Interview with Lisa Adams

© Lisa Adams and Figure/Ground
Lisa Adams was interviewed by Dr. Julia Schwartz. November 26th, 2012.

LisaAdams_headshotLisa Adams is a painter and public artist who lives and works in Los Angeles, California. Adams graduated with a B.A. in Painting from Scripps College in Claremont, California and received her M.F.A. from the Claremont Graduate University. She is the recipient of numerous awards including a Fulbright Professional Scholar Award, a Brody Arts Fund Fellowship and a Durfee ARC Grant. Her work has been exhibited nationally and internationally and is in the public collections of Eli Broad, the San Jose Museum of Art, the Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art, the Laguna Museum of Art and the Edward Albee Foundation. She is represented by CB1 Gallery in Los Angeles, California.

What attracted you to the arts? What were your earliest experiences of making art?

I got involved in art at a very young age as an escape from a difficult family situation. The earliest drawings I remember were those I created underneath the dining room table at about age four. Lying on my back, I would draw animals and landscapes with a pencil on the underside of the table. I was busy creating a secret world that would later become my art practice.

Who were some of your inspirations? influences?

Nature remains infinitely fascinating to me. My time in the Arctic really changed my life and my art. Film has always been one of my greatest inspirations with Werner Herzog and Andrei Tarkovsky being among the most visually meaningful filmmakers for me. Science fiction remains a big influence, as well as contemporary architecture, philosophy, (specifically phenomenology and the writings of Maurice Merleau-Ponty) and I am also a big fan of the artist iconoclast, like Philip Guston, Lee Bontecou and Llyn Foulkes among others.

Can you describe your first projects/ exhibitions?

During and after graduate school my work was included in many group exhibitions but my first solo exhibition was in 1988 at Newspace in Los Angeles. When I think back it seems I had no shortage of energy and created a lot of big paintings. That first solo exhibition was focused on using industrial materials, like caulking and linoleum, in combination with oil paint and my vision was largely based in archetypal imagery. I remember painting a lot of igloo and yurt-type structures.


A Recondite World, oil and spray paint on panel, 40” x 48”, 2012

How did you come to art? Did you go to art school?

I did go to both undergraduate and graduate school in art. No one in my family understood anything about art. At age ten I saw a reproduction of Salvador Dali’sPersistence of Memory in a book and that really lit up my mind. I knew at that point I would be an artist and called myself one, though I didn’t really know what that meant since there were no examples of artists in my limited world. Around that time I started teaching myself oil painting with serious intention. At thirteen two things happened—I discovered Charles and Ray Eames’ short film Powers of Ten and I saw my first non-objective painting by Karl Benjamin. I was on my way and can sincerely say that I never strayed from my desire to become aprofessional artist.

Could you talk about a significant success? Or a noteworthy failure that was an important turning point in your career?

Since I’ve had a continuous studio practice for the past 32 years after graduating, there have been several turning points in my career and like anyone who’s been at something long enough things ebb and flow.

Living in New York in the 1980’s was the first big turning point where I learned what it meant to concurrently put attention on a studio practice and an art career.

In 1992 my work was selected for inclusion in an important, citywide exhibitionLAX92, which was touted to be the first Los Angeles Biannual. In 1993 I was commissioned by BMW of North America to paint an ArtCar. These were big turning points that helped my work gain serious visibility. From that a lot of things happened—the Fulbright, foreign artist residencies, press and critical attention and eventually public collections.

In 1996 a noteworthy “failure,” if you want to use that term, would have been my decision to follow my work from pure abstraction to representation. My entire career had been built on abstract work and when I decided to investigate the realm of representation my support system and champions all disappeared, almost over night. At that point I had to basically begin an entirely new career.

It’s been a long journey since that time, but ultimately I did the right thing for my work. It’s made not only better paintings but also paintings that encompass more of my deep interests and influences and they’ve taught me more. Therefore, I wouldn’t really cast this a failure but because of the art world structure and dynamic such as it is, building a second career was not easy.

Do you start work with a concept or does the idea come later?

I usually work off of visions—almost like hallucinations. Sometimes the visions come in multiples but usually they appear one at a time. I go with that image, make a quick thumbnail sketch and work out from there, adding to and/or making modifications. I also compose the beginnings of a painting on the computer but I don’t paint those images verbatim. I’m mostly just interested in composition at that point. I love using the computer as one tool in my process.


Paradise Notwithstanding, oil on panel, 48” x 60”, 2011

Can you describe your rituals or routines in the studio – ie, daily painting vs. sporadic, music, etc.

Recently, because of my eye surgery, I’m painting fewer hours per session. I usually paint 10-12 hours, with breaks, but now I paint about five hours per session, six days a week. I’m gradually working my way back to longer hours.

I listen to music most of the time when I’m painting. I love Paxahau, which streams live from Detroit on Internet radio. It’s 24-hour mixes of excellent industrial, trance and ambient music. It’s sort of a collage of sound and I find it very compelling. My studio is located near railroad tracks in downtown Los Angeles and the sound of freight trains is always present. In combination with the Paxahau mixes it creates a kind of audio backdrop for my work.

Can you talk about your choice of materials: what drew you to them.

I was attracted to painting initially because it was something I could do very directly and I could do alone, basically in isolation. To this day I love that aspect of painting and it’s definitely not for everyone.

For about three years in the early 2000’s I also experimented in video. Though I didn’t like shooting much, I loved editing. It was something I could do by myself in isolation. I loved stitching together images and creating narrative but I always came back to painting. Making video in those years really helped to refresh the images I was working with as a painter and allowed me to feel comfortable using the computer as a tool in creating my work. I learned a lot from my sojourn into video.


Graceful Indignities, oil on panel, 20” x 24”, 2012

What would you say is the impact of your personal life on your work? What about other external influences? place, politics, family, etc.

Traveling extensively—and almost always alone—has deeply influenced both my art and personal life. I’ve visited some incredible places in the world—Finnish Lapland, Cappadocia, Pamukkale, Schiermonnikoog, Hiroshima, the former East and present-day Berlin, the Banaue rice terraces, the salt works in Sečovlje, Slovenia, and there are so many others. I’ve usually traveled to places where I thought I could learn something esoteric or see something visually compelling and out of the ordinary.

Recently, I had an emergency vitrectomy for a torn and detached retina. The recovery was two long and tedious months. I was blind in one eye for a month and had only marginal sight in the same eye for another month. I had to sleep face down and keep my head down in waking hours. As a result of this recovery I became very insular, even more so then I am already. During these months I made three paintings in my head and now I feel driven to realize those paintings. This is not my usual way of working and I’m finding the paintings are somewhat different though I’m not able to say how quite yet.

Can you describe what are you working on now?

I’m working on the paintings that were stuck in my head during my months of recovery.

What’s next?

In January 2013 my work will be included in two group exhibitions—one is The WILD Flowers at the Sturt Haaga Gallery of the Descanso Gardens in La Cañada, California and the other is M.A.S. Attack (Mutual Appreciation Society)at the L.A. Mart Building in downtown Los Angeles. I also have a solo exhibition opening in late March 2013 at CB1 Gallery, located in the historic core of downtown Los Angeles.

Any advice for future or emerging artists?

It’s difficult to give advice since my experience is only one experience. In the art world it seems to be true that everyone’s path is so different and what works for one artist may never work for another.

There seems to be so many tacit and elusive qualities that produce success and, of course, success is a relative term.

The most important thing is to remain in service of your work and pay attention to your own vision and how to articulate that the very best you can.  Of course an artist must also pay attention to particular art world standards and know that the art world is as conformist as any other world.  It just seems that the rules are not as blatantly stated but they definitely exist and you have got to be aware of them. Also, never underestimate the grace of financial support to an artist and aspects of luck.  Both these elements are crucial to enhancing the possibility for success.

The thing that I’ve relied on, decade after decade, is persistence in the face of rejection.  For every one good hit there can be dozens that are negative or don’t result in any sense of accomplishment.  You just have to hang in there and do what you can to advance your work in spite of the many rejections. Working continuously with as little downtime and as few interruptions as possible is key—even the interruption of day jobs should be kept to a minimum if at all possible. Your artwork needs to become the centerpiece of your life.


In studio

©  Excerpts and links may be used provided that full and clear credit is given to Lisa Adams
and Figure/Ground with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Suggested citation:

Schwartz, J (2012). “A Conversation with Lisa Adams,” Figure/Ground. November 26th.
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