Baltimore Artist Lania D’Agostino: Recasting Gender, Reshaping Life
Lania D’Agostino drapes her arm around a life-size sculpture of her daughter at age 12 or 13, clad in dance costume (above). Built from a casting, or mold-making, for which D’Agostino’s daughter posed in place as her mother slathered her in white plaster, the piece is utterly realistic, and lovely, reminiscent of a Degas, the strong, sure feminine body and flouncy ballet duds, with a face more frank and present.
D’Agostino, who laughs bashfully as I shoot her photo, tells me the piece somewhat embarrasses her daughter, whose dancing days are behind her, and who is now in college studying writing and, of course, looks completely different as a “beautiful” grown woman. She also mentions how proud she is of her daughter. She says that her daughter “gets it,” meaning she’s grateful to be able to focus on her studies while Mom foots the bills.
And it’s clear from touring D’Agostino’s large Light Street workspace, she “gets it” too. She’s as sensitive to the visitors to her studio as she is to the tiny little details of her art-making, whether they’ve come to be “cast” — D’Agostino has been known to blast Tom Jones to loosen everyone’s nerves — or merely to look around — she lets me wander everywhere, take shots of whatever. Walking purposefully in her cowboy boots (and dreadlocks and eyeglasses), she’s at fast-moving, familiar work inside the colorful, mannequin-packed space, where she divides her time between building professional D’Agostino Studios castings (with trained staff) for traveling displays and high-profile clients – like the Smithsonian and the Star Wars Exhibit for Lucasfilm – and making her own fine art, which involves both casting and oil painting, and often keeps 50-something D’Agostino in the studio half the night. She’s also at home here, though she doesn’t live full-time on Light.
Currently, in her personal art realm, D’Agostino focuses on a provocative series of castings and paintings that document transsexual transition. The subject, Kristen, who’s in the process of becoming Kris, has visited from out of town on three separate occasions. Below, “Transition” presents the movement from Kristen to Kris: left, in her female body; center, one year later, as she begins taking testosterone; right, Kris three months after “top surgery.”
Below, “Patterns of Change.”
After quitting high school at 17 in her native Michigan – because, she says, “they told me I was too stupid to be an artist” — D’Agostino hooked up with celebrated kinetic sculptor Constantin Milonadis, whom she called Micky.
She earned her GED and took classes at a community college. On a trip to Chicago with mentor Milonadis, D’Agostino discovered the work of figure sculptor George Segal and fell in love.
“I felt a sense of familiarity with his work and went home and bought plaster and cheese cloth and began casting my friends and family,” D’Agostino explains. (Some family member volunteers accidentally lost hunks of hair in her earliest plaster-casting days.) “In the beginning I had no real direction or purpose for the castings; I just felt compelled to learn the process and build figures.”
In 1982, D’Agostino relocated to Baltimore and enrolled as an undergrad at MICA, where she was encouraged to make her traditional sculptures using clay instead of casting. This meant that she had to learn to create every detail with her own hands, a skill that has made her a stronger sculptor to be sure.
“This was excellent for building my skill and a critical eye for the body’s detail,” she says.
As part of Artscape’s At-TENT-ion installation series last year, D’Agostino cast several homeless Baltimore citizens. The piece “#homeless” (below) is currently stationed at Healthcare for the Homeless.
D’Agostino also invests a lot of dreamy evening hours in her Jackrabbit “self-portrait” series, an assortment of playful images starring “Jack,” whose gender is difficult to tag. One enormous painting room in her second-floor space is reserved almost singly for Jack (below).
“The ‘Jackrabbit’ series explores this idea of a gender-fluid or gender-neutral figure,” D’Agostino says. “By using the image of a jackrabbit as a self-portrait, I’ve removed or confused the idea of gender.”
I talked to the artist about her business, her fine art, her inspiration, and her family life.
What did Constantin Milonadis teach you?
[He] taught me many things about life and choices. He showed me that everyone has a choice to live life with passion and create.
Who/what are some of your ongoing important influences?
Film: The Brothers Quay.
What is your message as an artist?
How do the personal “Jackrabbit” paintings and the transgender castings come together thematically?
My paintings are created via a direct flow from my subconscious creative and cosmic energy.
The sculptures and transgender castings are an intellectual exploration of gender fluidity. These are part of my self-expression of the question of gender.
How do you make people comfortable when they come for a casting?
I treat each model very professional and with a lot of care. I’m very knowledgeable and skilled at what I do, and I take the time to explain everything about the process. I’m very comfortable and my crew are very fun to be around so I think that helps each model be comfortable and trust that we’ll take good care of them.
How do you realistically balance the two pursuits of painting and casting (and casting for clients)?
I have the constant desire to create and am able to release that energy directly through my painting. The sculpting allows me to pursue these complex ideas of human struggles in a creative way, such as the sculpture “#homeless,” [which] gave me a forum to bring more awareness to the homeless families with young children.
It has given me a venue to show the complexity of a person changing the body they were born with to the body they could feel comfortable living in and hopefully bring awareness and compassion for those with this struggle.
What is a typical studio day like for you? Or studio week?
I usually start the day with business, emails, research, phone calls, etc. If I have a museum project, we begin “shop” work at 10 a.m. By 5, I’m in the painting studio – if all goes well I paint half the night. Fridays I’m in the studio for creative time – whatever that is that day.
If I have the time, money, and model, I work on the gender castings.
I most always take Sundays to be home.
What is the best thing about living in Baltimore as a working artist?
The best thing about being an artist in Baltimore is that it’s affordable. I own my home and studio and don’t have to worry about landlords’ regulations. So many friends in NYC struggle to afford small spaces and no time to work.
The arts community has grown in so many ways in Baltimore – now I just need to make the time to get out and get more involved.
What is your goal for 2013?
I really want to get support for the Gender Project, a space to show it. More models in transition to cast. Perhaps apply for more grants, which if I got would enable me to spend more time developing all aspects of this project.
Brag about something!
I have the most amazing family! My partner of 25 years, Lisa Stambolis, keeps me humble with her daily stories of the homeless children she meets. She is a pediatric nurse practitioner and the director of the pediatrics clinic at Health Care for the Homeless and the inspiration for “#homeless.” She goes out to many of the shelters in Baltimore to find the youth and families that are struggling.
We have a son Michael, living in France with his partner and working on his PhD in sociology and [he] is always ready to challenge contemporary ideas.
Our daughter has just begun her journey in college and is an amazing writer of complex thought and emotion.
They all keep me young, motivated, and up to the moment on what is happening in our culture.
More work by Lania D’Agostino below.