LENORE CHINN: INTERVIEW
Interview with Kim Anno and Ellen Meyers by Molly Robertson and Moira Roth, at the home of Anno and Meyers, Berkeley, California, March 17, 2001
Moira Roth: How did you and Lenore Chinn decide upon making “Before the Wedding” æ her portrait of the two of you which she painted last year? Where and when?
Ellen Meyers: I don’t remember exactly when, but I know she asked us a couple of times before we finally said, “okay,” because we had felt it might be a little nerve racking.
Kim Anno: I think Lenore first got the spark when we were sitting at Flo Wong’s daughter’s wedding party. Bernice Bing, the artist and a close friend of so many of us, was there, too, and she made a joke, saying, “You two could have a wedding like this!” and I said, “Yes, we’ll have a wedding like this.” Ellen turned bright red! That is when I think Lenore somehow got the idea that it might be good to do a portrait of us.
Meyers: I think the first time she actually said something specific to us, however, was when we were at Elizabeth Cornu’s house. We were there for dinner with Lenore and some other people, and Lenore announced she would like to paint our portrait. We were a little bit shocked, I think, and tried to dissuade her from the idea — but she was persistent.
Roth: And then what happened?
Anno: She came to my studio one night — actually, she came twice…
Meyers: I think she just came once, maybe just to see you, just to see the space…
Anno: No, no, she took a picture then but she didn’t like the pictures, remember? Was it here? Was it the house? First she came to the house, Yes! and then … don’t you remember this, Ellen?
Meyers: This conversation is really about memory!
Anno: She came to the house, and took pictures. There were some by the mantel and everything. It was during the day, and the photos didn’t really turn out well.
Meyers: I don’t remember that. I only remember us going to your studio, and bringing all the props over. We had talked about what some of the props would be and I remember her coming to the house, (I think beforehand) to help us with choosing. We had selected some, and she went over them with us.
Anno: No! Remember she said the pictures came out lousy! And she said we were going to have to do it all over again, and we responded, “Oh, My God!” But it was fine, and she came to my studio, and it was at night this time. She brought a lot of the same props: we had — a Buddha which we had brought from the house, and we also brought some candlesticks. I wore a Chinese jacket…
Meyers: … and I wore a suit, and we brought an orange . .
Anno: … and a flower from Flo [Flo Oy Wong], remember? There was this single flower that Flo had given either you or me, or Lenore…
Meyers: I don’t remember that…
Anno: Oh! I totally remember that.
Meyers: Let’s look and see…
Anno: It was important to have all of these different things in the scene — we discussed these things together. Lenore wanted to have a variety of textures and colors. It was interesting to have the candles, the Buddha, and then the Japanese folding screen, as well as the angels. I think she wanted to create a mood, a kind of reverent mood. When I look at the painting now, I am struck by what a formal painting it is. I am almost shocked by that, because I have always associated formal portraits with aristocracy — and who am I to be sitting for a formal aristocratic portrait?
In another way, also, the portrait is transgressive. After all, we’re two women, not a married couple. Well, we’re married, but not like a heterosexual married couple. I think that other subjects who are represented by Lenore’s paintings are like that as well —transgressive.
Roth: Kim, how do you feel about having your own paintings reproduced within Lenore’s painting?
Kim: That was really touching! It was a real bonding experience for Lenore to do that, the sweetest of gestures. It was background for her portrait of us, but it was very emotional for me to have my paintings repainted by someone I really care about. And painted so differently than how I would paint them. I was deeply touched by that.
What’s really fascinating about the way Lenore repaints other people’s painting is that she does it empathetically, not ironically. Many artists have done paintings that include other people’s paintings, but it is usually in such an ironic context. Lenore actually paints them as a tribute to the painter who painted them. It is a quintessential gesture of Lenore, who is one of the most generous people whom I have ever met.
Roth: After the photograph was taken, what happened?
Meyers: Well, we took multiple photographs. We tried out a bunch of different poses, and put the props in different positions… Lenore shot about two rolls, and she also did details of the objects. This process took a couple of hours. It was a scary experience at first, but it was also great fun. It was scary to realize that your portrait was going to be painted. Probably the same thing with photographs as well. You know…”How am I going to look?” — all the self-consciousness involved in that. But it also felt we were part of a joint enterprise, so it was definitely a really good experience.
Roth: And after she took the photographs home and began to create the painting based on them, did she report to you about what she was doing?
Anno: Oh Yes! She would send us email updates with downloaded images of partially done pieces — like this was done… that was done today. You become really involved with her process. I loved the process, it was so engaging. So we would wait eagerly to see what her next message was going to be like.
Meyers: At the very beginning she sent us, (or showed us) the photographs that she was going to use. I think the main section of Kim and myself was drawn from one photograph, but then some of the other objects might have been slightly altered. It was very interesting to see how it developed.
Roth: And then were you invited over to see the finished painting? What was that like?
Meyers: It was really cool, really touching, because even though we had seen it on e-mail, and printouts, it was not the same as seeing something that is six feet tall. I was blown away, and also when you go into her apartment — it’s a small apartment, very crowded — there’s this huge painting. It takes up a large part of her living space and her working space. That just shows how important it is. All this was very moving.
Anno: Yeah, everything in her apartment was in disarray except for the portrait that was there in the center of the mess…
Roth: And who will own the painting eventually?
Anno: We don’t know. It would be probably too confrontational for us to have it up in our house æ a display of narcissism? I know it would be too much for me, but what do you think, Ellen?
Meyers: Yes, I agree. Also it’s so big I don’t know if it would fit anywhere.
Anno: Well, we do have one wall where it could fit. I really think it is one of Lenore’s best paintings … the attention to detail, the structure of the painting, the light. Of course, she has done lots of other portraits, but they are more casual. And this one, a straight- on formal portrait, was such an assertive step for her.
I look at it disassociated from the fact that it’s us. I hope that it gets a public display. It really takes on something about lesbian life, and the seriousness of one’s relationship, which, in our case, is a transracial relationship. There’s a lot of multi-layering references in the painting, and I’m very happy that I was part of it.
Meyers: Yes, I agree, and it’s not just that we are lesbian, but also we are a butch/femme couple, and as Kim says, we are from different cultures. There are all those signifiers with the differing of all the objects that we’ve chosen. I think it’s a very compelling painting.
Molly Robertson: What was it like sitting for the photographs?
Anno: Ellen, weren’t you kind of worried you were going to be in the background? There was a little bit of struggle over this, like I was in front and she was behind … And Ellen was like, “So, I’m just an appendage or something…” We had this little ego thing happening for a moment!
Meyers: Right, lots of ego…
Anno: We had taken some photographs side by side, some with me in the back and you in the front.
Meyers: We did some with me sitting and Kim standing. So it was interesting that Lenore finally chose this pose. We didn’t actually ever talk about why she chose this one, did we?
Anno: No. We’re not exactly sure why she chose that pose, where I’m looking off to the side, rather than at the viewer–which is an unusual portraitist thing to do. It’s a kind of triangular view engagement.
Meyers: I really like that Kim is looking off. It’s so unexpected, and throws everything off kilter from what one expects of a standard formal portrait. Even though a lot of the setting is very standard, for example, the poses, and the signifying props, and the formalness.
Roth: I seem to remember that at a certain point Lenore was attracted to a composition that referred back to a traditional Chinese portraiture style. Who came up with that? Lenore?
Anno: Yes, definitely Lenore. She had been looking at the compositions in a lot of Chinese paintings, and she showed them to us. She got really inspired by the idea and decided to use that reference, even before she decided to paint us.
Meyers: She was also inspired by some of the work she had done for the web. She had done a web page that was a very different project from anything she had done before. I think she also tried to incorporate aspects of that into this project, in terms of the layering and the way that you have boxes. Kim’s paintings function as those boxes in some way.
Anno: She has done a lot of documentation about gay life and history and her friendship circles, and I think she wanted to figure out how she could merge that with more of her cultural heritage. She hadn’t started as deeply into that engagement as she wanted to, and I think our portrait is the beginning of that.
Roth: So you think there may be other portraits, representing her Asian-American background? After all, since your portrait, Leonore has painted Bernice Bing’s.
Roth: May we know a little more about your own biographies?
Meyers: I’m Jewish, from Massachusetts, a middle class family. I’ve been an aspiring photographer, though that’s taken a backseat currently while Kim and I are trying to find a baby to adopt. And I work as a grantwriter for Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco. Before that I worked in development for other non-profits. I’ve been active in the lesbian/gay community, not really in the political sense, but more in a cultural activist sense.
Anno: I’m a painter, and a public artist, as well as a professor of painting (and what we are now calling Cultural Studies) at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland. I’m Japanese, Native American, Polish, and Irish, one quarter each. I’m from Los Angeles, where I grew up in the 1970s, and was swept up in the feminist upheaval. It was quite an experience.
Roth: And you were involved with the Woman’s Building in L.A…
Anno: Yes, I attended the famous Feminist Art Workshop there in 1976.
Roth: Maybe you could both talk a little about Lenore. Kim, when did you first meet her and what was her relationship with the Asian American Women Artists Association (AAWAA), which you both belong too (as I do, too)?
Anno: I first met Lenore at AAWAA. I would see her walking around with her long pony-tail, and her cap, and her glasses. I thought, “Man! She’s great! I’ve got to get to know that Lenore!” But it was awhile before we fully engaged in conversation.
I think it was also around the time when we became closer with Bernice Bing, who was a friend of Lenore’s. I was immediately struck by Lenore’s sense of humor, a funny, cutting, dry sense of humor. At the same time she’s such a pure heart, so sweet, so concerned about everybody, and everything, and has been such a long-time activist. I have so much respect for her because she has given up a lot to do things for many other people. I remain deeply impressed by that aspect of Lenore. And she’s just a lot of fun to be with!
Meyers: I met Lenore through Kim, I don’t remember exactly when, but I know it was through some dinner parties. I’ve gotten to know her more slowly. It’s incredible how dedicated she is both to her art and to the community. I’m very impressed by her and I just think she is a very good person.
Anno: Ellen had two photographs in a show, a tiny little show in Downtown Oakland at Oakland.Art.Dot.Com. It was some kind of erotic photo show, curated by Randolph Bell, and it was Ellen’s first show. We were very excited, but Ellen was shy so she didn’t want to invite anyone, but she did invite Lenore, and Lenore shows up with her friend, Welcome. They show up, and bring flowers! It was just amazing! She was so supportive.
Robertson: Would you tell us a little about Bernice Bing, who was so clearly a key figure for you and Lenore, as well as so many other women in the lesbian community and in the Asian American Women Artists Association?
Anno: I remember Bernice as being someone who completely spoke her mind, very, very honestly, without fear. You never felt a sense of fear from Bernice, even when Bernice was very ill. She never communicated to me any fear. When I first saw her, I thought I’m going to have to get to know this person. She was fascinating. At AAWAA, she was definitely a leader.
She had been involved with her art-making, living in San Francisco for so many years until she moved up north. She had a lot to give, and I had a lot of respect for her for that. I also remember her as always being interested in my opinions. She always wanted to know what I thought about something. I felt a sense of respect from her, which doesn’t happen all that often from people; she just kind of was that way.
Also she was committed to abstraction since the late 1950s and I thought that was really interesting. She had worked her way through Abstract Expressionism and continued to embrace abstraction. She had gradually distilled it down to a kind of language that was really distinct from Abstract Expressionism, and more about Chinese painting and calligraphy — a kind of trans-morphing of that. I thought that was really fascinating. I’m influenced by that, and her bravery, and experimentation with that.
We had many conversations about spirituality and mark-making, Buddhism and mark-making, as both our painting are a kind of meditation practice. A practice of focus; one’s meditation happens in the studio and culminates in the mark. We had a lot of dialogue about that, and these helped me further my own kind of practice, as I didn’t have anyone else to talk to about it.
It just seemed to me that one was either meditating in silence, and not moving, or you were making art, which was another activity of meditation. Bernice was a person who could see the bridge, because I knew there was a bridge. This meant that I was really reassured to be able to talk to her about that “bridge” experience. Also Bernice was so supportive of my lesbianism and my relationship to Ellen; she was curious, and very teasing about it, and that was so endearing to me. I really appreciated that about her. She had a kind of understanding about life that was very committed and focused, and light. It wasn’t like a burden, everything was easily figured out and done. You take the steps and you have a positive mind. She could relate to anyone.
I feel like she died at a time when we could have gone so much deeper into this conversation about our art and our spiritual life, and so I was caught off guard by her death. I had such a deep sadness about it. I feel I’m a little bit more on my own now. It’s okay, I mean I can keep working, but I really wish she was here to talk with more about everything!
Meyers: I only met Bernice a couple of times, but I wish I had been able to know her for longer. She was really an incredible person, a powerful personality, and very funny. She was also very real. I remember one time when she came over to our house for dinner — there were a couple of other people here also — and somehow the conversation turned to … what was it, Kim?
Meyers: Right, anger, and how you get out your anger, and Bernice was just right out there in terms of things she would do when she was angry.
Anno: She said that she had gotten into physical fights earlier on.
Meyers: She said she ran her truck into something…
Roth: This is our Bernice Bing, the Buddhist?
Meyers: Yeah, I guess so!
Anno: She told us that she had a very tumultuous youth, in her twenties. And that she wasn’t very proud of it, but that she and her lover had fought physically. She said she had to really look at that and do something else differently in her later life. And, of course, she did.