Interview: Lilian Martinez
10.12.19 Words by Wrap / Photography by Daniel McKee

Interview: Lilian Martinez

Lilian Martinez’s work is simultaneously powerful and incredibly charming and fun – and fully rooted in contemporary culture. In this excerpt from Wrap #12, we talk to the LA-based creative about the importance she places on painting women of colour and the concept behind her lifestyle brand BFGF.
10.12.19 Words by Wrap / Photography by Daniel McKee

What would a typical day look like for you?

I find it really hard to wake up every morning! It’s like being reborn every day. Even as a kid I remember hating waking up early for school. My husband usually entices me to get up with a nice breakfast. Then once I'm awake I usually start working right away. On a typical day I will do computer work during or right after breakfast at home, then head to the studio to work until the evening. I try to divide my time between running my shop and making personal work.

Is it true that you’ve set up a studio in the Mojave Desert near LA with your husband?

We do have small studio spaces in the Mojave Desert. We renovated a small camper that we stay in when we’re there, usually for two to three weeks. It can be very peaceful, but sometimes the weather gets rough – high winds and extreme temperatures. Recently we’ve been spending more time in Los Angeles. We have a shared studio in south central LA. My husband Daniel is a sculptor mainly working in stone, but was originally trained as a photographer, and he documents all our work. And does all the photography for my shop! It’s really nice to be able to work on that together. We also share the studio with other artists – it’s a warehouse space partitioned into smaller studios.

Do you guys enjoy being in LA?

It’s nice being in a big city, the weather’s usually good and I like a lot of the art museums, like the Norton Simon in Pasadena and the Getty Center. I do wish there was better public transport – there are pockets that are walkable, but as a whole it’s more convenient to drive here. There is a strong artistic community, a lot of people making and showing work, and it’s pretty supportive.

Are your parents or siblings also creative?

I don't remember my family being interested in art growing up. I think when you have to worry about financial stability for your family, it’s often hard to have the mental and physical energy to focus on things that don't seem essential to surviving. I do think artistic outlets would have benefited their quality of life, but I understand that it’s hard to find them, especially being in a foreign country with a language barrier.

Do you see yourself as an illustrator or artist?

Illustrators have an amazing ability to draw anything they need to get a particular point across. This involves a lot of problem solving and critical thinking. I find I’m only capable of drawing things I enjoy drawing, and am compelled to draw.

What is it that inspires your art?

I like to explore things that evoke joy for me – beauty, humour and comfort. I love art when it is a feast for the eyes. For me that is usually achieved through colour, form and small details. Making art, I think you get the opportunity to communicate with the viewer without using language. There is something really powerful about that. Most of the images I make have implied narratives, but they are open to interpretation. Also, I would like all women to be able to see their beauty and strength mirrored in the images I make. It is very important to me that the figures and women I paint are perceived as women of colour. I am a woman of colour making work about women of colour.

We love all the characters and objects you feature, from fruits and leaves, to basket balls and characters from The Simpsons. What do they symbolise to you?

These things bring me joy, as I mentioned earlier. I associate fruits, plants and the colour green with nature, which is so pure and beautiful. I love the excitement of a basketball game. Watching someone make a slam dunk just feels so good, and the ball is a beautiful functional object. And I grew up watching The Simpsons. I remember my mom asking me as a kid why I loved that show so much, and I just looked at her without an answer. I didn't know why, I just did. All these things together make sense visually to me. I feel very fortunate that it resonates with other people as well.

So there’s a connection back to your childhood in some of these elements?

I like to draw things from my childhood that still feel relevant to me. It doesn't feel like nostalgia to me because it still seems so present. Maybe I like things that stand the test of time in some regard. Things that manage to continue to occupy space in life aesthetically and mentally. I really like things from classical periods as well, like sculpture and architectural elements, for the same reason.

What about your working methods and materials?

I like working with acrylic paint, and also oil crayons on paper or stretched linen. I have been trying to explore sculpture more as well. It’s satisfying figuring out how to add a third dimension to my forms and producing a tactile object.

The sculptural aspect sounds interesting. Can you tell us more?

I love the idea of bringing a drawn form to life, it’s really nice to see a piece from different visual perspectives, and to display it in a space that is used on a regular basis – like a bookshelf in a study. Sculpture in a home looks so beautiful. There is a great book called The Place of Sculpture in Daily Life – some of the text is dated, but it’s still very interesting.

Where and what did you study?

I studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. They don't have majors or grades, which encourages some interdisciplinary work. I mainly studied photography and new media practices, which at the time included video and digitally based work. Not doing much art growing up, I choose photography because that seemed the most accessible medium for me. Photography was the first artistic practice I could wrap my mind around. But I never excelled at it, I was never able to make the images I wanted to create – I really struggled with the restrictions of light and perspective.

And when you graduated?

I did some odd jobs including e-commerce photography, but I graduated during a recession and it was tough for people find work. Even people with years of experience were being laid off. A few years later I started an online shop under the name BFGF. It was a way to figure out what type of work I wanted to make, because I was able to experiment a bit. Over the years it has transitioned into being an extension of my practice.

What’s the concept behind BFGF?

BFGF stands for boyfriend / girlfriend, which sounded funny and playful. It’s an online shop I’ve developed since 2012 that offers accessible and functional art objects for your home and daily life. I think the driving concept is to introduce art into people's homes in a casual and relaxed way.

What do you enjoy about making functional products alongside your art?

I like being able to make pieces that are used. I hope to make more things for the home, including furniture. There is an interview in an Architectural Digest from 1979 with American pianist Bobby Short about his home, and he says, “It is a privilege to own beautiful things, but I don’t believe possessions should be treated with kid gloves…lovely things should never be abused, but they should be used.” I like that approach to living.

Stylistically, is there a difference between your BFGF and personal work?

BFGF pieces are designed from digital drawings, and are not editioned. I think that is the main distinction – my personal work is one-of-a-kind, or made in numbered editions. My BFGF pieces have more design restrictions – for example, the proportion of space I need to occupy when I am designing a pillow or a blanket usually always stays the same. So although my inspiration is similar, having more freedom in painting changes the outcome.

Tell us about what you’re exploring in your illustration for Wrap.

I wanted to capture a relaxed woman in a beautiful setting. The objects she is holding signify movement, pleasure and nourishment. ‘Nude’ implies freedom and comfort for me. It’s important not to sexualise the women that I draw. I made a second variation where the figure’s athleticism and strength are emphasised, using more texture. But this form is more gestural, it’s more of a sculptural figure.

Nude figures often feature in your own work too…

I love sculptures of nude forms, especially abstract figures. That is a big inspiration for me. I really enjoy drawing variations on the female form. I like to show the strength in the shoulders, which is one of the reasons I make the heads and faces smaller. It also gives an illusion that you are looking up at the figures. For Wrap, I tried to approach it in my usual way, but there were a few restrictions, and restrictions always make me feel like I have to be a bit more calculated with my approach. But my goal was to create pieces that sit comfortably with my other work.

Which artists or art movements do you admire?

I’m really inspired by modern art. I like the palettes of Paul Cézanne and Édouard Manet. I love the forms of Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth. My favourite things to do when I travel are to visit art museums and eat food. I also find a lot of inspiration in popular culture, both past and present.

And of your contemporaries?

I really admire the work or Heather Sten, Olga de la Iglesia, Carlota Guerrero, Amanda Jasnowski and Caroline Tompkins.

Lastly do you find it hard to switch off from work?

I do feel like I’m always working or thinking about work. It’s kind of nice to feel those gears in constant motion and not feel like I have to separate my personal life from my work life. I like to check out movies from the library as a quick weekend break. When I feel like I really need to completely stop and take a break, going somewhere with water really helps – like a lake.

This interview was originally published in Wrap #12 - 'The Nude', December 2018