Lara Nickel: Briefly describe your artwork.
Joanne Lefrak: I have been drawing places that are loaded with a history or a connotation and imbuing the drawing with the energy of the place. For example, I’ve explored landscapes such as the Trinity Site, spiritual and healing pilgrimage sites, ghost towns, or sites where treasure can be found. These drawings are etched into Plexiglas. Only when the piece is illuminated can a viewer see the drawing, which is cast on the wall as a shadow. In the same way that the shadow is connected to the drawing, the scenes that are represented are inseparable from their past.
LN: Do you see your work as being connected more to the genre of landscape painting or to historical painting?
JL: My work is both connected to the genre of landscape painting and historical painting. I think perhaps I am trying to push the boundaries of landscape painting as well as tell a different kind of narrative than has been told through historical painting before.
LN: What types of historical narratives are you attracted to? How important is the viewer’s knowledge and understanding of a landscape’s background story?
JL: At first I was attracted to the historical narrative of the Trinity Site because of the fact that the resulting landscape after the atomic bomb was detonated is a kind of a physically “empty” landscape yet completely not empty at the same time when considered within the context of our historical and current collective ideas of war. I also liked the comparisons I was drawing between the ghostly shadows within the drawing and our nuclear history. Shadows can be both being secretive and also ghostly like the silhouettes left after the bombings in Japan during WWII. However, I actively sought other landscapes that had entirely different energies and I began looking at places where different kinds of treasure could be found. I liked the idea of a mythology or possibly fictional story informing a landscape just as much as an actual historical event. This then led me to the pilgrimage to Chimayo–the “holy dirt” there is a kind of treasure to be found. After that I began exploring places that give something to a person who travels to those locations (ie. healing, spirituality etc.). It is a continued investigation and I am following lots of different threads related to these central themes.
Context is always important when viewing any work of art. If you come to a piece with more knowledge of the subject, you are going to have a different experience with the work of art than otherwise. Similarly, one can have a different experience with the same work of art at different times in one’s life. So, yes, of course a viewer is going to have a different experience depending on their understanding of a landscape’s background story but that is across the board for viewing all artwork. What is important to me is that a viewer might be drawn to the piece visually and have an experience of the work viscerally, emotionally, intellectually or otherwise.
LN: There are many visual similarities between your landscapes and traditional Chinese ink landscapes – discuss your use of emptiness, factual naturalism, monochrome and fiction.
JL: In terms of factual naturalism, I think the factual elements in the landscapes I depict are essential. The fact that a viewer could go to the same locations and see the actual elements in the places I am drawing adds to a certain level of authenticity. If I draw an insect in the resulting drawing, it is an insect that would exist in that location. I relate the composition to the feeling of being in the space. For example, a large open and empty sky can create the feeling of desolation and the open sky does exist in the landscape and I simply am choosing to include it. I think the monochromatic emptiness creates a an opportunity for a type of an inward looking even though the imagery is of looking out onto the landscape.
LN: What was the purpose of your recent trip to Nepal?
JL: After completing the work on the pilgrimage to the Santuario de Chimayo, I was researching spiritual and healing landscapes. After communicating online with people who have experienced a variety of different landscapes that have this effect, the people who had gone to the Himalayas and completed pilgrimages all described their experiences similarly; they all said that the Divine moved to the foreground of their experience while they were there and that normal life experiences were in the background whereas typically in our daily existence this is reversed. Their descriptions of their experiences were so compelling that I thought it would be meaningful to experience it myself and perhaps create some work around the Himalayan landscapes and related pilgrimages. I traveled with poet Hakim Bellamy and we plan to collaborate on a project together now that we are back.
LN: What role does Art and Nature play in Nepalese culture? Did this experience change the way you interact with Art and Nature?
JL: On my trek through Nepal I was surprised by how much art I experienced. I was anticipating the magnificence of the landscape but not the infusion of art and spirituality in daily practice. I found that as opposed to the western art world, the art that I witnessed in Nepal was not about the ego of the artist but for the purpose of creating something more spiritual, for a larger purpose. For example, on one of the pilgrimages to Muktinath, at the top of the pass, there were 108 carved stone fountains filled with Himalayan glacial ice melt. While not intending to be an art project (these fountains were meant to be a part of the spiritual ritual of the pilgrimage) these fountains were clearly works of art to my western eyes. I found this to be true everywhere in that area of the world, which was very inspiring. This experience infused my art practice with an altered intentionality and my creative mind was filled with images of prayer flags, mani walls, intricately painted murals, etc.
LN: Using light and shadow as a medium gives your pieces a theatrical quality (the ability to appear and disappear), as if your work is more of an event than a straightforward pictorial documentation. How does this tie in with the themes of your work?
JL: The theatricality of the light and shadowplay in my work creates a visceral feeling for the viewer. It is also a bit of an exercise in perception. A viewer has to look through or past the actual drawing to see the shadow of the drawing. This is similar to the landscapes that I choose to depict as the places are filled with memory and these memories, fictions, or histories cannot be separated from the landscape itself.
LN: In a way, you are deconstructing the picture-plane by making the viewer look through the surface of the plexi-glass to the wall behind in order to view the drawing. What are your ideas concerning perception and physical space?
JL: We can perceive much more than we can see which is why I try to imbue my work with more of the feeling and history of place than what we can just absorb visually. In the pilgrimage at Muktinath, it is said that the water that flows from the fountains is sacred because it carries with it the memory of its journey from the top of the Himalayas and one’s sins will be washed away with the water there. Reflecting back on this, in the same way that the water contains its history, the landscapes I’m drawing do too. My intention in my drawings is to add this level of perception beyond just the visual imagery depicted.
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTORS
JOANNE LEFRAK: Joanne Lefrak is a visual artist, museum educator and teacher. She is passionate about arts education and she works as the Director of Education and Outreach at SITE Santa Fe, in Santa Fe, NM. In addition, Lefrak teaches as a visiting artist in the classroom with the El Otro Lado Program through the Academy for the Love of Learning.
LARA NICKEL: When she is not traveling, Lara lives and works in Santa Fe, New Mexico (USA). She received her BFA from College of Santa Fe, NM, USA in 2007. She has previously been featured as a Flash Fiction contributor in this publication.