Timepieces: The Clockworks of Luciana Frigerio

David Powell: So, Luciana, tell me a little bit about your family and how that might have affected your art.

Luciana Frigerio: My family definitely had a profound effect on my art. My mom is from Argentina, and my father is from Italy, and they both met in New York and fell in love. Dad worked for a company that made scientific instruments, and he was their representative in America. My mom was a secretary, and both of them were very good with their hands. Mom always has a craft project going, was a seamstress (she sewed all my clothes when I was young) and she loved to quilt. As a hobby, my father used to fix antique clocks. He started out tinkering with clocks he would buy at antique shops, and then began to fix clocks for people locally. He ended up getting quite a reputation for his skill. 

Fixing clocks was like a side hustle for my dad because he wasn’t making a lot of money in his job. As a child, I loved to watch my dad at work. I would sit on a little stool by his desk and hang with him... he was a lovely man. And I have to say my dad was a fine clock repair man. He did everything. He had a lathe and would make the gears. He refinished the cases, inlaid wood.  He would do all of this meticulously, and it was beautiful to watch him at work.

So, I spent my childhood sitting by my dad, watching him fix clocks as well as anything that broke in our house, and that sort of gave me a fearlessness of fixing things—if something breaks, I’ll to try to fix it. My brothers and I, we all sort of have a mechanical understanding. My younger brother was a car mechanic, and he ended up being a rocket scientist. Literally he was a high school dropout and became a rocket scientist for Lockheed.

I’m such a hack compared to my dad! I’m embarrassed because I know what it takes to make something so beautifully crafted, and I’m not that kind of craftsperson. I take what’s there and work with it. It’s funny, if my dad were making the things I am making, he would be so precise. If he wanted to glue a dowel into a piece of wood, he would, drill the hole in the base, fit it perfectly, and then glue it perfectly. He would weld, would carve, would fit joints perfectly... I just like slapping stuff together. Well, I do take great care in what I make, but I always have a little corner inside me that feels like I’m a bit of a hack because I know what it takes to make something meticulously and beautiful and to be a super fine craft person, because I’ve watched it being done. 

DP: How about your early school years? Were you actively making art in grammar school? Junior high school? 

LF: Yes, as a little child, I was always making things. My parents were always supportive of what I did. My parents were great. They were very unconditionally loving. They didn’t force me into any career. They were very supportive of my art (though I think they fretted about how I would make a living doing it!).  Whatever I made, my mother would always gush and say, “oh, how pretty”.

And then in high school, I had a nutty art teacher. I was lazy, and the art room was a great place for me to hang out. I started painting, and I really enjoyed it... I would do a lot of things where I, you’re going to laugh, I started getting really into music, and I would go to a lot of concerts and stuff, and then I got into this thing where I would paint album covers on the back of blue jean jackets and sell them. That’s how I made my money to buy tickets to the shows. Or I would silkscreen T shirts for bands and sell them at concerts, and then take the money to scalp a ticket. I painted copy of an album cover on the back of a jacket for somebody, and then people would hire me to paint jackets with their favorite albums on them. I was into the Yes, so, I did a lot of Roger Dean covers ...I did a lot of Grateful Dead covers too, I even did a copy of your design for Eat a Peach! 

I was pretty good at making these acrylic paintings on the back of jeans jackets and I made a lot of them, so, I thought, okay, I want to go to art school. I applied to the School of Visual Arts, Parsons and to Cooper Union—though that was a long shot.

I got accepted into to SVA. I started school thinking I was going to be a painter, but I had to take a basic photography class as a part of the required foundation courses (at that point I thought photography was like a lesser art form). And I had to buy a camera, so I got a cheap Yashika Fx70, which I ended up loving. It was a totally manual camera.  And I started taking pictures. And from the first roll I took, it was evident to my teachers and everyone that I had a talent because literally, there’s one image on my first roll of film that I’ve sold so prints many of, it’s been on book covers and used for magazine articles.

DP: Oh, really? Your first roll of film?

LF: Yeah, my first roll of film. I had three fantastic photographs on it. I was so frugal. I would take one photo of anything that interested me.

DP: You made every shot count. And it wasn’t like instant gratification, like a snapshot. You were very careful about framing things.

LF: Everything I did was very considered and every frame counted.

DP: It’s like Ansel Adams climbing a mountain and taking one shot, then, going back down.

LF: Yeah. Because I didn’t have money for film. It’s so funny, in this day and age, in the era of the iPhone, I can’t imagine what it’s like to teach photography now. Not only is it that in analog photography, you have no instant gratification, and there are a million hurdles before you see what you did; you take the picture, then have to develop the film, you have to dry the negative, then you have to bring it into the darkroom, and then you have to print it.

DP: Yeah. Now with teaching digital photography, it’s a digital lab, and you’ve got a bunch of computers and printers in there.

LF: You also look at the back of your camera and you see what you just did. And you missed that beautiful thing of an image revealing itself in the darkroom tray.

DP: Oh, yeah. It’s magical.

LF: It’s so incredible. I started taking pictures, and my teacher, her name was Sardi Klein. She was so great. Her response to my art was, “I don’t know what your painting is like, but you need to be doing photography”. I was floundering my painting. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. And she was insistent, “I encourage you to take an advanced photo class next semester and drop one of your other classes”. And I did. I finished that class, and then I took another class, and that teacher was like, you have to consider changing your major because you are a photographer. And I was coming into my creative self.  It was finally this time when I could take that thing inside of me and have it come out of me in a fluid way. And it was a pivotal thing in my life because figuring that key to myself and having that way of communicating my inner self, so fluidly and easily translated into my approach to photography became my approach to everything. Like cooking, the way I live my life... I found my way by stumbling upon it in a basic photography class.

That opened the door for everything I do from that moment on. And I’m so fortunate. You can spend your life looking for that thing—that way to get that thing inside of you out. Right. And I just stumbled upon it beautifully. It was funny, because I didn’t even know what I was doing back then. I would have critique sessions, and my teacher would say things like, “Oh, my God, do you see how you put that reflection of in that face, what’s going on with that? And would be thinking, oh, wow, I didn’t even notice. I was unconsciously doing cuckoo shit.

DP: Well, you said something the other day in an email when you responded, “Oh, I want you to ask questions because I don’t know anything. And I just find stuff, see stuff and move it around.

I didn’t respond. I just thought, yeah, that’s art making. Yeah. And it’s not necessarily rational. No, it’s letting go. And then it’s not really decision making. It’s almost like, muscle memory. Yeah. Your eyes see and your arms and fingers and hands move, and you then discover, oh, this is what works. it can be boring and static when you do elaborate initial sketches that can miss the opportunity of a happy or unconscious accident. When your ideas are set in stone, then you just have to copy yourself.

LF: Well, I feel it’s like I put all this shit out there in the mix, and then I distill it. I started seeing that with photography that still happens in collage, where I put in all this stuff, and I also feel like I don’t want to control it. I want to put it there, and I may want to move things, but then I feel like I can’t get too attached to it because it may just be telling me to do something else.

DP: Right.

LF: I just did a piece, and it felt like I was trying to jam this thing in there. And then I thought, this isn’t working. And then I totally just took it apart and let it just happen the way it happened. Then it all fell into place. But it was like that in photography too, where I would set up a tableau and then pull things out till it felt right. And the funny thing, too, is I realized afterwards that I would take a picture, but I closed my eyes the minute right before I took the picture. I always used to close my eyes as I snapped it.

DP: Oh, really?

LF: I would set up a still life, put up the camera, and then I would close my eyes and take a picture. Yeah. 

So, I switched my major, and the faculty were really great—they let me go in as a second year photography student, so I didn’t have to take all the basic photography foundation classes.

DP: This is still in your freshman year?

LF: No, my freshman fine art foundation year finished and I switched my major, and instead of being a second year painting major, I became a second year photography major. They were very generous in that there were a lot of required courses for photography that they didn’t make me take. Those two teachers really pushed for me, and they talked to the Photography Department and got me in there.

By my third year, I realized I was going to drop out of school so I thought I’m just going to take what I want this last year and then leave because I didn’t want to deal with all the required courses. There were studio classes that I had no interest in...Yeah. And so that’s what happened.

What I did was I made my own curriculum. I took a painting class. I took a whole bunch of other stuff. I didn’t take any humanities. I just wanted to just do art classes that interested me. I did an independent study with this one teacher who was a wonderful woman. And then I took this other class, which had a profound effect on me. And it was a class that lasted 6 hours. It was a critique class, and you had to get there at 9:00, or he would lock the door on you. You were there from 9am to 3pm.

Well, we were eight women there in the class. The teacher, Tad Yamashiro, considered this his dream class. He led the class like a Zen master. 

DP: So, it was as much philosophical as it was aesthetic?

LF: It was psychological more than anything else.  Because you were confronted with yourself. In the beginning, he insisted that you must print every picture you take and bring it in. And so, mind you, that’s a lot, because you’re taking all these other classes, so we’d each have part of a wall, and we would tack up every picture we took. Tons of them.

Just the drill of taking all those photos and then printing them all and then putting them up on the wall was intense...then you put them up and you see, it’s a crazy thing, but you see your vision...  you see yourself in all those images because you can’t hide your touch on how you look at the world. And you see so immediately and so intensely everything you’ve done. And not only what was incredible about that class was I could see everyone’s essence so easily by just looking at that wall of their images on it.

I could see who they were easily, but it was a bit harder to see who I was. And the whole journey of that class was learning how to see my true self in the work that I was doing by just having it all put out there. It’s such an incredible exercise. We would print everything we made and it was like having a retrospective of yourself every week. He started by doing that. And then after weeks of that, he said, “Now I want you to buy three frames. And then every class, you take three images you took the week before and frame them and bring them in. And so we would do that. Framing the photos gave them a respect and isolated them that gave us another perspective. Even the act of choosing the three images was informative.

DP: This method of teaching sounds effective.

LF: Yeah, it was so good, it’s a great process. The crazy thing was, at the end of this third year, I knew I was leaving and not coming back. 

DP: Did you advise your teachers about your dropout plans?

LF: I told them near the end, and my teachers were sort of angry with me because they were thinking, you should be a teacher. So, their advice was to just finish your education so you could at least teach or do something. But I didn’t want to take that path. One of my teachers got me into one of the top Manhattan Photography galleries. I’ll tell you about that, but first I’ll tell you about Tad, the Zen Master’s final class of the session. So, what happened to the last class? I developed my film, and I by mistake. I developed it in fixative. I fucked up my last roll of film! When you develop your film, fixer, it washes away all the silver halide. It’s just a blank negative. And so I thought, okay, I’ll just print it. So I printed it.

DP: You put up all framed black photographs on the wall?

LF: Yes! I thought to myself, Fuck, I’m so scared. What does it say about myself that the last thing I do is nothingness? I put them all on the wall, and I said, yeah, Tad, I’m not coming back.

I’m a little freaked out. I’m leaving school. I’m not going to be doing my photography in school anymore. What does it say for my future photography? And he said, “Go look at that image”. I walked up to the image, and I looked, and I could see myself reflected in it.

DP: Sure. You created your own mirror. The first students achieved their goals immediately, and it took you to the end of the class to create a mirror of yourself. And he was okay with it.

LF: He smiled.

In my last year of school, I loved photographing nudes. But I had trouble getting people to pose for me, so I started using myself. I took these in a way that hid my face, so nobody knew that they were me. My teachers often commented that I had a great relationship with my model...

DP: Very close.

LF: I used to study independently with this woman, Lilo Raymond, she was pretty well known. She did these very white on white still lifes and works of that nature. She had quite a following. I would go to her apartment, we’d hang out, and that would be my class, and we would just talk. I didn’t learn much photography with her, we just talked about life.

DP: Right. And that was a credit course?

LF: Yeah. I took an independent study with her. I forgot before what we technically called it, but basically, we just hung out. And the last class I had done these nudes, and I brought them to her. (I didn’t bring the black prints...!)

DP: Been there, done that.

LF: Yeah. And she said, oh, I want to take you out to lunch for our last class. And she said, I just have to make a phone call. So, we went out to lunch, and at lunch, she said, you have to eat fast because I made an appointment for you with my Gallery because I think they need to see these pictures you have with you right now. I was like, what?

Yeah. And so I went uptown to meet with the Gallery owner, and she said, okay, I want these two for the next show. We have a nude show coming up, we’ll frame them and take care of it.

DP: The gallerist said she would frame them?

LF: Yes... I would have done a terrible job because I didn’t know what I was doing back then! I was so green.

DP: And you still don’t like framing.

LF: I know, right? They didn’t have an opening, but I went to the show and I was hanging there with Edward Weston, Robert Mapplethorpe, and a whole bunch of other well-known photographers.

DP: You were in great company.

LF: I know. There’s a group show of all these masters and I’m there with them. And my pieces had sold!

DP: Yeah, that’s great.

That was a great introduction to gallery life.

LF: Tell me about it. That was my first gallery experience.

DP: You peaked early.

LF: I totally did. Wildly early. I think I had a lot of people that were my champions in the photography department. I had a lot of people that believed in my work and supported me, and it was a very open and beautiful time of my life. It really was.

DP: That’s wonderful. 

LF: Then it took a dark turn because at that point, like, all these great things were happening, and I was in love with a man, and he died, and it totally shut me down. I didn’t know how to process it all. By that point, I’d been out in the world doing my work. I dropped out of school, and I became a photo stylist. I was working on photo shoots, arranging items for catalogs and advertising. I was making a great living, but it was a lot of work.

I did this body of work to try to work through my grief, and then I stopped, and I felt like I had to get out of New York. So I just left, and I moved to Gloucester, Massachusetts. I just wanted to live on the ocean. And I found a little apartment. I made a bunch of big sales in my work, so I had enough money to support myself for a year. I just rented this apartment and spent a lot of time quiet. And then in that period, I met the man that I ended up marrying, and we moved to Vermont. It was a new beginning.

There was one other thing in my life, at that point everyone knew me as a photographer and not as me. And I felt like Vermont was sort of a great little fresh start. So I didn’t really talk about my photography, and I did my work, and I was exploring ideas, but I didn’t really talk about it. I met a whole bunch of people, and nobody knew that I was doing photography.

Right around that time I had a cat who was always bringing me dead animals. He didn’t eat them, he just would bring dead birds into the house. And I thought “I have got to photograph these” So I started doing these still lives with the dead animals..

DP: Nature Morte. And you arranged them? 

LF: I would arrange them, but not too much. I was in love with old master paintings, so I wanted to recreate them for myself. So much of what I make is because I want to live with the images/objects I create... I started shooting through dirty glass to give it an old-world effect. I had old windows kicking around, so I aimed the light through a dirty window, and put a dirty window in front of the setup, and I would photograph through the dirty glass. They would all be straight prints, but they look like they were manipulated in the darkroom.

My whole practice was always about doing straight, unmanipulated prints. I never was into the whole manipulation thing, just a little burning & dodging. I would create all these precarious setups with my cat’s daily catch, put the dirty glass in front, and then shoot it.

I did a large body of work, but after a while I began to wonder “what am I doing here?” I felt like everything I was doing had my hand in it, and I want to just let go. I wanted to understand what I was doing, so I joined a critique group, and it was good, but it wasn’t really giving me what I needed. And I thought, oh, I’m going to find a shrink and bring them my work.. And I found this guy, and I said: Listen, I just want to explore my work and myself through my work. I have this body of work. I don’t know where it’s coming from, and I want to find out what is happening here. I said, would you be willing to have me bring my work to you and then we can talk about it? He was like a Jungian/symbolic  therapist and this was right up his alley, so he agreed.

Every Thursday, I would drop off my work that I’d done that week in the morning. He would take time during this day and look at it. I had also stated that I want to go as long as it takes in a session, I didn’t want to be limited to 50 minutes...

DP: So you set your appointments for the end of the day?

LF: Yes, I would go at 7pm and then we just talk until whenever. I was trying to explore what I was doing, and trying to be free of controlling the still lifes I was making... I wanted to let go of this. So I started doing this thing where I would take a roll of film, photograph, run it through the camera, then rewind it, then photograph again. I would multiple expose it, like, eight times. It would end up being one continuous negative, and then it would print the whole negative in pieces and then attach it together.

DP: Oh, they were large format negatives?.

LF: Sort of. It was a roll of 35mm film printed out. I could get three “frames worth” on a sheet of 11×14 paper. Then I’d make them into an accordion book that could open up to be one long print..

And that was like a release. And they turned into these epic, dream-like stories. Have I ever shown you these? No? I’ll pull them out for you.

DP: Yeah, I’d like to see that.

LF:  The first one I did was insane. The guy, he was just like, Holy shit. Because it was like one long dream image. And the beauty was, I just let go and let the juxtapositions happen. 

DP: Oh, you did a lot of these!. This is not easy to put together.

LF: Yes, I ended up being hired by a recording studio in London to make a series of these for a wall mural. I told them that they would get whatever happened, and they trusted in the process.

DP: These are the opposite of your black photos.

LF: Yes, It’s a deeper version of it. The first one I did blew me away. I took all the elements of my visual language and threw them together and saw what happened. You see clock parts, birds, eggs, renaissance paintings, myself...

DP: The clockworks are showing up here. These pieces were from years ago, but your sensibility and content were prescient.

LF: Yeah..

DP: This one looks like a battlefield. 

LF: I know. And then there’s me.

DP: It looks like you’re struggling.

LF: Yeah, I was totally struggling.

DP: Well, you found the right critic.

LF:  Oh, I sure did.  And we joked, because I kept saying you should be paying me!  It was a field day for him.

I would also shoot outside. In the forest, on the roads. But I often mixed in the clock gears and all. I did a ton of them. It’s all about the inner workings...

DP: But again, with these books, apparently you are obsessive in a good way.

LF: Yeah, I know. It’s like I take an idea and I just go with it.

DP: Oh, that’s great.

LF: There’s a ton of these. I mean, literally, there are so many of them, It’s so funny, I haven’t looked at this stuff for years..

The mural from these was high drama. Isn’t it amazing when you take something small and blow it big? The experience you have with that, it’s different. It’s really intense.

LF: So after this body of work I got pregnant. I didn’t want to deal with photo chemicals or anything like that. And I didn’t have time like I did before.

For me to make art, I need what I call my “couch hours” where I just muse... that’s so valuable.  With my two kids, I had no couch hours. In the beginning, I wanted to do my art, and I started feeling resentful. And I thought, this is not good. So I put my artwork aside and realized that my job was to raise my kids, and that was my creative endeavor. I wanted to be present for them because their childhood is fleeting. And this is the time in my life to be with my kids. Rather than torture myself, I’m trying to eke out time to do my work, I just thought, I’m going to take a break for a while. And so I took a break.

LF:  And then when they were in their teens, I started making things again. But when you take a break like that and you approach it again, everything’s sort of different.

DP: It’s very different.

LF: And also my head space from being a mother changed my perspective on things. There’s so much change. So, when I started making art again, it was different. 

I started working with paper. I was making these little paper cuts, little dioramas made with all white paper that I cut and I made little worlds. I was interested in making worlds, that has always been my thing, but I started getting into that, just making these layers. 

LF: At that point I went to visit my friend Sara Pinto in Scotland. She is my artistic soulmate, and while I was there, we were playing around and made a little animation in a small theater set that we made. Sort of like an expansion on the diorama.

I came home, edited it and happened to show it to my friend who works at Disney. She showed it around and they loved it and ended up hiring Sara and me to create a series of little two-minute-long shorts to go in between their daytime programming and their nighttime programming. We filmed them in Scotland, where we had a team of fantastic animators doing all the animation. It was an interesting and sometimes challenging experience working with Disney. After the project, it gave me the opportunity to take a year off and figure out what I wanted to do next. By then I was divorced and I needed to support myself and the kids.

During that time, I stumbled upon a folded book. I thought “I can figure that out” and I started folding books and selling them on Etsy and Amazon, and that’s how I’ve been making my living for the past ten years. I’ve had a really good run with it. For a while I went viral, and I was really busy. It took up most of my time. I basically folded books to put my kids through college. Now they are off living their lives. My business has slowed down in the past few years, I used to be the only game in town doing it, but now I have a lot of competition. Which is fine, I still make a good living, and now I have time for other things.

DP: Life is good.

LF: Yeah. Now I can make my art. And so going back into that, when I got back into making art, I no longer felt the urge to pick up my camera. Instead, I fell in love with collage. It’s more interesting to be moving stuff around with paper or finding things to work with. A lot of what I’m doing now is really the culmination of everything I have done to this point. I am using collage to play with my inner self. 

And lately I am using the language of clocks and fine art in my collage. Which circles back to my family and their impact on my art. We always had nice paintings in our house. My parents would go to auction houses in NYC back in the 50’s and buy beautiful old paintings for a song.

Recently my father passed away and my brothers and I just divided all the clocks and the paintings from our childhood...

DP: Well, I hope you got the bulk of the clocks.

LF: There were a lot of clocks! I did get many, but my brothers didn’t want the grandfather clock, so I ended up with that too. It’s so gorgeous. Look at this clock – it’s called a Jungian’s Diana Swinger Clock. The clock swings as the pendulum. 

DP: Wow. That Diana is a real swinger.

LF: But, look at these Plato clocks. These are really old.

DP: I had no idea that something like that existed.

LF: So, now I am back in my studio, gathering up things that interest me, pushing things around, playing, and making little worlds… It’s funny to look back an reflect on all the things that have brought me to this point. There is some evolution, and yet it’s still the same me that held the camera, but now holds the exacto knife!

Luciana Frigerio is a photographer that has turned her attention to creating in mixed media collage. Originally from New York, she studied at SVA in the early 80’s. Luciana moved to Vermont over 30 years ago, and is happy to call it home. Her artwork has been featured in many print magazines and books, and is also in collections around the world. Luciana has shown her work in both solo and group exhibitions, and she was recently the featured artist at Pordenonelegge in Pordenone, Italy.