Installation

Not Just Your Local 31,000 Piece Felt Grocery Store: An Interview With Lucy Sparrow

Aug 03, 2018 - Aug 31, 2018Downtown Standard, Los Angeles

Lucy Sparrow, the UK artist who has become famous the world over for her “everything felt,” immersive, experiential installations, has some funny stories about her projects in the early days. Those sort of stories where, at night, unsuspecting passersby walk into what they think is a corner store, have their head down, head to the candy rack, pick up an all felt, sewn and painted, candybar, and don’t realize that what they’re about to buy is an original piece of art, and not a fix for their sweet tooth craving. Once they realize where they are, how they just unknowingly walked into a live-action art installation, they end up buying … art. And yes, art can be anywhere, and it can be anything, but the performative act of this purchase is what caught my attention when I first learned about Lucy Sparrow’s work. It was transformative, both socially and creatively.

Let’s fast-forward to 2018. Lucy may not be able to get that surprise from people at the moment, but she can create a 3-hour line in downtown Los Angeles to enter her newest installation, a 31,000 piece felt Sparrow Mart now on “view” at the Standard Hotel in Dowtown LA. After a massively successful felt market in NYC’s meatpacking district last year, and projects in London and Montreal in years past, Sparrow has become an international art star, but also a bit of an enigma. Who spends a year creating 31,000 pieces of original art? It’s kind of endurance test, but one we’re not quite used to seeing. We may be used to wonderful painting shows and street art murals, but those are a different kind of mental test. Not only does Lucy build the installations, she becomes part of the installation once its up and that makes it profoundly unique.

For full disclosure, I’ve curated Lucy into a museum show in the past, the Juxtapoz x Superflatshow, and have sat down with her for numerous interviews over the years. She is one of my favorite interview subjects, because I find honest answers and a unique process. After an incredible amount of press over its opening weekend, I talked with Lucy via Skype as she walked me through the Sparrow Mart, stopping at her favorite pieces and letting me know how her produce section was doing. Tomatoes were low, by the way.

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Evan Pricco: Now that you’ve been open a week or so, what have you learned about LA in the last couple of weeks?
Lucy Sparrow: Oh my god. They like to shop. They like to shop. They like to talk a lot. I’d say they're a bit more quiet than the people in New York, I think. I don't know if that's just, like, a massive generalization. I think everyone's been amazing, very enthusiastic, and they like to take pictures of themselves. But, they’re also buying and interacting, which is great. They don't mind queuing either. They're totally happy to queue.

Is that what's been going on? Have there been long lines?
It gets to be about a 2 or 3 hour wait ...

That could be one thing that makes this different than your NYC project, but how is Sparrow Mart LA different than New York?
It's absolutely massive. We're sort of like, hanging in there. The shows are not decimated, because I've made enough so we wouldn’t sell it all in the first weekend. There's a wider range of products, and maybe a little more hyped-up hysteria around this show. It’s different, it feels like I might actually know what I'm doing now. Whereas the store in New York was more “AGH!”

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What was the research for this particular market? When you were in LA last time, did you do a bunch of research on how a California grocery store is set up, or is this more of a general grocery store? How is it specific to Los Angeles?
I did. I basically went around to Wal-Mart and Target, but this pop-up is more like a supermarket. That's where I did my research. Obviously, not everything is going to get in. Because some things, like health foods, end up having really rubbish packaging, so they don't actually get included. So in that way, it's probably not an accurate California store, because it doesn’t have tofu and whatever, like, specifically vegetarian and vegan foods, the things you Californian's eat (laughs.) 

I won’t even defend myself.
Actually, the fruit and veggies go really well with customers. The fruit and veggies have gone down by about half. We only have 7 carrots left, down from 80. Watermelon is gone. Grapefruit is gone. Tomatoes are pretty decimated.

Some of that is seasonal buying, that's very smart of people.
Oh, yeah, yeah it is. They're buying summer fruit.

When you make the fruit and vegetables, do you have to think about the aesthetics? Like, “a felt avocado might not be as sexy as a tomato,” or something like that?
(Holds up an avocado) You don’t think this looks very delicious?

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Yeah, it’s pretty good actually. You just said something about you thinking that you're more professional now. We've talked so many times, but I wonder, why do you feel that way now? 
I think because I had a longer time to get ready. I had an entire year. Well, making the show was maybe like, 6 months. But, I say a year because people don't believe me, otherwise they literally don't believe that something with 31,000 handmade pieces was made that quick.

The volume of it is, obviously, quite impressive.
Yeah, the volume of it is impressive. But, I guess people don't necessarily understand. In layman's terms, people don't necessarily understand what it's like to only do this and to not necessarily have a social life. I think they think that side of it is crazy. A year is quite a long time to make stuff, in art terms, because that's all you're doing. You're so devoted to what you're doing. If you were having a social life in the same time, it would be more impressive.

Most good studio painters take a year to do show, and they rarely have a social life.
Exactly. So I think a year is plenty of time to do something. I think people revel in how long it takes to make stuff. That's always the number 1 question that people ask: “How long did it take?” It’s almost as if they are saying: “How much time have you wasted on this thing? When you could've been doing other stuff?”

There's a sort of skill in this. I see the skill in it as actually putting it all together, and having the madness or balls to actually do it, rather than having something that would take less time.

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But, that's the genius of what you're doing. It's that it takes that print model and flips it upside down, where it's all hand done. It’s an interesting counter to that concept. It flips the concept of collectibles on its head.
Basically, each person is getting an original piece of art, even if they don't necessarily want an original. They're also getting it for less money than most prints, which is what I find so baffling.

How how much is an avocado?
25 dollars.

But people are lining up for the experience and to buy original art, That’s rare.
Financially, this isn’t the quickest way to make money. For me, the process and act of doing it is so much more important than actually making the money.

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I always like that you are part of the installation, whereas at a gallery show of paintings, the artist is usually at the opening and that’s it. In your case, the second part of the making process is you actually present in the store.
It's the whole act of doing it. The act of putting myself through a year of making it: no social life, no sleep. I'm not trying to get some sympathy here because obviously, it's my choice, but that act of pure endurance and stubbornness of doing something like this. Is something people conceive but can't necessarily notice at first. They might subconsciously realize that like “Someone did this.” And, yeah, it's a crazy thing, but that speaks more than the art itself.

Is it still the process that makes you the most excited? Or is it this end result?
The joke is, “You've been working so hard, you need to take a break.” The install is really difficult. But to be honest, compared to production, this is a breeze. I'm sitting down. I'm stopping to eat and talk to people. I'm not getting up at 5AM. It's really a holiday compared to actually making it. That is what I enjoy about being here now.

Are there things that you're learning about the art world that's still surprising to you?
I think because I've been doing it for so long and I've got this weird, sort of dual personality, where sometimes, I feel it's not being appreciated enough. And then there’s this other side which is more like, “I can't believe people are making a fuss about this.” It's a bit of both. I obviously want it to be appreciated, and then I see money going through the register for something that I've been making since I was really young. It does still feel really new. And I don't know if that’ll ever go away. Maybe that's just my personality or maybe everyone feels like that. I'm not sure.

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I think I've asked every single interview. But, the place that you buy felt from, Fabricland, have they caught on to who you are now?  
When I go to HobbyCraft, that's our version of JoAnn's, I get to the register, and I've got a massive pile of felt and paint and everything, and they're just like, “Oh, what are you making?” I reply, “Oh, you know, for a project.” They're like, “What kind of project?” I'm like, I don't really want to get into it because, generally, whatever answer that you give leads to about five more questions.

Just say, “I'm building a felt grocery store in downtown Los Angeles made of 31,000 pieces of buyable art. Okay. Bye!”
Exactly, it's not something that you can say quickly. I'm usually in a rush, so I say it's for a playgroup or something. Because I'm not mentally ready to talk about it. I'm not in the PR/interview mode. I'm still in that production mode. I'm in my pajamas, i'm not wearing any makeup, and I definitely don't want to talk about it until it's done. At the same time, you don't want to be horrible and ruin someone's enthusiasm. so it's really difficult. So I just get in line and then leave.

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Okay, when I come to the store, I want a cereal box. What is your favorite cereal box that you made?
You know, I really like Golden Grahams just because of the amount of sewing on it. I kind of like stuff that's got the sewn on letters better than the stuff that's got the painted letters. I always think they look better than anything.

The Sparrow Mart will be at The Standard Downtown in Los Angeles through August 31, 2018.

All photography by Birdman Photos