Howie Tsui
Lyse Lemieux in her studio


Janna Kumi
Interview with Lyse Lemieux


For 35 years Lyse Lemieux’s work has been about the abstracted bodily form, in all its contradictions. Whether outlined by black line, filled in with ink wash, fabric or collage, mounted on paper, wood or other supports, her work has a lyrical quality, a presence that is hard to forget.  The viewer is left feeling curious about these heads, torsos, appendages, while also experiencing a certain humour and melancholy.  This year past, Lemieux has rediscovered - what parents admonish their children for - drawing on the wall. The floor to ceiling wall becomes the canvas or paper surface for the free-floating images plucked from Lemieux’s memories. Fresh from a debut show with Katzman Contemporary in Toronto, I caught up with Lemieux in her studio in Vancouver.

Lyse, you have been drawing and showing your work in Metro Vancouver for over 35 years, beginning in 1978 at the Surrey Art Gallery and 1979 at the Circle Art Gallery in Vancouver. You have just come back from a debut show, which you shared with Meryl McMaster at Katzman Contemporary in Toronto. Can you speak more to this?

It happened very suddenly. Marianne Katzman, the gallery director, called looking to fill a spot in her programming and offered the opportunity to put together a show. We negotiated an additional week and agreed to open at the end of that month. Marianne had seen the wall drawings on my website and thought they could be sent by mail. I explained I had to be there to make the work. I had been doing the wall drawings for about nine months and had never done one outside my studio. I was excited but terrified about doing this in a space I wasn’t familiar with.

When you say ‘drawing’ you are not talking about ink.  What is the material you are using?

The wall drawings are made from strips of felted wool affixed directly to the wall with a glue stick. Some drawings, like the one I’m going to do this summer at Oakville Galleries, also have fabric. I’ve been trying to incorporate different fabrics and possibly more three-dimensional materials into the drawings.

Here you are, presumably on a ladder installing your work on a wall not your own. What are you thinking, what did you learn?

What I learned is that no matter how much I prepare and draw out the piece ahead of time I’m going to modify the final work once I’m in the space. In this case, not only did I change the work but added two new drawings. Every space is different; the light, the general feel of the space, how the walls meet the floor, how the walls reach the ceiling – all of it has to be addressed. In this case I wanted the drawing to lead the viewer to the back of the gallery towards Meryl McMaster’s work. The moment I was up on the ladder affixing the strips of wool, my body felt like it was in the right place. The wall drawings don’t in any way exclude the rest of my studio practice; they are an extension of the overall project of making drawings.

When I see your work, Louise Bourgeois comes to mind, and perhaps Philip Guston. Who have been your influences here in Vancouver and out beyond?

I think the bodies of work left by Bourgeois and Guston are tremendously relevant. I try to experience their work whenever I can. I always find something new to get excited about.  When I was working with latex and sheet rubber in the 80’s I looked at Eva Hesse’s work regularly. There has also been Irene Whitome, Liz Magor, Gathie Falk, Sherry Grauer, all artists whose process and materials have been tremendously inspiring to me. When I was studying at UBC in the 70’s, Avis Lang Rosenberg taught a feminist art history course; that was a major turn. My partner, sculptor Al McWilliams, continues to play a big role in my professional practice. He is a pillar and gives me a lot of feedback. Years ago he introduced me to the drawings of Swiss artist, Silvia Bachli. It was her work that made me feel it might be all right to show drawings. Till then I had never considered showing my drawings.

Your past figurative drawings seem to have a certain narrative, and now you’ve added these free-floating wall pieces that are so big and bold, with barely a hint at figuration or narrative. Where do these figures come from and what do you want your viewers to see?

I see all of my drawings as bodies. Sometimes they’re clearly figurative and at other times more about abstraction or abstracted. In the end they always relate to the figure. Sometimes they have a story, sometimes not. I’ve learned that if I tell my story, it becomes the story and not everything we make needs to have a story. I’m open, in fact want, the drawings to live with other people’s stories. I want the drawings and the figures to take on their own personality and become real inthemselves.

And where do these ideas come from?

For the past 15 years I’ve drawn, painted and collaged in sketchbooks – smaller format sketchbooks. It’s an important part of my practice. I showed the more recent sketchbooks to someone last summer and they commented that the drawings feel much larger than the page they’re drawn on. I realized recently that I’ve been working in these books as though the pages are very, very large spaces, so why not do them directly on the wall? For now I’m going to keep working from these book drawings. I really want to see them on a larger scale

The show at Katzman Contemporary had such an interesting title, “in between in between”.  How did that title come about and how do you see your work in that space ‘in between”?

While I often don’t know what the figure is, the work is often about abstraction so the show’s title; "in-between-in-between” really worked for me. It describes that place that’s not drawing, not sculpture and not painting. The lines, although assured, can also feel tentative and vulnerable. The subject matter and the drawings themselves are often awkward, in between. I was pleased when Marianne came up with that title. It was all the more fitting because both Meryl’s practice, like mine, always leads back to the body as an ‘in between’ place - her work, through documentation of performance, and mine, through the narrative of line and form.

When we talk about bodies in art, there is often the question about the female body, either in a work of art or who is creating the art.  There are enough data in the world of art and business that points to a considerable gender bias that works against women.  In your opinion as a woman artist working in Vancouver, has being female helped or hindered your progress as an artist?

I grew up in Ottawa and was fortunate enough to have parents who had original art on their walls. They liked buying art and my mother had a number of art books. It never occurred to me that her books were all about men. I assumed when I read about their lives that what they had done, I could do! Around 1975 there was a show at the National Gallery in Ottawa titled, Some Canadian Women Artists. This show had a huge impact and in a way turned all of what I had thought about art, inside out. The materials these artists used, the way they worked, how they were using space, what they said about their work - all of it - felt completely new and relevant. I started looking at art making differently.

After graduating in 1978 I immediately rented a studio, got a job, focused on my studio practice and having exhibitions. I was young, people wanted to show my work. By the time I hit my mid 30’s and 40’s I was still in the studio, but not so young anymore and trying to survive financially. I was not having shows regularly. By the time I was in my early fifties I was starting to question whether or not I could financially afford to keep my studio. I was still not exhibiting regularly and not getting grants. It was increasingly challenging to pay the rent and buy materials.

At almost 60 I still have a job that helps pay the bills and things have started opening up. I have representation. Pantea Haghighi, owner and Director of Republic Gallery here in Vancouver took on my work a few years ago. I’m showing more regularly. There’s interest and more exposure. Public galleries are offering shows. There is also a renewed interest in drawing. All of it put together has made a difference. Maybe, being a woman artist over 60 won’t be so bad after all….

About Janna Kumi
The first time studying art was in Montreal in 1968. I only lasted one year, but instead went on to graduate with degrees at the Bachelor and Masters level in physical geography and forestry from the Universities of Concordia, Munich and British Columbia. I had a successful and rewarding career working as a forester in private industry and government, and as a treaty negotiator with the Federal Government, but after a major stroke in 2005, I had to review my priorities. I thought it was time to pick up what I left so long ago.  After completing studies at Emily Carr University and a recent Bachelor of Fine Art from the University of British Columbia, I now pursue my last career with the same passion and commitment.

May 2015.