Interview: Deb Sokolow

Deb Sokolow creates a vertiginous world of invented narratives. Her large-scale, ink on paper installations are hung in a kind of methodized-madness that call to mind police investigations bulletin boards, a mad scientist’s chaotic formulas and revelations, or the bedroom of an obsessive-compulsive conspiracy-obsessed fanatic. Sokolow leads viewers into the tangled web of an information-saturated schematic, leaving viewers at once disoriented and exhilarated. Sokolow talked to us about her creative process and sent us a bunch of behind-the-scenes shots, including her “research binders” detailing subjects such as “Ghosts, Email Scams, Pigeons & Squirrels.” Full interview after the jump.

"Study for the Pentagon" 2008

"Study for the Pentagon" 2008

Can you talk a little bit about how you first became interested in creating art?

Decades ago, I would tricycle through the neighborhood and critique the front yards of all the neighbors, making judgmental proclamations such as “Too many woodchips!” or “It’s just grass. I don’t like it!” My favorite yard in the neighborhood belonged to an openly gay couple (which was a big deal in the early 80s, even in a progressive college town like the one I grew up in) and their yard had wildflowers flowing out of these mammoth, phallic-shaped ceramic sculptures. It was so different from all the other yards and it kind of blew my mind. For a while after this, I was entirely certain that I wanted to become a landscape designer, and then an architect, but that dream ended years later when I dropped out of my first drafting class after realizing that architects needed to be good measurers. I was never very good at measuring things. So then I went to school for graphic design, but again, you had to be a good measurer to be a good graphic designer, and I could never wrap my head around what a “pica” was. Somehow I ended up making art, which was the thing I think I really wanted to do all along.

"The Environmental Engineering Firm" 2009

"The Environmental Engineering Firm" 2009

What’s a typical day like in your studio- what’s your schedule like, and how do you organize your time to create?

I wish I could be a 9-to-5 studio artist. It seems like that would be a healthy routine to maintain. Unfortunately, my hours in the studio are fairly erratic and depend on what stage I’m at with a project.

Deb Sokolow

Many of your works revolve around narratives- often times you give “synopsis” of the pieces….the stories themselves are told through various fashions, ranging from text, diagrams, maps- almost like a loosely organized story board. How do you imagine the role of “story” unfolding within your works- and relating this to the viewer?

There is this nameless paranoid narrator, sort of an alter-ego of mine, who narrates the story in every one of my pieces. This narrator is always referred to in the second person as “you,” throughout each story. “You see the woman pull the gun from her purse,” or “You don’t trust him.” Using the second person allows for a viewer/reader to assume the role of narrator and experience the drawing’s story as its central character. At least this is what I hope for. Sometimes, there is nothing more boring than reading a story or watching a movie that doesn’t offer the reader/viewer any kind of emotional investment in the plot or the characters.

"The CIA Rented This House on Telegraph Hill" 2009

"The CIA Rented This House on Telegraph Hill" 2009

You display your works both in book format, and sprawling murals of sorts, that occupy entire walls……how do you think the format affects the “reading” of the work, as far as its content and evocations, and why do you choose some subjects for books, other for murals?

The large drawings, unlike the books, are less linear and can be read in ways other than left to right or beginning to end. Also, they are almost always site-specific, since the concept for the story evolves from the site in which the piece will initially be shown. The central theme for the 90-foot wall drawing I did for the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City in 2008 took shape after a site visit in which I noticed that there were an unusual number of public fountains in the city. This led to my notion that maybe one of those fountains was The Fountain of Youth and that a hermetic chemist was there, working to develop a barbecue sauce that would contain a youth-enhancing ingredient. In the story, the paranoid narrator finds him/herself in the Kemper Museum, looking at Lisa Sanditz’ “SubTropolis” painting that contains a very important clue about where the Fountain of Youth is located. “SubTropolis” is part of the Kemper’s collection, and I asked the curator to have it hung in the foyer outside the room where my exhibition was located so that viewers could squint at it on their own to try and find the clue that the narrator finds.

While some of the books I’ve made are based off of the larger, site-specific works, other books, like the last one I completed, “A Comparative Analysis of Sex Scenes from Three Mainstream Movies (With Suggestions on How They Could be Better)” feel like they are more intimate and need to be housed in a book format.

Deb Sokolow

What’s your creative process like- do you do research before beginning to create your works, creative brainstorming exercises….can you walk us through the inception of an idea for a work, to actually creating it?

Towards the beginning of a project, I’m “researching” at home, which means I’m perusing the Internet for information on topics I’m interested in such as politics, the CIA, secret bunkers or drug lords. I’m also watching people out the front window of my apartment. This window looks out onto a busy and historically seedy thoroughfare in Chicago, and I’m always looking for something unexpected to happen so I can incorporate it into a story, like the crack-head woman who steals mail from the lobbies of buildings, or the old man who wears a Beatles wig and is constantly crossing and re-crossing the street. Anyway, the month before a project is due is when I’m in the studio for long stretches of time and have no social life. And then things get really hairy a week before deadline when I’m trying to finish a 40-footlong drawing and am operating on very little sleep. Fortunately, this is when the fear of not finishing kicks in, which always gives me a serious adrenaline rush to get the project done. Fear is a pretty powerful motivator.

Deb Sokolow

On your website you have an image of some of the books you have been reading. How many books do you read- and can you talk about some titles whose ideas or themes have made their way into your work? What are some of your favorite types of “stories” from literature, word of mouth, news, etc?

I’m currently re-reading “Whiteout” by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair, which is about the CIA, drugs and the press. The book recently made its way into the narrative of a large drawing of mine called, “Dear Trusted Associate.” I’m also reading “Murder in the CIA” by Margaret Truman, “The Secret History of the CIA” by Joseph Trento and Nelson Algren’s “The Man with the Golden Arm.” Algren’s novel takes place on my street but back in the 1940s, and it’s completely surreal to read it and to look out the window and see the bar he’s writing about. As far as stories go, my favorite stories are the ones I hear from the people who run the bars and other businesses on my street… the story about the guy who got axed in front of liquor store down the block, or the hole in the sidewalk in front of the Goldstar Bar where the homeless used to live before the city came to repair the sidewalk. The neighborhood has gone through so much gentrification that it’s hard to believe any of those things ever happened, but the remnants of the violence and the seediness are still there.

Deb Sokolow

Many of your works use pretty down-to-earth, inexpensive materials, paper, pencil, pen, or acrylic paint….why do you use these media? What do you enjoy about the materials, and how do you think it works with your content?

The materials I use mirror the persona of my paranoid protagonist. They’re simple, low-tech, and they suit the tone of the work.

Deb Sokolow

Many of your works evoke diagrams, blue prints or other organizational charts and drawings….do you look to other “information systems” for inspiration, and how do you imagine the totality of the drawing/information structures?

Certainly, I always look to other information systems for inspiration. And including items such as diagrams and bar charts and the like in my drawings allows for large amounts of text to be broken up into more digestible segments.

"The Famous Artist Scam" 2009

"The Famous Artist Scam" 2009

What are some of your favorite sources of inspiration, whether visual, ideological, musical….?

I read the news of the day online everyday. There is always something in there that piques my curiosity, and sometimes a news story leads to an idea for a piece. I also watch a lot of television dramas to see how storylines unfold and characters are developed. Recent favorites include Deadwood, Battlestar Galactica, The Wire, Mad Men and Breaking Bad.


What keeps you creating works, and what do you love most about making work?

I love reading about conspiracy theories, I love having the opportunity to flex my amateur detective skills and I love spending hours gazing out the window. Other than going into law enforcement, I don’t know what other field I could be in that I’d get to do all these things at once.

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  • oh man. this is another one that i really would like to experience in person. i also would really like to go through those binders and all those loose papers. and finally someone who can admit that battlestar gallactica was great.

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  • rtc

    one of my all time favorite artists ever. hilarious, affordable, making reading fun again. go deb

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  • So this is what it’s all about .STOP Where do you think I am going to lead you next .STOP I know, when I say jump you say how high?! SIR. Find this site and clean it up stop the co-op with George the Hunter! DEMAND ! sign ::a.d.b. 7722 Carry on with the call of the duty of the day 🙂

  • I would love to see the interview with her. Thanks for the post