Supported by

The Atlantic Selects

Laurie Lipton’s Disturbing Art Reveals Our Inner Darkness

Oct 30, 2019 | 831 videos
Video by James Scott

When Laurie Lipton was 5 years old, she was the victim of a horrific kidnapping. The trauma, she says, turned her into an artist.

“Suddenly, reality shifted,” Lipton says in James Scott’s short documentary, Love Bite. “Before [the incident], I was fearless. Then, my life became something else. People were dangerous. Stuff was incomprehensible. I got the sense that reality was very, very thin, and at any moment it could just crack apart and you could fall through the hole.”

And so, from childhood, Lipton’s attention was drawn to the grotesque sides of human nature. In the documentary, she explains how an all-consuming desire to create drove her to develop the style of macabre black-and-white drawings that now defines her unique and prolific body of work.

“There is nobody on the planet who’s drawn more than me,” Lipton says in the film. “That’s all I’ve done—I haven’t cooked. I haven’t made children. I’ve just drawn. That’s all I do. That’s all I can do.”

Lipton’s intricate drawings harbor a disturbing quality, as if each piece conjures a half-remembered nightmare. Her work probes the most unsettling themes in our culture—imagery and emotions that lurk just beneath our consciousness. In one drawing, a baby wields a knife, evidently about to murder its mother. Another depicts a classroom of children lined up for a school picture, their skeletons illuminated by the radiation of a nuclear bomb. Many of Lipton’s more recent illustrations deal with the sinister nature of consumerism and the omnipresence of technology.

“What she’s dealing with is something everybody has inside them, in one form or another, even though most people are frightened to recognize it,” says Terry Gilliam, who is interviewed in the film. “You put it down in the basement and keep the trapdoor shut.”  

When Scott himself first encountered Lipton’s work, the filmmaker described it as a “religious” experience. “I'd never seen anything like it,” he told me. “Universal truths, emotionality, and dark humor shone through the incredible detail of her confrontational drawings—as if she was speaking directly to me and reading my mind.”

Nearly immediately after discovering her work, Scott contacted Lipton and asked her to meet. “Just about everything about her surprised me,” he said. “She was petite and scathingly funny, with a huge smile. She appeared to be the antithesis of her art.” Indeed, Lipton’s personality belies the frightening nature of her work. She is, however, exceedingly private, and lives a very isolated life. It took four years for Scott and Lipton to cultivate a close friendship. Eventually, the artist revealed details about her past that she had long concealed from even her closest friends and family.

“Black and white is the color of ghosts,” says Lipton in the film. That ghost of her childhood trauma haunts her art, sometimes subtly, and sometimes markedly. In one piece, titled Stranger in the Woods, a man lurks almost imperceptibly in the background, peering at a young girl who wanders through the forest. “There’s a very hurt child in all of my work—very alone, very confused,” Lipton says in the film. “And she is still in me.”

“Trauma manifests itself differently for every individual,” Scott said. “For Laurie, and in my own experience, I believe it drives one deeper into themselves. There's a sense of focusing, even obsessing, over something that brings you joy and can help you escape from the horror of your experience.” From Lipton’s creative obsession, Scott believes, a deep strength emerged. “Perhaps it's a way to take back control after experiencing the darkest sides of the human condition. It changes the way you see the world, and her drawings are what the world looks like to her.”

“It’s odd, isn’t it?” Lipton says in the film. “You never know what kind of gift comes out of suffering.”

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to

Author: Emily Buder

About This Series

A showcase of cinematic short documentary films, curated by The Atlantic.