Laetitia Hussain, Process Artist

7.28.14 Hudson, NY.

"I tend to relate much more to my work after a few years have gone by. Once I feel like I no longer own it, I can see it with different eyes, more the eyes of a stranger."

Interview & Photos: Kate Orne

The eyes of Laetitia Hussain

UD:  What’s your experience living here in Hudson, NY as an artist?  

LH:  I kind of have an obsession driving my car along country roads. That’s where I feel like most of my thoughts come together. I require a certain amount of time alone with my ideas; I pull over, sketch and write them down. In my car is where I can focus best. That’s why I originally moved here.

UD:  What's your relationship with other local artists? 

LH:  It can be difficult to be an artist; difficult financially and difficult working in isolation. To stay on track and to stay inspired, it helps to be around others who are dedicated to their work. So living in the community of artists and art lovers, who bounce work off each other, has influenced me greatly. Visiting other artists in their studios allows me to see and talk to them about their process.  

I’ve been lucky throughout my life to have the support of friends and others who believed in my art even when I didn’t.

Hussain with pieces from her 2011 site specific installation at Basilica, Hudson, NY

UD:  What drew you to become an artist, a process artist in particular?

LH  I don't think I could do anything else. Making art is a complete need — it's a drive, it gets me up in the morning. All day I'm foraging for ideas that are either going to feed a bigger project or at least plant some seed of a future project.  

From a very early age, I remember just roaming, searching and developing a fascination or wonder for something I would lay my eyes on whether it was a texture or something in nature. I grew up in Damascus, a place that is so rich in history and culture, with so many vibrant patterns, scents and scenes. As a young child, I would explore the Souk (bazaar) with my parents. It was a very influential place for me.

Though I work in many media, depending on the nature of the current project, installation art is where I feel most at home, possibly because there are so few limitations. Richard Serra and Eva Hesse to name a few have influenced the way I work.

UD:  What is it that you look for in the materials that you choose?

LH: I don’t feel that I choose materials but that they sort of choose me. I’ll just happen upon something and be drawn to it, and that becomes the new material.

Hussain in her bird room / office.

Bronze Marionettes 2003

UD:  So, what is your creative process like?

LH:  I would call myself a process artist since the work unfurls intuitively, without a final plan dictating everything from the start. Mistakes are sometimes very lucky, and allow the work to take on unexpected direction.

Something intrigues or has an impact on me; something peaks my interest, a current event, something I read or hear about, and then my search begins. Now, I have to seek out all the components that will make the idea happen. I use all my senses and meditate on the idea to gather all I will need to illustrate my idea. I work with lots of different materials, applied in lots of different ways. In many respects, I let the material lead the way. Once I have all the components, then I orchestrate the idea. Making art is a way to process information to gain a clearer understanding of your surroundings and yourself.

Work studies and final white hydrocal piece from Hussain's 2011 Site-specific installation at Basilica, Hudson, NY

Often the work that emerges from that process focuses on the symbolism; the meanings people attach to known symbols, or else to symbols that I’ve invented. Symbols reinforce a person’s sense of identity, inclusion or exclusion from a group. My use of symbols tends to be abstract at first, and then I apply them to current issues to illustrate them in installations.

Once the work is completed, I’m curious as well as nervous to see people’s reactions. One of the greatest gifts of being an artist is hearing that you’ve made an impression on someone or created a memory — good or bad. But something that stays with them.

I could give a million stories describing what each work is to me. But the art needs to stand-alone, and it doesn't always have to have an elaborate answer for all that it is. People draw their own reactions. 

I tend to relate much more to my work after a few years have gone by. Once I feel like I no longer own it, I can see it with different eyes, more the eyes of a stranger. I enjoy the memory of the process, but I actually begin to like the work a lot more once I've had some distance from it.  

Hussain has always been drawn to objects and textures, many of which she surrounds herself with at her home & studio.

Amtrak, her rescued starling, is the perfect roommate.

UD:  What is the essence of expression for you? 

LH: Expression is your own truth. There should never be a right or a wrong for art.

It is essential to believe in your art and not do what other people want to see, but what it is you feel, understand, and want to share. For me, it’s an aesthetic of materials, less about things that I create, but things I either find or assemble to clarify a thought or a feeling. Once it’s ready, it just falls into place.

I try not to fuss over things, but I've done that — I've fussed tremendously over something. Often you can walk away from it either exhausted or completely sick of it and then return to it later.

For instance, the start of the white hydrocal pieces came when I saw a documentary about very young Chinese girls working in a factory. These girls made Mardi Gras beads. That's all they did for the entire year. They would go home once a year, living on this compound the rest of the time. Objects can have huge impacts yet have very little meaning, especially in this situation. I wondered, what if I created one thing repetitively. What does the mind go through if you force yourself to work on just one form, one element, repeatedly with only minor or accidental variations? I was experiencing art as an assembly-line worker.

At first, you try to see how fast you can go, how many you can make: can I pop one out every 20 minutes? But then you become invested in the process, and you start to get annoyed with it, but you’re still doing it. Objects have little meaning, especially in this situation.

Amtrak, her beautiful muse.

UD:  It’s cool your bird has a lot of freedom in your place.

LH:  I found him at the Amtrak station in Hudson, and he has inspired me by seeing the whole shape of him, the way that birds have a very sort of robotic movement, and distinct personalities. I watch the seasonal changes in his plumage, how his beak grows, when his talons need clipping, how his mood changes. At first he is leery of any new object brought into his room, but then later I’ll catch him investigating the latest arrival.

He’s a very delicate animal. He's lived in my computer room for about three years. He probably could not survive in the wild. I want to make him an outdoor aviary so that he can experience some of that life safely. I found this mesh construction material that would work best, and I'm making him a 17-foot outdoor flying cube (5.18m3). It's going to go in the woods, and I don't know how he'll react to it, but I hope he will be very happy. I wouldn't leave him overnight. It's the thing they say about raising a bird in captivity is that you have to be very careful about outdoor elements and things that he hasn't grown immune to.  

Drawings for Amtrak's outdoor flying cube.

UD:  Do you think the place where the art is shown is important? 

LH:  I don't think it's as important as what is shown or how it's presented. Artists rarely get to choose their venues. You just have to work with the space that is available.

I think visitors to any place where art is shown are looking for a unique, surprising or moving experience. It doesn't always have to be in an upscale gallery with pristine white walls. It can be more powerful if you feel you’re experiencing something authentic, rather than a slick environment where things are extremely precious.  

In a lot of societies art is very much ingrained within the culture. I think Western society could go much further. In much of Africa, for instance, art is completely ingrained within the culture and even defines it. Western society could go much further than it does by becoming more available in every form, on every level whether it’s academic or much freer — more rebellious in a sense.

The important aspect is for art to be seen and open people’s minds. It also connects people, lets them experience something they wouldn’t have encountered otherwise. It’s very different seeing something on the computer screen or in print as opposed to getting to know a piece of art in person.