The Daily Undertaker talks to Liz Huston about The Motionless Dream
March 10, 2011
Liz Huston is a photographer and photomontagist based in Venice California. Her subject matter is varied and her techniques are versatile. Whether she is using pinhole photography in a New Orleans Cemetery, her iphone camera in the city, or photographing jellyfish underwater, compelling themes about mortality, the supernatural, and our place in the world are always present. Her work can be seen in galleries in California and New York, in magazines, and on her web site. Her work has been published in three books; Sacred New Orleans Funerary Grounds (2005), At the Threshold of Life (2008), and most recently in The Motionless Dream (2011). Ms. Huston has graciously agreed to share her work and thoughts here on The Daily Undertaker.
Pat McNally: The interplay between permanence and impermanence, and between the familiar and that which is beyond our understanding is everywhere in your work. We see antique figures that seem very familiar, but have been transformed in supernatural ways. We see signs of decay and life that belie the permanence of stone monuments. What draws you as an artist to these themes?
Liz Huston: I have always been interested in the supernatural, the strange and the unusual. So these themes spoke to me on a personal level first. I explored everything occult, supernatural, and fringe that I could get my hands on in my early years. After that, all I learned was integrated into my being, where it sort of just spoke through me as an artist.
As for the cemetery photography, looking back, I believe I was drawn to it in an effort to come to terms with my own mortality. What I learned though the lens was that everything is always changing, expanding, morphing, and moving towards its own death. If everything is in a state of impermanence, perhaps then to take a photograph or to make a piece of visual art is an attempt to freeze that moment in time and preserve it from its own demise. I cultivated a peace of mind in the idea of death, and in doing so found I was suddenly more open to life.
PM: There seems to be a great deal of emotional content in your images. Even the still life and nature work, express love, loss and pain. Can art be a means to healing for the artist and the viewer? Can looking at our situation, from the perspective that art affords us, enable us to deal with emotional issues and move forward?
LH: I am a woman who feels very deeply, and so, creating authentic work for me means that each piece is laced with a certain emotional intensity, and an emotional subtlety, as well.
The creation of art is indeed an act of healing for the artist. In times of great confusion, change, pain, sadness, even happiness, the only constant, for me at least, was art. Creating allows a space to rest, to dream and reflect - to wander between the conscious mind and the subconscious mind in a safe way. It's a funny journey to take, between the conscious and subconscious. There have been many times where I'd make a piece of art, thinking the entire time that it was about one thing on a conscious level. Once the piece is finished, that original intent is still intact, but it has a strange way of revealing some deeper truth. Inevitably, it puts me face to face with the truth, be it pain or joy, I subconsciously was trying to avoid.
Art is a great mirror, if you allow it. It is also the great transformer, an alchemist, if you will. I have made work to help me get through a specific heartbreak, only to have that same piece, years later, take on a whole new meaning. The stench of heartbreak is no longer palpable, and instead the piece gives off an air of transcendence and personal power.
I also believe that art is a great healer for the viewer as well. When an artist travels to the most authentic parts of themselves and brings a vision forth from there, the result must be healing for others. We are all on this strange journey called life; we all have many of the same struggles and joys. To see yourself reflected in a piece of art creates a sense of humanity, a connection - and I believe that is where the healing comes from. Realizing that you're not alone in your experience; that it had happened to others before and it will happen to even more after.
PM: It’s interesting to me that even across different media, your work is recognizable in its atmospheric, and even its granular feeling. The images may be from different dreams, but it is clear that they are from the same dreamer. Where in your mind or experience does this ‘place’ come from?
LH: I mentioned in an earlier answer, an authentic place within. Even though I say 'authentic place', it's not really a place, but a feeling. I get an idea, a core image and I work with that. It's usually a pretty abstract idea, but the more questions I ask, the more I work with the idea, the more it comes into focus. As long as I'm true to the core idea, from beginning to end, the result is authentic. That is what allows me the freedom to cross over into different mediums and have the vision constant within them all.
I really appreciate you saying 'it is clear that they are from the same dreamer". So many artists feel that they have to limit themselves to doing one thing only; one look, one theme, one medium, one consistent style that viewers can always recognize and relate to. I can see the value in that, I can. However, I think it's insulting to the viewer and stifles the creative process. To limit ones artistic self into creating only the same kind of work over and over again in a predictable manner kills the creative spirit. Don't get me wrong, this is something that I have had to work through for a long time. I too bought into the idea that it had to be the same work, same style, over and over. But, as I said in the beginning, everything is always changing and expanding. If I did not allow my work to change and expand, the work itself would then cease to be authentic.
PM: Your work certainly demonstrates the great value that cemeteries can be from an artistic and historical perspective. As a person who has obviously spent some time in cemeteries, what do you think about their cultural and emotional importance ?
LH: I was married in a cemetery in New Orleans, St. Louis Number 1. I think cemeteries are beautiful places, as full of peace and love as any sacred space. Emotionally speaking, cemeteries are incredibly important, especially with how disconnected we are in the west to the reality of death. Our society hides death away from us all too well. In the case of a natural death, our loved ones are carted away to leave this world in a cold and bright, impersonal hospital room. Where, just a hundred years ago, they would have passed quietly in the family home. Too often we never really get to say goodbye, and so cemeteries are needed to give us a place to grieve, move through the pain and perhaps even confront our own fears of death.
PM: There a many references to the afterlife in your work. Can art add something to the contemplation of our existence after death? Would you agree with me that the way we envision our existence after death profoundly effects the way we conduct our lives?
LH: I think that art is a great platform in contemplating our existence after death. Our soul within our physical body cannot contain the experience of death. Since the body cannot relate to it we can explore the notion through the mind. Our mind can decipher the code and explore the possibilities in art, because art is based on metaphors; a visual language that lives inside the mind.
I completely agree that our belief in existence after death effects the way we conduct our lives. If a person believes that this is the end of the line or even if they believe that this earth is a hell and heaven is somewhere else, then why not trash the environment, why care about future generations? It might be an extreme example, but I think you get my point. We are selfish creatures, and if we don't think we have anything invested then it's easier to turn a blind eye and give in to apathy.
For me, I don't give as much thought to the afterlife as I used to. I've made my peace with not knowing what lies beyond. In making that peace, I find that I've embraced my life as a whole. As a result I strive to live out my days with grace and beauty. I've learned to take responsibility for my place on this planet. It is important to me personally, to leave a sustainable legacy for my children and their children and so on.
PM: In addition to galleries, your work can be seen and purchased online in books and on Etsy. What changes would you hope that these relatively new opportunities will have on the ways we interact with art?
LH: The online world is such a fantastic way to discover new art, to connect with fans and friends - the possibilities of connecting seem so limitless it's a little daunting! At the end of the day, I truly hope that websites like Etsy help independent artists share their vision in a far-reaching way. A way that, even twenty years ago, would have been inconceivable.
PM: It appears that there is a great deal of detail in your work, especially the photomontage work. I imagine that seeing them in person is quite a different experience that on a computer screen. Are there any upcoming shows we should look out for?
LH: Yes, indeed! Seeing the work in person is a completely different experience. I print the photomontages on metal, then hand paint on top of the metal. They range in size from 8” x 10” to 20” x 24”. On metal they have such a luminescence, a truly otherworldly quality that you really have to see with your own eyeballs!
All work is copyrighted and used by permission