"A harsh definition, but a soft sound": an interview with Leah Sophia Dworkin
This issue's featured art comes from Leah Sophia Dworkin, an artist and writer living in New York. Her work is compelling in its humanity and mix of humor and honesty. She took some time recently to talk to us more about her approach:
Can you talk about your process a little? What medium/s do you usually work with?
Sure! Process is a term I struggle with. Adults are often untaught how to play and art that’s meaningful to me always has some kind of authentic, unintentional spirit. I’m afraid of mentally limiting myself to a preconception of “how I work” or “how something should be done” or “what kinds of things I make.” People can self-impose a narrow viewpoint on what they should or shouldn’t be doing. This rigidity of view point can serve as a barricade between a person and what’s possible. At some point in history, the norm became that we should all specialize, or become “an expert in X.” The older I get, the more firmly I see how these beliefs, this system, this limitation -- it’s failing certain people.
So, I’m not interested in “working” within the confines of a particular recognizable thing. I write, I draw, I paint, I invent new kinds of curry, I take photographs, I make lists that get folded into sculptures that I then set on fire in the shower, I stretch my hamstrings, sew, cut shit up and put it back together in reverse, redact, make up games for myself -- I do a lot at once. I try to do everything artfully, or at least with intention, even if I’m making a piece of toast. I move from my stove burner to a computer doc, to a notebook poem, to a painting on the floor, a drawing on the counter. I take breaks to drink tea and watch people outside the window. Movement and intentional breaks for me are crucial. Every single day, I make a secret thing that I promise myself no one ever has to know exists. Possibility is key. When I become fixated on how a finished piece should look, I take one breath then force myself to end it differently. It’s a constant struggle and I make a lot of messes. I don’t want the security of being sure about what I’m doing, I want to be completely unsure of what it is. The most sacred space for me is the space where I have no fucking clue what is going on, but somehow hands that are mine are moving, so I do whatever I can to get there.
In terms of medium, lately I’ve been using pen and watercolors- often adding colored pencil or highlighter or my hair or turmeric stain or tomato juice or blood, maybe take a part away by cutting a hole. I’ve made hair soaps, ephemeral smoked fish art that I try to wait until lunch to eat -- but lately, yeah, in terms of visual works, mostly works on paper.
Both your art and some of your recent published fiction (I’m thinking of "Skin" and "The Light Sculptor") are striking in ways that they unflinchingly and viscerally portray the body. What draws you to the body in this way, and how do you feel you approach it differently in a story versus artwork?
Thank you for reading! Hmmm….
As a she-beast that’s been brought up in culture that objectifies and reduces the female body into a forbidden, mysterious kind of treasure, I find myself playing with bodies because my introduction to them was so incomplete, uncomfortable and plasticized. I’m into seeing how bodies work as furniture, as prisons, as currency, as trauma, as genetic code, as boring ass skins that are exhausting to stay inside of. As soft animal meat
The Great Blue __________
So much of human struggle is based on the anxious relationship we have with the body that contains us. A body is a clock, a personal machine that designates our relationship to time. It’s our home. When I’m making something, I’m able to defy the rules of anatomy, to which I’m otherwise bound.
In writing a story, I tend to consider the experience of being inside of a body that isn’t mine. I need to figure out the mind-body relationship of a character before I can get inside and become them. If I’m drawing a character, I’m one step removed from having to deal with the totality of their experience. I can give them the head of a different species and not have to deal with explaining how different a fish might look through the eyes of a bird. Their bodies don’t need a motive to be imposed on a certain space, no scene has to get them there, I can put them wherever I want. I feel I don’t owe the body that I’m drawing as much empathy as I do the character I’m writing. There’s a big freedom that comes with that.
How does text interact with your art, from the pieces that have the titles written on them, to the Nope balloon in this month's featured piece? How do you make that choice?
I’m obsessed with pointing to the tension between visual experience and declarative language. Or perhaps, the dissonance between our experience and the words use to try and translate our experience into a code for other people. There’s a beautiful and kind of tragic gap between authentic experience and linguistic reduction. Heart balloons usually say like -- I don’t know because I’ve never gotten one -- but probably MY ETERNAL SWEET or something like that -- but, NOPE. Pretty sure I made this one on Valentine’s day. For some of us, Nope just goes with Valentine’s day. Also, Nope isn’t No. No is serious. There’s an attitude to nope, nope is blasé. Before I write a word on a painting, I say the word out loud. I don’t delete or edit words on a visual piece the way I might in a story, so checking sound is important. Testing how other people will hear the word in their heads is important. If you say the word Nope out loud repeatedly and listen to yourself, the sound detaches from meaning. I think we lose a lot when we don’t consider how words sound detached from their definitions -- the way that a word sounds communicates a lot. In the case of Nope, it’s got a harsh definition, but a soft sound. It’s a word that’s at odds with itself. It’s a word on a heart balloon that much like the girls that are holding the string, is at odds with itself.
I do not like you enough to hate you Please take my body
All art appears courtesy of Leah Sophia Dworkin. To see more of her art and writing, visit leahsophiadworkin.com.