I am 36. I was born and grew up in SoHo. I lived the last 12 years in Williamsburg, but I've just moved to Jackson Heights, Queens, which is different for me - it's a neighborhood with amazing ethnic diversity and huge, pre-war apartments. For me the apartment itself is a change -- I've always lived in lofts. I'm an artist and now a writer and I've had numerous day jobs (scenic artist, teacher, temp) but I'm currently without one. I always take the subway. When I was a teenager my mother used to get on my case, and now it's my boyfriend, to take a cab when I'm coming home alone late at night, but I'm too cheap, I guess, and not intimidated enough by the late-night subway.
Congratulations on the publication of your first book "The Starving Artist's Way." What inspired it?
The idea was a logical result of the life I was living; trying to get by on no money so I wouldn't have to work too much at a day job. Combined with the realization that many people don't know how fun and challenging it can be to invent things yourself and what amazing creations come from broken stuff put out on the street. The book is a way to share that spirit.
Can you talk a bit about the process of getting the book published. How long did you work on it? How did you attract the attention of a publisher? Did you have an agent?
The book happened by accident - I had this idea for an edgier, artier Martha Stewart-type thing, but I have ideas for new projects that I'm not particularly qualified to make happen all the time. In this case, I hadn't written the book yet, but I did know an agent, the brother of a friend who I grew up with downtown. I told Daniel and he liked the idea, gave me a couple of sample book proposals and said "write up something that looks like this". He didn't know if I could write or would follow through, but then he liked the proposal and sent it out to some publishers. We signed with Three Rivers Press and then I had 8 months to write the book - which was fine with me - quick and dirty is my style. I am not a perfectionist, though I've always aspired to being one...
What was it like to walk in the bookstore for the first time and see the book sitting there? Was it the same or did that feeling differ from seeing your art up in a gallery for the first time?
It was surreal to see something that I agonized over at Barnes and Noble. "Is it really true that this doesn't belong to me?" was the feeling. It was different from the art, because that happened so gradually - first in small settings. I have some work up at the Queens Museum of Art right now and that came closest because the space is so grand and is one of my favorite NYC spots, but that work is on loan so the relationship feels more natural. On the other hand, selling artwork is always horrible as they are one-of-a-kind and buyers always seem to want the best ones...go figure.
So... your mantra is "Make it yourself...Make it cool... Make it cheap.." For the Gothamists out there so starved they can't even buy your book, are there a couple great tips for chic living on the artist's edge that you'd care to share with us?
First of all, the book is only $14, so skip a couple of lunches and you will be able to afford it. But, if you are really too poor, you can check out the website www.thestarvingartistsway.com where some of the projects from the book are excerpted for free.
It must have been a bit of a trip growing up as the child of starving artists in the SoHo of the 1970's and 1980's. Any particularly memorable happenings you witnessed or took part in?
When I was about 4, I remember some hippies had a block party for their daughter's birthday on Mercer between Broome and Grand, behind my house. From early a.m. there were people out icing this giant cake, the girl's father was dressed as a jester and throwing frogs from a sack for us to catch and there were white "balloons" which we blew up and had fun with until my grandmother confiscated them - turned out they were condoms and she had a few things to say to my parents about raising kids in a weirdo neighborhood. It was just after Watergate and there was a prize of a turtle to whatever kid could paint "Nixon" in the biggest letters on the sidewalk. Eventually, a naked green man jumped out of the cake and started a parade up to Washington Square, but my mom ordered us back home at that point for dinner.
Did your formative experiences influence your work in any way later on?
Growing up, everyone in the neighborhood was an artist - I'm sure that had an effect. Also, we would rifle through the dumpsters and bring home pipe cleaners, fabric and all kinds of other junk to make things from. We didn't have playgrounds or parks - we played in the parking lot (which was empty, like all of SoHo, on the weekend back then), but scavenging made life fun and interesting and the lifestyle in general encouraged thinking about what you could do with something, rather than just what it was meant to be used for.
From a distance, your work comes across with the splashy, dripping organic freedom of a Jackson Pollock action painting, yet up close it's quite the surprise to discover that every "accidental" splash and drip is actually a precisely and purposefully threaded, not painted on creation. Could you tell us a bit about your technique and how you happened upon it?
I love art that encourages a perceptual shift in the viewer, particularly a humorous one. My work in a certain sense is a one-line joke about the rewards of "looking closer," although obviously it's really labor intensive and complicated as well. I began this technique as an outgrowth of painting and then collaging with fabric, but I got interested in thread and the tiny, rigid structures of the stitches. I became curious about why stitching was always stigmatized as decorative and crafty - I went about finding the least practical, least structured, least controlled graphic imagery that I could embroider and happened upon the "drip." I liked the idea that from a distance the pieces would look so fluid and painterly, but contain this surprise of shockingly time-consuming deliberation.
Both you and your art have been termed "subversive." Is this something you agree with? How so?
It sounds like a compliment to me, but it also sounds like a marketing ploy. I'm not sure exactly what it means, but I take it as suggesting "radical" in an attractive way, as opposed to when people just raise their eyebrows at you and you know they think you are radical in an unappealing way - like you have hairy armpits or something. I'm sure I'm subversive by some standards, but in New York I don't feel out of the ordinary too often.
Fair enough. What then do you make of the following description of your work by Tara Burk and Keith Miller, curators of an exhibition in which your work was shown, Threadbare: A Subversive Aesthetic?
Nava Lubelski forges an alliance between the gendered construction of abstract expressionism and the sewn thread. Her use of the '"feminine" stitch as gesture simultaneously signals and challenges notions of aggressiveness and hyper-masculinity so often tied to the first generation of abstract expressionists.
Is there any truth to this assessment in terms of artistic intention or are they reading too much into it?
I pretty much agree with that. That analysis comes out of conversations I had with Keith and their interpretations at the time of the show, so it's fairly accurate. There is certainly a feminist angle to using a traditionally domestic medium to explore a painting style dominated by men, and my interest in thread was initially fueled in part by the question of whether I could make sewn art that anyone would take seriously. At the same time, while that juxtaposition is really interesting to me and the political angle is real, I think it's not per se an attempt at subversion. It's just art-making, though maybe that is the same thing - it's certainly meant to contain challenges, to myself as much as anybody.
You seem to have a "bug" motif going on with many of your canvasses. Given the overall abstract quality of your threaded works, that's a realistic touch that seems a bit out of place. Any particular thinking going on there?
Well, I've actually only made 2-3 pieces with bugs -- it was an experiment in figuring out what conclusions we draw from seeing that an image is embroidered and how meanings change if we recognize an object -- also the insects functioned as a clue to bring the viewer close enough to notice that the pieces were not painted, something I was thinking through in that phase, but which I now do differently.
It's hard to articulate, really. Early on I kept the language of the pieces very simple and so their interest lay almost exclusively in the idea that they were made of thread rather than paint and the surprise of that revelation. Now my work has become more complex and in a way, maybe a self-subverting way (to return to the idea of "subversion") since I never planned on it, I am interested in them as images beyond their materials, no longer just as ideas. As a result the usual painterly tools of color and form come more into play and I can motivate a desire to come closer through abstract elements and a visual sense that there is something slightly unusual about them, which turns out, of course, to be the fact of the thread.
Is the publicity associated with your book helping your career as an artist in any way?
I'm not yet sure about that one. The book is so new that most of the publicity is just starting to happen, though actually, I worried initially that it would do the opposite. The book is funny and cavalier about art ideas and I thought it might make my artwork seem flip, but so far nobody has had that response.
Who are your artistic Gods?
"God" is a strong word -- I don't approach anyone's work with so much awe. For making me think "Oh wow," Tom Friedman would be high on my list of contemporary artists.
What’s next for you?
Lucky for me I don't know. I have a lot of ideas for new art projects, books and other things, but I can't ever be sure which I'm going to make a move on. At the moment, I'm making work for a show in Boston - then, we'll see. How about a "subversive" cooking show?
Give an example of something you witnessed or experienced that had you think "only in New York" or "damn, I'm glad I live in this city."
I pretty much think that every time I go to B&H Photo -- the whole set-up of that place with the cash zipping off in vacuum tubes, the efficiency and the constant crowd of consumers, the fact that they have everything you could possibly want and the fact that the whole place is staffed by a fleet of Hasidic guys -- from young, shy ones to old, grumpy types.
Billy's Topless is now a bagel shop, no more smoking in bars or restaurants, Times Square has been Disneyfied, what's next?
Well, New Yorkers are always flooded with a constant blend of nostalgia for what's gone and curiosity about what will be next and this era is no different. All of Manhattan has the feeling of a kind of up-scale mall these days, like a Vegas re-creation of New York and it's been creeping into Brooklyn. That's why I moved to Jackson Heights -- there's a 24-hour Korean sauna around the corner, cops on horses in the streets when Colombia wins a soccer game, an Indian movie theater and so far no Starbucks -- it's still pretty interesting and because it's "Queens" it'll stay off the radar for awhile.
If you could change just one thing about New York City, what would it be?
I would be down for requiring people to get licensed before they can carry an umbrella and a mandatory size limit on umbrella diameter -- no umbrella SUVs. Also, umbrellas not allowed at all for tourists -- they don't move quickly enough to maneuver in the city with large objects.
You've got $5.00 in your pocket, an unlimited metro card and a day to kill. What do you do?
I breakfast on a scallion pancake at the $1 stall in Flushing Chinatown, walk through the park and stroll around the Unisphere, then hop the train out to Coney Island to watch the buzz of the crowd fishing with chicken wings off the pier. If I have time and can stand more stimulation I spend the late afternoon gallery-hopping in Chelsea. Eventually I make my way to Williamsburg, get a falafel and a beer and go sit down by the water while it gets dark. But only if I have a friend visiting from out of town. If I'm alone I'll probably stay home and work...