OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Lara Odell

Illustration for a story in the New York Times Sunday Review about having to say goodbye to something you love, even when it's a very old Saturn. Gouache and cut paper. 2016.

Painter, illustrator and graphic artist LARA ODELL uses gouache and cut paper to create emotionally-evocative works, whose power extends beyond their commercial origins. She enlists the challenges of cut-paper—the difficulty of precision and the moveability of the parts—to underscore the alienation, anxiety and loss represented in the images. Lara has art degrees from UC Irvine, SUNY Buffalo and Alfred University. Her illustration credits include The New York Times Magazine and The Rumpus. In summer 2016, her drawings were included in a Perimeter, an online journal published annually. Her work was recently included in the group exhibition UNPACKED at the PACKARD in Long Beach, California. The show will run until December 3rd, 2016. You can follow Lara's cartoons at laraodell.blogspot.com. Lara lives and works in Long Beach, California.

OtherPeoplesPixels: When did you first start working with paper cut-outs? What does this medium offer that drawing and painting alone do not? 

Lara Odell: I started working with paper cut-outs about four years ago. A cut-out has an unanticipated element that the immediacy of painting or drawing doesn’t. Since I’m working on all the elements separately, I won’t really know what they look like together until I compose them into a singular image, set it on the copy-stand, light it, and view it through the lens of my camera and then on my computer. On the other hand, my process involves a lot of drawing and painting, so it is difficult, finally, to separate what one offers that another does not. I’d say that the cut-outs are both drawings and paintings as well as expansions upon those practices: instead of drawing a line, I’m cutting a line with scissors, delineating and altering shapes as I go. Also, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the cut-outs are sculptural, but they are works in relief, so there is another level of illusion or artifice going on – are the shadows real or painted? And because all of the component pieces exist independently of each other, there is an active improvisation when creating the compositions of moving and removing, placing and replacing, and so concepts of impermanence (or at least a defiance of certainty or finality) come to mind. It is important to me that the execution and materials reflect the content.

One of two illustrations for The New York Times Magazine, about the increasing loss of government jobs and how it's affecting mainly African-Americans. Gouache and cut paper, 2016.

OPP: Many of your cut-outs are illustrations for articles. For example, one illustration for The New York Times Magazine supported an article about how the increasing loss of government jobs is affecting mainly African-Americans. Another, for the Dove Self-Esteem Project, illustrated how a girl's first love influences her self-esteem. Many others are illustrations of stories and essays for The Rumpus. But viewed on your website, they are coherent as a body of work exploring a sense of emotional precariousness. I see loneliness, anxiety, and alienation. Are you intentionally picking illustration gigs that feed your own interests?

LO: Thank you for noticing that. I think that, yes, those themes tend to be a driving force and are central to all of my work, no matter the assignment. I’m not sure if this is an asset or not. I’m a relative newcomer to the illustration world, and I am not at the point where I have the privilege of selecting illustration jobs that align with my own interests. I typically say yes to what is offered. However, I think that to be a skilled and sensitive art director is to intentionally seek out an artist who is likely to sympathize and engage with the content on a familiar, intimate level. Maybe I’ve been fortunate in that many of the assignments I’ve received have resonated with particular preferences I have, but maybe that is true for most illustrators, in that they’ll be selected for certain jobs because they may already seem to have a sympathy for the content in mind.

Based on the essay "I Did Not Vanish: On Writing" about finding a way to speak through writing. 2013. Gouache and cut paper. 9" x 13"

OPP: Do you ever exhibit these works in galleries outside of their original context?

LO: Yes, I like showing the work because of the opportunity to see how the pieces relate as a cohesive body of work. Its also important to me to show them in a real-life setting in order to expose the hand-made features: the tactility, imperfections, detail, and nuance of color that gets lost on a computer screen or printed page. I've recently participated in three shows in Long Beach, California, where I live. Last fall, I exhibited the original cut-outs at the Long Beach Library, and this summer I exhibited prints of the cut-outs at a local diner. The cut-outs are currently part of a group exhibition organized by the Arts Council for Long Beach of this year’s Professional Artist Fellows at the old Packard Building in downtown Long Beach.

Cartoon, 2016.

OPP: A practical question for aspiring illustrators out there: how do you get clients?

LO: Here are a three things that may have helped me find clients: 1) Directly emailing art directors of publications I’d like to work for; 2) Submitting my portfolio to art / design / illustration blogs that attract a large number of viewers, like It’s Nice That; 3) Submitting work to competitive illustration annuals like American Illustration (these cost money which is depressing). Honestly, I am still wondering myself. It seems to take a relentless perseverance of continually reaching out and introducing yourself and then constantly reminding people you exist.

Broken Hearse and Tree, 2016. Gouache and cut paper

OPP: Tell us about all the mechanical vehicles—hearses, police cars, airplanes—that fall apart in your hands.

LO: I try to be aware of objects or situations that I think would lend themselves to the process and effects of a cut-out. The airplane was one of the first cut-outs I made. The shape of the airplane is also cut out of the sky (background), as if the sky was not atmospheric, but a flat plane (ha) with maybe nothing behind it. For me, that registered a feeling of existential terror. The windows of the plane are not windows, but flat elliptical shapes that for me double as passengers, floating off into space.
With the vintage police car, I was attracted to the simplicity of form and color. The cut-out version almost resembles a toy car or a still from a children’s animation. The piece made me a little sad . . . like when you think something is real, and then it is not. If the police car represents a kind of authority, to have it break apart calls to mind the fragility of authority, the tenuous (in)ability to trust authority, and the failures of authority . . . and with these apprehensions come fear, disillusionment, uncertainty.
Whereas both the airplane and the police car were based on found photographs, the hearse was modeled on a photograph I took. It wasn’t obvious to me at the time, but I began working on the hearse when my mom was in the process of dying. I know that sounds literal, but at the time, I had almost continuous thoughts of death and dying so I guess it makes sense. The breaking-apart hearse / the destruction of the hearse / the exploding hearse: it felt like an angry, violent act. It was a gesture of defiance, which is ironic and misguided, but there nonetheless.
I could say that the vehicles are stand-ins for things and people from our everyday lives that transport us—sometimes as reluctant passengers.

To see more of Lara's work, please visit laraodell.com.

Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the relationship between repetition, desire and impermanence in cross-stitch embroideries, remix video, collage and impermanent installations. She is an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and was a 2011-2012 Artist-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Her solo exhibitions include I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (2013) at Klemm Gallery, Siena Heights University (Adrian, Michigan), Everything You Need is Already Here (2014) at Heaven Gallery (Chicago) and When Things Fall Apart, in the Annex Gallery at Lillstreet Art Center (Chicago). Stacia created site-responsive installations for two-person show Form Unbound (2015) at Dominican University's O’Connor Art Gallery (River Forest, IL) and SENTIENCE (2016) at The Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art. Her work was recently included in SHOWROOM, curated by Edra Soto, at the Chicago Artists’ Coalition. Stacia is currently preparing for a two-person show titled Resist the Urge to Press Forward with Brent Fogt at Riverside Art Center (Riverside, Illinois) and Sacred Secular, a solo show at Indianapolis Arts Center in Indiana.