Thousands of people without homes line Skid Row in Downtown Los Angeles in worn tents, dirt-covered rags and cardboard boxes. On South San Pedro and East Fifth Streets, next to a liquor store, a mural glows in vibrant contrast to the surrounding depression. A majestic Masai tribeswoman in a rainbow of embroidery gazes towards a bright yellow sign: "Peace is Yours."
Last year, artist Lydia Emily came into this despondent neighborhood with paint, a ladder and compassion. Her goal: to bring something beautiful to a neglected corner. It was a seemingly simple good deed, but in Emily's world nothing is simple.
She was accosted and ultimately chased out by homeless people who felt their turf was being exploited by an outsider.
"We were getting grotesque insults thrown at us," says Emily's assistant Lindsay Carron, "And for what? Because we're two white women with paint brushes?"
The threats were violent, but Emily wasn't deterred. She invited the homeless people living on the block to collaborate with her, opened up a conversation with them about what they wanted to see on the wall and, ultimately, the project became a source of pride for the community.
Emily's will to fight social injustice through her painting is in part fueled by the challenges she's faced in her own life. She beat cancer only to be diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. She's also a single mother with two daughters, one of whom has autism and requires full-time care.
"I shouldn't be painting murals, I shouldn't be doing anything but resting my life away," she said. Instead, Emily's been preparing for a show that just opened at Garboushian Gallery in Beverly Hills on May 17, running a charity that provides basic necessities to Tibetan people suffering oppression by the Chinese government, traveling as an ambassador for the Genzyme Corporation to raise awareness about breakthroughs in the treatment of Multiple Sclerosis and taking care of her kids and small zoo of shelter animals. She does it with an unfathomable lightheartedness.
"I'm a joker. My subject matter is so serious that if I was that serious all the time, I would just drown," she says.
Emily's mural on Skid Row shows the unique challenges street artists face. In addition to opposition from neighborhoods, they have dealt with a host of red tape from the city. Los Angeles, the world's capital of murals, officially prohibited the public artworks for the last eleven years. The ban was lifted in August 2013, but some L.A. constituents were still adamant about the concern of unwanted art popping up on their block and there was an additional approval process put in place for the works to go up in areas that have not been designated as "business" or "industrial" zones.
"You think you're gonna go out there with a bucket and just do your doodle," says Emily. "It's never like that - it's always total insanity."
One of her most publicized projects was a mural commissioned by film producer Harvey Weinstein to promote Fruitvale Station, a drama based on the controversial 2009 shooting of Oscar Grant by a rapid transit policeman in Oakland, California. It involved such arduous creative negotiations among the director Ryan Coogler, the Weinstein Company and the Grant family that Emily's co-muralist quit. Another project, commissioned by Gucci's charity Chime for Change, about a 17-year-old victim of sex traffickers in L.A., was twice defiled with excrement while it was being painted. In both cases, Emily persisted and successfully completed her projects.
At 43, Emily dresses like a punk-rock chick. For this interview at her home, she's wearing all black, sneakers and her hair in two perky blonde pigtails. It's not surprising to find out she had a brief stint as the singer in a garage band named after her former dog Sweet Pea.
She's talking about persecuted Tibetan monks when her rambunctious pooch Bean starts barking. "You're weird!" she yells at him.
Emily's humor and the gravity of her work seem disparate, but in fact, they're the key to what makes her tick.
"I can't just greet people with these incredibly heavy subjects. I have to suck them in with my charm and my jokiness and then I'm like, 'What are you doing to participate?" She repeated her motto with the passion of a preacher: "What are youuuu doing to participate?"
Her new solo exhibition, "Bound," prompts viewers to look inward. It explores what ties people down: their insecurities, addictions and shortcomings. In contrast to her political murals, which draw attention to global issues, her series of paintings on collaged surfaces of The New York Times speaks to the human condition on a personal level. Each portrait is of a real person, but, together, the works are intended to illuminate the common thread of vice in all beings. In compelling viewers to see themselves in others, the show fits in seamlessly with Emily's mission statement: "Art can do more than hang, it can help."
She knows it's not easy to get others to listen to the tales of suffering that are the heart of her work and so her tactic is to subtly beckon curiosity.
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"The message of struggle is yours to find, but not to be shoved down your throat. If I try, you'll just walk right past," Emily says. "If I give you a beautiful painting with a small piece of information at the bottom, hopefully you'll look it up and you'll find the story."
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