On Feelings and Thoughts: Ilie Lichtenstein's Artistic Identity
When you meet, Ilie Lichtenstein ‘19 — most likely known by some through her social media presence, @thankyouforthat — the fibers artist is instantly comforting. Whether that’s because she will freak out over wearing the same Doc Martens as you, or because she has an innate eagerness to hug hello, there is something addicting about her personality nonetheless.
As a young child, her mom introduced her and her sister to art as something fun to do, but Lichtenstein never felt it was anything more. She was prone to doodling, like most children, but never imagined art could be something she could pursue as a career. At least, not until college came around.
Unsure of exactly what she wanted to pursue, Lichtenstein just knew she liked fashion. Changing outfits five times a day at least, Lichtenstein’s room was a constant mess. So, without much experience, Lichtenstein began looking for art schools that could offer a myriad of options.
“All I knew was that I liked fashion, but I couldn’t compile a portfolio — I mean, I could have, but where was the motivation? I was a high schooler,” explained Lichtenstein. “When I found Skidmore, I just had a good feeling about this place, it made sense. As I kept going, I just found my way. I did everything; I did drawing, printmaking, communications design, sculpture, fibers, I’ve done bronze pouring now and I’m going to be taking jewelry and metals next semester.”
Her fall into art was gradual, elapsing over moments of satisfaction and growth, turning into something she couldn’t imagine her life without. That’s not to say the art is easy. Lichtenstein is quick to disclose that creating art is no magical, outer body experience. It can be, but most often it is frustrating — mixed with about a cup or two of catharsis.
Much of this tension comes from the fact that Lichtenstein often simply doodles or sketches, and while that feels very natural for her in the moment, it ultimately leads to a lot of self-deprecation.
“I only recently realized I couldn’t be hard on myself anymore, or else [making art was] going to be this excruciating experience, which isn’t what art is meant to be,” explained Lichtenstein. “But there are times when art should be cutthroat and it should be a learning experience — I’ve learned that.”
Whether she is judging her work or not, Lichtenstein constantly draws influence from turbulent moments of her life. As a fiber artist, so much of her influence comes from the process of stitching and bringing together. But, while abroad in Australia last semester, Lichtenstein studied sculpture, which seems quite separate from everything else she’s done.
“I think there’s a lot of crossovers: fibers is sculptural, clothing is sculptural. It’s all spatial practice,” explained Lichtenstein. “I think that you can’t have one without the other when it comes to drawing and creating something that is three-dimensional or physical. I don’t feel like I’m married to any one thing. I’m interested in fibers art, clothing design, ethical fashion design, but I ultimately see myself as a multimedia artist. I feel like that’s the most proactive way to be an artist.”
Her process, like many other artists, is based solely on what she is feeling at the given moment she finds a pen in her hand. Typically, art is a way for her to work through something that happened during the day, or an emotional experience that is carrying over. And sometimes, as she notes, “anxiety can sometimes influence the look or feel of my work as it gets messier and more all over the place.”
If we are to go chronologically, Lichtenstein’s early stages begin with portraits. Rough depictions of people she knows, a problem or “really bizarre portraits of myself.” For larger scale installations or pieces, she says: “I lean towards a broad subject and like to try and push myself to reach a point of abstraction where I'm getting something across with as little information as possible.” Staying small, something that makes Lichtenstein’s “doodles” so compelling, and her inclusion of text — with “erasure” and “apparitions” showing up quite often recently — creates this emotional, multi-media experience that is engaging and innately vulnerable.
And there’s a lot to say about someone who studies space and how it relates to people finding multi-media artistry intriguing. Lichtenstein has done a lot of work with spatial practice, or an art category much more than form that includes performance art and the idea that walking into a room with nothing in it can be a practice of space. The concept comes from her time abroad, and Lichtenstein was quick to note its outlandish nature, especially in comparison to America’s more traditional vision of art.
“We did a lot with found objects,” said Lichtenstein. “You could find something from the street and use it in an art piece or lay it on the ground and go, ‘That’s it.’ I’m not sure how much I respect this as an art form. But to me, spatial practice is the way in which you interact with the work in a space. I think part of art is not only the object, but the audience and the ways in which they move about the space and interact.”
When studying abroad, one of Lichtenstein’s spatial projects required her to pick an architectural item. She chose the body, which is an image that weaves its way into much of her work, saying she “finds a lot of solace in studying the body in general because it’s something that is inherently connected and disconnected to ourselves, so people can interpret it however they want. With my body specifically, I watched my mother grow into a body and hate herself for it. My biggest fear is to get older and hate my body. I want to love every single part of the life that I have in this situation, and somehow influence others, so that they can realize they can appreciate their body for what it is.”
However, her art being “open for interpretation” has come with its own limitations. With creating — especially something so vivid and vulnerable — pieces of art can easily become political, even if the artist themselves doesn’t mean for it to be. Being unapologetic leads to response, and that response is always emotionally influenced.
“So many people try and fight that art is political — especially while I was abroad. But that’s not how this works. You don’t get to choose your audience. [A lot of what I do] is about coming to terms with being a fat woman in society. I am considered a fat woman, but I am right on that edge where it’s, like, ‘acceptable.’ I think it’s important that I continue to recognize my privilege and use my platform for expansion, not just as a talking point for myself.”
Lichtenstein is no stranger to being told no, or angering people because of what she depicts in her art. Just last year she had created a piece for her class, Entrepreneurial Artist, that was to be shown at Springfield Gallery in Saratoga. She hung up six pairs of white underwear, each with varying levels of dyed red yarn coming down from them, representing menstrual blood. After the pieces were hung, and the contract signed, it was deemed inappropriate and covered up. Lichtenstein explained the experience as being heart-wrenching as a young female artist who had never had her work shown before.
But while abroad, Lichtenstein tried her hand in “controversial” pieces again — still using menstruation as her muse. She found Australia to be much more open to what students could use. All students had to do was sign out on a form whether they were going to use glass, water, fire, bodily fluids or whatever else they could think of. So, Lichtenstein cut a piece of chiffon fabric she found into squares and made a physical calendar that took up an entire wall, moving whenever someone walked past it.
“I then got a Diva Cup,” remarks Lichtenstein. “And every day I poured it onto the fabric and let it dry, let it dry, let it dry, and it was this marking of what was happening in my life. For me personally, it was about pushing the boundaries of what I was told I couldn’t do, but it was also about having Cystic Ovarian Syndrome, which means I don’t always get my period. It’s really important to research, because a lot of people don’t know they have it! Every time I don’t get my period, it’s this huge freak-out. I have to call my doctor, change my meds— it’s a process. So [the piece is] almost a celebration.”
Despite seeming comfortable with sharing such a personal, often thought of as gross, part of her life, publicly displaying her art is scary: “For the most part, I’m scared. It’s the most vulnerable part of me, and it’s terrifying in a lot of ways. It’s something from my head that I put out into the world in a very physical, communal way that can be seen by everyone if I want it to be.”
But her sense of calm comes from those moments with the right audiences, who maybe don’t “get” her art — a whole other can of worms — but who appreciate her bold honesty. And for those who don’t, it’s about “embracing how special it is to be so young and already be making people angry. I’m making people feel such intense things that they’re saying something isn’t okay. It’s starting conversations. I just want to make people talk, to be vulnerable, to feel as much as I do.”
So far this year, Lichtenstein has been forcing herself to weave — an excruciatingly slow task for a fan of fast habits — but also is working on developing her senior project (which has required her to be “thinking and thinking and thinking”). What she has in mind right now is a clothing collection made from hand-painted textiles that will be worn by her closest friends. The idea, like much of the things occupying her headspace currently, comes from a day in Australia.
“I usually don’t like basing my work on men because I think it’s boring, but in the ways where I’m meditating on how they’ve affected or hurt me, it can be helpful. And I had been dating this guy who was super sweet and was good at picking up physical cues. One day under a tree, he just asked me if I had trouble with being touched. That stuck with me for so long because, yeah, I do. After that day, I started drawing these really gestural plant-like images that I thought would look great on textiles.”
Her senior project will be a mix of spatial practice and clothing design, all shown off and culminating into an open space that people can move around in— a combination of all the things that make her mind tic.
Lichtenstein’s art and mind are compelling because of her brashness and honesty. She does not shy away from her truths, aspects she wants people to at least look at, maybe question, become angry with, even talk about later. Anything that can make the viewer feel.