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Lillian Warren, "Waitscape #50" | Courtesy of Lillian Warren
Lillian Warren, "Waitscape #50" | Courtesy of Lillian Warren
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An Interview With Artist Lillian Warren: Painting The Forgotten

Picture of Lauren Pickens
Updated: 5 January 2017
Houston-based painter Lillian Warren excels at illuminating forgotten spaces. Her past projects, Cityscapes and Trafficscapes, celebrate the Houston landscape, which is sometimes beautiful, sometimes unsightly, and sometimes both. Her current series is titled Waitscapes. As the title suggests, it depicts people in states of transition. Warren photographs people, then she composes and paints them waiting in the same space, side by side and overlapping. In this interview, she offers some insight into the inspiration behind Waitscapes, her artistic process, her views on art, and her current endeavors.

Can you sum up the inspiration behind Waitscapes in a few short sentences?

The Waitscapes are inspired by, and I’m going to get really philosophical here, the in-between spaces in our lives. They are about transitions and uncertainties. So for me, it was a really philosophical understanding.

What was something that you hoped to achieve with the Waitscapes series?

One of the things that I really tried to do with the Waitscapes was to include people who are usually invisible. Because in images, and especially in the media, they tend to be young and beautiful, and I tend to avoid the young and beautiful in my paintings. I remember an older woman once said to me, ‘I’m so glad to see some older people in paintings, you never see older people represented in anything, they’re invisible in our society.’ So I really like that.

What do you hope people feel or experience when they view Waitscapes?

For me, art needs to be open-ended and leave room for interpretation Because in my mind if there is only one message and everyone gets that message, it’s advertising. It might be a great marketing message, but it’s not necessarily art. But, just in general, I want people to perhaps come away thinking ‘oh god, I’ve been there,’ or ‘yeah, that’s my life at times,’ or ‘I relate to that person.’

Waitscapes | Courtesy of Lillian Warren
Waitscapes | Courtesy of Lillian Warren

How do you know when a piece is finished?

Well, the process goes like this: if I look at it and I kind of like it and I can’t think of any way to make it better, I’ll put it away for a week or so. Then I’ll look at it again. If I still like it and I can’t think of any way to make it better, then it’s done. Now if I hate it and I can’t think of any way to make it better, then it goes in the trash.

What is the most memorable response that you’ve gotten to one your works?

I’m going to give you two, because they’re very different. One was a different series. It was a series of cityscapes. They were very much about in-between spaces and odd juxtapositions. They also had a combination of artificial light and natural light; so a neon sign and a sunset (for example). One of the reactions that I got was that they hated it and loved it because it was beautiful but it was ugly at the same time, and then they walked outside and they thought ‘there it is.’ It helped them see something that they’d never really seen before, some combination of odd beauty that they’d never paid attention to.

Another one was a painting (from the Cityscapes series) that someone was looking at. We were talking about it and I asked them what their reaction to it was and they told me, ‘You don’t want to know what I’m thinking.’ And I said I do want to know, go ahead and tell me. So they said, ‘It makes my skin crawl, I hate it.’ And I said, ‘Yes!’ To me, it was a very innocuous thing. What I was trying to get at was a feeling; it was a feeling of the placelessness of urban sprawl. The way that we’re destroying so much of the natural beauty of the area. They felt the same way that I did when I looked at it.

What is the most exciting thing about the art world today versus the art world 20 years ago?

Probably the complete lack of boundaries: between different kinds of media, between the different disciplines, and between geographic regions. Nothing is isolated anymore.

Is it more important for art to entertain or to be political?

Different artists have very different motivations. Some artists are political activists. Some artists unabashedly want to make beautiful works that people will simply enjoy having around them. Some people make work that they want to be thought-provoking and challenging, but not necessarily political. I think that those are all perfectly valid but very different motivations.

It’s like when you think about music. Let’s say that you prefer jazz, does that mean that classical music’s no good? Or if you love opera does that mean that bluegrass is no good? No, they’re just different. There’s a purpose, an audience, a time, and a passion for different things. And I don’t think that any of them are more or less legitimate than others.

Are you currently working on any new projects? If so, can you provide a few details?

I am. This past summer I organized an event at DiverseWorks as part of I show that I was in, and one of the things that their curator encouraged me to do was to think about a different way to approach the Waitscapes, to push myself out of my comfort zone, and what I had always done before was to take pictures of total strangers at airports, bus stops, corners, and lobbies.

What we did at DiverseWorks was stage a quasi-performance. People volunteered, showed up, they got some very simple directions [such as] go sit in the corner and check your cell phone or stand in the corner and listen to the cars, that kind of thing, and I took photos of that. I didn’t have to be unobtrusive. I could get up in your face with a camera if I wanted to, because you knew I was doing it. These were people I knew. I could ask someone to move, so I had more control over it.

Another thing that is really different for me is that I’m painting people I know. Which is a very different feeling than painting a total stranger. It feels more dangerous somehow.