Creating Art, One Bead At A Time

Liza Lou: the kitchen, detail
"I began as a painter and I walked into a bead store and it was just like a flash in my mind. I just thought, 'My God, that's the most amazing paint I've ever seen," says Liza Lou.

She began to experiment with beads and sequins and spangles — investing everyday objects with dazzling new identities.

"This is the most amazing tone, the most amazing color, the most amazing kind of light that you can work with," says Lou. "I thought, 'How great. Put that in your sculpture. Put that on your canvas.'"

But her teachers at the San Francisco Art Institute, where she was a scholarship student, did not approve.

She explains that most thought she was making jewelry. "I had become a sort of craft person, and that's not a good thing apparently," says Lou. "If you're doing something with beads then your're a craft person. If you're making paintings, you're an artist. You're a fine artist and there were very distinct categories."

Lou's response was to leave because, she says, they didn't understand her work. So she beaded her own world — a 168 square foot kitchen with every pie, every muffin, every bit of cereal were covered with beads. It took an estimated 30 million beads to complete her work.

There's a flowing faucet and dishes that are literally sparkling clean. It is a place that both satirizes and celebrates the notion of woman's work.
"I'm referencing women's experience in the piece," says Lou. "The requirement is to have a really fastidious clean house. And, in today's culture, to be a babe at the end of the day. You have to be cute … The task never ends."

In fact, the task of making the kitchen, sculpting and beading each piece, including the undersides, took Lou five years. She was 26 when she finished.

To support herself during that time, Lou sold prom dresses, worked as a waitress, and found odd jobs to make ends meet.

"What interested me about it was that it was subversive," says Marcia Tucker, former director of the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York.
Tucker put "The Kitchen" on display after she responded to Liza Lou's picture postcard that she sent curators.

"I think she takes ordinary aspects of our lives and she kind of turns them on their head," says Tucker. "One of the fascinating things about the 'The Kitchen' was that even the dust particles were immortalized. They were monumentalized."

Among the fans who flocked to Lou's "The Kitchen" exhibit were a pair of Contemporary Art Collectors: Leonard Nimoy, best known as Star Trek's Mr. Spock, and his wife Susan.

"It was such an intense presentation and so loaded with artistry and ideas," says Leonard Nimoy. "I think Susan got it a lot faster than I did."
"Because I'm a woman," counters Susan.

For the 528 square foot piece, more than three times the size of her kitchen, Lou sculpted trees, leaves, flowers, a picnic table, a lawnmower and dozens of other details. But the blades of grass were the biggest challenge. She needed a million of them.

"So I realized, to do this lawn, my project, it would literally take 45 years," says Lou. "What am I gonna' do? I thought, 'Well I'm gonna do it myself. That's what.'"

And be the very old owner of a very big backyard.

"I realized, you know, you're not gonna do it [by yourself]," says Lou. "I began to think, 'How do I et people to help me do this?'"

Her solution was to hold beading parties at the Museum of Art near her home in Santa Monica, Calif.

"It was great fun," says Nimoy. "Scores of people sitting at long tables."
Even with the help, "Backyard" took two years to complete. At the same time, Lou worked on other projects, such as a beaded Barbie (the ultimate American female icon) and a set of portraits of all the American Presidents (complete with a presidential desk that features a cigar).

Most of Lou's other work has being snapped up by major art foundations, but she is already beginning to explore new artistic horizons and to deal with her own past.

"My response to everything is to make art," says Lou. "Everything is inspiration and when you start to really tap into that, it makes everything bearable."

Her major new work is a trailer, a Spartan Mobile Mansion to be exact, made in 1949.

"I really was taking objects and using them in order to describe a feeling of despair, loneliness, isolation," says Lou.

The trailer is studded with images of guns and violence. And in the back room, a glimpse of a human leg.

"I realized there had to be that leg at the very end … something has gone wrong," she explains. "It's a crime scene. It's very opposite visually of the kitchen, because it's the absence of color. And the trailer piece is that dead place."

Did Lou get depressed after making visually stunning "The Kitchen"?
"It's not that I got depressed," says Lou. "It's just I got interested in the darker side and making it visually seductive. That's always my aim, to bring you in and tell a story."

Now, Liza Lou's personal story has taken a happy turn. This year, at age 33, the woman driven out of art school was awarded a MacArthur Foundation Grant, known as the "Genius Grant," to the delight of her fans and mentors.
"It's a privilege and it's, I think, important," says Lou. "I think that art makes a difference in this period of time and in our culture. So I feel like, 'Okay, What Can I do next?'"

She once said she wanted to "bead the world."