Interview with Artist Tau Lewis

First I saw fleshy cactus in hues of peach that begged my fingers to touch them through my screen. Then, hands I wished were mine reaching for them, and as I dove deeper into Tau Lewis' work, I discovered neon faces and fingers and hands and feet and whole limbs and tongues that all seemed to beg to be touched. These nearly glowing vivid parts juxtaposed against white walls and clear skies convey an ethereal yet eerie ambiance. There is an explicit strangeness even subtle morbidity in her work as much of it is made up of parts of bodies which are usually whole. Many of her resin faces have their eyes closed - perhaps a product of the process, but perhaps a more deliberate choice, one that may cause some disquiet, or just quiet in the viewer. Her work is bodily and organic yet statuesque and otherworldly. Seemingly simple reproductions of bodies we all see everyday, there is so much more to see in the subtle details she chooses. There is lots to contemplate while viewing Tau's entrancing collection and I was lucky enough to ask the twenty-something Toronto-based artist some questions about her work, process, and inspiration.

First off, when and how did you start making art? I know you are self-taught and specialize in sculpture and mixed media, what did learning those mediums look like for you? And why those two mediums specifically?

After high school I let myself be convinced that going for a BFA would be a waste, I’m a very skilled writer, [I remember actually my philosophy prof telling me one day that paid essay writing might be a lucrative thing for me to get into.] Anyway I entered into Ryerson’s School of Journalism, and so began one of the most miserable years of my life. Not going to art school was a huge mistake, but I’m so glad I made that mistake.

So at 18 I was studying Journalism, and also working on my own time as a cleaning lady. I got a reply one day on craigslist from a 21-year-old Chloe Wise, who I started cleaning for every weekend. When I met her I couldn’t believe how many things she had on the go - modeling, painting, studying at OCAD, and a working stylist. I could see clearly that she was coming from a much more privileged background than I was, but I used her as a model for what I could do with myself if I really worked my ass off. Near the end of our working relationship I told Chloe I’d clean her place for free if she’d let me interview her for a blog I was working on, she wouldn’t accept the freebie but she gave the interview. At the end, she turned it on me and asked if I was happy in J-school, she told me that if there was something I wanted, or felt like I needed to do, to stop right now and just do that. Meeting Chloe, in one way or another, in my opinion, marked the start of my creative awakening, and she doesn’t really know this, but it was one of the most important interactions I’d ever had. 

I’m a very handy person, I like to build things, I like to get dirty, I get that from my mom who’s a self-taught landscaper. If there is something that I want to make, I will find a way to make it. The use of resin in my work came from my desire to create work that was translucent, dream-like and different aesthetically from conventional forms of 3D work. Learning to use resin was, and continues to be, a complete mess. I’ve never had a studio to work in, needless to say I ruin a lot in the process of resin and plaster casting, but working in conditions that aren’t ideal just drives me, it forces me to be creative and inventive about the way I produce. I recently started working with plaster because I’m attracted to its fragility, its natural origins, and the way that it contrasts the hard and indestructible resin, it’s also a much cheaper medium.

In your bio you talk about making work centered on ideas of mental health, self-image, and feminist satire, can you tell us more about your practice, your inspiration, maybe some specific examples correlating to each of these ideas?

My strongest moments of creative productivity come from my being in the depths of depression and frustration. It’s a great release, I use my pain like it’s fuel. Since I started actively making art, it’s been a vehicle for my intensity, my insanity and anger, and my being able to create is crucial to my wellbeing. I use my body and myself in a lot of my work. I remember seeing my mother look at her reflection in our bathroom mirror, and she was complaining about the way she looked, and her face looked so different in her reflection from the way I knew it, kind of backwards. I said “You don’t look that way in real life, don’t worry,” she didn’t know what I meant. I’m kind of obsessed, and fascinated with recreating, and documenting if you will, the physical self. To hold and to touch and to look at and feel the weight of something that is an exact recreation of your own face, it’s, in a very strange way, like discovering yourself, seeing yourself for the first time. Satire is a vehicle for opening up discourse about those things that some people are unwilling or hesitant to discuss. My vlog series “Lonely Winter” is a satire on those “feminine” problems that are pre-packaged for first world women to believe in and relate to. They were all created during bouts of depression, and they represent a manic, superficial, hyper-real and exaggerated version of myself. They correlate, I think, to themes of mental health and self-image as well as feminist satire.

A lot of your sculptural work is made using polyurethane - can you tell us more about this material, what it's like to work with, what the process is like, and why you use it in particular?

Polyurethane, from my experience is one of the least temperamental and most impressionable forms of resin. This is a material that will preserve the finest detail in your mold applications. The process, like working with any other casting material, is really messy. I’m eager and impulsive when I work, I’m more concerned with a perfect final product than the cleanliness of my apartment or my self. I’ve stupidly worked without gloves and gotten resin all over my hands like lotion, I’ve stepped barefoot into it, cut it out of my hair, but the worst was when I sat in it, it seeped through my jeans and underwear and cured, and I had to rip my now hard plastic underwear from my left asscheek, and had cured resin peeling off my bum and thigh for probably two days. Worse things have happened, labour of love.

I love your submerged woman, what do you imagine she's submerged in??

Submerged woman was a combination of castings taken from myself and my friends Victoria, (whose face was the first I ever cast, which I’ve used in a lot of my work), and Ale. I imagined it as a floating body, of the surfacing curves visible on a body floating in water. Whether she’s submerged or emerging, it leaves you wondering and imagining the body underneath the surface.

In your work that incorporates female body parts, whose body(ies) do you use for molds? Is it arbitrary or is there significance to who you choose to cast after?

There is significance in who I choose to cast. I don’t choose to cast someone because I like their features, or because I feel like they will help me achieve a certain look in my work over someone else. I have very little foresight into what the final details of my work will look like. I choose the women that I cast out of my respect for them, our friendship, and as a way of involving them in my creative process. It is their uniqueness that, in many ways, creates the composition.

Tell us about the gifs you've made that are on your website, what do you want these moving images to convey?

The gifs are quite old, but they were part of a very early and basic stage of my creating feminist artwork. I was pairing texture and colour with physical movement, celebrating the body, its muscles and movements.

Who are some women you look up to/inspire you?

My mother, and Grace Jones.

What or where or who is home to you?

My mother, Patty Kelly, my best friend. She was a single mom to my brother and I, being a white woman raising two children of colour was not easy, and we didn’t have a lot. My mum sold the necklaces she inherited from her grandmother to buy a pickup truck, read every book on the planet about stones and plants, and taught herself to landscape, that’s how she fed us and bought us everything we needed. I’m an emotive, sensitive and intensely feely person - my mother, she’s pragmatic, solid, she represents strength, she’s my grounding. Four years ago when she was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer, I felt like I was ready to die, and that if she were to die, I would no longer care about living either. And it killed me a bit waking up every day, as she went through treatment, not knowing what would happen, wanting an answer. But my mother is relentless, and four years later she is still kicking cancer’s ass. It’s still there, but she’s stable. It’s still there, but she still gets up every morning and works a physically demanding job five days a week. So I have no excuses. She has always been the biggest fan of me and my blackness, my skin and my hair, she was my protector. Anything that I didn’t like about myself was a perfect detail to her that I was crazy for not liking. If I think about my mum for too long, I start to cry because of how much I love her, I know how awfully sappy that sounds, and she’s probably laughing at me reading this, but I’m not ashamed of it.

I read an interview you did where you talked about teenage girls on instagram and social media posting things "completely lacking in anything serious or purposeful", can you expound on what you mean by this? What do you think teenage girls should be posting? How can we help to redirect intention, learning, and dialogue to be meaningful via social media?

I regret the way that I worded that in conversation. What I meant was, at the time when that interview was given, Feminism, because of several very influential girls with really heavy followings on instagram and social media, was becoming a massive trend, which is a good thing (for the most part), I think that any trend that creates awareness and conversation is a good thing, but we have to think hard as young women, about how we represent ourselves online and why we are choosing to identify as feminist. The trend that I was referring to all over instagram, was and still is a cis-gendered, pale, skinny, non-intersectional kind of feminism. If you are not intersectional, if you are not willing to discuss issues affecting women of colour, trans people, gay people, persons with disabilities, women of all ages, if you’re in support of a topless rally but not a rally for the death of Sandra Bland, think long and hard about what kind of feminist you are, If you’re not intersectional, if you’re not asserting equality for ALL people, I don’t think you should call yourself a feminist. So what I meant by that comment was that it was hard for me to participate in, or clap my hands for this cis-gendered white feminist trend. I wasn’t in the mood to free my nipples because I felt more affected by the fact that women of colour are dying at the hands of police brutality in the states. But police brutality awareness isn’t sexy, and it certainly isn’t a trend.

Lastly, what does feminism mean to you?

Feminism is power, the assertion of power, the reclaiming of the power that you were born with, and the distribution of that power back into the channels where it is needed. Feminism is the belief in equality for all people. Strong feminists cannot be afraid to get angry, should not hide and should not cater to, or lower their voices to make their issues and struggles easier for the heterosexual white male to stomach. I respect the women who aren’t afraid to get angry, to get ugly, or to show off their strength and honesty.