Interview with Chris Lawson

Chris Lawson is a Birmingham-based mixed media and film artist. Some of his work can be viewed at myspace.com/chrislawson. When I first saw his art, I was especially drawn to some of his smaller collages (about 4” x 6”). Their scale seemed somehow significant to the cathartic quality brought about by the pooling of their elements.

FALSE: What are some of the elements that draw you to mixed media/collage?

Lawson: Past life regression? I think I really had my Dada game on in Zurich or Paris in the 1920’s. If I’m not a reincarnated Dadaist, then just a great affinity for the movement, a kind familiarity, and a shared perception of the fragmentation of experience.

FALSE: What characteristics do you find heightened in mixed media/collage relative to other art forms, or what do you believe mixed media to be especially equipped for?

Lawson: Well, I was a writer before I became a visual artist, and my work has a strong narrative component that is especially well-suited for mixed-media. When I look for the materials to compose my collages and assemblages at flea markets, antique malls, dumps, really just about anywhere, an active sense of narrative or storytelling is part of that process.

FALSE: When did the transition from writing to visual art occur for you?

Lawson: I always liked to draw but my first transformative experience was in 1984. I was watching MTV with friends. Madonna’s “Lucky Star” video was on. I told my friends “We should go to Eckerd’s and get some drawing paper and Crayolas.” Within a week I had a studio set up and had found the work of Paul Klee.

FALSE: Most of your mixed media works are set on a ground that had a past life (one example is a Pickle Coal Company receipt). Can you talk a little about this; how is this different than if you built your work on a clean sheet of paper?

Lawson: If you set me down in front of a blank white canvas, I’m a little like a deer caught in the headlights...kind of freeze up. An old piece of fabric, or paper, or even an old section of distressed wood serve as a kind of Rorschach for me, and it’s much easier for me to see very clearly what needs to happen. There’s another element too...when I was a kid my mother had an antique shop, so from an early age I had a sense of the history of the life of an object, or even of the spirit embedded or dormant in something old. So I’m certain that’s a huge part of why and how I begin on marked or pre-existing surfaces.

FALSE: What objects in the shop were you most drawn to?

Lawson: Bottles, jugs and ceramics. Mostly vessels. Ohio River Valley pottery, indigenous artifacts, globes and planetary objects.

FALSE: What other symbols, objects or images have you been, at one time or another, attracted to?

Lawson: Books, texts, maps, laboratories, medical and scientific imagery, natural science, relics, fetishes, graphic design, and images from movies...especially horror films.

FALSE: I’ve read that you split your time between Birmingham, AL and Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Are there differences when working in those spaces? What are they?

Lawson: I have been so fortunate to spend a lot of time in Cambodia; I’ve taught at schools there, exhibited in galleries, made a lot of friends and met a great number of amazing people. Since the mid-nineties, I’ve been many times and I’ve increasingly been able to travel to many different regions in the country, some of which I couldn’t visit in the early years because parts of the country were still quite dangerous. And since that first visit in 1996, I’ve always really enjoyed creating work there, whether alone or in collaboration with Cambodian artists. I’m sure this is entirely subjective, but there is something extremely conducive to working and creating there, and the resources and materials available are astonishing. Because I’m often traveling when I’m there, I end up working wherever the day leads—this includes in hotel rooms, at the marketplace, in transit...so I’ve learned to be adaptable, creating works on the fly.

FALSE: How well can you speak with Cambodians; how does this affect your work and your experiences there?

Lawson: It’s funny you asked about this. I began collaborating with a Cambodian artist, Leang Sekon, in 1997, and we worked together off-and-on for over five years. When I first met him, he spoke almost no English, and I spoke zilch Khmer. Despite the language barrier, we were able to begin a system and logic for collaborating, and we ended up making a huge series of over 300 works. I also traveled to his family home in the provinces where no one spoke English. After a while it really didn’t seem to matter...Sekon’s family and community adopted me as an honorary member, and I realized you can communicate so much through humor, and acting, and by just learning to be aware and intuitive.

FALSE: Is there something that while not a conscious part of your art process still feels essential to it?

Lawson: I am a huge cinephile...I’ve gone to Sundance and the New York Film Festival, I’ve done research on Bollywood and have spent some time in Mumbai doing that; I’ve been in indie and homemade films. It’s completely different but the way that I’ve seen film come together, in terms of it being a process, I have come to think that way with my larger bodies of works—if something is one of 300 pieces, I think more in terms of the energy and vision it takes to piece things together.

FALSE: What project or projects are you currently at work on?

Lawson: I did an artist’s residency in Haiti in Spring, 2007, working with twelve Haitian artists at the Fosaj Art Center in Jacmel, Haiti. I’m working on a proposal that will allow the exhibition, which was the culmination of the residency, and some of the Haitian artists who were involved, to travel to the U.S. I’m getting ready for a solo show in San Francisco in May, as well as creating new works for the Intuit Show in Chicago in April. I’m also working on a book, a collaborative project, called “Godmonster”...a kind of visual horror book.

FALSE: What do you look forward to?

Lawson: Leaving for another place, especially Southeast Asia. It’s so nice to get home, and I haven’t been there in a while. I look forward to getting on with it.