Libby Paloma is an interdisciplinary artist originally from San Francisco, California, currently based in New York. Paloma’s work has been exhibited at El Museo Del Barrio in New York, NY, the Wassaic Project, SOMArts in San Francisco, and the Dorsky Museum in New Paltz, where she received the 2019 Hudson Valley Artist Purchase Award. Paloma has also recently been an Artist-in-Residence at the Vermont Studio Center in Johnson, VT, the Wassaic Project, in Wassaic, NY and SPACE Gallery, Portland, ME. To see additional works by Paloma visit the exhibitions Fertile Ground and New Growth: Dreaming in the Plant Realm at SPACE Gallery, Portland, ME through December 31, 2021 as well as There Can Be No Instructions at The Knockdown Center, Queens, NY in 2022.
Let’s get started talking about your new installation Fertile Ground and New Growth: Dreaming In the Plant Realm at SPACE Gallery.
I’m so excited about this piece, it’s a brand new project. I was working in a way that was really different from anything that I’ve ever done before in terms of scale and use of materials. All of my work comes from a very personal place, that’s where I draw inspiration, either directly from something I’m grappling with or wanting to process. A personal story I’m thinking about or a relationship, or parts of my identity that I want to investigate further. This project engaged with something I wanted to think through more. It came out of this really long period of time where I was grappling with my personal health recovering from Long-COVID. I found myself really unable to make any objects or move much at all because I was having severe neurological pain. I was bedridden for a long time and had a difficult time just generally moving because the pain and fatigue were so severe. That went on from March 2020 when I got COVID, until I got the vaccine in April 2021. It was an extremely long period of wondering what’s going on, you ask yourself a lot of existential questions when you deal with a chronic illness that is so incredibly all-consuming, and changes your concept of self and life. So much so that you really do have to, in a lot of ways, go outside yourself to find pleasure or joy in some capacity. In that way I found myself engaging with plant life and nature to access that part of myself, that would drive my engagement with something that was outside of me that I could really see. I became inspired by the resilience of plants, especially certain plants in certain circumstances, watching plant life through seasons, the slowness of them but also the energy they preserve. It became a fascination of mine that I hadn’t engaged with in any form before. As I gained my mobility, it also happened to be the time when I was invited to do this large scale work at SPACE. I was gaining back my mobility in a really rapid way post-vaccine, all I could keep turning my mind to was the beauty of plant life, and I could continue to engage with that in a complete other way.
Are there specific species represented in the installation?
Yes! When I was struggling with cognition and mobility there were times where I could push myself to get out of the apartment, it would usually be to sit in nature, which was the best thing I could do for myself in the pandemic and in the difficult physical state I was in. In slowing down that much and being that still, I took notice of plants that I had never really looked at in a meaningful way before. I was getting up to an almost microscopic level with these plants. It became like a mindful practice, zooming in on these plants; and I started to wonder about them, wonder about what made these certain plants thrive in different areas. I got close with these plants but I also thought about the ways in which they existed in their ecosystems. I learned how the plants I would see stay or reappear, I would think ‘wow they’re so resilient to exist in these life cycles and seasonal cycles’ and the most resilient ones were of course the native plants to the area. I wondered about what that meant for the animal life around them, and saw that there were all these native plants that were so incredibly connected but different from each other. I’m relatively new to the East Coast, it’s been about five years. I continue to be endlessly fascinated with seasons. So coming in even closer and wondering how these plants engage with the seasonal cycles too. I found a particular fascination with Pokeweed, specifically because of that fuchsia stem. I had never seen anything like that, it’s so vibrant. Their berries are so vibrant and multicolored. They definitely exist in California but I had never seen anything like that, especially because my upbringing was very urban. I grew up in cities, San Francisco and then as an adult San Francisco and Oakland. I didn’t have times in my life where I was communing with nature to this degree. Pokeweed I found to be wonderful and beautiful, I know some people find it to be a nuisance because it grows really rapidly. That became interesting to me too because I was finding so much beauty and feeling a cosmic communication with this plant life and then other people were like ’ugh I hate Pokeweed, it makes the birds poop everywhere’. The six foot Pokeweed in my installation that’s stretching itself in a really powerful and playful way is such a vibrant focal piece. When I started thinking about this project, I realized there are a lot of shared native plant life between Maine and upstate New York where I was staying in the Hudson Valley. In my research I got curious about those and ended up making soft sculpture representations of plants that would be in community with Pokeweed, that was Witch Hazel and Yellow Lady Slipper Orchid (on the left of the installation) and on the right are Dragon’s Mouth Orchids. Turkey tail mushrooms are represented too.
That’s so interesting because I don’t think of orchids as being wild in the Northeast.
They are! They can be really small. We think of orchids that are large and in domestic spaces, but sometimes they’re itty bitty.
So let’s talk about scale, as you are saying these are plants that exist so small in nature and you created the larger than life soft sculptures of them, which is also a big difference from your beadwork and assemblages that are on such a micro level and incorporating miniatures. Talk about that range in working in scale in both materials and range of scale of the physical flower to the fabric representation.
There is something about miniatures that brings me so much joy, I think it brings a lot of people joy just in the playfulness of that sort of scale. I think that’s why my usage of miniatures in my assemblage works, the element of joy and fascination with that scale. On the other hand there’s an aspect of joy to something that is blown up, larger than life, that points to playfulness. The large scale also came out of my curiosity to get really close. It mirrors my urge to be in nature to that degree, in the slowest way possible. Being face to face with a fascination and curiosity and communion, in admiration rather than voyeurism. I literally ‘play’ with scale and there’s a joyful quality to playing with these materials in this way.
As you were experiencing and navigating Long-COVID, did you find the seasons you were living in to have any kind of rhythm with a chronic illness?
Totally. And the question makes me wonder if my experience would have been or felt different if there were no seasons. My bed that I spent all these months in looked out of a window that had a tree right outside of it. I felt really connected to this particular tree, and being so engaged with the tree I noticed the little changes that would take place every day. This tree was doing something different every day. The changes it was going through often made me think about how my body must also be going through so many changes that I just can’t see, that I can’t understand. Like I can see how this tree is evolving and growing, and in this other way how I trust in the changes of the season and how it is existing on it’s own and growing or attempting to grow with ease or difficulty- I’ll never know- but similarly maybe I could feel myself fighting, an urge to grow out of difficult circumstances, of this disease not leaving my body, of my immune system not being able to fight. The nakedness of this tree in winter and wondering about it, is it struggling? Is it vulnerable, is it ok? With the curiosity that I brought to the seasons and plants that I assume are surviving but they clearly also don’t have any trouble. Maybe they’re just existing, maybe that’s just my human projection. Sometimes that helped me escape and just let my body be and let my process be what it needed to be. In a similar way the curiosity of the season would help me be a little more open to my experience and maybe lean towards mindfulness a little more.
The last day of your work on this installation fell on Dia de la Muertas, which I know has been a part of your creative practice as a Mexican-American artist. Was there any internal or external overlap between this installation and Dia de la Muertas?
Oh yeah. There is a way when I’m making work I feel a very close connection to my ancestors. When I’m making in a flow state it feels outside of clock time, outside of my usual thought processes; it’s really outside of a particular cognition. It’s a space that feels spiritual and related to spirit and joy and almost dreamlike. I can really feel my ancestral support and connection in those times. The ability to do this large project and have residency at SPACE- I was lucky enough to be in residence right before so I got a jump start on the project and had a lot of time to engage in that state. While I didn’t have time to do an ofrenda, I felt like I was in direct connection for so much of the time in a really wonderful way. They are always with me and I can always feel a connection, but in that creative space in particular. I feel so tender in a good way, I’m so happy with how it all turned out.
In looking through your portfolio I was really struck by Club Kid Corazon. Can you talk a little bit about that piece?
All of the Por Vidx series, the altar installations, were done in collaboration with my spouse Ace Lehner who is an artist and a scholar. That particular project we were bringing together a lot of elements of kitsch, of craft, different aesthetics around queer culture and things you see historically in queer spaces, as well as aesthetics that I am connected to and my Mexican-American culture and upbringing are tied to. The ways these aesthetics come together often overlap directly in the altar installations. Typically we are asked to do these around Dia de la Muertos. There’s a ton of fabric flowers, I made all of those pom poms surrounding the tinfoil, which harkened back to Andy Warhol’s use of tinfoil. There are little soft sculpture elements we made together of corn offerings, corn is an important ingredient in a lot of Mexican dishes. We played different music in that space, so the disco ball and the vibe was dark and moody, and maybe felt like walking into a queer bar. Some of the objects on the altar were found, like the crystal bowls, that resemble something religious in nature, instead there was glitter and sequins in the bowls. So while these might remind you of a religious experience, it’s also about playing with and subverting that expectation.
You have a background and creative practice in comedy too.
I’ve been doing male drag for a really long time. I’ve been doing this drag persona since 2005, his name is Nacho. He is a road dog, but falls in love really easily, he’s a poet, and has a love/hate relationship with Johnny Cash.
Right before lockdown I was doing full comedic sets and I made a video of A Day In the Life of Nacho exploring what this character does when he is alone. The sets that I do involve lip sync, which is directly related to drag tradition, which is irreverent, and typically found in queer spaces. So there’s a certain amount of sexuality there sometimes, or naughty jokes. When I started to do longer performances I would read his poetry which, to him, is very serious but to others is humorous. His poetry is about his muscles, or love making or the road.
Is Nacho inspired by people you have known?
His facial hair in particular is very related to the mustaches currently and historically worn by my more masculine family members. His hair changes, sometimes it’s in a ponytail or in braids, his aesthetics are quite American Western in nature. This pseudo-cowboy style has such American masculine cultural significance to me and my California upbringing.
What creative projects do you have coming up?
I will be returning to New York to finish my MFA at Parsons in fall 2022. I’m excited to have a little time at home after many months of being in residence, to take a little time and see what happens next. I have a show at the Knockdown Center in Queens, it’s all Mexican-American artists, curated by Tanya Gayer in 2022.
Any critiques you want to express?
I think it’s time to start giving artists more money for their work. So let me get into a gripe here, this is something I think about a lot. As artists, a lot of places wouldn’t exist without our work. You can’t have a museum or gallery or residency without artists doing what they do, and creating what they’re creating or performing. I often think about how it is unfortunate how funding is allocated. When I think about museum administration, or administration in general, they can maybe make a living whereas artists without generational wealth have to figure out ways to make money or take on labor that doesn’t feed their creativity, or be in poverty, when we should really be better protected. I think about some countries in Europe that support the artist and the artist’s mind by providing funding just to live as artists because ultimately artists are the culture makers, they are pushing interesting and important ideas and the imaginary forward. I would love it if there was an urge to protect the artists and in that way extend a way to make a living especially for those of us that are considered emerging. It is still true that there is unequal pay for artists that are from historically marginalized communities and there’s often not nearly enough transparency around money allocation. There’s so much cloaked or hidden information. It feels unfair at times, as someone who’s attempting to make a living in this creative field. It is such a direct devaluing of culture making, culture extension, and critical thought. Don’t we need more of that, instead of homogeneity, which is where corporate control would like us to be? Artists and creative people are trying to push against that, don’t we need more of that? Don’t we want to support and grow culturally? I want to live in a society and culture that supports people who maintain critical engagement versus whatever structures that seek to uphold the patriarchy, the binary, and white supremacy. More money for artists.
Thank you for saying all that.
Header image: Carolyn Wachnicki, Busy Bees image: Julia Whyel