We had the good fortune of connecting with Deborah Aschheim and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Deborah, why did you decide to pursue a creative path?
I always wanted to make things and express myself visually. But in college I wound up majoring in Anthropology, which I hoped would give me a rich life of experiences. At the end of my studies, I had a crisis with the eurocentrism and colonialism that haunt that discipline, and I decided to try to use art to do what I had hoped to do as an Anthropologist: connect with all kinds of people, share our worlds and lives. I am happy that I have a public practice that lets me be an artist in society, not removed from it, using art as a way to engage with diverse communities and share stories across the urban space.
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
My work is about memory and place. I am interested in all the ways we remember and make meaning in shared spaces, and how meanings change over time. I make installations, drawings, sculptures, temporary interventions into public space and digital projects. I have explored themes of collective memory, oral history and social justice in projects that bring the stories of diverse communities to life. I think one thing that sets me apart is, when I get interested in something I get very, very involved with my subject, and my research process can verge on obsessive. I like to spend time observing, researching and engaging with people and communities well beyond the information I literally need to create an artwork. I love making things, but sometimes I admit the art project is an excuse for being allowed behind the scenes in spaces where I wouldn’t otherwise have any reason to be, whether that is peering through microscopes at the cells that make up memory regions of the brain in the Neurology Department at UCSF, or jumping on a rig to answer a 911 call in Santa Monica, or capturing the stories of newly-minted U.S. citizens at the Immigration and Naturalization ceremony and their excitement about voting for the first time. I think the biggest challenge for me was, there really was no job doing what I do, and for a lot of my career I tried to fit into existing jobs. I wanted to be an artist but I didn’t feel a real affinity with the “art world” or gallery scene. Even “public art” was not the exact fit when I looked at is in terms of the end product, which is often designing artworks for public buildings. But eventually I came to see the process of meeting people and trying to understand a world or an experience that is different from mine (or, in the case of history based-projects, a time that is different than ours) as the work, however long it takes and no matter what the process involves. The actual artworks are important, of course, but they are not always the most important part.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
I assume we are imagining a world without Covid19 pandemic? OK, on the way back from LAX I would take them to Musso and Frank for a martini to start, maybe now because of the Tarentino film they already know about it, but nice grounding and they can get a look at Capitol Records building, which I have made a lot of sculptures and drawings about. I’d take them to the observatory at Griffith Park to get an overview of the city so they understand where they are, and we’d hike around trying to see foxes. I’d want to take them to Lucques for dinner but since Lucques closed I’d take them to one of Suzanne Goin’s other restaurants, maybe AOC. It’s hard to imagine this because I miss all these things so much…maybe I’d take them to a multiplex in San Gabriel Valley and we’d watch 3 movies in a row because I miss movies so much, and then go to a restaurant from Jonathan Gold’s list for Chinese food. I would take them to the Museum of Jurassic Technology and CLUI and LACMA and MOCA and the Hammer, of course. If they reopen. And to Guelaguetza and Gjelina and Bestia and Factory Kitchen Canters and Guisados and Little Beast in Eagle Rock…actually it is making me sad how much I miss all these places. I’d take them to the LA Opera and the Green Umbrella concerts at Disney Concert Hall and to hear Jazz at the Bluewhale. OK, I’m getting to sad, ask me after the pandemic when people can come visit again .
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
My projects are always a group effort. I often embed myself as artist in residence to try to learn as much as I can about the community at the site where I’m working. Some recent collaborators I want to thank for sharing their lives and stories with me include: the incredibly diverse voters of LA County who shared their photos and reasons for voting for my Instagram project @365daysofvoters, the Santa Monica Fire Department who hosted me for dinners and ride alongs and gave me a glimpse into their lives as first responders, the incredibly inspiring disability and rehab community at Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center in Downey, CA. I’ve had great support from civic arts staff across California and the US who work tirelessly to facilitate art in public space that is challenging, high quality and accessible for all.
1. (horizontal photo of me) Photos by Monica Almeida, photos courtesy of the LA County Department of Arts and Culture 2. (drawing of me) Deborah Aschheim 3. (Fire station art glass) Photo by Darren Bradley 4. (buildings installation) Photo by Michelle Westmark Wingard 5. (poster in street) Photo by Zoe Taleporos 6. (drawing) Deborah Aschheim 7. blue window installation ) Photo by Ben Benschneider 8. (365 Days of Voters) Deborah Aschheim