© 2022

A Conversation In Solano Canyon: With Sarah Liss

Artist, Images SARAH LISS / SL



The inner parts of The Over-Paved Path are complex. They detail a space that is made up of the past and the present, one that has experienced the passing and evident effects of gentrification, displacement and capitalism. Shot on 35mm film in Solano Canyon, California, The Over-Paved Path strikes us with a stillness. One that is haunting at times, and one that is quiet at other times. The meshing of human and environmental distress - stirring a conversation at the surface level and deeper within the over-paved path.

Why film photography for this body of work?

SL Great question! Film photography for all my work has really been the thing I stayed tried and true to. Maybe one day I will find some work just isn’t coming together via film, but as of now that hasn’t happened. I choose to use film because of the grainy texture it provides. Not only that but the photos become striking due to the sharpness of the lines and the vividness of the color. There is nothing like it. On top of that, I love being physically connected to the work I am making. The camera and I are collaborating with one other. I see what looks good in the view finder and it tells me the adjustments that need to be done with the lighting. Then I hear the punch of the shutter open and close. That to me is sweet satisfaction. I wind that the baby back and we’re ready to go for the next shot.

A distinct element of one photograph is the “USA” graffiti-like white marking on the paved walkway. It's distinct and almost haunting, when referencing your notes on the purpose of the series in highlighting the result of colonialism and capitalism.

What does this photograph embody to you, how does it comment on and explore those?

SL It certainly embodies to me the reality of the circumstances, we in Los Angeles and really any colonized country, exist in. We are on the ground of land that belonged to many people before we got on it. In this series I am on land that once belonged to the Tongva, then the Europeans, then Mexico, and now the United States. This grafitti marking of “USA” with arrows branching off in three directions on the pavement struck me so vividly. I came across this in Solano Canyon, which is a really small neighborhood currently being gentrified.

Gentrification is a similar system to colonialism but who and where it is happening to is more localized. It’s an economic class taking over another’s neighborhood not a country taking over another as well. This photograph confronts you with this meta like reality, sort of like a slap in the face. The branching of the arrows are reminders of how anywhere you go from here, you can’t escape it. I’d also like to point out the peculiarity that this was grafittied. A form of street art usually done in the sense of reclamation. It isn’t usually done by the person who is coming from a place of security in what is being claimed. Then there would be no reason to have to reclaim it. That’s why there is also something confusing about the claim being made here by the grafitti artist.

A metal cover engraved with the words “WATER BUREAU”. Again, beautifully minimal and shot in such a way that is both quiet and demanding. No water in sight. The complexities that are brought forward with gentrification come hand in hand with issues such as displacement (of both people and nature).

How was that felt here - in the space, in the neighbourhood, even as you walked around and spent time within?

SL Oh yeah there is no water to be found. On this side of Elysian Park there is not much of healthy vegetation. As you see in my last photograph of the series that tree is gutted and looks cut/carved into multiple times. It reminded me of a victim who was stabbed to death. You’re right, nature has been displaced, while the cement and roadways rule supreme. The neighborhood felt really sad to me. There is such a gloom and abandoned feeling as you walk towards the path along the freeway. You see desolation and leftover effects of people who are distressed and live in the encampments nearby. Trash, things torn apart, and left everywhere. You can feel the fear, angst, and hopelessness.

The contrasting architecture visualizes the changes that have taken place over time. A large, dark modern home next to a smaller, simpler abode. Although trees still line the side, attention is drawn to the overwhelming architecture - a sign of innovation, architectural design and modernity -  and yet a sign of capitalism.

Do you think the physical space has its own demands, do you think nature feels displacement and struggle?

SL Yes, that piece of architecture is absolutely out of place and is quite ominous to the neighboring residents. Like a reminder of what’s yet to come. To get an idea of where it is, if you are looking at the cement mansion on its left is the 110 freeway right below it. The bridge this photo was taken on is what links one side of the Elysian Park over the other above the freeway. This home reverberates pretentiousness especially with the souped-up G-Wagon parked in the driveway. All the homes to its right are very modest and you can tell have been there for a long time. This Mcmansion is overbearing in its presence and just towers over them.

The physical barrier between the car lanes and the pedestrian walkway is substantial. Can you reflect on how you think places like this have changed - over time - and will in the future?  

SL This walkway is not inviting. The grime seeping from its sides mixed with the amount of trash makes it a walkway no one really wants to go on. It has become more of a path that people who live in the nearby encampments tend to utilize. The 110 freeway - also known as the Arroyo Seco Parkway opened to traffic in 1940, being the “first freeway in the West” - which in order to build also displaced people who had homes in the area they planned to build this roadway on. I can see how this pathway made sense and could be a pleasant place to walk along given the cars in the 1940s. The top speed of the freeway then was 45mph, nothing like what the cars today are doing. Since most people in LA have a car, and although people do walk, that is truly not the best way to get around since the city is so big. I can understand how this pathway is no longer traversed the way it used to be, however there are signs that the ground is healing. With the plants growing out of the concrete walls and covering it, nature is giving us signs of hope. We just have to pay attention to it.

Do you think human and environmental distress is a simultaneous consequence?

SL I think they can be. In this case that’s what I see. It sort of aligns with transcendentalism. Modernity was a reason why that philosophy and social movement came about and I see it is something we still struggle with. How to be in touch with nature, that primal side of ourselves, and heal with it while even caring about it goes hand in hand with environmentalism.  I’m not sure if one is more heavily affected than the other. We are all affected, that’s all I know. I think they are permanent in the sense that they happened and can’t be undone. They can only have the chance to be repaired.

When documenting a place like this, and in looking at the body of work after it has been collated, how do you relate to the complexities that arise, both at the surface level and deeper within, from changing environments?

SL It rides deeps in me with how much I have lived not really caring about the environment. I was taught about the need to care for our environment in school, but it never really seeped into me. It’s not until I was open to something outside of how other’s thought of me or comparing myself to others, that I was ready to be alive in this world. It was overwhelming how much trash I saw everywhere. The amount of products I see in stores. Realizing all that it took to get it there. Who made it. How the materials are produced. How it is all the same stuff with maybe a minor difference. How animals are treated by humans, especially people’s pets. Our food industry. I mean the door was open and there was no turning back in how much there is to know and still to learn.

Why was it important for you to explore these specific themes in this body of work?

SL I have seen Los Angeles change drastically and continue to witness it. I was born and raised in the San Fernando Valley, the suburbs of the city, however I came out here once I could drive. I engaged in all that was gentrification because that was what attracted me to the city. The food places, the shops, the creative artist neighborhoods. I myself am a part of the problem as I am confronting and critiquing it. That is why the themes in this series are so important. Its feel sort of unescapable the ambivalence to the situation. Sometimes you succumb to the fact of the matter and at the same time resist your way out of what you find is right from wrong. I hope this series speaks to other people in a way where they too can explore these themes within themselves and others in conversation. It is something we all play a part in and where one stands with it and their role can be confusing and straight up messy sometimes.

Is there anything you hope to do - in relation to your practice or otherwise - in the near future?

SL Oh my god there are a lot of things I want to do. The main thing I am hoping for is for my work to get more exposure so it can reach more people. I am figuring out how to make more my work more accessible. I want it to reach others in a way that gets them to feel solace or think about something it is exploring.

I am also interested in my work belonging to those who want it. I am dabbling into having drawings on T-shirts and creating photobooks. I just put out my first T-shirt with the drawing Tied to What Keeps Me Falling on it on my website, and I currently just finished my first photobook that will be for sale up there as well. Rock of Love, is the name of the book, which is about a rock I fell in love with in Joshua Tree. As for my music, I plan on writing some more songs to hopefully put out my first EP soon. On the other hand, I am moving to San Diego and so I am planning to take some more art classes on other medias I’ve been wanting to dabble in. Most importantly though I am working to keep solidifying an artist community wherever I may be based. That is something I have learned is the more valuable thing you can have as an artist. Others that get what you’re doing, challenge you, and support you along this uncertain journey.


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