Home Interior Design Artist Cynthia Lahti talks about her very ‘peculiar’ sculptures that anchor Michelle Williams’ new film ‘Showing Up’

Artist Cynthia Lahti talks about her very ‘peculiar’ sculptures that anchor Michelle Williams’ new film ‘Showing Up’

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Cynthia Lahti gets chills just telling me about seeing her work featured in the new movie, To show up. It’s a feeling, the Portland-based artist said, of pure joy: “It’s pretty amazing to see your work so big and as part of such a beautiful movie, you know?”

Indeed, there are few scenes in To show up where Lahti’s work does not appear, well. Directed by Kelly Reichardt, the feature film follows Lizzy, an unassuming and idiosyncratic sculptor played by Michelle Williams, as she prepares for an exhibition at a local gallery. During this week of preparation, Lizzy produces a group of sculptures, all created off-screen by Lahti.

We glimpse Lahti’s handiwork throughout the film: in the opening montage which also includes Lahti’s watercolor drawings, in Lizzy’s studio where she works clay at every free moment, and finally , in the gallery where Lahti’s gnarled sculptures of female forms anchor Lizzy’s solo exhibition.

Although small in scale in real life, these pieces possess an alluring on-screen presence when viewed large and though, Lahti would be the first to admit, they are hardly specimens of the Greek ideal. They are imperfect ceramic figures, with knotty shapes and enamelled with surreal tints, their sensibility tending towards abstraction as much as art brut.

“I like crashes,” Lahti explained. “I feel like my work is always a clash of something really beautiful, but then there’s a huge crack. The meeting of these two opposing things is very, very interesting.

André Benjamin as Eric and Michelle Williams as Lizzy in To show up. Photo courtesy of A24.

It was this strange, otherworldly quality that drew Reichardt and screenwriter Jon Raymond to Lahti’s work. The couple originally wanted to make a biopic about Canadian artist Emily Carr, until they found her too “iconic”. As the director said, “We didn’t want to write about an extremely famous artist.”

Instead, Reichardt and Raymond turned to their own community in Portland, Oregon, developing an intimate portrait of a local artist, neither an icon nor a genius, making art while life unfolds around her. ‘She. Raymond shared the script with her friend Lahti in hopes of using her art in the film, alongside works by other artists including Michelle Segre and Jessica Jackson Hutchins. The sculptor signed with joy.

“When you’re working on the script, it’s the art that Jon and I came up with for Lizzy,” Reichardt said of Lahti’s work. “His sculptures are so particular that I don’t know what else could have worked in their place.”

Williams, too, viewed Lahti’s animated sculptures as representing a happiness far removed from Lizzy’s personality and surroundings. “These characters are where she’s able to embody whatever she wants, where she’s not limited to her physical self, and she’s allowed to play in an imaginative, free place,” the actress said.

André Benjamin as Eric and Hong Chau as Jo in To show up. Photo: Allyson Riggs, courtesy of A24.

Lahti would go on to create around 20 sculptures for the film, which was shot in 2021, receiving no instructions or creative briefs. Only one of these works directly referenced the film’s narrative – that of a woman pushing a wheel, inspired by Lizzy’s friend and fellow artist Jo, played by Hong Chau, whom we first meet as she build a swing.

The artist also spent time with Williams to familiarize the actress with her practice. In particular, Lahti groomed Williams for an extended scene, in which Lizzy sculpts a figure, with detailed walkthroughs of her technical process. The result? Lahti approves.

“When she’s doing the sculptures, I feel like it looks like she’s doing them,” she said. “Sometimes you watch people play the piano in movies and you think that’s not right. Nobody wanted that. We wanted her to feel natural and comfortable when she was making these things.

Cynthia Lahti, Betty. Photo courtesy of the artist.

It took Lahti decades to arrive at his particular style of carving. After graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1985, she spent 10 years building her practice on drawing, collages and combinations, her sculptures constructed from found objects. Clay did not become her medium of choice until much later, when she discovered the ease and expressive potential offered by this material. “It’s very forgiving,” she said.

His early ceramic sculptures, however, were executed with precision: “I would spend half an hour on one ear.” Interestingly, she called this perfectionist streak a “hurdle” to overcome to allow her subconscious and her instincts to lead the work.

“I had to know what the figure looked like,” she said, “and then I could abstract it and go crazy with it.”

Cynthia Lahti, don’t slip. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Lahti, now 60, has spent most of her life and career in Portland, where she exhibits primarily and actively – at venues including PDX Contemporary Art, Imogen Gallery and the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art. – since 2000. She also sells her sculptures and works on paper on his site, and after focusing on her sculptural practice throughout the 2020 lockdowns, now hopes to find her way back to creating combine harvesters. It is the life of an artist at work of the genre so deeply observed in To show up.

Lizzy, after all, isn’t just busy creating work for her solo show, but dealing with a myriad of crises that arise along the way, from a broken water heater to dysfunctional family dynamics, and dealing with his boring administrative work at an art school. (shot on location at the former Oregon College of Art and Craft). His personal tribulations bubble up alongside his creative practice in a way that is both sympathetic and comedic.

Cynthia Lahti, T.W.A. twins. Photo courtesy of the artist.

One might indeed be tempted to draw parallels between Lizzy and Lahti, but only because the film’s idiosyncrasies are also fairly universal. According to Lahti, the film illustrates the reality of being an artist, whether it’s holding down a “crappy job” or dealing with a “stupid water heater because you have no money. “. “But,” she added of the film’s ending, “what’s great is that Lizzy’s work shines through.”

Seeing your art on the big screen, however, is the one thing Lahti has no context for. “I don’t understand what’s going on,” she laughs. “It’s not like a grand opening, not like entering a biennale, it’s your job in a film. It’s just really wild.

But if anything, it puts a nice veneer on a decades-long practice. “I survived,” Lahti said, “and here we are.”

To show up hits theaters on April 7.

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