When we evaluate what is art, we may use one of several lenses to understand the work. For instance, we may look at the title of the piece as a guide to tell us about the concerns of the artist. We may also read the artist biography to gain insight as to their art practices. But there is yet another option, and that is to engage the artist herself to learn more about what compels her to create art in the first place.
Laurel H. Paley first became an artist when she made a secular vow to herself to create art and to create artists. She intended to blur the practice of art-making with teaching art. For Laurel, reaching out to her students to have them see the possibilities of art involves employing the Socratic method of always being introspective vis-à-vis being self-interrogative, and being playful. Having an internal dialogue about art practices is a shared dialogue she has with her students, among others, about a process of making good work that is honest.
As an undergraduate at Smith College, a private liberal arts college primarily for women in Northampton, Massachusetts, she learned a lot about the foundations of art but didn’t see art as a viable career option for her. For Laurel, art ended with Matisse as she was unfamiliar with contemporary galleries and typically viewed art within the institutional context of museums. Her education at Smith though, gave her a solid foundation in art history and that allowed her to engage art from multiple vantage points: as a writer and art critic, color and black & white photographer, and as a painter. Her strong eye for style landed her a job at The Sophian, the independent newspaper at Smith, as photo editor her senior year.
After Laurel obtained her Bachelor of Arts degree in Art as well as an English degree from Smith College, she had the unique opportunity to travel extensively across Europe—even though the idea of moving to New York to work and live there seemed very appealing. However, there were larger forces at play. The Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) was the overarching program that was supposed to provide youth programs and work initiatives for groups like war veterans, migrant workers and Native American communities but was dismantled under President Ronald Reagan. The economic recession in 1981 drove Laurel to enroll at the UCLA Extension Program where she took up painting and an uninstructed life drawing class. Under the direction of Martin Stacy, she went beyond creating student work and began to develop her own artistic language, away from her favorite painters like Rembrandt, Velasquez, Rothko and other American Abstract Expressionists. Instead, she focused on developing abstracted still lifes.
Laurel’s day job as a book editor paid her well and engaged her enough that she was able to concentrate instead on developing her craft as a multimedia artist and not be mired by the sexist climate at work. She recalls enthusiastically looking forward to getting home from work at about 4 PM and furiously paint until about 2 or 3 AM. Around this time, she would see friends occasionally but preferred to focus on the work—which she didn’t even show to friends due to some lingering doubts about her artistic abilities.She reached out to former professor, Sam Amato, at UCLA to show him the body of work she had been developing. With effervescence, he exclaimed: “It’s a fucking shame you’re not painting” which she took to mean “It’s a fucking shame you’re not painting” enough! Laurel thought to herself: “you can do this if it’s what you want” in relation to her art-making. This same mantra is one she reaches out to her students with. Yes, Laurel says, being an artist means to sometimes suffer, to struggle, and to be crazy but “if it’s what you want, you’ll get there”. She also poignantly exclaimed: “be fearless, work six times harder than anybody else” and you’ll get there. It is this effervescence that I took a liking to when I first took her 2D design course at Los Angeles City College (LACC).
When asked about her current role as Professor of Art, Laurel remarked that even as she worked towards and earned her Master’s in Fine Arts from Claremont Graduate University in Southern California, she never thought she wanted to teach, but she began teaching life drawing, painting, and calligraphy at what is now called American Jewish University (AJU). Though she made good money working at AJU, she felt unfulfilled at instructing people who approached art as a hobby. She moved on to teach beginning drawing at Pasadena City College (PCC) where she found that holding people accountable was a more desirable process that yielded legitimate results. As she applied the Socratic Method to her teachings, she became more introspective and began to ask herself where she fit in as a Jewish artist working in the tradition of Artemisia Gentileschi, Philip Guston and Ben Shahn. Added to that mix were questions about the role of new and developing technologies such as instruction through YouTube videos and the problematic rising cost of higher education.
Laurel emphatically expresses that artists, successful artists in particular, must be able to function within different areas to sustain themselves. In her case, she approached grant writing, photography, calligraphy and teaching adult education and enrichment on a freelance basis as survival and success strategies. She quotes very few jobs for artists in education, due in large part to the lack of funding for the arts and education and the heavy appeal of the art world to produce quick success and short-term fame. In the place of the ubiquitous fifteen minutes of fame, Laurel wishes for an “authentic expression” from her students regardless if they have attended the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) or a community college.
Laurel prefers that her work take center stage rather than herself. And so when it comes to the question of where does she see her work in relation to the art institutions of museum-gallery-biennale, she states: “I prioritize my work, I make art… I’m on the outside, making the work, making the art, making the artists”. And of her artwork in general, she declares: “I’m obsessed with certain things. I go in cycles [in approaching] different works that captivate me… I’m trying to synthesize certain kinds of emotion, certain kinds of imagery and process”. It is the collision of these ideas that produces her artwork so that the art is not about the idea or concept she originally had, but it is in fact the very idea or concept she is exploring. For example, take Laurel’s ongoing project, The Longest Potholder, as a testament to the dynamic of bringing together several groups of people around the nation who contribute to this project by weaving clean discarded socks into 4”x4” squares that are then weaved together into a long chain. The colorful displays at once reveal distinct patterns but the highlight is the combined efforts by people who may never meet save for this cumulative interaction.
Laurel recognizes that even a prolific artist undergoes certain periods of rest where work may not be produced, but that the life of an artist offers a lifetime of work. It is in that lifetime that the artist must swim across rivers of doubt, gulfs of adversity and economic hardship, and even oceans of exploration but that the end result must be to create art and to create communities of artists that encourage and inspire us. “I want to make art to exist for others to see. I have something [to offer] that is different, complete, unique, necessary, relevant and real”. Laurel refuses to be dogmatic in approaching works of art. And she is equally staunch about disclosing information about works in progress: “explaining or talking about them denies their existence”. As long as the work is still being developed, we must allow artists to run their own course.
Laurel H. Paley is a Professor of Art at LACC where she currently serves on the Faculty Senate, and is a strong presence in the Art Department. Laurel is active within the Association Internationale des Critiques d’Art (AICA), the College Art Association (CAA), and Southern California Women’s Caucus for Art (SCWCA). She may also be found on Facebook.