HER KIND: Heather and Elisa, Welcome to the Conversation. In “A Hand“ Jane Hirshfield writes that: “[a] hand turned upward holds only a single, transparent question. / Unanswerable, humming like bees, it rises, swarms, departs.” What, for you, might be that question? Are their parts of the body that ever invoked such meditation? Or perhaps the body as the whole?
HEATHER FOWLER: I love that poem in particular since the line that precedes your quoted lines reads: “What empties itself falls into the place that is open,” and if I had a solitary transparent question about what the body or the open hand with questions offers up in art, it would be: What role does skin or the body corporal play in desire and conquest, physical action?
By that, I mean conquest or movement of any sort. As a writer using words to represent the body, to move the body in a narrative, I find that that a character’s movement is significant, sometimes more so than his or her words. Often the dialogue is an obfuscation of the feelings, partially vented, but the most painful and present scenes in books and stories are those where the action is excruciating and defining. I use, as example, my favorite short story by Vladimir Nabokov entitled “Sounds.” At the start of the narrative, near the beginning, a woman is playing a piano: “Every now and then, through the frenzy of the fugue, your ring would clink on the keys as, incessantly, magnificently, the June shower slashed the windowpanes.” This sort of thwarted passion during a storm, this radiant act of expression regardless, begins a piece that will end in heartache for the “you,” due to the lack of returned love from her paramour. After some narrative acrobatics on Nabokov’s part, that thick, svelte velvet of his images, the movement of the plot’s escalation, the tragic scene in this story is also brought home by the gestures of the woman’s hands–not on the body of her lover, but on the doorknob she struggles to open in order to escape his regard: “You said, ‘Good. Now you may leave.’ You turned and ran quickly up the steps. You took hold of the glass door’s handle, and could not open it right away. It must have been torture for you.” I think the body and the gesture are constantly offering up transparent questions and then diffusing.
This is one thing that Elisa’s photographic work, which I’ve been blessed enough to work with for two literary projects in recent months, illustrates so strongly. In every image, the posture is so important to the viewer’s understanding of the scene. Elisa, how does that work when you have models? Is there a mood during the shoot–or coaching? How do you get the bodies to say so much in the visual frames?
ELISA LAZO DE VALDEZ: The first challenge, particularly for shooting figure work, is to find someone who can express themselves beyond their physicality. Often models who have worked in a more commercial field have trained their bodies to communicate a very specific way. Their interaction with the camera lens is quite formulaic, and falls into the awful cliché’ of “make love to the camera”.
I tend to seek out people who have very little experience in front of the camera, who think they are being awkward because they don’t relate to media-centric imagery. This allows them the freedom to hold and move themselves honestly. Some of the most dynamic poses come about from the models stretching, a very natural, unselfconscious act. For this reason I never put the camera down. My most successful collaborations are usually with other creative: painters, other photographers, and writers are already in a creatively expressive mindset. Their craft informs their physical nature. Their art will manifest itself in physical expression if they have an environment to move freely in. My primary input is “If the pose hurts or feels bizarre, it will look great”. This can be very liberating for people, who will often show off some part of their body that is double-jointed. It becomes a game of exploration and extremes. In contrast to that there are the moments of in between, when the model is at rest and thinks I am fiddling with camera settings. They are calm, distracted, chewing their hair, cracking their knuckles. These shots can be wonderfully expressive as well.
The tactic I employ most often, especially with new models, is to cover the model’s face, either with hair, a mask, body paint or fabric. The psychological effect on people when they don’t think the “real them” can be seen is amazing. It’s an interesting idea considering their entire bodies can be exposed to the eye, but their personal identity and all the restrictions and hang ups that go with it are eliminated when there is no face. The body is the instrument that personifies the theme; the eyes are no longer the window to the soul, the bellybutton is, or the shoulder blades, or the crook of an elbow and the bend of a finger. Whatever the mask may be, I have to trust the model to express it; they are a storm cloud, a deer, a primeval goddess, the Queen of Hearts. I think this is why Heather and I connected so immediately on a creative level, the magical realism that informs both of our work, though the mediums differ.
Heather, you often use your character’s bodies to express a myriad of emotions and situations as very blatant physical transformations.
HF: I love the idea Elisa articulates above of “a game of exploration and extremes”—that embodies a lot of my creative process in terms of making the cerebral-surreal, where the mind lives as it creates, feel more concrete by connecting it to definitive body parts or symbolism or movement, the way “realism” follows “magical” in the descriptor.
In my first book Suspended Heart, the title story is about a girl whose heart falls out at a local mall and her life gets instantly better. When her heart is returned to her involuntarily by a janitor, without the benefit of the return of the relationship that may have salved her wounds, she weeps and discards a diamond that was once to have been her wedding jewel.
Suspended Heart also houses a story entitled “The Girl with the Razorblade Skin” in which a budding woman must develop defenses that cut and deflect her abusers in order to reclaim her rights as a human being. In both Suspended Heart and my newly released magical realism collection People with Holes, I find myself using the body again and again, in different ways–more aggressively and sexually in the second collection, where men have penises that are detachable lab rats or pheromones that cause women spontaneous orgasms and smell like newborn babies. Transformations are key for me, bodywise, characterwise. Another story in People with Holes is entitled “With the Silence of a Deer,” and follows a woman accompanying her metrosexual lover to his man-cabin in the woods, where her head becomes the head of a deer, but not a female deer. In her case, her head is the head of a young stag–a male head. This imagery and skewed transformation becomes key in the piece because after he has sexual relations with her, she takes a role of agency in the piece to escape and refuses her victimhood or subjugation, regardless of the man’s misogyny and attempts to make her believe that to leave him or discard him are ”wrong.” I do think that my magical realist work, unlike that of many other modern magical realists, is more about sex and gender exploration than political commentary. That said, it’s possible that the surrealistic urge to manipulate the body so cerebrally, so vividly, is in direct contrast to my own disengaged feeling, often, of being solely a “brain in a vat.” My own body surprises me daily. Hardly ever am I not surprised at what it can do. Bleeding–or breastfeeding, for example. I thought I had a superpower at first when I breastfed my baby daughter and then my son. Both times, I wanted to squirt milk at everyone. For fun. Shout, “Behold, I am an amazing goddess of making milk!” You don’t even know.
With Elisa’s work, I felt immediately aligned with the visual transport of her narratives. The deer woman story, for example, was done as a challenge to write content for a photography exhibit of work by photographer Adriene Hughes (http://fuckyeahdeerwoman.tumblr.com/); I wrote and submitted that story on the basis of her photographs and was chosen to read at the gala. By the time I was approached about working with Elisa, I was already ready to really go to town with the fusion of words and visuals.
What I particularly love about Elisa’s work is that it does not shrink from the depiction of women as mysterious and multi-faceted. Like the image from her website, for example, with the beige cloaked woman who has what appear to be leafless golden branches emanating from her fingers. I love that image. The placement and gesture of the hands in particular, to hark back to the earliest part of the conversation, like casting a spell. Elisa, can you speak to your thoughts as an artist while you fashioned this piece? Is it connected to anything theatrical?
ELV: Here are four photos that I feel illustrate what I discussed in my previous response. Calm, anthropomorphic, surreal, and contorted.
Also these next following images were shot with one of my favorite models of all time. She is wonderfully athletic, wildly sensual and very dynamic in her stillness. When I connect with someone that can personify my ideas without having to say a word, it is a miracle. Lilly is definitely an extension of my ideas made flesh. This particular shoot actually had a theme, when most often I’m just doing a stream of consciousness thing. She was to represent power and magic, directly tied to the mythology of Circe. It is one of many examples of my love of draping the human form like a Greek statue, and of adding on bits and pieces to create something more than human. Branches, feathers, flowers, smoke; anything that speaks of metamorphosis. I tend to split my imagery into two primary categories: those that fall into the realm of magic, mythology, transformation and fairy tales; and those that fall into realm of surrealist, creepy nudes and the exploration of texture on skin. My main role models growing up were Wonder Woman and Catholic martyrs from my little “Lives of the Saints”. I never doubted for a moment the emotional strength and physical power of women, the magic of our bodies and the mythology of our origins. I return to that magic and strength of form again and again in my photography. I’ve found that I rarely shoot men; I find their bodies to be rather boring and concrete, although they are certainly beautiful in their own way. They seem to be missing the kind of ethereal, supernatural quality I find in women. I love what you said about breast milk. It’s such a common, mammalian thing.
I think the idea of perfect flesh is incredibly dull. Freckles, scars, bruises, dimples, etc. – I hear models apologize all the time for these imperfections, but I often like to emphasize them if I can, especially freckles or veins. The history of the body and the natural expression of its individuality is important. I find scars to be particularly fascinating as they can represent trauma, adventure, crisis or triumph.
HF: Oh, I am fascinated with just about all bodily functions. Everything the human body does is so complex and yet necessary to keep an individual alive. And, Wonder Woman, yes! As a child, I wanted that Lasso of Truth quite intensely. Many, many would have been roped.
Scarring and visual imperfections charm me. I remember wanting to map a female body quite intensely in the narrative–be a mapmaker of features–and, interestingly, I remember I mapped that frame by flaws (and topography), but I say “flaws” here with a special sort of reverence: these are my histories, my insecurities, my senses of torture by myself or others, my rites of passage or identities in this world. Since you work in a visual realm, Elisa, I love that you embrace these aspects of your models. For me, as a writer, I take the exterior but also penetrate internal flaws where possible. Flaws in the psyche. Or, flaws in the psyche causing flaws in the body–for example a piece I’m working on called “The Fat Woman Pauses Briefly in Her Binging, Due to Suitor” about a woman who overeats on purpose, continuously, so she’ll be left unmolested by men who desire her. She ends up unable to escape this quandary, thin or fat, and is left with some masochist submissives serving as footrests on the porch. I like to explore attraction and repulsion in the erotic, which really seduces me with your images. I also like to use all the naughty words with my literary art, but subversively–as a photographer might use all the naughty parts yet provide the visual props of unusual contrast or framing to create the art filter.
I know you do a lot of high-end work with book covers and projects that require more of a commercial, marketed aspect. I’m thinking, in particular, of the covers of Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs or the Laurell K. Hamilton’s Hit List, among others (Elisa has a beautiful list of covers she’s done)–but if you could spend three months shooting the most ambitious project you can think of, with limitless funds, what would it be? (I am obsessed with how time and fiscal factors impact projects artists would like to do, so am always curious.)
ELV: Ha, if only. Although I do have a small list, the first thing I would probably tackle (aside from updating all my equipment) would be to shoot a modern surrealist series of “Lives of the Saints” along the line of Bettina Rheimes’ “INRI” or the Pop Art work of Pierre et Gilles, with Colleen Atwood on stand by to make all the costuming. I would find abandoned theaters, asylums and hotels all over the globe where I could work with unrestricted access. I would also have a private chef. Can you tell I’ve pondered this before? As a writer, your creative fantasies probably differ a bit from mine. What would be the ultimate writing environment/project for you? Would you hole up in an inspirational location like a rock band in an old castle, or would you expose yourself to some new and unusual cultural experience?
HF: I love this idea of the trip to the asylums and hotels, not to mention the fashioning of the costuming. Interestingly, I think what I would do would be to have an experiential window. To connect the body to the mind, without writing. To travel and taste all manner of things, to enjoy the kaleidoscope of life via fully living that life. Give alms to the body, pleasure, joy, satiation. The financial angle would be used only to control the risk factors. I have a theory that the body is a chalice for the mind and vice versa. Due to this, one can write from memory forever, provided one has made this memory in reserve. My goal, then, would be to make the new memories in such a way that the tiny gray cell (metaphorical) in which I write would carry the festive and laden decorations of times remembered and enjoyed. So, I suppose I would do both, hole up in an inspirational location like an old castle AND expose myself to some new and unusual cultural experiences or hedonism. As a single parent, however, one must very careful. It’s never one life in the balance. In addition, time is precious and fleeting. Nonetheless, I’m an advocate of Robert Herrick, who wrote,
Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today,
Tomorrow will be dying.
I firmly believe that the return to joy for the body, for my body, would be the return to joy for my art. Though I have chronicled heartbreak and given all proceeds for my first two books to causes that support women’s health and rights due to my sadness about women’s maltreatment, I need not get lost as a chronicler of heartbreak.
I would like to do this with a host of creatives, as you’ve discussed. In a frenzy of artful pleasure. The next book to be released this spring, a feminist dystopia collection, This Time, While We’re Awake, and the one I currently work with a graphic artist to finish as an illustrated collection, literary traditional work and historical fiction, Elegantly Naked in My Sexy Mental Illness, are both quite dark. So, I’d like to dance in the light as soon as possible, if that makes sense.
As a writer, and once an actress, I think it rather suits my nature and inclination to A. wear any and all costuming that suits whatever role is necessary, with pleasure, B. display natural flaws and foibles as an open portmanteau for the world’s dissection of reflection, and C. hold very uncomfortable poses for seemingly interminable amounts of time–like, say, that which it takes to write a collection or a novel.
EL: I think your writing appealed to me so much because you have a great gift for strong visual impact that is ripe with subversive symbolism. I love shooting writers; they can really relate well to expressing an abstract concept. Actors, however, are much more of a challenge. I think they are used to becoming people other than themselves and for some reason on a photo shoot tend to play the part of a model playing the part of (insert whatever the shoot concept is). They are two steps removed from the idea of just being themselves. They are also the most concerned with how their makeup is holding up. Painters and illustrators are my favorites; they inherently understand the significance of a subtle gesture as well as the visual impact of an extreme one.
With my Saints project, I am more interested in the mortification of the flesh, as it were, and the oddly sexualized depictions of the martyrs with their gaping wounds posing calmly with their torture devices. The orgasmic looks on their faces while they bleed out. You can easily see the influence on my work, the models gazing off beatifically. Mind you, the collection that inspired this idea ages ago is a children’s book that I have kept close to me since I was nine years old. Fascinating images of regular people with holy super powers that enabled them to exist outside their bodies as they were being flayed alive, etc. Having been raised Catholic with a Latin American point of view there were always wonderful stories of miracles, sacrifices, lots of blood and agony. My home is currently covered in Catholic iconography, the Sacred Heart being my favorite symbol. So basically my main decorating choice is bleeding hearts all over the walls. It’s such a fascinating image though, to literally rip your heart out of your chest and offer it to others. Even those saints who lived full lives were prone to whipping and cutting themselves to be more Christ-like. It’s so wonderfully disturbing.
Elisa Lazo de Valdez (aka Visioluxus) has been creating her own visual realities for over a decade. Her work reflects dark sensuality, mythology and luxury of form, and is often described as spooky, dream like and surreal. Her work is featured globally on book covers and in magazine editorials, as well as photography collections and the occasional exhibit. She currently lives in Portland, Oregon in a house full of eclectic objets d’art, and her photo studio is an appropriated walk in freezer in the basement.
Heather Fowler is the author of the story collections Suspended Heart (Aqueous Books, Dec. 2010), People with Holes (Pink Narcissus Press, July 2012), and This Time, While We’re Awake (Aqueous Books, forthcoming Spring 2013). Her work has been published online and in print in the US, England, Australia, and India, and appeared in such venues as Quarterly West, PANK, Night Train, storyglossia, Surreal South, JMWW, Short Story America, and others. All author proceeds from her recent collection People with Holes are to be donated to Planned Parenthood to combat the current war against women. Please visit her website at www.heatherfowlerwrites.com