Lisa Corinne Davis
Unsettling abstract art, definitions of identity, teaching through the pandemic and managing motherhood while being an artist are on the lineup for this episode. Sophia Kayafas and Lisa Corinne Davis compare notes on how artists can do it all.
Kayafas: This is artist Lisa Corinne Davis.
She's an award-winning artist
whose paintings have been exhibited across the world
and live in collections at the MoMA,
among many other museums and galleries.
Woman: How was the drive?
Lisa was temporarily working upstate during the pandemic,
and today her paintings have come back home
to her studio in Bushwick.
The first wave of the pandemic
was full of uncertainty and fear,
and everyone is dealing with it in their own way.
It's a huge tragedy, but there are many other things in life
that artists have to overcome.
How can we incorporate all of the challenges in our lives
into our work?
Hi. Davis: Hi.
How are you?
I'm good. How are you? I'm good.
[ Laughs ] Nice to meet you.
Nice to meet you, too. I'm Sophia.
Lisa. Great to meet you.
Kayafas: Did you finish all these in this past year?
Davis: Not all of them, but I'm a really slow painter,
and something about this lockdown has been good,
so I'd say about half of these have been done.
Wow. These are beautiful.
They're on panel and canvas?
Panel and canvas. Yeah.
The panel, the paint sits on top.
And the canvas, it sinks in
and gives a different kind of atmosphere.
So I go back and forth, but mostly on canvas.
Do you like the bounce on the canvas?
I don't have a bounce. I have a board behind it.
I can't have a bounce because of all the detail work.
The drawing. Yeah. It'd be too much.
Kayafas: They remind me of, like, a cartographer
tripping on acid or something.
Perfect. [ Laughs ]
I mean, they're loosely to refer to maps or locations,
but the tripping part I love
because they're supposed to disorient
and not let anyone have a place to really land
or stand or be.
It's like two languages
that I think are part of abstraction.
One is when we trust, which is the kind of geometry
and straight lines and measured things and grids.
And the other that we feel is more bodily and psychological --
drips and organic shapes, et cetera.
So I kind of just keep weaving those two components together
in the paintings
until it gets to a layer of enough complication.
Then I stop.
I wanted them to be a little toxic
and a little disquieting, so they're not pleasant.
Kayafas: It seems like with abstract art, it kind of --
people want to make a meaning from it.
And it's so versatile, 'cause it can have some meanings.
Right. But there's something about the way you paint
that makes it feel that there's really a specific sentence
that I need to perceive or understand.
Like, I find myself trying to construct
a really specific meaning for these.
Right. And that's good, because that's what I want.
The painting started with people doing that to me as a person,
like because of my visual appearance,
like, wanting to figure out who I --
what the signifiers are of race, basically.
As an African-American artist, do you find it difficult
to not make work that's overtly political?
Yeah. I mean...
Is that a choice? Yes and no.
Or is this overtly political?
Well -- [ Laughs ]
Well, I mean, it's political in the sense
that the ideas are political, but it's personal.
I mean, I was describing them to a student yesterday,
weirdly, as self-portraits.
Because yes, I'm African-American,
but I grew up in, first, a Black neighborhood,
then moved to an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood.
I went to a Quaker school.
I married a white man, Canadian.
So it's like my story has nothing
and some things to do with the African-American story, right?
Mm. But it's not a blueprint.
I've been trying to figure out where do I settle.
Like, I'm slightly uncomfortable
in any clear zone of identity, you know?
I'm just slightly uncomfortable in it
because I've never lived in those clear zones of identity.
I'm interested in talking about my experience
and my experience as a lived, felt experience,
and that experience is best communicated
through abstraction, which is a felt experience.
Okay. Let's talk more about the pandemic.
Mm-hmm. I'm curious because I'm an artist, too.
Mm-hmm. And when I found out
that I wasn't allowed access to my studio anymore...
Right. ...I about flipped out.
So what did you do?
I had to move into my apartment, and I had to paint smaller.
I was painting. I couldn't bring a big table.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
I had everything out, and I was trying.
I just knew if I didn't get to my studio,
I would lose my mind.
And I had this luxury of this studio upstate, right?
So I knew -- I wasn't sure about anything,
like I'm sure you weren't -- like how travel would work,
how, if I could get here, how dangerous that would feel.
So, like, upstate,
I knew I could leave the door of the house and walk to the barn
and the work would be there.
So I just packed it all up and just moved there
and just kept going.
So in a sense, I mean, I feel guilty
'cause it's like I'm reading all these articles now
about the people who ran away.
But, um, I don't want to be one of those people.
But anyway, but I kind of was able to put myself in a bubble.
So you weren't productive in your apartment?
I tried to dip into painting,
but it was really -- I don't know.
I think I'm still trying to shrug off my master's program,
just trying to get it off me and kind of scrub it...
[ Laughs ] Where'd you go for...
I went to the New York Academy. Oh, wow.
And now I teach at Pratt. Right.
And so I'm still in the academic system.
How do you find teaching?
Well, that was interesting,
because I also teach at Hunter College.
I just had to drop my whole course that I taught before,
because I do think when the world blows up like this,
it's a time of reassessment, right?
So I said to the students, "You just can't --
You got to let go of what you did before
and think about how to make this limited zone that you're in
useful for you."
And they really, like, had a terrible time with this.
They were like, "I need my studio,
I need my stuff. I need my -- "
You know, and I, luckily, could arrange that.
But they couldn't. They were in apartments.
The studios at Hunter were shut down.
So I said, "Let's just work on one thing for a semester,
whatever you can do,
and, like, just write about it every week
and talk about why you did it, what you were thinking about."
So you just had a shift, and it was more about
"Let's talk about processing this."
Yeah. And we talked about the apocalypse.
Like, what that is and what it means,
and it's not the worst thing on the planet.
It's a big destruction that leads to something.
And I'm in this privileged place where I get to hear
and listen to younger people think.
You know, 'cause culture changes.
And I wouldn't be as alert to it
if I weren't in a classroom with them.
So, I mean, I'm a woman.
[ Laughs ] Yeah. Okay.
And, uh... [ Laughs ] Cool.
I'm so aware of the pressures of being an artist
and potentially having children.
And that is such a hard dynamic.
You have to stretch yourself and still be grounded.
Can you tell me what that is like?
'Cause you have two children. I have two children.
Davis, who draws,
and my daughter, who wisely just started law school.
So -- [ Laughs ]
So we expect her to, like, support us all someday.
I mean, as a young woman, I didn't want children.
I had -- I didn't understand them.
I had no relationship to them. Whatever.
But when I met my husband, I fell in love.
I wanted children.
But I really thought it was gonna be the end of my art.
Having a kid is an excuse to not do anything.
Like, you have the ultimate excuse.
"I have so much to do here. I can't do this. I can't --"
It can provide the excuse for stopping your life.
And then I thought, "Well, then what happens? Oh!
Then I become this angry, miserable person," right?
So then my children are being raised
by this resentful, angry, miserable person.
So I realized I had to make it happen.
So when Davis was a baby -- like literally a baby --
I came home from the hospital.
I put him in, like, a bassinet, and I started drawing.
I thought, "If I only get an hour a day..."
"Whenever he's sleeping, I'm drawing."
I couldn't use oil paint. I couldn't roll around in it.
I couldn't cover myself in it.
I didn't have a studio, but I drew.
And then I had a supportive husband
who was good about giving me some time.
But I realized, like, in the teaching front,
also in my fellow female professors on the studio side,
I'm the only one that has children.
And when I was at Yale, I was the only one that had children.
And I realized at Yale with that commute,
I could never go in and say, "Sorry I'm late,
because I have these two children."
So I never used them as an excuse.
It was a complete juggle.
It probably did not do well for the health of my marriage,
you know, which ended.
It's not an easy navigation, but in the end,
I think having children for me made me a more complete person,
a more complicated person.
But it was kind of brutal for a long time.
You know, you've just got to restructure
how to feed the growth of your overall work
and not have some preset plan
that this has to happen in this way at this time.
Mm. I think that's what's important.
So, do you think you'll have children?
You know, it sounds great.
[ Laughs ] It is great.
But I have my fears.
I have my fears because of everything that you said,
you know, and I think I'm still trying to figure out who I am
and what kind of artist I am.
I don't know if there is gonna be a perfect time.
Mm-hmm. There isn't. It's just not a rational thing.
But ultimately, I think the more you know
and the more you live, the better your work is.
It's like all that is material
that comes into the work, ultimately.
Kayafas: I left Lisa's studio full of hope and inspiration.
She is such a powerhouse of accomplishment,
but she doesn't take any of it for granted.
And as artists, we have to work so hard in the city
to get anywhere.
And we follow this abstract path full of many unknowns.
But what we have at the end is the culmination
of our greatest passions and relationships.
And this is what this flowing journey through the studios
and homes of artists has taught me.
The artist's life is a constant transformation,
hard work, tenacity, invention, a rewarding inconvenience.
And isn't that beautiful?
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