LILY MARTINA LEE memorializes the forgotten, the discarded and the overlooked. She juxtaposes intimacy and anonymity in her embroidered and appliquéd memorials to unidentified human remains, her beaded scratch ticket medallions and her car hood portraits based on the tattoos of fugitives wanted for non-violent crimes. Lily received a BFA in Fibers (2008) and a BA in American Indian Studies (2009) from the University of Washington in Seattle. She received her MFA from the University of Oregon in Eugene (2012). Her work was recently included in Post-Racial U.S.? at the University Art Gallery at New Mexico State University (Las Cruces, New Mexico, 2013) and Across the Divide IV: The New Boondocks< at Center on Contemporary Art Georgetown Gallery (Seattle, 2012). She teaches Sculpture and Fiber Art at Truman State University. Lily lives and works in Kirksville, Missouri.
OtherPeoplesPixels: Your Fugitive Portraits (2011-2012) are based on the tattoos of wanted fugitives and the facts found in legal and news media documents. Some of the crimes the men committed are "escape from community custody," "burglary," “failure to appear: DUI," and "criminal endangerment." Was it a conceptual decision not to include fugitives for more violent crimes, like murder or rape? What makes you pick the fugitives you pick?
Lily Martina Lee: My decision to work with the narratives of fugitives wanted for non-violent crimes was a conscious one. Rather than sensationalize the criminal element, I wanted to make more intimate work, bringing attention to these individuals, where they come from, and the personal narratives and identities as constructed through their tattoos. Their stories may seem banal or even despondent, but they are also so evocative of our present day culture.
I initially researched most-wanted postings in the Inland
Northwest region because that’s where I am from. But I also
noticed a pattern in higher-profile, national stories: fugitives often
seem to run to Idaho or are captured in this region. I
always choose people who are wanted in jurisdictions outside of major
metropolitan areas. I began to think of
this body of work as cumulatively articulating a contemporary iteration
of the romanticized west: anonymous and removed from authority.
In order for authorities to know and list tattoos in a Most Wanted posting, the fugitives must be a repeat offenders. These individuals often have lengthy histories of petty crimes. In pouring over the list of tattoos—information which is made public for the purpose of finding and capturing them—I couldn't help but imagine and try to understand the characters of the individuals who had made those specific choices. I read hundreds of cases, paying special attention to those fugitives who had enough tattoos listed so that I could create a formal composition. More importantly though, I became intrigued by the discursive combinations of tattoos, such as a pentagram and Tweety bird, as in Israel "Izzy" Rodrigues, Butte, Montana (Criminal Endangerment), or text in English and Spanish with a Thai name, as in Jimmy "Bam Bam" Rodriguez, Pasco, Washington (Escape from community custody).
decals and accessories share striking similarities with tattoos in both
style and subject matter: flames, Chinese characters, tropical flowers,
mythical creatures and religious symbols that are often cliché and
rooted in cultural appropriation. Even as tattoos have become more
mainstream, they retain their transgressive status, which the
marketplace has capitalized on by generating a multitude of consumer
products carrying these graphic styles. Despite the commercialization,
individuals still permanently mark themselves with such graphics and
attach personal meanings to these tattoos. I find this very beautiful;
it transcends preconceptions of originality and meaning within a visual
OPP: You've used auto
body materials like body filler, automotive enamel, fenders, chrome and
tires in a number of sculptures, including Universal/Tramp Stamp
Soldier (2011) and Nightbringer (2011). Did you have any experience
working on cars before you started using their parts in your art
practice? What's compelling to you about these materials?
experience with auto body materials was originally from an observational
perspective. In college and during graduate school, I worked seasonally
as a flagger at construction sites. I watched cars go by all day and
naturally began to personify them as we occupied the same space. It’s a
special situation to be clad in safety gear while standing out in a live
lane of traffic, choreographing the movement of vehicles. To entertain
myself, I began a list of the worst cars I saw each day, where I spotted
them and who was driving. For instance, at an apartment complex in
Renton, Washington, I saw a gold Nissan Pulsar wagon being driven by a
young, Hispanic male.
When I began to use auto body products in my work, I was initially intrigued by the phenomenon of a cosmetic repair. In our society, it often seems like everything is produced for function and cost-effectiveness. However, the whole auto body industry is essentially aesthetic. It is this curious bastion of formalism practiced outside the context of fine art and is even endorsed by insurance companies. I wanted to explore and participate in this phenomenon by physically manipulating these materials to conceptual ends.
OPP: Could you explain the process of working with the body filler?
I use resin colorants to dye body filler, and then apply these colored
layers to the car hood. In some cases, I cover colored layers with a
fleshy-colored layer (the default color of body filler when using a
standard red cream hardener). I carve through the flesh-toned layer into
the colored body filler using woodcut gouges and electric and air
rotary tools. In other cases, I carve into a filled area of the
flesh-toned body filler, and then fill it back in using body filler dyed
to different colors. By repeating this process, I achieve a fairly high
degree of detail and generate color gradations by controlling the
direction in which I spread the body filler into the
carved areas. An example is the rays coming
out around the cross on Jimmy. I’ve also experimented with different
solvents to thin the body filler in order to pour it into molds I make for casting forms like the masks on Izzy. In some cases, I achieve fine
outlines by carefully carving the body filler, spraying on a black
primer and then sanding it away to reveal the carved areas.
This methodology of inlaying is analogous to the process of tattooing and strengthens the connection between body and car; the body filler becomes flesh. I reaffirm the surface of the car hood by juxtaposing the inlayed imagery with decals, chrome emblems and fabricated steel components affixed to the surface or floating above it, such as the pentagram in Izzy or the numbers in Michael. I challenged myself to work completely with products and materials from the automotive industry. The body filler can be carved, thinned and dyed different colors, and it can be applied to itself or to the steel. The material affords me great flexibility in combining these techniques in each piece.
OPP: How did your Bachelors of Arts in American Indian Studies from the University of Washington inform your beaded work including Regalia, Skulls and Medallions, your series of beaded scratch tickets?
I began doing beadwork long before college under the mentorship of the
late Pauline Lilje, an artist of Chippewa descent, and my interest in
beadwork partially led me to pursue a degree in American Indian Studies.
I was very fortunate to study at a university that had such a
department, and I was continuously surprised by the contemporary issues
facing Native Americans. My understanding of our nation’s history was
constantly challenged and reshaped during my coursework.
While I had done beadwork since a young age, it wasn’t until I became involved with the student group First Nations at the University of Washington that I started to make regalia for formalized events. During my first year in this group, I made a crown for the royalty contest at the annual First Nations Spring Powwow. Royalty are selected—primarily based on dancing, essays and interviews—to be role models in educational and career goals and for their strong connection to their tribal traditions and identity. The winners of royalty contests wear their crowns at all of the powwows they attend throughout the year they hold that title. It was a tremendous honor to make such a crown. Watching Carmen Selam, the winner of the first crown I made, wear it was rewarding far beyond any art-making experience I had previously had. I went on to make another powwow royalty crown and then began to make beaded medallions. At powwows, I often saw people wearing medallions as stand-ins for things that are typically printed on T-shirts, such as sports team logos. I decided to make metal band logo medallions like Slayer Medallion (2009) to function in a similar capacity.
I later referenced the form of the beaded medallion in Medallions. The series explores the relationship between decoration, value and labor, as well as the cliché themes—Gold Rush, Buck$ and Dough and Asian Riches, to name a few—of the scratch tickets. This work has a clear relationship to tribal gaming enterprises, but I’m most interested in drawing an analogy between the status of decoration and the status of Native Nations. Much in the way that American Indian and Alaska Native Tribes are legally defined as “domestic dependent nations” by the U.S. government, decoration exists on the surface of an object. It’s often defined within the context of its surface instead of being a thing unto itself. The analogy is in the struggle to define both tribes and decoration; neither is given full autonomy under the power structures of U.S. law and the art historical cannon. In many critical legal cases where tribal sovereignty has come into question, ambiguous phrases like "quasi-sovereign" or "semi-independent" become law. In conjunction with this body of work I wrote an imaginary court decision in which I use key language from historic cases in Federal Indian Policy that define the legal status of Tribes to talk about the status of decoration in fine art.
OPP: Unidentified is a relatively new series of embroidered and appliquéd memorials based on "police sketches and photos of unidentified remains." On your site, you say, "My designs are made using computer-generated graphics relating to grieving from social networking, such as Imikimis and Facebook cover photos." What are Imikimis?
LML: Imikimis are a brand of pre-made, photo frame graphics. There are a lot of sites out there where you can upload personal images into a computer-generated photo frame for posting on social networking sites. Most of these sites have collections of different themes such as holidays, romance, the seasons and “In memory of.” This paradox of “personalizing” a one-of-a kind photo with a pre-made, computer-generated graphic is intriguing. I have observed the use of these images in social media by individuals who are celebrating a relationship or mourning a loss. I am interested in how grieving through social networking forums can be impersonal but also enables people to have these public conversations about very personal and emotional topics.
OPP: How does the immediacy of grieving on social media relate the slowness of embroidery?
LML: The instantaneous nature of social networking, including the photo frames, makes it impersonal. I am using the slowness of embroidery to complicate that. I pair the police images of unidentified individuals with the computer-generated photo frames in a way that is almost camp. Then I recreate it with appliqué and embroidery to make this digital image physically tangible. The work is both deeply intimate, and yet the subjects remain anonymous. As an artist, I devote my time, labor and thought to these cases of unidentified remains and contextualize them within the historical tradition of memorial embroidery. I am fascinated by how a person could be deceased for decades yet still remain unidentified, especially since there is ample evidence such as what clothing they were wearing and what objects were found with them. I wonder how anonymous their lives were to leave them so unknown. I use embroidery to commemorate their lives, even if I’m the only person to take the time to think about them.
To see more of Lily's work, please visit lilymartinalee.com.