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    Artist Spotlight: Lexa Walsh

    lexaThroughout May, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco will be featuring a series of events with artist fellow Lexa Walsh, who is developing a map and archive of remarkable, and sometimes underrepresented, Bay Area art projects, venues and opportunities. As funding becomes tighter, we are seeing archives reprioritized. Walsh therefore has us thinking about what archives mean, how they are shared, and what are their afterlives.

    Oakland-based Walsh, who has toured internationally, already has her own impressive body of work. She humbly says she came to CA to let her “freak flag fly.” For certain projects, she works with conversation, food and music to create what she calls “hospitable democracy.” Coming out of a family of 15 siblings, she infuses many of her works with social engagement. Curious about this and more, we recently interviewed Walsh for the Bay Times.

    Bay Times: Please tell us a bit about your background and what it was like to be in a family of 15 (!) siblings. Do you think having such a large family has influenced your work as an artist?

    Lexa Walsh: Absolutely! It was so chaotic, yet warm and loving, growing up as the youngest of 15. We worked collaboratively all the time, and we were never really allowed to have personal issues. “Get over it and take one for the team” seemed to be the family motto. A therapist might have a field day with that one. Plus, we grew up Catholic, so service was a top priority. In any case, I am a real extrovert (and a devout agnostic), and can cope in a variety of social situations. It makes sense that I work with people as my medium, in a variety of service-oriented projects.

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    Bay Times: We had fun going through your website, exploring everything from underwear wedgies to photos abroad with you as a cut-out tourist. Please provide an overview of your work and what you hope to achieve with it.

    Lexa Walsh: That work you mention is pretty old, but it includes some of my favorites. I started out studying ceramic sculpture at CCAC (now the California College of the Arts) with Viola Frey in the late 80s. When I graduated, I no longer had a studio, so I started using found objects, and was interested in them in an archeological way. What were their real, or imagined, histories? This led to working more anthropologically with people, so I could get those answers. Since 2003, I have been working almost solely with participation and social engagement. Sometimes this involves play, cheer, food, music, conversation … whatever tool is right for the job—the job being relationship building, silo busting, place making, resource sharing, or institutional critique. I call my practice “hospitable democracy.”

    Bay Times: What first brought you to the Bay Area, and are you based here now? How do you think being in the Bay Area influences your work?

    Lexa Walsh: I moved to Oakland in 1988. In fact, when I came here first in ‘87 to visit, I felt like I was finally home. I transferred from Parsons School of Design in NY, which I felt was too uptight, to CCAC, where I could let my freak flag fly, so to speak. I have left a couple of times—working 8 summers at a progressive anarcho-collective art center in the Czech Republic and moving to Portland for 3 years of grad school—but I keep coming back. There is huge momentum in social practice (from artists) and public engagement (from institutions) here. It is an open, yet critical, environment for my practice.

    Bay Times: Our paper, the San Francisco Bay Times, is the oldest fully LGBT owned and funded paper for the LGBT community here. Maybe you know of it? How might your work connect with LGBT viewers and participants? Have you ever been inspired by anything in LGBT culture?

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    Lexa Walsh: I do know about the paper. There are a lot of moments in LGBTQ history that are on my timeline in the Kimball gallery—a big component of my project at the de Young. One way to connect is to discuss and add to the timeline of queer culture contributions to the art scenes, which are, of course, many. I have been very inspired by Act Up, Silence = Death, Lynn Breedlove’s Homobiles project, The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, and other creative, activist projects through the years.

    Bay Times: Please describe what projects you have planned for your stay at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

    Lexa Walsh: Well, it’s kind of big. I am looking at the last 50+ years of Bay Area art and culture, focusing on movements that are specific to this place, like the prevalence of post-studio practice, the socio-political-economic environment that has invited and nourished it, and how it is being archived. The gallery will have this timeline I mentioned that will grow and morph though the month. I have been interviewing and visiting with artists, archivists, and cultural workers to build content and to discuss archiving practices, which range from smashed boxes to white gloves and acid-free paper to throwing all physical evidence away and relying solely on the digital world. There are archival materials, ephemera, books and research materials to engage with, plus a station to build an archive and a taxonomy station where visitors can play around with and rearrange/appropriate materials to create story and meaning. Finally, there are some wonderful guest speakers every Saturday talking about these concerns. This is just May. There will also be a content-rich website, and more activities and events through the end of the year.

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    Tom Marioni’s project in the Berkeley Art Museum archive. Tom Marioni is one of Lexa Walsh’s key case studies.

    Bay Times: Where do you go for creative inspiration here in the Bay Area?

    Lexa Walsh: Everywhere. I think it started in West Oakland, where I live and where my found objects came from in the early 90’s. I have watched the Bay Area grow so much. When I moved here, there were a few mainstream galleries and a few artist-run spaces. Now, I feel like there is an artist for every space and a space for every artist. In the 90s we were really able to build our own scenes to accommodate our needs. This is, of course, at great risk right now. The future does not look bright for any of us unless the city does some serious regulating to protect art spaces and artists’ housing. However, at the same time, major institutions are adding really interesting programming (always through the Education and Public Programs departments, by the way). What would happen with that programming if there were no artists left to fill it?

    Bay Times: Who are some of your mentors and favorite artists?

    Lexa Walsh: Well, San Francisco artist/curator Margaret Tedesco was a mentor early in my career and she also happens to be a serious archivist. Ted Purves has been a wonderful help with this project and knows of every socially engaged project that has ever happened around here. He is generously lending some of his archive to the project. New York artist Nina Katchadourian taught me that it’s OK to have a truly interdisciplinary practice. There are too many to mention. Lets just say there are a lot of really smart, interesting artists out there, all over the world.

    Bay Times: Plans for the future?

    Lexa Walsh: In the fall I’m continuing with an archiving project for Oakland Museum of California’s Days of the Dead 20 year anniversary show. Oakland Museum is my official community partner in this fellowship, so it will be great to link this practice to their work and space. I have many other pots in the fire, but I can see the archiving project as just a beginning of something far deeper.

    You can keep abreast of some past and current projects at
    lexawalsh.tumblr.com Meanwhile, please come visit me at the de Young to participate.

    For more information about Walsh’s work and her FAMSF events in May, please visit deyoung.famsf.org/education/lexa-walsh