Interviews

Meet LA’s Art Community: Alison Saar on Her Harriet Tubman Monument and Finding Inspiration

A new interview series spotlighting some of the great work coming out of Los Angeles. Hear directly from artists, curators, and art workers about their current projects and personal quirks.

Welcome to the second installment of the interview series Meet LA’s Art Community. Check out our past interviews here.

This week, we interviewed the artist Alison Saar. Saar earned her MFA from the Otis-Parsons Institute (now Otis College of Art and Design) in Los Angeles. Her select public works include: “Monument to the Great Northern Migration” (Chicago, Illinois), “Swing Low: Harriet Tubman Memorial” (Harlem, New York), and “Embodied” (Los Angeles, California). In 2020, the Armory Center for the Arts and the Benton Museum of Art at Pomona College will jointly present Alison Saar: Of Aether and Earthe, an exhibition of the artist’s sculptures and installations at both locations.

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Alison Saar (image courtesy Alison Saar)

Where were you born?

I was born in Los Angeles and lived in the South Bay until we moved to Laurel Canyon when I was six years old.

At the time, Laurel Canyon was at its height of creative energy with musicians and artists. Frank Zappa, Neil Young, and Joni Mitchell were among our neighbors.

However, as a child, I was more enthralled with the other wildlife of the area: owls, deer, and coyotes.

How long have you been living in Los Angeles?

Aside from the 15 years of living in New York, I have always lived in Los Angeles. I moved to New York after graduate school, then in 1995 I moved back so my children could be close to their grandparents and cousins, and fell in love with Los Angeles all over again.

What’s your first memory of seeing art?

I suppose I was always seeing the art made by my father, Richard Saar, and mother, Betye Saar, but I have a distinct memory of visiting Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers when I must have been three. My father also worked at the LA County Museum, before LACMA, and so I spent many a day looking at the museum’s art and the animal dioramas growing up.

Do you like to photograph the art you see? If so, what device do you use to photograph?

I will sometimes shoot art with my phone to share with friends, but I try not to dilute the experience by being overly concerned with documenting it.

What was your favorite exhibition in Los Angeles this year?

Well, aside from my mother’s show Call and Response at LACMA, I also loved the David Hammons show at Hauser & Wirth. Having known David for much of his career through his body paint printings, barbershop sweepings, barbecue greasings, Brownstone dealings, and bottlecap cobblings, the exhibition felt like a family reunion.

What’s the best book you’ve read recently?

In the Wake: On Blackness and Being by Christina Sharpe.

Do you prefer to see art alone or with friends?

Since my entire family are artists, we often go to see shows together and while we all have shared interests, we also have varied responses to the work we see, making for some lively discussions. Nothing better than seeing art with someone you love followed by a heated discourse over lunch.

What are you currently working on?

I am working on a number of public commissions and also a series of sculptures and paintings for LA Louver’s booth at Frieze LA.

What is one accomplishment that you are particularly proud of?

I suppose “Swing Low,” my monument to Harriet Tubman in Harlem, is the piece that receives the most attention. I love that the work has become a place where people congregate not only to celebrate Harriet but also to rally for social causes.

Where do you turn to for inspiration for your projects?

I find inspiration in music, mythology, history, and all the crazy out there in our world.

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