Lisa Kurt—painter and transplant from the Northeast—illustrated the 2016 children’s book Sarla in the Sky by Anjali Joshi. Her current exhibit, Somewhere in the desert there’s a forest, contains storybook-style paintings of somber-faced children with cute, friendly forest animals, wall murals of a forest and colored tumbleweeds suspended from the ceiling. The exhibit is on view at Sierra Arts, 17 N. Virginia St., through Jan. 27. A reception is scheduled for 6-8 p.m. Jan. 19. For information, visit lisakurt.com or sierra-arts.org.
Tell me about your fascination with tumbleweeds.
I’m not from the area. In fact, I grew up in Massachusetts. The woods there have such a different feel, compared to the way nature is out here. New England woods versus the high mountain desert, both magical places, both in a different way. … [In the Northeast] you see them represented in media, but seeing them for the first time in real life, it’s like “Wow, that’s real!” It is like seeing a mythic creature come to life in a way.
I can see in your work threads that might suggest a transition from one place to another. Is that something you think about when you’re painting?
Absolutely, yeah. Coming from the Northeast, I was always seeking out the familiar, as in—what looks like home? … There are places in Reno that are very lush and green. I would seek that out initially. … Being up in Virginia City—I did a residency there—I was just, like, “Wow. If there’s not magic there, I don’t know where there is magic.” The first time I ever went to the redwoods, seeing trees that large … it just immediately made me think of a whole mess of stories and narratives. Same with the desert. And the desert, I would say, has really sparked my narrative and storytelling, especially in the last few years.
To what degree are your pictures fantasy? How much is biography? How much is realism?
There’s always a combination of my childhood, what I’m experiencing now, and then a total fantasy story made up in my head. A lot of times me and my son will just go for walks. We watch a lot of Miyazaki. We’re like, “Where do you think Totoro lives? Do you think there’s sprites in there?” The idea of building a world, a lot of the artists I admire do that. Like David Lynch, for example, he has these different stories, these different movies, but it all revolves in this relatively-the-same world. That’s what I’m interested in creating, is this world.
It’s always a combination of, maybe something from my childhood—it might just be a part of the woods, or it could have been a camping trip, or a story, or whatever. … I hike a lot around the area.
Do your son’s perspectives play into your world creation?
My son Archer is 6. … Having a kid and doing things with him reignites my own childhood in a way. You see things through their eyes for sure. He loves a good story. We talk about ghosts a lot. Things don’t scare him easily.
I see a combination of somberness or loneliness in your human characters—and animals that look like comfortable kindred spirits.
I love animals, and I always have. If I could I would have more. … I’ve always been drawn to the idea of what they offer—friendship, companionship, sort of a spiritual connection to nature as well.