Photography & Editing: Andrew Caturano and Troy Lehman of Assignement.
Q & A WITH COLETTE LEHMAN FOR WOMANISM 1.1.
We are so excited to share part one of our Womanism Series, hence, 1.1. As a brand, we think it's paramount to understand women from all creeds in order to deliver product truly made with you in mind. In an effort to continue to build relationships with women we admire and want to get to know, we decided to create a platform to tell their stories. For 1.1., Sam of Selva Negra sits with Colette Lehman, a preparator for the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. We hope you enjoy this awesome conversation on women in labor jobs, uniforms and working along side artists like Takashi Murakami and Kerry James Marshall!
SR: So, before we go in. I kind of want to get a sense of what it is that you do and how you ended up on this really interesting path. Based on many conversations we’ve had, it seems like you are working in a male-dominated space. Did you always see yourself there?
CL: I feel like I always saw myself in a laborious type of job, but I had no idea that this type of thing existed. Even in art school, no one ever mentioned that this kind of job existed, which I understand. If you’re going to be an artist, art schools are probably not going to mention installing other people’s artwork, but still it should be an option. [Laughs] So, I’m a preparator at the MCA (Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago). To put it in laymen’s terms, it’s being an art handler/ installer. I guess I’m trying to figure out the best way to describe it; every museum is different. For us, we’re art handling by using best practices and sometimes telling other preparators what to do for an install.
SR: Do you need a certification? What makes you qualified to be an art handler?
CL: I feel like I came about it in the weirdest way. There are people that learn about this job and become interns and build a path while they’re in school specifically to become preparators. Like, Art History is probably more registrar. Whereas me – my mom was a picture framer and Ken, my stepdad, was a carpenter. I wanted to learn how to build things on my own in high school, so I tailored my own art class so that I could learn how to build things. So, I did that and while I was in school [college], I tried glass blowing and realized I didn’t want to actually do that but still very much wanted to work with my hands. I did metal working, I would still build a bunch with my hands, and I would still take frame-shop jobs…
SR: Do you think working with your hands is cathartic for you, why do you think that element of touch feels so right for you?
CL: I think it is cathartic, yeah. I feel like being a woman in this type of job puts me in this certain thing where I ask, ‘because I’m a woman, what do I stand for or what am I doing for women in this job?’ It makes me feel great that I can represent women in this field, but it’s also just something that I want to do. So that puts me in a weird position – I am aware that I woman in a labor job, you know what I mean? It’s nice that I’m able to do it, but I’ve always wanted to do this kind of thing. I’ve always worked jobs like this and somehow it just ended up that I had all the skills to become a preparator and got the job at the MCA. It’s my first museum job, but I’ve been installing for a long time. I’m trying to prove myself in a labor job, but not as a woman in a labor job. I do feel proud that I’m good at this job and people see me as a strong woman.
SR: I’m sorry if this is such as cliché thing to ask, but do you feel like you actually have to work twice as hard to gain the respect –?
CL: I do – I think, it’s that and the attitude…it pisses me off, though. Someone can say something inappropriate, not even sexual, more like ‘you’re a woman doing this job?’ followed by the surprise reaction.
SR: They make sure to point it out.
CL: Yeah, and a lot of it is me working hard for them to see me do my job, but then I have to have this attitude where I can’t be totally offended when they say things like that. I think it’s more of a mental game for me, but I know it’s because I already know how to do all the manual labor. Like, I’m comfortable doing all that stuff. Whereas co-workers I’ve had before, who are women, are still struggling to prove they can do their job and keep their cool when gender is pointed out. It's annoying!
SR: Yeah! So, what does that do for dynamic? If there is another woman in the room, do you feel the need to nurture her or is it more like ‘pull your coveralls up and get your shit together because this is important?’
CL: I feel like most of the women I’ve worked with have enough strength to identify we’re the women on the team. Sometimes it is, ‘get your shit together’, but that’s mostly with new people in general. A lot of it is knowing that when there are a bunch of guys in a room, me and a couple of women, I automatically know that we’re the last one to be picked for something or they’re looking at us like we can’t do something that requires more strength. I try my hardest to make it so that it's not the women and the men in the room and make it more about the fact that we’re all working together.
SR: Going back to coveralls! How does having a uniform inform how you feel while doing your job? Is there something about putting on coveralls that makes you feel good?
CL: Um, yeah it does. Well, it definitely is more comfortable. It’s interesting in my work; we can wear whatever we want. Normally I wear overalls or my coveralls. When I first started wearing the coveralls, guys would make comments about it and have something to say while tons of guys are wearing the same thing and nobody ever says anything.
SR: Are most of everyone’s coveralls like yours, do they have patches on them too?
CL: Uh-uh, nope. [Laughs]
SR: I love that! I love that you’ve added all of these embroidered patches!
CL: It make me feel kind of official, like when I put it on, I’m like ‘okay’ [head nods]. I really like it. It makes me feel comfortable and ready to do the job. I’ve been told I look intimidating before, so that was kind of cool!
SR: We’ve also talked about this, but I know that you don’t necessarily feel like you’re properly compensated/ under appreciated and that seems to be the general case for a lot of you in your workplace. If you found the opposite of that, a company that really cared about you as an artist/ discusses your trajectory; do you think you’d continue doing this work for the next 5-10 years or continue exploring?
CL: I feel like I would. I’ve learned a lot just since Troy and I moved to Chicago, which is pretty much the last four years (Troy is Colette’s hubby). I’ve learned I am a creative person and love making new things. Something that you said, about this being cathartic, for me is the actual labor of it. As a preparator, I’m doing all the manual work behind something and finishing work for other people practically – and I love it. So, learning that, which is kind of a hard thing to swallow seeing myself as an artist and feeling like I need to make something new all the time…No I would kind of rather stay in a position like this, its awesome!
SR: Do you walk through the museum and find pride in the fact that you put so much of what we’re seeing together?
CL: For Sure! At the museum, I mean, you’re supporting emerging artists and totally sophisticated artists. I’m a part of everything in that museum and I feel ownership over things; it’s kind of awesome.
SR: That’s amazing. What is your proudest work/ install so far?
CL: I think it’s been different for every show, especially because the MCA is my first Museum. Every show I’ve done is so different from the other and I’ve played a different role in them. I would say, I mean Takashi Murakami is the biggest one I’ve ever done. It’s the latest we ever stayed. I was in charge of the most people. It was really nice to feel like I was part of a team but also led a team on such a big project. I’m really proud of that. Merce Cummingham before that, me and this other girl built these huge pedestals that were oval shaped and had to learn all that, so part of the satisfaction of that show is me knowing ‘I built this, I built that’. I dunno, I think all of them have something different! Working on the Kerry James Marshall show, working so closely with him, I think that’ll stay with me forever. They’re just so many aspects and walking away from each one knowing I was capable.
SR: So awesome, girl. Okay, last two questions and totally irrelevant! If you could tell your teenage self one thing and your future self one thing, what would they be?
CL: Ah, this is so hard. If I could tell something to my teenage self, I’d say to be more patient with yourself and believe that you can get to where you want to go. There was always a lot of doubt. Especially in labor jobs, just believe that you can do it. And then my future self, oh my god, I have no idea. [Laughs] Don’t be scared, which is what I tell myself all the time now. [Pause] To just stay humble and be grateful, which I already feel for where I am now…and hopefully I still have my cool ass friends.