Monday, July 16, 2012

Better living through chemistry? Lise Melhorn-Boe's artist's books make you think twice

... there’s  a mindset of, 'I don’t want to know this.'”

 Now that her show, Endangered, is over in North Bay (where, incidentally, I’m moving next month), Kingston artist Lise Melhorn-Boe was free to chat about her work. 

HS-Your show at the W. K. P. Kennedy Gallery focuses on intense subject matter, like the recent increase in deformed penises in babies attributed to chemical exposure and the positive correlation between homelessness and multiple chemical sensitivities. I swear my eyes started stinging right after reading your Toxic Face Book, which describes the toxins found in common cosmetics. What kinds of reactions have you received in relation to this body of work?

LMB- I have had a lot of positive feedback. Even people who thought they knew a great deal about our environment told me they had learned something. However, many people do think it’s depressing. I thought I was presenting the material in a lighthearted enough way that it would take the edge off the negativity. People are very interested but they’re not gaga over it like they have been for some of my other work, especially my work about women’s lives where they could really relate and wanted to share their own stories with me. With this body of work, there’s  a mindset of, “I don’t want to know this.” Some of the information is very scary. It’s maybe easier just not to know, so you don’t have to worry about it and you don’t have to make choices, but art (or some art) is about making people think and that’s what I’ve always tried to do.

HS- In your artist books, it often feels like you could keep turning the pages forever to read more and more dire statistics about the environment. Gypsy Moth was such a lovely read because the woman who almost died after being dosed with pesticide designed to kill gypsy moth caterpillars gets better at the end. How do you strike a balance between presenting dark subject matter and giving people hope that they can change their ways and make a difference?

LMB- As I said, I was coming at it [the subject matter] from a lighthearted angle. (Laughs). It’s an interesting question and hope is important. Because I was so overwhelmed by negative information, I wasn’t feeling hopeful myself so it was hard to put that in the work. To be honest, sometimes I am glad I am getting old. I’d be really depressed and angry if I were in my twenties, knowing what is ahead of us. At this point in my life, I’m more resigned and cynical.

HS-In terms of making a difference, you don’t just walk the walk. Not only do you make art about garbage, but you refuse to use plastic bags to line your own garbage can, you pick up litter if it can be recycled, and I remember at White Water Gallery, you would save up styrofoam that couldn’t be recycled locally so you could recycle it when you went “down south” as the people of North Bay say. Have you always been so environmentally conscious?

LMB- I made my first environmental project for a Man and Society class in high school when I was seventeen, I think. (What a sexist name! They later changed it to Society, Challenge and Change). It was a collaged book on pollution. So yes, I’ve always been concerned about the environment and involved in environmental groups. This is a timely question because it struck me today that I’ve been riding a bicycle for 50 years.

HS- Today’s protests in Ottawa by scientists angry about the federal government’s cuts to funding for environmental protection underscore the precarious state of the environment. If you could have the attention of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, what would you say to him?

LMB- There’s a term, “precautionary principle,” which posits that it’s better to be safe than sorry. At the moment, anyone can come up with a product and market it and later say, “Oops, that was dangerous.” As a nation, we should think strongly about what materials we’re introducing into our lives rather than trying to mop up disasters in retrospect... and I’d tell him to forget about the tar sands and to come up with a different plan.

HS- Text is very prominent in your work. Which tends to come first: text or image?

LMB- In the past I would have said the text, definitely. When I was working with women’s stories, the story birthed the form of the piece. I interviewed women and used questionnaires, but for this body of work, the responses I got from people were very negative and they weren’t good stories. People were overwhelmed by their health issues and I was not inspired visually by their stories. A story has to have a visual component to transform it into a visual piece. I ended up doing more research in the library than usual, so a lot of the text is factual as opposed to narrative. Maybe that’s why Gypsy Moth stands out. It has a beginning, middle and end, and she [the subject] told it well. Pain started with the text, and in Happy Memories, those are all stories from actual people.

Garbage [in which she collected garbage for seven weeks—save for organic waste—and displayed one week’s worth in each of the seven copies in the edition, each stored in a tiny, adorable garbage can] started with the heavy duty plastic mesh bags which came from the only organic produce that was available to me in North Bay. I thought it was so incongruous. Since the store refused to take them back, I decided I had to do something with them. 

With this whole body of work, I was thinking of the environment as a topic, so I was more aware than usual about my materials. I recycled materials and I recycled ideas. Toxic Face Book uses a leftover cast of a face from a feminist piece called Colour Me Dutiful that was too thin to use at the time. What's For Dinner? uses a similar format to two earlier books—I have often made work about food. And I've used clothing a lot too, in the past, so the baby clothes in Endangered Species and the paper doll clothes in Toxic Kids fit right into my oeuvre. Endangered Species uses PVC connectors I found while trying to find a sturdy way to construct a large tunnel book in the shape of an ice hut for Ice Follies, an art installation festival in North Bay where artists use ice huts on the lake for installations. I was initially planning a piece about the projection that Lake Nipissing [in North Bay] wouldn’t have ice in twenty years, which would be about sixteen years from now. Then the idea morphed because PVC is a really toxic material to create and it seemed perfect to talk about the effect of toxins on babies.

HS-You have an inventive approach to materials, like using a transparent overlay of fabric to represent cheese on a pizza in the book, What’s for Dinner? Do you have fun coming up with these visuals?

LMB- Oh, I have a lot of fun! For me, because it was so much fun making this work that it overshadowed the negative content, I was taken aback when people focused on the negative content over the visual presentation.

HS- You’ve made pop-up books for a long time before your work took an environmental turn. Do you find this format has a different resonance with this subject matter?

LMB- I’ve always used it for its playful character so it was deliberate to pair some of these painful topics with this format to affect the tone. Pop-ups are fun; I teach them to kids in classrooms. I was trying to add an element of playfulness [with pop-ups in this body of work].

HS- What’s it like to make explicitly personal work like Body Map, where you show the interplay between health problems and the environment, with text overlaying  a fairly sizeable photograph of your naked body?

LMB- Just recently, a woman I know who has had breast cancer told me I was very brave and I was surprised because I’d never really thought of it that way. I came up with the idea for Body Map when I did a residency at Queen’s University. I thought about approaching a student photographer but I chose to ask my husband to take the photos even though he’s not a photographer. I’ve been to nudist colonies but I wasn’t comfortable stripping in front of just anyone. Maybe there’s something different about being photographed than walking on the beach. I think I might have been hesitant to do something like that before I had cancer but having had a mastectomy, I don’t feel quite as sexual as I once did, so it’s less revealing personally. Besides, once the image is out there, I’m separated from it.

No Safe Levels also shows my naked body but I took artistic license with it. It’s a pop-up and technically, I needed the right breast to pop up because it was on the fold. That’s actually the one that was cut off, but I just switched them. It’s much more abstract [than Body Map] and not everyone realizes it’s my body.

HS- Can you comment on one of the final images in Breast Cancer Journal  in which a figure floats through the sky, separated from but seemingly drawn to, the earth?

LMB- It was the result of a meditation, something that came to me in a vision. I think it’s me but why I’m floating out there I can’t remember. (Turns the page). This one I had a vision of in a winter solstice ceremony. I saw my breasts on fire. (Turns the page). And this is me holding up my child self and coming back up to the light. (Turns the page). I’m holding myself and mothering myself. It [making this journal] was all very positive. I debated about using text in this piece but I decided I liked the mystery. It wasn’t actually intended to be an art piece. A few people I showed the images to found them powerful, so I thought, “Why not?” In a way, this is more revealing [than works like Body Map]: this is my naked psyche or naked soul rather than my naked body. 

HS- Your earlier work was very feminist. Is the relationship between our health and the environment a feminist issue in your opinion?

LMB- It pertains to everyone but because women have more body fat than men and toxins reside in body fat, in that sense, these toxins affect women more, so that makes it a feminist issue. Also, women carry the next generation and they say the best way to detox is to breastfeed, but that means passing the toxins on to your baby. It was something I worried about when I breastfed. (Looks at her son who coincidentally appeared in the stairwell at this moment). For those reasons, it’s a really important issue for women.

HS- Lastly, are there other environmental artists you admire?

LMB- This is going back a long time, but I was always very moved by Ana Mendieta’s work. The way she put her body in the environment—there was such a strong connection between her and the earth. I suppose that’s essentialist, stressing the connection between women and the earth, and it annoys some people, but if I had to choose a camp, that’s the one I’d fall into.

For images, see Transformer Press

This interview took place on July 11, 2012 at Lise’s home.


  1. This is great!
    It was amazing to have tea with the two of you tonight. I wish I had read this interview before we had our visit - it would have led the conversation onto an entirely different path.

    I need to go back now and re-read this more closely. I am so excited to be able to comment here and to have met you Heather.

  2. Hi Judy,

    Yes, it was fortuitous bumping into you with Lise! I enjoyed checking out Judy's Journal. Hopefully our paths will cross again now that we'll be in closer proximity.