Lydia Emily: Bravery and Beauty in The Face of Survival
By Genie Davis
Closing at The Garboushian Gallery on October 14th, Lydia Emily’s second solo exhibition at the gallery, “The Face of Survival,” is a compelling exhibition that begs to be seen. Like so much of Emily’s art, this work presents powerful, triumphant images of ten survivors who have overcome severe personal struggles and traumas.
Emily herself has dealt with more than her share of personal tragedies, but is as hopeful and determined as her subjects. An activist as well as an artist, her large scale public art projects are as personal as the portraits on exhibition here, featuring the stories of those she’s come to know, and creating meaningful, yet almost ethereal works about her subjects. Her portraits here include images of a concentration camp survivor, a sex-trafficking survivor, and an illegal immigrant suffering from cancer. Beauty, strength, and empathy are the keynotes of each piece.
Emily notes “My work in Garboushian is unique because I was able to actually publish the stories of these survivors. I worked for the last year and a half talking at schools, churches, and in refugee programs, trying to convince people to share their stories. With refugees, it’s very difficult, they’re so used to being depicted as sorrowful, and they just want to blend in and not stand out. It’s the same with victims of sexual crimes. It took me a really long time to get people to agree.” She says that now, with the show up, she is getting responses from more people who want to share their stories.
“It doesn’t seem as scary now. I can change their names which I did in most cases, and paintings are subjective, a piece can look like you but not be you. You can share and be anonymous at same time,” she says. “Not everyone throws everything out into the wind as I do.”
With this exhibition, for the first time Emily was able to leave the story of each person next to their images, and viewers were able to read the stories on their own. “Usually I am standing next to paintings and telling people about them. It was amazing to be there opening night and to see viewers stopping and reading the long stories. No one skimmed over the paintings; all the patrons were huddled around them, reading about each one.”
Not only was the interest gratifying, but the actual dialog that arose from the reading and the studying of the portraits excited the artist. “What was so great is that instead of just standing in a gallery talking about the paint people used, or the wine they were drinking, people started sharing stories about what had happened to them or a friend. The dialog in the gallery was freeing.”
Emily would like to take that free expression further in her next exhibition. “I want to have a gallery show with a survivors wall. I want to have a Polaroid camera, and at the bottom on the white bar, people could write what they thought they were a survivor of and pin it to the wall. In that way it becomes an interactive installation.”
The artist would like to include that element in a subsequent show at Garboushian, planned for approximately 18 months out. She finds the gallery itself a nurturing place. “Not so many galleries would take a chance on something like this. I’m grateful for their guidance and help,” she attests.
Along with the potency of her subjects, Emily’s dreamy, almost other-worldly approach to her portraits creates a powerful aura.
“It would be easy for me to create realistic, detailed portraits, and essentially be a photo copier. But I wanted to capture how someone is feeling, how they are looking,” she explains. “When I was interviewing each of these people, I photographed them as they were telling me their stories, and they were very thoughtful and pensive, reliving some of their experiences or being free of those experiences. I tried to depict that in my paintings. It’s portraits of their emotion rather than their face.”
Though a California resident, Emily is currently residing in Austin, Texas where she is working on several murals. “I am working on some large scale faces that will be about seven feet tall for Big Medium’s East Austin Studio Tour, the Art Basel of Texas, in November, as well as a series of miniatures for the show. I don’t normally do miniatures, but I wanted to push myself.” The artists also received calls from people who were interested in her work but could not afford a large scale piece, and she wanted to consider that.
“Most of the large scale work that I do, a large portion of that goes to whatever charity I am trumpeting,” she says. She created a portrait of the Dalai Lama on which she bases prints and T-shirts, half the sales from which go to a refugee program in Texas.
Her murals are somewhat different in style than her portraits. “Murals are never realistic looking. You have to use an outdoor acrylic paint, and you just can’t make that look like an oil painting. The faces in my murals are simplified versions of the portraits I do.”
Besides her current mural work in Texas, Emily is planning a mural of Sam Clemmons, her daughters’ great uncle, in Kentucky, and has recently painted several large pieces in the Skid Row area of Los Angeles, as well as Bernie Sanders murals throughout the country. “One of the women I painted for the Garboushian show is the subject of a mural downtown about her survival of human trafficking; another in Cuban Corner depicts a woman from a Masai Tribe.”
She notes that while people in the latter area at first were not attracted to the idea of a mural, now they own it proudly, claiming it as theirs, a reaction that Emily embraces wholeheartedly.
From her murals to her exhibition at Garboushian, Emily hopes that viewers of her art will be inspired to share their stories. “You can see people sharing their stories and maybe you won’t be afraid to speak out about yours. Seven in ten have been sexually assaulted in this life. If you want walk in to the gallery and see that one of my subjects has survived cancer, or been blown up by an IED, or survived alcoholism you may want to speak out,” she says. “I want people to speak out, and just begin the conversation so that people who are still suffering don’t feel so alone. The whole idea is to render the public less lonely for whatever their struggle is. Every single person is a survivor here, not a victim.”
The Garboushian Gallery is located at 427 N Camden Drive in Beverly Hills, and is open weekdays. Don’t miss the chance this week to witness these beautiful stories of survival.