'It's become a sort of therapy': Sculptor Tau Lewis makes dolls to recapture self-love and caring

There's a thought artist Tau Lewis has — maybe most people have — when she looks at a doll: What if it came to life? What if it became real?

The Toronto artist infuses her art with scavenged materials and her own belongings to make them feel real

(Tau Lewis)
Tau Lewis. (Courtesy)

There's a thought artist Tau Lewis has — maybe most people have — when she looks at a doll: What if it came to life? What if it became real? There's a disposition special to dolls, a "sort of silent indifference," she calls it, that lets us — perhaps selfishly — project ourselves over these inanimate objects. And because of that power, there are times when they do become real.

That experience helps inform Lewis' interest in figurative work. She spends a lot of time with her sculptures: constructing them, caring for them. "They're very real to me," she says.

After a busy and productive few months, including shows at Spring/Break, the New Museum and Night Gallery in L.A., the 23-year-old Toronto-based artist sits behind her work bench, piled above and below with foraged materials, preparing for an exhibition of new works at Toronto's Cooper Cole Gallery. "There's so much junk everywhere, I know," she says, "but I'll use all of it. I swear."

(Tau Lewis)

Collecting is an integral part of her practice — a habit she exercises daily, scavenging the building of her studio, keeping an eye wherever she walks for items of interest. Lewis sculpts with objects she finds waiting in the garbage or sent to the curb: a section of rebar, a hunk of cast iron piping dotted with algae and other "fossilized shit," hose clamps, a chunk of wood that looks uncannily like a face. Practically speaking, they're robust and functional construction materials, but also, they're objects that come bearing their own histories. "They've already had a life," she says. They're charged.

When black narratives are erased from Canadian art and, more broadly, from Canadian history, Tau's sculptures intervene, assembling portraits of black identity and experience from the very landscape she finds around her. Her figures employ a range of sculptural techniques: plaster casts, hand-formed shapes, carvings, assemblage. "I develop skills quickly and I also get bored quickly," she says. At one time, she was satisfied with the ability to realize an idea speedily. Now, she's become interested in more tedious and laborious tasks. Carving and sewing have become central. "I think it's become a sort of therapy," she says. "The process of making is the most important part."

(Tau Lewis)

With these latest works, especially the doll figures, Lewis' begun sacrificing personal items — her clothing, her hair, trinkets and other mementos she's held on to — and hiding them inside the sculptures, outside the viewer's access. Perhaps it's a way to make them more real, she hypothesizes. On top of the hours spent building them, with their articulated wire skeletons, hand-carved visages and homemade garments, it's a way to invest even more of herself and her energy in them. Perhaps also, she says, it's a way of caring for them.

In a sense they are portraits of personal and historical traumas.- Tau Lewis, sculptor

The figures come home with her from the studio most nights. She props them up on the couch or at the coffee table. She tucks them into bed in the evening. Lewis dreads the idea that she'll have to let them go — but such is the nature of the trade. One of her earliest dolls, a self-portrait sitting near her in the studio, will never be sold, she says. The figures are each reflections of herself. She sees the completed dolls as physical manifestations of a healing process. "In a sense they are portraits of personal and historical traumas." They represent qualities like vulnerability, softness, contemplation and self-love — "things I'm constantly trying to figure out how to give myself."

(Tau Lewis)

By living with a doll, she's not merely animating her or conducting some performative act. "I am making an effort to care for her," she says, "and in doing, to care for and heal myself."

Tau Lewis and Curtis Santiago. "Through the people we are looking at ourselves". July 21 to August 26. Cooper Cole Gallery. Toronto.


Chris Hampton is a Hamilton-based freelance arts and culture writer. His work has appeared elsewhere in The New York Times, the Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, The Walrus, and Canadian Art. Find him on Instagram: @chris.hampton


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