Thursday, April 28, 2011

Eavesdropper Interview: Laura Lea Nalle.

Hello Internet, see that sprightly face above?  It belongs to artist Laura Lea Nalle

Laura Lea is a creative force here in Austin, and is the second in our Eavesdropper Interview Series.  Last week I spoke with Austin Kleon, a poet who starts with newspaper and crosses out the words he doesn't need; Laura however does the opposite.  In her latest art project, she scrawls words across photographs, creating graffiti in miniature.

Her photographic subject for these pieces is a place very near and dear to my heart: The crumbling walls of Italy.

I first heard about Laura Lea through an art opening last month, March, for her Me + You Series.  The photos and messages reminded me of my roommate in Italy, who left me the most awesome passive aggressive notes.  After her own romp in Italy last year, Laura Lea -- an accomplished photographer and mixed media artist -- was inspired by something we rarely get to see here in the United States: Walls, nearly one thousand years old.

It's easy to forget that the U.S. is pretty young.  I remember visiting distant family members in England once with my dad, and them laughing about our baby country.  "See this fireplace?" one of them chortled, "It is older than your entire country!  Ba ha ha!"

They were right.  One of the reasons I think we're so youth-obsessed in this country is that we ourselves, our civilization, are very young.  Next to thousand-year-old countries, America is a preteen.  Laura Lea deftly captures a sense of weathered age and layered story in her mixed media photographs of Italy, so I was excited when she agreed to an interview.

One more thing to know about Laura Lea: In addition to being an artist, she is the editor of, a music photographer published in SXSWorld (and shot the cover for the March 2010 music issue), a curator and producer of the annual Art Outside festival, and designs t-shirts and show posters for bands.  So in addition to being a wildly creative spirit, Laura Lea is so incredibly productive!  I'd like to learn how to be more so myself.

Yoko Ono, whom Laura photographed during SXSW 2011. 

1. Hi Laura Lea, can you tell us a little about yourself?

I’m a born and raised seventh generation Austinite. I live with two cats, Sushimama and Snowpea, an egg-laying parrot named Skipper who I’ve had since I was four years old, and a dog named Amallah who weighs more than me.

2. You are one of THE most productive people I know: You create art, you interview and shoot bands, you're a filmmaker, you help throw Art Outside! How do you keep it all balanced?

I make it up as I go.

I’ve found that I am at my best when I’m busy and juggling a million things. It energizes me. Ultimately, the balance comes from taking care of myself: I have a daily practice of meditation, ashtanga yoga and running.  I also eat a ton of superfoods and am mostly raw vegan.  It keeps me clear headed. I don’t drink or smoke or eat processed food or sugar, aside from once in a blue moon indulgences (I do have a weakness for carrot cake).

3. Did you come from a creative family?

My family emphasized education and hard work. My dad is a mechanical engineer and always worked for himself. He was a good model for goal-oriented obsessive workaholicism.

My grandmother (on my mom's side) was a huge patron of the arts, and exposed us to all kinds of things. I grew up going to the ballet, symphony, opera, and museum with her, and she introduced me to all her artist friends in Austin.  Kelly Fearing for example, who just recently passed away, was one of those artists she had become friends with through collecting.  He ended up becoming my mentor, and was a tremendous inspiration for me.

My grandmother (on my dad’s side) dabbled in painting but she was notoriously awful at it. My grandfather made jewelry, particularly bolo ties for all the men in the family, and rings and necklaces for the women. Creative pursuits were encouraged at an early age.

4. Describe your studio to us?

I work from my home in south Austin.  The master bedroom is the main studio space where I do all my photo and video editing, graphic design, and smaller scale media like drawing, as well as object sculpture and assemblage.  I have a giant rose bush and apple tree outside my window, with tons of birds who nest in it – cardinals, blue jays, and the sweet little warblers.

The second bathroom is my darkroom for the screenprinting shop.  I coat and burn all the screens in there.

The garage houses the actual screenprinting shop with a large 6-color rotary press. I also do all my larger scale, messy mixed media and painting in there.  And power tools, anything requiring power tools happens out there.

I use my living room as my photo studio when I need to set up a seamless backdrop or tabletop set with all my studio lighting. 

5. Some of your latest mixed media artwork focuses on the walls and facades of changing Italy. It immediately spoke to me since I studied abroad in Milan, and remember the graffiti, the messages people wrote in subway tunnels. How did you get the idea for the Italy series?

I had been wandering around Florence collecting trash, pieces of paper, and other discarded things I’d find walking around, for a trash collage project.  Sometimes I’d stop and say, “Oh that’s a good one!” and people would look at me like I was crazy for picking up trash off the street.  

Then I went to Pisa and Lucca, wandering around again, looking for trash, when I noticed the town walls.  They had all these layers of time built up and over ... and some crumbling down.  Those layers of story were really what I was trying to get at with these trash collages, so I started photographing walls all over Italy: Pisa, Lucca, Sienna, Florence, Venice, Rome, Cinque Terra, and several little random towns along the way.

When I got back home and started editing the photos, I had this idea to add my own handwriting to them, but couldn't figure out the right way to "finish" them ... until I found out about this dye sublimation printing on metal. I ran with it, and now, the brushed metal and the float mounting just make these pieces something really special, something that people seem to be resonating with.

6. You are such an extensive traveler, and it's very inspiring!   Name the best place you've ever been, and one place you'd like to visit.

I’ve had a long, beautiful love affair with the American Southwest – Big Bend, Marfa, Santa Fe, Tucson, Flagstaff, Moab, and all the places in between those towns.  I love to take extended road trips, usually solo.

Peru and India are probably at the top of my list of places I’d like to go. There’s so much I’d like to see, and I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface.  My favorite way to travel abroad is to get an apartment for a few months, and then take weekend trips from there.  I feel like I have more substantial experiences that way. So much of the beauty and magic reveals itself over time. I miss hopping from town to town every few days, and I’d like to do that more in the States too -- particularly for artist residencies.  I’m working on making that happen right now, actually.

7. What's your favorite "feel good" movie?

Lonely Are the Brave is one of my all time faves, based on the Edward Abbey novel Brave Cowboy. It’s definitely not a ‘feel good’ movie in any typical sense, though.  Amelie by Jean-Pierre Jeunet (or anything else by Jeunet) too.

8. Your favorite cartoon show as a kid?

The Smurfs.  Most definitely The Smurfs.


Sera said...

Whoa. Where is Laura Lea's stuff right now? Does she sell prints of any of the Me + You pieces? I love them.

Tolly, I also love your story of what your family said to you about their fireplace vs. your country. :) That really puts things in historical perspective, doesn't it?

Laura Lea Nalle said...

Hi Sera,

The Me + You pieces are currently available as limited edition prints on metal through my studio (contact for more info). Select pieces from the series are also available through Aviary (2110 S. Lamar) on an ongoing basis.

Glad you like em!

Austin Eavesdropper said...

@Sera -- Glad Laura Lea was able to help you out on prints!

And, I know -- very humbling when one meets his or her Old World relatives.

Lance Hunter said...

Laura Lea is a completely amazing artist and I'm glad you got a chance to interview her.