Montalvo resident artist explores meaning of home

February 12, 2019 — by Kaitlyn Wang

Covered in elegant handwriting, papers lay spread out across the studio floor. Photographer Kija Lucas, a Montalvo guest artist, then arranged the notes on a black background. The arrangement will soon become another photo in her body of work “Collections from Sundown.”

“Collections from Sundown” features notes written by Lucas’s grandmother, who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease and passed away last summer. The notes range from reminders to perform certain tasks to descriptions of her experiences for the past 10 to 11 years.

“‘Collections from Sundown’ is about [my grandmother’s] relationship with the world and her reality changing during that time when she was living with Alzheimer's disease,” Lucas said. “I feel like it's a collaboration with her, but she's unwitting in the collaboration.”

Lucas began “Collections from Sundown” in 2014, a year before she first became a resident artist at Montalvo. Since 2015, Lucas has spent five months in total at Montalvo in month-long intervals, with her most recent residency ending on Feb. 9.


In Search of Home

When Lucas came to Montalvo in 2015, she was working on another body of work called “In Search of Home.” For that collection, Lucas traveled to 13 states significant to her ancestry as a person of Eastern European, African and English descent. She based her work on stories she read about family members who experienced America in different ways.

Focused on subjects like plant clippings, rocks and other artifacts from the places she visited, Lucas’s photos resemble scientific photographs or drawings, combining her exploration of her family history with her interest in taxonomy and classification.

While students learn about botanist Carl Linnaeus and his systems of taxonomy in science classes, they may not know that Linnaeus also named and defined five races of man in the 1700s.

“It was incredibly racist, and I feel like the people who made this country wanted to keep it very white and make excuses for slavery,” Lucas said. “They used scientific methods in order to say that they were in the right. And it’s the same reason why right now several people in our government are trying to pass incredibly racist laws to try to maintain whiteness in this country.”

“In Search of Home” explores how people often inherit these outdated ideas.

“We accept things that have been passed down since the 1600s or 1700s, but those were actually ideas that were made up by people,” Lucas said. “How do we grapple with that and how obviously race is something that's embedded in our society?”

Like “Collections From Sundown,” the photos from “In Search of Home” are all scans on a black background. Lucas treats different objects the same way, whether they are flowers or weeds.  

“People speak very similarly about botanicals as they do people — the idea of native and invasive species,” Lucas said. “I use cultivated plants that are considered traditional and beautiful, but also things like weeds from the side from the road. Then I show them in the same way in order to talk about that hierarchy that we've created.”


Objects to Remember You By: An Index of Sentiment

Lucas’s other works also emphasizes the significance of objects. For “Objects to Remember You By: An Index of Sentiment,” she has documented people’s sentimental objects over the course of several years.

“‘Objects to Remember You By’ is about what we choose to hold on to in our lives and what makes us feel at home, but also what museums choose to hold on to and what stories our history books choose to tell,” Lucas said.

Lucas has created a “museum that will live on the internet” with photos of objects, along with information about the objects and their owners, who range from 66-year-olds to 4-year-olds living across the country. Even though objects like a worn stuffed animal or a damaged pair of shoes might seem insignificant to other people, they can contain an aura someone has imbued the object with, Lucas said.

Lucas would like to raise money to build a more comprehensive website that would look more like a museum.

“I want it to be a museum that everyone can feel comfortable in because they can see themselves reflected in it,” Lucas said. “I don't think art, art museums or history museums are always welcoming to people. A lot of times they have objects that are stolen or maybe taken out of context, and so we don’t always all feel represented in that.”


Distance from home

Lucas continues her search of home both as a body of work and as a personal pursuit. Although Lucas has always lived in the Bay Area, she often moves around because the cost of living is so high, leading her to question what home is.

Arriving at a residency can sometimes come with feelings of discomfort working in a certain area, Lucas said. She brings objects like her coffee mug with her — “something that feels yours” — to help her adjust to a place faster.

Lucas finds it difficult to feel settled in a place. Constantly looking for that “settled” feeling, she considers home to be more of a concept than a concrete location.

“I feel like home is more of an idea than an actual place,” Lucas said. “It's interesting because once you leave and go back to a place, it feels different. But part of that is because you're different as a person, like I'm different than I was when I was growing up at home. Going back, it feels like it’s shifted, but it's really me that’s shifted more.”

In a biography for the non-profit arts organization Root Division, Lucas recalls sneaking back onto the property of her childhood home after it was sold. She remembers entering the front yard and seeing the dark, empty house “outlined in chalk, like a dead body at a crime scene.”

The next morning, she went into the house and shot a few rolls of film — but the images contained none of her memories, the images “empty as the house had been.”

“With my work, I tell those stories that escaped my camera when I attempted to revisit my past,” Lucas said. “They are snippets of life, observations, shaping moments.”

Now, Lucas continues exploring ideas of “home, heritage, and  inheritance” in her work. She considers Montalvo far enough away from her home in San Francisco to minimize distractions, enabling her to sit down and focus for longer in a day in a space specifically made for artists.

“There's something really amazing about being able to roll out of bed, make some coffee and just walk across four feet to the studio and start working,” Lucas said. “It's a really magical place that Montalvo has made for artists to be able to focus on their work.”

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