From Fabric To Canvas and Back Again: Audrey Lyall
Like her work, Audrey Lyall can be best described as a maximalist. Whether through painting, design, or installations, Lyall expands our view with an assemblage of textures, colors, and shapes. Before getting her start in Pratt Institute’s Fashion Design and Critical and Visual Studies programs, Lyall’s reality as a mixed-race woman informed her dynamic creative vision—with race relations, identity, surveillance, and social anxiety being the core themes in her practice. Moving forward, Lyall plans to release a limited-edition collection of garments and continue to assert herself in an art world that expects women to wait for their accolades.
You describe yourself as a multimedia artist. What mediums are you working in?
Right now, I’m mostly making mixed media paintings. I use any materials I can get my hands on — acrylic paint, pastels, watercolors, gauge, glitter. I use a lot of found objects too, and sometimes I find things as I walk through the city.
How long have you been working and how did you get started?
I’ve been making art my whole life. I didn’t know it was a viable option until late high school because around that time, I had to start thinking about college. I knew I wouldn’t do well in a traditional college environment, and then I discovered I could go to art school. At that point, I was more interested in fashion design and started with that. Fashion design led me into making art, and then I heavily got into painting around mid-college and switched to that instead.
Why did you make the transition from fashion design to painting?
I did 1.5 years in the fashion design program at Pratt, and I felt very constricted within the program. The first two years are extremely technical, so you have to learn how to make patterns, drape, and get graded on the technical aspects. I wasn’t enjoying it anymore, and I thought the payoff wasn’t worth it. In my sophomore year, I switched to a program called Critical & Visual Studies, which is a combination of philosophy, fine arts, and critical theory. In that program, I was able to take classes in other departments, so I started taking painting, ceramic, and printmaking classes. I began exploring different artistic mediums and realized I preferred making work on paper and canvas rather than making clothes. Now I’m getting back into making clothes, so it’s a full-circle experience.
Some themes you explore through your practice include race relations, identity, surveillance, and social anxiety. Can you explain why some of these themes are important to you and how they manifest in your practice?
Those things may seem unrelated, but for me, they intertwine because when I first started painting, I was navigating people’s reactions to my racial identity. My mother is Black, and my dad is white, but I grew up in a white town in California. I felt out of place because I had to deal with a lot of anti-black racism — people would say awful things to me, but on top of that, people would make comments about my mixed background, and it seemed to confuse people. That started to create a lot of anxiety for me because I felt that I was constantly watched and could never be good enough for anyone. Even when I moved to New York, I was asked what race I was. I started to feel like a spectacle. A lot of that started to come out in my art by creating this world that didn’t exist in real life.
My work is sort of abstract and cartoonish. Sometimes the setting is unclear, and you can’t tell how the person is feeling. I like to play on these feelings of ambiguity and in-betweenness because I never felt that I fit into the real world. Art created an avenue where I could create characters I could relate to when in reality, there weren’t many people I thought I could relate to. In some situations I’m perceived as a Black person, in some situations I’m perceived as a mixed person, and in other situations I’m perceived as something I’m totally not. I find it hard to articulate that duality, so it’s easier to express it through art.
(L) Who’s the Captain Now? (2021); fabric, collaged paper, oil pastel, acrylic paint, watercolor paint, ceramic stucco, pearl, rhinestone, star gems, plastic. Artist wearing matching hand dyed dress (R) Vroom Vroom (2020); collaged paper, acrylic paint, oil pastel, gel pen
I was initially drawn to the assemblage that is your style — your hair, makeup, and outfits have a strong correlation to the textures, colors, and shapes in your work. How would you describe your style? How does it align with your maximalist, Afro-futurist works?
You’re totally right! I purposely make outfits & pull garments that reflect the work I make. I recently thought: why not take what’s in my art and bring it to the 3-D realm? Sometimes I’ll make a painting and make an outfit that matches it on purpose. The reason I got so into creating my style is while growing up, I didn’t fit it. When you’re in a situation like that, you either want to hide, cover yourself, blend in, straighten your hair, and not be noticed, or you throw your hands up and become as different as possible — that’s the route I took.
In the past year, my style has become 100% based on my artwork. I thought I would be a fashion designer when I was 18 to 19, then I stopped doing that. But in the past year, I’ve gotten back into it. My parents sent me my old sewing machine, I’ve been making a lot more clothes, and I’m going to start selling clothes as well. The motivation for me is that I want to go out and wear something that nobody has ever seen before. I want people to look at me and be confused. Yes, it’s maximalist; yes, it’s colorful; yes, it’s over the top — but it’s always very cohesive.
Do you make the painting first then the outfit? What’s your process with that?
It’s usually painting first, then the garment. Sometimes I use fabric in my paintings, so if I have leftover fabric, I’ll also use it in the outfit. I’m open to changing that process, and I’m sure there will be a time when I make the outfit first, then make the painting based on it.
As you work across mediums such as painting, ceramics, installations, and design, how do you execute your ideas? Can you explain your creative process?
I don’t plan things out. Usually, with a painting or a garment, I’ll have a concept in my head — experiences, dreams, or interactions that I’ve had. Sometimes I use historical references and recreate old paintings. I get the idea in my head, make a messy sketch with pencil and no color to layout where characters will go, then go straight to the canvas. It’s a very tedious, piece-by-piece process that’s random and erratic. I don’t know what the painting will look like until it’s finished.
(L) Artist wearing hand dyed top and surrounded by Sunrise in Outer Space installation (2021); fabric, acrylic paint, collaged paper on board. Photographed by Carina Allen (R) 2 Person Func. (2021); collaged paper, ceramic stucco, oil pastel, acrylic paint, watercolor, sequins, poly & cotton thread, acrylic ink, fabric, vinyl on canvas
Who are some of your favorite artists?
In terms of visual artists, I love Janiva Ellis, Devan Shimoyama, Arcmanoro Niles, Brianna Rose Brooks, Faith Ringgold, and David Hammons. David Hammons is one of my earliest influences. I discovered him in high school and have been obsessed with him since.
Since I studied philosophy and critical theory in school, I’m also inspired by Gloria Anzaldúas — she does a lot of work about being multiracial and embodying multiple identities. I also love Adrian Piper; she’s an artist and philosopher. When I went to her exhibition a few years ago at MoMa, I cried! It was the only exhibition I ever cried at. I felt so seen. I’m also very inspired by Lil Kim — her style is everything I strive for! I admire her and her music as well.
Have you encountered any obstacles as an artist? How did you work to overcome them?
Being an artist in itself is an obstacle because it’s a very niche world. Many people outside of artist communities don’t care about art. Being an artist is a challenging path to choose, which is why I admire other artists. Another big obstacle is that people don’t take women as seriously in the art world — especially Black women. I’ll be in a space with male artists, mention that I’m also an artist, and they won’t ask me anything about my work. It’s like they don’t even care. They don’t ask me anything about myself! Because I’m a woman, it’s like they view me as an accessory to a male artist, and that’s been so frustrating.
I also noticed that when people ask me what I do, and I say I’m an artist, they dismiss it. When I show them my art, they’re like…ok you’re actually an artist! Do they think I’m lying? That wouldn’t happen if I were a man. When you meet male artists, everyone eats it up and is super excited to see what they’re working on. The way to overcome that is to be confident and insert yourself into the space. If I notice people aren’t interested in finding out what I do, I’ll bring it up. What I’ve learned is that you have to own your work, be confident in your work, and the rest will come later.
Where do you see yourself and your practice in the future?
I’ve been in an interesting space creatively. I’ve been feeling burnt out and haven’t been as inspired lately. I’ve been doing commissions, which has been interesting because there’s not as much freedom since they’re for clients. I have three to finish, and once I do, I want to take a break from the type of painting I’ve been doing and explore more sculptural techniques. I also want to challenge myself to do some works that are purely abstract or collage. Beyond that, I plan on releasing more clothing. I want to create a collection of garments — they would all be hand-dyed, hand-knit, hand-sewn, one-of-a-kind garments.
What is a moment you’re proud of in your career?
Generally, I’m proud that I’ve continued to make art because it’s easy to get discouraged. In a more specific way, before the pandemic, I would have my own shows with my friend Sebastien Pierre. We would find a space for a night and do these pop-up exhibitions. The most recent one was in 2020 before the pandemic, where we got a white wall gallery space and a ton of people came! Strangers were coming in and looking at the work. I remember this elderly couple that looked confused, but they went up to one of my paintings, and the man was in awe and started taking pictures, then he said: “Can you teach me how to put this on Instagram? I want to show my friends.” It was so cute, and I thought it was amazing that these random people from the street were coming in and connecting with my work! Taking the step and not waiting for a gallery to show our work is something I’m proud of. I hope we continue to do that as things open. I want to get that started again because it’s a cool way to interact with the community and show your work publicly without dealing with all the politics of a traditional gallery.
(L) Handmade top & skirt (2021); Photographed by Carina Allen (R) Artist wearing The Charmer Sweater (2021); hand knitted yarn and charms
Can you leave some parting advice for artists?
This will sound so corny, but my biggest advice is to stay true to who you are and stay true to what you want to make. These days with the pressure of Instagram and showing your work, it’s easy to get caught up in what your audience and followers want to see. There’s a danger in that because you lose sight of your vision and concepts when you’re too worried about what other people want to see.
Don’t worry about likes, how many shows you have this year, and how many solo exhibitions you have opening — make the work, and the rest will fall into place. At the end of the day, people like authenticity, people like work that isn’t so contrived. Don’t worry about what you think other people want to see. Take breaks when you need them, try new mediums, and don’t box yourself in.