Liza Sylvestre’s large-scale paintings are a world of their own


Minneapolis artist Liza Sylvestre is by fascinated by sensory perception, the human body, and the natural and celestial worlds. Her upcoming show, “Meridians” at Public Functionary, will feature a collection of her bright and intricate paintings that subtly capture energetic movement in a soothing, graceful way.

Sylvestre graduated from the University of Minnesota with a B.A. in fine art, though her art career began in Miami, where she lived for six years before returning to the Twin Cities. Her work has been shown extensively across the United States, and she has been commissioned by the likes of the James Hotel on Miami Beach, for which she completed 25 pieces.

Sylvestre, who has suffered from progressive hearing loss since age six, answered our questions via email.

How has being hard of hearing influenced your art?

My hearing loss is not something I can detach or separate from myself. We are completely intertwined, and I can’t fathom who I would be without a hearing problem. It has created a distinct lens through which I experience the world, and I’m very grateful for the unique perspective it has given me.

Hearing loss has definitely helped cultivate my distinct internal life, and that is something that I draw upon in my art making. I’m a big time introvert. I don’t need much beyond uninterrupted time in my studio to feel completely satisfied. I can also safely say that my hearing problem has forced me to be more detail-oriented and to rely on my instincts in order to communicate.


How has your aesthetic changed or evolved over the years?

I’ve been working on the same body of work since 2010, and this year I really wanted to make a conscious decision about changing. I was starting to feel stagnant and less challenged in my studio, and I knew it was time to move forward. It’s really important to me as an artist to continue growing, and growth happens for me when I step out of my comfort zone and challenge myself. For this show I chose to work much larger than I normally do, and I chose to break the centric form that has dominated the majority of my compositions.

This past year, in addition to completing the work for my show at Public Functionary, I’ve also been participating in a fellowship through Art(ists) on the Verge with an upcoming show at the Soap Factory in March of 2016. The work I’ve been developing for this fellowship is drastically different from my visual artwork. It is conceptually based, and mostly includes video performance and sound manipulation.

How are the paintings in “Meridians” distinct from your previous work?

They are considerably larger in scale. Producing my art is really time consuming, and there are sections of each painting that require me to be hunched over drawing for days — sometimes weeks — at a time. Then there are sections that require me to stand up and move quickly around with more whole-body movements. Because I increased the scale of the pieces for “Meridians,” I was extra aware of this body-work connection. So these pieces are focused more on the physicality of creating.

The natural and celestial worlds seem to be themes in your art. What about nature and space fascinate you?

Their similarities. The overlapping and elegant patterns I find in both the microscopic and macroscopic. Visually, I see similarities in everything from cells to trigonometry to supernovas to human behavior. This understanding, or belief, is something I've recognized since I was very young, and it makes me think that the universe is much simpler than we might suppose it to be.

What determines the color choices in your work?

Instinct. Pure and simple. My artwork develops out of a series of instinctual choices. When I’m working, I feel like I enter a room composed of myself and the work that’s forming, and we're engaged in some sort of back and forth “communication.” I make a decision and take action and alter the work in some way, and then the work essentially lets me know if that was a good decision or a bad one, or if more needs to be done.

You lived in Miami for over six years. How does the art scene there differ from Minnesota’s? What made you want to come back to the Twin Cities?

Miami has an established international artistic community. It has a bunch of really amazing galleries with super high-quality work, and then a whole bunch of parties and less-high-quality-work packed in everywhere. Everything is a full-blown “scene.”

I got my first art studio in Miami. It will always be the time and place where I made the decision to be serious about myself as an artist. I feel lucky that I was exposed to a few artists with amazing work ethics really early on in my artistic career there. They set the bar for me in terms of what I expected out of myself and my everyday studio practice.

While I felt at home in my studio, I never really felt at home in Miami. There’s incredible urban sprawl, poor city planning, high living expenses, cockroaches everywhere, crooked politics, and you never really get to the beach as often as you should to make it all worthwhile. After a couple of years of working a day job as a designer, and then staying up until odd hours of the night working in my studio, I was completely sleep deprived and finally broke down and quit my day job. Of course this was a good thing, but it also meant that I couldn’t afford to pay our rent, plus studio rent, plus buy art supplies.


You co-founded Creating Language Through Arts, an educational arts residency. Why was that an important venture for you?

Creating Language Through Arts was a grant funded educational arts residency that was co-founded by myself and Angela Olson, a hearing woman with a puppeteering and performance background. The two of us taught with another woman who is a deaf dancer. We offered free, in-school classes at a public elementary school in St. Paul, and the focus of all of our lessons was how to use art as a common language when there are barriers present.

Through our lesson plans we wanted to show our students that despite their varied backgrounds and hearing abilities, they had one thing in common that they could use to communicate: art. It was an amazing experience, a ton of work, and I think the three of us teachers learned as much as our students did.

Personally, it was important because I grew up feeling really isolated due to my progressive hearing loss. I was a hard-of-hearing kid in a hearing family, with hearing friends, in a hearing school, in a hearing world. I felt alone and misunderstood often throughout my childhood and adolescence. A part of me was definitely searching for connections with others who might understand my personal experience. Or, at the very least, I was hoping to witness a bunch of elementary-aged deaf kids who still had a solid sense of community and shared experience.


Liza Sylvestre: “Meridians”


Public Functionary

There will be an opening reception Saturday, December 12 from 7 p.m. to midnight

Through January 9, 2016