Sculptor, painter, writer, l.t. dougherty has been creating painting and sculpture from an early age. A graduate of Bealart and Ontario College of Art, her myth cabinets have been exhibited across Ontario since 1990 and she has works in private collections across North America. Coining the phrase “myth cabinets” in 1992 to describe her mixed media assemblage works created mostly in boxes, she creates her work from ‘garbage’ and recycled materials. Her recent work incorporates painting, mixed media and collage.
1. You are a sculptor, painter, writer. How did you get to where you are right now as an artist?
My mother was an artist. My dad was a thwarted engineer, a brilliant man. I started painting when I was eight. My mom pretty much said that I came out of the womb collecting garbage. One of her favourite stories is that she used to follow me around the house as soon as I was crawling by the tipped over garbage cans. I was always looking for stuff. Pieces of embroidery thread, spools, pieces of wood. My dad had this amazing shop that was just stuffed to the rafters with wood and I was always picking up his off cuts, picking up stuff off the floor and making stuff with it. So apparently, I started very young. I taught myself how to paint from the backs of Reader's Digest. I had learned somewhere in a book about the grid method. I would draw grids on the backs of Reader's Digest and then I would try and repaint famous paintings in watercolour. I was very interested in art from a very early age. I was a very determined child. When I was 11, I had made up my mind about what I was going to do as a career. I was going to be an artist, a writer, a horse trainer or an actress. I did some time in theatre... that was not for me. Unfortunately, an accident with a horse, ended my horse training career, so artist and writer were my other two choices. I thought, why do I just have to be one?
When I was 16, I went to a school in London called H.B. Beal, which was a technical school, but they had an art program that was college level art in a high school setting. The teachers were amazing. It was phenomenal. We were doing lithograph on stone at 16. I learned four different types of printing, other than lithograph in one semester. I went originally with the idea of becoming a painter. That was my original goal, but I was derailed. I had a very specific way that I was trying to paint. In my second year, during a critique I had a painting teacher tell me that I should give up being a painter and go into sculpture or photography because I was never going to be a painter. I had actually forgotten about this, until someone who was in the class with me reminded me because it had upset her so much. I was 17, so I took what he said to heart and went into sculpture. I have no idea what my stuff would look like now if I had stayed with painting. At the same time, that move of going into sculpture connected me with a teacher named John Krygsman. He was my first sculpture teacher. He was brilliant. I was a very difficult student and I was at a very difficult age. I pushed a lot of boundaries back then. John was able to work with me in a way that pushed me to keep going and to push boundaries in a good way. I still consider him to be one of my strongest influences. Even though we work in completely different ways, he was one of the most influential people in my early career. I probably wouldn't be doing art if it wasn't for him.
Then I went to Fanshawe. I was there for a year. I took Basic Business because you had to have a career to fall back on. I switched from Basic Business to Art. I did three years at Beal, I was way ahead of most of the kids so I was bored out of my skull, but they wouldn't give me advanced standing because of some weird political thing. There was a sculpture teacher there, Pat Thibert, who was the second person to have a major influence on my art career. He and John had a lot in common. He taught me a very important lesson, how to stand up for my work.
Then I went to OCAD. That was the next part of my art career. I went into the Sculpture Installation program. It was a brand new program. It was interesting. I spent a lot of time in the studios at OCAD. I found mould making and plastics and the wood shop. At that point, I was pretty solidly convinced that I was a sculptor and that I couldn't draw or paint. In my first year at OCAD, I had no OSAP. I was living on ramen. It was brutal. I had a part-time job. I worked, I didn't party, I was nose to the grindstone. I had no money for supplies. I mostly picked through what everyone else left behind and worked with that. One of the things about Toronto in the 90's (especially in The Annex) is that the garbage was fabulous! The garbage that is out there now is nowhere near as good as the shit we were getting in the 90's. I would find boxes that were made of real wood with box corners and dovetails, and amazing pieces of furniture. On garbage nights, I would walk up and down the streets on The Annex and I would see garbage and drag it home. That's what I would make art with. I came across a bunch of wooden boxes. I started finding boxes and cabinets all over the place. I tried to figure out what I would do with this stuff. I started to arrange things in them. I don't know what it was that drove me to do this. I took these pieces in for critique and my classmates would say that it was really cool and that it reminded them of Joseph Cornell. I had no idea who they were talking about. I got so fed up with them saying that because I didn't know who he was and I had never seen anyone do that type of work before. Finally one day I got so fed up that I went to the library and asked the librarian for books on Joseph Cornell. There were about eight books. I opened the first one and I said "oh my God". I remember searching the book trying to find out when he died so that I could rule out reincarnation. It was so fucking creepy. It was mind blowing looking at his work and thinking that this was what I was trying to do, and I'd never seen it before. I signed out all of the books and devoured them. That was a huge influence on my work. Suddenly I had a kindred spirit. Once you understand how a Cornell works, the harder you try to make something that's like him, the further away it is. I was also doing mould making. I wanted to have people in my work, but I couldn't make them as realistic as I wanted to, so I learned how to cast them. So that was college.
I got out of college, I moved back to London with the guy I was with at the time. I had a studio and did some mould making. I did a ton of cafe shows and then more gallery stuff. I never really called myself a painter until around 1997. Someone had gifted me a box of oils. At that point, I was not happy with acrylics. I taught myself how to paint with oils. It just gave me so much more than the acrylics ever did. Now I paint. In fact, I paint more than I sculpt now, but I still do both.
As far as writing goes, I started writing poetry when I was 10, 11. I wrote a lot as a teenager. A lot of that was published. I won a lot of writing contests. In 1995, that was when I really burst out. I published a book of short stories called The Secret Heart. I did some poetry. I haven't done much in the way of writing for a while, but who knows, it may show up again, anything can happen. I have a novella that I wrote but never published. Only three people have ever read it. It needs some serious rewrites. It's hiding in a box.
It's been a long weird wild ride. When I look back I think wow, that was strange.
2. Do you think it is important to have a formal education in order to be an artist?
That's an interesting question. No. I know a lot of artists that are self-taught that have never had any kind of college or anything and they are fantastic. I had the benefits of a formal education, but the thing that helped me was the studios. I learned a lot from the teachers, but I learned a lot more from just working and having access to the studios. Technique was really important for me to learn. The physical engineering of how to do stuff.
If there's a core aesthetic not there, then you can't teach somebody how to see. If it is there innately, there's nothing you can do to stop it. Art to me is a way of seeing. Children are born with that. Some people lose it as adults and some people don't. If you don't, you have a much better chance. If that's beaten out of you, bred out of you, stomped out of you, ruled out of you, or something like that, by the time you are an adult you will never believe that you can actually do it. I think having a formal education is great, but it's not necessary. I think it's far more important to be surrounded by people who get it than to go to college. An arts education (the one I had anyway) is far more about who you are surrounded by because you absorb your influences from all around you. If you are surrounded by people who are doing the same sort of thing that you are, that in itself will help with your creativity. A piece of paper is a piece of paper is a piece of paper. I don't think that having a piece of paper makes you an artist by any stretch of the imagination.
3. Describe a typical day for you.
Right now, I'm a working stiff as well as an artist. A typical day now is not the same as it used to be, that's for sure. I get up, I go to work and then I come home and make dinner, spend some time with my cats, do dishes. If the urge grabs me, I will work at night. I find out soon if I'm going to be in the Exnovation show. Hopefully, I am. I have already started to build panels for that. On the weekends, I usually try to work. I watch Netflix while I work now. It's kind of comforting. It's like having someone there, but I don't have to pay attention to them. A lot of the stuff I do, I'm painting layers. I will paint a layer, then I will watch some Netflix while it dries. It keeps me engaged in the painting process because I'm not moving from the chair. When I'm really working I can go for hours without moving, which is not good for my back. I get super intensely focused. That is part of the reason why at this point I bring most of my practice to the weekend. Otherwise, 3 am rolls around and I'm still painting or putting pieces of wood together and I'll just keep going and going until I fall down. That's my typical working style.
4. Who or what inspires you?
I've talked about some of my major inspirations. Cornell was a big one. René Magritte's work was hugely influential when I was young. I still find his visual riddles to be so intriguing.
There are certain books that have been key. "Little Big" by John Crowley. It's a brilliant, brilliant book. I've always wanted to build that house that they talk about in the book. It's had a huge influence on my work in the way it talks about concepts like time and memory. Another one is "Thinking About Magritte" by Kate Stern. The writing style just floored me. Neil Gaiman's "Sandman" is a big one, Neil Gaiman in general. Douglas Coupland and William Gibson.
There are certain movies that have influenced my work. Wings of Desire, most of Wim Wender's stuff. Another one is Blade Runner.
I've always thought that there is no real garbage. There are only things that we think we can't use anymore. I use things that other people would consider garbage. Even though it may not be useful for its original purpose, if nothing else, it's useful as a symbol. I'm attracted to symbolic language. Symbolic language is key to my work. I'm not remotely religious, but at the same time, I'm incredibly superstitious.
Music. My musical taste is quite eclectic. I do really like a good lyric.
5. How do you get clients for your artwork?
Sometimes I meet people through shows. I have a couple of people who dedicatedly collect my work. These days I seem to be meeting more and more clients online. It's difficult with my work to show it online as a flat image. It's 3D, there are doors and drawers. Right now I'm having a November art sale.
6. What has been the highlight of your career as an artist so far?
There have been three that to me have been major events. The first one would be the performance art pieces that I did around 1998-2001. I did a performance piece that was about PTSD. I had a diagnosis at that point, so I was able to understand a lot more of the thoughts and the images that I was working with. It had more of a context to me. I did a piece about what had made me an artist. There was an audio component, but the main component was a large robe that was covered in paint splatters. There was glow in the dark paint amongst the paint splatters. The robe itself was suspended in the air behind me on fish wire. I came out on stage wrapped head to toe in these bandages and nothing else. The process of the piece was me unwrapping the bandages from my feet to my head. I said my six lines and backed up under the robe and stood up in it. As I stood there, the lights went out and all you saw was this robe of stars and there's no person there. That was a major piece for me and one of the few performance things that I've ever done. That was a big one.
The webcam portraits was a major milestone for me because it was the series that finally convinced me that I was as much a painter as a sculptor. That was huge for me. I proved to myself that I really could do it. That also led to the third highlight, which was completing a major piece that I almost never show to anyone. It's a rarely seen, closely guarded self-portrait called "River Child" (I was honoured that I was one of the few people that she has shown it to. It really is an amazing piece).
7. Have you had any career disappointments as an artist? If yes, how did you overcome them?
I've had a lot of career disappointments. I don't know that I have overcome them. Most of the career disappointments I've had have been fairly small. I'm not a super ambitious person, so I'm not always shooting for the moon anyway. That's not something I really do. I was more ambitious when I was younger. Most of the goals that I had were not necessarily career goals because most of the career goals that I had, I've achieved. I wanted to be an artist and a writer and an actress and I did all those. Those were my big three. By the time I was 12 or 13, I had made up my mind that I was going to go to Beal, which I did. I graduated from there. I was going to go to OCA and I did that. I graduated. I was going to be a professional artist and that's what I've pretty much done. I've hit most of those goals. I haven't really set any goals for myself since then. It'd be nice to be in the National Gallery. That would be a nice goal. As far as disappointments, I don't really know. Career is important, but to me, it's more about the work. It's always been more about the work. I mean, selling out a show, that would be a fantastic career goal. I try to keep my career goals more manageable. It's hard to be disappointed if that's not what you're about.
8. What is your dream art project?
I can actually tell you about a dream art project that truly came from a dream. I had this dream of an art show that I did and the gallery was in a barn. It was a barn that had been redone as a giant gallery. I was walking through this art show and as I was walking through I realized that all of the work was mine. I made all of the art. The barn was completely full of art. I saw this one piece that led to me dreaming of these other pieces that were a series of people that had influenced me. They were tribute pieces. One of them was David Byrne. It was a giant wooden slidey puzzle of David Byrne's face. It was interactive. There was one for Joni Mitchell and one for Tori Amos. Most of them were musicians. It was like an eight-foot square slidey puzzle. I know exactly how to build it too, it'd just be hard to get the supplies, find the time and I don't have a studio space and workshop to build it.
I have so many ideas for so many huge pieces that I would love to build. I know I can physically build them, but I would need serious space, serious time, tools, some money. If I had the right backer...oh my God, what I would do!
I've always wanted to do a tarot deck and a children's book. I've always wanted to write a play. I wrote a general kind of outline for a play that came from a dream.
9. Do you have any advice for any emerging or aspiring artists?
That's a very dangerous question. The kind of things that you want to say are not necessarily the things you should say because not everyone thinks the way that I do. If I had to give advice to young artists, I would say experiment, document everything because you never know what's going to be important at a later date, focus on what's really important.
It is unbelievably difficult to make a career as an artist. The people who do, half of them are insane and the other half are just super lucky. For every one that succeeds, there's 150 that fail, that never do it. That's sad. It's just one of those things about a career in the arts. You have to be super crazy and super dedicated to make it your entire career because it is absolutely heartbreaking, but if you do it, you'll never be bored.
10. What's next for you?
I'm hoping for the Exnovation show and I'm working on a show for the Kitchener Public Library for September 2017. I've got almost a year to prepare. I live in the moment as far as shows are concerned. The September one is kind of far out and I'm okay with that. I'll just see what other shows come up.
Interview by Glodeane Brown
All photos provided by the artist