An Interview with Lori Nelson

Lori Nelson’s work will give your weirdness a solid place to rest its head… bring your little alien friends, your familiars and whisper… it’s me. Come to my window. In this deeply intimate interview, you will leave feeling like you have been hugged by someone that truly sees you, with all your monsters and insecurities that seep through the world and welcome you with its arms and heart open.  Now when you see Lori’s work, you can delve right in. Don’t be afraid, record the history of the planet you visited and you might just find out something about yourself there!

Lori Nelson
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So we can start from the beginning with you telling us a little about yourself and your background for anyone that may not be familiar with your work. Is there anything about your story that people might not have already read online on in previous interviews?

As a young girl, I grew up in a religious Mormon household in Colorado. My community reveled in being “a peculiar people” and focused on being “not of this world”, shunning the trappings of evil, dressing modestly, avoiding coffee and alcohol, and choosing goodness and holiness in the face of constant temptations. With childlike awe, I absorbed cautionary tales of Satan’s cunning. Fascinated with tales of the Dark Side, I became unintentionally more and more taken with tales of demons who seemed more vivid to me than the washed out saints of holiness and abstinence. The Devil, it seemed, lurked around every corner, in Rock and Roll and literature, movies and beverages. The Satanic Panic was in full swing and I was curious.

One night when I was around 9 or 10, I lay sleepless and rigid in the bunk bed I shared with my sister, uncomfortable in the sponge curlers we both wore to bed on Saturday nights in preparation for the Sabbath. The house was silent and dark except for the shine of the suburban streetlight through our gauzy curtains. Experiencing the first of a lifetime of Midnight Worries, I wondered if I was good enough to resist the Devil, should he make an appearance, the way the holy men of the scriptures had. I doubted my strength, wicked little thing with dirty thoughts that I already was, but decided I must find out for myself exactly the measure of my faith.

Quietly, I whispered, Hello, Satan, It’s me. Come to my window.  Satan, come to me, now!

I cast my eyes to the window, wondering if I was up for the wrestling match, full of belief but suddenly full of regret.

Slowly, before my eyes, a silhouette began to appear outside my window, backlit by the sodium light on the corner. The Devil had arrived and was ready to tangle, the profile of his nose and chin sharp, his top hat pushed slightly forward, a dandy the likes I’d never seen around our little cow town, but remarkably similar to a nasty Dick VanDyke.

At that moment, I knew I could not fight that jaunty, confident figure, who, even though only a shadow, I perceived to be mocking me powerfully. I surrendered and hid under the covers for 7 wakeful hours, periodically checking to see if the Devil was still there (he was)  until I could wake my sister and safely watch re-runs of the Lone Ranger on the sofa.

I would have chalked this episode up to child-frights, but when I relayed the ordeal in descriptive detail to my Sunday School teacher, she was so overcome by fear and a “bad spirit” that she sought a male Priesthood holder to come utter a blessing over my worried class, validating the experience.

At that point, I knew I was sort of powerful and likely wicked. I loved learning and talking about the Devil! It was around this time that I decided that not only was I not like the other girls in my community, but that I was probably not even entirely human and possibly demonic. Over and over I was told I was weird, gross as I grew.  I drew secret pictures of nudity and of sex (based on my reading on the subject in the World Book Encyclopedia) and Satan, to the best of my knowledge.

With few options, I embraced my fate as a creep and thus as artist.

There are many recurring themes in your art work, firstly the innocence and age of your characters and the almost alien like world you create. Where did your inspirations begin for these incredible characters?

The characters in my current work hearken back to that lonely adolescence where I, like my peers, considered myself a bit of a monster. In the height of my awkwardness, my head was adult sized, my body was imp-sized, and only one breast had developed. Adding to the effect was an impressive girly-stache and eyebrows that I had no idea I could do anything about.   I felt genuinely beastly. The beauty of growing up is that you grow up. Your body morphs into a regular person-form and you find out about tweezers. You shake hands with the creep in you, and, hopefully show the critical demoralizer the door.  The tragedy of growing up is that you might give birth to beings who are just like you, and over again, you must relive variations of the monstrous-youth phase.  One evening while holding my beautiful young daughter in my arms after a rough day, she sobbed a familiar refrain, “I’m a monster, I’m a monster”, and I knew she was because I was too.

The thing I would like my monster daughter and son to do, as they approach adulthood, if at all possible, would be to accept their condition. Even better than accept would be a full embrace of monstrosity and recognition of the power of the beast. From this wish springs my CryptoTweens series. In my work, I wish to send up the signal to the other weirdo kids of the world that they are not alone and speak aloud about their beauty and power. There are a lot of us. We are devilishly powerful.

The colours you use in your work add so much atmosphere, depth and excitement into the visual imagery of your pieces. You must have a wealth of skills with your colour palette, do you create studies/sketches before you begin and what are your thoughts on the colours you use in your pieces and how do they come about?

When I start a painting, I first start with words. Usually on the subway, I scrawl word combinations in my battered planner that are urgently evocative to me at the moment. They are narrative and almost like titles although they don’t always end up being the titles. “ Find My Friends,” “Stormi-Fro,” “Hidey-hole,” “Puss Boy,” “Stop Hitting Yourself” “Internet Self,” “Exchange of Ideas,” “Hand Up to the Sky,” “Astral Project”. From these words, I formulate an image. My first visual whack at the concept will usually be a quick digital collage of images I’ve scanned or found. (I used to actually cut and paste these collages!) From this visual reference, I do a graphite sketch that will be scanned and fidgeted with in Photoshop. Finally, I transfer the revised drawing to panel and I think to myself, this painting will be blue. Or pink. Or Green. I choose an overall color/feel and then riff off it. I like to use slightly perverted “nursery colors”. I like the colors to be just a little too rich. I want the colors to seem otherworldly and off-kilter, but to remain pastel and childlike. It’s a balance.

Based on the theme in your works, do you have any particular interest in extraterrestrial species or cosmology? Or were you abducted?

I am interested in people who believe strongly in anything: religion, a political party, ET’s, astrology, paranormal…anything that consumes a person fascinates me. I could have been abducted by ET’s. Or the Devil. I see them as different faces of the Bogeyman of so many cultures.

You mentioned in one of your posts that your children were sometimes the models (a jumping off point) for your pieces, and they seem engaged with your art. I noticed they even come to help with your conceptual art projects, like the table you set up at Times Sq.  So a couple of things; how is life as a full time artist and mother, do you feel parenthood impacts the way you approach creating art, and do you often do projects like the one mentioned above? (Amazing idea, btw, I loved it)

My kids have been the inspiration for my work and the unfortunate victims of my obsessive career. Growing up with a mom who paints, my kids never asked if this was “normal”. It just was life. I, however, often questioned whether they were getting short shrift, a raw deal. They’ve never had a mom who was very “momly” (I rarely made dinner, I don’t keep a very neat house, we re-wear our clothes a lot due to infrequent laundering) and I felt kind of guilty about that because of my upbringing. Now they are pretty much grown, I know that the other things I offered were really  pretty good. I was a mom who, even when nobody wanted my paintings for years and years, I kept at it every single day. They saw that I was committed to a passion and wasn’t going to give up, just because I was currently not successful. They actually look back at the crazy art projects I involved them in (like making homemade souvenirs for tourists of their current feelings at a card-table in Times Square as a commentary on pre-fab tourist-trap mementoes) and think, ok, that was weird, but cool.

Can you shed some light on where you find your inspirations? How do you remain inspired, and what does a typical day look like for you?

My background and my youth will always be a huge part of my work as are the lives and faces of the young people I know and love. Being immersed in so many different clusters of kids as I move about the city, I see one true thing about all of them: they want to be loved and accepted. New York City is an endless source of inspiration for me. I’m swimming in material here!

I think artists can be influential in creating change, particularly once they become more well-known and gather a following. Do you have any visions for change or passions outside of your art, if so, what would you hope to change?

My fondest hope is that people will recognize themselves in the characters I paint and say, whoa, that’s weird, and….that’s kinda me! By memorializing other-ness in art, I hope to normalize it and engender acceptance. Especially self-acceptance.

I feel like living in Brooklyn would be the best place for any artist, what is the art scene like there? You seem very interconnected in the art world, can you tell me more about the space you create, live and work in?

Brooklyn has been great. Just by commuting on the subway, I get to witness all the cultures of the world.  My art world in Brooklyn has been a really sweet, familial scene, especially at the height of Tara McPherson and Sean Leonard’s Cotton Candy Machine (gallery). Their space was not only for displaying art, it was for communing over ideas and images that didn’t fit into the “straight”, proper New York art scene. I met so many of my best art-friends there. It’s with a lot of sadness that I have to admit that Brooklyn has gotten too expensive to support a real art scene. I’ve said goodbye to so many great artists as they search for cities that they can afford to live in and make art. If I’m honest, I have to say, I probably won’t be in Brooklyn for much longer either.

Earlier this year I read a deeply moving post you did that was brutally honest about ‘Life’ and perhaps misconceptions people might have when seeing someone’s life of social media. I was particularly moved by it, it had an impact on me, so thank you for that! I definitely have un-addressed mould in my bathroom… I wonder if you can elaborate, more on the impact social media has had on your life and art, both positive and negative?

I hate the “socials”, I love the “socials”. I owe a lot of my current recognition to the way that an image can travel, instantly, around the world and be noticed and shared. I honestly did not know people felt like I did about themselves (monstrous) in such quantities before social media. And how wonderful to have actual really real international friends who I would have never known without the tiny computers. Of course, moderation is a huge issue. I frequently have to dump apps off my phone so that I can be more productive. Social media would devour my career if I didn’t keep it on a leash. Another reality is that, with social media, while inspiring some people, I know I might be making somebody feel like shit about themselves because they haven’t gotten great feedback for their work or they feel like their life is not great. This weighs on me. I hope people get that social media is partly performance art.

I noticed the presence of animals in most of your pieces; the relationship portrayed is often playful and reveals a connection between them and the characters. Do you have a special connection to the furry ones on the earth?

Animals often act as a “familiar” for the subject in the painting as well as a best friend. I feel strongly attached to many of my subjects and want to give them the animal as a sort of present. It’s the best that I can do for them a lot of the time. Some of the animals have personal symbolism. The squirrel for instance is often present in my work because I consider him the state of my brain, embodied. I suffer from anxiety and distraction and have found that I have to tame the chattering of my brain, actually tell it to focus and then proceed to narrate the steps for what I am trying to accomplish. I call my disposition, “Squirrelly Brain”.  Also, In New York City, especially where I live in Brooklyn, squirrels are a constant, and serve as a depiction and reminder of my overactive mind.

Finally, your pieces seem to grow organically, but if you do have any insight, can you tell us your plans for the future works or any upcoming shows you might have?

I have group shows I’ll be involved in and then in January, 2018, I will have a solo exhibition with Modern Eden Gallery in San Francisco.  In this upcoming show I intend to grow my characters up a bit. CryptoTweens will now be CryptoTeens! Get ready for some sweet, monstery angst.


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