With your year long Carla subscription, you will receive a new issue right to your doorstep every 3 months.
Our advertising program is essential to the ecology of our publication. Ad fees go directly to paying writers, which we do according to W.A.G.E. standards.
We are currently printing runs of 6,000 every three months. Our publication is distributed locally through galleries and art related businesses, providing a direct outlet to reaching a specific demographic with art related interests and concerns.
To advertise or for more information on rates, deadlines, and production specifications, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
In the coming weeks, Carla founder and editor-in-chief Lindsay Preston Zappas will be hosting chats with members of the L.A. art community via Instagram Live on Fridays.
The following was edited for web from an Instagram Live conversation on April 24, 2020 at 5:30 PST.
Lindsay Preston Zappas: One thing you wanted to talk about was how nature has been really soothing, and [about] finding a space for nature.
Alison Saar: I am really fortunate—I was raised in Laurel Canyon, and [when] we moved back from New York, we found a place in Laurel Canyon. Not only am I a mile away from my mom, which is really great, but we’re in this oak canopy, and there’s flora and fauna and lots of birds and wildlife, so it’s really lovely. It doesn’t feel we’re being shut in so much because we have this beautiful yard to be in.
LPZ: Have you been doing any gardening, or any landscaping?
AS: My daughter had [gotten] together a little garden and gave me the bug. We put in a little vegetable garden—we’ll see. We actually don’t have much sun because we have these great oak trees, so we’ll see if we get enough… you know, if we get one tomato in October or whatnot…
AS: We converted part of our garage into a ceramics studio, so right now, we’re trying to lay down some broken concrete paver so we can get a table put in [and] a little outdoor sink. It’s too hot to work on it today, but that’s in the plans.
LPZ: Yeah, I know. It’s getting to that summer heat. I can feel it; it’s coming for us. All the artists without air conditioning in our studios… It’s pretty difficult.
AS: Yeah, it always comes hard and fast.
LPZ: You mentioned that you’ve also shifted in scale during this time in your studio. I know, typically, you work huge. You have very life-size sculptures. [Can you] talk about how you’ve had to downsize or shift the way you’re working?
AS: My real studio is out in the valley in North Hollywood, [and] I’ve been trying to not travel so much, so I’m staying home. My old studio was in the garage, so I’m back in the garage, which is now primarily a print studio. I’ve got a couple of presses in there. Part of the reason I moved to this other studio in the Valley [was] not only because [it has] this big space, but also because I work with chainsaws and grinders. You can see this lovely neighborhood being totally destroyed by all of that noise, so I could bring my chainsaws here, but my neighbors would probably kill me.
LPZ: It’s so funny because my husband also makes wood sculpture, and he does [use the] chainsaw in our backyard. As you’re talking about this, I’m like, “oh no!” I hope our neighbors aren’t going to kill us, but I don’t know. It might be a little more “live and let live” over here.
AS: Between all of the leaf-blowers and all of the construction, they probably wouldn’t notice. I used to work between ten and five, so I really shortened my time that I could work. So now this is great. Now, I’m actually making these little figures.
LPZ: So you’re just whittling those with hand tools?
AS: Yeah. I got these brand-new little tools. Whittling is totally new to me, so I’m trying that. It’s nice to make these tiny figures. I can do it in the backyard. It’s not noisy. It’s more contemplative and chill, so that’s really been fun. I’m just trying to do little contained things, and it’s not so manic. I’m worried [that] with all this anxiety, wielding a chainsaw anyhow might be a little dangerous.
LPZ: You said whittling is new for you. Typically, when you make your larger figures, do you do any small maquettes like that?
AS: Well, I did do that for this Harriet Tubman piece, but when I did that, we basically ended up re-carving and re-claying it in its full scale, which was 13 by 11 by… I don’t know many feet. It’s huge. Generally, I don’t make little maquettes. Sometimes, I’ll do a small version of it, and then do a giant version of it, but I don’t necessarily consider them maquettes.
LPZ: Right. As you said, it’s such a different process to simplify your materials and your setup. I’m sure, how you normally work—it’s heavy, it’s big, the chainsaw, and probably there’s people helping you at different times. Now, you’re talking about this very simple gesture of whittling in the yard.
AS: Yeah. I’m finding it great fun. Within the studio, I usually don’t have a lot of folks. Sometimes, I have one woman who has been helping me for a while. I do all the carving, but they’ll hammer on the metal and things like that. Since I’m not doing any of the big work right now, and I’m in-between shifting gears—I’ve got some public pieces coming up.
AS: Yeah, yeah. They’ve divided the show up. It’s called Of Aether and Earthe. One is dealing more [with] the earth aspect of my work, which looks at nature and a lot of these different water deities, [so] more grounded pieces. The show at the Armory is going to [have] works that are more metaphysical, or things that talk about expanding or transgression, transforming, and stuff like that. So it’s organized thematically, and when it opens to the public, [there will] be a bronze sculpture that’s out in front of the Benton Museum, which is Pomona College’s new museum, [and] my show will be the inaugural exhibition for it.
LPZ: How has [it] been having this on the horizon and being forced to switch how you’re working? How far along [are you] in [your] progress?
AS: Luckily, I just finished the public commission. It’s still actually at the foundry, and we’re to wrangle a way to get it installed. The only other new piece that I’m doing will be an installation at the Armory, so I’m gathering material.
I’ve got the wood glued together, so that’s going to take a while to set up. I can then go back into the studio and start carving the bigger one. Hopefully, it won’t get too hot. I can work on that since everything else is on this weird, interim-hiatus space. There’s things that are going to all [be] pushed back, so we’ll just see how that turns out.
LPZ: Totally. It’s very difficult to have deadlines that are firm right now. I think all of us are trying to work with deadlines, project forward, and plan for the future, but it’s really difficult to do that.
AS: For sure. We’re making this beautiful catalogue for the exhibition, so we’re pushing that through. At least that’s something we can do online between the designers, myself, and the curators. I think that’s pretty much done. It’s really beautiful, so I’m excited about that. It’ll be my first real, major, [and] retrospective-type catalog, so I’m excited.
LPZ: That’s amazing. I feel like there’s been a couple [exhibitions] in the last year where there’s an artist that’s split across venues like that, and I think it’s a really unique opportunity to present two dueling ideas together and reach more people. Pomona and [the] Armory both have different communities and education programs, so that’s really exciting.
AS: We’re hoping. But, by the time you’re in Pasadena, Pomona’s not much farther. We’re hoping people will, for one, realize that it’s not really that big a distance. I went to Scripps College, so I’m used to doing that trek. It’ll be interesting that they can bring students into Pasadena, and [vice versa]. We’re hoping people will actually go see both shows, but you never know. We’ll put it out there and see who responds. I’m excited. It’s going to be a pretty big show.
LPZ: That’s wonderful. So back to working small, and taking a break from all of that, in a way, or taking a break from the normal studio hustle. I feel like you’ve been making so much work, in the past few years especially—producing a lot! Does it feel like a welcome relief to go back to working small, and pulling the small prints? Does it feel like you have this time that’s a little more open-ended?
AS: It has been three years of constantly working towards shows, and the last being at Frieze. I had a booth at L.A. Louver.
LPZ: I know, it was packed with work! Oh my god.
AS: Thanks. It was fun. But at this point, it’s refreshing to be able to go into the studio without a deadline, [and] without pre-set things that you have to do. You can go in and experiment, so that’s what led me to whittling, which is quite fun. Usually, when I make prints, I actually have professionals edition them, but this was an opportunity to try and do a simple print, and most of them registered…
This is the way I remember [how] art-making used to be, where you didn’t have any of these pressures, or a deadline for a gallery. So it’s really refreshing.
LPZ: Do you feel like there are things that you’re doing now, in this scaled-back, more free space, that might inform what you make next—as far as whittling and pulling these simple prints?
AS: Yeah, perhaps. I’m also excited because I bought a kiln a year ago, mainly for my daughter who works in ceramics. But for myself, I’m like, “that’s something I never really explored.” I should start making things and see what happens. That might definitely turn into something. We’ll see. It’s always nice to be in the position where you can experiment and get outside of your doldrums, but you really get set in your ways.
LPZ: One thing that you mentioned in our emails [was] intimacy. I wanted to talk about that idea of intimacy and how you are thinking about that in this time of isolation [when] we’re all alone, but together, and I was just curious [about] what you meant by intimacy.
AS: In some respects, it’s just the intimacy [of] working in super small scales. I mean, this stuff is right up in my face. Also, the only people I’ve seen [are] my husband and my kids, who drop by periodically, and my mother. So, our little clan, our little circles become very small and really tight, and I’m fortunate, actually, to have that many people we can safely contact.
It really causes you to—I don’t know, we’ve had some really great conversations that we wouldn’t have had otherwise, and it’s just been really nice. [My son] Kyle’s been working for me. He’s showing me a little video and doing some prints. He works in the film industry, so all of that’s completely shut down. It’s been nice to have some time with him to myself. He’s always so busy when he’s working, so it’s kind of nice to have that too.
LPZ: I feel the same way. I’ve been connecting with family a lot more. It’s interesting how I’m almost reaching out more than normal, and it puts interactions in a different scope. In my day-to-day life, I have a lot of interactions with people that are more acquaintance-level, or small talk type of stuff. I feel like we’re all connecting in a deeper way.
AS: Yeah, I think so. Every day, I’ll go through my contacts list and try to find someone that I haven’t spoken to in a while, leave them a voicemail, [and] tell them what we’re up to, what we’re streaming or what we’re cooking. A lot of people are doing some great cooking, so [it’s] really fun to share recipes. It’s been nice to [ask], “who do I want to be in touch with today?” I wouldn’t normally do that.
LPZ: Right. I’ve been also feeling a nostalgia for those people, too, and people from my past that I haven’t talked to in years. I’ve been thinking about and reaching out to them, and it’s interesting that this experience has brought some of that up.
AS: It’ll be something to keep in mind in the future, that we don’t lose track of that so much as well. People are so dependent now on Instagram, media, and all of that stuff. You know, I actually just want to write letters, but then, I don’t want to [jam up the] postal system either.
That’s the thing. You second guess everything you buy. Is it really necessary? Do we need to have some poor fellow put this in some box with all this Styrofoam and send it to me?
LPZ: Totally. I’ve been buying some stuff online, but being so much more conscious about it, [and] trying to source those things in a more sustainable way.
AS: Walking around the neighborhood, you see everybody’s blue recycl[ing] trash cans [are] filled to the brim with Amazon boxes, and I’m like, “[look] all of this.” I mean, we have [to pay more attention]. We should have been for a while, but it’s kind of exemplified right now.
LPZ: That’s been on my mind a lot… I feel like so many people have been saying, “I am loving this! I don’t want it to go back to normal,” and almost feeling guilty for that. You know, “I’m loving it too much. Maybe I shouldn’t be so happy during this difficult time.”
AS: Yeah. The two sides of it [are]—we’re really fortunate to have a home and all these other things—to actually have enough to buy our food and all of that. On one hand, it really is like a “staycation,” but we have to really recognize how fortunate we are that we have the ability to actively enjoy this time, whereas a lot of folks don’t. Again, I feel guilty about being happy making my little sculptures.
LPZ: I’ve been thinking all of that as well, but we have to find joy where we can: in going outside in your yard. Self-care has become much more prioritized for me in a way that I neglected before.
AS: —I just painted my toenails.
LPZ: Oh, you did? That’s lovely.
AS: I never [do] that. Maybe that’s too much information.
LPZ: That’s awesome. We have one question from a good friend of mine, Lani, who’s down in San Diego. She said she loves your work, and [asked], “Where do you go for inspiration?”
AS: It’s a combination of things. Sometimes, I get it from music. Sometimes, it’s from materials. I scrounge a lot of materials, and find a lot of materials, and those will suggest things to me or take me places. Sometimes, it’s the dark news that we’ve been having for the last four years, and I try to take that and turn it around to be something that can somehow point toward a lighter era at some point.
Sometimes, it comes out of the news, things that I’m reading, television, or things that we’re experiencing with people out there. Even being rude to folks walking down the street, so sometimes that’ll take it in one direction. For Frieze, we made this funny little cookbook, so I’ve been finding inspiration in looking at my cooking ancestry from my grandfather and my grandmother. My grandfather lived in Texas, and was huge in barbecue. All of these simple comfort foods that also point toward a whole way of life for folks. It comes from anywhere. It can come from the kitchen, it can come from the newspapers and the radio.
LPZ: You’re talking about these cerebral ideas, but also looking back at family history and things like that. Your work has such a physicality to it. It’s really interesting to hear how your inspiration might meet that kind of physicality, because the sculptures themselves feel so approachable, and physical, and open-ended in a way… I love when works can start with one thing, idea, or impetus and branch out from there and have dual entry points for people.
AS: Right… For example, these little pieces that I’m carving are half of what are going to be these hot-comb figures. I kept collecting all these beautiful hot combs, and so then, I was like, “what could they be? What could they turn into?” I was really intrigued by the idea that these figures were these spirits, and the handles—I used to love the hot combs with the handles which were always all burnt by the fact that I’m too close to the burner. I started to think, “oh, these handles take on all of this heat. I saw them combing out all of our actual wildness by making our hair straight or Anglified.
I really like this idea that spirit and that power and that sassiness—that kink had to go somewhere. These handles absorb that energy and so they’re called [Hot Comb Haint]. They’re the spirit of all of that wildness that you took out of your hair by straightening it. So, they get complicated and they [mean] different things to different people. People [who] don’t use hot combs might have a completely different take on it, but it just brought back all of these memories of my grandmother’s kitchens, my mom’s kitchen, and even going with my mom to the hair salon. All of the gossip and the hair salon things, and how it’s this very social thing around fixing your hair.
It seemed like once the deed was done, then you were like a prisoner to the hair that was all straight. You couldn’t go swimming or go in the rain. I love getting to that point, because it’s such a rich, social, loving atmosphere where people are massaging your head. It’s so [rich]. That’s one thing that inspires these wacky, crazy pieces. I never know where it’s going to come from, basically, and materials dictate—I try to do one thing with it, but it refuses to go that way, so I have to collaborate with the materials themselves, too.
LPZ: I love that idea of the handle becoming this infused energy. Like you were saying, brushing out the wildness and then it gets absorbed in the comb. It’s almost like this talisman or magical object.
AS: I figure that energy had to go somewhere, so why not in the handle? Again, the handles, as objects, spoke to me. You could see the burnt areas where the grease is all gathered up in the comb. I also feel that way with skillets. This last show [at L.A. Louver] had a couple of pieces dealing with skillets too. My skillets are good and clean on the inside, but they have a history of grease boiled up on the outside. I love that. That’s cross-cultural—that is true for most folks.
LPZ: No, totally. I love that idea. I’ve heard in past interviews of you talking about using found materials, going to the Watts Towers when you were younger, and things like that really influencing your use of found materials and things that have a history and a past, and that [have] a use and story to them.
AS: Right. I always have a specific narrative to the piece, but something exists beyond. Each viewer can glean their own history of that and find their own confluence with that piece of work by their own experiences. That’s when it’s nice that art can have this openness… and this history to it that people can find a bit of themselves in those pieces, which is what I hope happens, [but] maybe not necessarily at all. It’s what I aspire to.
LPZ: Yeah. I think that’s really true. There’s something about the materiality that really draws you in. The physicality of it, which, for me, is accessible from any walk of life. The presence of an object—you can tell they’ve handled and really crafted [it], which brings so much accessibility.
AS: When I was in grad school, I studied with Dr. Samella Lewis at Scripps. They had a really amazing selection of African art, and she would bring these pieces out, and everyone’s like, “what is that surface?” These are libations–liquor, and whatnot, [and] palm oil. This laying on of hands, this adoration, and touching of these surfaces that imbued them with this amazing power.
The surface is really important to me. My hands are all screen now, but they’re doing this: [gesticulates wildly]. Touching is really a [thing] that I understand. Unfortunately, in museum settings, the art can only be partially experienced, because going out there, touching it, and feeling it [isn’t an option]. Even your ability to put your palms on it is how these pieces grow and accumulate power.
LPZ: In an ideal situation, would you prefer to have your works be interactive when they are exhibited, or open for people to touch them?
AS: I would, and that’s one of the perks of being in your own house. You can do that. There are some pieces where I actively encourage participation. I have some pieces where they were distillery systems, so you had to squeeze these little things to make the water run through. One of them was a boxing glove that filled up with water, and of course, it would never fall in the pan or in the bucket as it was supposed to, so it would splash. Then, people just took it upon themselves to take the map and mop up the spilled blood, and I was like, “oh, that’s really great.” They really became involved in it, and weren’t thinking, “oh, am I supposed to touch the broom now? Is this allowed? Is that allowed?” It just felt like they were into it. They were experiencing the work as it was [meant] to function.