Lisa Lumb, CY featured artist, in her own words
By David Royer
Lisa Lumb may call Mississippi her birthplace, but it’s Memphis where she finds her artistic inspiration and Cooper-Young where she ‘s found a home.
Neighborhood architecture provides the backbeat while rock and soul music provides the melody behind her mosaic tile and glass work and wood paintings. Her primitive style, sometimes using found objects, is based on global folk and outsider art and her former work as an archaeologist. She’s also a neighborhood historian, having published “Cooper-Young: A Community That Works” with Jim Kovarik in 2010.
Lumb is the featured artist and poster child of this year’s Art for Art’s Sake Auction, June 23 at Young Avenue Deli.
The LampLighter asked her a few questions about her life and work offers a portrait of the artist.
LampLighter: Tell me about your training and background as an artist. How long have you been making art? You seem to do a lot of mosaic work — what are the mosaics made of and why did you begin using this medium?
Lisa Lumb: I actually have no formal training in art, just a great love for the subject. I’ve been making art since I was a kid. So I guess that makes me a true “primitive” artist, a moniker that I enjoy because of my anthropology background and what it implies … someone who creates straight from the heart.
I started making mosaics about 10 years ago. I love the idea of making something beatiful and whole from something broken, and often discarded. The first mosaics I did were my bathrooms in this house; for those I mainly used tile samples I wheedled out of Whitten Tile staff, who were kind enough to give me outdated sample boards. I also let people know I like old colorful tile and when they come across tile they often salvage it for me.
I always ask my traveling friends to bring me back some colorful bits of tile or ceramics wherever they go, which I incorporate into mosaics. For instance, my friend Olivia brought me back some white ceramics from the grounds of Versailles, France (Marie Antoinette’s summer pad) which I put into the dolphin’s eye in my bathroom, as well as some azure tiles from Cozumel; a friend brought me some glass lozenges from Milan, Italy, which I put into my kitchen backsplash. My friend Vincent has brought me some pieces from Hagia Sophia in Turkey and also some tiles from Howard Finster’s Paradise Garden, one of my favorite folk art environments, that I’m pondering what to do with. Friends have brought me bits from Israel, Barcelona and the Isle of Capri … I love knowing that I have a piece of the big wide world in my own space.
Now, I use mainly stained glass in my mosaics … I love the color range, which is truly inspiring. I like using old windows to make these mosaics. I still make music themed pieces which I sell at the Center for Southern Folklore; my signature piece is a painted ironing board with Memphis musical icons … I’m also doing mosaic scrub boards lately.
LampLighter: Tell me about your connection to Memphis and Cooper-Young. When and why did you come to Memphis? Why do you choose to live in CY? How does the city and the Delta region influence your work?
Lisa Lumb: I was born in Oxford and lived there only about a year, though I went back to college there at Ole Miss after high school. Our family moved to the hills of Grenada ’til I was seven, when we moved to the delta city of Cleveland, about 100 miles down the road from Memphis. For me, Memphis has always been something of an exciting sin city, with its connotations of Elvis, the blues, Stax and Sun, and its sad and turbulent civil rights struggles and raw energy … the quintessential “dirty river town,” as one historian noted.
For us, growing up in a sleepy Delta town, Memphis was definitely the “big city” and we loved to visit. I still feel a thrill to wake up and realize that I actually live here. Although Memphis has big problems, it also has a big heart … the people who live here are incredibly caring and inspire me in the way they try to tackle huge social problems with very little in the way of resources. My husband and I moved to CY in 1988 … it was considered the “urban frontier” then, according to one colleague, but we loved the area from day one.
LampLighter: What work did you do in archaeology/anthropology? What impact does it have on your work?
Lisa Lumb: I majored in anthropology with a minor in religion at Ole Miss and did an MA at the University of Memphis, which is what drew me to Memphis in the first place. I’ve dug at Mississippian sites in the Delta, excavated castle moats in Hertfordshire, England and dug up a Medieval pub on the banks of the Thames in London among others. I have always been inspired by indigenous art and the art of ancient cultures and love to speculate about the meaning of symbols in those types of art. I’ve also been inspired by religious art, especially by the architecture and beauty of sacred spaces like temples, mosques, churches and synagogues. A lot of my art portrays buildings and these types of religious spaces. Of course, because of my great passion for local music, I consider sites like Sun Studio and Stax and Beale Street sacred spaces as well.
LampLighter: What interests you about musical subjects? Are you a musician?
Lisa Lumb: I have always loved Memphis music; I have a brother who is 10 years older, so he introduced me to some great music as a teenager and took me to concerts here in Memphis as well. He took me to see the Rolling Stones at the Liberty Bowl stadium at the outdoor concert on July 4, 1976 (in fact, there was a picture of me on the front cover of the Commercial Appeal the following Sunday, looking very sunburned and in awe of the great bands on show) … that was the show where the Stones brought out the great blues musician Furry Lewis, to play on the main stage … at that time I think Furry’s day job was working as a street sweeper on Beale Street … he had a great soulful face and sound and I’ve painted him before as well. The J.Geils Band was great at that lineup, too.
I also remember my brother taking me to see a Cat Stevens concert at the Mid-South Coliseum. The next day, as usual on our trips to Memphis, we went to the original downtown Pop Tunes to forage for records, and were astounded when Cat Stevens walked in, looking to buy some Sam Cooke records (later he recorded a version of Cooke’s “Another Saturday Night.”)
Like I mentioned, music is a huge passion and part of my life. I’m not a musician, but I love to sing for fun. My twin sister and I could harmonize together literally before we could talk. My mother was a fanatic Elvis fan, and she also loved Ray Charles, and both my parents were big country music and gospel fans (real country music, like Hank Williams and Jim Reeves and other greats). And we grew up in the Delta, with its great traditions of blues and gospel. Mix that with my brother’s ’60s band influences and I got a good musical heritage from my family and environment. One of my great pleasures is sitting around with friends in the neighborhood who are musicians and playing music. Ironically, as a teenager I was a fanatic British folk music fan who grew up in the Delta, while my husband, who’s British, grew up in England and is a huge Delta blues fan. I like good music, regardless of genre. Music and musicians obviously are a natural inspiration for my art.
LampLighter: What prompted you to write the Cooper-Young book? Tell me about the process of writing that.
Lisa Lumb: I’ve always loved this neighborhood and wanted to learn more about its history. I had a great time interviewing past and present residents about all the amazing work that has been done in this neighborhood over the last 30 years or so. I also got to interview the women who wrote the original history of CY, which was published originally in the late ’70s. They were very generous in sharing additional information with me about their original work in CY at that time. In writing about all the hard work that has taken place here since the late ’70s, I am in awe of the older people who stayed in the neighborhood despite problems and never gave up on this community, as well as the energy of the younger people who moved in and rolled up their sleeves and got to work to make the neighborhood grow. It made me realize that CY is very much still a work in progress … but it’s her people that make the place a great place to live.
LampLighter: How does it feel to be a featured artist for this year’s auction?
Lisa Lumb: I feel very honored. Although I’ve created art for the auction for many years now, this is the first time I’ve been the featured artist for the event. The auction is always a blast, and our work goes toward a great cause.
LampLighter: Tell me some basic personal info: family, day job, anything else that might interest readers.
Lisa Lumb: I’m married to David, a lawyer; we have three sons (20, 18 and 13) who all attended our great local school Peabody Elementary. Colin, our eldest, is studying business logistics at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville; middle son Rowan just graduated from White Station High School and is headed to Tennessee Tech University at Cookeville to study physics after a summer in Europe (he’s working for his aunt in Glasgow as an au pair); and Griffin, our youngest, will be in the 8th grade at White Station Middle School next year and wants to be a veteranarian.
I’m the database manager for the LINC/2-1-1 Department at the Memphis Public Library; I help manage our statewide 2-1-1 TN public database. (2-1-1 is a number designated by the FCC to be a shortcut for any type of community information regarding health and human services; we provide information on how to find a local food pantry, how to find legal help, and many other resources). I’m proud that we can often help people who dial 2-1-1 find the help they need; I feel like what we do really matters. As an archaeologist, I was always looking for artifacts; as an artist I am always looking for raw materials; and as a database manager I am always looking for information. I like the thrill of the search. I guess there’s a pattern here …