We had the good fortune of connecting with Lisa Nigro and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Lisa, how do you think about risk?
I’ve always been a risk taker, especially with the project proposals I’ve created over the years. I have risked making the art no matter how small the grant. Granting entities usually offer less than I request, so in accepting their offer I know it’s a gamble, one I most certainly was always willing to take. I also risked working alongside people I had never worked with before. Made both friend and foe along my journey of being an artist. It’s definitely been an interesting ride with the good, the bad, and the ugly all rolled into one, with a final outcome of “YuP! We did it!” But, financially I would barely break even, most times I went well into debt in order to see my vision realized.
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
I feel as if I live a double life as an artist. When not immersed in a large scale project and overseeing a crew, I spend much of my time creating assemblages, small metal works, and gouache and acrylic paintings. I guess I’ve been less of a “gallery” type of artist, more interested in creating installations, especially outdoors. I love being and working outdoors. I have so many concepts bubbling inside my brain, many have made it to paper, others are still whirling around in my head. I pray I’m allowed enough time on earth to see many, many more of these creations realized. It’s always the next adventure that I’m excited about. I can’t help it, I am Scorpio Sun, Pisces Moon with Sagittarius Rising. I’m always excited about my next idea and how I’m going to convince some entity out there to give me money to create this giant sculpture, or that installation, or this other piece of art.
Early in my career, I was somewhat of a feminist interested in speaking about women’s issues through my art. I’ve been intrigued with the “telling of story” through the making of things, especially about women and for future generations of women to embrace. Like my Italian grandmother, who designed and fitted gowns for celebrities such as Betty Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, and Joan Crawford in New York City after World War II, I had also dreamed of designing fashionable clothing. So I took up pattern making and sewing while I was living in the Mission District of San Francisco. I transferred my clothing ideas from paper to fabric, and as time went on, the cutting and attaching of two-dimensional pieces to create three-dimensional forms changed to include steel and found objects, and my sewing machine became a MIG welder. I also thought of becoming an architect, some residual of my dad’s engineering mind I suppose. This is what I believe drives me to conceptualize many of the grandiose art pieces I’ve developed to entertain the masses.
At one point, I felt it was important to take a less personal approach to my art practice. Something evolved and I began finding inspiration in researching mythical creatures and their fantastical stories. You know dragons, and more dragons, and then a Phoenix which had to rise from the rust to the dust of Black Rock City, aka Burning Man, and now I’m thinking about a Fire Gryphon and bringing it to Italy. There are deities as well that I wish to build: Inanna as bird woman, Medusa who’s belly covets a forge, and Hekate as a tree woman.
Reminiscing over the years, I would say I am most proud of the installations I produced in the early days of Burning Man. Diana the fertility Goddess as Sundial was my first in the summer of 1999, in which I choreographed and co-produced a performance piece with thirteen women. Diana was my burning woman for the Burning Man, and her show climaxed with burning swords, dancing women, sword swallowing, and then the final exploding and burning of the mud-clad Goddess. Then there was Dahud-Ahes the Mermaid which was stolen and sold for scrap before it could be completed. And Draka the mobile and fire-breathing Dragon, my first born. She will be twenty years old this August, and I am still hopeful that we might resurrect and transform her to her original glory once again.
It’s taken constant perseverance and a lot of working through the disappointment of receiving hundreds of rejections over the years from galleries, art residencies, or art organizations. Yet, somehow I always manage to eventually pull myself up and out of the depression and start the process all over again. So many times I thought of quitting this being an artist thing. But there was no way of getting away from it. Destiny. Fate. Like a religious calling, I’ve never been able to stop trying, even though I was that “starving artist,” something I never wanted to be. Broke and living below poverty level for years. That is what’s gotten me to where I am today. Not sure exactly where here is. Nothing is permanent and there’s always something else to do and another piece of art to work on tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after that, until I’m six feet under I suppose!
I am thankful for the enthusiasm and inspiration which so many volunteers and artists have found while creating art with me. I believe it is this inspiration that I bring out in others that has kept me going, makes me smile. This and the joy that that damn dragon has brought to those who encounter her. That is probably the most influential and motivating factor that has gotten me to where I am today professionally, the joy that an art piece like Draka spreads to the people.
Nothing has been easy for me as an artist. Ever. From writing proposals to raising funds to realizing my visions, it has been constant work. I have an MFA in Sculpture and a BFA in Painting, yet some of the most challenging things I’ve had to master, I did not learn how to face by going to school. I didn’t know I would have to learn to be a multitasker, and that the choice I had made to become an artist would mean juggling a handful of jobs. From, oh ya, the first question I heard after earning my first degree: “So, Lisa, what are you going to do for a living?” As if becoming a professional artist is a “hobby?!” This is the ultimate challenge any American artist faces fresh out of school. Your choice of a career as an artist isn’t viewed as serious as any other profession you might choose. And that is why I’ve dreamed of living in Europe, artist is a profession to them, a worthy and appreciated paying job. Unlike here, everybody wants art for free.
My life and job as a creator of things has not only involved a mastery of artistic skill sets and techniques, I’ve also had to strive to become master of communication, written and verbally, speaking patiently with volunteers, overseeing a crew, creating budgets, timelines, and running fundraisers online. All these other facets of my job as an artist have consumed as much of my time as the actual making of the art. Lessons learned? Wow, so many. Don’t trust truckers or dispatchers. Shipping a large piece of art, always pay Cash on Delivery. Pick the people you work with carefully, few is better than too many especially if you’re taking them to Burning Man. Bring no virgin burners with you on crew to Burning Man. Most important lesson of all, never accept a grant offer which is less than the amount you actually budgeted for. I’ve taken this risk over and over. Now I know, demand more. If there were something I would say to the world about my experience as an artist, it would be that I hope the future holds more equality for women in the arts. There have been so many times I’ve seen the road paved much more easily for my male peers. It has been frustrating to watch men climb the ladder of success in America, even though the majority of artists leaving our educational institutes with art degrees are women. Men still hold favor, they get the gigs, and they get the money. It’s 2020, not the best year, and yes, it is still a man’s world, especially in the arts. I want to see this change.
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
The Menil, probably my most favorite museum in all of America because of its Surreal collection, and of course, the Rothko Chapel right next door. A day of picture taking amongst mosaics created by over 200 artists in Smither Park. The Science Museum is a must. Eating and drinking – my favorites are JINYA Ramen Bar, Alabama Ice House and the taco truck across the street, Axelrad Beer Garden, Notsuoh, Under the Radar Brewery, the Continental Club and the little bar next door, Cottonwood, and Onion Creek. And for one last round of art, check out Project Row Houses where Black Lives Matter.
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
Thankful for Flynn Mauthe and the Dept. of Public Works at Burning Man- its organizers and the many volunteers; and “LadyBee” Kristine Kirsten for being supportive of my work as a female artist participating at Burning Man. The Orange Show Center for Visionary Art and Houston Art Car Museum, and Marc Declercq for helping create the opportunity for bringing Draka the Dragon to the community at Art Car Parade, Houston. And finally to the art professors who supported my work while attending graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin- Margo Sawyer, Stephen Daly, and performance artist Linda Montano.
Other: https://www.patreon.com/dragonmistress http://lisanigro.com/
Dustin Gann Georges Benoit Dan Adams David Hill