Fort Worth Artist Layla Luna

Dodo Dance Party, oil on wood, by Layla Luna

The wild, wild West... Fort Worth artist Layla Luna's work intrigues me because it's filled with images that evoke a true sense of place, but not like anything I've seen before. Luna spent her very early years living in Paluxy, TX, a stone's throw from Glen Rose, which is famous for its ancient dinosaur tracks and bones. She grew up in Fort Worth, and now splits her time between painting, working at the gift shops inside the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History and the Kimbell Art Museum. 

After receiving a BFA in painting from Arizona State University in 2008, she went on to earn a postgraduate diploma in Fine art from Massey University in Wellington, New Zeland in 2011. A conservationist at heart who makes drawings and paintings that explore our relationships with nature, Luna isn't yet represented by a gallery and she works somewhat anonymously, painting for hours at night after putting in a full day's work at the museums. Ironically, working in the museums' gift shops with all their toys has influenced what she paints. And, during her lunch hours she takes a notebook and pencil and sketches the collections—more than a few taxidermy animals and dinosaur bones have ended up in her work, as you'll see.

A highly skilled and talented artist, she's also really articulate about her work. She was kind enough to let me interview her:

American Youth on Land, oil on wood, 50"x34"
I love your American Youth series, which include depictions of iconic Western themes such as cowboys and Indians, along with dinosaurs and classic "Master Cylinder" style robots. You used plastic toys to paint from?

Luna: I had gotten terribly homesick while studying in New Zealand in 2011 and became consumed with exploring the concept of home.  After moving back to Texas, I lived in a nostalgic bubble for the better part of 2012.  Every flat surface of the studio was covered in Lincoln Logs, cap guns, wind-up robots, and dinosaur figurines. Working at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History store absolutely fed the American Youth series.  For 40 hours a week I was immersed in the perfect reference materials.  I own more toys than an 8 year old.

American Youth Airborne, oil on wood, 50"x34"
American Youth at Sea, oil on wood, 50"x34"

Left: Jacks Landscape, oil on wood. Right: Cowboys and Indians, oil on vintage wallpaper
Luna: I re-read the diaries I had written as a kid, ogled over vintage toys, and researched the work of artists that used home as subject matter. Matthias Weischer, Dexter Dalwood and Gordon Matta-Clark were huge inspirations. I basically climbed back into my childhood until I got it out of my system. And thank god for that—it was mentally and emotionally exhausting.

The Science of Sparrows, oil on wood, by Layla Luna
 Tell us how living and studying in New Zeland affected your work:

Luna: New Zealand blew my mind. I chose Massey Uni because it is a highly conceptual, research-based school which is completely opposite from my traditional, representational painting background. I wanted to learn to work and think in a different way in order to make new work. By the last few months, I was making nothing but abstract work. I felt really lost, but I was producing work I would have never made (otherwise) and that was the purpose. 

Birds are a recurring theme in many of your paintings....

Luna: I wouldn't call myself a birder (I don't even own a pair of binoculars) and to be honest I haven't entirely figured out the allure that birds hold for me. The bird obsession started with a Painting II assignment when I was an undergrad. We had to explore the idea of 'ugliness' and 'beauty' by painting two portraits in reaction to Oscar Wilde's, The Picture of Dorian Gray.  For the ugly portrait I painted Dorian's character as a vulture and for the beautiful portrait I painted a tin, wind-up toy bird for his facade.  I pretty much painted nothing but birds for the next four years.

From left: Love Me, oil on board; Hover, oil on board; Dinner Guest, oil on board
Left: Birds, oil on vintage wallpaper; Right: Guns, oil on vintage wallpaper

Who are your influences?

Luna: My influences are constantly changing.  Right now I'm really into Albrecht Durer's animal and plant studies and Frans Snyders dead game still lifes.  I'm pretty much fascinated with anything involving animals from the Renaissance - the technical perfection of paintings from this time is ridiculous.  The compositions have a completely different viewer reaction in the 21st century.  I think people today would be pretty put off by one of Snyders' paintings of a dining room table piled high with dead animals. Depictions of wildlife had a radically different perception 500 years ago. Walton Ford is one of my favorite contemporary artists.  He is a wicked talented painter who does epic watercolors in the style of John James Audubon but they have humorous narratives that poke fun at over-the-top victorian colonists. I love the idea of spending so much time on a topic that is so randomly specific.   

Left: Cub, oil on wood; Right: Moose on a Cart, oil on wood
Your latest works reflect some of the research you've been doing into specimens. Tell us more.

Luna: I was lucky to be able to visit Tulane Univeristy's Biodiversity Research Institute in New Orleans, which has one of the world's largest fish specimen collections in the world and I'm currently working with the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History's collection. (Once again, my job has its perks.) The bulk of most of these collections is tucked away behind closed doors in places the public will most likely never visit. I want to make these environments available to a wider audience through my work.

I also want to visit as many animal specimen collections as I can. I'm searching and applying to artist residencies within environments concerned with wildlife conservation. It's all just a big experiment. . .

Robo Wagon, embroidery on cloth
Luna: One work leads to another; I don't know the destination...