Clara Lieu is a visual artist at professor at Rhode Island School of Design. Her work explores themes of social isolation and mental illness through drawing, printmaking, and sculpture. Clara kindly agreed to indulge me, answering all my questions about her background, work, methods, projects, and what makes her tick. Read the full interview below:
Tell me about your background. How did you come to be an artist?
My mother likes to say that I had a preschool teacher who said that I learned to draw before I learned to talk, so that desire to make art was there from the start. I had two defining moments early in my life that stimulated a path to being art artist. In the fourth grade, a new art teacher came to my elementary school, bringing with her enormous enthusiasm and energy. She took a special interest in my development immediately, and generously fueled my need to create with every resource she could offer me. Later, in my junior year of high school I attended the Rhode Island School of Design Pre-College program which completely solidified my decision to be an artist. The program only lasted six weeks, and yet it profoundly transformed the way I saw myself and changed my life. Unlike high school, where I felt worthless and insignificant, I felt full of enthusiasm and positive energy for the first time in my entire life. Suddenly, I had a purpose that I could truly believe in. This program ultimately led me to doing a BFA in Illustration at RISD.
What is your studio or work space like?
I don’t have a personal studio space at this time, so I work in the facilities at Wellesley College, where I am currently on staff. I feel like a “vagabond” artist, as I’m constantly moving around and never have my materials or projects set up permanently in one place. I have to be really efficient and organized with my supplies for this reason. At the same time the advantages can be great: I have a wide selection of professional studio equipment at my fingertips such as a sculpture studio, a printshop, a drawing studio, etc. which I wouldn’t have access to if I had my own studio.
What are the tools of your trade and why do you prefer these mediums?
My tools are constantly changing, shifting, and adjusting according to my current project’s needs. I have expertise in many techniques of drawing, painting, printmaking, and sculpture, so I have a wide assortment of tools and materials that I can choose from. Earlier in my career I did a lot of painting and printmaking, and lately my focus has been on drawing and sculpture. Right now I’m attracted to drawing and sculpture because of how raw and primal they are; these processes impress the physicality of my hands directly into the artwork itself.
What are the major influences behind your work?
Human emotions influence my work, because they are so universally visceral. Unfortunately so much of the time we are taught to hide our deepest emotions. As a professor at RISD I’ve been in a position where many students have been willing to emotionally open themselves to me, either verbally or through their artwork. (According to one of my teaching assistants, it’s “not my class unless someone cries.”) In this way, I’ve been privileged to see someone’s true emotions that would normally remain hidden. Those interior hidden emotions are what fascinate me the most; the emotions we wear on the exterior in public are rarely interesting.
What keeps you motivated and inspired?
As I grow older and more experienced as an artist, I’ve been finding motivation harder and harder to come by. Living as an artist can be mentally grueling and incredibly frustrating. For me making art has always been a compulsion, an impulse that emerges and continually drives me forward despite all of the circumstances that I feel may be conspiring against me. Essentially, I can’t live without it. Over the years I’ve learned that I work best within a highly structured, defined structure. So I spend a significant amount of time organizing and creating structures and schedules, big and small, that I can work in.
How do you take a concept from an idea to a finished piece of artwork? Please describe your creative process.
My preliminary process is extremely involved and rigorous, often times taking significantly more time than creating the final artwork. I strongly believe in having excellent reference material to work from, so it generally takes a lot of troubleshooting and setup to achieve the quality of references that I’m looking for. Determination of my materials is always a tedious and time-consuming process, one which can often times take many months to solidify. Once I have everything in place, creating the final artwork is comparatively fast and effortless.
Do you have a favorite piece of art or project that you’ve created? Why does it stand out to you?
My favorite work is always what I’m working on at the present, because it’s exploring new, uncharted territory which is always exhilarating. I have to be able to believe that my work is evolving and maturing with every new project. I intentionally disconnect myself from my past work so that I can move onto the new work.
What artists do you feel a kinship with?
Week to week, my list of artists I’m looking at is constantly changing, but I’ve always looked to Alberto Giacometti and Kathe Kollwitz at all periods in my life as references. The brutal emotions captured in Kollwitz’s pieces are so genuine and real while Giacometti’s figures and portraits is so gestural but structured at the same time.
Who are some other creatives you admire?
Art history is amazing, but nothing substitutes being able to talk to another artist in person who is living in your time. I would say that many of my colleagues at the many colleges and art schools I’ve taught at have offered companionship and understanding about the visual arts field that I have found to be invaluable. I have so much admiration and respect for the knowledge and experience that they bring to their teaching.
What are you presently working on? Are there any new projects in the works, or things you are interested in creating in the future?
I’m currently working on a series of fifty self-portrait sculptures in beeswax. Modeling in ceramic clay, the relief sculptures of expressive faces are cast into beeswax from silicone rubber molds. The beeswax faces are then dramatically lit and photographed to create a final digital image.
Where can our readers find more of your work and purchase pieces?
I have an Etsy shop, where I have drawings, hand pulled prints, and digital prints available for purchase. In addition to my main website, I also maintain a blog, and a Facebook page. You can also find out more about Clara’s process and her role a professor by watching this documentary.
Have a favorite artist you’d like to see profiled or a submission for MsBehaved? Email me !