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Interview with visual artist Ellen Lake

Published March 2019

You are an interdisciplinary artist perhaps best known for works about collectors and collections. Could you say something about your most current project? 
For almost a decade I made work about eclectic collections. From macaroni and cheese boxes to fire hydrants, Chinese take-out menus to Power Puff Girls, one interview led to the next until I couldn't keep up with editing my growing collection. As equipment changed from Hi-8 cameras to Flip video and GoPros over the time I was doing this project, my work shifted from collections to exploring rapidly evolving technology. Finding a treasure trove of 16 mm Kodachrome films from 1939-1942 in my grandmothers closet with colors vibrant and perfectly preserved, 50  plus years later, I started using that as source material to make film collages mixing analog and digital to think about time, space, and gradual obselescence of machinery and memory.


You were recently an artist-in-residence at The Rauschenberg Residency. Could you say something about this experience and the project you did there? 
This fall I spent two magical weeks at the Rauschenberg Residency in Captiva, Florida very much inspired by the work and legacy of Robert Rauschenberg. I worked in the Bay Studio where I created temporary photo-based installations and fell in love with ceramics and with getting my hands dirty. I didn't realize how much time I spent in my art practice in editing mode and on my computer. Overall, I came away with a desire to take risks, experiment more across media, bring radical hospitality into my life, to collaborate with peers, and go on more residencies.


Would you say that using a sketchbook is a natural part of your working process? 

I use a sketchbook the same way I work out - intermittenly. I have the best of intentions, but not a steady habit. I'm going to carry my sketchbook, draw, collect ideas, tape images in there, make lists AND I'm going to the gym this week.


We understand that your Bench Project in the North Oakland neighborhood has been a great success. Could you say something about your experience on how the local community has welcomed the project? 

I love the project Bench Projects celebrating diverse North Oakland artists by showcasing their artwork on AC Transit bus stops in Oakland. I started the project after seeing "Advertise Here" advertisements on North Oakland neighborhood benches and thinking - we can do better. For benches that never seem to receive ads, I commissioned local artists to activate these public spaces with their work. Over four years, the local community has championed the project and we've shown work by 19 Oakland artists to date.


If you think back, could you say something about your route to becoming an artist? 

My route to becoming an artist has been a meandering journey. When I was making giant paper mache popsicle sculptures in High School art class with Andrea Otteson, I would not have guessed being an artist was to be in my future. After studying Chinese in Nanjing and in College and then working in homeless services and mental health for a stint, I decided at age 30 to return to school to get a Masters of Fine Arts degree. From their I let curiosity lead the way. To balance out my art practice, I work as an arts administrator at one of my most favorite places in the world - Kala Art Institute, an artist residency program located in the former Heinz ketchup building in West Berkeley, California.


Would you say that the artists that gave you inspiration as a student are the same as the artists that inspire you now? 
Yes, some of my favorite artists in college and grad school are still some of my favorite artists today including Alan Rath, Judith Scott, Louise Bourgeois, Eva Hesse, Jessica Stockholder, Christian Marclay, Annette Messager and I just add to the list of artists who inspire me with artists I've met along the way including Hung Liu, Gail Wight, Heike Liss, Seth Koen, Laura Splann, Robb Putnam, or recent exhibitions that I've seen including Alison Saar, Jacob Hashimoto, Sterling Ruby, and the list goes on and on.

Ellen Lake is an interdisciplinary artist living in Oakland, California. She has a BA from Amherst College and MFA from Mills College where she focused on film and video, sculpture, and installation. Her work experiments with technology, explores archives and collections, and ranges from public art to site-specific installation. Current work includes Bench Projects, a public art initiative which replaces ads with art by local artists at AC Transit bus stops in North Oakland. Ellen is Managing Director at Kala Art Institute, an artist residency program in Berkeley, California that fosters a fresh approach to artistic experimentation, as artists investigate the interface of digital work, work made by hand, and everything in between.

Ellen's website:

Kala's Website:

Photo documentation published with permission of the artist. ©️ Ellen Lake

Rauschenberg Studio, Photo adhesive temporary, site specific installations.

Ceramics Sculptures made at Rauschenberg Residency

Bus Benches - Stephanie Dennis

Rauschenberg Residency Bay Studio

Bus Benches - Jet Martinez

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