When I arrive in Yucca Valley at the home of artist Lilian Martinez, she and her husband, Daniel McKee, are in work mode. The couple are working hard together on their first duo gallery show at Ochi Projects, in Los Angeles, dubbed ‘Bart, Beethoven, Wifi’ (which was set to open on April 11, 2020, but has since been postponed due to COVID-19). ‘I’m so focused on finishing the work for this show, I can’t see anything past it’, Lilian says.
Though she has only been painting for a few years, Lilian’s work has resonated with women, especially women of colour, and she’s made her way into the zeitgeist as a reincarnation of Henri Matisse, infused with ‘90s pop culture figures like Lisa Simpson, or Bugs Bunny playing Moonlight Sonata. Aside from her impressive slew of international gallery shows and her popular textile shop, BFGF (where her digital drawings come to life as throws, pillows, and keychains), Lilian has also collaborated with brands such as Life Water and Nike. In May, the iconic athletic company commissioned her to create a mural at their Melrose location in honour of the Women’s World Cup. But the collaborations that Lil really likes don’t have the biggest paycheque. ‘I recently did a design for a basketball court at a school in Los Angeles’, she says. ‘The kids get to use that every day, which makes me happy’
Lilian walks me through the house, pointing out the décor she cherishes, which is a mix of things she and Dan have made over the years and second-hand treasures. The couple has an affinity for natural materials, such as cotton, linen, and fine wood, which is displayed throughout the house. ‘This is a comb Dan made for me a long time ago’, she beams, picking up a little piece off the shelf. ‘I love combs. I have a comb collection. Want to see it?’ In the bedroom on the dresser Lilian has displayed a slew of combs, the decorative kind. (She keeps her everyday combs in the bathroom.) ‘I think combs are beautiful and functional’, she says. ‘There’s something special about having those two qualities together. They are sculptural but meant to be used’.
The house is a traditional California ranch-style home with brown tiled floors, an open-concept living room, and big windows. One bedroom has been converted into a music studio for Dan, while they have some plants growing in their laundry room. Out back, Lilian and Dan have converted the garage into a studio for Lil, which is bright, open, and filled with Lil’s acrylic paintings and materials. Dan works on his stone sculptures outside in the sunshine. ‘I love watching Lilian work’, Dan says. ‘She is so concise, and she has a clear vision. Whatever comes out always seems like an extension of her voice. She really knows how to reach her goals, whether those are visual or objective’. Lilian breaks into a shy smile and turns bright red.
How did you end up on the West Coast?
I’m originally from Chicago. My husband, Dan, and I looked at other cities before moving to Los Angeles, which is where we were for the last five years before coming here to Yucca Valley. We really just wanted a place that we felt comfortable in, with a studio big enough for both of us to work in.
And you left Chicago together, I assume?
Yeah. We met in photo class at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Dan took a job in Cincinnati working for a photo catalogue, so we lived there for two years, but we didn’t really feel super comfortable. Dan came out to Los Angeles to shoot during the wintertime, because the weather is so good compared to Cincinnati, so I would come along for months at a time. I explored the city a lot. We needed a change, so we went for it.
So you were in Los Angeles for half a decade, but why Yucca Valley now?
Every time we came out here to Joshua Tree National Park, when we lived in LA proper, I would go home feeling recharged and ready to work. I always felt enthusiastic. Before this, we bought a plot of land in the Mojave Desert, which is much more secluded. At first, we had the idea to just buy land and build our own place, but the reality became too much after we renovated a little camper ourselves. It was so much work! There was no way we wanted to build a house after that, so we ended up here in this place, which we bought in May 2019. I’m not sure if Yucca Valley is permanent for us, but we’re here for now. I just want to work full steam out here for a few years. It seemed like a good investment. We wanted to stop renting.
Do you have plans to do anything with your outdoor space? You have such a big yard. Are you going to landscape?
I would love to build a pool! My dream is to be able to swim in the morning in the summer before heading into the studio for the day. I want to plant more low-maintenance plants that can grow a little wild without too much water or care. Also, an outdoor fountain would be nice.
What inspires you most about Yucca Valley?
It’s so relaxing. This is the most comfortable space we have ever lived in. It’s just nice to be able to work, whenever I want, at my own studio in my home. But also, we have access to the big city. We can go back to LA or Palm Springs whenever.
All the discount stores and golfing you could need!
We got a lot of good furniture out in Palm Springs!
Is Craigslist good out there in the land of fancy old people?
Yes, exactly. People out there take care of their stuff. There are so many interesting styles of furniture. We try to buy pieces that we can imagine keeping for a long time. We try to buy second-hand when we can. And we really enjoy having our art displayed in our home.
The colours in your work feel very sun-kissed and Southern California–inspired. What kind of relationship do you have to Southern California today, after being here for a few years? How has it influenced your work?
I see the sun-washed colours that I use as being largely influenced by Los Angeles. I think there’s more colour variation in that city than in the desert. I have a more relaxed relationship with Los Angeles now. I enjoy going on day trips for errands or meetings. I think it’s too soon to say how my work will be influenced. I still feel close to Los Angeles. I have so many ties there.
Do you ever feel isolated in Yucca Valley? How have artists created community in the digital world?
I am shy and introverted in social situations with new people. It can take me a long time to be able to relax and share my entire personality with someone. Being able to share my work online is really important for me, because it reduces my anxiety. When I lived in Los Angeles, I wouldn’t go to art openings unless a friend was showing work. I wouldn’t go out to bars or big social gatherings if I could avoid it. So, in that regard, not too much has changed. I really enjoy when friends visit us. We have a passion for hosting now. I think seeing the same landscape for prolonged periods can feel isolating. It’s been important to get a change of scenery when we can.
Do you work with your husband on a lot of art projects together?
Lilian: We have our own practices. I do my painting and Dan has his sculpture, but we work on photography together. We sometimes collaborate on sculpture too. We work together every day. We are working on a piece right now for the two-person show we are doing in LA together in April.
Dan: We made some small fountains together, which I am really proud of.
How long have you guys been together?
We got married in 2011, and we were dating for four years before that. Dan thought it would be romantic to propose to me in a Christmas tree lot with the beautiful lights and trees. So we were there in the lot and he proposed. Then we walked a little further and somehow we ended up in front of a Domino’s. Now we tell everyone that Dan proposed to me in front of a Domino’s. We got married on June 11. My birthday is June 4, and Dan’s is June 17, so we decided to get married in the one week of the year that we are the same age. I actually made my wedding dress.
Yeah. It was a simple silk dress with long sleeves. I made another woman’s wedding dress too. She was an architect in Chicago. I was always trying to find little gigs like that back then. I think I had an ad promoting myself as a seamstress on Craigslist at the time, and that is how she found me. I was always trying to find creative ways to make money after college.
What other weird jobs have you had?
I worked at a costume store in Chicago. My job was to take photos for their e-commerce store. I took a lot of pics of Mardi Gras masks. That was when they made the most money, so I took hundreds of photos of masks. It sucked. I also had to talk to people a lot at that job, so I didn’t like that part. I worked at Home Depot in college. It didn’t sound that bad at the time, but even though I was a cashier, I was always getting hurt.
What’s the goal with your painting? Is the process for you, or are you trying to make the audience feel something else?
It’s definitely more for me. It’s therapeutic. It makes me feel better. I feel very fortunate that my work resonates with other people and that it makes them feel joyful, or that they make a connection with this visual, emotional language I’m using. That is really special—to connect to someone without speaking.
Do you consider your work political at all?
It’s important for the figures that I paint or draw to be recognised as women of colour, but I hope that any person can see themselves in the work or make a connection with it. I do think that the personal is political. Through my work, I feel like I am creating space for myself and hopefully space for people who haven’t seen themselves represented in art. Representation is important.
What are some direct responses to your art that you’ve received? How does the way people react to your work affect the way you create?
I have got some very touching responses. A woman told me a piece inspired her to book a trip back home to the Dominican Republic. She missed the beaches there. A transgender person asked if they could use a drawing of a sculpture for a personal tattoo. They felt a connection to the body shape and what it represented. When my sister visited our new home for the first time, she said she felt as if I were painting her. It really reaffirms that representation is important. The reactions that I receive don’t affect the work that I make. But they make me happy, and they make me feel connected.
You have been so smart and seemingly strategic with your social media and with marketing yourself that way. But you seem like such a shy person. How does that work?
I am so introverted, but I love sharing my work. So it’s the perfect balance for me because I can create images that I feel speak for me, instead of having to go out and network. Instagram has been fun and organic, since I have a background in photography. Dan and I work together, and we love showcasing our work in a positive way. I don’t consider social media work or forced. I have an idea. I do it. It’s fun.
Did you guys study photography together?
Yeah, and at the time it seemed like the most accessible medium for people not coming from a fine art background and not being introduced to those things growing up. I feel like a lot of people who went to our art school grew up in an artistic environment or were nurtured in that way—taught to express themselves.
What is your family like?
I’m second-generation Mexican-American. My parents immigrated here illegally and all my older siblings were born in Mexico, except for me. My parents mostly worked in factories. They wanted to leave Mexico, find work, and change their lives for the better. A similar story to so many other immigrant families. They were not super interested in art either. When I thought of an artist, I imagined that you were born a sculptor or a painter. I had no idea you could learn to do these things. But I always had a desire to make images. There was no defining moment. It’s really something that I realised in hindsight by tracing my history. When I did photography, I never felt as though I was able to achieve the image in my mind that I was trying to create. It was never quite right. I never felt satisfied. So when I started to draw and paint, I realised I could create whatever image I wanted, and that was so liberating. I felt free and relaxed when I started painting. And I was really happy with the work I was making.
You have such an incredible home. It’s very soothing. Let’s talk about your favourite things you have in here.
Everything! Right now, I love chairs. Functional chairs.
Have you ever made a chair?
I have. I wish I had them here. Two are at a gallery in Los Angeles, and the other is with a furniture maker because I am making more.
Let’s talk about your store, BFGF. What does BFGF stand for?
Boyfriend, Girlfriend. It’s just a name! I thought it was fun and playful. When I started BFGF back in Chicago, I was doing a lot of sewing and I was really interested in textile design, but it became so labour-intensive to make a book bag or a shirt. BFGF started as an Etsy store, then I moved it to Tictail, which was a little more personalised. I was making everything myself, by hand, even though I wasn’t very good at it. Then my friend Debbie suggested that I turn one of my digital drawings into a woven blanket. I thought it was an amazing idea, but how do you make a blanket? I think she gave me a Groupon or something. The blankets were a revelation. Now I work with a mill in North Carolina. I send them my designs and they create the products. That was huge. I realised I didn’t have to do all the physical work of making the items when I was slow and did not enjoy that aspect of the work. That was the shift.
Do you have a close relationship with the mill in North Carolina? What’s the operation like?
The company was started by the father of the current owner of the mill. I’ve worked with them for about five or six years. I had the opportunity to visit the mill a few years ago. There is a production room with all the looms and various small offices for administrative and design work. I would say it’s small enough to be considered a ‘small business’, but big enough that I don’t know everyone that works there. I think the workflow is like this: the mill receives a digital file from the customer. Then it has to be converted into a file that the loom can read, and they usually create a sample to be approved. The fabric goes through a wash to be pre-shrunk, then it is shipped out.
How flexible are you with your vision and creativity when it comes to the big paycheques? Sometimes it can be hard.
I have been pretty fortunate, but you have to find a balance. Whenever you work with a big company, they come in saying, ‘We love your work. Do whatever you want. We just want you to be you’. Then you present them an idea and they aren’t so sure. I usually have to figure out what they want. I never present an idea unless I am happy with it, so I don’t feel like I have compromised my style or design. It’s more about the work that goes into it. Knowing that this will be a process, that’s the question. Do I want to go through this process again? It’s a game of figuring things out.
I don’t know if you feel this way, but for me there is a strange thing that happens when the thing you love to do, the thing you would do regardless of money or anything else, becomes your source of income. When your passion becomes a job. It’s a weird thing, because you should feel fortunate that you are that lucky, because most people hate their jobs, but it’s also frustrating because when you put capital into art you end up changing the dynamic.
I would say that it helps me appreciate doing my own work. I find I have less of a desire to make a bunch of work when I am doing jobs for other people. I had a desire to produce a lot before. I couldn’t stop. It was a need. However, I really have to have a specific idea now. I don’t have that same desire to just work to work, you know? I’m not sure if that is positive or negative. It’s just different. I’m very happy. I’m always on my toes. I don’t want to take it for granted.
Are you good at self-discipline?
I’m a late riser. But I work hard for the rest of the day once I am up.
Do you ever have creative blocks?
I only get like that with commissions, or when I am working for another company. When I am working for myself, I’m just doing it for fun. If I don’t feel like painting, or if I am out of ideas, I will just go and work on my shop, design new products, or whatever. I don’t really feel those creative blocks.