To paraphrase an oft-paraphrased Supreme Court justice, we may not be able to tell you what art is, but we know it when we see it. Such is the case the first time we got a gander at the work of Hannah Lemke, better known to the aesthetes around these parts as “Milkdadd.” On a jaunt through one of the many fine neighborhood festivals to be found in our fair city, we stumbled upon a work of honest-to-goodness Art, a painting on a pane of glass and suspended from a wire, and sat ensorcelled for a whole cup of beer before beseeching our good friends at Visa to spot us a few bucks so we could move up a notch or two in the realm of art collecting. Commerce complete, we now count ourselves among the Art Crowd, and have Milkdadd to thank for it.
Since finding herself in the Capital City, Milkdadd has been wowing seasoned art-lovers and neophytes alike, and you can find her work — sometimes haunting, sometimes piercing, always striking — hanging in boutiques all about town. A transplant from Louisiana and a welcome addition to the art community here in the River Valley, Milkdadd was kind enough to answer a few questions for us.
Your bio mentions a genesis in the swamps of deep Louisiana. What brings you to these (relatively!) northern climes? Is Little Rock where you’re planting the Milkdadd flag, or do you have your eyes set on other horizons?
After a couple of years in community college, I decided I wanted to get out of the state. I was barely 18 at the time when I visited UCA’s campus and fell in love. I spent my summer preparing for my big move. After a semester at UCA, I got knocked up, had a baby, decided to get married, and then figured I might as well get divorced, too. So college was no more. While raising the coolest little dude (who is now 3) and working in coffee shops, we landed in Little Rock. Arkansas has become my home sweet home. I absolutely adore this city. I wouldn’t mind staying here for a while.
Both Louisiana folk and Arkansawyers place a lot of stock in place, and seem to draw a special kind of sustenance from their geographical roots. Have these two unique places — the Louisiana swamps, the Arkansas River Valley — influenced your art in any way? Or do you think a singular vision will out, regardless of where the artist might hang their hat?
My work, as well as who I am, is inspired by being raised in Louisiana. I grew up with the Mississippi River in my backyard. I spent every summer outside with my siblings playing in the lake and exploring through the woods. We had the opportunity to collect, observe and learn from the land around us. Long before I started painting faces, I painted swamps, cypress trees, old houses, wildflowers, bugs and berries. I learned a lot about color during that time. Most of my current palettes are still very inspired by my childhood. I believe the South is a magical place, and I will always want things to be warm, sweet and polite.
Your work includes a lot of character studies that invoke both hazy unreality and piercing clarity; your subjects read as real and solid even as they operate within an uncertain and immaterial space. Do you choose your subjects purposefully, and do they sit for a portrait? Are people you see and meet just the catalyst for your creative output? Or is it something else altogether?
Choosing a subject isn’t very difficult for me. I like the way everyone looks. I do have certain features I have fallen in love with. I use a lot of different sources for the faces I recreate. I have had subjects over to my studio where I style and photograph them. I love going through old photographs, vintage magazines, and textbooks as well. I usually work from a photograph, but I would like to do more live painting projects in the future.
How particular are you about your medium? I’ve seen your work on both canvas and glass, and while both are noticeably yours, they’re nonetheless quite different and seem to invoke a different kind of emotion in the viewer (or this viewer, at least). Is this or that medium a conscious decision for any given project?
Absolutely. Going into a project, I almost always have an idea of the feeling I want to invoke. The majority of my work is inspired by my emotions, daydreams and memories, so when I begin a piece, I choose mediums that can best recreate what I felt or saw or tasted, etc. When I’ve painted on glass, I want things to feel like a memory, sort of like something you might’ve watched through a window. I use paint for moods. Smeared and sad. Heavy and hot. Portraits on paper are quick and often abstract, usually inspired by a recent event. I also paint larger pieces on canvas drop cloths. Those pieces are big and loud and messy. BUT, these things are just how I feel. The viewer may feel something totally different, and I think that’s even better. If my pieces can make you feel anything at all then I’m satisfied. And if they make you feel nothing, then I’m still satisfied. I make things as a way for me to process my own emotions and events.
You always seem to have on an absolutely boss hat. No question, really. Let’s just talk about hats.
The real reason I wear hats: I am extremely self conscious. Things like hats, glasses, and scarves are always my go-to. I’m always trying to stay incognito.