Posing questions to local artist Lara Odell

Lara Odell in her “lawyer photo
Lara Odell in her “lawyer photo”

Cory Bilicko
Managing Editor

One of the stereotypes of us artists is that we are individuals who take ourselves way too seriously. While that may be true with any number of creative types, a sense of humor is apparent in the works (and personalities) of many artists.
Viewing the recent creations of Lara Odell (which include paper renderings of subject matter like a police car in good condition and then wrecked, and a lonely bed in a stark hospital room) it was difficult to determine if the intent behind her work was of a solemn nature or if she’s being playful in subtle ways.
After I’d sent her the following questions through email, I asked her to send me a head shot of herself. She emailed over a picture that she referred to as her “lawyer photo.”
I was rather intrigued by the fact that she is a lawyer and artist; it seemed an unlikely but interesting combination. So I asked her to describe the similarities and differences between her job as a lawyer and her work as an artist. Her response was, “Oh, no. I was just joking about the lawyer photo. I refer to it as that because I am wearing a fitted suit jacket with important-looking books behind me…sorry about that. I’m not always aware that sarcasm might not translate well through email.” Clearly, Odell is an artist (but not a lawyer) who doesn’t take herself too seriously.
Further evidence of her humorous side: Bad Nuns, a series she created based on a late-1950s Catholic high-school yearbook she’d come across in a thrift store. Indeed, there’s a fun side to Odell, but underlying the seemingly campy portraits of parochial-school employees are relevant notions about identity, conformity and one’s place in society.

How would you describe the work you do?

I’m working with painted paper cutouts, and my process includes drawing, painting and cutting paper by hand. The cutouts are typically figurative and while they include empty space, they might also seem, paradoxically, a little bit claustrophobic, as if the air has been sucked out of them. I’m hoping that the cutouts evoke a sense of pathos and melancholy while offering some dry humor.

What is the biggest distraction to your getting your work done?

Any regular, uninteresting generic thing in my life I cannot control and then tend to obsess about… like worrying about what other artists are doing, when I start comparing my work to other people’s, and the computer’s attractions. Maybe the biggest distraction is letting distractions take over when ultimately it is just a good idea to be in the studio enough so that you have a momentum going and distractions find it difficult to interfere with your process. Another “distraction” is motherhood. I have a 4-year-old, and I have had to become more organized and motivated if I want to get work done, which is a little unnatural for me. It can be hard to tear myself away to the studio, especially when she’s in a playful mood.

“Golden Gate Bridge,
“Golden Gate Bridge,” gouache and cut paper

Describe what the scene is like when you are working.
I have a small studio I can walk to from my house. It used to be a pilates studio. I share it with two others, but usually we aren’t all there at the same time so I have some privacy. Except for my neighbor’s chicken, who came in once. I get to walk past some fruit trees on my way into the studio— lemon, peach, and loquat. I have a couple big tables in the studio; one has a cutting mat and a copystand for photographing my pictures, and the other I use for drawing and painting. There are loads of books because one of the studio-mates happens to be my husband, who is an English professor. On the walls there is an illustration from an old Icelandic version of Snow White, some paint chips, a beige valentine, and a picture of my daughter making a clay sculpture at preschool. There are something like five young children who live in the adjoining house, and although they are pretty noisy and climb onto the roof of the studio, they are endearingly curious and friendly, so I can’t really indulge my curmudgeonly nature about it.

What would you say has influenced your work the most?

There are so many influences unaccounted for that I feel nervous trying to list them. I probably like comedians as much as or more than visual artists. I recently rediscovered How Babies Are Made from the 1960s, a book I remember from my childhood. It has an assortment of amazing paper cutout illustrations, and in some sense my current work was, somehow, motivated by that style. The artists who have been steadily on my mind for a long time are Edward Hopper, Milton Avery, Luc Tuymans, William Kentridge, and some contemporary illustrators I’ve discovered more recently are Martha Rich, Maira Kalman and Stefanie Augustine.
I also keep loose scraps of paper with random notes and drawings that influence me later. I’m surprised how many times I don’t remember doing certain drawings, or writing certain ideas down. I imagine it would be nice to keep more organized and orderly sketchbooks, but I like the loose paper, unbound. I don’t keep a sketchbook with me at all times so I end up using whatever is at hand.

Have you ever destroyed or painted over anything you’ve created?

Yes. I wish I’d kept some things. I had some big paintings from undergrad art school that I moved around and kept in storage and garages until finally I just threw them into a dumpster. There was a Hopper-esque one that I am so sad I don’t have. I painted it on-site in western New York over a period of weeks. It was of a big, abandoned white house in a field. I recently found a drawing of Jerry Garcia I did in 1989, and my brother convinced me to let him have it . . . I should’ve thrown that one away.

“Police Car,
“Police Car,” gouache and cut paper

What are the factors that need to be in place in order for you to be your best as an artist?
A continuous working momentum— a daily practice is ideal. And if I’m working towards a show or an illustration commission because then I can work with an audience in mind. That helps.

Do you listen to music while you work? If so, what?
I tend to get into phases where I will only listen to one single album or one single artist each time I go to the studio, for weeks, and I put the album on repeat. It seems weird, but I guess it helps me focus. Now I’m revisiting PJ Harvey’s 4-Track Demos over and over. It’s a little sick. I felt like I needed an alternative, so I bought her album White Chalk, and that’s good when I overdose on the other one. Last year it was Patsy Cline, and then Jolie Holland. I gravitate towards the folksy ladies in general.

If you met a 5-year-old who expressed interest in being an artist, what advice would you give him or her?
You know, I’d encourage her to keep playing with different art materials and processes— have fun. Tell her that I enjoyed making art as a child and I now enjoy it even more as an adult, and how fullfilling and important it is and has been to me. I would say that making things is a powerful gesture because 1) it can help give a material form to your inner worlds which can seem fleeting and unattainable otherwise, and 2) it helps solidify the notion that you are in the world, that you are an active participant in it. Well, I would try to express this into something a 5-year-old could understand.

How did your Bad Nuns series come to be, and what was it that drew you to the 1958 Catholic high-school yearbook?
I found the yearbook at a second-hand store in Orange County. I was fascinated by people like nuns and commune-dwellers who choose to live sequestered from the rest of society. I was attracted to the formal aspects of the black-and-white photos, with the matching habits, their teeth and glasses, and the way individual identity can both get lost and revealed in those situations.
Nuns, especially the medieval ones I quote [underneath each portrait are passages written by medieval, mystical nuns and saints] interest me because they seem to have the best shot at truly living according to religious idealism. One strange thing about religion is that so many of its precepts demand a lifestyle that is at odds with ordinary daily life— our actual family lives, our work, our friendships, our desires. The quotes are unironically offered, but the relationship between the quotes and the images is complicated. The title Bad Nuns has caused some confusion. For instance, I’ve had nuns approach me who are confused and even offended by the title. This has been interesting, hearing from actual nuns, but I’ve found it difficult explaining what I thought the title and series were getting at. It is oblique, but the title refers, in my mind, to the average person who has religious beliefs, whether church-going or attending something like Alcoholics Anonymous. “Bad nuns” are people who feel dispirited when they can’t live up to these ideals, particularly the ones about transcending individual consciousness or feeling gratitude instead of frustration. I was also suggesting, playfully I hoped, that nuns who taught high school, that crazy teenage place, were compromised— or should be if they are to be any real use there.

What’s your favorite color?
It’s so contingent on the day and the context. Once I was taking a painting class as an undergrad, and as we were working in the studio classroom, the teacher walked around observing the work in progress and said, “Everyone is painting the same colors that they are wearing!” It was true, and I was doing it too, unaware. I think daily we are just drawn to certain colors. However, I’ve just looked at my work from the past six to eight months, and there is an obvious repeat palette choice. Maybe “favorite” colors do stay with us for longer than a day…I don’t know.

To view more of Odell’s work, visit laraodell.com .