Bones N' Roses. Q+A with Lydia Kern
The South End Art Hop is currently bumpin' in downtown Burlington. It's the biggest arty party all year, drawing huge crowds concentrated around the Pine Street Arts District. To highlight the occasion, State14 contributor, Nathanael Asaro, spoke one-on-one with local artist, Lydia Kern, whose spare and whimsical installations have enchanted art hoppers since she graduated from the University of Vermont in 2015. Lydia's work, and Nathanael's images—of the artist and her work—are on display this weekend.
Tell us about yourself!
Hi! I’m Lydia Kern. I’m a visual artist. I’ve been living in the Old North End of Burlington for the past five years, and making my work out of a collective studio space called the Hive on Pine Street in the South End.
How would you describe your artwork?
The one word I use to classify my work is sculpture, though some of my work verges on installation; the space between objects is just as much a part of my work as the objects themselves. Besides sculpture, I also think a lot about movement as a member of Erika Senft-Miller’s Performance Lab dance company.
Did you always know you wanted to pursue art?
I studied social work and studio art at the University of Vermont. I was focused on my social work degree for most of my college experience, continuing to take art classes and just “seeing where it went”. It wasn’t until spring of my senior year that I decided to pursue art-making in a committed way, outside of school. In the social work program, I would bring my artwork to class to express ideas, speaking in metaphor and material. During the winter of my senior year, I experienced intense personal loss that colored my decision to make work. During that time my social work professors would let me bring my artwork to class to work on in the back of the lecture hall in order to pay attention.
Let's talk muse. What inspires your work?
I think it’s interesting that the act of creating physical structures can be a way to articulate and explore inward structures of emotion, relations, and memory. People build physical reference points to express experiences that are difficult to encapsulate in words alone. The relationship between materials, objects, light, and the empty space is poetic: objects become words, and sculptures become poems. Also, working with animal bones is continually inspiring to me. Bones are structures of loss and also of continuance, taking on new meanings in relationship to new physical contexts. The cut roses I’ve been working with hold this meaning for me, as well.
Walk me through your process of creating a piece.
My process usually begins with an image of materials in my mind that symbolize some sort of emotional or relational experience. Most of the time, an idea will sit with me for months. Feedback from friends, personal and historical research, and material treasure hunts add to this brewing time. Sometimes these material treasure hunts lead me to places like the fishing aisle of Walmart, Sally’s Beauty Supply, yard sales, and compost piles. I’ve been working with animal bones for the last 4 years. The process of cleaning them in an intentional way is part of my artwork. I dig them out of compost piles on farms and sometimes the bones come to me as gifts from friends. A couple weeks ago a friend showed up to my studio with an entire deer spinal column. So now there are four deer spinal columns in my backyard, along an entire sheep that was gifted to me. Bones have even been mailed to me from across the country! I like that other people are participating in the material treasure hunt now, too. I define ‘work’ as trips to Sally’s Beauty Supply for hair hydrogen peroxide (for bone cleaning) and digging 4x6-foot holes to unearth bones. In this way, I am trying to call into question how we spend our time and how we define meaningful work.
What are your aspirations?
A couple months ago I tried to distill my life ambitions into two goals (not in order of importance): 1. Make art. 2. Be a good friend. It turns out, these two goals are pretty difficult and take an enormous amount of effort and time, but I can’t think of anything better to continually invest in. Maybe number three should be to keep learning. That might mean eventually going back to school for an MFA, but for now I’m interested in attending residencies outside of Vermont and seeking opportunities to show my work while being based in Burlington.