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The Queue: Cynthia Lahti

Get to know the people featured in the pages of our magazine as they share what's inspiring them right now.

The Queue: Cynthia Lahti

Get to know the people featured in the pages of our magazine as they share what's inspiring them right now.
Cynthia Lahti headshot

Cynthia Lahti. Photo by Sam Gehrke Photography.

Cynthia Lahti headshot.

Cynthia Lahti. Photo by Sam Gehrke Photography.

Cynthia Lahti’s sculptures in Showing Up bring craft to the big screen.
In Kelly Reichardt’s new film Showing Up, sculptor Lizzy (Michelle Williams) prepares for an upcoming show while balancing interruptions from her administrative job at an arts and craft school, her negligent landlord, an injured pigeon, a kiln mishap, and the demands of her difficult family. Director Reichardt grounded her film in her local craft scene, inviting Cynthia Lahti, a longtime artist in Portland, Oregon, to have her work stand in for Lizzy’s. Reichardt’s camera lingers on Lahti’s richly textured figurative sculptures of girls and women. Lizzy shapes and carves greenware duplicates of Lahti’s sculptures made just for the film. Lahti’s drawings hang on the walls of Lizzy’s studio. The viewer is invited into a vivid slice of Lizzy’s life, a rare cinematic look into life as a craft artist. We spoke to Lahti about her involvement in the film (now in theaters nationwide) and about her practice. | @cynthialahtiartist

How do you describe your work or practice in 50 words or less?
Encompassing drawing, collage, altered books, and ceramic sculpture, my art is influenced by human artifacts and personal experience. The belief that even the smallest artifact can evoke the most powerful feelings is central to everything I make, drawing inspiration from objects and images, both historical and contemporary, that have the potential to reflect beyond themselves.

How did you come to make ceramics for Kelly Reichardt’s Showing Up?
Both Jon Raymond and Kelly Reichardt, the co-writers of Showing Up, had seen my art in shows and studio visits, and it resonated deeply with them. When they were writing the screenplay for the film, they thought of my ceramic sculptures as being the works Lizzy creates in the film. I was asked if my art could be used in Showing Up. After reading the script, I agreed to it.

Actress Michelle Williams holding a sculpture in a film shot.

Lizzy (Michelle Williams) inspects a sculpture freshly removed from the kiln by studio assistant Eric (André Benjamin). Photo courtesy of A24.

Did you read the script before making the work that was featured in the film? Did you collaborate with production staff or Michelle Williams to create a body of work for the film? How is what you made different from—or the same as—your own work?
The artworks were not made specifically for the film. I spent six months before the film was shot making a body of work, wanting to create the best sculptures I could from which the final selection would be made. I tried not to think about the film as I created the sculptures. Also during that time I unearthed a series of sculptures I had done of my niece Sylvi over 15 years ago. They are very active sculptures—she is doing a handstand in one! Shortly before filming began, Kelly Reichardt and I selected artworks to be used in the film. Kelly loved the ones of my niece, and five of them are in the film. Michelle Williams was not involved in this, but I did have many Zoom sessions and three studio visits with her. I showed her everything I could about my life as an artist and how to sculpt in clay. She was a joy to work with.

Did you have any say in how your work was installed and displayed in the film?
No, once they had the artworks, they used them as was appropriate for the film. For the drawings, they wanted to replicate how they looked hanging on my studio wall. Kelly decided to put the drawings in the film after visiting my studio and seeing them hanging there; they were not originally a part of my artistic contribution.

Photo of sculptures in Lahti's studio.

Lahti’s studio with sculptures and drawings used in the film Showing Up. Photo by Cynthia Lahti.

How has having your art in Showing Up impacted your practice or life?
The film has been screening for a month, and my life has been consumed by the response it is getting. I often have to remind myself to breathe. I'm just at the beginning of processing what that really means, but it sure feels great. I will not change my art practice at all—I know what works for me.

What are your favorite depictions of art in film?
Death in Venice by director Luchino Visconti is my favorite film about an artist's practice. It portrays an artist's obsession with beauty. I believe that being obsessed with something and letting it consume you is at the heart of making great art.

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