Criminal Behavior + Art

Alumni Artist-in-Residence Alix Lambert returns to McColl Center for Art + Innovation this week for the opening of the riveting exhibition, Prison Zoo. Here’s an interview with Lambert on her work and creative process for this exhibition.

McColl Center: You are a filmmaker, author, sculptor, and printmaker. How do these various disciplines complement one another? What factors are at play when you are considering how a particular idea will ultimately be presented?

Alix Lambert: I have an idea and then I try to think of the best way to express it. To me it's all storytelling, whether it's an inanimate object or a film, or a book, it's still about communicating the original idea.

When did you first realize that the subject of crime was going to be a major part of your practice?

I don't know if I particularly realized it ever. More than one thing led to another and I started seeing that crime played a role often, but certainly not always, in my work.

In Charlotte, you went to the Mecklenburg County Courthouse and sat in on a case involving domestic violence. During the proceedings you developed a series of drawings that were later enlarged as screen prints. How did you interpret your experience at the Courthouse?

Courtroom drawing is like life drawing, only there is a true story unfolding. I just sat with my sketchbook and looked and listened. What you see and hear in these courtrooms is difficult to witness. People are in pain. In addition to drawing, I wrote down phrases that caught my attention and included them in my sketches.

Tell us about the evolution of your fingerprint screen prints in the Prison Zoo exhibition.

When making my book CRIME (Murray & Sorrell FUEL, 2008), I tried to personally answer the question that I was asking of those I was interviewing. As I moved forward in my work I wanted to make myself culpable, meaning, I did not want to just point a finger at others in regards to societal problems. The act of having myself fingerprinted was one way to address this idea of accountability. On a formal level, I liked the indexical nature of making screen prints from fingerprints.

Your broader CRIME USA project has developed during residencies in different cities throughout the United States. What you have learned about Charlotte during your residency in 2014 and how did it inform the overall project?

I tend to see more similarities than differences, but I like the small differences that geography dictates. For instance, Key West is the southernmost part of the U.S. near Cuba, so naturally, you see higher instances of crimes like drug smuggling.

In Charlotte, the crimes were not so different than elsewhere. Sitting in the courtroom, I listened to domestic violence cases. However, my time in Charlotte was also spent slightly differently than in other cities, with an interest in collaborating with local talent.

On the new animated video Prison Zoo: Fennec Fox (2015), which will debut at McColl Center, I worked with Tim Grant, which was (and hopefully will continue on to be) and amazing collaborative experience.

Tell us about the incarcerated character “Fennec Fox” in the Prison Zoo: Fennec Fox video.

A Fennec fox is a real animal with huge ears that is found in the Sahara region of Northern Africa. Damian Baldet and I looked at a number of different kinds of animals that we wanted in the series and thought about what their personalities and crimes might be. To steal my friend Scott Macaulay's words, "It's funny, but also weirdly melancholy," which was the tone that we were going for.

What role does humor play in your work?

Humor is one way to understand and take in something that may otherwise be too difficult. I think it helps stories reach broader, or at least different audiences. It certainly helps my own emotional health to take a break occasionally from some of the less humorous work that I do.

What projects are you working on now?

I am working on a project that includes a documentary, a narrative script, and a book - all about the life, work, and death of a filmmaker named Jon Pownall, who was murdered in 1973.

How did your experience in Charlotte and access to the Center’s facilities influence your process and inquiry?

Access to [McColl Center’s] facilities was enormous. I have no studio, and no printmaking access in New York City, and was super excited to have both in North Carolina, enabling me to produce work that I would not have been able to make otherwise.

Being in North Carolina for an expanse of time also supported my work in two ways. I formed relationships with local artists, specifically Tim Grant, who I collaborated with, and will continue to collaborate with, and I was able to continue my exploration into crime as it represents place.


Open House for Prison Zoo – An Exhibition by Alumni Artist-in-Residence Alix Lambert is on Friday, May 15, 2015 from 6–9 PM at McColl Center for Art + Innovation. Lambert will deliver an Artist Talk on the exhibition at 6:30 PM that evening.

Prison Zoo is on view in our contemporary art center from May 15 – August 14, 2015. More info is available here.