Carla Jay Harris: Visual Anthropologist

Carla Jay Harris works diligently, contemplating her final body in her studio at the UCLA Graduate Studios in Culver City, CA.  At first glance the back wall tricks the eye into seeing a repetitive pattern of wallpaper, but upon closer inspection the design and images are intentionally meaningful.  

Harris works off of her own history, both genetic and racial.  There is a message that she wants the viewer to hear, but it's a message they realize through their own experience.  However, with the events going on in the United States regarding police violence and racial inequality one can't help but tie the two together.  

Either way when the viewer walks into Harris' Thesis show on April 30th they will choose to interpret what they will from the years of work she has put into it all.  The defining revelation will be if the viewer remembers the day after and the day after that about the lessons they might have interpreted through her work?  History is only repeated when everyone forgets about it, and Harris has chosen not only to remember but to manifest something so others do not forget as well.

To see Carla Jay Harris' work in person visit her Thesis show at 240 Charles E. Young Drive at UCLA's campus on April 30th from 5pm-8pm.  And visit her site to see more of her work at www.carlajayharris.com.

Carla Jay Harris, a graduate student at UCLA, stands in front of her wall paper created through reapropriated imagery and self portraiture.  Photo © Aimee Santos

Carla Jay Harris, a graduate student at UCLA, stands in front of her wall paper created through reapropriated imagery and self portraiture.  Photo © Aimee Santos

Describe the reasoning behind the wallpaper and the need for mirrors.

I started this project as a documentary – a photographic documentation of my connection to my family history. Over the course of the project, the photographs started to feel limited. I began experimenting with installation and sculptural work to extend them. I feel that the wallpaper installation more effectively communicates my lived experience. I also feel that documentary photography presents the photographer as objective – that position does not feel appropriate to so personal a work.

Harris lays out imagery from her project 'Dirt, Dust, Sand Concrete' where she documented the changing economic realities of the American worker through examining her relationship to her familial heritage.  Photo © Aimee Santos

Harris lays out imagery from her project 'Dirt, Dust, Sand Concrete' where she documented the changing economic realities of the American worker through examining her relationship to her familial heritage.  Photo © Aimee Santos

Why do you juxtapose the appropriated imagery and familial imagery on the wallpaper?  Do you feel that appropriated imagery speaks louder than if you had illustrated the same message in the studio?

I feel that isolating the found images or the familial images and presenting them separately would be a false or oversimplified representation of my reality. Mixing the two together, expresses the gestalt nature of contemporary African American existence.

An image from Harris' project 'Dirt, Dust, Sand Concrete'.  Photo courtesy of the artist

An image from Harris' project 'Dirt, Dust, Sand Concrete'.  Photo courtesy of the artist

You mentioned you grew up in a low crime area of Northern Virginia but with recent events in Ferguson and New York how has the racial tension developing in the news affected this project and you personally?

 I think that Americans (myself included) have a tendency to gloss over the uglier aspects of our culture and history. Cultural activism has largely given way to apathy and commodity culture. People should not have to die in order to generate passionate conversations about race.  This idea is in part what inspired me to complete this wallpaper. Wallpaper and the decorative arts have historically been relegated to the background. Incidents like what occurred in Ferguson, racism and stereotype are always there whether we choose to focus on or see them.

Family plays a big part of Harris' work so it is only natural for her to have a portrait of her grandfather hanging on her studio wall.  Photo © Aimee Santos

Family plays a big part of Harris' work so it is only natural for her to have a portrait of her grandfather hanging on her studio wall.  Photo © Aimee Santos

Upon closer examination of the wallpaper design there are Cotton Blossoms and Tobacco leaves. Did you design this and how does it connect to you and your work?  And just as they are intertwined on the design is this a metaphor for both Identity and Heritage interconnected throughout your work?

I worked with an illustrator to execute the wallpaper; however, I designed and conceptualized on my own. Cotton/tobacco are plants that my family worked under the plantation system and later grew on their own farms.  They speak to my family history as well as African-American and American history. I do see them as an extension of the themes of heritage and identity woven throughout the project.

Harris works through a mock up of her Thesis project in her studio at the UCLA graduate studios in Culver City, CA.  Photo © Aimee Santos

Harris works through a mock up of her Thesis project in her studio at the UCLA graduate studios in Culver City, CA.  Photo © Aimee Santos

What was the evolutionary process of the wallpaper?  How did it turn into the final piece that is in your thesis show?

I like the idea of using wallpaper because it typically functions as a background. The wallpaper began as an experiment. However, as I have worked through it, the piece has come to embody the essence of all the work I've done while here at UCLA. While here, I have really concentrated on exploring my cultural and familial background. The wallpaper includes multiple elements from both.

Silhouettes as potential mirror objects hang on the wall in Harris' studio.  The placement of inspiration for potential ideas is key to any artist's studio especially in graduate school.  Photo © Aimee Santos

Silhouettes as potential mirror objects hang on the wall in Harris' studio.  The placement of inspiration for potential ideas is key to any artist's studio especially in graduate school.  Photo © Aimee Santos

Do you feel the inclusion of mirrors is a way of transporting the viewer as well as you to the times you recall about Virginia?  Almost like Alice in Wonderland? Do the mirrors also call for a self-reflective process amongst the viewer?  Do you have any specific intentions with the mirrors and your audience?

With the mirrors I want to extend the project beyond my own personal experiences to transport the viewer into my experience. When viewers approach the work, they will see their reflection on the wall - literally seeing themselves in the wallpaper.  In this way, I call for a self-reflective process with the viewer.  

Harris works on a mock up of her images and lays them out shifting them around like a deck of cards to see how best they speak visually.  Photo © Aimee Santos

Harris works on a mock up of her images and lays them out shifting them around like a deck of cards to see how best they speak visually.  Photo © Aimee Santos

Your images tell a narrative in their placement.  What narrative do you find them saying either with each other or as a whole?

I have not constructed a liner narrative with the work. However, I do see the included images as in conversation with one another. I imagine them questioning the construct of identity, which has agency over identity and criticizing stereotype.

Image courtesy of the artist.

Image courtesy of the artist.

Like most projects the process can be therapeutic for the artist.  Do you feel that working on this body of work has allowed you to examine frustrations that have lived just below the skin, so to speak, that you have not address personally before?

I would not go so far as to call the project therapeutic; however, I do feel that working on this has allowed me to conceptualize my ideas about critical identity politics and their place in contemporary art.

Harris works with a miniature mock up of her Thesis show in her studio in Culver City, CA.  Photo © Aimee Santos

Harris works with a miniature mock up of her Thesis show in her studio in Culver City, CA.  Photo © Aimee Santos

You describe your work as Identity and Heritage.  Can you elaborate where the societal aspects and the genealogical aspects are present?

I’d say that heritage and identity are key themes of the project. The genealogical aspects are woven through the design of the wallpaper. The societal is largely represented in the found/re-appropriated images selected.

Jane Szabo: Photographic Sculptor

One common theme with photographers is translating what one sees in their minds to the frame.  This habit floats with us throughout our lives and we are gifted with the ability to create a window through which the viewer can peek into the lives of strangers and in some cases the mind of the photographer.  
With Jane Szabo her work takes us into her inner self.  It is rare to find such a unique translation of the 'self' in a photographer since most photographers photograph themselves to manifest this subject.  Szabo chooses to show us elements of her memories that describe her as a woman, an artist and as an individual.  The dresses she creates stand floating over a set of shoes or other objects that compliment the story of each outfit.  
During a couple visits to her studio at the Brewery Art Colony in Los Angeles, CA Szabo maintained an almost obsessive work ethic creating dress after dress as if there were so many in her mind waiting in line yet to be made.  With Szabo's exposure to  the Set Design Industry one can't help but see the correlation to her current creations and the fact that she spent a lot of time around materials that she now uses to make her dresses.  Almost osmosis but more environmental inspiration one might surmise.  

To view Jane Szabo's work in person check out some of her upcoming events.

May 1-3, 2015:  Photo Independent / Art Fair - Los Angeles, CA

June 7, 2015:  Variable Voices, Lamperouge Gallery - Los Angeles, CA

 July 11, 2015:  Masks, Phantom Gallery - Hawthorne, CA

July 31, 2105:  Kaohsiung International Photo Exhibit, Taiwan

Los Angeles based photographer, Jane Szabo, poses with a variety of dresses she has created for her project 'Reconstructing Self.'  (L-R) Gold Lame/Wallpaper dress, Dental Films dress, Red Cellophane dress, Art In America Magazine dress, Deck of Cards dress, Wallpaper dress, Aluminum Foil dress.  Photo © Aimee Santos

Los Angeles based photographer, Jane Szabo, poses with a variety of dresses she has created for her project 'Reconstructing Self.'  (L-R) Gold Lame/Wallpaper dress, Dental Films dress, Red Cellophane dress, Art In America Magazine dress, Deck of Cards dress, Wallpaper dress, Aluminum Foil dress.  Photo © Aimee Santos

Do you think if you had made the project ‘Reconstructing Self’ at a younger age that there would be more attachment to the sculptures?  

Yes, that is a good observation. I build the dresses to be photographed, and in that sense they are an end to the means. Though I have always worked in a similar way and create very intuitively, the dresses in particular are so fragile and therefore transitory. They are just not built to have an extended lifespan, and I think there is some beauty in that impermanence. 

Jane Szabo works on a 'Coffee Filter' dress in her studio at the Brewery Art Colony in Los Angeles, CA. Photo © Aimee Santos

Jane Szabo works on a 'Coffee Filter' dress in her studio at the Brewery Art Colony in Los Angeles, CA. Photo © Aimee Santos

Detail of ripped images in Jane Szabo's studio.  Photo © Aimee Santos

Detail of ripped images in Jane Szabo's studio.  Photo © Aimee Santos

Szabo works on a dress made with dress pattern pages in her studio at the Brewery Art Colony in Los Angeles, CA.  Photo © Aimee Santos

Szabo works on a dress made with dress pattern pages in her studio at the Brewery Art Colony in Los Angeles, CA.  Photo © Aimee Santos

You have a history of being in the set design industry.  Can you elaborate on this and do you think that time and exposure had an impact on what you are creating presently with ‘Reconstructing Self?’  

My background in film and television world started some time ago as a way to help pay my way through graduate school. One of the earliest projects involved making and scenic painting custom props for storefronts and rides at Disneyland Paris. To start working at that level from the beginning instilled in me a high attention to detail and quality control. As my career continued I learned more and more about materials and creating visual imagery. The act of building the dresses for this project has been a terrific blend of all my skills coming together into a final photograph. 

A miniature detail of Szabo's magazine dress hangs on the wall behind one of many plants and next to a male mannequin bust.  Photo © Aimee Santos

A miniature detail of Szabo's magazine dress hangs on the wall behind one of many plants and next to a male mannequin bust.  Photo © Aimee Santos

Your studio space at the Brewery Art Colony has played a major role in your artist development.  How important do you feel a dedicated studio space is to the artist and how has it changed your trajectory in the art world?

I don't think I said my space at the brewery has played a major role in my trajectory in the art world, but it has been hugely important to have the room to work, and now store over two dozen dresses. I actually have always enjoyed working from home where I could start and stop working at any hour, but space was just too limited to make the kind of work I needed to be making. More importantly, it has been my involvement with several local arts organization who sponsor critique groups, portfolio reviews and seminars that have helped me become engaged in the local art scene; from there I have gained an incredible network of peers.

(L-R) The final product of Jane Szabo's work becomes an almost haunting representation of a dress.  Art in America Magazine dress and Dental Films dress.  Both images © Jane Szabo Photography

(L-R) The final product of Jane Szabo's work becomes an almost haunting representation of a dress.  Art in America Magazine dress and Dental Films dress.  Both images © Jane Szabo Photography

If this project is titled ‘Reconstructing Self’ but the physical objects you photograph are impermanent then are the ‘dresses’ fleeting memories of yourself that you wish to capture?  

I think memories and ideas and dreams are all somewhat impermanent and fleeting. How we feel on a day to day basis just changes; so while the work does relate a lot to memories and past experiences, I think that it also addresses the future and what may be.

To create her dresses Szabo experiments with the material to find out how it can be manipulated best to get the look she seeks.  Here Szabo works with dress patterns and glue to create one of her 'Identities.'   Photo © Aimee Santos

To create her dresses Szabo experiments with the material to find out how it can be manipulated best to get the look she seeks.  Here Szabo works with dress patterns and glue to create one of her 'Identities.'   Photo © Aimee Santos

Are the dresses more than memories?  Feelings?  Do they play a role in more than one of the five senses?  Smell, Touch, Sound?  

They are indeed memories and feelings, but they are also attitudes and moods. Smell and sound don't really come in to my thinking so much, but tactility is hugely important to me. The act of building the objects is the act of feeling the material and shaping it in the way that the material wants to move. I do not come to the studio with a drawing of a dress to be built...I just start handling the materials and it tells me what form it will take as it is being built. But as far as senses are concerned, I think ideas play a larger role - so if thoughts count as a sense....

Szabo had been itching to take rejected prints and make a dress out of them and realized simply ripping them up and applying them to a dress form was the best place to start.  As artists you never know until you start experimenting and through this process you find out what works and what doesn't.  Photo © Aimee Santos

Szabo had been itching to take rejected prints and make a dress out of them and realized simply ripping them up and applying them to a dress form was the best place to start.  As artists you never know until you start experimenting and through this process you find out what works and what doesn't.  Photo © Aimee Santos

If I can get that look I want I’m okay with it lasting five minutes.
— Jane Szabo
'Rejected Prints' dress of 'Reconstructing Self' project by Jane Szabo.  Photo © Jane Szabo Photography

'Rejected Prints' dress of 'Reconstructing Self' project by Jane Szabo.  Photo © Jane Szabo Photography

You mentioned you took a home economics class in school, yet schools today have chosen to cut classes like home ec and art.  Do you have an opinion on this ‘cost cutting’ measures that schools have been enforcing and how you see the importance of art in middle and high school education as compared to your own upbringing?

I took some time to think about this question before answering, and I think it is a perfect last question. I think the answer you might be expecting is that I took Home Economics. and learned how to sew a dress and clearly this is like art, so we need this in our schools. 

Well actually, it couldn't be further from the truth, as I had limited exposure to art making in high school. When I was in school in seventh or eighth grade, the boys took wood shop and the girls took Home Economics. There was some crossover, but mostly it split right down the gender line. It never even occurred to me to take wood shop. I was excited we were going to bake something and that was enough for me. I made a dress. A really ugly brown velour dress that was basically a rectangle with a V-neck collar. And somewhere around that time I got the idea that being a workingwoman meant you would have to wear panty hose. By the time I got through high school, I just knew I could not enter the work force and dress in corporate attire. So there you have the reason why I decided to pursue art - I just knew I did not fit into a corporate wardrobe.  I wonder what I would have decided if I had taken that wood shop class so long ago! 

One of Szabo's tricks in creation is a tape gun that applies double sided tape to the materials and allows her to 'sculpt' with found materials like these coffee filters.  Photo © Aimee Santos

One of Szabo's tricks in creation is a tape gun that applies double sided tape to the materials and allows her to 'sculpt' with found materials like these coffee filters.  Photo © Aimee Santos

Szabo's dresses hang throughout her studio like a fashion dressing room.  Photo © Aimee Santos

Szabo's dresses hang throughout her studio like a fashion dressing room.  Photo © Aimee Santos

'Sewing Patterns' dress and 'Red Cellophane' dress for 'Reconstructing Self' project by Jane Szabo.  Photos © Jane Szabo Photography

'Sewing Patterns' dress and 'Red Cellophane' dress for 'Reconstructing Self' project by Jane Szabo.  Photos © Jane Szabo Photography

Networking is a catch 22.  You can’t anywhere unless people know you and people can’t know you unless you get out and go places.  Can you describe how networking has played a role in your art practice and encouraged momentum in getting your art seen?

 After grad school I had very little skills at networking and though I showed a bit, I really did not have the skills to get my work out into the world. Fortunately I have overcome my discomfort about talking to people about my work and am thrilled to now have social media which makes it so much easier to stay informed of upcoming events and to connect with people who are equally engaged in contemporary art. I am constantly amazed when I meet people at openings who are familiar with my work even though we have never met because they have seen my work on Facebook or other sites. I try to follow other artist’s posts and attend their openings and events because it is so important to support your peers. 

Jane Szabo poses with her dresses that all represent a facet of her life as well as showing us her bubbly personality.  Photo © Aimee Santos

Jane Szabo poses with her dresses that all represent a facet of her life as well as showing us her bubbly personality.  Photo © Aimee Santos