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Laurie Simmons has been exploring the meanings of home, family, and memory through art for decades. She grew up in the 1950s with a distinct vision of her parents—her father, a dentist, and her mother, a housewife. She was fascinated by household roles as they were projected on TV and in magazines. After college, she took a freelance gig photographing dollhouses and began to move the dolls around, further exploring identity, gender roles, and interior settings.
Today, with her husband, the artist Carroll Dunham, and her collie, Penny, she divides her time between an apartment in the city and her country home in Cornwall, Connecticut. In Cornwall, she has her studio, a garden, and just a few yards away, an enormous multilevel wooden barn that stores some of her life-size props and is the backdrop for some of her projects, like the film My Art.
On a chilly September afternoon, we drove up to her country home for a chat over homemade soup. We were there to talk about her new retrospective “Big Camera/Little Camera” at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth (on view through January 27), and we learned about her creative exploration of women in interior spaces and work sparked by secret ideas.
WHITEWALL: You mentioned that when you were growing up in the 1950s, your mom was a housewife and your dad was a dentist, and that the traditional household roles shaped you. How so?
LAURIE SIMMONS: My father was an amateur photographer, and he also had a tiny darkroom in the basement with a red safelight where he would develop dental X-rays in developing trays.
It seemed like my mother was responsible for the way things looked. And the way things looked became a huge influence on my work in the sense that color-coding was very important. Like, a pink room for a baby girl, a blue room for a baby boy. Whatever the color scheme was in any room, you would not deviate from that. And there were decorating magazines everywhere. That sort of fueled my interest in looking at pictures of rooms. To this very day, it continues to inform my work.
The house was part of my father’s American dream. He had grown up in Brooklyn and was first-generation American. Having a house in a suburb was his dream and the house represented, and was the embodiment of, his success. My father’s idea about his house being his castle was something I really absorbed or internalized. The castle image is something that comes up repetitively—the house image, the interior image. I keep recirculating all of these images in my work.
WW: Was the feeling you got growing up in that house something you wanted for your children?
LS: I didn’t think about having children. I had a kind of split brain. There was part of me that always knew I was an artist, and that meant I was different. And there was another part of me that assumed that I would have a life like my parents. I would get married and have children and live in an even bigger house.
WW: After you graduated from Tyler School of Art, and spent time in upstate New York and in Europe, you relocated back to Manhattan and worked as a freelance photographer—first working with dollhouses. How did that come about?
LS: I remember watching a show on a little black-and-white television on Channel 13 with Leo Castelli and he said that real artists don’t have jobs. And I thought, “I’m not getting a job.” Instead, I got a series of freelance odd jobs that just went from the ridiculous to the preposterous—everything from babysitting to working temporarily at a backgammon shop (when I didn’t know how to play backgammon), painting houses, putting up wallpaper . . . I was just patching together an income.
I did photograph little toys for this shop—a dollhouse company. They gave me a bunch of furniture to photograph, and that sort of cemented the idea that I wanted to shoot small things.
There was a two-year period where I lived in a kind of commune situation in upstate New York and I’d gone to an old toy store in Liberty, New York, that was going out of business. They let me go into the attic and buy everything I wanted for practically nothing. At the same time, I rebought all of my old toys, because there was a limited number of toys when I was a kid. There wasn’t the variety there is today.
WW: How did your relationship with the toys and dollhouses move from a personal connection to a professional one?
LS: It was actually secret, private work. I thought I was working toward being a grown-up artist, and I was doing some things in my work that I was willing to show people. And then there were these certain secret things that I was doing for fun, which were photographing dolls and interiors. I was really afraid to show them to people. I was looking at tough, hard, conceptual work—most of it being done by men—so I thought, “Why am I doing this?” It was so embarrassing to be doing something that felt like child’s play and women’s work.
The dolls lived in a pile in the corner in my studio. I was only interested in the interiors and the furniture in the rooms. Something happened one day, and I grabbed a doll. I don’t remember the day, but I have the photo as evidence of it. I loved doing it, but it was like guilty pleasure. It was both humiliating and exhilarating.
WW: When did that feeling change?
LS: It changed when I had my first exhibition at Artists Space in 1979. I put two groups of work on the wall—one was a tougher, darker, more conceptual group of photos. And the other, to my great embarrassment, was the dollhouse photos. And I thought it was really risky, but I decided to do it at the encouragement of my boyfriend, who is now my husband. He said, “You have to show those.”
So I did, and interestingly for me, people reacted more to the dollhouse pictures than they did to the darker, or what I thought were the more conceptual or rigorous works.
WW: When you started to place the female doll in different areas of the home, and having her play different roles, was that inspired by your mother?
LS: I think that what I was seeing was not my personal life as much as I was kind of reenacting TV shows and commercials and Life magazine and Look magazine—that kind of domestic perfection. I was replaying that, but in black-and-white with these odd dolls and off-scale little foods and pieces of furniture. I was really playing with that fifties perfection that appeared in TV, movies, and magazines.
WW: Of your show “Big Camera/Little Camera” at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, you said, “I was simply trying to create a feeling or mood from the time I was growing up; a sense of the 50s that was both beautiful and lethal at the same time.” What was so beautiful and lethal about that time?
LS: It was my mother’s house. Everything had to be perfect. It’s not like I was so comfortable living there—even as a little kid. Living in a pink-and- white room with pink-and-white heart-shaped pillows looked really good, but I felt totally and utterly misunderstood.
I felt like there were darker stories that weren’t being told. I think that wasn’t just true of me, but any kid who’s listening to grown-ups, who’s listening carefully or observing, understands that the world isn’t always the way it looks or the way it seems. There were problems in school, the teachers weren’t perfect; the grown-ups weren’t perfect. I noticed that people had more money and people had less money. I would get little glimmers of what anti-Semitism was. I understood what the Holocaust was. I was starting to understand that the world was a very imperfect place and my home, extending to my community, wasn’t the way the world worked.
WW: The show features photos, sculpture, and two of your films—The Music of Regret from 2006 and Geisha song from 2010. Your other lm, My Art from 2016, will also play monthly in the museum’s auditorium. How does lm t into your practice?
LS: No pun intended, but they’re really a part of my art. It took me a really long time to make my first film. I have diaries and notes from when I first came to New York, where I would say, “I want to learn how to do video. I want to learn how to do movies.” I said I wanted to make videos and put myself in them as early as 1975.
The first film, The Music of Regret, is how I got involved with Jeanne Greenberg from Salon 94. She didn’t have a gallery then, but she was a project person. She said, “What’s your dream project?” And I said, “Well, I want to make a little video and I want my work to come alive.” A couple of years later, in 2006, with a 45-minute 35mm film shot by Ed Lachman, I did make my work come alive.
Regret is one of my emotional topics, so that was a real thread in this musical. Again, my subject is women. My subject is gender. My subject is women in interior space, and that gives me the latitude to explore things that are political, psychological, physical.
The Music of Regret was really about bringing all of the characters in my work to life and maybe having them all together like the last act of a musical—sort of singing goodbye, in a way. Because from the moment that movie was done, my work really changed. Rather than dealing with memory, I started to live and work in the present. I decided that that investigation was over.
The interesting thing about My Art is that Ellie is very much a character in the moment. She’s not mired in the past. She lives in the moment, but her work is mired in the past. Her work had to do with memory—like my old work did.
WW: For the show, you’re also presenting a lipstick called Pushing It in collaboration with Poppy King—your first actual beauty product, available in the gift store. Where did that idea come from?
LS: Lipstick and nail polish are how I learned about color. Literally. When I was younger, I was just obsessed with going to the drugstore and looking at all of the Revlon reds and pinks. I hadn’t worked in lipstick yet, but Poppy wants more art in her life and I want more lipstick in mine. So, it’s a perfect collaboration. For her, it’s very political. And I think beauty is political, too. I think there’s so much to say about it. For women, in this culture, and with everything going on now, we can’t ignore it. We have to address it.
WW: You said that your work starts with an idea. Tell us about your creative practice and how it flows.
LS: The idea is usually attached to an image. I always say that there are three “Ps” that need to be addressed before an idea can actually be acted on—the psychological, the political, and the personal. And if all of those three things can meet in a visual idea, I can go forward.
One of the things I loved about making a film was that I’m a neophyte. I’m a young filmmaker, as funny as that is. But in terms of making my visual art, I’m very seasoned in understanding the process—how I get there. So even when I’m just going about daily life or my routine or grocery shopping or walking Penny or hanging out with friends, there’s a part of my brain that’s trolling and filtering for ideas. The old-fashioned trolling—visual trolling, not trolling trolling.
WW: Tell us a bit about this country house, which encompasses your studio and barn, and many other places to create and relax.
LS: I swear I walked through the door of this house in 2005 and I saw everything. I saw my movie, I saw my work. I saw every bit of potential. My studio is relatively close to the kitchen, which is a priority. It has to be a really white, antiseptic place where I can pin up photos. I can keep it really empty and I can think. I always think about my studio like a laboratory— the opposite of a painter’s studio. I grew up around a dental office, so it feels like the way my father kept his tools and his plaster. He reminded me of an artist. He behaved like an artist. And he loved being in his little dental office. Any time of the day or the night, it was like he was slipping away into the studio.
That said, when I’m making pictures, I love to create the biggest tornado of mess. When I was making The Mess, or when I shoot portraits, there’s generally fabric and bits of stuff and makeup. It’s important to me to be able to completely turn everything into a cyclone. It’s those two polarities.
Not a very long walk across the lawn is a big, messy, crumbling barn, and I have a room there where I really feel like I can play and throw toys around. It’s more space than I’ve ever had and it’s new. I have this fantasy that I could have six setups going at once. I have this huge archive of toys and props and some of them are marked “to be used in the future.” I can open all of those boxes and throw all of them out on the floor, lay them all out on the floor and think, “What do they mean to me right now?” opposed to what they meant when I found them.
WW: Your work has always centered around gender roles. Your children, Lena and Grace, have both openly fought for their views on gender as well. What did you find important to teach your children in terms of these topics, and allow them the freedom to be themselves?
LS: I always think that we cannot underestimate how observant children are. You can preach your philosophy to them until the cows come home, but if they don’t observe their parents living a certain kind of life, they’re not going to believe it. I think that you can convey your hopes and dreams and wishes to your child, but I think the most important thing is for children to learn by their parents’ example.
I guess they were lucky they had two parents. That’s something I don’t take for granted for a second. They had two parents and their two parents split the childcare fifty-fifty. There were two artists who needed to do a certain kind of work at certain times and the childcare responsibilities were split, so that’s something they could see.
They also had the advantage of having two parents who loved their work, who were following their dream—or their bliss, let’s call it. I realize how unique that is. It wasn’t just a paycheck, but it meant that life was very unpredictable, very up and down, and very difficult at times. They both seemed to accept that and never complained about what they couldn’t have. I was just this ratty, snotty kid who was always complaining about what I didn’t have and always begging for the next pair of shoes, the next new dress, or the next toy. I had no concept of how hard my father had to work to put three kids through college. But I felt like my kids understood what their life was and what their parents did, and they were kind of able to roll with it. At this point, I feel like they’re my mentors. I’m learning from them.