Street Art Maven Lizy Dastin on the power on the periphery
Growing up, Lizy Dastin wanted to be a teacher and an author. Today, she teaches art history, and is still a storyteller. Lizy doesn't tell stories by writing fiction, like she did as a teenager, though. She shares the stories of street art and street artists in Los Angeles through her business, Art and Seeking. Lizy tells us about being a non-traditional scholar, working to give street art the respect it deserves, and learning to care less about what other people think of her and more about what she thinks of herself.
Fast facts about Lizy
Where she’s from: Los Angeles, California
Grew up with: her mom, stepdad, and little sister and her dad, stepmom, and little brother
Education: A BA in English and Art History from Wellesley College, an MA in Connoisseurship from Christie's, and an MA in art history from CUNY
Where she lives now: Los Angeles, California
Growing up she thought she'd be: an author and a teacher
Now she’s: an art history professor and arts entrepreneur
What were you like as a teenager?
I was very passionate, very enthusiastic. I had lots of different friends in all sorts of friend groups. I was the president of the X-Files club in high school, and also the president of the juggling club. I wanted to explore various things, and as a result I never really focused that much on school. I would get eight percents on math homework, and 100 percent on art history. I loved school. I was so disconnected from the pressure cooker that everyone else was clued into; I was able to just take from my high school what I wanted to and what enlivened me.
What did you enjoy outside of school?
I did a lot of musical theater and that was so much fun for me. One terrible year I decided to shelve theater and join the soccer team, which was less enjoyable for me than acting. Performance was always something that I found inspiring. I also thought that I wanted to be an author. So I spent a considerable amount of high school writing books, and one of them ended up getting published And then spending time with friends.
Who were the adults who were important in your life when you were growing up?
My parents got a divorce when I was very young and both remarried before I was eight. I grew up with four parents, with four very distinctive and very strong voices in my life raising me, all incredibly essential figures in my life.
My grandfather is probably the person who instilled in me the desire to tell a good story. Everything he did was filled with sparkles and filled with wonder, and getting to listen to his stories which involved the most incredible people was also really special. He would ask me riddles which would make me think in a critical way and try to be creative myself. He was really very foundational to how I interact with people, and helped instill confidence in me. He lived really close to where I grew up, so I was able to see him regularly. He really was a tour de force.
My ninth grade history teacher, Miss Homer, who has become one of my best friends, is the first person who introduced me to art. I saw history as really boring and completely irrelevant to my life. But I was desperate to find Miss Homer’s approval. My mom said, “Honey, the way to Miss Homer’s heart is through history.” It just so happened that art history was the unit that we were on. I really focused on studying all the stuff that she was teaching, and I ended up falling in love madly. That ended up redirecting my entire life, and I have Miss Homer to thank.
Had you been interested in art before that?
I’ve always loved art because of my love of travel. Art is such a unique way to connect with any culture, and it’s such a democratizing format. Once I started studying it more seriously at Wellesley, I became hooked and I knew that I needed to refocus my life from the path of writing to a visual one.
THERE ARE TONS OF DIFFERENT OPTIONS FOR PEOPLE WITH THIS VISUAL ACUITY TO PARLAY THAT INTO FIELDS OUTSIDE OF THE MUSEUM AND THE CLASSROOM
You got a Master’s in Modern Art Connoisseurship and the History of the Art Market at Christie's, which is known as an auction house, immediately after undergrad. Why did you choose that program?
I thought that I wanted to be a specialist in an auction house. That’s why I decided to go to Christie’s. My experience there was phenomenal. We were invited to go to the showrooms and to see the pieces before they were sold. There is so much that you can learn from being in front of an object. I also learned that I don’t have the temperament or the interest to be in an auction house.
Christie’s had this whole class where various experts in the art field came to talk to us about their jobs. The point of the course is to show that there are tons of different options for people with this kind of skill set, with this visual acuity, to parlay that into lots of fields outside of the museum and the classroom. There’s art insurance and art law and all of these different things, and tours like what I do, and I had no idea that any of these possibilities existed, and Christie’s really did open up my eyes.
You decided to pursue more graduate education in art history, in a more traditional academic environment. Is that when you started teaching?
When I went to the CUNY Graduate Center after Christie’s, my focus was on contemporary art, 1940 to the present, with a focus on feminism and the history of photography. I’ve always wanted to teach but I assumed that I would be a TA first. I got a call from a school, and they asked me if I would teach my own class, three and a half hours at a time, once a week. The class would span art from ancient Egypt to postmodernism in the United States in one semester. Without even hesitating I said, “yes, absolutely, I’m up for it.” And they said, “Great. You start in two weeks.”
There was certainly a steep learning curve. At first I used to write out my notes and then read them, but now I’ll prepare my notes enough where I speak extemporaneously. I’m able to tell something that’s a little bit more compelling because it has the energy of the moment as opposed to, “These are the five bullet points that I need to communicate about this slide.” So that’s a necessary sacrifice for me in order to give a good, entertaining, and compelling lecture.
You were in New York when you were in your grad programs. Why did you move back to LA?
I lived on the East Coast for nine years, I loved it, but my heart was always here. I moved after I was finished with my coursework at the CUNY Graduate Center, and I have been here for about five years, and I love it. It’s so nice to be close to my family, to be here for those small moments, and the big moments, too.
Pretty much immediately I started teaching here. I’ve taught at the American Jewish University, and Chapman University, Santa Monica College, and most recently UCLA, and all of those schools have such distinct personalities. It’s been fun to get to teach more specialty classes from my ancient Egypt to postmodern, to a street art class that I teach at UCLA.
I always teach the same class at Santa Monica College because they have to teach a certain list of courses that are all applicable and transferable to the UCs, because SMC is only a two-year school. At Chapman I’ve taught contemporary, a survey of the history of photography. At UCLA I teach street art. At AJU I taught one on modern and contemporary Jewish feminist artists. I tailor my expectations and my lecture style a little bit for each school, and that has taken some time: to figure out what the expectations are and should be for me, but also to see what is landing and what’s not.
I was able to figure out what my ideal job looked like. And I came to the realization that it didn't exist. I created my dream job.
What inspired you to start your own art-related business a few years ago?
I was in my PhD program but miserably unhappy. I’ve always been tenacious, I like to follow through when I make a commitment. Then it occurred to me that I was committing three years of my life to an unhappy pursuit. I am a nontraditional person and scholar, and following this traditional path was just not right for me, and I decided- the bravest decision I’ve ever made- to leave.
I have always spent so much time fiercely caring about what other people think of me, and leaving [my PhD program] is when I started to invest more of that energy in caring about what I think of me, and how I’m doing and how happy I am.
Art and Seeking was born from a lot of soul searching. I did tons of life coach-y exercises trying to figure out what my perfect job looked like, what time I woke up every day, what would I wear, am I doing the same thing over and over, what am I doing? And based on those questions, I was able to figure out what my ideal job looked like. And I came to the realization that it didn’t exist. I created my dream job, and I’ve been living it for the last two years, and have never been happier, have never imagined that I could be this happy.
It is really a platform for street art. A lot of people are interested in street art, but nobody really knows what the content is of the work that they’re photographing, who the artist is, what the message is, My intention is to elevate the conversation surrounding this art, and also to create a digital archive of something that’s otherwise ephemeral.
I interview street artists and to date I probably have interviewed 100. I have all of these videos; it’s free content. I’ll give tours that combine my art history expertise with the insights that I glean from the artists in these conversations. And I will work with certain artists. It’s really important to me to give back to these communities, and I’ll pay for them to be an artist in residence at a woodblock print-making studio, for instance. They learn a new skill, and then they produce a work that we end up selling together.
What’s tethering all of this together is the elevation of street art into something that rivals any other practice, that isn’t just the colorful backdrop for your Facebook profile picture, but that has the content behind it too.
Is that why you chose to base your business around street art versus a more traditional medium?
Absolutely. I’m a nontraditional thinker and person, and street art is just as much on the margins of the mainstream as I am. There’s so much power on the periphery. People are interested in street art but only in a legitimate way when it comes into the gallery, and I want to talk about it when it’s on a wall.
How do you learn about the art that you encounter?
It’s really hard but it is so much fun to do. The tool that I have is social media. Instagram for me has become my library, and that’s often how I find work. Let’s say there’s a mural that is unsigned, that has an elephant and a heart. I think, “how would I hashtag this?” Elephant heart art, or combine the words, #elephantheart, and go through all the hashtags, see if I can find a work, and explore. One person is probably going to tag the artist or one person is the artist.
Another is messaging them on Instagram. I’ll say I’m a professor at UCLA, this is my intention, and more often than not they are really generous with their time and they’ll get back to me, and then we will meet and interview. Instagram is big. Sometimes, if there’s an artist that has no presence anywhere, nothing on Facebook, nothing on Instagram, I’ll find his or her handle and then email that name at every server I can think of. So blank@gmail, blank@earthlink, and a couple of times that has worked. You have to think creatively. It’s so much fun.
What have been some of the things that have been surprising about running your own business?
Recognizing if I don’t have the capability of doing something that I can either pay someone or have somebody help me with a project, that I don’t need to do everything by myself to have it all done the way that I want it.
The other one big thing that I learned is how you fit within the scene that’s already established. You have to know how what you offer is unlike anything that anybody else does, how your skill sets can complement what else other people are doing.
What keeps you excited about Art and Seeking?
The fact that every day is a little bit different. I always get to meet new people. I love walking, I love traveling, I love art, I love communicating, and I love teaching, and Art and Seeking is a way that I can integrate all of these favorite parts of life for me. And every day is such an adventure.
I believe that every experience you have in life propels you to the next one that you need, and I’m excited to see where this one propels me.
What else fills your time?
I’m in a book club, I love reading. I spend a lot of time with friends. I teach indoor cycling; I really love that. I do yoga. I mediate. I do all of the LA things that people make fun of us for but that are actually really awesome. And I play with my cat. I try to keep a really balanced, very active social life. I love karaoke. I also love to be by myself, and I need that time to regenerate because my days are often so filled with interacting with people- and that’s wonderful- but I need some time to be alone.
How did you imagine your adult life when you were a teenager?
I definitely thought I was going to be a novelist, and I assumed that by 32, I would be married with a kiddo or two. Living in LA wouldn’t have been a surprise to me, but the fact that I’ve created my own job would have been a really big surprise. I guess my expectation for myself would have been family, and then maybe career, and that’s been inverted, and I’ve developed my career first.
There isn’t a timeline. If I follow opportunities and remain open-minded things for me will unfold as they’re supposed to, and I think that would have been a big shock to my younger self. I still like to juggle, I still watch the X-Files. There are certain things that have remained constant.
What advice would you give to a girl who is like the girl you were when you were growing up?
Try not to get bogged down by the expectations of other people. That was so stifling to me, I wasted so much energy and probably so much precious time focusing on how other people saw me. It’s hard to do that when you love your parents, and you want your parents to be proud of you, and you want good grades. But to really trust that you have your best interests at heart, and to follow that and to assume that everything else will fall into place once everything is aligned.
What advice would you give someone who wants to work with art as non-traditional scholar?
Making connections is the best way to get into any world. When I first started Art and Seeking the only street artist I knew of aside from Banksy was Shepherd Fairey. Make those connections, develop trust, comport yourself with honesty. That’s the best inroad into being successful anywhere.
Go to gallery openings or museum shows or try to find quirky things in whatever city you live in, and then go to those and meet the people who are also into them, and I guarantee that that will open up to things that are unexpected.
This is how I’ve gotten every job that I have: I’ve preempted the application. I will contact the school and say, “I love what you’re doing with these kinds of classes. I would love to complement that by offering this sort of class. This is my experience. Can I meet with you?” If you wait for an application then it’s harder to differentiate yourself from the pack. Being proactive in life is the way to get things done. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Check out some of Lizy's favorite books and find out more about her work!