Tell Me More: Visual Artist Angela Lorenz
Tell Me More is a Tufts University podcast featuring brief conversations with the thinkers, artists, makers, and shapers of our world. Listen and learn something new every episode. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music, Stitcher, and SoundCloud.
In this episode, visual artist Angela Lorenz offers insights into artistic experimentation, discusses graffiti in ancient Rome, and relates an artistic tragedy involving graham crackers. Lorenz’s work Victorious Secret, a re-envisioning of an often-misinterpreted Roman mosaic, is on view at Tufts’ Tisch Library. She dedicated the artwork to celebrate forty years of Title IX and came to Tufts as a guest of the Consortium of Studies in Race, Colonialism, and Diaspora.
Angela Lorenz website
Victorious Secret website
Victorious Secret exhibit at Tisch Library
HOST: Welcome to Tell Me More, a podcast series featuring distinguished visitors to Tufts University who share their ideas, discuss their work, and shed light on important topics of the day. In this episode, visual artist Angela Lorenz talks with Tufts University’s Julie Flaherty about having re-envisioned a famous—but often misinterpreted—Roman mosaic, and then dedicating that artwork to celebrating forty years of Title IX. The artist’s exploration of this misinterpretation is on view at the university’s Tisch Library. It’s called Victorious Secret—that’s victorious as in triumphant, not the lingerie company. In the course of this conversation, Lorenz offers insights into artistic experimentation and creating work that evokes both curiosity and amusement. She also relates an artistic tragedy involving some very realistic-looking graham crackers, and discusses some highly relatable graffiti from ancient Rome. Let’s listen in.
JULIE FLAHERTY: Angela Lorenz, welcome to Tufts and thank you for speaking to us today.
ANGELA LORENZ: Thank you for inviting me.
FLAHERTY: In 1959, archeologists excavated a fourth-century Roman mosaic from the floor of a palace in Sicily. It depicted a group of young women who seemed to be dancing or playing instruments. But what people who saw it talked about most was what the women were wearing . . . not togas, but revealing two-piece outfits that looked like bikinis. The “bikini girls,” as they were dubbed, became famous, but in a “Who knew the Romans invented the bikini?” kind of way. It wasn’t until recent years that an archeologist realized what was really going on in that mosaic. The women were actually competing in elite athletic competitions. That tambourine she’s holding? It’s actually a discus. And those things that look like rattles? They’re weights.
LORENZ: So they were discovered in the 1950s and the original archeologist that discovered them did understand that they were athletes for the most part. But there were different hypotheses that were put forward, and certainly in the information—the kinds of guides that were published and available for people visiting the site—people really were promoting the idea of entertainers, musician, dancers. And even if they thought maybe they were athletes, they were perhaps performing in the forum or exercising. No one was addressing the fact that they are doing the pentathlon and no research had come to light or was actively being promoted in relationship to these, in relation to these mosaics that, for 500 years, in the Roman world on three continents that there were international women’s athletic games—the pentathlon, which was based on the Greek Olympics.
Fortuitously, I met this wonderful archeologist and much of my work depends on the research of academics, some of whom I meet by chance and some of whom I seek out and I also just read a lot of books. So I met Isabella Baldini Lippolis, and we discussed these mosaics and she said, “Oh, well they’re winning athletic competitions.” I said, “Oh well, how do you know?” And she said, “Well, these are the prizes and these are the events that they’re doing,” et cetera.
And she said, “And I know this because of my various research and digs in different parts of the world, including Syria.” So I said, “Oh my gosh, we have publish this. I want to make this work of art and spread this knowledge.” She said, “Oh no, well, first I have to do an article for an academic journal. You can’t just let this information out there without me doing it properly.” And I said, “Okay.” Well, it took years of my nudging for her to do the research so then I could communicate it to the general public.
LORENZ: Sure, I made very careful choices in order to (a) represent the mosaics faithfully, but (b) redirect your gaze to what the women are doing as opposed to just what they’re wearing. So the bikinis are great and we have no other example in the Roman world of women wearing bikinis, but people are not noticing what they’re doing.
And so what I did was I laid sort of invisible frames over the mosaic. I kept it to scale—very accurate with the colors and the depictions of the garments and the women—but it focuses on their athletic equipment and their hands, so specifically what they’re doing. I also took away their heads, so that you’re not looking at their hairstyles and their expressions, but you’re able to focus on their bodies. I also think their bodies are very nice, because they’re real bodies, they’re muscular, yeah, they’re athletes.
FLAHERTY: You finished this work in 2013 which was also the fortieth anniversary of Title IX, which is a law that ensures that students get equal opportunity in sports among other things. So how do you see this work related to Title IX?
LORENZ: So these women have just been called “bikini girls” and we’ve been distracted by the fact that they’re competing in athletics. But I think it’s important to recognize that 2,000 years ago, that prestigious families gained status by having their daughters compete in international athletic competitions. So you know, academics debate things all the time in terms of the meaning in iconography, and we have some very good research here about what’s going on, but no matter what, it cannot be denied that we have a record on three continents of the history of women’s athletic competition. So I think that this is a very positive message.
In terms of it addressing Title IX, it has recently been noted in newspapers that American—in particular women of the United States—their success in the Olympics has been directly attributed to Title IX in terms of . . . since 1972 the funding that women’s athletics has received, has really allowed women athletes to flourish in the United States. So, I think that there are . . . it can draw attention to Title IX, I think in a celebratory fashion, so I think it’s important to celebrate the successes of this law and what it created in the United States.
FLAHERTY: So, around the mosaic you also included some graffiti that you collected from various places. Can you talk a little bit about where you got that and why you included it?
LORENZ: So, graffiti highlights the misinterpretation of the mosaics. A lot of the graffiti was . . . it’s very clear that it was written by women. It’s around the same time of the mosaics, even if it’s from a different place—it’s from Pompeii and Herculaneum . . . so Naples area. But it’s fascinating to read ancient graffiti and in this case, talking about sleazy guys and boyfriends, so-and-so got me pregnant, shopping lists, washing lists, things from daily life.
But they’re highlighting sort of the wrong ideas about these mosaics and ideas about women and what women are normally doing. So they’re interesting voices that are in addition to the mosaics themselves, and it’s a part of history that . . . I think it sounds so contemporary, disappointments in relationships, people taking advantage of young women with their names, being named. So it relates in different ways to the content of the work and it brings it home.
FLAHERTY: Do you want to read a couple of the phrases that you put on there?
Lorenz: Sure, a few of them. We have, “Atimetus got me pregnant.” We have, “Virgula to her darling Tertius: you are disgusting.” “Restitutus deceived many young girls.” So, these are three of the ones that’s have to do with negative treatment of women and girls . . . that were written on the walls in 79 A.D. when Vesuvius blew up.
FLAHERTY: But as you said, it can sound very contemporary. These are things that we might read on a bathroom wall these days, right?
LORENZ: Exactly, and one reason why I love history and the study of daily life and material culture in history is it shows how much all cultures have in common and, really, how messages are timeless.
FLAHERTY: So one of the things I was noticing is you like to use wordplay a lot. And one of my favorite examples, in a piece you combined faux graham crackers—again doing the facsimiles of the foods and faux marshmallows, I believe they were made out of paper—and then the writings of Sir Thomas More, to make a work of art. It has a very long title that’s a bit of a tongue twister, but it involves More’s S’mores, which just makes me laugh so much, and it also involves More’s Mores. So I love that your work can be both serious and playful at the same time. How do you strike that balance and why do you try to have both things in one piece of art?
LORENZ: So, puns are actually mnemonic devices, from the beginning of time, people have used them to remember things. My ultimate goal is to communicate ideas and to make concepts visual, to make history visual. But humor is important, we need distraction, we need to look on the bright side. But they do function in terms of helping us remember what we learn.
FLAHERTY: You do a lot of historical research for so many of your works. What takes more time: the research or the actual fabrication of the art?
LORENZ: They’re both laborious, but I have this tactic and I hope I have a long life because my tactic is to work on, I have about fifty projects so. . .
FLAHERTY: At a time?
LORENZ: Yes, permanently. And so my research process I call “Dragnet” and what I do is I kind of trawl. So I keep my mind open and I meet people. I’ll have a random conversation, something might spark a new project, but something might be the perfect piece of information to solve a puzzle, either in terms of the research or in terms of the fabrication.
My favorite part is actually in the experimentation. So, I love the research in which you never know what you’re going to find, but then the experimentation process of a project is wonderful because you can try literally anything. You can just go wherever your mind goes, “Oh hey, what if I cook spaghetti and I glue it down on a piece of cardboard? What is going to happen when it goes through the etching press? Is the spaghetti going to get destroyed?” So, then I make not the final project, I make a sketch of a spaghetti-face portrait in which I’m not concerned what it looks like.
But, you know, you have to—it’s like hacking your problem-solving and I think that is one of the . . . It’s only recently but really being recognized in visual art that the interdisciplinary process of making art helps the brain, helps problem solving, thinking outside of the box. There’s many things the mind goes through when you’re trying to make an art project.
So I can’t really judge the length of things because as I said, I do them all together. Because you’ll often be blocked, you won’t have completely solved either the research or the fabrication or you simply have to do other things. And then in the meantime then, the perfect solution will fall into your hands. So it’s kind of also an act of faith.
FLAHERTY: I encourage people to go online and read more about your process, because there’s just some wonderful stories in there about how hard it can be to take round buttons and cut them into mosaic-shaped tiles and how, I believe, once a cleaner accidentally threw out items from your studio.
LORENZ: You’re actually going back to Sir Thomas More. A terrible tragedy happened while I was resident faculty at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in 2007. It’s a backhanded compliment in that my graham crackers, which were made out of paper, looked so real that when the crew came along to clean out the faculty studios, they had been informed which faculty were staying on an extra week to make work, but somehow something happened.
They went into my studio, it was very clean, and there was just a long line of waxed paper and all of these perfect graham crackers and they assumed that they were real and they just thought someone left cookies behind and they just crumpled them all up and threw them into the trash. And yes, because they were still damp, I went through many trash bags. I was able to rescue them, but they were somewhat distorted and flattened a little and strangely it did actually relate to the project in which Henry VIII who called for Sir Thomas More’s execution is likened to a juggernaut, which crushes everything in its path.
FLAHERTY: Thank you so much for being so generous with your time and for speaking with us today, visual artist Angela Lorenz.
LORENZ: My pleasure.
HOST: Thanks for listening to this episode of Tell Me More. Be sure to subscribe to listen to more episodes of the podcast, and please take a minute to rate and review us wherever you get your podcasts. We’d also welcome your thoughts on the series. You can reach us at email@example.com. That’s Tufts—T-U-F-T-S dot E-D-U. Tell Me More is produced by Katie McLeod Strollo, Steffan Hacker, and Dave Nuscher. Web production and editing support provided by Momo Shinzawa and Taylor McNeil. Production support provided by 5 to 9 Media. Special thanks to Dorothy Meaney of Tisch Library. Our theme music is sourced from De Wolfe Music. And my name is Patrick Collins. Until next time—be well.
Listen to more episodes of Tell Me More.