Lisa Kokin: Content and materials-driven
Artist, art instructor and art coach Lisa Kokin lives and works in El Sobrante, California, outside of San Francisco. She received her BFA and MFA from the California College of the Arts in Oakland, CA and uses recycled and reclaimed materials to create mixed media textile art. Lisa also works with artists as a mentor and teaches a number of group workshops and classes.
In this captivating interview with Lisa we find out more about her intuitive process, why textiles are in her blood and she also offers invaluable advice about treating your studio practice like a job.
‘Textiles are in my blood’
TextileArtist.org: What initially captured your imagination about textile art?
Lisa Kokin: I like to say that textiles are in my blood. My maternal grandmother, a Jewish immigrant from Romania, worked, like so many of her peers, in a textile factory which made men’s ties in New York. My parents had a small upholstery shop; my father did the cutting, my mother the sewing. I grew up in that shop as these were the years before childcare. I have memories of cutting up scraps of leatherette and foam rubber and making collages from these materials. I received my first sewing machine at the age of nine. I grew up around fabric and sewing so it was natural to incorporate it into my work.
What or who were your early influences and how has your life/upbringing influenced your work?
My maternal grandfather bought me my first paint-by-numbers kit. He was a self-taught naïf artist. He copied old masters like Rembrandt and also Japanese art and Chagall. These paintings hung in our house and I remember watching him paint in a little corner of my grandparents’ apartment.
My mother was interested in art at an early age, but a teacher told her she had no talent and she gave it up. When I showed interest in art as a child, I was given everything within my parents’ means to encourage that interest – art supplies and classes and loads of encouragement. I think my mom got vicarious pleasure out of seeing that I wanted to pursue art after her interest was thwarted.
Growing up outside of Manhattan was a rich experience. I had access to all the museums and galleries and I went to the city every weekend to take classes and look at art. While many artists learned about art from reproductions in books, I was privileged to be able to see the real thing. I remember looking a Guernica repeatedly at the Museum of Modern Art which in retrospect must have shown me how an artist can incorporate a critique of current events into his or her art.
What was your route to becoming an artist? (Formal training or another pathway?)
I studied art for one year in a liberal arts college on the east coast, then moved to San Francisco to study at the San Francisco Art Institute, which I did for one year. I left to experience life outside of school for awhile. During that time, which turned into thirteen years, I worked in batik, making work with socio-political themes like U.S. intervention in Latin America (Chile, El Salvador), apartheid in South Africa, the plight of the Palestinian people, and other national and international struggles that I had strong feelings about.
After the thirteen years of working in batik, I felt that I had gone as far as I could with the medium and I wanted to find other ways of working. I went back to school at the California College of Arts and Crafts (now the California College of the Arts) in Oakland, California. I completed the remaining two years of my Bachelor of Fine Arts and two years later received my Master of Fine Arts degree from the same institution.
Content- and materials-driven
What is your chosen medium and what are your techniques?
I have worked in many mediums and techniques. I like to say that my art is content- and materials-driven. I try to find the best way to express what I want to say and use whatever materials and techniques best convey that. I am not overly concerned with technique, nor do I see technique as an end in and of itself. I work mainly with found materials such as old books and ephemera, and more recently thread and found textiles. I have used everything from lace to rusty shovels. I acquire technique as I need it and this ad hoc approach has served me well.
Lately, I have been using a stabilizer to make thread pieces that sometimes incorporate fragments of book pages. My most recent body of work incorporates zipper fragments that are stitched to fabric or connected by thread to form book “pages” in which the zippers are the “text.”
How would you describe your work and where do you think it fits within the sphere of contemporary art?
My work fits in with contemporary artists who have a strong affinity with materials and whose work is content-driven. Many of these artists could be described as conceptual artists.
I consider myself to be a mixed media artist with a strong conceptual orientation. Materiality is very important to me as is content. I don’t call myself a textile artist per se. I have been described as a textile artist, a book artist, an installation artist, a Jewish artist, a woman artist, a political artist, a conceptual artist. I am all of the above and none of the above, exclusively. I like to describe myself as simply an artist because I don’t like categories; they are confining.
Tell us a bit about your process and what environment you like to work in?
I work intuitively, sometimes starting with an idea or a material. For example, in a recent body of work I used the spines of self-help books to make horticultural forms. Why self-help books? I found lots of them each time I went to the local recycling center which has a book exchange. Dozens and dozens of self-help books promising a quick fix for any number of conundrums experienced by people wanting to feel better. Books with titles like “Find Your Ideal Love Mate in One Week or Less.” This started me thinking about why there is such a proliferation of these types of books and why people feel so dissatisfied with their lives. So I try to pay attention to what is around me and take my cues from that.
At the same recycling center one day I found dozens of pulp cowboy novels. I found the violence of the imagery repellent but yet…there were so many and they looked so great together. I thought, let me just bring them to my studio and see what might happen. Some months went by and then one day I began cutting them up and thus another series was born. A few years after that I used the imagery from the cowboy novels and made a series of cowboys from traditionally “feminine” materials like lace and embroidered textiles. This work turned into a solo exhibition at the Boise Art Museum entitled “How the West Was Sewn.”
I like to work in my wonderful studio designed by my spouse Lia Roozendaal, a graphic designer and photographer, with whom I collaborate on projects.
Do you use a sketchbook?
No. I mull things over in my head a lot. I keep a small notebook in which I jot down ideas for work and titles.
What currently inspires you and which other artists do you admire and why?
I am inspired (obsessed? preoccupied by?) the human condition and world in which we live, the inequities, the state of the environment, and the precarious position in which we find ourselves, in short, a kind of existential angst which I feel on a daily basis and which finds its way into my work as a way to channel my thoughts and feelings. Art is the way I attempt to make sense of a (sometimes senseless) world and express what I think about what goes on in that world. I like to say that if I weren’t an artist I would be a menace to society.
Currently, I am intrigued by text-based work that uses asemic text, which is something that looks like text but isn’t made up of actual words.
There are many artists whom I admire. Maria Lai is an artist whose work I discovered recently while researching an assignment for a class I teach in my studio. Maria Lai was an Italian artist who used sewing and asemic text in her work and I find her work simply incredible. I also love the work of Annette Messager, Christian Boltanski, El Anatsui, Leonardo Drew, Louise Bourgeois, Doris Salcedo, Eva Hesse, James Castle, Nick Cave and William Kentridge, among many others.
Tell us about a piece of work you have fond memories of and why?
Remembrance is a piece that I made while still in graduate school. It consists of ten jackets modeled after concentration camp jackets and ten bags, all of which are made of gut (also known as sausage casings). I made the piece after seeing an actual jacket at the Judah Magnes Museum in Berkeley, California. The piece was later purchased by the Buchenwald Memorial, the museum on the site of the former concentration camp in eastern Germany. I was very moved by seeing the original jacket and am honored to contribute to the education of the many thousands of people who visit the museum each year.
Subtle and reductive
How has your work developed since you began and how do you see it evolving in the future?
I like to think it has become more subtle and reductive. I use as few materials as possible to get the point across. The color I use is mostly found color, whatever exists in and on the material. I think that it is just as important to take away, or maybe more important, than to add. This is something I constantly talk about with my students. I also believe that it is a good exercise to work within self-imposed limitations. If you were on a desert island and all you had were zippers, thread and a sewing machine (which could miraculously work without electricity), what could you make?
I like that my work is taking a more abstract turn with the Facsimile series (the zipper work). It is abstract but also grounded in a specific image or configuration, ie., the lines of text in a book page.
A note about humor. I like to use it whenever I can. Humor is a survival mechanism my life and in Jewish culture and the cultures of other peoples who have been outsiders. Humor is a way to talk about serious issues with some degree of levity which makes the work more accessible.
What advice would you give to an aspiring textile artist?
Treat your studio practice like a job. Show up every day. If you don’t have an idea or are “stuck,” putter around and take some materials out and start to work with them. Don’t be overly concerned with the end result. Stay true to your vision and finding your voice even if you think people might not understand what you are doing. Cultivate faith in yourself and your vision. When and if you are ready, start to find venues to show your work, but be aware of the distractions and issues that come up with getting your work out and try to remain centered and focused no matter the outcome of your outreach. When you find yourself caught up in distractions, remind yourself why you do what you do. Find a community of like-minded artists to critique or discuss with if you feel isolated. Above all, trust yourself.
Resources, tools, classes and exhibitions
What other resources do you use? Blogs, websites, magazines etc.
I look at websites to find artists whose work exemplifies ideas and materials that I use in my teaching. I don’t spend a lot of time on the Internet because I find it distracting. I look at a lot of art books which I use both for my own work and for my teaching.
What piece of equipment or tool could you not live without?
My old beat-up Kenmore sewing machines from the 1970s including a Visetti that my uncle gave me when I was nine.
Do you give talks or run workshops or classes? If so where can readers find information about these?
I do both. I will be speaking to members of the Surface Design Association in Palo Alto, California in January and I give artist’s talks at all of my exhibitions. I have been on numerous panels and have given many slide presentations.
I have a varied teaching practice in my studio in El Sobrante, California. All of my teaching is an extension of my own studio practice, by which I mean that I try to impart what I have learned from my 45 years of being an artist to my students.
I teach a six-week class called Reuse Muse, in which we investigate the use of recycled materials to make books, sculpture and collage. We are currently on our sixth and final session of the year. Each year there is a different theme. This year’s theme was text; last year’s was sewing and in 2015 we will focus on books and bookishness.
I facilitate two critique groups in my studio for artists with a committed studio practice. These groups are based on critique seminars that I have taught in graduate art schools. Members bring their work and in our discussions we all try to move it forward in a diplomatic and supportive way.
I also mentor artists, both in my studio and via Skype for those who do not live in the San Francisco Bay Area. Mentorships run in six-hour cycles, generally six one-hour meetings, and are renewable. Each artist decides what he/she wants to work on, whether it is critique, professional development, applying for shows, approaching galleries, creating a work schedule, and/or a myriad of other art-related themes. In a mentorship, the artist has my undivided attention. The miracle of Skype allows me to work with artists on the east coast, in Europe or anywhere in the world.
Please visit: lisakokin.com/teaching-coaching for more information
How do you go about choosing where to show your work?
Currently I am represented by four galleries:
Additionally, I participate in small and large group exhibitions in galleries and museums as an invited artist.
Where can readers see your work this year?
It has been a busy year and we are nearing the end of it. My solo exhibition Facsimile recently closed at Seager Gray Gallery and was very well received. I will be in a small group exhibition at Tayloe Piggott Gallery in which I will be exhibiting three new zipper-based pieces which can be found on my website at lisakokin.com/facsimile-one
For more information please visit: www.lisakokin.com
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