Lorelei Beckstrom is easy to spot in a crowd. The 45-year-old's bleached blonde hair hovers in a halo-like bob around her face, which is cutely accessorized with slick, black glasses and a dainty nose ring. The day we meet at Rico's, she's wearing thick stockings and a skirt, a long jacket with a woolly scarf, and motorcycle boots.
Beckstrom's there first, and sipping a Stella Artois. It's her afternoon break: She paints from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., catches a breath, and then returns to her studio, above the Starbucks on the corner of Tejon and Bijou streets, where she'll work until much later. She's been painting almost every free moment she has in preparation for her new solo show at S.P.Q.R., which opens Friday. After that, she's got another exhibition at Rodney Wood's gallery in Trinidad, followed by a Modbo Collective group show in June.
It's a lot of ground to cover for an artist who, on her website, claims she's never been a painter. But after three years of painting classes with Brett Andrus, co-owner and curator of the Modbo, she's learned enough to not only warrant this spate of shows, but recent ones in Santa Fe and Minneapolis.
Despite her insistence that her previous work — including drawings done on Plexiglas and wood — relied more on ideas than skill, Beckstrom has long been a local-arts highlight. She moved to town eight years ago, shedding everything to become a full-fledged artist. It hasn't been an easy journey: She found out (and accepted) she was bipolar, and struggled to shake the idea that her artwork, though much-loved, was based in what she calls "tricks" and "novelty."
Which is why Fluff, opening this week, marks such a turning point. It's weird stuff, of course — pairing human bodies and rabbit masks, stuffed animals and Greek myths — but Beckstrom isn't aiming for furries or deviants. Or, not totally anyway.
Really, it all started with a stuffed monkey from her childhood, who became Narcissus; then a friend's rabbit, who became Prometheus. Then she put rabbit heads on friends, and took them out of the Classical world and into today.
In the two-hour-long interview excerpted below, Beckstrom discusses the evolution of her artwork, and the evolution of herself. The Lorelei of German lore used her talents to founder ships along the Rhine River, but this Lorelei is using her powers for good.
Indy: How did you come upon the idea of stuffed animals and myths?
Lorelei Beckstrom: So, for the holiday show at Modbo, I found a couple of my best friends from when I was a kid — some stuffed animals, two guys I pull out of a box — and I'm, like, "Holy shit, I gotta paint them." ... It was just that innocence that drew me.
And Sisyphus has been my totem in a way, with being bipolar, because you're pushing a boulder up a hill, you're getting there, everything's cool and then it falls back down the hill, with mood episodes, you know what I'm saying? Everything's cool and then suddenly you're back where you started and having to get back to neutral. ...
[Plus], the tragedies and myths are so terrible. I guess it's hard as humans to relate to them. So by bringing the softness of a child's toy into them, it brings a ... vulnerability into it. Whereas if it's just Sisyphus the man, it's a myth. But the second it's an emotional object [in this case, another stuffed monkey], there's just a softness there. It brings out that vulnerability. You can put yourself more in their place by bringing a stuffed animal into it.
Indy: I love how you capture their actual figures. It's their bodies, too — floppy, shaped for a hug or something.
LB: I must have done 200 photos of Sisyphus. I sewed fishing line into the top of his head and ... pulled an easel out and tied him up onto the easel so I could lower it or raise it depending on what position I wanted him in.
Well, and a lot of times when you see images of Sisyphus, which I looked at a lot of them, it's always from the side. So, it's like you're watching him, you're purely an observer.
Indy: So why did you pair up Sisyphus and that monkey toy?
LB: Because [the sock monkey] was really pathetic. He was really pathetic. He has a big body and really tiny legs and it's kind of like how I feel, facing what I'm facing. But he does it, over and over.
And everyone thinks the story of Sisyphus is tragic and awful, but it's also beautiful because he has hope. He has hope because he keeps pushing it, he keeps pushing it over and over. Perseverance, you know? I think it's a beautiful story ... it's tragic, but it's about hope as far as I'm concerned.
Indy: There's a looming, on-edge quality to much of your work — from this, to your paintings of tightrope walkers, to paintings of audiences watching the viewer ... Why?
LB: I think those were all about risk-taking. Basically, an adventure. When I really dove in full-time to being a painter, I was married, I had a house that I had built, I had a publishing business, I had a yoga studio. And basically when I made the decision to go full-time as a painter, I kind of let all of that go. I just basically let all of it go.
The whole idea of doing something most people don't want to do, or taking a chance. And the whole Icarus thing: I'm gonna fly to the fucking sun and I don't care if I end up dead on the ground. Do you know what I mean? I want to do this and whatever it costs, that's fine.
Indy: You've taken big risks in your artwork as well.
LB: I went to college in the '80s — I mean that's when modern art had its claws around art — and my college education was basically, "Hey man, do what you want. I don't want to cramp your style. Hey, do you want to go get a drink?" That was my college education. Because it was modern art and it was all idea-based and concept-based and I didn't learn skill, I didn't learn color mixing, I didn't learn how to handle a paintbrush. It was all just concept.
So, that's a huge reason why I started studying with Brett. And so I had a lot of resistance in my friends and people who liked my art: 'You have a good thing going here, why aren't you doing this anymore?' Well, the entire time I've been thinking, 'I need to get the ability to truly render in paint and have that skill to represent what I want, but it's something I want to get back to.' I mean, I love installation; I love interaction where people can touch what I'm doing and have more of an experience rather than just looking at paintings.
Indy: But that learning experience, and then this slate of shows, has to be stressful.
LB: Deadlines. I mean, I forget that. I lose sight of that. I stop eating, I don't sleep, I drink too much. I get in this really primal state when I'm in deadlines, where I don't deal with things I need to be dealing with and I just focus on that one thing. I tend to have tunnel vision. [Laughs.] I'm easily obsessed.
When I find something that intrigues me — there was a movie, with Nicolas Cage, Adaptation, and in the movie there is a character, a really repulsive character, but he says something like, "Obsession is our way of whittling the world down to a more manageable size." And I really think that's why painting is cathartic for me, having bipolar and having this constant struggle with brainstorms.
It's something I can go to every day, no matter what state I'm in, and that obsession is still there — that subject, that story is still the same. I may not feel the same as I did yesterday or the day before ... but it's like a tether. It keeps me tied to the planet.
Indy: It's great to recognize that kind of stability.
LB: Well, I'm just kind of recognizing that now. Thank you, therapist.
Indy: How did you find out you were bipolar?
LB: I knew something was wrong. But when I was publishing, I was publishing a health publication, Total Health Living. So I had access to every alternative modality in existence. I spent, like, 10 years seeing every different kind of natural healer ... I didn't know what was wrong. It took me until after I left my husband ... and then I crashed hard, and I realized it was never him, it was me.
But like most people with bipolar, it feels good a lot, so you don't want to believe it, don't want medication. I saw four other doctors and I've been diagnosed five times and now I believe it! [Laughs.]
And I think that's why I'm so out of the closet with it: It takes, like, an average of 10 years for people to get a diagnosis with bipolar disorder. ... [At least 10 percent] of people with bipolar die from it, basically in the form of suicide. So that's why I'm so open and honest about it. It's not easy, but here I am: I'm insane. Hi.
Indy: I think it's great you're so open about it. I think more people should be open about it.
LB: I have a lot, and it becomes overwhelming at times, but I have a lot of people contacting me who aren't open about it. I mean, people I have known for years who I had no idea were struggling with it, who come to me and share their stories and I help them in the process and they help me.
I mean, if I really could do anything in addition to being an artist, I would want to be an advocate for those who struggle with mental illness. If I weren't a painter, that's what I'd do.
And when things are good, I forget about it. And like most people know, when things are not good, you're gonna hear about it.