An Artist’s Second Act, Years in the Making
“Everything that’s happening to me has everything to do with me teaching children,” Bonnie Lucas tells me, beaming. We’re standing in her fifth-floor walk-up in Little Italy (now known to some as NoLita) where she has lived for over 30 years. It’s the classic unrenovated tenement layout you don’t see much anymore – two rooms, 400 square feet, with the bathtub in the kitchen. It’s also Bonnie’s studio. She covers the bathtub with a fitted piece of metal to create her work bench, where for the last three decades she’s created a vast array of collages, paintings and assemblages.
I was introduced to Bonnie by a parent at PS 110 in the Lower East Side, where she is a beloved art teacher. “Miss Bonnie,” as she’s known by her elementary students, has been teaching art in New York City since 1988. She is a visiting teaching artist in public schools, through a city-wide program partly sponsored by the Henry Street Settlement. Many of her students come for “studio visits” to see her work, which she has carefully stored in the bedroom and hangs on the walls of her kitchen.
Recently a good friend of her Henry Street supervisor sent Tod Lippy, the influential curator and editor of Esopus Magazine, over to look at her work. Bonnie showed him what she’s been working on for the last decade or so, and within ten minutes he offered her a solo show in his esteemed gallery, Esopus Space.
Lippy told me he was blown away by Bonnie’s work and immediately felt the collages were deserving of their own show. He said, “the work is beautiful and incredibly charged, both psychologically and dramatically. It explores these minefields of childhood – and of feminism.”
It’s an exciting break for Bonnie, who was hot in the ’80’s; shortly after arriving in the city, she landed three solo shows at a gallery in the East Village. Her first show in 1979 was at the Kathryn Markel gallery. She was featured in Artforum, got lots of press and quite a few glowing reviews. In the ’90’s, there were a few group shows, but as Bonnie tells it, she fell in to “obscurity” after that. The upcoming exhibition will be her first show in over a decade.
Bonnie moved to the city from upstate, after earning her MFA from Rutgers University, in 1979. “I got in while the rents were still reasonable,” she says. “I knew I’d have to keep my operations small because I only wanted to work part-time so I could create my art.” She’s lived very frugally. “I don’t buy much, I don’t even have storage,” she exclaims, “and it’s worked!”
Bonnie scours 99-cent stores on the Bowery and in Chinatown to find material. She uses toys, coloring books and paper dolls, along with recycled artwork, discarded watercolor pieces and reconfigures them in to what she calls “strange dreamlike landscapes.”
“My work has always been about domesticity, femininity and growing up as a girl or a boy,” she tells me.
Her images often include a “universal girl” from a paper doll book or an actual doll with pieces torn off or missing, and replaced by fantastic images. The colors are bright and shiny, popping out to reflect our consumer culture. But the items are pulled apart to reveal an inner universe that is not so simple.
“There’s no direct meaning. It’s not a puzzle,” she says, but then she shows me a recent collage and admits, “this one’s quite pointed.” It’s a picture of Charlie Brown without his head. He’s been fishing. On the tip of his rod, (actually a painted barbecue skewer, a favorite material of Bonnie’s) is a doll. “He skewered a girl, she fell apart, she’s all torn up – it’s kind of sad, but – he doesn’t have a head.” She laughs. “He might have caught a girl but he lost his head.”
Looking more closely at an assemblage piece hanging on the wall, I am immediately struck by the dark undercurrent beneath the bright pink and green plastic objects. Collectibles and baby-doll heads, have been repositioned and shoved in to a round wire basket that was used to hold paper plates at a picnic. I can see what Lippy means when he writes that Bonnie’s work reveals “the depth and consistency of a layered, borderline-obsessive vision of the dark continent of childhood.” There is a constant exploration of role models and gender identity beneath the surface of all of the work.
“When I was a little girl I was supposed to play with things a certain way, act a certain way. I had to do the ‘right’ thing a lot,” she says, “so part of the joy for me is clever manipulation and breaking rules even if they’re silly little rules about how to use materials.”
We talked about how much had changed for women in just one generation, since she attended Wellesley in 1968. The Feminist Revolution was just beginning. “We still had to wear skirts to dinner, we couldn’t have men in our rooms.” She notes, with a twinkle in her eye, that Hillary Clinton was a senior when she was a freshman. Clinton was the head of campus government at the time. Bonnie remembers a panel that Clinton moderated titled, ‘Virginity, should you lose it or not?’ “Can you believe that?” she asks me.
What Bonnie has a hard time believing today is how much being an artist in New York City has changed since the days of low-rent store-front galleries in Alphabet City.
“Do you happen to know my brother’s music?” she asks. Her brother is Gary Lucas, the internationally renowned guitarist and composer who once played with Captain Beefheart (a band many associate with Frank Zappa). Gary and Bonnie came to New York at the same time. “He has an amazing website,” she says, “he never had a day job. He has supported himself playing and writing music for over 25 years.”
I ask if that has been hard for her and she is quiet. Finally, she says yes. “It took me a while,” she says, “I did not realize how hard he works to make this happen. I mistakenly thought, 25 years ago, that if I had wonderful work and showed it, I wouldn’t have to do anything else. But – suddenly, I turned 60 and I realized I have to (do more) – in a way, market myself.”
The upcoming show at Esopus (64 W. 3rd Street), “Bonnie Lucas: Collages,” will feature 30 selections from two series of collages, one from the 1990’s and one from the past year. The show opens on March 29th and runs through May 3rd. An opening reception for Bonnie will be held on March 29th from 6-8pm. DO visit her Facebook page here.
UPDATE: April 22 – Bonnie’s show has been extended. It now runs through May 10th.