Lord of the Harvard Arts Medal

by Minji Kim

One of this year's recipients of the Harvard Arts Medal, Catherine Lord '70 discusses how she views herself as an artist and the role of the arts in the lives of students.

What drew you to your work?

As you know, I went to Radcliffe. After that, I went for about a year to an alternative photo school, Image Works, near MIT, and I went there because I hadn’t found Harvard particularly conducive to what I wanted to do with photographs.

I eventually went to grad school at the Visual Studies Workshop, which gives degrees through the State University of New York, Buffalo, but is nowhere near Buffalo, where there was a really alternative graduate program that asked you to deal with all kinds of images, different kinds of photos, high and low culture that really encouraged me to think about text.

I learned a lot from using different kinds of texts. I really love images and I really love text and the possibilities of both and insufficiencies of both. I don’t’ see why I have to choose between them. Artists today tend to work across things, and [they] define themselves by a lot of activities and social transactions.

Where do you get your inspiration?

I don’t know how to answer that. I guess I’m beginning to trust myself to follow the details that interest me. Just finding questions or areas that would lead somewhere unexpected. Like scraps of text [from something] I was using five years before but didn’t need then. Things that haunt me.

Anything in particular?

Lately, I’ve been thinking about book dedication in print. It completely fascinates me, and I don’t know why it fascinates me.

What is your central mission as an artist?

Save the world. [Laughs.] No, really, I don’t think I have a mission. I don’t think of it that way. I try to follow things out the best I can, just to see where things would go, and trust that I feel that if I go down a broad path, it’s probably interesting.

I think what I do is see what it means culturally and get at it differently. It is and it isn’t personal. I don’t quite trust the public/private divide. I think that my work is informed by progressive politics, feminine politics, and queer theory, but it’s informed by literature, by pieces of visual this-and-that that I love. It doesn’t draw from every one source. I tend to like a lot of things. I guess I’m some sort of an omnivore.

You’re also a prolific writer. How do you see your work with words bleed into your art and vice versa?

I see writing as a kind of drawing, as a kind of mechanical exercise. Voice is really important to me, and the appearance of words is really important to me.

When I write about other people’s work, I try to make it clear that I’m not being objective at all. I try to write so that you can hear someone talking. I would rather read novels than I would academic prose. I don’t see a clear difference between fact, fiction, writing, art. I’m not sure that anyone knows what communication is. I don’t think about writing for a huge audience. I write for my smartest, closest friends, and if they like it, I think well, maybe others will like it too.

What do you think the role of the artist and arts scholar is at a time when the arts have been very hard hit, especially in criticism?

Just keep at it. Don’t give up.

How might students who are artists contribute to the community at large?

That's a funny question. I think people who describe themselves as artists can come at things from another direction, quickly and rigorously. Making art is not about: "I have an idea and now I’m going to make a video." Sometimes it’s just about picking up a video camera and figuring out what gets you. And thinking of them as real ideas.

How were your own college years shaped by your sense of yourself as an artist?

I don’t think I would describe myself as an artist. People who call themselves artists-- I think it’s more about what interests them, what they love, really. I think if they call themselves a nuclear physicist, that’s cool. That’s what they love. I think it’s just simpler to call themselves artists.

How do you see being an artist and being an art educator in relation to each other?

I try to think about teaching as part of what I think creatively. I’m teaching, but I also try to learn things, I try to see what interests me in students’ work. I try to take something from them. Otherwise, it’s just a huge drain of energy.

What are your thoughts on how the arts help shape students?

I think it’s really useful and provocative way of thinking. I think it’s cliché to say: "Think outside the box" — it’s actually a pretty disgusting phrase — but I do think what it can do is to make you think materially and trust yourself with what you’re working with, and work out things through materials. It’s a really complicated, trial-and-error, stubborn practice that you learn no other way.

The Harvard Arts Medal ceremony will be held 5p Thursday, April 29, at New College Theatre. The award will be presented by President Drew Faust.