Helgi Fridjonsson and Lisa Milroy in Conversation, April 2011
Helgi: Can you tell me about your background? Are you Canadian? What made you become an artist?
Lisa: I was born in Vancouver, Canada and came to study art in London in 1979. I did my
Foundation Course at St Martin’s School of Art and my undergrad at Goldsmiths College.
Before coming to London, I spent ten months in Paris. I worked as an ìau pairî for a family
I’m still in touch with, and studied French at the Sorbonne, but really, I just spent my days
wandering around the city, led by my senses. Time went by in a haze of looking. In
museums, I gazed upon art I loved but had only ever seen printed as reproductions in
books. Though nothing much happened, the months felt so layered and full as I soaked up
my first experience of being in Europe.
When I was a child, I loved painting and drawing but had no idea that people could live
their lives as artists. I wanted to be a nurse. I collected all the Cherry Ames Nurse book
series I could find from secondhand book shops, and sometimes wore a nurse’s cap to
school that my mother sewed for me out of an old pillowcase. At age fourteen I joined the
ìCandy-striper Volunteersî at St Paul’s Hospital and went to work on Ward 3 East. Every
Saturday afternoon I delivered flowers to patients, helped feed them their meals, and the
nurses even let me take and record TPR’s. My uniform was a red and white striped apron
that I wore over a gray skirt and white blouse. I was inspired by Florence Nightingale and
other famous English nurses and dreamed of following in their footsteps, training as a
nurse at a hospital in London. But I came here instead to go to art school.
Though for a long time I wanted to ìbeî a nurse, I never had an equivalent idea or fantasy
to ìbeî an artist. The need to make, the pleasure in making, in looking, the desire to form,
to transform, curiosity, a love of pictures -opening up to these feelings and drives led me
to ìbecomeî an artist without having set out to do it.
Helgi: Do you think there is something left from your nurse dream to be recognised
in your artwork – or your life?
Lisa: What springs to mind are the black and white illustrations of the Cherry Ames books –
I loved the quick black line of those drawings, and the depictions of Cherry in her crisp
white nurse’s uniform, her white cap stitched with the official black band of the graduate
nurse; the special nurse’s watch pinned to her breast pocket upside down to allow reading
while she took a patient’s pulse. Her rubber-soled white shoes…actually I always stopped
studying the illustrations when it came to the shoes as they were so unglamorouscompared to everything else. And I was also intrigued by the contrast between that
standardised uniform and the uniquely individual vivacity of Cherry.
Cherry and her uniform were like a still life that brought together qualities of order,
pragmatism and formality with personality, sensuality and a sense of the theatrical. This
combination produced a certain contradictory energy that was both contained, kept at bay
and interiorised yet fizzed and sparkled. I think this .push/pull’
effect -the feeling of .come
-has always fueled my paintings. And over the years I’ve continued to
use clothes and uniforms as motifs. Through the choice of outfits in my paintings, I feel as
though I can pour my amorphous self into various moulds and explore the fit. I suppose there is
also something to be said about healing, of wanting to make ailing people and situations
better, which points to a kind of love of life.
Helgi: Can we see something from your past in Canada in your art? I obviously see
the wanderings and the collection of things of what the eye and mind grabs.
Lisa: I can think of two examples as to how my Canadian past influenced my art: the fact
of having experienced many paintings first as reproductions; and my grand preoccupation
with .same and different’.
My mother hung reproductions of some of her favorite European paintings throughout our
house. When as a teenager I stood chatting on the phone with my friends, I’d spend hours
casually studying a poster of Constable’s The Haywain in our dining room. The photograph
of The Haywain took away the physical reality of all daubs of paint and turned them into
image. The three-dimensionality of paint became flattened, part of the flat surface of the
poster. Instead of experiencing direct painterly sensuality, I enjoyed the idea of it through
the photographic image. But this conceptual appreciation was filtered through the
gorgeous sheen of the poster paper itself and so I found a kind of re-directed sensual
pleasure in the even glossiness of the poster’s surface. I think that such experiences,
casual yet somehow intense, prompted a heightened sense of and fascination with
Throughout my childhood I travelled regularly to see my Ukrainian relatives in central
Canada. Sometimes this was by plane which involved a three-hour flight, or by train and a
three-day, two-night journey. In making this trip, I left behind Vancouver and the West
Coast with its mountains and ocean, its cosmopolitanism, roadworks and architecture, and
English language, and exchanged it for flat prairie farmland, for lakes and rivers, for small
town life, for immersion in another culture, language and history. This shifting of worlds
triggered awareness of the relation between the familiar and unfamiliar which fed my
fascination between same and different. It also fostered my love of travel, and introduced
me to homesickness at an early age. A friend once remarked that he could see the effect
of the wide Canadian prairies in the large empty (or full?) expanse of the backgrounds in
some of my paintings.
My Canadian past is also linked to my attachment to Japan, and Japan has been a
constant source of artistic inspiration. Growing up in Vancouver in the 1960s, one of the
houses my family rented strangely enough had a landscaped Japanese garden at the
back of it instead of a conventional yard. I was about seven at the time. The house itself
was a modern bungalow that sprawled out on one level with a gorgeous panoramic view
from the living room window of the inlet and north shore mountains. The Japanese garden
had a winding path and several stone temples that slipped in and out of sight depending
on where I stood and looked. But for me the fishpond stole the show. As carp slowly glided
through the green-black depths, water spiders skittered over the surface, sending out
concentric circles to ripple the otherwise perfectly still reflection of trees and sky.
During this period, my father worked for ìMilroy Grainî, a company set up by mygrandfather to export wheat. Each New Year my father received a wonderful gift from his
Japanese clients – an exquisitely crafted calendar. One calendar took the form of a small
wooden horse with a paper calendar slung as cargo across the saddle. Another was a doll
with a ball for her head and wooden cylinder for her body, wrapped in twelve sheets of
crepe paper as a kimono-calendar. At the end of each month, Iíd careful tear away the top
kimono-calendar to reveal the new one underneath, wondering all the while what the dollwould be like naked. When at the close of the year I finally slid the last paper tube from herbody, I found the wooden cylinder painted in swirls of flowers, tatoo-like. Soon enough, I
took them for the dollís latest outfit. All such enchanting childhood experiences fired my
curiosity about this mysterious place called Japan.
Helgi: There is a museum in Iceland called Smamunasafni
(Museum of small
(unimportant) things). A carpenter who used to rebuild old houses, collected
everything, seems to be, he saw on his daily work and wanderings, and built
shelves for it and numbered it and registered it. Used nails, rusted iron pieces, half
finished gloves with holes, hair from his haircut, nails from nailcuts, leftovers of
soaps, and buttons almost everything one can think of. He register everything
carefully, where all the small things were found and dates when it was found etc.
what is maybe the nicest part of it. That comes to mind.
I remember one of the very first pieces by John Baldessari, a conceptual work
where he informed the viewer about an artist who only saw the great masterpieces
from black and white reproductions, and started to do postcard sized paintings in
black and white. It was presented in only one piece, more like an idea, as far as I
remember. I was asked to take part in an exhibition dedicated to him, and did a very
small portrait painting of him from a black and white photograph in same size
reproduced in a catalogue of early conceptualists. Can this be a question? Did you
travel to Japan a lot? Do you use photography for your art or do you work on the
Lisa: Thanks, I enjoyed hearing about these two experiences from your world. They bring
to mind the idea of souvenirs and longing, and how people forge connections. Hereís
another story that eventually leads to Japan and photography.
During my first year at art school, a tutor set my class a drawing exercise that was for me
to have long-lasting repercussions. He simply told us to choose an object that we loved
and make a drawing of it. My chosen object was a souvenir, a seashell that I’d brought
from my favorite beach in Vancouver. I loved the seashell for its beauty and wanted to
celebrate its appearance by drawing it. However I also chose the seashell for how it made
me feel. It was a powerful link to the home I’d left behind and so generated an affirmative
sense of connection. But at the same time it heightened my awareness of being away from
that familiar world and so triggered a sense of longing and loss. For such a
relatively ordinary object, the seashell stirred up a complex cluster of happy/sad feelings –
here again that push/pull effect that I mentioned in relation to Cherry the nurse.
I remember how excited I felt looking at my finished seashell drawings. I recognised in
them an emotional energy that I instinctively understood as springing from experiences of
presence and absence, connection and disconnection. I went on to use this ëhití of visual
appreciation coupled with a strong emotional pull as a benchmark to identify other objects
to draw and paint. This paved the way for my on-going fascination with still life painting.
Still life is at the heart of my practice.
All through the 1980s I painted ordinary objects against an off-white ground. Perhaps it
was a decade of painting souvenirs. I never painted from observation. I held an image of
the object in my head and worked from this mental representation. The object as I pictured
it had a physical counterpart in how I enjoyed handling paint. In translating imagined visual
information into a corresponding set of painterly gestures, the act of painting and the act of
describing became interlinked in such a way that I found thrilling.
By the end of the 1980s, after making so many paintings of objects isolated against an off-
white ground, Iíd had enough. I needed change. Iíd grown hungry to paint objects in
context -where I found them. This shift in my work was hugely challenging, and it took me
to Japan. Iíd previously travelled to Japan for an exhibition that included my work. After
that first amazing visit, I was determined to return and explore through making paintings in
situ. In 1993 I spent a four month residency in Tokyo, roaming around the city in a state of
wonder and excitement and taking pictures of my whatever caught my eye. I used the
same ëseashell criteriaí to identify scenes to photograph as I had objects to paint, scenes
that both attracted me visually and stirred up a powerful emotional recognition. Back in my
Tokyo studio, I used these photographs as the basis for paintings. I used the photographs
solely for their graphic information -they visually grounded the idea and feeling of the
scenes I wanted to paint. In Tokyo, at last I found a way of painting objects as I found them
in the world.
Helgi: Do you always make photographs when traveling?
Lisa: During the 1990s I used photography constantly in relation to developing my
approach to still life painting. But as the decade progressed, the photographs no longer
functioned as simple graphic records. They had become stand-ins or replacements for the
places or objects Iíd once stood in front of and contemplated and then in departing, lost.
The photograph itself acquired a souvenir-like quality and this fed the mood and
atmosphere of my paintings. Perhaps the 1990s were a decade of painting longing.
Towards the end of the 1990s, another shift occurred in my work. I was fed up with this
state of longing. I wanted to have, rather than to pine for. I wanted the present as much as
the past. I abandoned my photographs and let go of my emotional and formal relation to
Helgi: Can you talk about that shift. How do you deal with the present? Arenít we
always doing that in a way? I of course know what you mean, but can you go a bit
further explaining it?
Lisa: Letting go of the photographs is linked to my interest in painting people. By the
mid-1990s I was completely absorbed by painting objects in context of where I found them
and as a result, the imagery expanded to include landscapes, architecture and street
scenes, but no people. The motif of people eluded me and this really began to bother me. I
finally figured out a solution: by thinking of a person as an object, I could forget I was
painting a complicated living being and pretend I was simply painting a still life. This
strategy took me to places like the British Museum where people stood outside on the
steps waiting for friends. The look of a person waiting is rather mask-like, evoking a kind of
absence, and this gave me the emotional distance I needed at that time for my paintings. I
photographed these waiting people and by focusing on their absent expression in my
photos, I could paint a face in the same way that I painted a building facade or an object.
By treating a face simply as a surface to describe, I tricked myself into painting people.
At the end of the decade, I couldnít take any more of this alienation, however useful it had
been. Iíd grown curious about the people I painted and wanted to portray something of
their lives, their stories, their personalities, thoughts and feelings. I wanted to look at what
lay behind the mask. After such emotional distancing, this desire for closeness and
intimacy felt dangerous and risky, all of which heightened my sense of the present
moment. By acknowledging the presence of a person rather than investing in their
absence, in my mind the emphasis on the past slipped away. The urge to feel fully eng
aged in the present grew pressing. My idea of the present felt exciting, a daring place
to be. Once again, I had to change the way I painted and the imagery I used in order to
meet my own evolving emotional needs.
Helgi: I like the broad field your art goes. Can you talk about some influences from
other artist, or periods in art? Do you travel a lot? You said you have been in Iceland
before? Was it as a tourist or were you working on some project.
Lisa: For many years Velasquez has been my favorite painter and Las Meninas my
favorite painting – that extraordinary painting keeps feeding me.
I do love traveling and have used it as a catalyst for my work -traveling is a fantastic way
to test things known and not known, ësame and differentí, while being visually and
sensually stirred. These days however Iím happy to stay closer to home and to return to
places that are familiar, which is another way to explore ësame and differentí. Curiously,
this brings to mind my relation to music – in the studio, I go through long spells of listening
to music when I paint, and then for months I prefer to work in silence. Traveling, being on
the road, is like finding myself in ëmusic modeí whereas the pleasure of staying put is like
being in ësilent modeí. Perhaps in ësilent modeí the emotional movement goes deep rather
than skims horizontally.
Iíve been to Iceland once before with Sheila, my oldest friend from grade school in
Vancouver and who now lives in Montreal. In the summer of 1998, Sheila and I decided to
go on a trip together and chose Iceland as our destination. I donít drive and Sheila
preferred not to, so we joined a small coach tour. For ten days we travelled from Reykjavik
up the west coast and across the middle of the island in a loop back to Reykjavik. Iím now
very much looking forward to my next visit to Iceland thanks to you Helgi and your
invitation to install my work in The Corridor. I plan to turn your house into one big still life,
or at least invade it with several portable still lives. Through my work I will become your
invisible house guest who moves in for the duration of the show.