Lorien Stern’s work is somewhere between a trip to the zoo and a Miyazaki movie. Like eating ice cream on a hot day or laughing with your best friend; it just makes you feel good. It’s tempting to describe it one word: fun. And there would be nothing wrong with that, because it is fun (a pair of overalls painted with manatees, ghosts, tulips, and frogs? Yes!). However, it deserves more than just “fun.” Perhaps without her audience even realizing it, Lorien has captivated all of us in a colorful world where fears are redressed, and anything goes. She wants to show you shark teeth and rusty cars and alligators that stand upright. Yes, Lorien wants to talk to you about a couple of things, or at least get you thinking.
“Sharks and death,” Lorien said to me on the phone a few weeks ago, “I really do believe that those two things are misunderstood in our society.” The young artist is widely known for her iconic shark heads, as well as a veritable jungle of other rainbow-hued sculptures, illustrations, and paintings. At surface level, Lorien’s work may appear poppy and punchy, but this concept of tackling somewhat taboo or uncomfortable subjects (be it a shark or a snake or a cemetery) and turning them into approachable objects is one of Stern’s key themes underlying her work.
Born in Ojai, California, Lorien was a self-described shy kid raised in an artistic environment. Being slightly introverted, art was always a means of escape, of activity. When her father passed away, Lorien leaned even more on art, as well as animals. “I had seven cats at one point— all symbols of comfort,” she told me over the phone. Eventually, Lorien settled in Oakland to study painting at the acclaimed California College of the Arts. In the grab bag of general ed classes, Lorien quickly found a passion for ceramics, and by the time she graduated, was wholly committed to the kiln. After a brief stint in L.A., Lorien picked up and moved to a family-owned property in the Mojave Desert, “The Land,” to find her own balance of life and work. This is where the magic happens, with Lorien churning work out of her studio (an old shipping container), supervised by her two pet ducks, Ice Cream and Beaker.
We caught up with Lorien after the closing of her most recent solo show, “Stardust,” at Ochi Projects in Los Angeles to chat about life, death, and what we can expect to see from her in the future.
HW: You mentioned that in your ceramics classes at CCA, you didn’t take the traditional route of many of your peers when it came to things like mixing glazes and colors. How would you describe your approach to ceramics, and how it has shaped your work? Would you say it has given you more freedom creatively in terms of color and style?
LS: I wasn’t a ceramics major in college so I missed out on glaze theory classes. In one open studio class we had to make our own glazes for a final project, and I hated how muddy everything ended up. I felt a huge relief when I saw the ready-made glazes at the art store and loved all of the amazing color options. I also appreciate that underglazes look similar to gouache paint and you can easily mix them to make your own palette.
HW: So, the sharks. Can you tell us the story of how these came to be?
LS: The first ceramic shark I made was in the first day of an open studio ceramic class. The teacher asked everyone to make a “6 inch sphere” and I thought he said make a “6 inch fear.” So I thought about how scary it would be if sharks walked upright out of the water to explore dry land. I proceeded to make my vertical standing shark and the teacher was like “that’s cool, but where’s your sphere.” After making that shark I decided to make another one for a wall hanging assignment and then I never stopped, because people kept asking for them. They naturally ended up falling into my theme of making work that evokes happy feelings, even if it is a subject that can be perceived scary. I feel that sharks are misunderstood, so by making them colorful and goofy is a way to help change the perception of how people might feel about them.
HW: Color and pattern are very distinctive markers of your work. Where do you pull some of your inspiration for your lively palette?
LS: I choose colors that make me feel good. I am also inspired by patterns that make me feel good, like when I see the spots on a whale shark or a cheetah I get an indescribable feeling. Almost like FOMO. “I want to be apart of that some how!”
HW: After graduating, you settled down on your family’s property in the Mojave Desert , fondly referred to as “The Land.” Would you give us some background on this unique space? Did you ever see yourself living in the desert after art school, and does the property influence your work in ways you didn’t expect?
LS: The Land was purchased by my mom’s first husband (the father of my siblings) in 1990. Ever since then he has used it as a space to store construction equipment and good deals. My brother and his fiancé were living on the property while my boyfriend and I were living in LA. I was interning for a production company's art department, and working for an artist in exchange for kiln space. Meanwhile with my free time I would build tiny shark heads in apartment to sell on etsy to make an income. Things were selling fast and I was wondered what it would be like to just work on my art full time. My family ended up convincing us to move to the property, fix up and old single-wide trailer to try out the desert life. I bought a small kiln and plugged it into a power pole outside. I was in heaven. Our desert neighbor ended up donating a shipping container for me to use as a ceramics studio and I was set.
HW: What are three of your favorite items at The Land?
LS: When I give people a tour of the property, I usually take them to the car graveyard to show them the Le Car. If it’s the right audience I’ll take them to the spookiest trailer that they got for free off of craigslist. In the living room it has a potential suicide bullet hole in the sealing that has ripped out carpet underneath it. In the bedroom a 5 gallon bucket of molasses spilled on the floor and it became a tar pit for rodents. Very creepy scene. Third, I’d have to say is the water truck that my brother let us use for as a pool one year. It has three chambers you could swim through and it felt like you were hanging out in a secret water cave.
HW: We chatted a bit about the solo show you just had at Ochi Projects in Los Angeles, titled Stardust, in which you made an entire ceramic cemetery. This seems to be a common theme in your work—elements of death or animals generally associated with danger or fear (sharks, snakes, panthers, etc). However, rather than capitalizing on their more fearsome qualities, you turn them into something else entirely: approachable. Could you share some of your thoughts on this theme, and why it is so important to you in your work?
LS: First, my goal is to make artwork that makes people feel good. As someone who is afraid of a lot of stuff, I feel that it is an interesting challenge to bring scary subjects into a positive light.
As I mentioned earlier, I feel that sharks are misunderstood, even by me. Humans are definitely the more dangerous predator and sharks are a crucial part of our ecosystem and they need to be respected. I am not a shark expert, but I am interested in how our fear can play a role in how we treat things that scare us. By make the sharks in bright colors, and with goofy expressions invited you to see sharks up close with a new perspective.
I also feel that how we deal with death is a difficult subject. For my cemetery show “Stardust” my goal was to make an environment that might normally feel scary, upsetting, and uncomfortable and turn it into a celebratory, healing, and happy place. I lost my dad when I was eight years old to brain cancer and it's still hard for me to process his death. This show was a way for me to create a positive space to reflect on life/death and celebrate people who have passed. Fun fact: "Stern" means "star" in German, and dust resembles ashes and clay. I also really like the idea that our bodies are made of remnants of stars and massive explosions in the galaxies.
HW: Speaking of Stardust and the themes of life and death, you brought up that you were inspired by the Kane Kwei Coffins of Ghana. You also mentioned you applied for a grant to go and work with them— where are some other dream residency or work locations for you?
LS: Unfortunately I didn’t get the grant, but yes, they are so inspiring to me! Currently I would love to work with someone who designs inflatable sculptures and or bounce houses. For being so big, I like how portable they are. Also bounce houses symbolize joy to me.
HW: You told me on the phone that you were a shy child by nature, and that art and animals both became symbols of comfort to you. Animals clearly play a large role in your work—if you had to invent a mythical creature of your own, what would it be?
LS: A super friendly giant house cat that is hypoallergenic,
uses a human toilet, cleans the house, and makes delicious meals. It would be white with yellow spots like a furry version of an albino python.
HW: What can look forward to from you in the future? Upcoming shows? More textiles (please!)?
LS: I am going to focus on my online shop for a little bit. Definitely have some ceramic shark heads, rainbows, all over printed tees, socks, power outfits with customized names on the back, and magnet packs in the coming shop updates this summer. I am also planning a couple shows for Southern and Northern California, most likely in the fall and next spring. No set dates yet, but ideas are brewing.