Body of Art

“Deformance Artist” Liz Gibson cuts a striking figure of creative empowerment

(Liz Gibson as “Three Legged Fox”)

Confessional storytelling, visual art and full-blown imaginative possession disguised-as-performance seek union in the world of Liz Gibson. The self-described “Deformance Artist” uses characters like Three Legged Fox and Ben Wa Betty to invite the audience into captivating events that chronicle Gibson’s personal life story of deformity while touching on universal themes of alienation, adversity and ultimately hope. A native of Western Pennsylvania, the 38 year old artist and educator was born with a deformed right hand featuring two fingers. Over the past decade plus, it is a disability that Gibson has explored, celebrated and even fetishized to the point of that word’s original definition – imbuing her body’s unique story with an almost mystical fervor that is tempered by the artist’s inquisitive, personable and humorous nature. Her two most summoned characters are extreme dual archetypes of Gibson’s interior realm sent out to explore our world. Three Legged Fox is Gibson’s tender persona, an innocent suddenly realizing that she is not like the other children. Ben Wa Betty is the sexualized form of that same self-conscious sense of difference, a brash adolescent intent on shocking and even terrifying the audience. Gibson creates these characters from the ground up, spending months writing the original script, planning what she calls an “immersive experience” with an obsessive attention to detail that ranges from tirelessly rehearsing her lines to designing and making her own costumes.

Along with life partner and collaborator, the multimedia artist Jeff Whipple, Gibson currently bases her headquarters of operations at MetaCusp Studios, a cavernous warehouse space located on the same Riverside block of the current Northeast Florida artist cooperative known as CoRK. Since moving to the area in February of this year, the pair have been active members of the arts scene. Both Gibson and Whipple are also currently instructors at University of North Florida. Yet much of their time is spent in this shared studio, where the area portioned off for Gibson’s upcoming performance is nestled between a back room where she does some of her own “hands on” construction along with a rambling ground floor that hosts Whipple’s canvases and computer work station. Gibson’s studio takes up the entire top floor of MetaCusp, an area that at this time is “off limits” to visitors. A kitchen area and lounge are also part of the pair’s art-making hideout and a few housecats are on hand to keep an eye on things.

On Friday, November 16 from 6-9 p.m. MetaCusp Studios (2650 Rosselle Street, in Riverside across from Bold City Brewery and CoRK Studios, (813) 223-6190) presents Gibson and her latest “deformance” entitled “Two Fingered Turkeys.” This holiday-themed piece features 196 of Gibson’s handmade variations on the almost universal grade school project of construction paper turkeys that are made by tracing one’s hand. As Three Legged Fox, Gibson delivers a song and story while the audience are also invited to find visual clues among the exhibit, a sort of nod and homage to childhood signifiers like Highlights Magazine and the game of I Spy.

I had originally interviewed both Gibson and Whipple for a cover feature for the April 5, 2011 issue of Folio Weekly. I spoke with Gibson at Meta Cusp on Monday, November 12. What follows is a transcription of some of the highlights of our conversation.


(We Want the Airwaves: Liz Gibson’s recent appearance on First Coast Living. Photo by Jeff Whipple.)

Starehouse.: What does the audience win if they find all of the hidden items in “Two Fingered Turkeys”?

Liz Gibson: They get to win the prize of being entertained and get to learn a lesson in life that I had to learn by missing three fingers (laughs).

S.: Are you reading this (points to a copy of “Driving on the Rim” by Thomas McGuane)? He was buddies with Richard Brautigan.

L.G.: That’s Mr. Jeffrey’s (points towards Jeff in the other room). I read really old crap like Herman Hesse, man – that’s my dad. I’m into that “German Existential” crap that nobody wants to read anymore. That is what I love.

S.: So how was First Coast Living? Is the world of morning talk shows ready for “Deformance Art”?

L.G.: It went great and they were nice.

S.: In the picture you posted on Facebook, Casey [Black-DeSantis] seemed a little puzzled by you.

L.G.: Oh she was into it and he [Nick Loren] was just so wired and like (shakes hands and face like she is being electrocuted or shocked)… (laughs) but they were both pretty cool. (click here on Monday, November 12 Meta Cusp Studios to see Gibson’s appearance on the show)

S.: Was this your first television appearance for a morning talk show?

L.G.: Well for a morning show, but I was on TV in Tampa before.

S.: Yeah? Was it for “Deformance Art”?

L.G.: Yeah but it was with a thing called “Industrial Carnivore” with a bunch of other artists that were doing different things. But I did a performance for that.

S.: So finally the morning talk shows are ready for “Deformance Art”…2013 is your year.

L.G.: (laughs) It’s about time!

S.: I was listening back to our previous interview from March of 2011, and you had told me that you first became aware of performance art from “Jem”…

L.G.: “Jem and the Holograms”! That’s my screen saver, man! (laughs)

(Finger painting: Liz Gibson as “Three Legged Fox.”)

S.: So some local kid might have seen you on First Coast Living and you just turned them on to performance art. This was their “Jem and the Holograms” moment.

L.G.: I hope so. But they don’t know what “Jem and the Holograms” is. It’s an eighties thing.

S: What are like the roots of performance art? Do you know? Is it the Dadaists?

L.G.: Probably. Max Ernst, obviously and we all know about Hugo Ball, Hans Arp and all of those guys.

S.: It’s really like theater, right?

L.G.: Well, poetry too.

S.: You had told me that in that episode of “Jem” the actual performance art piece featured these guys in white lab coats, beating themselves with wooden spoons.

L.G.: They were just wearing white suits and they had these wooden spoons and hit themselves (makes hitting motion towards her body) and that’s all they did… How familiar are you with “Jem”?

S.: Very. (both laugh) I’m a man-child of the eighties.

(Wild Roots: Liz Gibson first witnessed performance art on an episode of the eighties animated series, “Jem and the Holograms.” Photo: Courtesy of Hasbro/Marvel Productions)

L.G.: I loved it because it was very femme based which meant women could do stuff too – imagine that – and on top of that it featured a different art career almost in every episode so there was the “fashion designer episode” and of course the people who are the main characters are in a rock band. Then when they finally had the “visual artist” episode it was a guy, which was kind of unusual because usually the person was a chick.

S.: And they even had their all-woman evil nemesis band, “The Misfits.”

L.G.: Yeah, the rival band. But it was all art-based careers and I liked that a lot because it made me feel like I could actually pursue an art-based career instead of just drawing pretty pictures all of the time.

S.: It seems like in popular culture, performance art it is the most mocked or trivialized of all the arts. You know, like in “The Big Lebowski.” And it’s invariably the most extreme kind of performance or seems like it should be parodied.

L.G.: Oh yeah, or it always seems like it has some corporeal fluid involved.

S.: Right, right! It’s always like Karen Finley or Joe Coleman or the most extreme end of that realm, even bordering on wacky. Why do you think that is?

(Liz Gibson in front of some of her images for “Two Fingered Turkeys.”)

L.G.: I don’t know what their creative process is, I only know that the reason I came to the conclusion to do performance was for my own agenda, which is basically that I was doing all kinds of 2-D and 3-D work and it was strong. And people seemed to love it even more after I would talk about it. But I realized that I had to figure out another way, because I wasn’t communicating strongly enough the ideas I wanted to communicate. And I didn’t just want to have to have an artist’s talk every time I had a show. Plus I developed a theory when I started grad school. I made a “knife shoe” video. This was one of the first things I made when I got there, the same pieces that I showed you earlier. So I made those and made this video and I hadn’t developed any characters yet. Somebody had thrown out a cooler with a glass front on it and I used that. I took a lot of risks and didn’t give a shit (laughs) so I put a camera inside of this cooler and I stood on the glass and thought, “Oh, this should hold me…and now I’m going to put knives on my feet” (both laughing) and I filmed two shots: I did an upskirt shot with the camera inside the cooler aimed upwards through the glass and then I did a longshot from the side. I also had the camera on its side because I wanted to get as much leg in there as possible. So I had two videos that I could run simultaneously and during that show everybody went crazy for it. People would come into the gallery and just watch it completely transfixed. And I only stepped on five or six things and the video only went on for so long and it looped. But people just kept staring at it. And I know people are really addicted to television to begin with, so I knew that video could be a strong tool.

(Liz Gibson’s “Knife Shoe.”)

S.: Well, we are all kind of indoctrinated to just walk towards any television screen and drool.

L.G.: Yeah, so if you know what the “crack/heroin” is of visual arts, maybe you should try to implement it, right? Because I do have agendas, I do have messages and meanings I’m trying to get out there and if I know ways to do that I will. People always look at the word “manipulation” as a negative connotation but I really am a “visual manipulator” and I am trying to communicate things and I do believe in the power of visual art as a language. So I don’t see visual arts as just “oh, I can make a pretty picture.”

S.: And manipulation can be a healthy thing, like a sense of guidance or direction.

L.G.: Yeah, it just depends on your agenda.

S.: So were you frustrated before from feeling like you had to do an artist’s talk and performance art kind of removed that obligation?

L.G.: I still love to give artist’s talks. I could sit and talk about my art until people want to kill me. And most artists can as well but I know that people aren’t going to sit around for that. So I came up with this theory, from seeing how people responded to the video on the television. And from my own experience from when I drive down a road and someone is holding up or waving a sign. Today I saw someone with a sign and it was “K Mart – Going Out of Business Sale” on Beach Boulevard and while I will see a million signs on the side of the road it is the power of that person holding the sign makes you look for some reason. I started to understand that television is something that is highly effective in its particular moment to get people’s attention, I noticed that “live” people moving and doing things is very effective. And then the other thought I had was that if I can bring people into a space where I just completely immerse them, then I have them or have a better chance of keeping them. They have done studies and when people go to an art gallery they devote nanoseconds to actually looking at a piece before they move on.

(An Artist’s Talk: Liz Gibson in conversation at MetaCusp Studios.)

S.: Do you think that is some people’s near-awkwardness around art, kind of a “How Do I Look at Art?” mentality?

L.G.: I’m not worried about how they look at art. I’m more worried about them looking at it and me somehow making a communication or connection. I studied all of the academic things and there comes a point where I could either make art that myself and four other professors liked and we could all kind of stand in a circle jerk and go “Oh yeah, this is good! This is good!” or I could try to actually make things that more people could like and find some kind of meaning. And I’m more concerned with communication. If I wanted to have great academic things written about my work I’d just do it myself (laughs).

(Tools for a Spectacle: some select materials from Liz Gibson’s workshop area at MetaCusp Studios.)

S.: And you could certainly manicure your work in a way to please that crowd, as in “you know who is going to love this? Art professors.”

L.G.: And that does happen. A lot of times the actual space helps me figure out how each piece is going to go – like this piece (“Two Fingered Turkeys”) that I’m working on now. It could wind up in another space but I might end up changing an element of it. So I feel that video, performance and installation can really submerse people. I tell my students that if you really want to be a visual artist look at the times you are living in. You are in the best time to be a visual artist and you are also in the worst time to be a visual artist. You have all of this video equipment and cheap technology but at the same time the most incredible competition, not just with the arts but with anything. I used to tell my students a long time ago, when I was able to say whatever I wanted (laughs), “right now, if we wanted to see a woman having sex with a donkey, we could go online and we could find that” and just the fact that you can find all of these things creates a competition. And of course that is an extreme example of spectacle. And I want spectacle, but only if it is spectacle connected to some kind of message.

S.: At some point spectacle is just flashing ornaments.

L.G.: Or just hitting yourself with a wooden spoon.


(Liz Gibson as “Three Legged Fox.”)

S.: You are also an arts educator and I think that you do pretty radical work. So I guess I’m wondering if you have ever felt inhibited by your job or some kind of accountability or fear of pushing things since you are also a teacher?

L.G.: Nope. I see myself as an artist first. I think there are certain topics and I have known people who have gotten into trouble but it usually tends to be more politics than sex. You know what I’m saying? And I tend to stay away from politics in my art but that’s not necessarily because I’m worried about offending people or losing a job. It’s just because it doesn’t interest me (laughs) for my art. I mean I have my own political belief system in my life. But if there’s something that I really want to make, I just do it.

S.: Have you ever had any weird feedback from your professional, academic peers where they were trying to subtly tell you to “rein it in”?

L.G.: No, I don’t think so. I haven’t had people tell me to rein it in but I’ve had good criticism where people told me I wasn’t really communicating what I was trying to do, or that maybe I needed to lessen the spectacle to try and gain more ground on the actual message. And that’s a different thing to be told.

(Liz Gibson in workshop area at MetaCusp Studios with “Three Legged Fox” doll.)

S.: Yeah. Artists will say “everything influences my work” but I totally don’t believe that is true. For example, politics doesn’t influence your work. But I am wondering if somehow being a teacher has shown up in your work?

L.G.: You mean am I influenced by the experience of being an instructor?

S.: Yeah, it intrigues me because I don’t think I could teach anyone how to do anything.

L.G.: You have got to remember I haven’t been teaching forever – I’ve only been teaching college for about three or four years. And before that I did teach little kids and that was a whole other circus. Right now it seems like the thing I am learning the most – and this might sound crazy or silly – is adaptability because I teach a class that is like beginning sculpture. So they will come to me with their proposals and it is always the same: they have a proposal, they have these sketches, and I look them over and try to discuss with them what they are trying to do. And then I try to give them feedback and ideas but because they are coming to me first, I feel like one of those people on a show where they give them 40 ingredients and say, “okay, now you have to cook this awesome dinner.” So they come to me with these ingredients and it is very time consuming and it takes a lot out of my brain (laughs) and when I come home from the “idea pushing days” I usually just come in and take a nap. Because it is one thing to try and work out your own ideas but when you have 20, 30, 40 or even 50 people coming to you and it’s about their lives or something that they want to communicate, and then it is much more difficult. I can still do it and reference things as symbols and how to use ideas to get across messages. But at this point, I think the thing that I am learning from my students is that they have made me think of all of these different ways, under different scenarios, how to try and communicate a lot of similar ideas.

S.: So do you think that translates into your own work?

L.G.: Just that I think it is going to make me a lot stronger in honing in how I will deliver my own messages. If there’s any exchange between my students and me it is that I am the alchemist and they are the apprentice (laughs), you know what I mean?

S.: So you’re their teacher first, maybe their friend second. “That’s Mrs. Gibson to you.”

L.G.: Oh yeah, they call me “Ms. Gibson.” (yells across space to Jeff, who is at his computer workstation) Jeff, do your students call you “Jeff”?

(“Yeah, probably,” Jeff replies. Everyone laughs.)

(Creative Traps: Gibson sets her handmade “Fox Trap Shoe.”)

S.: They call Jeff “El Major Domo.” So I’m probably like a weird apologist for Northeast Florida because I actually love it here, but it seems like you kind of moved here at the right time. Were you aware of CoRK being across the street when you found this space?

L.G.: Yeah, we were actually courted by a couple of other places, too. There was a place in St. Pete that wanted us and we kind of played it out and played hard to get and finally got what we wanted here (laughs).

S.: You’ve both been doing this for years so you are hardly naïve but it seems like you plugged into the arts community here pretty quickly. And I know you had some strong fans in local people here like Steve Williams. What compelled you to move to Jacksonville?

L.G.: Well I think that this place has a lot of potential and right now it seems like it is the “hot art” thing going on and I think that if we can help make that momentum it can really be a good thing for everyone. I mean, everybody goes to New York, right? But up there you can get swallowed alive. Not to mention (gestures around) you would not get this kind of space. So I love the idea of having this space and there were other cities we could have moved to but as far as the actual arts scene goes, I see lot going on here. And I do think CoRK is a good powerhouse of what is happening and people like Steve Williams. Apparently he and Jim Draper had a gallery called Pedestrian that was pretty nice…so there are some people in this community who have always been trying to push for the arts. And now some of it is probably partly due to things like the recession because at another time this space would have been a factory filled with workers making furniture. Now it’s filled with art.

S.: Well, it has been like a twenty year opening reception in Jacksonville, Florida. I mean, to be blunt, the artists really created First Wednesday Art Walk through their own tenacity and indifference to whether people showed up to their shows. And while I like Art Walk, in a way it has become something else. Mark George jokingly called it “The World’s Second Biggest Outdoor Cocktail Party” and there is some truth in that. But I want to address something you had said in one of our e-mail exchanges where you mentioned the “vital role of art in society, communities and the efforts against it.” And I certainly agree with the latter idea. Could you elaborate on that idea?

L.G.: Now we are getting political (laughs).

S.: Not me!

L.G.: Well, right now one of the sad things you see is with art being cut from grade schools and high schools to even higher education. In colleges, especially in art departments, you see more things like hiring freezes. When I was in Tallahassee at FSU, two of my professors got canned because of cuts. One was lucky enough to find another teaching position in North Carolina and the other gentleman who is also a really great artist is now still working for the university but not as an art instructor which is really sad. It’s hard. While we were there, Jeff and I went to a couple of different functions at the Capitol where they were having these meetings and you had the, you know, the guy who is the “Art Czar” for the state of Florida gave a speech and said, “Don’t worry, I’m not going to cut all of the funding to the arts” and then the first question would be, “Well, how much are you going to cut?” There was a time when I was in grad school when we were worried that they were going to cut the arts department because they actually cut the anthropology department at FSU. And well, we all know how our governor feels about anthropology (laughs).

(Spring-Loaded Fashion: Liz Gibson’s handmade “Fox Trap Shoe” is a functioning trap.)

S.: It’s weird how we as a society treat things like art because I think everybody, on some level – and by the way, this is my own belief so it could be complete insane bullshit – but I think all people are attracted to art because it contains beauty, we recognize ourselves in the experience of art, and even things like innovation in technology begin as art. But why do you think there is this resistance to art? Why is art the first thing to get thrown into the bonfire?

L.G.: I don’t think they understand the vital role that art can play in communicating very strong ideas but a lot of times those same ideas and things could be things that people are afraid to even talk about.

S.: What ideas? What things?

L.G.: Things like adversity, like deformity. It would be one thing for me to be a kid and to write a letter to everybody that says “don’t make fun of me! I only have seven fingers!” but it is a lot different if I do a performance and there’s a song and there’s art made that even embraces and in some way holds up in high regard this thing that society would maybe look down upon. I think there is such strong power in visual arts as a language. I’ve always wanted to do this and if I get funding for it I surely will: I want to get dropped in a country where I don’t speak a lick of their tongue and they don’t speak a lick of my tongue. Preferably in a place where they won’t kill me (laughs) and I want to create hand prints on a wall or just pieces of paper. I think it would have some kind of effect on these people and I think they would immediately understand me on some level. Obviously a performance might make it easier to convey an idea, but I think there are so many challenging, difficult and even fun, wacky things that can be communicated through visual art. Regardless of what language humans speak, visual is our first language. And our main language.

S.: Do you think it is just indoctrinated? I remember when you did the “Veiled Luck” piece at the Vault Gallery it was during Art Walk and there all of these kids there and they were completely fucking mesmerized by you and your character of Ben Wa Betty. Do you think people are just taught to “not like this, don’t pay attention to that” and so forth?

L.G.: I don’t know but I think with my work specifically and my performances I am easier to comprehend because I am a storyteller – I am telling a story, there’s a beginning, middle and end, versus the people who are doing this ambiguous thing.

(Dragon Attack: Liz Gibson as “Ben Wa Betty.”)

S.: Like whacking themselves with spoons on their heads?

L.G.: Totally. And I think even with something like abstract painting, the further you get away from things that are really obvious and “obvious” can be a bad word too but I’m not saying it in a negative way. I’m saying that there is a place for figurative painting in the same way that there is a place for abstract painting but of course, the benefit of abstract work is that in art school they teach that it is great because you can come to it and apply your own meaning. But whatever communicative properties that maybe the artist might have intended, if there were any, are going to be a lot harder to find unless you possibly read the story behind or someone’s art history piece that says “this piece is about the struggle of man.” (laughs) If you see a painting of two guys who are dressed in war outfits crying over a dead soldier’s body you know what that means. I think my performances are not abstract art and to me they’re very obvious. Some people will say to me, “well I kind of figured out your art” but I think my art is really obvious.

S.: And very personal, too.

L.G.: Very personal, extremely personal! But my agenda is to make a real communication. I have agendas. That’s another word given negative connotations: agendas. I have good agendas in communicating ideas to people, usually ideas of diversity, tolerance, empowerment or adaptability. This piece I am going to be doing is going to be about adaptability. That’s a big part of it.

S.: Does “Two Fingered Turkeys” feature your character the Three Legged Fox, who is like your persona of innocence?

L.G.: Yeah, my little kid.

(One of Liz Gibson’s “Two Fingered Turkeys.”)

S.: And Ben Wa Betty is kind of a darker, adolescent vampish girl (laughs)?

L.G.: Well, when you become a teenager all of the sudden you learn about (opens eyes wide for dramatic effect and whispers) sex!

S.: Three Legged Fox is this sweetheart manifestation of realizing that you are different. And that’s another universal facet of your work: everyone at some point feels like they’re different and that is even the function of our ego. We kind of navigate reality and define ourselves by saying “I” and “me” but we are also creating a schism or break from others. I guess I am wondering about your views on that awareness of being different and feeling like you are “apart from.” How do you address that?

L.G.: Like you were saying, there’s a couple things that particular character goes through. Normally there is a discovery that she is different, so there is that simple realization of “holy hell, I’m different!” Maybe there was a time in your life when you were in your “home world,” when you are really little and don’t really know much about the outside world. So whatever differences you might have are not very apparent because you live in this little microcosm. But you go out into the world; you go to your first day of kindergarten and all of the sudden you are put in these groups with your peers. You are put in these positions where you are different. And then after that you have to make these decisions about whether or not you just want to be quiet and try to hide and not say anything or whether you’re going to try and actually make friends…I think I’m getting off track (laughs)

(Doll Diaries: Liz Gibson as “Three Legged Fox.”)

S.: No, you are right on track.

L.G.: But the whole theme of this performance is about adaptability but it’s also about saying to someone else, an assumed character that I am talking to through a song that I am trying to show them that I can do things to and they might be different. It might look different because I’m not going to be able to do ten fingered things the way that a person with ten fingers could do them. But I can do the same things. And in the end, I pose the question, “Isn’t it kind of pretty anyhow?”

(Liz Gibson stands in front of part of the exhibit to be featured in her upcoming performance, “Two Fingered Turkeys.”)

S.: I want to address this and it could have originally been playful and I am making it darker than it means to be, but when we had talked earlier you told me that when you were a child you went to kindergarten and twenty kids essentially mobbed you and wanted to look at your hand. And you told me that you were – and this is your wording – “trained” to say “God made me that way.” Did that affect your worldview or belief system?

L.G.: In God?

S.: In something.

L.G.: Oh I was highly spiritual and into God when I was little. I think most kids are, unless they grow up in a place where no one ever talks about God.

S.: Did you feel victimized by God or even special and better?

L.G.: Did I ever ask God, “why?”

S.: I guess, yes.

L.G.: (pauses) Yes, I did. And that’s something I am working out right now for my teenage character.

S.: Well, and maybe this is why, all of this (pointing around at art, the studio space and recorder).

L.G.: Well my teenage character is more in that head space. And I’m sure most teenagers go through that something in their own way. What about the guy that gets really bad acne in his junior year when before he was like the hot, cute boy. Now he’s plagued with acne. I imagine he is at home in the mirror, crying “Why God, why me?!”

S.: Well I’m here to tell you that guy turned out okay and started writing about artists.

L.G.: (laughs) Well I’m saying there’s definitely a time for embracing God and believing that you’re special and a time to think that you are cursed by God as well.

(Feathered Back: along with an original “deformance” by Gibson, “Two Fingered Turkeys” features 196 handmade images and a sort of clue finding game that pays tribute to childhood signifiers like Highlights Magazine and “I Spy.”)

S.: In an earlier e-mail exchange, you wrote about how you are an artist who addresses deformity and disability in the way that people like Herman Hesse and Alejandro Jodorowsky approach those ideas. And I would also throw in there, perhaps most famously, Frida Kahlo and more recently, the performance artist Bob Flanagan, you know the “Supermasochist” guy? They also explored these themes, in their own unique ways. Do you feel affinity with them as individuals and kindred spirits or is it more the concepts of deformity or disability that attract you?

L.G.: I have looked at a lot of other work in terms of that it deals with disabilities. I even had considered going to graduate school to get my doctorate in Chicago. I already had my MFA and the Masters in Fine Arts is really your terminal degree. But I was going to get a doctorate through their Disability Studies Department up there and it would have allowed me to keep doing the same kind of performances and it was under this lady who was part of that department that specifically works with disability in theater and performance. And the reason I didn’t go is that I didn’t get full funding for it (laughs) because otherwise right now you’d be talking to Doctor Liz! But the point being is that I can feel like a kindred spirit to those people but I wouldn’t feel any more of a kindred spirit to a person who does artwork about disability or deformity than I would towards another artist like, say, Max Ernst.

S.: Are there any current artists you feel any affinity towards?

L.G.: I honestly, genuinely don’t try to be influenced by any artists.

S.: So I couldn’t really say, “In the realm between ‘Jem and the Holograms’ and Max Ernst lives the art goddess known as Liz Gibson”?

L.G.: (laughs) No, not unless you throw in “The Dukes of Hazzard” and “Wonder Woman.” I love all of those things! I have a very strong inner voice and I try the best I can to follow what it says to do in terms of art making. Because every time that I haven’t followed that voice, my life has been hell. And then eventually, I just wind up submitting anyway. So when it tells me to do really crazy stuff for art, I do it. Because it has never led me wrong. And sure I have to do things that are really weird, like eating grubs.

S.: Did you lose a bet or was this a performance?

L.G. Yeah, as Ben Wa Betty. The piece was called “Grotesque Menagerie.” I had these really, really long fingernails. It was for Halloween and I was interested in this idea of how when I was a teenager I was intrigued by the idea of being a freak. This was back when I was still in high school and everybody like the jocks and cheerleaders were suddenly getting everything pierced and tattooed …

S.: Oh, do you mean “The Grunge Years” of the nineties? I do recall such a time.

L.G.: (laughs) yes… but back then everybody wanted to be a freak. Suddenly people who weren’t even my friends tried to befriend me. It was this really bizarre, ironic and annoying thing to me because when I was a little kid this was the same kind of person that shunned me and now all of the sudden MTV rules your world and told you “freaks are cool” and now you are trying to distort your body. Have you ever been to a county fair where they have someone who’s a freak or have you ever been to a real, live freak show?

S.: Only the one taking place between my ears, sister!

L.G.: (laughs) Yeah, right.

S.: When I was a kid in Louisville back in the seventies they had that at the fair. They probably still do because it’s Kentucky, but to answer your question, no I have not. But I can remember looking up at the huge images on the carnival tent and being horrified by it all.

L.G.: Yeah, and that’s what I did. I made these long, fake fingernails and embedded needles in the tips of them. I was dressed as my Asian character (Ben Wa Betty) and was surrounded by all of this Asian paraphernalia – thank you Pier One (laughs) – and had this big silver tray in front of me. People would come behind the curtain one at a time and I would look at them and take my hand and plunge down and stab the grub. It was so dramatic and horrific…

S.: (laughs) You think?

L.G.: ….and the grub would just be flailing around and fighting for its life and then I would eat it.

S.: Did you eat the whole grub?

L.G.: Oh yeah, I don’t know how many I ate that night.

S.: “Waste not, want not.”

L.G.: Ha ha!

S.: Well, give me a number. How many grubs did you eat that night? Dozens?

L.G.: (sighs) Yes.

S.: Fuck.

L.G.: It was a lot.

S.: What did the grubs taste like?

L.G.: It was kind of cool. They kind of tasted “carrot-y.”

S.: “Carrot-y”? By the way, the correct answer is “Bald Eagle,” “Condor” or “Baby Seal.”

L.G.: (laughs) But they tasted that way because I got them from the Entomology Department at FSU and I went to an Entomologist with this idea and he willingly met me. He’s this very famous scientist who has published all of these books and I guess he just said, “Sure, I’ll meet this crackpot.” I told him I was from the other side of the university at the art program. I met him three times and every time he would ask me, “Why are you doing this?”

S.: That is a sane question.

L.G.: And I kept telling him why and he finally gave me the grubs. They do a lot of studies with ants and the grubs are what the ants eat. So they had all of these grubs that had been basically pampered.

S.: So at least they were “Cruelty-Free” raised grubs.

L.G.: And they are very clean because they feed them nothing unclean or chemically treated. It was strange because I actually had the grubs for some time before the performance and I don’t normally eat a lot of meat and I had developed a weird thing like an attachment about them. I would feed them carrots and you make them this feed out of Quaker Oats…

S.: Hold on, let me write this down…

L.G.: (laughs)

S.: They went from “pet” to “art” very quickly.

L.G.: They went from “pet” to “sacrifice.” And the really weird thing is the whole time I raised them and fed them they seemed to behave one way. But the minute I started eating them they acted differently. I had to practice eating them before the performance because you almost instinctively make a face. But I had to get in character and not have any kind of negative reaction when I ate them. I had to eat them in front of a mirror and perfect my act. But I swear to God their hive mentality completely changed. It was like somehow they all realized I was suddenly their predator; whereas before I was their caretaker. It was really weird.

S.: Yeah, you crossed the line of trust on that one.

L.G.: And my cat was really freaked out, too (laughs).

(Raw Materials: an obsessive to detail, a past performance by Liz Gibson titled “Grotesque Menagerie” included her character Ben Wa Betty dining on live grubs. Gibson received the grubs from the Entomology Department at FSU and personally raised and fed them until the performance. “I swear to God their hive mentality completely changed,” says Gibson of the moment when she had to finally eat the insects, whose flavor she compares to carrots. “It was like somehow they all realized I was suddenly their predator; whereas before I was their caretaker.”)


S.: I think your work is really optimistic and in person you surely kind of exude that vibe, like a hopeful energy. And when we first spoke, you described how your work is based on “Deformity, Adversity and Empowerment.” Is that, for lack of a better word, an evolutionary process – or is it a cycle? I mean, at some point does empowerment break down into deformity? Is all of your work based on those three ideas?

L.G.: I would say no. I guess on some bigger, broader level all of my “Deformances” are based on that. But every time I do a piece based on deformity, I am always trying to elevate it. Part of that is self-interest. I don’t want to live in a society where they burn and kill the cripples, because that would be me! But above that, I feel like as a kid, I was not that strong. Ben Wa Betty kind of touches on this. So in some fun kind of way, it’s like taking it back. Like the performance I’m going to do (for “Two Fingered Turkeys”). It’s not based on a specific event that took place in my life but it is based on kind of an overview or composite of some the things that happened. If I could have a time machine and go back to when I was a little kid…

S.: So is some of this almost resentment-based? I mean when you say that you want to “go back when you were a little kid”…

L.G.: I don’t feel resentment but truthfully I feel like a lot of people in my position do. But if I felt resentment I couldn’t be able to do performances like I do. Every time I do a performance with the idea that these obstacles can be overcome, or that things can move forward, or that I am somehow equal, or doing something just as good or even better somehow…even for myself and my internal ego, it is helping. It could be therapy and it does have a therapeutic meaning to it.

S.: If something political comes out of your work, maybe it is that it’s encouraging.

L.G.: Well, (laughs) I hope so.

S.: I know you don’t just want to be the spokesperson for deformity or the disabled.

L.G.: It doesn’t bother me anymore. I don’t know, I mean it is great to be in this position versus the position of being the child who is too shy to play “Red Rover, Red Rover” because I don’t want to link hands with people. And it’s better to be in this position than to be the teenager who always wants to hide her hand.

Daniel A. Brown

2 thoughts on “Body of Art

  1. Pam Marwede

    What a fantastic interview! I loved reading about Liz Gibson, Wow! and really appreciated the intelligence with which the interview was conducted; frankly, it is a rare treat. Thank you . Gibson is a fascinating and tremendously likeable subject, and she discusses this wide variety of nuanced topics with inspiring articulateness. Delightful.

  2. Tim Gilmore

    The most wonderfully in-depth interview I can imagine with Liz Gibson. I love the images too. Sometimes asking the right questions is as much an art as coming up with the right answers.


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