She won both the double dutch jump-rope championship of Brooklyn, N.Y., and first prize in sculpture from the Corcoran School of Art. In between, Lila Snow earned a degree in chemistry, did graduate work in modern dance, got married, raised children, lived in three states and as many foreign countries and taught the first women's studies course offered at the University of Maryland. These days Snow bills herself as "an artist and stand-up comedian." In the latter capacity she performs her own brand of political satire, and her newest artworks are on display in a one-person show at the Hull Gallery (Foxhall Square, 3301 New Mexico Ave. NW) through July 13.
Snow's recent constructions are a series of vertically oriented rectangles that hang on the wall either singly, in pairs, or as triptychs. Their colors range from velvety black with copper, red and gold to a spectrum of shimmering purples and blues. Surface textures are equally varied, as smooth segments alternate with intricately layered bits of paper, fabric and found objects. Pointed sticks pierce the edges of many rectangles, which are further adorned with Scrabble tiles, computer parts and obscure calligraphic marks.
"I use tar paper," Snow says, "along with handmade Japanese paper and nylon wrapping materials, because I'm interested in how different materials pick up the paint." She wants the constructions to look "bronzelike, as though they'd been melted together," and adds, "I'm always struggling between having a lot of contrast in the work and making it subtle, so it looks like it was born that way."
The core of each construction is a cardboard form around which textile manufacturers wind their bolts of fabric. Snow's use of this particular type of cardboard has a personal significance, since her mother was a seamstress. "As a young person I remember seeing my mother trying to piece together $1 remnants of cloth," she says, "and I never thought her work was like mine . . . But it is."
A New York City native, Snow entered Brooklyn College with an interest in both dance and visual art, but decided she should learn "something useful." "Actually," she says, "I wanted to be a doctor, but there was no way anybody was going to send me a woman to medical school." She majored in chemistry, and later worked in a medical research laboratory where her husband George was employed as a physicist. For many years thereafter her life was focused on her children and her husband's work, which took the family to Europe and Japan.
Once the family settled in the Washington area, Snow could finally concentrate on art. She studied at the Corcoran School ("Ben Shahn said you should choose an art school that had to be reached by walking through a museum"), and cites instructors Ed McGowin and Tom Green as major influences. A prize-winning pupil, she began participating in group exhibitions in 1970 and had her first solo show two years later.
Snow's work has since undergone several transformations, but certain concerns -- with science, politics and the reverence for materials -- remain constant. Her scientific training, and her continued interest in her husband's research, is reflected in her work in unexpected ways: In her intense curiosity about how things work, her easy familiarity with computers and the theories of Einstein, and in the astonishing neatness of her studio. "Order is very important," Snow asserts. "Chemistry teaches you how to organize your materials, and to do several things at once."
Never one to shy away from controversial topics, during the 1970s Snow made paintings, collages and reliefs that were strongly critical of Watergate and of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Last year she exhibited a series of sculptures on the theme of "1984," emphasizing Orwellian developments in international affairs and her concern about nuclear proliferation (strongly affected by her experiences in Japan). Her newer abstract, untitled constructions indicate a turn away from specific content and a simplification of forms. Instead of the sequins and plastic toys embedded in the "1984" series, these works are visually restrained; in place of political commentary or black humor, there is dignity and mystery.
Snow says that when she started making these new works the combination of upright sticks and vertical masses reminded her of torahs -- in fact, she first referred to them as "Torah Constructions," and the silken cords attached to several were inspired by torah tassels. The concept of condensed wisdom appealed to her, she says, and she consciously added the computer parts to represent modern, versus ancient, wisdom. As the series developed, however, Snow found herself moving "in 60 different directions," making other constructions that suggest musical instruments, Persian archways, Southwest Indian artifacts and an embroidered silk kimono.
An interview with Snow quickly becomes a far-ranging discussion on everything from optics to the care and feeding of silkworms, cigarette smoking to the arrangements of Japanese telephone books. She says people always ask if she ever runs out of ideas. Her response is, "I don't have the physical strength to do one-hundredth of what I'd like to do." And yet she has a virtual compulsion to create art. "Sometimes," she says, "in a hotel, I'll tear up little pieces of magazines, because I have to make something."