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6527212 January 27, 2011

Beautiful Alien: Emily Lisker

"I always knew I was a Martian of sorts."

About ten years ago, my brother, my mother, and I had a conversation about high school.  My brother commented about how everyone around him seemed to be from another planet--not his.  Then my mother went on to describe similar perceptions.

I sat, quietly, choosing not to offer up my own story.  Doing so seemed as if it would somehow belittle my own memories. Listening to them, I wondered if every teenager feels that way, or if we simply were different as a family, that maybe we shared certain oddities due to our genetic code.

I felt sad that I failed to realize during those years that my brother, who is just over a year my senior, was feeling so much like I was.  We somehow missed a valuable opportunity to connect and find some solace within the family. We were lonely together and lonely apart.

After all these years, I'm not convinced that every teenager feels like an alien.  Perhaps they do for a moment, a day, or even weeks at a time.  For some of us, it has been a lifetime.  Like my guest today, artist Emily Lisker, I've learned " ... to counterbalance. My whole body is my antenna, it's very intense physically and sensually to be a human on this earth. I try not to push my emotional limits, instead I try to live like a farmer, early to bed, early to rise, fertilizing and nurturing my crops."

In my non-scientific research into the hearts and souls of creatives, I've noticed that more artists than writers have relayed this feeling of being alien.  I've always thought of myself as a writer, first and foremost; however, I can say without any hesitation that I grew up feeling like the biggest, brightest alien in the Universe. I was an avatar, creeping around inside an unfamiliar body.

I recognized my alien nature as young as 4 or 5 years old.  I knew I was different.  My major flawed assumption was: Something is wrong with me!  I held onto that belief for years.  It guided my early life, creating a self fulfilling prophesy.  I also assumed that I was different for a reason, and that became my great counterbalance. My dream in life was to find that reason.

Everyone is different.  Each person is unique and to be celebrated. I absolutely believe that.  It may be politically incorrect to say so, but some people are significantly different in various ways.  They are outliers on the graph of what's normal.  Some of us realize early that we are dangling on a bell curve tail.

I've never met Emily. I can't tell you where she actually fits on the curve.  All I know is that she gets it. I suspect that I could sit with her and describe my life, and she would get it. More and more I question the significance of my realization that most of the artists I interview seem to get it more than the writers. What does that mean about me, and where I'm headed?

I will always be a writer, but I'm becoming an artist.  It feels right.

What's your story (in a nutshell)?

I was from a family of artists in Westchester, New York. My parents and step-parents were in different aspects of advertising. I ran away from home, first to Brooklyn and then Chinatown in NYC, then finally to Providence RI at age 17. I worked odd jobs, then enrolled at the RI School of Design and studied painting, literature, and photography. After graduation I became a freelance illustrator for magazines, newspapers, theater productions, children's books, etc. Eventually I decided it was time to make paintings.

How long did it take to establish yourself as an artist?

I got hooked on drawing and painting as a young child, and never stopped. I had a lot of artistic confidence by the time I graduated from college, and then got lucky landing a lot of illustration work right away. Editorial illustration disappeared with the advent of the computer, so I started over with children's books. In publishing, though, you don't so much establish an artistic record as establish a sales record, and I became weary of that attitude. So I started over again, trying to establish myself as a painter. I'm 50 now, and I have a respectable local reputation. Thanks to the Internet, I got hooked on publishing my words and paintings online, and that has certainly increased my audience.

I've seen a lot of strange art in galleries, as well as more traditional pieces. How do you define great art? Is it more about the technique or emotion? What the heck is it about?

Art can be a pyramid of tomato cans in an Italian grocery store - it's about vision, not about the art object. Inspiration for that vision comes from all places. I have no idea how to define great art and I'm not sure I could for another person. I just know that I am constantly engaged in making art, and it comes out through all of my senses and pores. I exercise my receptivity - the more avenues I have to express my vision, the deeper and more widespread my receptivity. If you are doing your work your appetite increases.

But the vision has to be true. There can be no falseness, no compromise. I recently saw art that moved me and changed my life because it was visionary, and it was sincere. You can smell the slightest insincerity. The artist in this case was self-taught, his craft exquisite, but it was his vision, the truth of it, that made for greatness in my eyes.

With regard to your current creative focus, was there an "ah-ha" moment you can tell us about?

I believe we must counter the forces in our schools and our society that say unless you are THE BEST at something, you are not allowed. Imagine if everyone shared their food and played music with their neighbors and walked everywhere, rather than hiding in their pod cars and houses, hiding behind computer screens? Yes, I am a dreamer and an idealist, but this belief is very meaningful to me. I worry about a society that is not stressing the vital importance of making music, art, poetry as part of daily life. Don't give creating over to the celebrities! Embrace it, love it, encourage it in each other! It's about engaging in life in this moment and all moments. Be alive! Live!

For you, is making art more about creation or expression? It can be both, but does one dominate with regard to your need/urge/desire to be an artist and why?

I'm not sure I know the difference between creation and expression, or, maybe for me there is no difference. My imagination is like a wild horse that needs daily runs, a stall, hay, and carrots. My imagination must be used, otherwise I get stuck on worrying and making myself miserable. I call creating the opening of the ziti. I open, I receive, something moves through me, I visit another planet, I look over the edge at the abyss. What comes of that is my expression. I never really know what that will be, and it isn't really the point. The creative energies will turn to disease if they are not harnessed and expressed.

Many artists focus on one particular subject or style. How important is this for career development? Have you ever grown tired of painting the same types of things, and if so, can you tell us about it?

I wouldn't know anything about career development, or the development of style. My audience tells me that I have a distinct style, but it's not what I focus on. When I am painting, I first sketch freely on canvas until an image strikes me as being something I'd like to develop further. Certain images may come up repeatedly in a batch of paintings, then over time new obsessions take over. I never run out of ideas. Its a bit like how I write. I write spontaneously in longhand, and stuff jumps out at me to develop. Then I write, standing at my computer and moving words around.

What I take in from reading and looking worms its way into my imagination while I walk and sleep, and things develop unconsciously. Visually I've developed a language, a style, which evolves naturally and organically through regular visits to the studio. I don't worry about it. My vocabulary is always evolving. I had a fabulous art teacher in high school. She used to show us slides from art history, not letting us draw or paint right away until we'd filled up, bursting to express. I still do this. When researching to solve illustration jobs I always load up on imagery. Now my writing makes me hunger for reading ten books at once. As I play the sax I hear everything more, just like drawing makes you see more.

Do you believe some of the various attributes related to being highly creative have caused you aberrations in life, helped you deal with life's aberrations, or both? 

I had to look up aberration to help me with this one.

1. A deviation from the proper or expected course. A deviation from what is normal, expected, or usual.

2. A departure from the normal or typical (aberrations from the norm).

3. Psychology A disorder or abnormal alteration in one's mental state.

I guess I can relate to all of it. When people admire my imagination and humor, they see me as crazy, in a fun way. When they see the truth behind what I do, they are terrified. That is the artist's role, to be the fool, the jester, and also the prophet, the myth maker. I am actually very non-crazy. I continually try to ground myself through writing, walking my dog for miles each day, baking bread, washing my clothes. I have always had a delicate chemistry that can carry me up, up, and away. So rather than fly off like a rocket I have learned to counterbalance. My whole body is my antenna, it's very intense physically and sensually to be a human on this earth. I try not to push my emotional limits, instead I try to live like a farmer, early to bed, early to rise, fertilizing and nurturing my crops.

I guess you are asking about crazy artist syndrome. I do see the world from the ceiling as if I were dangling from a swinging chandelier, and this is helpful for my art. As a child I noticed the differences, for example, between myself and my older, more conventional sister. I figured some part of my brain had melted from the ether I was given during my tonsillectomy. My husband says no, silly, you were born this way. Biologically I am blessed with a sensitive temperament, moodiness, and all sorts of stuff I've had to befriend and ultimately respect. I've needed to figure myself out. Read, read, read, hunt down books at the library! Libraries are the churches of my heart.

During difficult or challenging times in your life, does writing soothe or inspire you? Is it therapeutic in any way?

Totally. I started writing as suicide prevention. I tell this to everyone because it was that bad, and writing worked to lift me up S-L-O-W-L-Y one word at a time. When I wanted to build my own guillotine to chop off my head, my friend Susan said to me, "Try writing." When I started keeping a journal, I actually went to the window to make sure there wasn't someone there to shoot me for writing. That's when I knew I should keep writing, that writing was important, and that I had things to say.

Painting grabbed me at age 12, especially when my step-father introduced me to an amazing painter who was exhibiting in a Soho sidewalk sale. But it worried my parents when I was in high school that I was chasing poets, not boys. I still would prefer being in my studio or walking my dog or dancing in my living room to Brave Combo than being most anywhere else. The poets are my heroes, they are our national treasures, our royalty. I look to them to understand my job.

Have you ever had to deal with people in your life failing to understand your creative personality, interests, or drive? If so, can you tell us about it and how you've dealt with it? 

Only my husband and fellow artists REALLY understand me to the core. People are either frightened, entertained, or recognize me as a fellow traveler. Mostly they are frightened. I have taken the word friend out of my vocabulary. It gets me in trouble. I have acquaintances, pals, audience. I do not generally hang out with people.

It has been crucial for me to recognize that I can support my drive without apology. I've never had a huge desire to be normal, or to fit in, or be cool (perhaps I knew it was impossible!) so in this way I have been extremely lucky. I see many people get caught up and distracted by this need. I always knew I was a Martian of sorts. I was also lucky that my few high school friends were poets. I didn't suffer peer damage but I did suffer family tribal damage.

How did I deal with it? I ran away to a safe place, and I sank into my art. Nothing else worked. I couldn't drink or take drugs, they've never helped. I still loathe parties. I now think I was lucky in this way. My life is still beginning anew each day. I am excited that I will be teaching art again to high school students. That was a crucial age for me growing up. Having mentors and adult artists in my life helped me envision a path. So I'm excited about being part of this for students now.

Have you developed a specific creative process that enables you to meet your artistic goals? If so, can you tell us about it. Where do most of your ideas come from?

I am drawn to work, to communicate, and I am drawn to the solitude I need in order to do so. As a kid it was because I had a crush on this artist or that poet, etc. But now I am motivated to communicate in both a personal and creative sense. My ideas come from feeding myself food, literally and metaphorically: imagery, story, music, but also getting out each day walking, and really sleeping well at night too. All of this ferments in the brain and the magic is how it comes out. I love what Ray Bradbury said, "Your intuition knows what to write, so get out of the way."

He also said:

"If you want to write, if you want to create, you must be the most sublime fool that God ever turned out and sent rambling. You must write every single day of your life. You must read dreadful dumb books and glorious books, and let them wrestle in beautiful fights inside your head, vulgar one moment, brilliant the next. You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads. I wish you a wrestling match with your Creative Muse that will last a lifetime. I wish craziness and foolishness and madness upon you. May you live with hysteria, and out of it make fine stories - science fiction or otherwise. Which finally means, may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world."

Isn't that wonderful? That's how I feel.

What do you believe places an artist apart from his or her peers? So many are highly talented, but what makes one stand out as truly gifted?

I'm not sure I can be the judge of that. Perhaps it's about having a particular vision or take on things. I know that when an artist has affected me I don't see the world the same way again. Last night I read Haywire, a book of poetry by George Bilgere. This morning at five AM I woke up from a dream and raced to my desk to get down the words inspired by the book. His poems had been messing with my head while I was asleep, and I am grateful. This happens a lot when you eat good poetry, art, music.

A few months ago I saw the art of Stephen Huneck. I had my library find a book of his art, and I spent all night reading about him and looking at his art. My life has been forever changed. When I first heard Brave Combo's music, I sobbed I loved it so much, and felt I had wasted my whole life not being a musician. So I began playing music. Obviously their music released something important in me. Years ago I read The Fire Eaters by Bill Cobb, and I was forever changed. I had to write!

I love to write fan letters. It's a habit that started when I was 13 and wrote to some of the illustrators my step-father represented. He was their agent, and I would bring home samples of their work and study them. I often got to meet them in their studios. It is so important for kids to meet artists. Still to this day I write thank you notes to poets and musicians and playwrights whose art has affected me. I am actually shy, so letter-writing is how I converse. I never expect a reply, but I have had lovely experiences corresponding with some of them. And once in a while what I am doing interests them, too, and then it's a lucky love-fest.

What is your primary motto or mantra in life? Why is this important to you?

Communicate! Connect! Envision, all through your art! I guess I am communing with life when I engage in these things. Now that I am fifty I want to make sure I pass along the enthusiasm to the ones in my community just starting. I write, I paint, I play music, and I need to do it all, to keep dancing! My name means emulate, and perhaps that is what I do. I try everything in the banquet of life.

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