AN INTERVIEW WITH NICK LAMIA:
BRADLEY TSALYUK: You grew up in California? How did a place where natural beauty and urban sprawl collide affect you?
NICK LAMIA: The question places "natural beauty" and "urban sprawl" in opposition to one another. I consider societal infrastructure, including sprawl, part of nature, and find it can be visually beautiful as a phenomenon although I am opposed to it as a plan for living. It's far too inefficient and expensive to succeed in the long term. Wind farms are an example of a part of societal infrastructure that I consider both beautiful AND good. The ones I've seen are gorgeous, they are testaments to human ingenuity and I think will provide part of the answer to the energy challenge we face. As far as how urban sprawl and natural beauty have affected me and influenced my imagery, it is a combination of having grown up in both urban and rural situations. I'm interested in the overlap of nature with society and the possibility of a symbiotic existence. I can't help but think my fascination with that is rooted in the geography I experienced as a kid. My family lived in Southern California, until I was 10. After that, we moved to Chevy Chase, Maryland, a suburb of Washington D.C. I went from spending most of my time outdoors—at the beach, playing soccer and baseball and going on hiking trips in the Sierra—to spending more time inside. I continued to play sports, but activities like reading (The Lord of the Rings, Vietnam War novels and books about sailing or being shipwrecked were my favorites), building model airplanes, playing video games (Zaxxon for ColecoVision, woot!) and painting Dungeons and Dragons figurines became more prevalent. This change had to do both with the East Coast climate and also with my somewhat more urban existence in D.C. The most important aspect of the move from west to east though, was the increased time my family spent in rural Maine, home to my mother's family. My grandfather started as a lumberjack and graduated second in his high school class, following close on the heels of his future wife, my grandmother, who beat him out of the top spot. He ended up going to medical school and became a surgeon. She started a candy business and later spoiled all her grandchildren with her signature Butter Crunch and blueberry pie. Later, they started one of the first aquaculture farms in southern Maine where they grew oysters. That was in the 1970's, before aquaculture had the traction it has today so they were too far ahead of the curve to make any money. Nonetheless, when I go to the Grand Central Oyster Bar in Manhattan and find oysters raised in Pemaquid, I always get a pang of pride knowing that it was my grandfather who first envisioned what the area could produce.
BT: You received your B.A. in Environmental Science from UC Berkeley in 1994 and then studied at the New York Studio School for painting in 1996. What led you to this shift from science to painting?
NL: Scientists are geeks; artists are cool geeks. Smirk. I view my transition from science to art as more a shift in emphasis than one between disciplines. Curiosity and attention to detail are fundamental in both practices, the main difference being that scientific results are generally quantifiable whereas artwork is subjective. Though my young sons will cite the fact that I consistently "can't find them" when I'm scrambling to get them dressed and they're hiding in my bed, in the same spots they chose the previous three mornings as evidence to the contrary, I'd like to think my observational skills remain sharp. I certainly remain as curious about the world around me as ever and despite a shortage of naturalistic imagery in my current oeuvre, all of my artwork is rooted in observation. Attention to reality is truly what fuels my work. Since I was six or seven years old, I've always kept a sketchbook. Later, when I studied biology, chemistry and physics, I had lab notebooks in which I documented experiments and dissections. My diagrams of things like plant stem cross-sections and fruit fly anatomy became as interesting to me for their visual impact as for the quantitative information they contained. That conflation of science and art got me thinking more seriously about the visual arts as a life pursuit. The shift came during the two years I spent living in Yosemite National Park, after I graduated from college. I spent much of that time in wilderness, something I hadn't ever expected to do. Even up until a week before I moved to El Portal, (a hamlet just outside the park on Highway 140) I had been seriously considering a career in environmental law. But an opportunity to teach at the Yosemite Institute presented itself and I couldn't pass it up. I planned to spend six months teaching ecology and geology in the mountains and then return to D.C. to take a position I'd been offered at a large law firm. But once I got to Yosemite and had a real taste of the Sierra, I was like a terrier with a chew toy…I couldn't let go. The choice to live in Yosemite, and to stay for a couple years, was instinctive and not what most of my friends and family expected of me. It sounds cheesy, but my time in the Sierra was incredibly inspirational and beneficial to my sense of self and even to my soul. Such fulfillment based on a gut decision taught me to listen to intuition. That led to another unexpected decision: to concentrate all my energy on my artwork.
BT: Are there links for you between the two investigative practices of science and art?
NL: Absolutely. Of course they're not the same thing, but aside from most science being empirical and quantifiable while artwork is usually subjective, there are many parallels. Foremost is that both are based on observation. As I mentioned, attention to detail and study of reality are at the heart of what I do; the same is true for my sister Katja and her husband, who are both scientists. Further, in both practices the most important judgment of one's work comes through peer review. They each involve a search for undiscovered territory (and thus also failed attempts and dead-ends) and both practices are about pushing the limits of what I think of as the "knowledge horizon," the boundary between human knowledge and the unknown. Imagine a fire burning in a field. It casts a circle of light within which objects and events are visible and knowable, yet outside the light objects and events can't be observed even though they do exist. At the margin between light and dark is the "knowledge horizon." It is the purpose of science and art to add fuel to the fire, to widen the circle of light and with it the expanse of human thought. Of course the real common ground between science and art is that practitioners of each are outlier freaks around whom "normal" people become uncomfortable! Think about the last teen-centric movie you saw, and tell me it didn't include a short-sleeve-button-down wearing four-eyed science kid, as well as a black-clad, tormented artist, both of whom caused a fight-or-flight response among the cheerleader posse. This may be a pipe dream, but I sometimes feel I slipped through the cracks and somehow had the good fortune to end up an exception to both archetypes. I got to study science AND play sports, I wear black, but not to the exclusion of other colors, and though I never dated a cheerleader (poor me!), my girlfriend in college was the younger sister of a Rose Queen, my sister Jenna played Poppy Downes on "Strangers with Candy" and I'm ever thankful to be married to a woman many people probably slated to end up with a hedge fund quarterback!
BT: When and how did installation begin to play a role in your practice?
NL: In 2004 I participated in the Triangle Artist's Workshop, a two-week residency in Brooklyn, for which I'd planned to do a book project. About two weeks before the workshop was to start, I found a bunch of really great driftwood on a trip to Maine. It wasn't the typical smooth, conventionally beautiful driftwood; it was beaten-up flotsam from old boats and docks, riddled with holes from Teredo worms, crawling with sand-fleas and smelly. I found it irresistible. I borrowed my sister Mignon's car (she didn't know about the stink or fleas) and hauled a load of the wood to New York, where it ended up at Triangle with me and became the foundation for the first installation project I ever did. The workshop was in a mostly vacant industrial building with just a few tenants, including a furniture restorer. He let me pillage his scrap pile for the small, but gorgeous, chunks of mahogany, maple, walnut and oak it contained. The installation was largely about the juxtaposition of these immaculate blocks of wood with the shards of old piers and rotten pilings, which were equally beautiful but in a different way. The book project didn't happen, but those two weeks opened the world of installation to me and still fuel my projects.
BT: Is there an element of play for you in the construction of these installations?
NL: A few years before he died, Andrew Forge visited my studio. He taught me to pay close attention to the language I use to describe my artistic intent. While I do have fun constructing installations and I look forward to making more, I don't view it as play. "Play," as it is often used in exhibition press releases and in the context of artworks in general, has become a pet peeve of mine. Uptight I know, but true nonetheless! I understand the value of play, and I enjoy playing, but I can't get past the fact that, applied to professional studio activity, the word implies of a lack of seriousness or focus on the part of the artist. I'm aware that the colorful appearance of some of what I do is inherently light hearted, but the concepts I'm exploring have an underlying gravity whose importance would be diminished if I presented the installations as playthings. The colorfulness of the installation components is dialed up for the interactive pieces so that they are more inviting. Perhaps this aspect of the work does make the word appropriate as far as viewers are concerned. If they decide to "play" with the installations, that is fine with me. But when I construct them, I am not playing. I think of it more as drawing with objects…rather than with a pen or pencil. The object is a mark and I am placing it, with intent, just the same as if I were deciding where to place a mark on a page.
BT: You recently participated in the Wave Hill Winter Workspace Residency. What was your experience there?
NL: Wave Hill is terrific. I had a great time, and a productive one as well. I did a bunch of naturalistic drawings of objects I encountered in and around the grounds: Pinecones, birds' nests, dead flies from the windowsills and bees. (They keep four or five hives in boxes on the grounds.) I spent six weeks at Wave Hill working alongside four other resident artists. As my time there drew to a close, I felt totally recharged and ready to get back into my own studio to continue with more abstract imagery. For me, some of the most important things at Wave Hill are the trees. They're gorgeous and the variety is amazing. At the tail end of my residency I witnessed the felling of a diseased 150-year-old Copper Beech. It was an incredible three-day process, and they very generously allowed me to take a couple rounds from one of the large limbs. (I couldn't even move the enormous rounds from the trunk!) I ended up incorporating that wood in a subsequent installation called "Coppice" at Jason McCoy Gallery in Manhattan. I'd encourage anyone to visit Wave Hill, and, if you're an artist who gets chosen to participate in one of their programs, definitely make the time to commit yourself to it.
BT: The forms you create could be perceived as both cellular and cartographical. What is the relationship of the micro and the macro in your work?
NL: I'm interested in imagery that can be perceived as either miniscule or cosmic or both, perhaps because these extremes of scale signify the limits of human knowledge and the edge of consciousness. I'm fascinated by mimicry among natural structures of different scales such as cancer cells and cities, or algal blooms and nebulae, but such similarities are probably circumstantial. There is no underlying message I'm trying to convey by combining the two except perhaps that our own existence is the same way: it is everything to us and yet, simultaneously, it is insignificant; we are dust. From here it would be easy to slip into nihilism, but I prefer to believe that although in the grand scheme of things my actions and existence are inconsequential, my day-to-day experience will be better if I am mindful of my actions, so they do matter on a personal level.
BT: In an artist statement you mention your interest in "unifying nature and society " and that society and nature are "complementary parts of a single system and though we may never fully understand their juncture, we must integrate them to thrive as a species." Is part of our difficulty as a species to create this integration a result of our limited vision? A lack of the macro perspective?
NL: This is the real question, isn't it? I wish I felt more qualified to comment with confidence on our "difficulty as a species;" that is a huge topic. But as far as my meaning in the statement you cited, yes, our society is near-sighted. We are taught from an early age that newer is better and convenience is king. The Dead Kennedy's compilation title "Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death" comes to mind, except in reality it's more like "Give Me Convenience AND Death," because the two are served together. We have both on our societal plate, but we've covered death with a lettuce leaf so we can ignore it while enjoying the convenience of our factory-farmed burgers. The scary reality is that if we polish off the burgers without taking any bites of what's under the lettuce, that's all we'll have to pass along to the kids' table, and they will be hard-pressed to make a meal of it. This is why education regarding the true costs of convenience is so important, especially among young people who will be the ones ultimately footing the bill. Edward O. Wilson is an inspirational figure for me. I recently went to a panel discussion during which he spoke about the importance of science education in this country. One of his main points (with which I agree) was that it is important to teach young people about nature through experiential learning. They are the ones who will be forced to deal with the environmental problems created largely within the past 150 years and they can only get so much from books. One of the things you can't get from books, which I think my generation and my parents' generation lacks, is a visceral connection to the natural world. This disconnect makes us ignorant of, or allows us to ignore, the true costs of societal activities. When we burn a gallon of gasoline there is a cost beyond the $4 we paid at the pump; when we toss a disposable razor in the garbage, it's not the end of the story on that hunk of plastic and steel. John Muir said when you try to pull something out of the Universe, you find it is connected to everything else. It's a truism, but as a society we've lost sight of its importance. We must begin to think on a larger scale, both geographically and chronologically, in order to mitigate the impacts of our actions on other parts of the natural world. The Lakota Sioux belief that we borrow the Earth from our progeny seven generations into the future is a good example of thinking on a different scale. It was the inspiration for my piece "Cities for our Kids' Kids' Kids' Kids' Kids' Kids' Kids" at Artspace in New Haven. Seven "Kids" for seven generations. I also emphasized "kids" because it was the first installation project I did where viewers were meant to redesign the piece by moving parts around according to their own aesthetic. I thought kids would be more apt to participate, which ended up being true. At the opening there were three or four children who broke the ice and started moving some of the blocks around…it wasn't until after that that the adults jumped in. Many adults also need to be prodded into joining the discussion on how to renovate society to be less damaging. Perhaps that's because it smarts to admit that unless we change our relationship with other parts of nature, we are goners. Human industry is effecting changes to the global environment at a rate and on a scale that outpaces our (and other species') ability to evolve and adapt to such changes. Unabated, our actions will make the Earth inhospitable to us, not to life, but to human life, at least in a form we could recognize. It's not a question of whether or not we are "nice" to nature. Morality is beside the point. Nature is bigger than we are and will continue with or without us. For us to remain a part of the picture we need an awakening on the scale of the Copernican Revolution, when it became widely understood that the Earth rotates around the Sun rather than the other way around. Humans are not the center of the Universe, we don't have to keep everything running and we should be thankful we don't have that responsibility—however, if we want to continue as a species, we DO have the responsibility of finding a way to accomplish it or we will push ourselves to the extreme periphery and become part of the historical record, out of the picture altogether.
BT: In your artworks you offer a kind of utopian vision coded within fragments and diagrams. Do you envision a future where the symbiosis is actualized?
NL: Utopia would be nice, but we are imperfect creatures; it is implausible we could build an ideal, perfect place. The best we can hope for is symbiosis, an evolving working relationship between parties. Unfortunately, the current relationship between society and nature is more accurately classified as parasitic. The fragmentary and diagrammatic elements you mention, as well as the combination of organic and geometric elements in my imagery, symbolize a positive growing together of society and nature, which I believe is necessary if our species is to have a bright future.
BT: Have you seen or found evidence that this symbiosis is already occurring?
NL: Sure, there are signs that some people have begun to achieve a more sustainable future and certainly there are people working to improve the situation. There seems to be a resurgence of a kind of "back to the land" mentality evidenced by growth in the numbers of small farms, and even urban gardens, for example. Generally though, this is on a small scale. To achieve sustainability on a societal or global scale, there remains an enormous amount of education and effort to come. For example, most of us are complicit in the irresponsible practices our society depends upon because we are ignorant of the practices themselves and their effects. That's the reason I'm so interested in talking about these issues.