Kim Abeles Talks Art, Community, and Change

A Pearl of Wisdom on the gallery wall

I pass through the exhibition Pearls of Wisdom: End the Violence every day. I am always moved by the “pearls of wisdom” that the participants have shared as part of the project. The one above strikes me as particularly heartfelt and true.
Photo by Peter Turman.

Interconnections and interdependency lie at the heart of acclaimed Los Angeles–based artist Kim Abeles’ work, both in her community-based projects like Pearls of Wisdom: End the Violence, now on display at the Skirball, and in her fascinating environmental work. I had the chance to chat with Kim recently and find out a little about how she approaches her art.

For Kim, process is the most important part of any work she does, whether alone, in the community, or with collaborators. She told me, “The result is always a surprise. The unexpected connections that you discover along the way have the most impact on both the artist and the viewer. For Pearls of Wisdom, it was most important to look for ways to engage in conversation about the topic of domestic violence, because most people don’t want to address it. Some people get emotional about the show as a result of it touching their own history. Taken in its entirety, you can feel and see that Pearls of Wisdom is a chorus of people, all of them standing up and standing their ground.”

Pearls of Wisdom gallery installation

Each Pearls of Wisdom project participant took an object that symbolized the abuse or assault and transformed it into a work of art. More than 150 of these unique spherical pearls and pearl discs, measuring three to six inches in diameter, are on view at the Skirball.
Photo by Thomas Schirtz

Kim is frank about what a community art project like Pearls of Wisdom can and can’t do: “I didn’t want to take the subject and make something warm and fuzzy or make an easy object lesson from it. The goal was and is ending violence, rather than seeing the participants as victims, or saying, ‘Let’s make you feel better about what happened,’ because that never gets anybody anywhere.”

She continued, “The pearls—the wisdom they give—ended up being strikingly empowering. What is the core message for the individual, not the one that society tells you to think? That’s where art is useful: to go beyond clichés. Dealing with a person’s individual story can be tricky, because you want people to be open about what happened, but on the other hand, you don’t want them to get consumed by that story or let it define them. At that point, you don’t even need the abuser. You’ve just internalized the abuse.”

Kim also shared sharp insights about the interplay of domestic violence and acts committed against the environment, especially as she continues to create work in both arenas. She explained, “One thing I’ve realized is that environmental abuse issues and domestic violence are not isolated subjects. The zeitgeist right now is that people are trying to break through, find ways of creating positive change.”

Exploring how our transportation choices affect air quality, some of Kim’s latest work shows how lichens function as biomonitors that measure the amount of smog in the air. Pictured here is Watching Waiting, a video of traffic and children’s eyes shown on monitors embedded within ultrachrome digital prints of lichens.

Paper Person by Kim Abeles

Another of her environmental works, Kim’s floor-to-ceiling Paper Person was on view at the Skirball back in 2009–2010. To create the giant work, she used all of the paper trash discarded by one local school in a single day.
Photo by Ken Marchionno.

Kim Abeles gives an artist’s talk about Pearls of Wisdom, which was a collaboration with local organization A Window Between Worlds, and her numerous community-based artworks this Sunday, January 22, 2:30 p.m. at the Skirball.

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