SK Lyons

What's going on in your studio at the moment? 

Well, to be honest with you, I really haven't been in the studio in like two weeks—but most recently, I’ve been adding to my “Cracker” series. I’m actually taking a break from drawing, because I'm a little drawn out. There’s more to come, but I need some time away from it.

It does seem like it’s become your point of focus the past year or two. Is it just a matter of too much of a good thing?

Yeah, exactly. I love repetition, but if I do the same thing too many times, I start to get bored with it. I feel like I'm good at the drawings now, and they’re still fun to do, but I’ve realized that learning to get better is what really gives me more joy. 

You don’t feel like there’s room to grow?

No, there is. Like, I've been adding backgrounds to them, which I didn't do before. It's been really nice to see them with a background, because it gives it more of that visual context that's in my head, instead of just a figure on a white background. It tells the whole story. I didn’t think about that until recently—and I know it sounds so simple, but it really makes a big difference. For a long time, I was enjoying just the figures standing alone, because it was more about them, but now I think it's time for people to know where they are, too. So that's what I'm going through with the drawings, which is why I think the break will be good. It’ll give me time to think about where they’ll go next.

Do you have to be in a particular mood or cultivate certain conditions in order to make your best work?

Not really. Something I've realized through having a studio practice separate from my home is that I actually do a lot of the creative work when I'm not at the studio. All the ideas come when I'm not there, and I’m thinking everything through, so by the time I go to the studio, I have a to-do list and I just get down to it. It's not a headspace for me. I just put on music and try not to make too much of a mess. I keep it really cute.

So in terms of documenting new ideas or sketching things out, that process is more mental than material?

I do try to write things down, but I’m always thinking things through, and I have a pretty good memory, so it’s more of a mental thing. Honestly, it’s more like I become obsessed with something, to the point where I'm like, “Okay, well, this is going to happen because it has to happen, because I need to not be so obsessed with this anymore.” [laughs] That thought needs to be born into a new thing and die from my brain. So I always know what I want to do, and it always feels good to get it out.

Do your characters keep you company while you’re working?

Hell yes! Why do you think I have so many? [laughs] Something I've been learning recently is that for me, it’s really not about having social anxiety—I just don't think people really get me sometimes, because especially in our industry, a lot of people are whimsical, but they’re dishonest in their whimsicality. Like last night, I said to someone, “You should come over. We’ll have a good time.” Their response was, “What are you trying to do to me?” I said, “Trying to have a good time.” They were like, “I know, I was joking.” And I was just like, “Ohhh.” There’s a miscommunication there. When I press with something like that, I really mean I want to have a good time. I do joke around, but I'm also pretty direct, and I’m realizing that's a little weird for people sometimes. So with a lot of the characters, it’s just me saying, “If I can't communicate today, I will make myself a friend instead.” That's where the soft sculptures come from a lot of the time: it’ll be someone that I couldn't connect with, and I'm just like, “Well, I guess I can just make you into this character and talk to you and say what I wanted to say to you without you making me feel weird.” That's why I make a lot of the characters—but I also like making characters of my actual friends as well. I feel like that’s really important. 

The thing is, people see themselves one way, but you will always see them another way. As much as you get them to their core, you always imagine someone differently; no matter how many things people tell you, you’ll have your own opinions about them, things you’ve picked up on, whether they know it or not. For me, making work is just a way to get that out. So really, the characters come from a few different places: sometimes they're real, sometimes they're otherworldly—and sometimes, honestly, it's just someone to talk to. I have my two daughters who live in my studio, and sometimes I literally talk to them. I'm just like, “What's up, girls? What's going on? Why are you leaned over? Why are your pants not on anymore?” [laughs]

Are any of the characters based on yourself?

My daughters are me: Shaneice and Tonya. One is frowning all the time and one is smiling.

Are they permanent fixtures of the studio?

Well, I made them...almost three years ago now? Wow, time is a bitch. [laughs] They were originally supposed to be in my first fair show, but they didn't make it, so I kept them around. They were the first big dolls I made, and I’ve realized since then that they pretty much represent me. The thing is, I try to check in with my temperament a lot, because I can lose myself sometimes: I can become very detached, and I’m usually pretty deadpan, but then I’ll have really intense moments of happiness and sadness. I feel like these two juxtaposed characters represent that. The actual piece is called Hug Each Other, and it has the two of them with their arms around each other, because these two identities that circulate within me get into fights a lot, but the dolls reflect this balance that I try to keep within myself.

My childhood is a big part of it, too. First of all, the dolls are dressed in clothes that I would get when I was a child from this store called Cookie’s. My parents would take me there and you could get name brand clothes really cheap. But the bigger thing is that when I was a kid, I would always get into fights with my older sister. We’d beat the shit out of each other, but then my parents would make us sit for three minutes and hug each other. That’s really where the title comes from. It’s funny, because they would always say, “Even though you hate each other now, you two will end up loving each other when you are adults,” and they were right: out of all my siblings, I have the best bond with her. So that showed me how this simple act of hugging could actually be really powerful.

You mentioned the idea of being authentically whimsical. Along the same lines, I wanted to ask you about softness. The content of your work deals with these intersecting questions of race, representation, ownership, and agency, but your approach, in terms of both your materials and your tone, embraces vulnerability, humor, cuteness, sassiness; even when the flower figures are in warrior mode, they remain joyful and inviting. On one level, as you said, it’s just a reflection of who and how you are, but speaking more broadly, I also wonder what might make softness a useful vehicle—an effective strategy—for grounding serious conversation.

I think the best way to say something hard is to feed someone honey with a little bit of venom in it. My grandfather told me something once when I was a child that’s stayed with me my entire life. He said, “Children are really smart, really cunning. You really can't grasp what's going through a child's head. When I was in Vietnam, I tried to give these kids chocolate, and they stabbed me. But I realized it was my fault, because I’d discredited them because they were children. I thought, ‘They're cute, they're earnest, they're going to take this candy and smile.’ And they stabbed me.” That has always stuck with me, because I think we look at things that are cute, and we discredit them—but really, that’s their genius. I think cuteness is a very good vehicle to start talking about serious things because it lures you in at the beginning. My niece does it all the time: I’m like, “Oh my God, you’re so adorable,” and then she reads me the fucking filth. I’m just sitting there like, “Fuck you.” [laughs] But that’s the thing: we constantly fall for the same trap. There’s a dichotomy to cuteness, which I think is really powerful. Funny things, cute things—they resonate with people, especially when something is toxic. Laughing just makes it easier to get into it. I think a lot about comedians, specifically Black comedians, and how a lot of what they’re talking about is actually really traumatic, but they’re able to use humor to get to that truth. 

And to help their audiences approach that truth as well.

Yes! Exactly. I feel the same way about what I do. Like, to me, the “Cracker” flags are hilarious—but they’re also very serious, because really, they’re about power. They’re about the fragility of white people, which is similar to a cracker. I just think there are so many ways for us to learn how to be better people and talk about things in a better way. That’s why a lot of my characters have blackface, but I still try to make them as cute as I can: it’s a good way to get people to listen, a good way for ideas to resonate. 

The idea is really like yes, these issues are serious, but they don’t always have to be approached in a serious way. That's why cartoons work. With cartoons, there can be these serious, tense moments where you're literally brought to tears—but at the same time, you're fueled by the cuteness of it, you’re fueled by the love. It actually helps us learn to rationalize the sad moments and come to terms with them. That’s why they’re so helpful for children—and not just children, but adults, too. So, yes, I really do believe that in all its forms, cuteness is a great vehicle for deeper discussion. Rather than being discredited or written off immediately, people just need to look a little bit deeper. 

You’re really adept at striking that balance in your work—and I appreciate it, because to me, it also reinforces the notion that someone can be both soft and strong, that one can be celebratory and open but still maintain some degree of resoluteness, even of self-preservation. I think that’s a very instructive idea.

Thank you. I feel that way especially with the flowers. I was trying to find something that I could relate to the experience of being in the body that I'm in. Really, it’s Black people. What celestial, of-this-world body would we exist in? And I was like, “Flowers.” Plants and flowers are just so resilient—nature is in general, but flowers will pop out of a fucking sidewalk. A tree can just bust through cement, like, “What’s up?” [laughs] At the same time, they also face a lot of dangers: they're always getting stomped on, getting uprooted, getting cut down. There are so many terrible things that happen to flowers, but they’re still resilient, still so beautiful. There’s so much range there. That’s really what I’m thinking about when I pick a subject matter.

How about the clouds?

Absolutely, it’s the same thing. Clouds are always there. They don’t have anywhere to go, but they’re always fucking there. I think of myself being anchored in the same way: I really don't have anywhere to go or even know where I'm going sometimes, and that's okay. So I guess what I’m really attracted to are these celestial things that don't really emote, that we think of as inanimate objects, but that still have life. I also think it's easier to see yourself in something that isn't yourself. It’s easier to project. Maybe that's more so what I'm doing: just projecting what I need in that moment and hoping that it fills me, in a sense. I think that there's just so much range within that. There are so many places to go when you just can place an idea into something that isn't living. I never get bored of it. 

I feel like this is something we do a lot as kids. I really love in the most recent Toy Story, how the little girl made this weird toy. It’s a spork with clay feet and a pipe cleaner for hands and a googly eye that's stuck on by gum. I was like, “Yes, absolutely.” [laughs] Because honestly, it was having such a crisis! It was like, “Who am I? Am I a toy? Am I garbage?” I was just like, “Truly.” I think it's a good form of therapy, honestly. People will look at one of my drawings and say, “Wow, this is a pretty flower.” And I'm like, “Yes, it is”—but in my head, I'm just like, “A pretty flower? It’s literally a whole fucking character, a whole life.”

The idea that people can look at a blackface character and only see a pretty flower is a pretty interesting one. For one thing, it might speak to how ingrained and common these kinds of depictions truly are in American culture—but it takes on an additional weight when we’re talking about artworks being sold and purchased by a specific group of people, many (if not most) of whom are white. It seems like the work often ends up with people who weren’t necessarily its intended audience. How have you reconciled yourself with that?

When I started my career, this was the first thing that came up. I was like, “I make blackface, and white people are wanting to buy my shit. Why? What do you grasp from this?” I make the work for people like me, and it's based on people like me, so I really had to step back and think about it. Like you said, part of it has to do with the erasure of blackface. People try to ignore it and act like it's not happening. They try to do it in such surface-level ways, too—but the depth of blackface could go as deep as space, honestly. It's not just an animation. It’s culture. It's the way people talk. There’s blackface in so much of the way we live—especially if you're not a Black person. That’s when I started thinking about it differently. I was like, “This exists already. This is already happening. I live around it all day.” It’s never stopped, and it’s not going anywhere. So in a way, the work is my reminder to people that yes, this is still happening. Like, I literally think about that movie Soul that just came out. They put that fucking white lady from 30 Rock—what’s her name?

Tina Fey.

Oh, that bitch. Yes, they put her in Jamie Foxx’s body! I knew it was going to be some bullshit, because he’s dead for half the movie, but I did not know they were going to pull that. But that’s the point: white people are already producing that type of thing. White people are going to keep producing blackface, so I’m going to produce blackface. That’s what I had to realize: I have the autonomy to do this. This is part of Black American culture, which I am a part of. I’m a Black American person. I was raised in a Black American household. I was taught about minstrelsy when I was seven, so it's something that is near and dear to me—but I also think of minstrelsy as not just being about blackface, but performance in general. I’ll put on a “blackface” sometimes, when I have to do certain things. I’ll just be like, “OK, here we go. I have to be this type of Black person today, in order to get this done.” It’s more than the red lips and the big eyes—it's like a code of safety. I think Black people are constantly performing for safety. That's a big underlining of the entire work: I’m trying to let people know that even today, we're still constantly having to perform for someone, whether we want to or not, whether we even know we're doing it or not. It's all a performance. It’s a game, always. So to answer your question: Do I think it's weird when white people buy my work? Yes. Are they still going to do it? Probably. But I don’t even care anymore. I'm just like, “Go ahead. Explain that to your Black friend when they come over.” At that point, it’s really up to them. 

It took a while to get over that, honestly, but I think the love that I get from other Black folks who really enjoy my work actually saves me, in a sense. As long as I see the work being received by the people it’s meant for, I can distance myself from the rest of that bullshit. That’s what’s helped me be okay with it. Well, not be okay with it, but deal with it. I still can’t say I’m OK with it, but I will say, it's gotten better. In the beginning, I didn't even want to work with white people. There’s just too much distrust and dishonesty in those relationships. I wasn't raised in a household where trusting white people was kosher. I still don't, honestly. Even now, I have a white person that I work with and trust, but it's like, “I trust you now. Don’t fuck this up.” [laughs] I still keep her on thin ice. I think that's what's also saving me: I’m very direct about how I feel about whiteness, and how I feel about the work. As long as I'm allowed to feel direct in this way, and people know what the fuck is going on, I feel okay about it.

Are you referring to Becky Elmquist [of Larrie NYC]?

Yes. I love Becky. She's great. I can literally be like, “Becky, no. That's fucking dumb.” [laughs] I can just be really frank and matter of fact with her. I didn't think I would ever be able to do that with a gallerist, especially a white person—with a black person, OK, but with a white person? Never that. It's hard for me to have trust right off the bat; I do a vetting thing where I'm like, “Is this person good?” Because I don't want to get into any bullshit with them. I don't want to deal with unnecessary whiteness, honestly. I just try to keep it a buck with myself, try to keep it a buck with my boundaries around it. But she and I have found a good way of working together, and I will say, it’s definitely helped having her as a buffer to guide me through things.

You’ve spoken elsewhere about your experience with Becky—about how it’s also been unique for her willingness to be transparent with you about the bureaucracy and politics involved on the market side of things. I’m interested in that, because it suggests a different dynamic between an artist and a dealer. It levels certain prescribed hierarchies.

It’s beautiful, honestly. She lets me in on so many things, like, “This is happening now,” or “I’m letting you know this is how they do this.” I'm not drinking pickle juice, because Becky’s like, “You’re not going to drink pickle juice. This is why.” I've seen it happen to other people, but I think Becky honestly doesn't want that for any of the artists she works with. She genuinely cares about the people she takes on. She calls us three times a week just to be like, “Hi, how are you?” And I'm like, “Good. What's up?” It’s earnest, it's honest, it's not fake at all. Becky doesn't want anything from me, besides what I want.

To be real, when I first met her, I dubbed the shit out of her. I was like, “Why does this bitch want to talk to me?” [laughs] But somebody was like, “You should talk to her. She's really nice.” So she comes over, and she asks, “So what do you want?” I said, “Well, what do you want?” And she goes, “Whatever you want.” So I was like, “OK, but what do you mean? What do you want for me? What do you want from me?” She was like, “I want what you want. I'm just trying to give you a space for a show. You can do whatever you want with it.” No one I'd ever worked with before had been like that. They'd always say, “I really like when you make this kind of work. You should make something like this, or you should make something like that.” Becky literally was like, “What do you want to do?” That’s when I started to trust her—and after three years, we're big buddies now. She doesn’t keep any secrets from me, and I don't have any secrets from her. It's just a very nice, symbiotic working relationship, with a lot of care and a lot of love. I'm a personal person, so I need that. The way she works with her artists is how it should be. It’s something nice and it's something innovative, something I don't see a lot in the art industry. Really, I just want to work with people who are willing to take a good look at themselves and what they're doing. That's all I require of anyone.

Thinking along similar lines, I wanted to ask about your decision to work with Collina Strada. What was that experience like? What made Hillary [Taymour] and Charlie [Engman] a good fit for you as collaborators?

Well, if I'm going to be real, they wanted to animate my characters. I was like, “When the fuck am I going to have an opportunity to do this again?” And they were going to pay me. So there you go. [laughs] But then I met them, and I was like, “You’re actually really fun.” Hillary and Charlie are sweet. It was really easy to work with them, and it was exciting, because it was the first time I’d worked with other people that way. I’d never worked with a brand before. 

Of course, when we were first talking, the conversation of blackface came up again. I was just like, “We draw blackface characters. You get that part, right?” And they were OK with it. So we decided to work together, and everything turned out really well. It was a nice opportunity for me to see the characters in a different way, letting them take a break from being warriors to walk in a fashion show. The flowers started off as these bad, beautiful, strong entities who will also will fuck you up, but it was cool for them not have to be at war for a minute and just enjoy the razzle dazzle of their true self. That's how I looked at it, really. It was also cool to draw the models, because they were all genuinely fans of my work, and I got to meet everyone. Some of them I knew, but with the others, I got to talk with them and be like, “So what do you like? What do you want?” I like to know a little bit about a person before I draw them, and it was great to learn about people I wouldn't normally talk to for being too shy or something like that. Especially with the Black people I worked with there, it helped me build my community and get to know some people a little bit more. So the experience was really all-encompassing. It started off as just like, “Wow, it's COVID, I need to make some money.” But then it turned into something really beautiful.

Looking ahead, you have a show coming up later this year with Alake Shilling, which I’m really excited about. It seems like a great pairing.

Yes! We haven't picked a date; it's probably going to be in the fall, but for now, I want to keep it vague. I don't really want to say what we're doing, because I'm trying to be secretive about the work I made for it.

You’ve been a fan of Alake’s work for a while, right?  

Oh, my God, yes. I fucking love her. She’s iconic. She’s one of the best people I’ve ever spoken to. We’ve never met each other in real life, but when we get on FaceTime, we’ll talk for four hours straight. We don't even talk that often, maybe twice a month, but when we do, we go for hours. She's really cool. She's on my level of—I'm going to say it again—authentic whimsicality. I remember the first time I heard her voice and I was like, “Whoa, that's really you!” When I had my first show, I did a rendition of a cookout—my grandmother used to host a cookout, and I used that as my first actual installation—and that’s when I met Alake. She messaged me and I was just like, “Wow.” The way she talks about other people’s work just gases you in this way where you're like, “Damn bitch, for real? Oh my God, stop it.” [laughs] So I guess our friendship started off with mutual compliments, and then we dove into, “Hey, I think we should have a show together.” We’ve talked about it for years. But then Becky went and visited her and asked if she’d want to work together, and Alake was like, “Well, I don't want to have a show by myself, I want to have a show with SK.” Becky just said, “Let’s do it.” It’s been hard to organize with COVID, and Alake's also been extremely busy, but I’m proud of her, and I want her to take all the time on the paintings that she needs. Plus, I need to make some more paintings as well. So yeah, we're planning for later this year, maybe early next year.

Do you have any other commitments lined up in the meantime?

I think I’m in a group show this month or next month, I forget, but it’s just the drawings and stuff. The thing is, I didn't want to do any solo shows this year. I feel like that will come next year. For now, I just want to do personal shows, where it’s more about me working with someone I enjoy, rather than just me working alone. So for example, I have something coming up with my father. My dad is a really good Illustrator, always has been. He's really good at art in general. So I spoke to him and was like, “I want to have a show with you.” And he was like, “Good. I’ve been thinking about it,” and he gave me millions of ideas. So that’s coming up, but that’s pretty much it for this year: I’m going to do a show with my dad and then the show with Alake.

I'm really excited for Alake’s show, because I feel like it's going to be almost like a crossover episode. You know when you're watching a cartoon and they’ll have people from some other cartoon visit this world? I’m thinking of something like when Scooby Doo went back in time and met the Flintstones or some shit like that. When you see these different cartoons working together, it's world-building, and I feel like Alake is world-building, too. She makes so many characters—not just drawings, but physical characters that exist. They all have names and she loves them. The way she talks about them, I feel that. She’ll be like, “He’s sad today,” and he just has a face of complacency. That’s rockstar shit. I really sympathize, and I just think our work speaks to one another. They live in the same world.

We also just see things in similar ways. LIke, I was talking to her about animation, and we have a similar knowledge about that. Historically, the first animation was blackface. It was the first thing they ever made. So there’s that history there, but to me, blackface is authentically just a Black thing now. It belongs to us—animation, all of it. All the Jimbos, the Mammys, all the Black characters and fucking Mickey Mouse, Walt Disney, the whole fucking beginning of animation belongs to Black people, because it was depictions of Black people, even if we had no say in what the depictions were. White people are still doing these things—like when you think about all these characters in the films that we watched growing up—Mulan, Shrek—all the supporting roles are played by Black people who are animals. It's just lots of anthropomorphism. That side of things is always going to happen, but really, it belongs to us. Alake and I had a good conversation about that, and she gets it. She’ll also say all the time, “I am these characters I make.” I get that completely. I remember in one of her paintings there's a frog stepping on a butterfly and the butterfly’s just flat on the ground, and she was like, “I feel like I'm the butterfly.” I almost cried. Like we were saying before about cuteness and humor—it’s just another way to depict sorrow, and she gets that. She hits those same levels, even though she's really cute and sweet. So I really feel that. I'm just so excited for the date to come out, honestly. We'll see when it happens, but it's going to happen.

Photographs by Hannah Metz