Interview with Artist Lisa Solomon

Like a lot of the amazing women I've had the opportunity to connect with in the past year, I first encountered Lisa and her work via instagram. In the comments section below an image of her mesmerizing doilies in every hue, I gathered that these hundreds of intricate beauties were created collaboratively with several different women. Lisa herself talked about how grateful she was for those who had helped her, and in response, several of those who had participated voiced their gratitude in being involved as well, "I love how this work connects all these people together through making and experiencing similar thankful to be a small part of this!" I immediately wanted to know more and learn exactly how this project brought people together to bond and connect through this creative act. Lisa was happy to share.

Can you give some background about your 1,000 doilies project? How did you first conceive of the idea?

In June of 2007 I visited Sanjusangen-do in Kyoto (a Buddhist temple built in the 12th century). The name tells you its hall length spans between 33 columns, but you might as well call it the 1,000 Buddha temple because inside there are literally 1,000 Buddhas lined up – they all have these round crowns/halos with spikes. I thought they were reminiscent of the shape of a doily. When faced with an object repeated in multitude, alternative views present themselves. The Buddha is now no longer just a Buddha - all of them ­together­ are an army, a swarm, a meditation… Things in mass can become something other – both positive, as in a crowd all enjoying the same music at a concert ­– and negative, as in cells mutating and metastasizing into cancer.

The Japanese are masters of the number 1,000 (Sen). It is a number that speaks to several traditions. The dedication it takes to get to 1,000 of anything is no joke – symbolically if you can reach that goal you are rewarded with luck or a wish. In my exhibition I explore this idea of Sen. Repetition – in mark making, and in subject matter, as well as investigation often in a scientific manner, are utilized in my practice regularly. For this exhibition, my goal is to discuss 1,000/Sen and the notion of luck by combining facts and data as well as historical and cultural practices with my own lexicon of visual vocabulary. All the work in the show contains literally 1,000 of the depicted/made objects. 

Besides 1,000 Buddhas, I researched other Sen traditions – cranes, cherry blossoms, samurai marching… I soon discovered Senninbari – these are 1,000 French knot stitch belts that women would make for their husbands going off to war in WWII. Ideally, 1,000 women would gather, and each one would put a French knot in a belt. They would work on many belts – collectively infusing each one with the luck they hoped would keep their loved ones safe. Some were made by individual women for their loved ones, but I really gravitated toward the idea of collective luck. I have used French knots in my work for quite some time, but now they have taken on a new meaning. 

I decided that I should also approach the number 1,000 with my own vernacular/lexicon. For me that is the doily for sure. I’ve been using doilies in my work since graduate school. I’ve used them to represent other things like toxins or war chemicals. I’ve used them to talk about bodies and relationships. I’ve also used them just to be decorative. Another longtime interest of mine is color and color theory so for this project I decided to choose 100 colors of thread and create 10 doilies in each color. These can be arranged in a multitude of ways, by value, by hue, even randomized. Each set of 10 ends with a doily that connects to its threadball - these long threads dangle to the floor activating that space and acting as a reminder of how the doily is actually made. 

I read that you had over 45 women help you to execute this project...who are these women? How did you connect with them? 

For this installation I harkened back to the Sennibari tradition – relying on the kindness of both friends and strangers. Yes, over 45 women (and my mom) from around the world  (France, Belgium, Australia, Denmark, and more) volunteered to help me make this project happen. I got the help by putting a plea on my blog. It just kind of caught on. A few people with really big followings on instagram started posting about the project and that brought on an influx of more volunteers. Some people signed up to do 10. I had a few women offer to do 50 ! I was amazed and touched.  

What were their roles, and how do you think the community effort of this project influenced the work? How do you think the project influenced the people who contributed?

So, it went like this: I sent out thread balls, a sample doily, and a small crochet hook to whoever volunteered to help. There were only two people who didn’t return any doilies or threadballs. There were a couple of people who couldn’t finish all that they took on, but for the most part these women – most of them absolute strangers - were amazing and wonderful.

Although it wasn't possible for us to gather in a gymnasium to make doilies, the power of the internet and global delivery helped connect me to these women. The project really gathered steam on instagram. It was really fun to see people post their doilies in progress, and I posted them as they were returned to me too. The hashtag got a bit usurped by strange florists and other doily makers after instagram blogged about the project, but if you look up #1000 doilies, you can scroll to see the photos. I am intrigued by how these doilies now represent all these individual lives as well… I know my doilies were taken to dance class, done in backyards, done while watching movies – where were these other doilies taken? Each set of 10 is slightly different as every person makes them with a different tension and a different style. There’s actually a list of everyone that helped me here

My contributors were AMAZING. And they were so into the project. It really blew me away. People were THANKING ME for letting them help me. It was strange. And humbling. And powerful. Some people even sent ME gifts. I wanted to send everyone gifts for helping me, but here were these people sending little tokens to me. Several local makers came to the exhibition, and one even traveled from Baltimore to see the show. I’m still in touch with and friends with many of the women who helped me. It’s quite gratifying. 

I love that you're still in touch with these women. There really is something remarkable and refreshing about striking up a friendship in this way, by working together creatively, building something new. It can be so uniquely bonding, for sure. So how does working alone versus collaboratively on a project such as this differ (besides the obvious)? Do you prefer one method over the other?

Well, most artists are used to working alone I think. Besides the obvious I’d say it’s the feeling of doing a social practice piece that is different. It’s actually kind of hard to put into words, but the amount of sheer effort, the fact that so many people were involved – it changes the tenor of the work. It becomes more communal. Bigger than just me. It actually packs an emotional punch in a different way. 

This project was the first time I’d worked on a piece that was crowd-sourced. I really liked it - enough to try it again when I was invited to do a residency over the summer at the Ulrich Museum in Wichita, Kansas. And enough to have another social practice idea brewing in my brain.  I don’t think I will become an artist that ONLY works this way – I still am very much in my head and enjoy working alone, but it’s become an interesting option and way to make work that is compelling. 

Most, if not all of your work, appears to incorporate thread and/or stitching...why do you choose this medium?

I started using thread/stitching in grad school. At first, it was a means to push out of my comfort zone and a way to connect to my grandmother – she was an avid embroiderer/crocheter/knitter. I also became enamored with it after reading Rozsika Parker’s The Subversive Stitch. I loved the idea of embroidery as a subversive domestic act. I had been thinking about domesticity and art since my undergrad days. It was also really fun to learn a new skill. I bought embroidery books and taught myself stitches – one by one. I loved being methodical about it.

The stitching has since become just another tool in my box. It’s so much like drawing. When I use colorful threads, it’s like painting. I love the texture, the dimension, the movement that the thread provides. I gravitate towards things that are “in between” - I’m sure this is tied to my cultural heritage as a 1/2 Japanese, 1/2 Jewish American Caucasian - and the thread offers a way for my work to exist between 2 and 3 dimensions.  

In your artist statement you say, "I am interested in gender identity – what are the parameters we use to place and name things within a masculine or a feminine sphere? What occurs when triggers and cues are misplaced purposefully confusing our vision?" What answers have you found to these questions through your work, or what additional questions have you uncovered?

This is an interesting thing to think about. I’m not sure if I’ve found any answers that are particularly new or insightful. There are definitely ways in which we culturally place things in female and male boxes. I’m made even more aware of it now when my daughter comes home and tells me people at school told her her shoes are BOY shoes. I just look at her and ask what makes them BOY shoes. And she can’t really answer.

I think we're also living in this interesting time when gender roles are a bit more squishy than they were say 50 years ago. I think about metrosexuals, although I hate that term, and how there are more "stay-at-home-dads” now than ever before, and those ideas interest me. But I still notice that some people are surprised when I use power tools, or talk about Mitsubishi Zeros (Japanese WWII airplanes). I have found that it’s much easier to feminize masculine things – I can make planes polka dotted, or tanks cute by making them out of felt and bright candy colors. It’s harder for me to masculize feminine things – I have yet to find a way to make doilies look really MALE… 

I’ve also found it interesting to see what happens and what kind of dialogue surrounds male artists that use more traditionally feminine techniques. It’s often seen as more radical, sometimes taken more seriously. Occasionally I think that I should start working with bullets, or make really large steel installations (a la Richard Serra), but then I realize I’d probably make them pretty and more “feminine” which would defeat my angsty purpose. 

That's so interesting that you make that point about it being easier to feminize something masculine than masculize something feminize...I mean it's not even an actual word, masculize, but feminize is. Hmmm. Maybe you could make a large scale steel doily? Would that be masculine enough?

Right? Masculize – perhaps we can start a movement! Kiki Smith did an installation once with some metal/cast doily-like shapes, and I have to say, it still looked feminine. I’m not exactly sure where the line is. It’s an interesting thing to ponder. 

Who are some of your female role models?

I should start with the obvious - my mother, my grandmother – both for modeling how to be loving and supportive, and yet also independent. Both of them also taught me how to make things – and in their own way the power of aesthetics (even though many of their aesthetics are/were quite different from mine). There are several artists: Agnes Martin, Eve Hesse, Louise Bourgeois. First, because I love their work, but also because of the way they approach their work, how they made it, how they talked about it, how dedicated they were to it. My undergraduate art professor Katherine Sherwood has been a huge role model. I was her studio assistant for some time and went to her home weekly. Not only did she show me how to be a good teacher, the small peek into her life/studio was incredibly influential. Especially in how she balanced her practice, home life, teaching, and motherhood. I have to say I turn to the creative women/artists who are my friends as well. There are too many of them to list, but they all are powerful and amazing women that I turn to when I need advice, inspiration, and support. 

If you could collaborate with another creator or group of creators, dead or alive, who would it be and why?

I’d love to collaborate with almost anyone for almost any reason. I wish I could figure out how to work with scientists, or with artists like Ann Hamilton. The 1,000 doily project most definitely made me realize there is power and meaning in numbers. And in working together. Almost every time I’ve collaborated with someone, something positive has come out of it. 

Do you have any specific rituals to inspire or motivate you to get started working or maintain your work?

I don’t have anything super specific - I’m not a incense lighter, or outfit changer. Ever since having my daughter I’m much more motivated – when I have studio time I hop to it. This was not always the case, but having a child made me much less prone to procrastination and a much better manager/organizer of my time. 

I do have to have my cup of coffee in the morning. I tend to get any urgent emails out of the way. I like to have NPR, this American Life, Radio Lab, or now the Serial podcast, on in the background when I’m drawing. If I’m stitching I watch movies, TV, documentaries. I do tend to clean up the studio when I’m about to start a new series of work. 

The biggest thing for me is leaving the studio with in a state where I know what I want to do next. So the next time I come in, I can just pick up where I left off and do that. I will often switch off in the studio once I’m in the “flow” - working on multiple pieces, but I almost ALWAYS leave something  quick and easy to return to do when I'm back. I love that then I don’t really have to think when I first start. It allows me to just warm up. That way I’m not fearful, and while I’m on the task at hand, I feel free to let my mind wander and go off on tangents. Happy accidents and tangents are the BEST.

I love this strategy! I always feel daunted when I sit down at my desk having to start something fresh first thing. To have something relatively easy as a warm-up is seriously a great idea.

Lastly, do you consider yourself a feminist?

OH MOST DEFINITELY YES. I don’t understand why many women are particularly fearful of this word and thus shy away from it. There are many kinds/waves of feminism. You don’t have to agree with every principal, but as a woman, to not be interested in equality between the sexes?! How can you not support something that at its core wants you to be able to choose WHATEVER life you want as a woman – traditional, progressive, alternative… yes. I believe that we should all be able to have the kind of life that we want, and to me, feminism supports that.