Light, Letting Go, and the LA River with Debra Scacco

Debra Scacco creates rich, multimedia pieces that play with light, reflections, shadows, walls, and borders. Her 2015-2016 solo show The Letting Go at Klowden Mann was full of works on paper, paintings, and more sculptural installation pieces that reference and play off of nature and geography in aesthetically pleasing and deeply profound ways. – Ellen Caldwell, Los Angeles Contributor

Debra Scacco, Installation view of “The Letting Go” at Klowden Mann, 2015.

As a first generation Italian who grew up in New York and Atlanta, then lived in London, and who now resides in Los Angeles, Scacco uses her multi-layered, rich personal history to explore intimate geographies, nationalities, and identities through the physicality of art. With this, Scacco captures something very fluid in a medium that is so lasting — and this delicate push-and-pull between the two drew me to her work immediately. I was lucky to interview Scacco about her work and gain insight into her continuing process.

Debra Scacco, Los Angeles River (Artery), Ink on Duralar, 31 x 19 x 5.5 in, 2015.

Debra Scacco, Rio de Porciúncula (1769 - present), (Site specific installation), Ink on Duralar, 168 x 54 x 41.5 in, 2015.

Ellen Caldwell: In “The Letting Go” at Klowden Mann, I loved the way you incorporated the play of light on and against the surfaces of your work, particularly in piece like "Los Angeles River (Artery)" and "Rio de Porciuncula (1769-present day).” Could you discuss this a bit?

Debra Scacco: Light has always been very important to my work. The foundation of my practice can be described as the in-between: which is itself the very nature of light. Ever transient and dualistic, light is a signifier of presence and absence, mass and space. It is a marker of time always in flux and, much like memory, can be a manipulator of perception.

The LA River works are rooted in the transient and unknowing nature of the present. As I sought to capture the intangible, it was clear to me the answer was light. In these works, light acts as a bridge between two and three dimensional planes, and is another way in which the viewer engages with the drawn landscape.

I also work with light in its purest form through my photographic work. When I moved to Los Angeles from London, I started a photographic series titled “In Transition.” I photograph light in my domestic environment; I then manipulate the image into a document of an intimate moment that never truly existed. Each photograph is simply titled with the date the image is completed.

Debra Scacco, In Transition series, as featured digitally on Scacco’s Instagram and Tumblr.

EC: That’s wonderful. How can we access and view those images?

DS: I publish the images almost daily on a dedicated Instagram feed and Tumblr site. I’m currently developing how these images will live as physical objects… At the moment, they only live online.

Debra Scacco, The Letting Go, (Site specific installation), Hand dyed nautical rope, wood, 21 x 11 x 8 ft, 2015.

Debra Scacco, The Letting Go, detail.

EC: Your show consisted of a variety of different works and themes, with pieces ranging from smaller mixed media pieces, to a larger diptych of ink and acrylics on paper, to metallics on paper, to your sculptural ink on Duralar installations, to hand-dyed rope. I love how you address the idea of “personal geographies” in your work too — could you discuss how this theme tied together with your unique pieces?

DS: My work always returns to the questions of how place affects identity, and how the past (re)shapes the present.

Each body of work is tracing a journey over a particular period of time. Each has its own codes and rules for making — every step of the process is linked back to the origin of the idea. While articulated in differing ways, each body of work constructs a fiction from the past, creating an idealized future I can theoretically understand and control.

The Letting Go connects the seven points of my geographic history with nineteen places I have lived. The LA River works trace the present (and its past) through the lens of the unfamiliar. The diptych is based on flight paths between the three places I have lived the longest, with repeated language tracing the new landscape made by these aerial pathways. The Sedimentary works combine boundaries from my past to create a utopian future topography.

Debra Scacco’s studio and works in progress.

EC: I love how your work makes physical your migration and histories in a complex way that is so visually appealing. Could you discuss your process as well? What pieces did you start for the show first, or were you working simultaneously on many at once?

DS: My process is labored to say the least. No material is arbitrary, and the making of each body of work is guided by a strict set of rules. By the time I start the final pieces, I know exactly how they will be made (although not exactly how they will look when they are complete).

For several months, I had multiple pieces underway in a delicate balance of wet and dry work. At one point the studio was divided with plastic sheeting to protect one body of work from another.  I don’t think my studio floor will ever recover from all the blue paint! Everything is on wheels and easy to reconfigure for this very reason — as working methods change, the shape of the studio changes with them.

The process for each body of work is incredibly specific. I used buckets and home-made spools to hand-dye 20,000 feet of rope for The Letting Go. While the Sedimentary works are more contained, they require 19 two-part pours per piece, and have to remain flat throughout; so require a significant commitment of space over a long period of time for each work. And the drawing process (for flight paths and River works) requires the space to be immaculate — paper and film are highly sensitive to both dust and paint particles, so these pieces had to be protected at all times.

Debra Scacco, Rio de Porciúncula (1769 - present), (Video footage of site specific installation), Ink on Duralar, 168 x 54 x 41.5 in, 2015.

EC: This is great — and I really appreciate getting to see a bit into your studio process images too. I love the way the press release for your show discusses the contemporary experience, collective isolation, and memory. How has your life and travel impacted your work and these underlying concepts?

DS: For me, work and life are intertwined. As a first generation child, you are wonderfully immersed in your family’s culture of origin, yet this culture is not wholly yours — you live in a hybrid of past and present, idealization and projection. This dual-cultural upbringing paired with a few very significant relocations are the root of my obsession with placelessness and geography.

My father is from Sicily, my mother’s family from southern Italy. I was raised initially in an Italian neighborhood in Staten Island, surrounded entirely by our extended family. Then my father’s job moved us to a suburb of Atlanta, where we knew no one, and I learned that we weren’t really “American.” Our traditions, our home, our accents… we were clearly outsiders. So from a young age, I became aware of an “otherness” that has never left.

I started searching for a physical place of belonging: trying to place my own pin on the map, only to find there was no territory over which I could rightfully claim ownership. I returned to New York briefly, but of course both I and the city were different. I then moved to London, where a one year stay unintentionally became sixteen. Technically I belong to London, more so than any place else… I returned to the States three years ago but to Los Angeles, so completely new again — with an increasingly fractured sense of place spanning three cultures and four locations. 

Debra Scacco, Los Angeles River (Artery), Ink on Duralar, 31 by 18 7/8 by 5 1/2 inches (framed), 2015.

EC: What is coming up for you art-wise? Are you working with similar themes and mediums now or moving in a different direction?

DS: The ideas are certainly evolving, continuing with certain ways of working and also introducing new ones. I’ve just completed a series of ten tributary drawings that began with Los Angeles River: Artery, and am now working on environmental etchings in steel based on historic maps of the LA River. Public work is something I’m very interested in, so I’m delighted the etchings will be shown first at a River LA event at the Viaduct (directly along the LA River).

I’m fascinated by the relationship between identity and place, and am now examining this from a broader perspective: highways, rivers, transit systems — all determining factors in how we move through and define personal territory within a broader geographic context. We accept and adapt to the shape of our cities, but don’t often question how they came to be. The physical history of our cities is what the new work is beginning to explore.

Debra Scacco, This is our past, Ink and acrylic on paper, 39 by 79 inches (framed), 2015.

Debra Scacco, This is our past, detail.

EC: What’s next? Can you tell me what you are working on now?

DS: I’m very interested in the environmental and spatial possibilities of the latest works. I’m working with John Wolf Advisory to house site-specific river pieces in non-gallery spaces. As a result, we've partnered with Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator (LACI) in downtown LA, where I’m heading up strategic development of a new Artist-In-Residence program.

The residency will provide access to LACI’s new Prototyping Center, where artists and clean-tech entrepreneurs will work side by side. It’s a very unique pairing of knowledge, experience and resources. I’m looking forward to how this can open a dialogue for both sides about how art, technology and environment can collaborate more closely and more frequently. I’m also seeking collaborations with architects and designers to create permanent works that are integrated into the fabric of a building or outdoor site.


Debra Scacco is represented by Klowden Mann where her recent solo show The Letting Go ran earlier this year. She received a BA in Studio Art from Richmond University, London. Scacco has exhibited extensively both in America and internationally, including solo exhibitions with Marine Contemporary in Los Angeles, and group exhibitions at Charlie James Gallery in Los Angeles, with Marine Projects at Salon Zürcher in New York, Patrick Heide Contemporary Art in London, and Royal Academy of Arts in London. After 16 years living in London, Scacco recently relocated to Los Angeles. You can find her on Instagram at @debrascacco and @debrascaccostudio and on Tumblr at

Ellen C. Caldwell is an LA-based writer, editor, and art historian.