Root Systems: An interview with Lisa Marie Thalhammer

By Jay Hendrick on March 27, 2017

I met Lisa Marie Thalhammer at her 52 O Street studio in Washington DC on February 21, 2016 where we discussed painting, activism, healing, football, the Women’s March, and murals.

Jay I have been thinking about teaching as a social practice. I have these intersections between teaching and painting where I am trying to squish things together. I am curious if you have similar intersections. Do you think about yoga and painting in the same way? Are they parallel? Are they metaphors for each other? Are they the same thing?

Lisa Marie I am currently making paintings about yoga while also teaching yoga. Through the practice of yoga we are tuning the body through the art of movement or the physical asana–poses. Then we tune the mind through things like concentration and mediation. It is similar with the spirit. Yoga combines all three: the physical, the mind, and the spirit. Thus, the theory of yoga explains how everyone, everything and every place are interconnected. Thus, nothing becomes separate from the yoga practice. It is the underground root system that gives me a theoretical and ethical foundation for all that I do, including making art.

Photo by Kevin Lindon Ryan at 52 O Street Art Studios with Lisa Marie in Supported Headstand, or Salamba Sirsasana, with her Anahata paintings series in progress
Photo by Kevin Lindon Ryan at 52 O Street Art Studios with Lisa Marie in Supported Headstand, or Salamba Sirsasana, with her Anahata paintings series in progress

J You are from Illinois, right?

LM I was born in Florissant, Missouri right across highway from Ferguson, in north county St. Louis. My grandfather opened and operated, with my family, a truck stop east of St. Louis in Troy, IL. He opened it in the 70s. When my father got more involved with the business in the 90s, we moved to Edwardsville, Illinois. I crossed the Mississippi River every day to attend high school in west county St. Louis at an all girls Catholic school called St. Joseph’s Academy. I also practiced tennis in south county, so I know the whole region. St Louis is both connected but also divided by these highways so it’s hard to talk about Ferguson without talking about St Louis. There is a lot of separation due to these highways and a lot of “white flight” from the downtown areas. So it is difficult to talk about the dynamics of Ferguson without discussing the dynamics of the St. Louis area–gotta look at it in its entirety.

J Did growing up with that “white flight” inform who you are, inform your work, and what you think about?

LM I think so. I think more about this as I get older. I was a tomboy growing up. I liked to play sports and to be active and adventurous but the boys my age didn’t want to play with me because I was a girl–they preferred to play with my little brother. I wasn’t into playing house with the girls. I found myself a loner as a kid. My next-door neighbors, who were black had the best yard in the whole neighborhood and were always outside so they became my friends. Even though I grew up in a pretty white neighborhood in a pretty white family with a good amount of privilege, I had black friends very early. Later in life, after moving to Illinois, I would hear people make racist remarks or I would hear about Ku Klux Klan rallies in the area and I always knew that type of mentality was fucked up. A fucked up part of patriarchy.

J I hadn’t considered it that way. I grew up in a small town in Texas and one of my earliest memories is so concrete and I think kind of traumatic. It was seeing a KKK robe and hood found in some a local bank’s storage box. To know that was in my community, I was so shocked. Racism was a present day reality, not just a thing in the 1860’s. I am living with this.

LM It wasn’t much of a shock for me. It was and is upsetting but I had an awareness early on that this country was founded on a white supremacist colonial history.

My work is socio-political. It is very feminist. I mainly paint empowered women and people of all different colors who I know from my everyday life in DC. The piece that was up at Joan Hisoaka Healing Arts Gallery is a self-portrait with a black heart. A root system stems out of the black heart as arteries. The heart is not separate. It is a whole circulatory system. I like the idea of depicting a heart branching out instead of having the arteries cut off. It represents Gaia theory or the theory of the whole earth being a living entity. The shape of arteries in the body are similar to the shape of roots in a tree, which are similar to the shape of the water banks of the Nile. I am attempting to convey a macro to micro understanding of these living creatures and systems. I’m thinking about the earth being a living creature and how there are similar structures that are mimicked from plant to mammal to Earth so we aren’t separate from these things. We are these things. We don’t exist without them. Without plants we don’t exist. Plants breathe in our waste, and we breathe in their waste. We need each other to survive. We are connected.

Lisa Marie Thalhammer Anahata Series Self Portrait: Tadasana Mountain pose with Chest Stretch & Black Heart, 2015-2017 Oil on Canvas: 48” x 60”
Lisa Marie Thalhammer Anahata Series Self Portrait: Tadasana Mountain pose with Chest Stretch & Black Heart, 2015-2017 Oil on Canvas: 48” x 60”

That’s what yoga theory is all about. It is understanding that there is no separation between the “us” and the “them.”

J So everyone is connected like root systems.

LM Yes, like root systems and even these rainbow pattern color network works, I am thinking about connectivity–the interconnections between all things, so I am using pattern and shape to create an interwoven maze of geometry. The Love piece came first and then I made these.

The piece at Joan Hisoaka, I made when I was studying yoga theory and healing from a head injury and heartbreak. I was a spiritual young person. Like a lot of good little gay girls, I wanted to be a nun. I remember losing my faith in the Catholic church, due to realizing its patriarchal structure and the man-made faults that lie within that. It was the day, I remember, that we were talking about Adam and Eve as a story to tell a lesson but it wasn’t taken to be truth. The bible has two different creation stories that come from two separate cultures. The creation story where Eve comes from Adam’s rib comes from a Mesopotamian cultural lineage and was much less egalitarian than the Egyptian culture of the time where the story of the Earth being created in seven days comes from. If we are studying the creation stories of peoples through the bible what can those tell us? It told me there wasn’t one unified truth there.

J How old were you?

LM I was fourteen.

J That’s around the same age when I also starting asking those same kinds of questions. So it was like an epiphany, satori, a thunderbolt?

LM I was in a world religions class at that time. The good nuns taught us to think for ourselves, they taught about Taoism, Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism–we learned a little about all the world’s religions. It really expanded my thinking and I spent the next twenty years recovering from the Catholic patriarchy.

J I can totally relate.

LM Well, like eighteen years. I feel recovered now.

J I feel like I am, in a way, a living reaction to how I was raised. It was protestant for me. It’s like, I am a reaction to the small town community and the religion. I feel like I need to analyze that situation.

LM Looking in the mirror and going through that process is important to healing our culture. None of us are excused from this work, especially us folks with skin color privilege.

J What did you mean when you said you aren’t a recovering Catholic anymore?

LM I fell off a ladder and hit my head pretty hard. I had post concussion syndrome for two and half years. Post concussion syndrome is when the symptoms of a concussion don’t go away. So I had a hard time being in public for a while. It was a difficult experience but at this point I wouldn’t change it because I learned so much from it. I took some time to focus on healing myself. As I healed from that concussion, I healed a lot of other things inside of me too. So it ended up being an opportunity to quiet down and find the spiritual person who has always been there. It is a very personal path guided by my yoga practice.

It comes into the paintings too and informs my activist work also. It is a bit of an awakening. Recovering from an energetic injury opened me up. I have a greater understanding of my own energy and greater empathy for others as well.

J You brought up activism can say more about what you are doing in that direction?

LM We recently went to a queer dance party.

J In front of [Vice President] Pence’s house?

LM The one in front of Trump hotel. The radical feminist anarchist Emma Goldman said, that if there is no dancing, it is not my revolution. Dancing is art. I think about yoga in the same way. Art of the body, mind and spirit. Art of movement. All fully realized revolutionary movements must be led by artists. Art is what changes the heart. I mean literally the word art is in the word heart. One concept I have learned from studying feminist theory that keeps me grounded is this idea that progress comes in waves. There is always a backlash, always a recession of the waters. Which is why we learn about the waves of feminism. Currently we are defining the fourth wave of feminism. There are time periods that move us forward and others that halt, reverse, reverts.

J One step forward, two steps back?

LM Yes, but hopefully more like two steps forward and one step back. What has been an exciting result of the current state of the union is a new interest in feminism and an examination of the patriarchal colonialism that we are all suffer from no matter what our skin tone or gender presentation is. There is a reemergence of that right now where many more people are looking in the mirror and self-examining their piece of the puzzle and standing up against injustice. Maybe more than I have ever experienced in my lifetime. It actually feels like I am living my purpose, being alive and making art in the nation’s capitol where so much of this is going down.

Right now it is important to be intersectional, to value many different points of view. For me, the point of feminism has always been to up lift voices that have been traditionally marginalized – to have true empathy for all others.

J Is empathy a major component for you?

LMI think it is important. In a cultural context, I think it is life or death. We don’t have an empathetic culture—we value material things, competition and violence. I don’t want to start bashing football, but it’s a real root of the problem.

J No, no. That’s where my mind goes too. I think about how in high school, football is preferred over education. I think that shows us what we care about.

LM Football is smashing heads together and injuring young boys. Sometimes physically but more often, and less talked about, is mental damaged. Concussions can be very serious, especially when they happen repetitively, over and over. The symptoms I experienced with my post-concussion syndrome were very similar to what quarterbacks like Kent Stabler experience. When he died his brain was studied and showed level three brain damage, or CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy). In both cases, we were lovers of music that could no longer tolerate sound. And we both experienced violence episodes and an inability to communicate effectively. The difference being that I recovered, but Ken had experienced so many concussions that his brain never did.

It is important to see how the patriarchal structure is harming women, but it is even more essential to understand how it harms boys and puts us all in these boxes that we can’t get out of. I used to just think that there is this culture of domestic abuse in football because it is this masculine sport. But it is way more physical than that. This sport is giving young American boys concussions that result in undiagnosed, untreated injuries and mental illness. I experienced the anger and frustration that comes with this type of injury. It is no fun and can be very destructive.

J Where you aware of the changes you went through? If they are not aware of how they change when they have years of concussions. Where you different from who you were before?

LM Through my injury I was able to understand others in a way I hadn’t before. For example, you have an older grumpy man–he is going through a lot of pain. It is difficult when you are hurting and see no end to it. So I get it. Same thing with a toddler who is two years old–you want to communicate but you can’t. It is frustrating. At times I also felt like I couldn’t communicate and wanted to sit down and throw a tantrum.

J So the Trump presidency is a great big tantrum by people with brain damage?

LM (laughs) That could be. There are a lot of tantrums happening do to insufficient communication and understanding. Americans take this sport that gives our boys and men mental illness and we glorify it. We even slap a B.S. facade of feminism over it with over commercialized half times shows by Gaga or Beyoncé and we say that it is pop girl power. We can shimmer over all the damage being done in one football game with these sexy icons. I wish those artists would stop doing those types of gigs. Stop being part of the problem.

J I hadn’t thought about head injuries. I think how you are describing injuries could change a world-view. I thought about football as like cultural training for capitalism. It is competition and violence. It is like practicing for social Darwinism. It normalizes that behavior. I didn’t think we would be talking about football.

LM I need to make more art about this. I just can’t watch football anymore. Just hearing the helmets clash gives me anxiety. It shows how ingrained these structures are in our culture and our psyche. Even some of my most progressive activist friends don’t get it or choose to not see it and watch the Superbowl. It just proves to me how engrained and systematic injustice really is in our culture.

J What about the painting for EMULSION 2017?

LM This piece is of my friend Heather who runs this yoga group, With Love DC. She is in a wheel pose. I was doing a series of poses that were chest opening, or heart opening postures that focused on the fourth chakra, or the Anahata chakra. That is where healing and forgiveness happens. I was thinking about my injury and my breakup with my partner and I was really heartbroken for a long time. So I was thinking about opening and being vulnerable to love–all kinds of love, not just romantic.

Anahata: Heather Markowitz Urdhva Dhanurasana Wheel Pose on Forearms 2015-16 Oil on Canvas: 60”x48”
Anahata: Heather Markowitz Urdhva Dhanurasana Wheel Pose on Forearms
Oil on Canvas


J How do you feel about people seeing work in progress?

LM I love it. We host big open studio events here seasonally. The next ones are scheduled for April 22nd and June 4th. We invite the public into the 52 O Street Artist Studios. There are forty workspaces and artists live in a few of the spaces. I have worked and lived here since 2005. I am very grateful for DC rent control and would really like to one day own this building and make it even more amazing.

J Is there a good community of artists here at O Street? Do you help each other out?

LM Yes, we help each other out. We talk about our work with one another. There are printers upstairs who print my work. There is a jewelry studio with over twenty jewelers. There is a photography studio. There are print makers, sculptors, fashion designers and mural artists.

At 52 O Street Art Studios with Lisa Marie in Warrior II Pose, or Virabhadrasana II, with her LOVE painting made of ink on paper

It is important to have artists living and working right up the street from the US Capitol building. We are the oldest artist studio building in DC. Most of the others in this area have closed due to development. The building behind us is currently being turned into 200 condos and my neighborhood is one fastest gentrifying neighborhoods in the country. I’m not saying cities, I mean neighborhoods—this NOMA, North Capitol area. We want to stay because I like my neighbors and I have a lot of friends here. Plus artists need to be in the capital leading our country forward.

For the women’s march we did a collective parachute painting action. The whole week before the march we painted twelve, 24-foot parachutes, each done by a different artist and painted with volunteer help. It was a fun and empowering activity to be around all those people painting. I designed one titled, Strong Women Love and it was an image inspired by my young feminist intern from last summer, flexing her arms. She is looking pretty powerful. That was great.

Strong Women Love (in progress), photo courtesy of Lisa Marie Thalhammer

We planned to march with them all but we really couldn’t move because of the mass of people but we were able to have it open throughout the day. People were dancing with it, and kids were running in and out.

Strong Women Love, photo courtesy of Lisa Marie Thalhammer

The speeches for the march were really inspiring. I encourage people to listen to them online. The speakers were very intersectional and very inspiring.

J Was there one in particular you liked?

LM Janelle Monáe was particularly inspiring. She involved the mothers of so many black men who have been murdered by the police. She elevated their voices.

J A question keeps coming up, should art change under this regime? Can art carry on as it has done thus far?

LM I think some things have already changed. I have seen some very dynamic radical work already come out of this frustration and angst that the country is experiencing. Should it? Could it? Can it? It already has changed. Artwork that only focuses on formal qualities belongs to an old boys school club of high modern masculine thinking. That work has its place but it is not an interesting record of the time. What I am thinking about is what I haven’t made yet. I am thinking about color and how to discuss the idea of socially being of color through the process of painting.

Rainbow Energy Network: Healing Touch, 2015 gouache and collage on paper 15 6/8” x 11 3/4”
Rainbow Energy Network: Healing Touch
Gouache and collage on paper
15 6/8” x 11 3/4”

J This is what you are thinking about right now?

LM I am thinking about this now. I use the rainbow a lot because it is a very powerful symbol for the queer community. The rainbow flag is also used by the indigenous peoples of the Andean mountains. Color is a way to talk about difference and as a painter I am interested in that.

J Using color is a way to discuss social issues?

LM Yes, I think it can talk about race, ethnicity, valuing difference. Whiteness is a cultural construction that is intent on assimilation. Before there were White People there were many different kinds of people with light skin tones including Catholic/Jewish, Irish/German/Russian. When we use the language of slavery and colonization to divide people into two boxes, we devalue each other and miss out on truly seeing the color in each and every individual person.

J You have been making murals. Do you have any more of those coming up?

LM I am going back to Indiana to finish our Ferdinand and the Bull mural. Then we will be making more DC Alley Museum murals in Blagden Alley (located at 926 N Street rear NW this summer. We are painting murals on all the garage doors in the alley.

Ferdinand and the Bull
Ferdinand and the Bull, photo courtesy of Lisa Marie Thalhammer

I will also be working with Open Arms Housing, which is across the street. I will be painting a mural on the alley side of their building. It has sixteen permanent micro apartments for homeless women who would have very little chance of getting permanent housing on their own.

J I have thought about murals–what they can do for a community. What can murals do for a community?

LM Murals are for a different audience than these paintings in the studio. They get the work out into the public in a different way than showing in a traditional gallery. They take the art to the people.

J Speaking of gentrification, can the murals be co-opted by other interests?

LM The developers are part of the neighborhood too. So they are also the audience. I did a project in a residential area on the side of brand new apartment building. It helped cheer up that back alley. It was a nice gift to the neighborhood. It is important to integrate art into new development. Art needs to be part of urban planning and landscape.

But places are different and different communities need different things. Like with Ferinand the Bull, it is in a one stop light town in Ferdinand, Indiana. This symbol of a bull was used by the electric company and was on the side of the town’s fire engine but few people knew its connection to the town. Ferdinand the Bull is a children’s story about a bull who wanted to be a pacifist, he didn’t want to butt heads with the other bulls. He wanted to sit under the tree and smell flowers. He didn’t want to play football.