Alia Shawkat has always doodled in private. Now, she’s sharing her drawings with a live audience for the first time. In Los Angeles this week, her debut solo show opens at SPRING/BREAK — the oddball kid sibling to the glitzier, blue-chip Frieze Art Fair.
We meet in her airy, electric-green-walled studio in Highland Park, where she is packing up tubes of paint, art clippings, desk lamps, and overstuffed chairs. She’ll bring them across town to a former plumbing factory in Culver City, where she’ll recreate her personal studio and spend four days painting with her childhood best friend, Oakland-based ceramicist Maria Paz, in front of the viewing public. Hearing that an actor also paints usually elicits an eye roll, but Shawkat is the rare exception. Perhaps that’s because her work seems to come from a keenly observed, darkly funny, and deeply authentic place. Shawkat’s appeal, at least to many millennial women like me, is that she’s unconventional and brainy yet still relatable. She’s a sort of post–“It”-girl “It” girl who’s interested in capturing a prismatic cast of characters in her visual art: aliens, humans, even the likes of Donald Trump.
When we meet up, she’s wearing snake-leather booties, white athletic socks, and a button-up blouse in the exact same shade of mustard yellow as the cartoonishly large tufted couch behind her. On the coffee table in front of us is burnt sage, a stack of drawings, a stick of palo santo, and a ceramic bird pipe; while we chat, she rocks back and forth on a neon-green penny skateboard.
What do you usually do to get into the right headspace to draw and paint? Are there any little rituals that help you get into your practice?
I don’t usually start right away. It takes a second of either smoking cigarettes or thinking about smoking cigarettes and then plugging my phone into the speaker and dancing. I’ve been listening to this guy Syl Johnson, who recently passed away. His music is kind of bluesy. Also a little bit of cleaning always helps; it’s a good transition.
What were you looking for in a studio space?
Every place felt too big or too small or too industrial. I was like, “I want weird!” This space used to be a deli, and now, it’s a live-in studio with a kitchen and a shower. I like traveling to work, too, and it’s a nice 20 minutes from home. I’ve been here three years.
When I first started drawing, everything was very tiny and detailed and ink-based with a pointy pen. Once I got a bigger space, the bigger the pieces got. I started just doodling in the corners of books, and now I’m drawing on a bigger canvas. Eventually, hopefully, I’ll make big sculptures with paintings on them that are large or interactive.
The mood board behind you is pretty eclectic. There’s a cartoon clipping, a scrap of cardboard, a black-and-white photo of Louise Bourgeois, and lots of pearl stickers. Where are you looking for inspiration lately?
Google is a wonderful thing. Sometimes I get lost in these strange image searches, like “resting deer” or “contorted deer” or “science beakers.”
I went on a trip to Italy — and my partner and I would go into every church. We were really into the crazy weird murals in these small medieval towns. They’re so allegorical. There are drawings that are like “here is Jesus helping people” or “here is when he got killed.” You’re overwhelmed by the craftsmanship.
A lot of my drawings come from images in dreams, too. I work with this dream person for acting, and it unlocks a creative way of working, where you’re trying to pull from the unconscious to express it in the conscious world.
What’s a recent dream you had?
I was on a toilet in front of people, taking a shit. I’ve had that one a lot of times. Sometimes I’m like, “Why is everyone here?” and someone’s like, “What’s the big deal? Just go to the bathroom!” and I’m like, “I can’t!”
Starting this Wednesday, at the SPRING/BREAK art fair, you’re going to draw and paint live in front of fairgoers. How did this project come about?
It’s friends of mine organizing it, and I’m doing it with my oldest friend. We get to make the space. Maria Paz will be bringing clay, and I might paint on it. It’s gonna be a collaboration, whatever we make. When we were younger, we always doodled, but we never gave ourselves permission to be like, “We want to be artists.” Every time she’s in L.A. now, she hangs out here at my studio, reads my tarot, and we draw. It’s our most special time.
I want this to feel like a real studio, so sometimes we might be eating. Sometimes we’ll be smoking a cigarette out the window. I’m not, like, faking it. I’m not pretending to be someone else. I’m gonna just be myself, but there is a performance aspect to it. Drawings might be kind of scattered, people can walk on them. The idea is that it doesn’t feel too precious. Our playlist will be reminiscent of stuff we’d listen to growing up in the desert: Sublime, Lead Belly, Mance Lipscomb.
Everything is kismet in the sense that the theme of the show, “Hearsay:heresy,” is very symbolic about old ways of thinking and religion and going against that. If the art world is Christianity, this is going against the typical art world.
I didn’t want anything to feel too saccharine, so I was going to call it “Desert Rats,” a term for people who grew up in the desert. But it didn’t feel heart-centered enough. It felt kind of snarky. So Maria was like, “What about ‘Desert Angels?’ We’ve grown from desert rats to desert angels.”
Some artists go through phases of embracing or avoiding certain colors. Your work feels pretty expansive in terms of the palette. Are there colors you’re especially drawn to right now or steering clear of?
I’m usually hesitant to use purple because it’s a hard one with other colors. Me and Maria got into picking a color for the year, like, What is gonna be my color? What does it represent or bring? Blue is definitely my last year; it’s warm and muted. And then this year, I’m going for a kind of goldish color. Yellow represents newness, something bright and fresh.
Have you taken formal drawing or painting classes before?
I tried a nude figure-drawing class once, and I just didn’t like the teacher. He was judging a lot. He said my drawing looked very cartoony, and I was like, “That’s a bad thing?”
It’s really nice to know form — how a skeleton works. I’ve learned in my own way, and my work has its own expression because of that. It took me a long time to learn how to work with oils, and now that I’m comfortable with that, I’m like, How do I work with clay?
Do you want to pursue a commercial life as a visual artist?
My relationship to making art feels very personal. Since I’m an actor by trade, it’s nice to have something that doesn’t have to feel professional all the time. It’s allowed me to have more freedom because when I draw it’s like, “No one might ever see this.”
If you have gallery representation, though, there’s obviously some stability. They store your work, which is a nice thing. Eventually I’m not gonna have enough corners to pile up my art in. It’d be nice to have the space — and also someone who values the work and takes care of it. And gets work seen and sold? That seems great.
Have you sought out gallery representation?
I can’t tell you for how many years I would go to galleries with my portfolio of drawings. I’d be like, “Do you want to look at my drawings?” They’d be like, “Email us,” and then never get back to me. I did that for so long, and then I became friends with some successful artists and weirdly would be at these fancy artist dinners sitting next to, like, the curator of MoMA, and I’d be like, “Hey I’m an artist,” and they’re like “Are you?” An actor out of work is just like, “What are you?”
Right when I moved back to L.A., when I was 19 or 20, I went to a high-end gallery with a little leather satchel that was my grandfather’s. It had his old photos still in it — with my art sliced in. There was a bored gallery assistant who was just like, “What? My boss isn’t here.” Maybe I shouldn’t tell them this, but I later tagged the parking lot of that gallery with a decapitated fox head. I was like, “That’s my way of getting back!” I was night-lurking then, driving around in an Audi pretending I was a skater kid,trying to feel rebellious or something, just wheatpasting my drawings.
I was so tired of waiting to get to a gallery, so I made a show at my studio in 2019 and just invited friends. It was a private event but public in the sense that if you walked by, you could come in. A lot of neighbors came by, which was cool. A lot of the pieces sold, all to people I know. It felt very intimate, and also, there were a lot of cool people there. I had a photographer; I never posted any of the photos. No one even knew who was there, and that was funny to me. I was like, “I don’t want people to know.” It’s also my space, so I’m not gonna make it public.
The art world — or Hollywood — is not real. It’s just a state of being. Of insecurity. No one really feels like they’ve got a hold on it. So you keep making stuff.
How do you feel about selling your work?
Years ago in New York, I became friends with the artist Francesco Clemente. His studio was like a fever dream. He has all these assistants photographing his work and laying out his paints. It was so cool to be in a studio that was that high-functioning. He’s so casual and kind of romantic about how he carries himself. He was like, “You have to sell your art, or else new work won’t come in, won’t come through you. You have to clean house. Sell! Let go of everything!” That was a really changing moment for me.
Which visual artists do you admire?
Raymond Pettibon. I’ve been looking at Oskar Kokoschka and Käthe Kollwitz books lately. Also, I love Tschabalala Self’s work.
There’s this crazy Tarot Garden, by Niki de Saint Phalle, that I visited. She made these large-scale, building-size works you can walk inside of. I admire artists who make so many different things and yet you can still tell it’s them, you know?
When you’re working on sets do you bring your art supplies along?When I travel, I always bring a journal, big pieces of paper, and these Caran d’Ache crayons. Sometimes you get in these modes where you’re drawing and like, “My hand’s really there, like I’m drawing really well right now. Things are coming out clearly. I’m bummed I’m not in my studio.” With drawing, it’s about the confidence of a line.
On the show Search Party that I do, during the fourth season, I was drawing a lot because it was winter in New York. It was cold. I wasn’t going out much, and I wasn’t seeing as many people. It was right before COVID, like December 2019 and January 2020. I’d come home and make these charcoal drawings. I’d put them on the floor and use my whole body to draw so I wasn’t so trapped in my head. It’s like a physical thing coming out of me.
But for the most part, when I’m working on a job, I just have to memorize lines and try to get some sleep.
Your artworks are expressive of a very sensorial, animal, embodied experience. When you’re drawing well, what is happening in your body? What does that feel like?
It’s like when you do a dance move or something and you’re able to express exactly what you thought. Or, have you ever done a dance move, and you’re like, That didn’t come out the way I thought it would? I thought I was doing some kind of backflip — but I actually just look like I hurt my back. But when you pull it off, it seems really graceful.
My body is my tool in acting, but I feel more in my body when I’m painting. Acting definitely takes you out of your body. I have to practice staying in my body. Because sometimes you have to put on the costume that you’ve been wearing for like a month, every day, and you’re just not in the mood to wear that fucking dress that cuts you at the belly — you’re just like, “I hate this fucking thing!” but you’ve got to match the energy you had in the last scene.
I’m curious about the sort of Venn diagram of your creative lives — what’s the overlap in your acting and art practices? What parts feel distinct?
One is very private and one is very public. The weird thing though is acting is only public when you do publicity, the actual job is very private. On set, you’re expelling energy differently, sharing it. The more that I act, the less secure I get. You’re always wanting to work to define yourself. It’s fun, but I can’t do it too much. If I’m acting all the time, I go fucking crazy. Because you’re being someone else and everyone’s touching you and it’s weird. I’m like, “I’m terrible. I’m fat. I hate myself.” For actors to get to a certain form of expression, they probably had to go through lots of sense memories and complicated specifics. During COVID, I realized how acting was really draining, more so than it used to be for me.
When I’m painting, it builds my confidence. I’m in my skin a lot more. I’m spending hours alone just dancing, listening to music, smoking, thinking, being, drawing. It’s really playful and calm. I build myself up. And then it helps me go back to acting.
What’s your relationship to Instagram and posting your art there?
I keep getting rid of Instagram because I’m like “IT’S NOT REAL.” The trick is to forget your password. I couldn’t log back in recently. And things just got better. I was like, “Life is great!”