From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Lisa Snellings-Clark

Lisa Snellings-Clark’s bio, as seen on her website, is mysterious. While it speaks poetically of the artistic impulses that fuel her quirky, visual-narrative collaborations with authors such as Neil Gaiman, Gene Wolfe, Charles DeLint and John Shirley, it says little about the woman behind the remarkable body of work: gothic sculptures, exquisite figurines, and mechanical steampunk visions come to life. Fantasy Magazine asked Snellings-Clark to really introduce herself, starting at the beginning.

Lisa Snellings-Clark: Bad Rat

I grew up in South Carolina in an odd, Southern gothic-y sort of family with mostly traditional beliefs. I finished high school early, and by sixteen had started college, working nights in a hospital morgue. The pathology work and studies in microbiology led to positions in research laboratories until I began sculpting seriously in 1991. But, aside from reading walls of books, my earlier experiences provided the most prevalent influences. My parents came from remnants of two separate southern families destroyed in the Great Depression. During my early childhood, we lived in an old wooden house that wheezed and groaned throughout the night regardless of the weather. My dad and I often fished to catch dinner. He drove me to the library every Saturday morning for Bradbury, Wells, Poe, Padgett, and Doyle. He drove me to piano lessons too, which my mother insisted were not a luxury. We ate humble food with good silver. We had a nice piano and a crappy television. I wore second-hand clothes to school, but we had a maid — a Geechee woman apparently not considered a luxury either. Ruth dipped snuff, kept a flask and worry dolls in her apron pocket, and told wonderfully gruesome stories. She smelled like cloves. There is fairly convincing evidence that my Poppets may have evolved from fever dreams during a particularly nasty bout with pneumonia when I was six or so… Overall, the years were mostly gentle, but always with dark undercurrents, whispered family secrets. The effect of those years most evident in my art is a tendency to juxtapose light and dark elements. One seems to demand at least a bit of the other. It’s not so much memories that show up in the art as a particular way of seeing things. This humorous/scary, tender/cynical sensibility was reinforced when I relocated to the desert… When I moved here [to Southern California], it seemed so bright and still I couldn’t think straight. Though the mountain views were beautiful, the cloudless skies felt heavy and changeless, leaving me feeling claustrophobic and depressed. It took several years for me to begin to ‘see’ the seasons. They are sublime in the purest sense of the word and, like the bassoon in orchestra, subtle, distinct and undeniably necessary. Nowhere are there brighter lights and blacker shadows than here. Like the secrets in Ruth’s crisp white apron, the quiet violence of the desert never stops telling stories.

FANTASY: Okay, so set the scene: What is a day like in your studio? What’s the environment like; who’s there; what’s the big exciting project dominating your life right now?

LISA SNELLINGS-CLARK: The studio used to be a detached garage, but now connects to the house by an awkward hallway sometimes referred to as “the airlock.” It’s lined with completed work. On the studio door a sign states: nothing can go wrong now.

The sign has its own story.

In the center of the room are two large work tables. One belongs to Ben, who is my studio partner. Today it’s littered with tools and parts surrounding “Fortune’s Teller,” the final kinetic sculpture of the “Dark Caravan” series. Ben tests the engineering that makes Jack’s eyes open, his fingers beckon, controls the light sequence and spins the wheel of twelve fortunes. Once we’re satisfied that everything works smoothly, the sculpture will be photographed and filmed, then crated and shipped to join the rest of the carnival in Virginia.

On an easel sits the cover painting for Strange Roads, the second in the series of chapbooks published by Dream Haven Press. Each book contains two original stories written around art images I send to the author. Strange Birds was released last year with stories by Gene Wolfe. Peter Beagle is writing stories for Strange Roads to be released this spring. Soon I’ll begin work on images for Strange Machines, with two new stories by Neil Gaiman.

My table holds several paper mache Poppet sculptures, a number of tiny two-inch Poppets, and several small originals, ready for painting. Around the central tables are various stations with equipment for casting, sanding, and fabricating and, to the ceiling, shelves holding bins labeled “wheels,” “propellers,” “brass rod,” “gears,” “hands,” “bones,” etc.

We are quickly running out of space, and soon will need more people. In the meantime, we start the day with a look at the infernal-never-ending-list and work at things on it, which lately are mostly Poppet things.

Next to the studio is a long narrow room we call “the cave” for writing, sketching and thinking but honestly, more often is for putting stuff we have no space for.

Sometimes deadlines are upon us and we work long hours. If I get struck with an inspiration I can’t resist, I try to work on it at night, when Ben’s not there (and I can listen to music I like). In winter, we work with the doors wide open in fresh air and great light. (The desert has its good points.) In summer, we seal the place like a tomb to protect against the awe-inspiring, soul-humbling heat. We often eat lunch in the studio. In summer, we break daily for swimming. We’re connected to the house, so family is in and out and friends stop by occasionally to see what we’re working on. Some stay to work on their own projects, or to absorb a bit of inspiration. The studio’s controlled chaos seems to infect visitors with the desire to make art. Go figure.

On Feb. 4, you wrote in your blog: “I made my hair different. It looks like this… I made a pumpkin pie. It looked like this… I made time to read. It looked like this… I made ‘Queen of Hearts.’ She looked like this…” Now, your tone here might be called light to the point of silly — and yet this simple note provokes some profound musing on the nature of creation as an act. Is everything you do, to some degree, a work of art? Is everything everyone does a work of art?Everything everyone does is definitely not art. Everything I do isn’t art, but most things I do — decorating a room, setting a dinner table — will reflect a certain aesthetic. I tend to look at things through a filter that finds art in the everyday. For instance, I can balance the composition of a scene or find a story in a face. This is a skill I can pull out and use at will. But occasionally, another sort of vision reveals layers and form otherwise invisible in everyday light. It descends without warning, covers everything like a blanket and has no “off” switch. It is arresting, powerful and sometimes profound. I can describe the sensation it in only the simplest of language. Some experiences defy narrative description.

I remember that post. I was having a particularly rough week and talking about it on the journal wasn’t something I wanted to do. Selecting a few simple elements from the mix and presenting them in simple terms created a sort of unifying frame for me. Maybe you picked up on that. Many of my readers are perceptive, detecting undertones I’m not even aware of when I write. In that light, yes, this post was indeed about the nature of creation.

I discovered your art at a World Science Fiction Convention art show, and one of the reasons why your name was immediately and forever burned into my brain is that there seem to be so incredibly few artists displayed in genre-specific exhibits whose art is actually out to say something — something other, that is, than, “I am a beautifully painted dragon/ robot/zeppelin.” Why is the genre art world so frequently about showcasing such traditional illustration, while oblivious to incredible artists like, say, Jesse Bransford, who are deeply exploring sf ideas and aesthetics in galleries and museums?

I think that the reason you see so much illustrative art at genre conventions is because the foundation of those conventions is writers. Writers write books, and books have illustrations on their covers.

There are some extremely talented illustrators out there that I have great admiration for. Illustration is a discipline I don’t possess. I’ve illustrated one book in my career, which was Neil Gaiman’s “On Cats and Dogs.” The interesting thing about that project was that the illustrations were sculptures. Even then, I was unable to resist adding my own twist. I got away with it, but likely wouldn’t have under different circumstances. I might have a shot at success if I were given a great deal of freedom and could avoid having to recreate a scene from the book, a common approach to covers I find ineffective for author, artist and reader. This kind of freedom isn’t common to book cover assignments. I would imagine that artists like Jesse Bransford have similar situations.

Possibly, the genre convention isn’t the ideal place for my work, which often escapes genre classification. But I’m strongly connected to the literature and, after years of attending, to the authors, artists and fans. As long as the conventions continue to invite me to exhibit or speak, I’ll likely continue to do so.

Another recent blog post: “So it turns out that one of the things I did this Valentine’s Day was to float a pig’s skull and jaw bones in a large doubled ziplock baggy of bleach solution, which will send billions of microbes currently living on the bones to that wondrous potato salad in the sky. The smell alone should keep cats and raccoons away, but just in case, I put the whole thing back in the birdcage, out of reach.” Um… I don’t have anything to ask about that, per se — I just keep coming back and savoring the image. You’re a really good writer — and I don’t mean “for an artist.” Can you talk a little bit about the importance of narrative, of storytelling, in your work or your life?

I am a writer, a reader and a storyteller. I love books and words and writers and every aspect of language. I read all kinds of fiction, non-fiction and even text books.

Visual art is a language too. The visual elements I work with are a unique alphabet only I can decipher. Even after years of speaking this language I inadvertently developed, I’m still surprised sometimes.

A visual alphabet is extremely flexible, compared to a linear alphabet. Someone viewing a series of my works can extract its visual metaphors fairly easily. But visual metaphors are open to interpretation and the translation is greatly dependent on personal point of view.

Words, like the ones on this page, have nearly universal, clearly defined meanings, making them better for telling narrative stories.

That’s why I don’t like traditional cover illustrations. It’s why you don’t show the monster — the reader’s mental image is almost always stronger.

Conversely, visual art runs circles around narrative for abstract, intangible, more visceral concepts. We can have strong emotional reactions to art without fully understanding why at first, or ever. I’ve learned that the works I felt strongly about during creation are more likely to elicit this sort of emotional response from viewers. I’ve also learned that the personal trigger for the response can be vastly different from my own. In other words, the translation is very loose.

I didn’t realize just how loose until I began working with authors. I send out the images and the stories I get back are sometimes astoundingly unlike anything I’d ascribed to the visuals. But, they fit.

How cool is it to see something familiar in a completely different light? Way cool.

Strange Attraction is an anthology published in 2000. Its stories were based on a kinetic Ferris wheel called “Crowded After Hours.” For this project, I sent art to a formidable array of authors, including John Shirley, Chet Williamson, Fred Olen Ray, Peter Crowther and Edward Bryant. There were more than twenty stories, full of surprises. The experience was immensely satisfying.

More recently, Gene Wolfe surprised me to a great degree with his very disturbing “Sob in the Silence” story for Strange Birds. I told him it was far darker and more violent than I’d ever expected. He told me I had to be kidding — that ‘that thing’ I sent scared the hell out of him. I’m very much looking forward to reading Peter Beagle’s exploration of Strange Roads.

In Stephen King’s story “All That You Love Will Be Carried Away (Everything’s Eventual),” I read:

He rarely added notes, liking his finds to stand alone. Explanation rendered the exotic mundane . . . but from time to time a footnote still seemed to be more illuminating than demystifying.
Sometimes narrative and images belong together. But not always. And when not, it’s REALLY not. The rule for adding words to art is the same as for adding art to words. Sometimes, you just don’t.

Finally: So what is it about rats, anyway?

Rats? Because rats walk the line between. The more you learn about rats, the more you’ll know we are more like them than they like us.

LINKS
Lisa’s Journal
SlaughterHouse Galleries
On Cats and Dogs
Everything’s Eventual
Strange Roads

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