out there.”
Editor’s note: Lauren teaches art classes at her home studio on Thursdays, 7pm to 9pm, called Art Camp for Adults. Each session comprises four classes. Lauren suggests ideas and the group decides on the direction. The next session begins in September 2013. Lauren is also open to teaching art classes one on one with artists who are experiencing creative blocks or those who want some coaching and need assistance in putting their portfolio together in order to apply to art high school or college. She also hosts art events out of her home twice a year. To see more of Lauren’s work and to contact her, go to her website www.laurenari.com.