Room Coated In Salt With Lisa Smolkin and Jon McCurley

Interview for Belonging(s)

Earlier this summer I met with Lisa for an interview in a meditation room that was completely coated in salt at the Bio Cafe in North York, Toronto.

Jon: (Deep breath) So, for the purpose of the interview, here we are in a salt room with teddy bears in it.

Lisa: It’s a salt-based room (laughs). We’ve got salt on the ceilings; salt on the walls, there’s Ikea furnishing, like lighting and this tubular structure on the wall, as well as teddy bears. The sound of the salt machine pushing salt into the air, a couple blue lights, a few pails over there…

Jon: What’s in the pails?

Lisa: I don’t know? I’m guessing salt. (Laughs) There is an air purifier and a fireplace over there, and then there is these really super comfortable chairs that seem to be a standard in salt caves. Because the other salt caves I’ve been to also have chairs like this. Because I’ve been to two other salt caves.

Jon: In Toronto?

Lisa: Yes.  Well, one was in some strip mall in Etobicoke or Mississauga or something.  (Laughs)

Jon: So, a lot of your work has like health related things in it. I don’t mean like hospital visits, but health and wellness things.

Lisa: Yes. I like to make art about things that I know about, and that’s a world that I know about and feel comfortable in.

Jon: Have you always been into it?

Lisa: I’ve been into it for such a long time. I think when I was like an older teenager and realized that I had like a lot of pain inside of me and was trying to untangle it.  And ya I’ve always been drawn to what it felt to be around healing things. Since I was probably like 18 or 19.

Jon: Has it always been as popular as it is now?

Lisa: I think it’s probably more popular now, but it was popular then too. It’s always been popular in a certain way in different forms and different cultures. It’s a more matriarchal form of healing, to not go in with surgical intervention or drugs, which are a blessing but way overused and not always effective for mental and emotional health. I always wanted to treat my own suffering and deal with my nervous system overload with like relaxing things, like relaxing colours, relaxing sounds, relaxing places, relaxing air. Just anything to calm my nervous system, which is generally in a state of… It gets very overwhelmed from things that most people probably wouldn’t even blink at.  Also, fun is important to me, like relaxation is fun for me.

(Meditation music begins playing through the sound system)

Lisa: Oh my god! (laughs)

Jon: Have you ever worked in the health and diet and wellness world?

Lisa: Well, I do. My day job is an aromatherapist.  So ya, I do. But in a more careerist way? Not so much. Because I like to leave space to make art.

Jon: Did you study art at school?

Lisa: No, well I did study Art Therapy for three years. So that was a very real precursor to performance art.

Jon: Whoa

Lisa: Because we had to do projects and we had weekends like a painting weekend, a psychodrama weekend, a clown weekend…

Jon: I’m jealous

Lisa: This is also when I had Jackie, in my second year I became pregnant.  So it was a really important time, both with what I was learning and this huge life transition. I remember doing several different projects at Art Therapy school that were extremely performative, and they felt AMAZING, and people responded well. One was putting all these drawings on the floor and making people take bits of this healthy-ish chocolate bar…

Jon: Amazing

Lisa: And then walk through and look at all of the artwork. Another one, I had all these different stations. Like, I brought all this stuff from home, and I made people walk around to these different stations, and witness all these old letters that people had written to me, and my favourite clothes and music. Just like presenting myself in station form. It was really fun!

Jon: You said this period was life-changing, what was your life like before?

Lisa: Well, I moved to Toronto. Umm… I had a job in a movie theatre, at a concession.

Jon: I had that job too…

Jon: Do you think performance is different for you than other art forms?

Lisa: Well it’s usually live, you’re doing the art, there’s an aspect of creating the art live, with the audience as a witness there. And that is another thing for me. Someone said about my art that they felt I blended boundaries a lot, with my therapeutic life, and my art, and my diet. Ya so, witnessing is a concept in therapy, and it’s also a concept in developmental psychology.

Jon: What does it mean?

Lisa: It’s like people need that, like babies need that, little children need that, to have themselves witnessed. To be looked at and to be recognized and have their feelings acknowledged. We need to have that for healthy development. And in a lot of ways parents will inherently do it. But there can often be problems. If the parents didn’t get it they won’t know how to give it to their kids. Or often there can be trauma. So that’s one thing I feel performance art helps with that – you get parts of yourself witnessed.

Jon: Is there anyone who inspired you to become an artist?

Lisa: My friend Sonja, Sonja Alhers. She is one of my best friends. She’s in Victoria. I met her in college in women’s studies class and she really inspired me. She recognized me right away as an artist. Like, I didn’t know, but she was like “you’re so creative, you’re so awesome, you’re so this and you’re so that,” and I’d never had a friendship like that. It’s just so, it’s very intensive and then we had a long period of letter writing when she lived in Montreal. Letter writing was sort of this formative creative output, and then that turned into drawing and bookmaking, which then turned into performing and video. Seems like, ya the more comfortable I feel in the world, the more I can expand into like these – what I’m going to say is really messed up –  but kind of like these ‘male’ things.

Jon: Forms?

Lisa: Forms.  Like taking up more space, and costs more money, involving tech, other people. I do enjoy it and find it empowering like taking up more space in the world.

Jon: Video and performance feels like moving into more ‘man’-dominated fields?

Lisa: Well, I think the content will always be completely me. I dunno, gender is weird. The content is very like binary-ily ‘feminine’, and then it’s interesting having these like ‘masculine’ ways to actually get them out into the world. I dunno if those ideas still hold, but that’s sort of how I see it.




Jon: The performance where you gave people a tour of a Whole Foods that is such an interesting performance.  Do you want to talk about that a little bit?

Lisa: Mmhm, I know that someone was like “why would you do that because if I did that I would just feel guilty, because I’m white, and I have disposable income, and health food,” and I was like “all good points.” But health food is a big part of my life, and even health food tourism.  Like, going to places and going to health food stores is just interesting to me. I dunno if its in lieu of a human connection? Maybe. It’s something that I want to absorb myself into on an ongoing basis. That was for the Round Table Residency, and it was handy because it was close to Whole Foods. Like, we walked over and met outside. And I had done several scouting missions and just decided things I wanted to talk about show people.

Jon: Like areas of the store?

Lisa: Ya, and so I talked about a few things like on the way to whole foods,  and then we went down there was an escalator, and that was cool, just descending.

Jon: With the audience?

Lisa: Ya with the audience, like everyone going. I didn’t have a mic or anything, so that part didn’t work that well.

Jon: They couldn’t hear you?

Lisa: No, because there ended up being more people than I thought there was going to be. I would say between 30 and 40 people.

Jon: WOW that’s a BIG audience!

Lisa: Ya.

Jon: That’s incredible!

Lisa: And we had no permission. I’ve sort of learned if you ask for permission then someone can say no.

Jon: Did you have a helper?

Lisa: I normally do have a helper for things, but I don’t think I did for this. And I just had some papers and just took people around, and talked about, homeopathy, and like tortillas, and rated my favorite tortillas against each other.

Jon: I know you more for your stage performances and videos, but when you described the work you’re doing in Halifax to me it reminded me of that performance. Isn’t there going to be a travelling part where you walk across the city with the audience?

Lisa: Yes. There’s part will be at the Seaport Farmers Market. We’ll meet outside, and we’ll go in, and I’m going to have the audience witness me make a health food purchase.

Jon: Wow oh my god! (laughs)

Lisa: Ya, and the interesting unknown part is like who will I interact with? How will they react?

Jon: That’s so exciting.

Lisa: Ya, and just in general another thing that’s important to me is my interactions with people. Sometimes interactions make me feel really bad. So, I’m always interested in that. But because its Halifax, the person will probably be …friendly?

Jon: Hope so.

Lisa: Like, I’m interested in small moments that are usually never witnessed being witnessed. So a consumer interaction will be witnessed, and usually, there’s some element of humanity in there, even though its a consumer interaction. There’s some humanity that will come through, through the service person, which I also am. I work in the service industry. They could be ticked off, they could be tired, they could be like unfriendly, or they could be this great person and this interaction makes us happy.  And then the health food portion is just bringing in something that’s like central to my life.

Jon: Earlier when you described the art therapy school you attended, part of that performance was bringing people around, and moving them to the healthyish chocolate (laughs),  and your explanation of moving people around whole foods is similar in some way.

Lisa: Moving people around an showing people things?

Jon: And like “there’s something wrong with this person,” because it’s different than what you may expect from normal life and from performance art.

Lisa: Ya, and there’s something wrong with everyone, and there’s something wrong with me.

Jon: Do you think there’s something wrong with you???

Lisa: Ya.

Jon: Have you always felt that?

Lisa: Oh ya.

Jon: Really?

Lisa: (Pause) Ya.

(Both laugh)

Jon: So, I am curious about, It’s not like you give people an unedited view of your existence. I guess that’s like the masterstroke? It’s not like you give people a tour of like talking to your son before school or something like that, it’s not simply “my real life”.

Lisa: I haven’t done that, but one of my first performance art pieces was giving people a tour of my room. That was exciting for me.

Jon: Right, and I’ve been on a performance that was a house tour of yours before, and you still do them?

Lisa: Oh ya “The Museum.”

Jon: The House Museum! Which for the record is a tour of Lisa’s house, with objects.

Lisa: Yes. But I try to leave Jackie out of it if he doesn’t want to be involved. Because, that’s a boundary that I feel is… important to respect.   (Laughs and then takes a deep breath).



Jon McCurley is one-half of the artist duo Life of a Craphead. Life of a Craphead organized and hosted Doored, a performance art show and online broadcast, from 2012 to 2017.

CIRCA 1995