An Interview with Alexa Meade (Ep. 090)

In this very special episode of Art Ed Radio, Tim is in the Los Angeles studio of artist Alexa Meade. She is best known for her videos and photographs that show her painting directly on people, transforming 3D reality into a 2D world. During this discussion, she talks about how she found and developed her artistic style (5:30), the evolution of that style (10:00), inspiration and the creative process (14:15), and what happens when you make art with a bathtub full of milk (17:30). Full episode transcript below.

If you would like to hear even more from Alexa, she will present “Finding and Developing Your Creative Voice” on February 3rd at the 2018 Art Ed Now Winter Online Conference. Details can be found at artednow.com.

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Transcript

Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for art teachers. This show is produced by The Art of Education and I’m your host, Tim Bogatz.

I am in Los Angeles today and I’m hanging out in the studio of Alexa Meade. And if you know Alexa’s work you know that I am in for a pretty cool experience today. If you don’t know her work, I want you to go look it up right now, alexameade.com. She is famous for bringing paintings to life, and specifically I’m talking about painting directly on people, on their skin, on their clothes, on their hair, in order to turn them into this kind of living, breathing portrait.

And we’ll talk more about her work in a second but I wanted to tell you about how this opportunity came about. Alexa is actually going to be the featured presenter at our Art Ed Now conference in February, so we brought our video team out here to Los Angeles to see her in action, talk to her about her work and put together that presentation. As they’re getting everything set up, I’m hanging out in the studio and recording this. And I have to tell you, it is just a surreal experience. Because we’re in what is very obviously an artist’s studio. Paint and brushes everywhere. But there is literally not a single painting or a single piece of paper anywhere in the space. No work hanging on the walls. There’s no sketchbook. There’s no canvas. But every other surface is painted. Every single wall and every single piece of furniture is completely covered in acrylic. Because that’s what Alexa does, she takes these three-dimensional objects and makes them look two-dimensional just by her technique and her use of paint on those surfaces. It’s pretty incredible on video and in photographs, and that’s why I love her work.

But right now I am seeing it live, I’m seeing it in person, and it has a very disconcerting effect on you. Because your entire world just turns into this flat painting and none of your surroundings have any depth or any dimension. I’m not really sure what the best way to describe it or what to compare it to exactly, because the only thing I can think of right now, the only thing I can think of off the top of my head here is one of James Turrell’s light rooms. Those light rooms are these installations that are designed specifically to affect or to eliminate your depth perception as a viewer. With Alexa’s work though it’s almost like an unintended consequence. It’s designed of course to turn three dimensions into two and to look good on video and look good in photos, but seeing it in person is just a whole new experience and I’m loving every minute of it.

But anyway, I think we are ready. I think it’s about time for us to get to the interview. Alexa’s here and ready to go and we’re going to chat about her art, her working process, her influences and inspiration and whatever else comes up along the way. So let’s go ahead and get this conversation started.

Alright. I’m here in Los Angeles and Alexa Meade has been kind enough to allow me into her studio for this interview, so Alexa, thank you very much and how are you?

Alexa: I’m really wonderful and I’m so happy to welcome you into my studio.

Tim: Alright. Thank you. It’s been fantastic to see what it’s all about here. And I know people everywhere have seen your art. They’ve probably seen your TED Talk. And are very familiar with your work. But I want to ask a little bit about what maybe people don’t know. So can you talk a little bit about where you grew up, where you went to school and kind of the process you went through to get to where you are as an artist?

Alexa: Sure. I grew up in Washington DC. Actually in Chevy Chase, Maryland. A suburb of Washington. I went to an all-girls school for most of my education there. And I was an artsy student. Liked making friendship bracelets. I liked doodling in class. I was much more interested in five million other subjects. And as I grew older I got more interested in politics, probably from being in Washington DC and growing up in that environment. I starting interning on Capitol Hill, working for congressmen, for senators, and getting really obsessed with that whole scene. I had this feeling that that’s exactly what I want to do. I know where I’m going to be and I have this whole pathway to get there.

And then after I graduated from high school I went out to Vassar College in Upstate New York, so a small liberal arts school. And while there I got my degree in political science. And I worked with the Obama campaign in 2008 doing press and I was continuing on this pathway leading up to the moment to graduate from college and get a real job in politics. But during my senior year of college I stumbled upon this idea for an art project. It was in an elective sculpture class I took. A teacher asked us what would happen if you make a sculpture that was not a sculpture of a landscape. I don’t have the wordings exactly right there, but it was something to that effect that made no sense. It was quite paradoxical. And one of the solutions that I came up with to satisfy the assignment was an idea of putting black shadows down on the ground to show where the outlines of the trees and the other features were on the landscape. He didn’t like that idea. He wanted me instead to find another solution to the problem. And I satisfied that problem then by making a sculpture out of cardboard that was kind of fun to put together, but it didn’t set off the same sort of curious inquiry that this idea of putting paint on shadows had given me.

Several months later I decided okay, I have to really see what this looks like. I’m very curious. And I started experimenting, and I started experimenting with putting shadows painted on the human body. When I tried taking pictures, it looked like something was wrong with my camera, that it was broken. That these images made no sense whatsoever, because my friend looks like a two-dimensional painting. I remember trying to show my professor that picture of shadows painted on human and he was just completely disinterested. He didn’t see what was so special about it. I remember one of the things he told me was, “Well, anyone can create that type of effect in Photoshop, so why do you need to make that in real life?”

I knew there was something there. I wanted to explore it. And I was just about to graduate from school, so I graduated from college and went back home to my parents’ house in Washington DC and I decided that instead of getting a job in politics … A real job, that I would make my job teaching myself how to paint. And I just started practicing in my parents’ basement. Painting not on canvas but painting on things like food or my hand or a pineapple, and just anything I could find to put paint on, I was there and treating like a really serious occupation.

Tim: So, let me ask you about this politics thing. Do you miss the world of politics? Do you wish you were still there sometimes or are you happy staying out of there and working all the way across the country and working as an artist?

Alexa: It was in … Around 2008 when I started feeling disillusioned with politics. I had just worked on the Obama campaign and the campaign that I worked on won, which was really exciting, but I just felt this sense of maybe it can offer hope and change in politics but perhaps not the type of fulfillment that I wanted in my world. And I found that art and creating could provide something so much greater to me than working in politics had previously.

I think my background in politics though informs a lot of the work I do. I’m still obsessed with it. And it’s been interesting figuring out how to have that inform my work. And sometimes it does in indirect ways that I’m not aware of. Other times I’m more overt with it. And there was a piece I did last year called Color of Reality. It was a short film in collaboration John Boogz who wrote and directed it and danced in it, as well as Lil Buck. It’s a story where there are these two men who are painted and it eventually gets into themes about gun violence and racial tensions in America and tackles some really heavy, deep material that otherwise would have been hard for people to want to opt in to watching. But there was something about the striking visuals of it, the paint swirls, the paint on their faces, and seeing them dance and bring the paint to life in this way that just took you on this journey that brought you into the story and allowed you into something that otherwise would have been very difficult to watch.

Tim: I like that and I think it’s something that everybody needs to watch. And I do want to ask you about that later, but I kind of want to talk about how you get to that point, and if we can go back to where you started as an artist, can you talk a little bit about how you came to find your style. If you first start with painting shadows, how does that inform your first work? How does that get you into painting food. And then when you’re painting food, how does that lead to other forms of discovery. Can you talk a little bit about your evolution, how your art has changed and kind of how you’ve gotten to where you are right now?

Alexa: When I first started with painting on shadows I would either paint on friends who had nothing better to do with their time or I would just find anything I could in my parents house that they wouldn’t notice was gone, that I could paint on. I didn’t have any income at that time because I was full time trying to do this art thing and had no idea how to put myself out there or sell my work but I was in this deep exploration phase of just like, see what happens if you make this.

And so my early subjects ended up being something like an apple that I stole from the fruit bowl or fried eggs, grapefruit, things I could have plausibly eaten that day. And then maybe later my parents would see several months later picture of the egg and sausage that I cooked and painted on.

Now as I’ve figured out how to finance my art and make this actually a real job, I’ve been able to be more intentional in the subject matter that I choose to paint. If I need to create a painting of this Victorian scene then I can just go like thrift store shopping and fine some weird couch, and maybe it’s not quite true to the era, but it’s $35 and I can paint on it a way to make it really feel authentic to it. And there is something really cool about being able to previsualize something and then making a piece that really … I don’t know. There’s a difference between setting out and saying, okay I’m going to make this versus okay, what’s something I can steal in the kitchen that no one will notice is gone.

Tim: Yeah. I like that. And then if we can talk a little bit about your favorite artists. Where do your influences come from. Can you talk about some people that have inspired and what you take from their work?

Alexa: I find myself really inspired by artists who deal with light and space and shadow, more so than I am by traditional painters. I’m really interested in Robert Irwin, James Turrell. I’m also inspired by artists who work across mediums and maybe they aren’t quite traditional artists, like Charles and Ray Eames who are famous for furniture design, but they also made toys and they did science presentations and worked across so many different disciplines. One of their sayings which I love and hold dear is, “Eventually everything connects.” And I see that a lot in my work. I might do some side project myself in dabbling with creating toys or turning my house into a fun house, or these weird things that are just for my private I need to make something and I don’t expect an audience, I’m not looking to show this to people, I’m not wanting to make money off of it, I just have to create for the sake of creating. And just remembering the words of Charles and Ray Eames that eventually everything connects really allows me to be okay with that. Because I do find oftentimes that these personal art projects I create just because I want to make them, they do feed into my main body of work and into larger questions I’m grappling with, and that I’m subconsciously problem solving that I wouldn’t have known I needed to do in order to get to the next phase in my artwork.

Tim: And that answer maybe clues me in to the answer to this one, but I want to ask you, if you can just sort of walk us through a typical day in the life of Alexa Meade. Are you one of those super disciplined artists that shows up at the studio and works 9 to 5 or is it more of a when inspiration strikes that’s when I need to do my work sort of thing.

Alexa: I’m definitely a when inspiration strikes type person. One thing I know about myself is that I have these spurts of maybe two weeks where I get highly energized and motivated to get something done, and I will set out on an ambitious project and I know that after about two weeks my interest in it will start waning. I will never be as excited to work on it ever again, so I really need to make sure that I make this a self-contained period of wrap it up, manifest, execute, ship it, get it out the door, all within that period. And there’s something about that really fervent like … I want to see this in the world, okay. Well I have to do it now and figure out how to finish, that allows me to actually finish things.

Because if I just say, okay every day I’m going to work on this for three hours, I’ll peter off. I’ll just lose interest. And so instead it might just be like 12 or 16 hours a day that I’ll work on something really concentrated. It’s hard to predict too when … Which things will excited me and especially if there’s things that excite that have to do with the business side or the administration of my artwork. When inspiration for that strikes I know I really have to seize upon it because otherwise it’s like pulling teeth. It’s impossible to get me to sit down in front of a computer and do something, say, like organizing my digital archives. I just can’t do it unless I get really excited for it and I’ll just spend an entire weekend of just like renaming all my folders so they make sense.

Tim: Nice. So you talked about that two week timeframe. Is that a good idea of how long it generally takes you to complete a typical work, or can you talk a little bit about not only how long it takes, but your process of putting together the background, the scene, working with the model, and how that all goes for you.

Alexa: Usually when I say two weeks I mean that’s typical for, if just left to my own devices, that’s how long it’ll take for me to get really into something and then kind of fall out of it. But that’s also dependent upon external factors like when I have to travel for my next project. And usually I don’t have more than two weeks in Los Angeles at a time before I have to go out and paint somewhere or do something that’s site-specific. And so having that external deadline is really helpful in making sure I get things done.

Another thing that’s helpful too is scheduling in advance models that I’m going to paint. If there’s someone I really want to paint, I’ll probably have to … Week and a half, two weeks in advance, set the date, so that I can get them. And then I know that leading up to that point that I’d better have everything done and finished and ready in time. And something that’s kind of cool about my work is since it is dependent upon scheduling and a model, I have no choice but to be ready and to find the inspiration and motivation to follow through.

Tim: In all of these works that you’ve created, travels that you’ve done, all these experiences, do you have something like a favorite work, a favorite collaboration, a favorite experience or just a really good story that you want to tell that comes from all of the traveling and all of the work that you do?

Alexa: My favorite project was a collaboration I did with performance artist Sheila Vand where I painted on her and then she went into a bathtub filled with milk and the paint would just split off her body into these really beautiful patterns. And part of when we started doing that together, it was because she had a really great bathtub in her house and we were like how do we make art around this bathtub. And we didn’t think necessarily that it would take the form of paint. We were looking at totally other options, like what if we got water balloons that we submerged underwater and popped them and just did all these fun experiments. And then we realized just something as simple bringing the paint into a substance like milk could completely transform it.

And we got so excited by this process that we decided okay, we need to scale up. We need something bigger than a bathtub. So we got a swimming pool, an inflatable swimming pool, but I think it was 13 feet long. So that took a lot of milk. And we had to get a warehouse to put that in. In part because the milk started getting really stinky and no one wants that much milk laying out in a pool in their personal home.

That project was so much fun because it was completely unexpected. We couldn’t Google it. Well, Sheila tried googling one time what happens if you get too much milk in your ears. We unfortunately couldn’t find answers to that question. And so just doing projects like that where it’s like, okay, this is crazy and I don’t know what I’m doing. I really like those opportunities to not know what I’m doing.

Tim: That’s cool. I like that a lot. And you talked a little bit earlier about your Color of Reality project where you’re working these movement artists and creating this film. Is that something that you’d like to do more of, just dealing with time as an element or incorporating more movement into your work?

Alexa: I’m definitely interested in exploring movement in my work. In part because if my work could be described painting come to life, what are the ways that you can bring life to painting. And having just that element that is so human and so visceral, and what are the things that humans can do that a static canvas cannot. It has such capacity too for storytelling, for narrative, for driving a message or a metaphor home in a way that otherwise might not be so succinctly able to punch in that way. And just figuring out what stories can be told through the medium of my artwork that couldn’t be told in any other way.

And I don’t have the answer to that yet, and that’s part of what excites me and is really fun.

Tim: Right, yeah. I think that all artists sort of have this fascination with exploring ideas that they can’t conquer, they don’t have a great idea of yet, and so … I guess that kind of leads me into my last question though, like, what really is capturing your interest these days? Can you talk a little bit about what you’re interested in? What you want to explore? Where you think your work might be going in the near future?

Alexa: I’m definitely interested in movement and videos, we’ve been talking about, and animation. I’m also interested in five million other little side projects. Things that … As I’m saying, I make them for me. I don’t put them out there publicly because I think there’s something about having the ability to make something that you know for yourself is completely intrinsically motivated, and not made with the expectations of like, oh people on the Internet are going to love this, or this’ll get tons of likes. It’s just like, no I just have to make this.

So some of examples of that are weird new types of optical delusions I’m developing in my house, which is called the Fun House. And this week I have a collaborator who came down to visit me from San Francisco for us to just make weird things that we don’t even know what they’re going to be. We just went to the fabric district, got a whole bunch of sequins, faux fur and something good will come of it. And some day, that will feed into my larger body of work with painting, and I’m not quite sure how. But that’s where the magic lies, is planting these seeds for the ability to bloom and grow into some weird mystery plant that maybe takes over your life.

Tim: Well you never know what it’s going to be, and that’s the fun. That’s the excitement. We will go ahead and wrap it up there, so thank you very much.

Alexa: Thank you so much.

Tim: Alright. We’ll talk to you soon.

So I think my favorite part of the conversation was when Alexa was talking about the artists that have influenced her, and she mentioned James Turrell. And who did I talk about at the beginning of the podcast? James Turrell. So even if I sounded like I was having trouble processing these incredible surroundings in the studio, I did get something right there. But I do need to thank Alexa for allowing us to come into her studio and have this conversation. It was great to hear about her life, her art and where she sees or going in the future.

What I really loved more than anything is listening to her talk about how new ideas still get her excited and how she’s fascinated by the exploration and the process of art making. Most importantly I think it’s fascinating to listen to how she can just create without worrying about the end product. Because like she said, it all comes together in the end. And if we as teachers can learn that lesson and pass that lesson along to our kids, we are all going to be much better off.

Art Ed Radio is produced by The Art of Education, with audio engineering from Michael Crocker. As I mentioned, Alexa will be the featured presenter at the Art Ed Now conference in February. She’s going to be talking a lot more about her own art. I think she’s going to have some really interesting things to say about creativity and education. She will also be available for a live Q&A the day of the conference, which will be February 3rd. You can see more about her presentation and all of the other incredible presentations at artednow.com. Thanks for listening.

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