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Art & Sexual Violence: A conversation with Lily Lee

Idaho sculptor Lily Lee uses her art to challenge dominant historical narratives of the American West. In her solo exhibition at the Nightingale Gallery, The Great Basin Murders, the artist presents a suite of five handmade weavings each referencing an anonymous Jane Doe found dead in the Great Basin region between 1972 – 1997. Evolving from a lineage of feminist craft, this series confronts notions of presence and absence, using the formal language of abstraction to memorialize the victim. Gallery curator Scott Gleeson speaks with the artist about her motivations for creating this series and about the role of art in promoting social change. 


The Great Basin Murders (re)presents a series of unsolved cold cases from 1972-1997, yet despite the historical subject matter, the work resonates with contemporary public conversations around violence against women, such as the #MeToo movement.Tell us about the contemporary sources or ideas that inspired this series of weavings.

My inspiration for this series comes from diverse works of contemporary art. For instance, Stephen Chalmer’s photographic series, Unmarked, similarly addresses homicide and its connection to the sites where victims were found. I am very moved by Erin M. Riley’s handwoven tapestries that capture contemporary moments of young women in compromising situations from social media. She is contrasting the immediacy of image sharing in today’s world with the slowness of the weaving process and the historic nature of traditional tapestries to look critically at how that can impact women. I appreciate the subtle an unexpected ways that Rosemarie Trockel’s work challenges expectations of feminity. I am very excited about Gabriella Loeb’s recent body of work where sensuously handled satin and lace ruffles embellished with pearls are protected by overbuilt Plexiglas barriers to communicate the idea of “look, but don’t touch.”


This project offers a timely, alternative look at how a culture of violence has shaped myths of the American West. Could you elaborate on your work’s relationship to this mythology of the western landscape?

I am originally from Pullman, Washington and have spent most of my life in the West, including the last five years in Boise, Idaho. When I travel to other parts of the country and tell someone where I am from their first reaction is almost always about the landscape: ”It’s so beautiful out there.” The reaction never seems to address the people. Nobody has ever said, “You must be very self-reliant” or anything like that. Yet, I notice that with other parts of the country the qualities of the people are acknowledged: Southern hospitality, salt of the earth Midwesterners, etc. In my work, I want to insert a little bit of the people of the West while also considering the prevalent vastness of the land. For instance, the sites where the victims of The Great Basin Murders were found are simultaneously foreboding yet beautiful. Their proximity to freeways makes them mundane. These sites are placeless and timeless, but punctuated by this moment of violence.


Faith Wilding’s Crocheted Environment (Womanhouse, CalArts, 1972) is probably the most iconic work of feminist fiber art in America. Second-wave feminism and art from this period have been widely criticised for limiting advocacy to the freedoms of middle-class white women. Describe the ways your art incorporates messaging from a more inclusive intersectional feminism.

As an artist, I use my practice to better understand the experiences and perspectives of others. By making work about people that are outside my realm of experience I hope to pay my respects to the victims and increase the visibility of the injustices they suffered.


Your work strikes a balance between abstract form and politically charged subject matter. Describe your relationship to the political and the role politics might play in art today.

I find that I am always the most drawn to subject matter that is polemical in some way. I am interested in using artwork as a vehicle to talk about uncomfortable truths, to confront stigmas, to expose inequities, and to challenge social norms. As an artist it is the type of risk-taking that I find the most exhilarating. As I get older I find myself more cognizant and self-accepting of my interest in politics. I tend to make work that takes on abstract forms because I center each body of work around the materiality and processes I employ in it.


Dedicating your art to the plight of victims must take a psychological toll. What are your strategies for self-care when working on projects like The Great Basin Murders.

For self care, I enjoy running because it is both physically demanding and meditative. With The Great Basin Murders project I made a choice to first begin working on cases that had the fewest details before moving on to the cases for which there is evidence of extreme violence. No case is easy, but saving the toughest cases for last and focusing on abstract elements like data have helped me remain objective.


What advice do you have for female identifying artists seeking positive social change around issues of violence and discrimination?

Know that there is a platform and a network of allies out there. From fellow artists to curators to academics, there are people out there doing this type of work who are interested in supporting it. It can sometimes seem isolating to make artwork around challenging topics. Know that your voice is wanted and appreciated. There is a whole network out there that will be receptive to your art.