Cynthia Lahti is getting the shivers just telling me about seeing her work featured in the new film, Showing Up. It’s a feeling, the Portland-based artist said, of pure glee: “It’s pretty incredible to see your work so large and as an element of such a beautiful film, you know?”
Indeed, there are few scenes in Showing Up where Lahti’s work doesn’t, well, show up. Directed by Kelly Reichardt, the feature follows Lizzy, an unassuming and idiosyncratic sculptor played by Michelle Williams, as she prepares for a show opening at a local gallery. In that weeklong run-up, Lizzy produces a group of sculptures, all of them created offscreen by Lahti.
We glimpse Lahti’s handiwork throughout the film: in the opening montage that also includes Lahti’s watercolor drawings, in Lizzy’s studio where she works the clay at every spare moment, and finally, in the gallery where Lahti’s knotty sculptures of female forms anchor Lizzy’s solo exhibition.
Though small-scale in real life, these pieces possess an alluring screen presence when viewed large and even though, Lahti would be first to admit, they’re hardly specimens of the Greek ideal. They’re imperfect ceramic figures, gnarled in form and glazed with surreal hues, their sensibility tending toward abstraction as much as outsider art.
“I like accidents,” Lahti explained. “I feel like my work is always a clash between something that’s really beautiful, but then there’s a huge crack. Where those two opposing things meet is very, very interesting.”
It’s this strange, otherworldly quality that drew Reichardt and screenwriter Jon Raymond to Lahti’s work. The pair had initially wanted to make a biopic on Canadian artist Emily Carr, until they found her too “iconic.” As the director put it, “We didn’t want to write about a hugely famous artist.”
Instead, Reichardt and Raymond turned toward their own community in Portland, Oregon, developing an intimate portrait of a local artist, neither an icon nor a genius, making art while life happens around her. Raymond shared the screenplay with his friend Lahti in the hopes of using her art in the film, alongside the works of other artists including Michelle Segre and Jessica Jackson Hutchins. The sculptor happily signed on.
“When working on the script, this is the art Jon and I imagined for Lizzy,” said Reichardt of Lahti’s work. “Her sculptures are so particular I’m not sure what else could have worked in their place.”
Williams, too, saw Lahti’s lively sculptures as representing a bliss far removed from Lizzy’s personality and environs. “These figures are where she is able to embody whatever she wants, where she isn’t limited to her physical self, and she’s allowed to play in an imaginative, free place,” the actress said.
Lahti would go on to create about 20 sculptures for the movie, which was filmed in 2021, receiving no instructions or creative brief. Only one of those works directly referenced the film’s narrative—that of a figure of a woman pushing a wheel, modeled after Lizzy’s friend and fellow artist Jo, played by Hong Chau, who we first meet while she’s DIY-ing a tire swing.
The artist also spent time with Williams to acquaint the actress with her practice. In particular, Lahti prepared Williams for an extended scene, in which Lizzy sculpts a figure, with detailed walkthroughs of her technical process. The result? Lahti approves.
“When she makes the sculptures, I feel like it does look like she’s making them,” she said. “Sometimes you watch people play the piano in films and you’re like, that’s not right. No one wanted that. We wanted her to feel natural and comfortable when she was making these things.”
It took Lahti herself decades to arrive at her particular style of sculpture. After graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1985, she spent 10 years building her practice on drawing, collages, and combines, her sculptures built out of found objects. Clay became her choice medium only much later, when she discovered the ease and expressive potential the material afforded her. “It’s very forgiving,” she said.
Her early ceramic sculptures, though, were executed with precision: “I would spend half an hour on an ear.” Interestingly, she characterized this perfectionist streak as a “hurdle” in need of overcoming to allow her subconscious and instinct to lead the work.
“I had to know what the figure looked like,” she said, “and then I could abstract it and go crazy with it.”
Lahti, now 60, has spent most of her life and career in Portland, where she’s primarily and actively exhibited—at venues including PDX Contemporary Art, Imogen Gallery, and the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art—since 2000. She also sells her sculptures and works on paper on her website, and after focusing on her sculptural practice throughout 2020’s lockdowns, now hopes to find her way back to creating combines. It’s the life of a working artist of the sort so deeply observed in Showing Up.
Lizzy, after all, isn’t just occupied with creating work for her solo show, but fielding myriad crises that crop up along the way, from a broken water heater to dysfunctional family dynamics, and dealing with her dull admin job at an art school (shot on location at the now-defunct Oregon College of Art and Craft). Her personal tribulations bubble alongside her creative practice in ways sympathetically yet comically shaded.
One could in fact be tempted to draw parallels between Lizzy and Lahti, but only because the film’s particulars also happen to be pretty universal. In Lahti’s view, the film nails the reality of being an artist, whether it’s holding down a “shitty job” or dealing with a “stupid water heater because you don’t have any money.” “But,” she added of the movie’s ending, “the great thing is that Lizzy’s work shines through.”
Seeing your art on the big screen, though, is the one thing Lahti has no context for. “I do not understand what is happening,” she said, laughing. “It’s not like a big opening, not like getting in a biennial—it’s your work in a movie. It’s just really wild.”
But if anything, it puts a nice glaze on a decades-long practice. “I survived,” said Lahti, “and here we go.”
Showing Up opens in theaters April 7.