The complexities of painting such a personal subject matter, mostly self-portraits surrounded by “guilty foods”, is an area Lee Price strives in. With an eye at capturing the right image to paint, she beautifully depicts the binaries often associated with disorder eating. She currently resides in Beacon, NY where I had the chance to speak with her.
BRIANNA LYLE: At FLATT we’re dedicated to philanthropy, and specifically in the education sector. How did growing up in New York affect your arts education?
LEE PRICE: Probably the most influential thing about my arts education was that my mother was a high school art teacher. She was very busy raising 3 children and working full time but I do remember her sketching my sisters and me, doing some watercolor, making pottery, and later making jewelry. From a very early age I was introduced to art museums and had an appreciation for art. By the time I was 4 years old I knew I wanted to be some kind of artist.
When I was in my early 30’s I taught elementary school in Los Angeles. There were no gym teachers, no music teachers and no art teachers. It was really a deplorable situation. I remembered how important my art classes were in grade school. It’s very unfortunate that arts education is given such short shrift in many areas.
BRIANNA LYLE: What are your ties to Santa Fe, NM? I see you have a gallery there.
LEE PRICE: My sole gallery is the EVOKE Contemporary in Santa Fe. I’ve been with them since about 2010. I think it’s difficult to find a gallery that, as an artist, you completely connect with. I’ve found that with EVOKE. They believe in what I am doing and I trust them implicitly. I make very few paintings in a single year so they have a waiting list for my work.
BRIANNA LYLE: What was your work like before you became interested in the female/food subject matter?
LEE PRICE: I went to an all women’s college and would often use my friends as models. My paintings would usually involve one or several women in a room with some type of food item…someone holding a bunch of carrots, an orange, a banana sitting on a window ledge…or empty bowls in the settings. There didn’t seem to be a specific purpose for any of this at the time but, even back then, my subject matter was almost always women and food.
BRIANNA LYLE: Most of the foods used in your work are sweets, or foods that are seen as indulgences. What is the connection between these luxurious excesses and your painted subject?
LEE PRICE: I’m using foods that are typically associated with indulgence or binging, “guilty” foods. The food choice usually has more to do with making a connection to compulsion than gratified indulgence. The majority of my pieces are speaking about checking out; food as a means of distracting yourself from being present. The settings are always peaceful behind the frenetic activity of the subject. These women are searching for solace in an unfit source. The peace is there. It’s obvious. It’s just underneath the behavior. This is how compulsion is. My paintings explore the ways in which we take comfort in food and its pleasures, and the hunger that remains even amidst apparent abundance. Sometimes I”m simply speaking about the search for the lusciousness of life.
BRIANNA LYLE: What is it about the relationship between food and women that is so important to you?
LEE PRICE: I suffered with various forms of disordered eating from an early age until my early thirties. Even after that, food has been my fall back emotional crutch.
BRIANNA LYLE: Binge eating specifically is often an eating disorder that is overlooked as most people tend to think that eating disorders arise from not eating. You challenge this thought beautifully in your work; I’m wondering if you think, specifically Americans, have a more severe problem with food than we think. In other words, do you think our dependency on food for emotional support is hindering us as a society?
LEE PRICE: Americans have a much more severe problem with checking out than we think. It’s not just food. We’ve come up with a thousand ways of checking out: workaholism, obsessively surfing the net, preoccupation with exercise. You can turn anything into an obsession, anything into a way of not being present. Sometimes I think we search for chaos just so we don’t have to sit still. It’s very difficult to get quiet. It can be very uncomfortable. I think we’re constantly trying to cover up our own negative self speak. We’re very hard on ourselves.We strive and push ourselves to accomplish so we can feel worthy. Then acquire addictions because we’re so removed from any sense of who we truly are. How can this not be reflecting in our society?
BRIANNA LYLE: Exactly. Through your invasive, bird-like view of your subjects, you capture a moment when a woman is at her most vulnerable, mid-binge. Why is this moment so inspiring for you?
LEE PRICE: The bird’s eye view often gets interpreted as a voyeurism thing or a “God’s eye” view, but it’s neither. It’s the subject looking down on herself. Watching herself in the act of a compulsive behavior, observing. Being completely aware of what she’s doing but unable to stop. I’ve spoken to friends who have had this same experience in relation to drug addiction. It’s like an out of body experience.
BRIANNA LYLE: You seem to be promoting body-awareness by acknowledging shame that often comes with talking about the female form. However, some of your subjects appear to be accessorized, in curvy positions or with red toenail polish, do you feel this makes the model an object?
LEE PRICE: When I do a shoot with my photographer he’ll take hundreds of shots. When I sift through them looking for poses I usually gravitate toward images that depict an unawareness of being viewed as opposed to images that would objectify. When you see a figure that’s posed in a more alluring way I do that to convey a sense of defiance.
I get asked about the toe nail polish a lot. In the later works I stopped using it but really it wasn’t meant to be a statement. It was an aesthetic thing. I liked the bright toe nail polish against what is normally a more subdued palette of colors.
BRIANNA LYLE: Your photographer helps you capture deeply personal moments before you paint them, I’m wondering how you two met and your experiences with sharing these moments with him.
LEE PRICE: I met Tom Moore through a mutual friend and have been working with him since 2010. He’s very good at putting people at ease when he’s photographing them. When we shoot it’s not a heavy, serious thing. It’s mainly exhausting and stressful because you’re trying to get the right shot. It can be a long day- eight or more hours of posing and changing set-ups. Sometimes things don’t work out; props aren’t working, poses look contrived, nothing’s clicking. Tom has a good sense of humor and keeps things upbeat and fun. From each shoot there are at least a dozen photos of me laughing uncontrollably.
BRIANNA LYLE: Can you ever recall a time when the photographic process was uncomfortable, or better yet, enlightening?
LEE PRICE: The photographic process has never been uncomfortable. But, it is often enlightening. I set out shooting one idea and after looking through the images, something else may emerge that interests me more. “Full”, the very first painting that I made for the Women and Food series, came about unexpectedly. I had set up a scene to shoot- a sort of Alice in Wonderland thing. In the foreground, a table was set for what would seem to be a tea party and in the background a figure sleeping in a chair. It wasn’t working. I purchased insane amounts of desserts and props for this shoot that I didn’t want to waste. So I threw an antique tablecloth down on the floor, placed the desserts on top of it, lay down in the middle of the food and had a friend get on a ladder to photograph it. I still didn’t quite understand it, but I knew I had something that inspired me; something I wanted to explore.
BRIANNA LYLE: Your work is deeply genuine, not only because of the subject matter, but because you’ve placed yourself at the center of most of your works. Why does self-portrait propel your work?
LEE PRICE: The paintings are about myself. I may not always do this, but it’s what I do now. I’ve tried to use other women and, for this series, it just hasn’t worked for me.
BRIANNA LYLE: The juxtaposition in your work – pleasure vs. self-loathing, private vs. public, present vs. regret – is an aesthetic we love at FLATT as well, what is it about these binaries that charm you?
LEE PRICE: Because I believe that’s the way everything in life is. Nothing is one way or another- all good or all bad. Possibly I’m searching for equanimity.
BRIANNA LYLE: Is the search for equanimity something you strive for while working?
LEE PRICE: I’m not striving for it in my work, at least not consciously. I strive for it in my life so I think it must show up in my work, if only in the background. I currently have a sign on my studio door that says “Abandon Hope”. I’m not talking about Dante’s gates of hell but about the Buddhist philosophy. Abandon your hope and fear goes with it. You are left with equanimity, peace. I don’t have the sign on the door because I’m good at it however. I need it to be my first reminder every morning.
BRIANNA LYLE: Can you explain your pre-painting process a bit?
LEE PRICE: Mainly, I think a lot. I may have an idea in my head of what I’m trying to convey or I may conjure an image that I don’t fully understand. I make very simple sketches of the ideas until I feel I’ve hit on something. I gather props, which can be an extensive process. I’ve worked with the same photographer for most of this series. Over time he’s devised a scaffolding setup in which the camera is connected to a computer screen so that as he takes each shot I can see what is going on without moving my position. In a day of shooting he’ll take hundreds of shots. I then go through the shots looking for images that I want to use.
BRIANNA LYLE: Do you see yourself exploring different subjects in future work?
LEE PRICE: I believe this subject will morph into something else. I paint about my life. I hope I’m not in this place forever.
BRIANNA LYLE: What are some of your future plans regarding your art?
LEE PRICE: I don’t make plans in regard to my art. I just paint. I’ve never sought out a gallery and I’ve never contrived a particular idea to work on. I let one idea come after the next. I feel my current pieces are moving away from the Women and Food theme. “Lemon Slices” and “Tea” and even “Hot Chocolate” have more to do with engaging with your surrounding environment than with trying to check out from it, which is what I’m doing in paintings such as “Snack” or “Chinese Food.”
What intrigues me most from my last shoot, which I’ve barely begun to paint, has more to do with basic elements of painting: abstracting a form, juxtapositions of colors creating space. I look through the images searching for what I’m drawn to. I spend a lot of time analyzing why I’m drawn to certain images. After a while, I can usually figure out what it is that I’m trying to get at.