Artist Lisa Lala Saw the Light


Seeing a creative vision that burns so bright in the back of your brain, a vision where you cannot dispel the image for the life of you, posed a problem for artist Lisa Lala.

Story by Pete Dulin.

Artist Lisa Lala in front of one of her newest pieces.

She knew her marvelous vision about the use of colored light in her art could develop, but didn’t know what or how or when. Best known for her distinctive, large-scale paintings and The List Wall Project, Lala has kept busy in recent years with commissions and shows across the country. Galleries in Atlanta, Chicago, Kansas City, Los Angeles/Laguna Beach, Little Rock and her hometown of Manhattan, Kan. represent her visual work.

Yet, Lala could never let go of this other idea. “I love colored light,” Lala says, uncertain at the time of what to do with the notion.

She never thought about light as an art form until she saw the work of Jim Hodges at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art. Titled “Dot,” the piece created in 1999 uses colored light bulbs in ceramic sockets mounted on a wood and metal panel. When Lala saw this work, a light bulb of her own went off.

“Over time, I became aware of light artists and admired the art movement as it became more prevalent,” she says. “It made me want to create in that medium.”

However, dating back to 2011, painting was taking far too much of her time. Exhibitions of her work had expanded from one to six galleries. “I started mapping out what I wanted. I was happy in other aspects of my life except for light art. Time for it was always put off by other shows and projects,” she says.

Finally, Lala acknowledged that the only person in control of her time was herself. She says, “I spoke with my husband and decided that I would take 2012 off from shows. I could still paint and send work to galleries but would schedule no other shows.” Lala began to explore LED (light-emitting diode) art by educating herself about the form and gathering tools, still uncertain as to the actual nature of what her light art would be. In 2012, she traveled to Los Angeles and started a relationship with a new gallery. In the city of movie production and special effects, she connected with a lighting design company.

“These people knew the lighting secrets I wanted to know,” Lala says. She met with Jason Mullen, owner of MPA Lighting and Controls, during lunch, the only slot available during his busy schedule and Lala’s travel itinerary before heading back to KC. The timing was fortuitous.

“I was about to meet someone for 40 minutes that could help me crack this idea open. I knew I had to boil this down to one idea,” she says.

Lala remembered seeing sunlight reflect off eyelashes as a kid. “I love stepping outside and the sun lights up the dust so it becomes moving colored light,” she says. “It’s like the world’s tiniest art installation.”

Lala and Mullen began discussing her vision of a moving colored light installation.They began to examine the process and parts needed. Mullen was skeptical about the project’s complexity that would need cutting-edge technology. He said it would be difficult and hard.

“Are you scared?” Mullen asked.

“No, I’m excited,” Lala replied.

“Then I’m scared for you,” he said.

The next six months were indeed a hard slog as Lala tried to refine her idea, find thousands of dollars to finance the project and figure out how to make it work. She says, “I became frustrated. Existing technology had this power to do what you want, but I just couldn’t make it happen.”

Back in Kansas City, Lala crossed paths with Daniel Parks, lighting and projections director at Quixotic Performance Fusion. Lala says, “He could make the electronics talk to each other. I brought him on my team and we worked on these parts.”

By the end of 2012, Lala had achieved some minor breakthroughs, but still couldn’t make the components work to realize her vision. To boot, a major deadline loomed. Lala had convinced Blue Gallery to exhibit her light art project in fall 2013 solely on the strength of her description of the project. She had a longstanding relationship with the gallery, where her paintings are represented, but the deadline made her anxious with nothing to show for it yet.

“I had $3,500 worth of parts lying on the floor. I was ten months away from the show. I began to feel Jason’s sense of being scared,” Lala says.

She veered from not wanting to talk about the project when asked about it to venting.

Still, a series of events paved the way for Lala to continue. Artistic Director Mica Thomas of Quixotic Fusion provided advice on funding. Lala later applied for and received a grant from the KC Arts Council. She cast a wide net around town, seeking more expertise and insight on how to lower costs for parts and production. During another promising lunch, Lala met with John Taylor, principal of KEM Studios. Taylor and his industrial design team assisted Lala with finding resources such as Tucker Trotter at Dimensional Innovations, a design company that fabricates multi-dimensional signage and graphics for movie theaters, sports teams and museums.

“They had the tools to make my project happen,” Lala says of Trotter’s firm.

Fabricators, programmers and other specialists were called in to work with Lala. The team wrote code, manufactured parts, shipped a lens made with material from France and other parts from New Zealand and Japan, made adjustments and, finally, they had built a prototype.

They loaded the software program and waited to see what happened next.

“My art started to play across the lights,” Lala says. “I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. For me, the lights were portals, doors to transcend.”