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Artist uses unique materials to send a message

The first thing you should know about Los Angeles-based artist Lisa Anne Auerbach is she loves her cats.

There were several pictures of them used as transition slides during her lecture at Mills College March 17 as part of the studio art MFA students’ lecture series.

Auerbach, who was hand-chosen by students to participate in the series, has a background in photography, though two of her prominent projects are in other mediums — fabric and paper.

“By grad school, I was more interested in ideas rather than mediums,” she said.

Her unique perspective and unusual use of materials made her an intriguing choice for the lecture series.

“We knew enough to know that we liked it and that we wanted to know more,” graduate student Dana Hemenway said about the choice to feature her as a speaker.

One of her current projects is the creation of wool sweaters featuring social and political slogans. She hand makes the sweaters, along with matching skirts, using a knitting machine. Some of her creations read, “Thank God, I’m an atheist” and “Marriage for all, octuplets for none.”

During her visit to the College she chose to wear her “I heart feral cats” sweater and skirt.

“They are all things I’m interested in starting a conversation about,” she said.

Auerbach spends a lot of time determining the text for each sweater.

“The challenge for me is to try to take the idea or the content and try to make it sweater-worthy,” she said. “I can’t just make a sweater that says ‘I hate Sarah Palin,’ but how do you make a sweater about hating Sarah Palin without saying that?”

The answer, if you are wondering, turns out to be a sweater that reads “HOT MESS FIERCE TRANNY MAVERICK TRAIN WRECK” on the front and “CUNTY FIRST” on the back. The matching skirt reads “HALF BAKED ALASKA” and “MAVERICK SIDEKICK.”

Auerbach first purchased a knitting machine in 2004 in the hopes of making thousands of sweaters in support of presidential candidate John Kerry, though her results were less than she had hoped for.

During the 2008 presidential campaign she created a series of sweaters using old presidential slogans such as “Save America from socialism” and “Let the people rule.” The red, white, blue and black sweaters were displayed in shops around Aspen, Colorado and in the Aspen Art Museum. Visitors to the museum were able to check out the sweaters to wear around town. They wer

Example of Auerbach's knitted sweaters and matching skirts. (Courtesy of Lisa Anne Auerbach)

e on display for two months, conveniently during the period the Democratic National Convention took place in Denver, Colo.

The idea for the sweaters came from guitarist Rick Nielson of the band Cheap Trick, who always wore personalized sweaters. Taking a cue from Nielson, Auerbach wears her creations in her everyday life, but saves the matching sweater and skirt combination for special occasions, such as lectures.

She said she receives a few comments from strangers when she wears the sweaters out — one of her creations once sparked a long political discussion with a person seated next to her on an airplane — but the sweaters have gotten a larger response online, much of which is positive.

Auerbach sees sweaters as more of a keepsake, unlike T-shirts which are more likely to turn into rags with wear. She is interested in how the messages on the sweaters evolve over time.

“I was always interested in sweaters as a medium and how the meaning would change if it was on a sweater,” she said.

Each individual sweater is unique, but Auerbach said she wouldn’t mind having more of them in the world, with limitations.

“I don’t want to be a production house and I don’t want to farm them out to a Third World country,” she said.

But she insists that she is no one-note artist: the sweaters are just one project for Auerbach, who said she doesn’t want to become known as the “Sweater Lady.”

The Tract House is another one of her recent endeavors. The tracts, inspired by religious tracts, are small publications on various subjects that are printed for distribution. They resemble well-designed pamphlets. There is an overall theme for Auerbach’s series of tracts — the current one is Darwin — and the individual tracts are written on subjects as varied as making clothes for fish and finding a use for weeds. The writers come up with their own topics and graphic designer Roman Jaster designs the tracts with some input from Auerbach, who oversees the whole project.

“I was interested in taking that method of proselytizing and using it on topics I am more interested in than religion,” Auerbach said.

She first came upon religious tracts at the Free Tract Society in Los Angeles, Calif. where it is possible, according to Auerbach, to buy them the pound.

“[It was the] best distribution model I had ever seen,” she said.

The installations are usually held in a public space, such as a storefront, and consist of a table on which different tracts are arranged in stacks. Visitors can pick up as many tracts as they like. There is currently an exhibit of The Tract House: A Darwin Edition in Philadelphia, Penn. on view until April 11.

“I was really interested in the physicality of them, how they formed these piles and how the popular ones would diminish,” Auerbach said.

Whatever medium she is working in, Auerbach gets inspiration for her work during bike rides around Los Angeles, where she lives.

“It’s a lot of thinking time because it takes a lot of time to get places,” she said. “And you can’t listen to Lady Gaga on a bike.”

She notices little details while biking, such as grand opening signs and small freestanding businesses– details which have turned up as subjects in her photo series. The small businesses she noticed, a florist and a psychic, inspired Auerbach to create a small business of her own: a unicycle shop.

Auerbach's short-lived unicycle shop in Joshua Tree, Calif. (Courtesy of Lisa Anne Auerbach)

The shop opened in Joshua Tree, Calif. for two days, during which she rented out unicycles. Auerbach bought eighteen different unicycles on eBay, painted them red and gave each one a unique name, like Cyclops, Cookie Monster and Widow Maker. The shop had release forms and a huge first aid kit, which, thankfully, didn’t get used in the end.

“It turned out that unicycles are about the idea of balance more then anything,” she said.

Though the shop was a temporary project, unicycles continue to reappear in Auerbach’s work, sometimes in the photographs taken of her in the sweaters.

“If you have 18 unicycles, use them as props,” she said during her lecture.

With the tracts and slogan-covered sweaters, much of Auerbach’s work focuses on language and communication.

“It’s elastic and it’s also really specific. It’s really difficult to communicate with precision,” she said. “[Language] can miscommunicate so well, almost better than it can communicate.”

She is currently working on a series of photographs of mega-churches and possibly a new tract series with the theme “radicalized.” The mega-churches are a companion piece to her series on small businesses.

“I wanted to see what things look like. What’s the physicality of this structure? Are they something I’d want to go to?”

While these projects develop, maybe she will rescue a feral kitten or two as well.