Tom Lieber, Organic Food & GMO’s, An Artist’s Perspective
“I lived on Kauai from 2002-2011 and began to split my time between L.A. and Hawaii in 2011. The Hawaiian life has had a strong effect on my paintings……i.e. the energy and the way the vines grow, the jungle tangles. And, so, organic gardening became a big part of my life while on Kauai. Things grow like crazy there.
As I lived there, I noticed that each year the bio-chemical companies crops were taking more and more land with their ‘perfect’ GMO/PESTICIDE riddled crops and that ROUND-UP was being sprayed more and more along the roads instead of mowing along the roadsides. Many people on the island were feeling the same oppression. Residents on the westside of the island were getting the worst of it. Schools were getting hit by clouds of overspray. People were getting sick (many still are).
Through many people’s efforts Bill 2491 was written and passed. Bill 2491 makes all the bio-ag companies report and limit their spraying of pesticides and creates boundaries between the GMO fields and populated areas. It also calls for an EPA report on the effects of the spraying on the air, the rivers, the reefs, and the people.
I am in the process, along with Mel Bell-Grey, of creating a documentary about Ron Finley visiting Kauai and all of the positive and negative realities he (and all of us) witnessed during his stay. I curated an exhibition for Galerie 103 on the south side of Kauai, that artists donated works for and the profits went to five organizations that educate and take action concerning organic life and opposition to GMOs. I also organized a dinner/mini concert at Common Ground (an organic farm and restaurant) with Jackson Browne, Donavon Frankenreiter, Mike Cambell and Graham Nash that also benefited the same organizations. Money was made, but the greatest thing that occurred was connections that people made at the dinner. Three Pentagon lawyers attended as well as local council members and a sprinkling of celebrities…..Bette Midler, Julia Roberts, among others, exchanged ideas and contact information. Connections that will ripple on and on.”
Tom Lieber (born 1949 Saint Louis, MO –) is an abstract painter and printmaker. Lieber’s large-scale abstractions are notable for their bold, natural colors and fluid marks placed against a layered, neutral background. Informed by nature and meditations, Lieber’s work reflects his efforts to channel his interior life onto the canvas.
Lieber’s use of gesture stems from post WWII abstract painting. His subtle color and tonal variations and marks reveal an affinity to the unique and painterly specificity of Georgio Morandi, Alberto Giacometti, Philip Guston and Joan Mitchel. The early canvases from the 1970s consist of expansive, monochromatic color zones that, over time, take on increasingly explicit and more painterly gestures. Lieber’s later work represents a more physical and powerful approach. Oftentimes, a single brushstroke or gesture anchors the painting, allowing the underlying color fields and tonal variations to recede and advance across the ground.
Lieber uses a variety of techniques to achieve his effects, most notably monotype printing rollers. By interposing a mechanical device into an intuitive act, he arrives at a form of deep expression that is unforced, in which the paint becomes raw and direct. Lieber believes that the human body is more equipped than the mind to invent. He treats the act of painting as a full-body experience, open to unpredictable and challenging imagery.
Tom Lieber is a recipient of a National Endowment of the Arts Grant and has exhibited extensively since 1974. His work is included in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York City; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; the Tate Gallery, London among others.
Those familiar with Lieber’s past work will recognize his calligraphic mark-making, the supple flow and arc of his line, and the dynamic rhythm of his abstract compositions. In these new paintings, however, the dense, dark paint prominent in work of the 1980s and ‘90s has given way to a lighter, more buoyant, palette which is thinly applied to a stripped surface.
The strong horizon line of the Hawaiian landscape and the elegant shapes of the tropical leaves and flowers Lieber sees from his windows have sent his work in new and enticing directions.
Caryn Hartglass: Hello everybody, I’m Caryn Hartglass. Thanks for joining me today. It’s time for It’s All About Food. What day is it today? The fourth of March 2014. It’s Fat Tuesday, isn’t it? Mardi Gras! So let’s celebrate. There’s a different food holiday for every day of the year so it’s the International House of Pancake’s National Pancakes Day. I think they give away free pancakes on this day. Not that I recommend anybody to go there and get free pancakes. But pancakes are fun and any excuse to eat them is good and of course at ResponsibleEatingAndLiving.com, my non-profit website, we have many wonderful pancake recipes and I think they’re pretty good for you. I think all of them are gluten-free, actually, and today we enjoyed a new recipe I made recently for chestnut flower pancakes. I had a guest on last year, Elizabeth Wholey, who is an American living in Italy. She was talking about all of the food traditions, all these artisan wonderful products in Italy, and when she came back to the States she sent me fresh chestnut flower and I enjoyed chestnut flower pancakes today on IHOP National Pancake Day. Okay, I’m not exactly doing it right I’m doing it better. I love food – it’s all about food. And you know what, there’s an art to food and we’re going to be talking quite a bit about art today and in some ways how it connects with food. So I’m going to bring on my guest. He is here with me in the studio. Tom Lieber is an abstract painter and print maker. Lieber’s large scale abstractions are notable for their bold, natural colors and fluid marks placed against a layered neutral background informed by nature and meditations. Lieber’s work reflects his efforts to channel his interior life onto the canvas. Thank you for joining me today, Tom.
Tom Lieber: Thanks for having me.
Caryn Hartglass: Where do you live now?
Tom Lieber: I live in Los Angeles and on Kauai.
Caryn Hartglass: Los Angeles and Kauai and you’re here in New York because you’ve got an exhibit going on in Manhattan, right?
Tom Lieber: Yeah an opening at the J. Cacciola Gallery on Thursday evening.
Caryn Hartglass: And it goes most of the month.
Tom Lieber: Yeah it’ll be up for a month.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah great I’m going to check it out later.
Tom Lieber: Great.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay, so you’re an artist. What inspires your art?
Tom Lieber: My work is inspired by my interior life, I guess I would say mostly, and my environment. I’ve lived on Kauai for the past 14 years and just recently moved to Los Angeles. So my time on Kauai has been very rich for my mark making, the environment of that, and then the simplicity of the life is good for just for slowing things down and sensing things.
Caryn Hartglass: I think the first time I went to Kauai was around 1985-ish. I was in my 20s and it was one of the first places I got to vacation. I had just gotten my diving license, my certification for open water 2 or something. I could go down 30 meters. I went to Kauai and it was just stunning and I’ve been back a few times since and every time I go back, just like the rest of the world, it’s more developed, more populated, some more uglier spots.
Tom Lieber: Some big ugly spots.
Caryn Hartglass: Big uglier spots. “They paved paradise, put up a parking lot.”
Tom Lieber: The actual growth isn’t as bad as the chemical companies. Syngenta, Bayer, and Monsanto are developing GMO crops especially on Kauai because it can have year round production of their crops and experiment with the pesticides and making new seeds. It’s kind of become ground zero for the development of GMO products.
Caryn Hartglass: Well, if anyone was wondering why I had an artist on the show today it’s because of his realization of what’s going on in such a beautiful place, this paradise of Kauai. These chemical companies that have come in and you started to discover what they’re doing or what they’re trying to do.
Tom Lieber: Well, they’re doing it. They’ve been operating unregulated for at least 10 years.
Caryn Hartglass: Now unregulated, does that mean there are no regulations? They’re doing it legally, there are just no regulations?
Tom Lieber: There are no regulations. They spray roundup and experiment with pesticides because the super weeds are developing year after year so they have to make their product stronger and stronger.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay just for review: I’m sure a lot of our listeners know this but there are these products, soy beans and corn, that are grown to resist this one particular herbicide called Roundup Ready (glyphosate). It’s really toxic. Originally, in the early days, they were saying the great thing about these Roundup Ready crops is that they wouldn’t require so many toxic herbicides and pesticides to put on the soil, just this one magic thing that you could buy from the same company you were buying your seeds from. Now we discovered, like nature always does, nature is smart and the weeds are learning how to resist this toxic chemical. So farmers have to buy more, which is great for these companies, but it’s not so good for the soil and it’s not so good for the people who have to put this chemical down.
Tom Lieber: It’s not good for the people who live on the west side and the south side of Kauai. The lack of regulations, as we were talking before, would mean that they might have an overspray. They have crops right next to schools and there was a few incidents of clouds of pesticides getting into the school. They had to close the school, kids had skin rashes and asthma attacks, and now the doctors and nurses on the west side are testifying about birth defects, and more major problems on Kauai. A bill just passed to regulate the use of pesticides on Kauai, and it passed. That just happened this summer. Syngenta and the rest of the gang are doing a countersuit.
Caryn Hartglass: Oh, to fight this regulation? Oh God.
Tom Lieber: Yes. And so we are kind of going the other way – like a first step to get them off the island. So, we’ll see where it goes. It’s a big giant that I think we’ll eventually win.
Caryn Hartglass: You need to hire some pirates and get them off the island, right? Okay, I want to hear more about how people got together and created this bill and got it passed because that’s what we need to be doing more of, more activism and more fighting.
Tom Lieber: Well, Gary Hooser was on the board of supervisors. He got a lawyer and a group of people together that developed a bill. It took a year for it to be written correctly so that it was legally correct and could hold up. I wasn’t there for that because I was living in Los Angeles. They got a petition, they got it on the ballot, got it voted on, and there where big marches and hearings. I was there for that, that was pretty interesting because the people of Kauai that were pro-organic and they had red t-shirts and Syngenta group wore blue t-shirts. So all these people, Syngenta flew in all its employees from all the islands so they had a big group of people, and then we had the organic people. Then, we go in and testify and it was interesting because it lasted all day and as the day went on some of the Syngenta people were going “You know…” As we talked it became more humanized, it wasn’t so polarized and the employees were thinking ‘”Geez, I wonder if I’m safe.”
Caryn Hartglass: They were questioning themselves.
Tom Lieber: They were beginning to wonder if they were doing the right thing. Which is how it’s going to go. It’s going to go more from the inside out, from what I see, because these companies are so big.
Caryn Hartglass: Well, I know when you work a 9-5 job in a little cubicle and you have your particular assignments it’s very easy not to see the big picture. You want your paycheck, you want to do a good job, you want your boss to like what your doing, so you do the job and everybody in that company does it together and nobody really connects the dots and realizes they’re doing some really destructive things.
Tom Lieber: Right. And also people working, like the working classes, they would rather buy genetically modified foods because it’s simpler. Most of the products in stores are GMO. So it’s a little bit more effort to go organically, to farmers market, or to cook quinoa, or whatever. It’s a little bit more effort but in the long run, and in terms of staying healthy and avoiding doctors, it’s definitely worth it.
Caryn Hartglass: Well we’ve been learning since 1750, since the industrial revolution, more and more how to go for more industrialized products, more industrialized food. We are advised that these provide a lot of wonderful convenience. But some of these products are not really healthy for us.
Tom Lieber: Well basically, it caters to a mentality of laziness and uninvolvement. I love to cook and it’s like painting. You’re mixing all the stuff.
Caryn Hartglass: Every meal is a blank palette.
Tom Lieber: And it’s a creative process and it always comes a little different. People say, “Oh, you’re an amazing cook!” and I do it because I enjoy it and it’s a creative act that feeds me. The food feeds me, but the actual act of cooking feeds me. We joke about Shake-n-Bake and instant mash potatoes. I mean it’s a funny thing – how lazy do you want to get? How uninvolved do you want to be with your life? So, not only is cooking food and shopping for the right food enriching for the food but it enriches your soul.
Caryn Hartglass: Can I steal that from you? “How uninvolved do you want to be with your life?” I love that. I’m going to be repeating that a lot, look out. “How uninvolved do you want to be with your life?” That is so profound and perfect. Yeah, please, lives are short. Our lives are short.
Tom Lieber: Hey guess what? I am going to be 65 this year. I feel like I am 25 but I’m going to be 65 and I had a list of things that I wanted to say.
Caryn Hartglass: You don’t have it with you.
Tom Lieber: Oh no, here it is, but I don’t need to, I’ll remember. I was listening to the Deli Lama the other day in Los Angeles. I wake up between 2 and 4 o’clock every morning naturally, I don’t set an alarm but I just wake up. I’ve learned rather than lie in bed and worry about things to just pop up and my energy is up so I get up. I meditate, paint, do my emails, write personal letters, and cook if I want and that’s a very rich time for me. I would encourage everyone listening to sleep an hour less. Try it, wake up early and have some time for yourself because a lot of great things happen in that zone.
Caryn Hartglass: I agree. The early morning hours are very magical, possibly because they are so quiet and there isn’t a lot going on around you. But sleep is important. The problem is, I think, most people have these jobs that they have to go to, to make a living. They have their families and there’s all these “have-tos” there’s all these things they have to do and what gets lost is living their life.
Tom Lieber: If you would go to bed at 9:00 and wake up at 4:00 that’s 7 hours, that’s pretty good.
Caryn Hartglass: That’s pretty good. I need 8.
Tom Lieber: You can come home and take a nap.
Caryn Hartglass: Naps are good. We’re supposed to naturally take a nap.
Tom Lieber: I love the Dalai Lama. He was in LA and the Academy Awards were last week and this person that was interviewing him was a Hollywood person. She spoke about the academy awards and she said, “When was the last time you watched a movie? Do you watch movies?” And he said, “I haven’t watched a movie in 20 years I think it’s a total waste of time,” and that was so great to be in Hollywood in that environment and say it just “it’s a waste of time.”
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah we do waste a lot of time. Television is a great time waster. The internet, I mean I love the internet, but Facebook? Major time suck. Anyway let’s get back to Kauai and activism and the amazing things that happened to get this particular regulation passed.
Tom Lieber: So the bill got passed after some marches that involved a guy named Dustin Barca, who is an amazing activist on the island, a local guy. Before he got involved the GMO thing was mostly kind of hippie farmers.
Caryn Hartglass: The people against the GMO thing.
Tom Lieber: Yeah. So the locals would see the hippies and they would just say, “Well fuck it. If they hate GMOs, then I like GMOs.” Then Dustin – who is a cage fighter, a pro surfer, amazing heartful human – got involved and educated himself. He gets up early reads (those early hours you can read you can educate yourself) and he started uniting the island. The local people and organic farmers together created marches and then made a platform for testifying with doctors and nurses on Kauai, and it got passed.
Caryn Hartglass: You were telling me earlier there were some people from the Pentagon that came to some of these hearings?
Tom Lieber: Last summer, to support this bill and to help make money for five organizations that I was trying to help out, I put together an art show at Galerie 103 on Kauai. The proceeds from that went to these five organizations: Vandana Shiva, Ron Finley Projects, Kauai seed bank, Kauai Rising (which was the organization that got the bill), and then Dustin Barca’s organization. And so we had an art show and then I put together a rock concert because there’s celebrities on Kauai. Graham Nash agreed to play. Jackson Browne came over from California. Tom Petty’s lead guitar player, amazing guy Michael Campbell, asked if he could play when he found out. And Donavon Frankenreiter, who is a close friend of mine, is always there too. I mean, he is always up for helping out. We had a great concert. Bette Midler, who owns property there, and Julia Roberts came.
Caryn Hartglass: Now she was awesome on the Academy Awards, by the way. Speaking of not watching movies, she was great.
Tom Lieber: Yeah. So a lot of people came and then through the grapevine the 3 lawyers from the Pentagon called and asked if they could come!
Caryn Hartglass: Which side were they on?
Tom Lieber: They were on the green side. They were hired by the military to make the military more green, and to provide reports on how to make it more green. But they were interested in the food thing and so they asked if they could come and I said, “As long as you’re not spying.” There are issues about that too, but they weren’t and they were fantastic. They had some great insights on how to address these huge companies that are making seeds and using pesticides. Their advice was that to try to bring down Monsanto or Syngenta is not that easy of a thing to do, to prove that those foods are bad. But the pesticides are the big issue. The GMO seeds can’t really exist without the pesticides. Here, you guys need to all get up an hour early and everyone needs to watch Ron Finley’s TED talk. It’s a nine minute TED talk by Ron Finley. He’s an amazing guy who lives in south central Los Angeles and grows gardens on the streets of Los Angeles. Just an amazing, inspirational man. And recently, I just met another amazing guy: Tyrone Hayes. He is a professor at the university of California Berkeley who was hired by Syngenta to do research (he’s a frog specialist). Syngenta hired him to see what the effects on frogs would be. He did that for two years and it was really getting some shitty results. I mean, the male frogs were developing ovaries and mating and male frogs were having babies.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay, well I know some men who would love to be able to do that! So maybe all they only have to do is genetically modified foods!
Tom Lieber: Anyway, you should look up Tyrone Hayes.
Caryn Hartglass: So did he complete that research?
Tom Lieber: He is still in it and he is amazing. I’m going to be speaking with him and another guy you can look up: Dr. Ron Huber. He’ll be at the Sun Valley Wellness Festival on May 22nd through the 25th in Sun Valley, Idaho. You get up that hour early and watch a nine minute TED TALK by Ron Finley or watch a talk by Tyrone. Amazing people.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, well my problem is I work so long and hard that I go to bed really early in the morning, so getting up an hour early is really hard for me.
Tom Lieber: So you can do it at night, you are a late person.
Caryn Hartglass: Oh yeah, definitely. But whatever works. If there is a way you can reduce the wasted stuff and then add some quality stuff, that’s the secret. Yeah, well the unfortunate thing with most universities is they need to get grants in order to do research and publish so they have some notoriety and credibility and funding. And most of the funding is to find out about things that I don’t think we really need to find about. It’s about things that are ultimately going to make some kind of profit: pharmaceuticals or genetically modified foods. Like you were saying before, we don’t know whether genetically modified food is healthy or not healthy but unfortunately because of the costs the evidence is not that compelling. There has not been enough research and maybe this frog research will really tell us a lot. I hope so.
Tom Lieber: Well the biggest problem is that Monsanto and Syngenta finance most of the major agriculture universities. For example, Tyrone, to get his paper published was almost impossible. Then I think it got retracted after a couple of months.
Caryn Hartglass: It’s all about money. But what’s obvious, what is absolutely clear is what you mentioned before. It’s these toxic chemicals, these herbicides and pesticides, that we absolutely need to put in the ground to grow these genetically modified foods. Genetically modified foods encourage all of the bad habits of industrial farming, which unfortunately we now call conventional farming. There’s nothing conventional about it, it’s horrible, it’s killing our soils and that’s the angle we need to take. Get these toxins out of the ground.
Tom Lieber: And guess what too? It’s all based on laziness. Again, this whole industrial reality it’s based on “how can I do it faster? I don’t want to cook tonight,” but I’m encouraging everyone to…..
Caryn Hartglass: Get off your butt.
Tom Lieber: Oh, another person that you have to look up when you get up early is Vandana Shiva.
Caryn Hartglass: Oh she’s fabulous!
Tom Lieber: She’s amazing. When I did this concert on Kauai I had Ron Finley come and speak and Vandana Shiva couldn’t come so I had a film crew film her in India speaking to us on Kauai. She had been there once before and I asked her to just simply give us four things that everybody could do to make a difference.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay what are those four?
Tom Lieber: Well, it was pretty simple, it’s: Eat organic whenever you can. Be political to the degree that isn’t going to be a bummer (because that can be a drag, being political). Educate yourself. Avoid GMO products, which would be about educating yourself, but just try to avoid that. And that was three…
Caryn Hartglass: Well I think educate yourself and avoid GMO products could be separate and then you’d have four.
Tom Lieber: And then have friends over.
Caryn Hartglass: Was that one of the ones she said?
Tom Lieber: I just put that in there.
Caryn Hartglass: Oh I like that.
Tom Lieber: I like having parties. We have parties in L.A. – 30 people will come and maybe 4 or 5 know about organic food and the rest don’t even know what a GMO is. Some people think it’s a car company. So it’s important to educate yourself and then share with your friends because your friends trust you and then as you educate yourself you trust yourself and they trust you. It’s all good.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay let’s talk about Kauai for a moment because there have been a number of states in the United States (California, Oregon) that have tried to pass anti-GMO legislation and have failed and Monsanto has come in and dumped millions of dollars to fight. Now Kauai is small and this particular regulation is for the island?
Tom Lieber: Yeah, it’s just for Kauai.
Caryn Hartglass: Just for Kauai. Is it because it’s such a beautiful natural place and that most of the people live there really are connected with nature that they got interested?
Tom Lieber: No.
Caryn Hartglass: What was it?
Tom Lieber: They came there because sugar cane became obsolete, there were all these empty fields, and I think in the past 10 or 15 years they realized that they could grow four corn crops a year. So their experiments, they could do it quicker, four crops a year instead of one. So they run four crops. Dustin Barca knows all this stuff. You can look him up on YouTube and get information. They’re using four times the amount of pesticides plus they’re upping the chemicals to fight the super weed. It’s an experiment. It’s a laboratory.
Caryn Hartglass: Did sugar canes become obsolete because we’re using high fructose corn syrup now? Is that what’s going on?
Tom Lieber: I think it got too expensive. Labor costs were too much for the island. It’s not an island product.
Caryn Hartglass: Why don’t we just grow tropical fruits, organic tropical fruits?
Tom Lieber: Well that’s what we’re trying to get done. It’s going to be an interesting thing to watch because there are already people on Kauai like the Kauai seed bank. They’re experimenting with the soils, like how do you bring the soils back after it’s been being dumped on with all the pesticides? So a lot of teams of people are working to kind of see what’s going to happen as they leave.
Caryn Hartglass: Now Hawaii has genetically modified papaya.
Tom Lieber: Yeah.
Caryn Hartglass: And there was a terrible blight some years ago that was threatening to wipe them all out, or so they said, the genetically modified papaya saved the day. Where does that fit in to this scenario? I think that was grandfathered in to regulations.
Tom Lieber: I don’t know. My organic friends tell me that you can’t get an organic papaya anymore. So, I don’t know. When you open a papaya and it doesn’t have any seeds, that’s kind of a weird thing.
Caryn Hartglass: Is that what they look like In Hawaii?
Tom Lieber: Yeah and the studies that I’ve seen about GMOs they’re kind of impotent. They don’t replenish themselves. So I think I read that they influence your digestion which can cause bloating and poor nutrition, but I haven’t really briefed myself on that.
Caryn Hartglass: I was just in Costa Rica last week, I love it there, and I ate papaya every day. I rarely eat it here because I don’t like buying fruits that aren’t from this country because I know what we do to them to get them here. So I had a real party with papaya, and a lot of them were big and loaded with those seeds, I mean just abundant with seeds. That’s the way it should be. Find a watermelon in this country that doesn’t have seeds. What’s our problem with seeds because we’re lazy right? We don’t want to spit them out.
Tom Lieber: And now they’re trying to make an apple that you can cut and it stays white after you cut it.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, I read about that too. Crazy. Just eat the apple.
Tom Lieber: Because people are afraid of … oh that’s a whole other story.
Caryn Hartglass: Oh it’s a whole other story. Well you know what, Tom, we’ve come to the end of the half hour. So where can people see your work? You have a website?
Tom Lieber: Yeah: TomLieberArtist.com
Caryn Hartglass: TomLieberArtist.com. Now Lieber what does that mean?
Tom Lieber: That means love.
Caryn Hartglass: I knew it. I Knew that. Es ist Deutsch. Yeah, it means love.
Tom Lieber: But the main thing, I love art. I’d love people to see my work. I really would encourage everyone to wake up a little bit earlier. Check out Ron Finley, Vandana Shiva, Ron Huber, and Tyrone Hayes.
Caryn Hartglass: I’ll do it. But I’m going to do it after Saturday because I’ve got this big project coming up. I mentioned to my listeners a few weeks ago but I’m going to mention it again because it’s really fun. I’ve been invited to speak at a livestock company in Nevada. It’s a small feedlot and they’re having a bull sale this Saturday and Sunday. They like to have these educational events and they’re having a panel on climate change and I’ve been invited to speak. I’ve been researching for weeks now. My head is exploding and I’m going to be the lone vegan amongst 200 cattle producers.
Tom Lieber: You should record it. You should have your partner video it.
Caryn Hartglass: I’m not going to say online that I’m going to record it but stay tuned. Thanks for coming, Tom, we’re going to take a quick break and be back in a moment with Lee Hall.
Transcribed by Alma Yesina, 5/11/2014; Edited by Destiny Fargher, 6/6/2104