A multi-tasker of the most admirable sort, L.A. street and gallery artist Lydia Emily makes art, produces art shows, advocates street art, wins art contests, runs a non-profit, volunteers her time in after-school art programs, and sets the table nightly for the gaggle of pre-teens in her household. Her series on Africa, which we loved, sold out at SCOPE Miami in December 2012, her first time showing at the Miami Beach art fairs. Coming later this month, her work will be part of the CARTWHEEL Street & Outsider Art Pop-up Show Mar. 21-24. Recently, the artist discussed the Africa series, solid sources for international news, and her experience painting walls in Haiti, via cell phone while she shopped for dinner.
You’ve lived in California for ten years. Where are you originally from?
I’m not from anywhere. I was born in Chicago. When I was two months old I moved to New Zealand. And then after that we lived on a cruise ship. And then Guadalajara; and then we came back to the United States and lived in California. Then I lived in New York, and Berlin, and Turkey. I always start telling the story and then I’m like, eh, the person stopped [caring] by now. It’s just so much. My parents didn’t really have to work. They did work, they worked really hard, but they didn’t have to work like other people. When they got an idea they were just able to just go and follow it. They were able to have their dreams, whatever those dreams may be.
Can you tell us about your Africa series of paintings?
This year all my work will be on Africa, and how Africa will be affected by China’s colonization of their country. My last couple of series were on China and Tibet, but as I change and as I start to make new paintings, the new paintings will be on China’s colonization of other areas. A big deal for me is China’s colonization of Africa because if China can do what it’s doing in Tibet and consider Tibetans their own people–China considers Tibetans to be Chinese, and not Tibetan– so if they can ethnically cleanse their own people, what will they do to the Africans, who are so graciously accepting them and inviting them into their area? The Chinese are buying a tremendous amount of land in Africa, and they’re psyched that we’re obsessed with the Middle East because no one’s paying attention. In my pieces I’m trying to show the people who will be most affected by the economic change in Africa – the people who live in the smaller tribes and have less say over the government actions of different countries. I know this is really complicated but since you’re doing an interview with me, it’s like, sorry.
What are the words on the paintings?
That is the Tibetan Om Mani Padma mantra. That writing is like their — more than a shalom or aloha — it’s the most recognizable and most used Tibetan mantra for peace. So by putting the Tibetan mantra behind the African people I’m trying to close them in and bring them together, showing that the past is behind them like the sky while the Africans are to weather the Chinese. I’m looking at vegan soy shit while I’m trying to explain to you. So does that makes sense?
Yes! What’s the newspaper background?
All the newspaper clippings in every painting I’ve ever done are all from the Sunday New York Times. When I was growing up the New York Times was like God. It was like the Bible in my house. We didn’t have religion in my house growing up; there was no God, but what there was the New York Times. And as I grew up I realized that [the newspaper] is not God. Sometimes they make mistakes. They’re very liberal leaning, which I am, but that doesn’t mean that’s what I think is appropriate news. There should be more of a neutral standing. So I paint on the New York Times as if somebody would paint on their Bible. It’s always the Sunday New York Times – it can be business, it can be style – the articles [I use] aren’t specific to the painting I do. Also, I’m totally obsessed with Will Shortz, who’s the crossword puzzle editor.
Besides the New York Times, where do you get your news?
I get a lot of my information from the New York Times for sure, but I also get a lot of my information from other newspapers. I get my information from multiple news sources and do not praise the New York Times anymore. I understand their flaws. I use it [in my artwork] to remind myself that just because something’s in print, doesn’t mean it’s true. You can have this background of news print behind an African person, and just because it’s written and typed out, and it’s sky in my painting, doesn’t mean it’s real. The person is real. Not the text. That’s why I put the person in front of the text.
My most reliable source for news is Al Jazeera, for sure, because those reporters are going out and getting stories like reporters used to. It’s all from the point of view of the reporter, not done by the point of view of the editor, or the producer. It’s a reporter driven news source. That doesn’t mean it’s my only source of news, but it is definitely my go-to. If I want to know about something I go there to research it further. I mean really, you get so much copy, so much text. It’s not a seven-line blurb I’m gonna get from Maxim or any other bullshit. It’s real journalism. I’m a big supporter of Al Jazeera and they’re a big supporter of me. They’ve published my work a few times.
Yep I watched the clip they did on street art that had your work in it.
They’ve done coverage on me three times.
I understand that you have some experience with doing art in Haiti?
I have done street art in Haiti. I scheduled a layover in Haiti specifically to do it. I had 24 hours to go out and do some walls before I had to get back at the airport. I didn’t sleep – just got off the plane and had just enough time to go into the town and do two murals. I did them at night, with hired guides, and never got to see them in the daylight. I never got to stand in front of them. That was a new experience for me because usually I get to see my work the next day, and I never got to see it. I actually don’t even know how well it turned out. The guides who I worked with didn’t even have cell phones. I’m sorry, can you hold on one second please? [She pays for her groceries]
So there’s no photos of your murals in Haiti?
There’s no photos. Not one. I thought for sure the next day that one of the guys that I went with would —
You know what, it’s not why I do things. I have to be grown up about it. I have to remember, ‘Do I do it to have pretty pictures?’ No. I have lots of pictures of the Africans I do, I have lots of pictures of the Tibetans I do. Is the wall in Haiti gonna look any different than any other wall? No. I have to know that I put it out there for the people, and I hope they enjoyed it, and I hope that it meant something to someone, and I have to let it go, you know? But I hope to go back this summer.
What did you do yesterday at a high school?
I speak at schools all over California. I try to teach teenagers the difference between throwies – which is graffiti-ing your name over and over again – and street art; the difference between bad tagging and murals. I teach mural planning and street art because there’s no art in the school system anymore. None. There’s no art. So the only way to get art to the kids is to volunteer. So I work and I’m a single mother and I do my art and I try to volunteer at as many schools as possible. I teach art for free in Compton, Whittier and Pasadena.
Yesterday I did an assembly on the L.A. Freewalls project, which is the murals that are being brought to downtown L.A. from muralists from all of the world, headed up by Daniel Lahoda. I’m actually taking them on field trip to teach the difference between tagging and art, between throwies – when someone writes their name and nothing else – and beautiful works of art that are all over the city, like the beautiful Chicano murals. Yesterday was my biggest assembly with 300 kids. It’s so important to me that artists in my community take a day of their month, or a day of their year, and go and teach what they do – because there’s no art in school, no music, no design. Nothing. It’s all been taken out. Unless we give back, the kids have no idea you can make a career doing murals. They didn’t even know that it’s possible to get paid, or to feel good about it, or to get permission from the city to do a mural. They think it’s insane. It’s beyond their comprehension.
Kids are going to get ahold of cans, especially in Compton. They’re going to start drawing up their names. So to teach them to make something bigger and better is pivotal for the growth of us all.
I’m assuming that you have to approach the schools (not the other way around)?
I have to beg sometimes – not because they don’t want this in their school, but because they are so bound by scheduling because of the No Child Left Behind [Act]. They can’t even fit in anything different. I’m teaching art at one school for an hour every Wednesday for free from three to four. I have to do it after school. The school wants it so bad, but they cannot fit it in, they’re just so constricted. So the kids who want to stay after school stay behind, and I get companies like Montana Cans to donate spray paints, and I get my friends to donate masks and house paint. And we just do with what we have. We just got home.
What did you end up getting for dinner?
I’m a vegetarian so I’m having vegetarian stuff but the kids are having pork chops. They love meat. [To the kids: Everybody come back grab one grocery bag.] They’re growing like bamboo, I have to feed them constantly. [To the kids: Close the back door please. Thank you.]
CARTWHEEL Street & Outsider Art Pop-Up Show
March 21-24, 2013
Opening Reception Thurs., March 21
1553 N. Cahuenga Blvd.
Hollywood, CA 90028
Top image: Lydia Emily painted a cooler for Red Bull Curates in December 2012.