Bonnie Lucas is an artist, and it’s a career she’s built with stubborn persistence. “I’ve been making art for 40 years,” she says, “but making a living as an artist is very difficult.”
It hasn’t been lucrative, but Lucas has stuck with it. “When I was young I went to an artist talk in grad school,” she recalls. “She said, ‘Develop a set of habits to attain your dreams.’ I love that. You make it part of your life, you have to make art a practice in your life.” And Lucas has done exactly that for the past four decades.
Her sublime, provocative assemblages, collages and paintings are intricately composed. Whimsical and beautiful, they’re complex but have a broad appeal. Her art is consistent in its use of cultural ephemera – children’s toys, throwaway doodads, old gadgets and dolls, among other items – and executed with meticulous technique. Some of her work asks questions about the treatment of girls in our patriarchal culture and juxtaposes the beautiful with the cheap, the sinister with the silly.
“Bonnie has a natural, almost fervent affinity for her subjects and her materials,” says Jeffrey Wechsler, curator at Sylvia Wald + Po Kim Art Gallery, where a retrospective of Lucas’s work is currently on view. “I think she understands that significant topics may best be illustrated by combining direct and oblique approaches, the latter including humor and personal symbolism.”
Bonnie Lucas is an artist and a teacher. An adjunct faculty member at City College for the past 18 years, she teaches in City College of New York’s (CCNY) Art Education program, where prospective K-12 teachers make art themselves as part of learning how to teach about it.
A Call to Activism
“My biggest reward is seeing students who have never thought that they could make art go forward with confidence and understanding to a place where they love art and discover it is something they enjoy doing and do well,” said Lucas, who has taught at CCNY since 2006. “That means that they will have the confidence to teach others.”
Lucas is acutely aware of the forces working against art education in the public schools. “The cutbacks in art education [over] the last few years are terrible,” Lucas told Clarion. “It’s related to austerity budgets and the obsession with test taking.” In today’s environment, she says, “art for art’s sake” is not really on the agenda. To include art in the curriculum, she explains, “you have to justify its relevance to other subjects.”
Lucas herself has been teaching in the public school system since 1998. She currently teaches an after-school art class at P.S. 110 for first through fourth graders. She relishes sharing insights with her younger pupils: “It’s incredibly hard work but very deeply rewarding.”
Bonnie Lucas is an artist and a teacher and a union activist. She first had contact with the union about 12 years ago, when she suddenly lost a class she’d been teaching and sought advice on how to handle the situation. Her involvement dramatically expanded in the recent campaign to defend adjunct health insurance.
“My first rally ever in my life was my first PSC rally. I marched in front of the building at Baruch College that houses the Board of Trustees meeting room,” Lucas says. “It was incredibly exhilarating to me to be part of something bigger, more powerful.”
The experience stayed with her. “I liked being part of something I really believe in; I liked the energy and commitment of everyone there,” Lucas explains. “There was a lot of diversity in the crowd, which I loved because that’s New York.”
At that first protest, she said, she ended up sitting near a group of PSC leaders and activists. “I overheard them talking, strategizing about how to win. I was just blown away by their devotion to the union, by their passion and their smarts.” She’s been impressed with adjunct and chapter leaders in the PSC, too, she says: “I’d never felt such commitment to having people get what they deserve and to do the right thing.”
Lucas went on to testify in defense of adjunct health care in front of CUNY’s Board of Trustees in November 2011. Since then, she has attended about four rallies, including this past December’s rally against economic insecurity in Foley Square, where academics, fast-food workers, health care workers and carwasheros all made common cause.
“The low pay for adjunct work is unbelievable,” she told Clarion “It’s incredibly detailed, exacting work, but you’re paid a pittance.” She sees similarities with the working lives of students who are paid even less. “Many of my students work minimum wage jobs. And often their schedules can be changed without warning,” she explains – just as an adjunct can suddenly lose a class.
Beauty in Strange Places
Bonnie Lucas is an artist and a teacher and a union activist and a New Yorker.
“The PSC and New York City’s rent stabilization laws have made my life as an artist and teacher in NYC possible,” she says. “And I have ‘given back’ by teaching art with thousands of CUNY students and children in our public schools.”
She has had a room of her own since 1979 – a small rent-stabilized apartment in Soho – and it’s been a critical part of Lucas’s career. “I live and work there,” she says. “My whole life takes place in 400 square feet.” It’s a one-bedroom that’s also a studio. Lucas covers her bathtub with a piece of metal and uses that space to build her detailed pieces.
Lucas’s current retrospective at the Sylvia Wald + Po Kim gallery on Lafayette Street fills all of its 2,400 square feet. It features 48 works from Lucas’s 40 years of art, each one a multifaceted, colorful phantasmagoria made from things like skeins of thread and yarn, toys, scattered beads and even a full wedding dress. “I find great beauty in what our culture considers cheap and tawdry,” she adds. “Much more beauty than in what’s considered higher-end.”
“I’m inspired by a deep need to tell a story. My story is unique. I want to show that very inexpensive items can be made powerful and beautiful,” says Lucas. “It gives me pleasure to transform material. It feels incredibly exciting to try to make something powerful from what our culture discards.”