Light Artist and Beauty Guru Lia Chavez Tells Us About the Self-Care Rituals That Spark Her Most Creative Work
The performance artist recently launched Hildegaard, a “haute botanical” beauty brand.
At precisely 3:02 a.m. this morning, and for the next three hours during the “Blood Moon” total lunar eclipse, artist Lia Chavez stood waist deep in the cold seawater at New York’s Brookhaven Hamlet. Spinning fire in a circle, she performed Mirorrmind in collaboration with the Something Machine gallery.
Chavez, who has exhibited everywhere from London’s Tate Modern to the Venice Biennale, is known for creating neuroscientific and technological works that contemplate encounters with light. Mirrormind is the latest activation from Hildegaard, the “haute botanical” beauty label she launched last fall as an extension of her art practice to explore luminosity—physical, spiritual, celestial—as embodied by plant life, and as projected through the skin.
“We have been in this paradigm of beauty that has been so negative, so misogynist, so focused on finding flaws,” the artist said. “With Hildegaard, I wanted to look at the skin with fresh eyes, in a very intent and critical way—but in a philosophically critical way, rather than materially, as a phenomenological site of dynamic encounter between the human and the cosmos.”
Chavez has been cultivating more than 150 species of plants—“the great professors of light,” as she called them—on a farm near her Brookhaven home, under the tutelage of Cornell University biochemist, T. Colin Campbell, and the renowned herbalist Rosemary Gladstar. More than 70 have been distilled into limited-edition facial oils, presented in individually engraved collectible glass bottles.
The Mirrormind performance coincided with the release of an eponymous meditation oil featuring sea kelp hand-harvested on site, which is limited to an edition of 108 (referencing the distance between the earth and the sun, and the earth and the moon).
Chavez told us about some of the self-practices that help spark and sustain her creative work, from skincare rituals to yogic sleep to the sensory deprivation of light. They also, she said, “usher in deeper forms of illumination.”
On Rising, Then Resting
I rise every morning at 4 a.m., naturally; it’s the consequence of my overall regimen. But the time between 4 a.m. and sunrise is the finest time of the day for me to devote to deep listening and creative ideation.
Upon waking, I write immediately to capture that crystalline insight that I’ve gleaned from the subconscious throughout the night. And I always keep a notebook close to my bed because oftentimes I’ll wake up in the night with inspirations.
After writing, I will meditate. I’ve studied meditation and contemplative practice in a wide, cross-cultural sense. The practices espoused by the Himalayan tradition have really been the bedrock of my creative methodologies.
They are very focused on teaching yoga nidra, which is yogic sleep. It’s an extremely relaxed state of consciousness, which awakens the connection to the infinite. And it is an incredible way of mining the subconscious and the quantum field for creative insight.
I like to start the day with it because, you know, I’m tired sometimes [laughs]. It’s said by the sages in the Himalayas that an hour of yoga nidra is equivalent to three or four hours of regular sleep.
I have to say, this is not sleep, but a different kind of rest, which involves very intentional listening and yoking oneself to the source of life. It is an embodied form of awakening the consciousness.
For a lot of my performance work—especially within this very deep durational meditation work—it’s very important to understand how to be self-sufficient, and how to control your physical environment with your mind.
I mean, there’s a kind of chasm between practice and theory. These are embodied philosophical approaches that must be practiced to be understood.
I typically will do this at 5 a.m. in the morning, before my larger meditation practice.
On Inhabiting the “Wild Mind”
My meditation practice is extremely important, especially conducting it at sunrise and sunset. It’s a mystery why, but I’ve found that they are critical windows for connecting with the quantum field, and incredible for insight and encounter.
I think oftentimes meditation is considered to be a way to quiet the mind, but I don’t so much meditate to quiet my mind as to inhabit the realm of the wild mind. The wild mind for me is that inner landscape of beauty, where I get to reunite with nature within myself.
When an artist is able to move from that heightened state of mind to a heightened state of being, she’s one step closer to a great work, because when an artist pours a heightened state of being into the vessel of matter, matter becomes animate, and art is born.
Analytic meditation is something I do extensively. I work with lengthy durations, up to 10 hours a day when I’m at the beginning of the creative process. If I’m at the beginning of a new body of work, I will engage in very, very long durations—up to, like, two weeks, depending on what else is happening in my life.
Another form of meditation that I really love to work with is darkness meditation, a form of sensory deprivation. It’s my favorite practice from a visual perspective because it connects me to light in many profound ways. I’ve practiced it a lot in caves. Gosh, there was one time I meditated in the caves of St. Francis in Assisi for 30 days [laughs].
I’ve also spent time in Vashistha, this wonderful cave in the Himalayas, which is extremely dark; a lot of yogis and sages spend days and weeks on end there. That is probably my favorite cave in the world. I have recreated it in many places, in my home and my studio as well as in a neuroscience lab.
On “Sculpting the Awareness” (i.e., Skincare)
I have a ritualistic approach to skincare, and one of the very important themes is sculpting the awareness. You could say it’s like a social sculpture in miniature—something that you encounter with yourself every morning and evening when you behold your face in the mirror. I use this as an opportunity to ask questions—What is the skin? What is the face? What is your relationship to the wider cosmos?—and to approach abstract dimensions of self through facial aesthetics.
Then, I spend time with touch. You know, when we’re gazing at our visage in the mirror, it’s quite a contemplative, iconic moment—like, in a Byzantine sense of the icon [laughs]. I think there’s a really interesting thing that can happen right now, which is de-stigmatizing touching our faces and having that kind of contact with ourselves.
So I will go through the process of cleansing my face, using flower waters I’ve created. Depending on how I’m feeling and what kind of energy I am looking to calibrate, I’ll choose a different Hildegaard oil. The plants all have extremely unique personality signatures—rose incorporates joy into your life, neroli symbolizes actualization, immortelle is incredible for inspiration.
And from there I will do intensive massage. We hold on to so much tension in our jaws, our eyes, our foreheads, even the crown of our head, so it’s an incredible opportunity to release on a daily basis. Following the zygomatic process, or the cheekbone, to the ear is like a mini yogic practice. Once you do it, your whole face is relaxed and much brighter.
As I’m going through this process of releasing, I’m asking myself, What is essential? What is helping my perception to expand? What is holding back new revelations? Because it’s not just about facial aesthetics.
The face is the icon of the body, where we become most readily present. It inhabits a very special place within this notion not just of personal hygiene, in that sense of taking care of the body in a clinical sense—it’s also about emotional and spiritual hygiene. It’s about freeing yourself up to be more present with yourself and with others.
With almost every new project, when I’m right at that point of creative genesis, I will go into some kind of fast to render a crystalline perception of inspiration. It could be a short, three-day water fast, or—my longest ever—90 days on super-foods and juices.
I’m currently developing a body of sculptural work, which is quite large-scale, and it’s been many years in the making. The genesis of the work came from that 90-day fast. It was a moderated fast—the body was getting micronutrients that are extremely vitalizing. With a water fast, you have to be very knowledgeable about what you’re doing.
Most of these come to me as predetermined assignments: I will be meditating, in that state of the wild mind, and I will receive a directive to do something. With the 90-day fast, it was a command, and I simply did it. I did not understand what the outcome would be, but I understood that it was essential for my creative process.
This new body of work is really special to me because in recent years I’ve been intently focused on the experiential and consciousness as an art material, and largely the immateriality of light. And now, the pendulum is swinging. I’m starting to create objects that are very heavy, that are fashioned from steel, that have a kind of iconic status—and I mean that in a religious sense [laughs]: they inhabit space in a very contemplative way.
On the Art of Cultivation
As a performance artist, my cognition depends largely on my ability to move expressively, and physical movement in nature provides a vital way for me to connect with my philosophical passions. I believe there’s a direct connection to the inner landscape of the wild mind and the wild landscapes within the physical world—they mutually encourage direct perception.
Whether I’m tending medicinal herbs and flowers at the farm, or surfing, or forest bathing, or studying the clouds, time in nature is really time with nature—it’s an embodied, philosophical conversation, which I cannot live without, creatively speaking.
Tending to the earth and practicing contemplative botany—which is meditating with plants and really getting to understand and communicate with them through this very deep way that utilizes the electromagnetic energy of the body—can be very arduous work, just working the earth with your hands. But it’s also exhilarating and revelatory, because the plants have so much to communicate to the listening person.
Plants are the great professors of light; they contemplate the celestial daily, and transform that light into energy for our life and, more deeply, our enlightenment. There’s so much to learn, particularly from the choreographic or a performative perspective. There’s a radicality to them that is endlessly fascinating to me, artistically.
I’ve been learning the art of cultivation and participating in that very intensively myself: I cultivate upwards of 150 different plants—there are 70 in the Hildegaard formulation—as well as wild medicinal herbs that are endangered. Making that connection and having this deepened relationship to nature and observing plants, I’ve come to revere them as these great masters of doing what I’ve always sought to do as an artist. So it is a kind of homecoming—a cultural homecoming to nature.
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