In Laura Castellanos’ studio, every surface is madly, tenderly touched. The crux of her practice is a dedication to freewheeling, obsessive play that materializes in multiple mediums, including a series of video interviews with other artists called Alpha Unicorn, a small army of plush dolls, a character called Bummerbunny and large, iconic paintings on canvas.
Born and raised in Manhattan (her parents arrived in New York from Cuba in 1961), Castellanos eventually found her way to Miami to study art. She lived and worked there for 15 years before packing up for Seattle. “I never got along with Miami,” she says as she walks us through her Lower Queen Anne studio. The studio door shimmers, lacquered in imitation gold leaf. “Seattle was another story. As soon as I got off the plane and the air hit me, I knew this was it. It was just right.” Castellanos has been working in her Seattle studio since 1999. Every inch brims with talismanic bric-a-brac and is inscribed with words scrawled in Sharpie or doused in rainbow drips, stains and smudges—a sort of trippy cave painting.
“The very first things I ever made when I was in high school were with materials that people gave me—a roll of craft paper and canvas,” Castellanos says. “Around that time I worked at Sears and I had this friend Ralph who worked in the paint department. I told him I needed paint—primary colors like red, yellow, blue, black and white—so he would damage the cans, kick and dent them to make them unsaleable. He was a great friend! Ever since then when people give me things, that’s what I like working with. People give me old clothes and sheets, now that I work with textiles. I’ll put these on the floor when I’m painting and let the material accumulate drips, like a drop cloth in a way. That does something quite nice, makes it not so pristine. Makes it look like it has some kind of history.”
“While I’m here things just come into my head, I pull out my fat sharpie or chalk and start writing. You know how that is: you’re high and you think you’re having an amazing breakthrough or thought, then you write it down and the next day arrive to the studio and it’s like…oh brother. It’s part of the process.”
On superstition and the soap in her bathroom: “I like to be superstitious because it’s fun, but I don’t really believe in anything. But it’s fun to believe that way. It keeps you aware and alive.”
“That’s Bummerbunny!” Castellanos says of the cockeyed rabbit with a red slash for a mouth that shows up repeatedly around the studio. “Around 2007 I had a mini nervous breakdown, a mid-life crisis. I don’t know what it was. At the time I was doing really large, abstract paintings. I don’t know what happened to me, but I just didn’t want to do them anymore. I had been given some tar paper and I painted this bunny. I was going to throw it away because I thought it was really stupid, but a friend who teaches at the University of Washington came by and said to me that’s the best painting you’ve ever made. I was like, motherfucker, you’re fucking with me! He said I should turn it into a logo, so I did. I put it on a t-shirt and people loved it. I eventually had them printed and sold a bunch. It just made me really happy that some people didn’t see it as some kind of satanic evil thing! Some people actually do. I think it’s like a Rorschach test in that it really reveals something about people: They either feel it’s fucked up or they feel empathetic with it.”
Castellanos bursts into laughter when asked to show us the contents of her fridge: Coffee, water, milk, marijuana and expired film.
Along with other recurring icons, the number nine weaves throughout the space. “It’s my favorite number,” says Castellanos. “If I were lucky, I’d consider it my lucky number! It seems to follow me, is always present. I was born on the ninth day on the ninth month of ’63. 6+3=9. I was born at nine o’clock at night.”
Another studio room is packed with textile work. One wall displays 162 dolls Castellanos made for her exhibit Borrowed Tribe, displayed at Gallery4Culture in December 2013. “After my grandmother died I inherited this little jar of buttons,” she says. “I wanted to do something with them in her honor. I had the idea to make dolls, using the piles of painting rags from my studio. It took about a year to make all 162, after I learned I would be showing them at Gallery4Culture. This is all of them. I never wanted to sell them. I don’t think they should be separated. For the exhibit a single line of them wrapped around the gallery as though they were holding hands. I like the way that felt.”
“After I finished this smaller group I realized I want to keep working with fabric and materials like that. Eventually people began giving me all kinds of things to use. An old pillowcase. A scarf from the Army Navy Surplus store with frayed edges. Panty hose. Bed sheets and drop cloths. Shredded t-shirts. I love the sound of shredding fabric. This is actually my wedding dress—a very simple linen gown. My mom had given me a lot of really bad instant coffee. It was really disgusting. I can drink bad coffee; this I could not drink. The frugal part of me said I can’t throw it away, so I dyed my dress with it. It smelled so bad—like terrible coffee—I had to drench it in perfume. I love what it did to the fabric though.”
Looking downward: a handful of pennies scattered in the four corners of the room for good luck and the word MACHETE across a floorboard. “Sometimes you have to kill things,” Castellanos says, laughing. “A bad friendship or something like that. It’s a little reminder: don’t be afraid to pull that out. I used to be a lot less willing to do that. But I’ve come to realize you have to enjoy the taste of blood in your mouth sometimes.”
“Someone gave me the unicorn after I began filming the Alpha Unicorn interviews. It actually came painted with a big cartoon eyeball and cheesy lashes. I didn’t like that so I spray painted it chrome.” Castellanos films the Alpha Unicorn videos in her studio at the same table where she sews dolls on her old sewing machine. “Every time I end up questioning why on earth I’m doing it,” she says. “It’s so much editing and work and I’m always unhappy when I’m doing that part. But in the end, it’s entirely worth it. I’ll probably continue filming interviews in the winter when it’s not so warm in the studio. We’ll see. I like to keep my hands busy. When things get too familiar and the routes already known….I don’t like that feeling at all. That’s when I dive into something else.”