Laurids Andersen-Sonne visited by Erin Latham

During a recent trip to North Carolina to visit a friend, I met experimental filmmaker and Denmark native artist Laurids Andersen-Sonne. Experiencing his studio was lovely, the space filled with his own experiments in work that references nature while playing with whimsy. Laurids films consider how humans categorize nature through logical knowledge but that humans can never fully understand nature because we can’t know anything outside of human experience. We sat down in the giant sculpture studio to chat about his upcoming work and how this vain of his work came about through the investigation of nature in human understanding.

 How has your degree in anthropology influenced the work you’re making?

I think of my work as the way I engage with the things I’m interested in. I came from a trajectory of having studied art in an art preparatory school in Denmark, but when it became time to apply to the art academy I did not find it to be right for me and the way it think and make art. Instead I studied anthropology because I could not at that point, come to terms with the structure of the art academy, of how you are focused into learning in a specific medium, where so much seems to be about the personal but not about observing the world around us. I decided to study anthropology because I thought it was much more in tune with my way of thinking. I also grew up with anthropologists and people who were into working on all sorts of projects involving cultural exchange and understanding. I found that in the studying in school and writing paper after paper there was a lack of immediacy. A lack of contact with people. I guess it became very theoretical. I wanted to find a balance between something theoretical and empirical, or at least something here and now.

I was lucky to find a happy medium by becoming part of collaborative project called Parfyme, which my friends Pelle Brage and Ebbe Dam Meinild had started working on a few years prior to my involvement. Here I found that we collectively could drive new and interesting things forward, by coming with different experiences. Ebbe studied economy and Pelle was at the art academy. We also started working with Douglas Paulson, who brought his own distinct perception and style.  

We were working in public space in socially engaged relational artwork. The key for me was that I was working with people and with sites where the process was the most important part. The improvisation of doing things and developing a project over time with these factors in space was vital for me.

 How did the work manifest itself?

It depended upon the project. Later in my time in the collective, about five years into my involvement, we created a project called the Harbor Laboratory. Which was part of a Biennial in Copenhagen. We experimented with the ability of people to use the harbor of Copenhagen. Unfortunately, the waterfront has often been used for financial institutions in spaces where the waterfront could be utilized for the common good. We had a large plot of land on the harbor where we installed a shipping container and a workman’s hut and for over half a year we went to work every day facilitating experiments in the public use of the harbor. We allowed people to come up with their own experiments but also created experiments ourselves. We had a floating museum, a sea monster that travelled around the harbor, and five or six paddle boats people could borrow for free with the caveat that they had to write a report of their endeavor when they returned. We publicized these on the web but also created information stations around the city in order to gather people’s ideas about the harbor. In this project we also facilitated something called ‘Adventure Squad’ where people could go on adventures with the paddle boats in various modified states. One adventure squad was to see if you could get to the ‘Little Mermaid’ which is a sculpture at the end of the harbor by hitchhiking and attaching the paddle boat to other boats.

Were there other projects you worked on in the collective?

Yes we really worked a lot and every project we did was dependent on the initial premises. Sometimes they were about larger political issues or about smaller distinct localities, some projects were more performative and included video work and comic illustrations. I don’t think we ever considered our work as Parfyme medium specific, it was more about work coming from a specific world view and a desire to engage with the world. One such smaller project was entitled Gedser: time to move your Butt! In this project we were hired to discuss city renewal or rejuvenation of a certain area of Denmark that has been doing poorly and financially has a lack of opportunities. The Municipality felt that the way to deal with this was to build a fitness park, which seemed ridiculous to us. The community has no school and no sources of employment, but this was their solution. So, we started asking how building a fitness park was going to help people when there were bigger fundamental questions at stake. Over a few days we decided to make our own fitness park in the woods. We created it with local kids and we constructed a story about a King who is not interested in change, who lives in the forest and tricksters come in and build a fitness park. We created a film and a comic book but what was best about it was the engagement with the public and the social practice of working with the kids in the community.

Did your time in Parfyme lead you to the experimental film program at Duke?

After having done all the work in collective and with communities and having some years away from making my own art while being engaged in teaching art in after-school programs, I began to think about a way to get back to anthropology but not lose the artmaking processes.

I found myself mentally in the in-between state of anthropology and art. It is a place I like to find myself. In Parfyme it became less about thinking about things and more about action.

I like doing things, but I felt like there was not enough contemplation and we were also becoming part of the machine. We began to churn out works one after the other, and that was hard to keep up with as the nature of the work was often very physical and labor intensive.

I think sometimes the work wouldn’t be as good as I would have liked or have the substance I wanted. The dynamics of the group faltered because we were also four people located in different places, which made it difficult. There was a question of how we could sustain that when people were moving forward with their lives. I found myself wanting to come to this MFA program because it seemed like a place where one could both engage in academic contemplation while also being a practicing artist.This in between state is something I’m still figuring out and still struggling with because the maker side of me takes over. It’s a hard balance to find in thinking and writing and reading but also keeping up with making. I feel that my intellectual process suffers due to my material or filming process sometimes. But at the same time this is also the fun part about it that you constantly have to negotiate your own path. A path that is constantly fluctuating and driving the way that I make and think about things in new directions.

Is that why text is included in some of your work?

The text simply becomes another way of thinking about topics I’m engaged in. Part of it is about needing to create in the tactile making after spending a day of editing a film. I am trying to engage it from different materiality and often from a silly and open place. Right now, my work is primarily in 16mm film, but I need the other stuff to inform the way I’m working and thinking about it. The different material, like drawing or text become different instances that are denoted in time in contrast to or in conversation with the moving image.

Can you talk about the work you are currently making? Is it conceptually or process driven?

In essence, the work I’m making now is my own investigation in trying to engage the question of human relationships to non-human beings and how we produce knowledge about these and our own being, through film, sculpture, and drawing. I am interested in thinking about our desire for knowing and our attempts to understand the world and our being in it. I am also interested in our failure to look at the natural world on its own terms, in opposition to how we observe it from our own determined rules of understanding which we equate with knowledge. Here, I am interested in thinking of different modes of knowledge; the tactile, or the visual or for instance thinking of a drawing holding as much information as a written text, and manipulating how a hand-written text becomes a drawing. This is the way I’m thinking about when immersed in the documentary subjects of the film work but also it is a framework that I carry over into my own more personal expression. I’m incorporating different sites of knowledge in working in this way. George Marcus an anthropologist wrote about the multi-sided perception of ethnographic knowledge, that we can’t rely on a single site to understand the world in the current. He’s talking much more about global processes and how people communicate but for me it’s important to engage in the different materiality and processes to get a better understanding of the subject matter I use.

Does the content inform your material? Or is it the other way around?

Vice versa. When I’m editing a piece and I come to a snag, I make a drawing or something sculptural. Making something with my hands makes me think differently about my editing and maybe that even leads me to work with a different material. I’m also thinking about these as different forms of knowledge coming together. For example, in the sculptural work there is a tactile knowledge that comes from learning by making as part of the learning process. Working with the material informs me about what’s next. In this way it’s all meshwork where no one activity or material stands alone, it might be something in itself but it’s nothing without its communication with the other activities or materials.

Can you talk about the films for your upcoming show? 

It will consist of eight 16 mm short films that all revolving around our relationship to nature as human beings, specifically with a focus on bird watching and our relation to the birds in various stages. I worked with Bird Banders to create a film, which is about the sensory experience of holding migratory birds when they’ve been mis-netted. The way I’m editing it now will be a series of hands making gestures with birds in them.

In another film I focus on the relationship to nature in the cataloging or creating of data and lists or in the collection of birds as taxidermied pieces or field preservations. All these field preservations are owned by a certain man who relates each one to certain instances in his life. Each instance of a bird’s death relate to the trajectory of the man’s life. The man has collected the birds after their deaths which were mostly caused by lighthouse falls. There was a time when lighthouses would generate a certain attraction from birds and they would fly into them and die. As a teenager, the man in the film collected these birds after the occurences.

Does the film pertain to your own experiences?

It pertains to my experiences, but the variety of works in the exhibition revolve around the same topics I described earlier, our relation to nature through experiences with nature. However, I use different approaches to this topic. Two of the films follow the annual tradition in my family of venturing out on January 1st to get new birds on our list. The first day of the year is important for this because you’re essentially at a blank page, so the tradition is to go out fairly early and do a bird race to see how many species one can observe on that day. The work is related to that because I grew up on intense bird watching. My mother is and always will be a very intense bird watcher. She started bird watching when she was a young teenager.

Bird watching seems like a calm observatory practice, it’s funny you refer to it as ‘intense’ can you elaborate on that?

Yeah, she’s avid but there’s also an intensity to her practice. I recall her jumping out of a moving car in Spain one time just because she had seen a Catalan Hubara. So, intense like those experiences, head over heels for that.

You suggested you’re making work that considers how you’re recreating nature but failing at it, can you speak about this?

I think this is something that comes from one of the films which follows a scientist studying magnetic declination. He is essentially creating artificial magnetic fields to see whether birds are able to deviate their course to magnetic north even though they’re in the magnetic field. The scientist is arguing that birds are equally using a star map as much as they are using magnetic sensing. Many people argue that birds are able to switch between different modes of sensing depending on what situation they are in. For example, if it’s overcast and they can’t see the clouds and are migrating they might be relying on a different sense.

Where did the concept of following this scientist come from?

For that film I was able to go to the scientist’s island and help him make his research for two weeks. I went to a tiny island in the Baltic and worked with him. I was hired by him and paid in free lodging and food, to help him carry his equipment for his research. It was a lot of equipment. What struck me was how he was performing science in an artful way. What he’s making was so fantastic in terms of the sculptural components because he’s placing animals inside them. He doesn’t see it that way, but I had pleasure from seeing those things.

At the same time that sort of sentiment is something I am taking with me into my current work. In the films, sculptural work, and drawings there is the aspiration for intellectually understanding a bird. Though the scientist is using science in data collection he will ultimately

fall short every time in terms of the form of knowledge he’s interested in. There has to be another way of understanding nature outside of these forms of knowledge. I guess it’s a positivistic way of thinking about knowledge and data however, he won’t ever necessarily be able to sense the way that the bird actually experience the world.

It’s interesting because it’s almost as if you’re trying to get into the subjectivity of the bird, nature already makes itself but then we try to recreate it.

Yeah, I guess it’s like I’m doing a cheap knock off on nature in a way. It’s not mimetic in that way but I’m trying to think and see differently than I normally do. It’s also about play in the ideas and the materials for me.

There’s definitely whimsy and comedy to your work.

I think that’s always part of my work. In Parfyme humour was a tool we used, and it has carried through in my current body of work. I find that there is the lighthearted side to humor but there’s so much content in humor, about the essence of life in many ways.

How does time play a role in the work you’re making?

How we experience time is an important factor in thinking about how a bird experiences time. For me it’s interesting to think about the migratory time for a bird which migrates from south of the Sahara to northern Scandinavia, I’m interested in what time feels like for those birds. How do they experience the world through which they are travelling? It’s not something I have an answer to though there are lots of theories for it, both in biology and philosophy, but my verdict is still out.

Your work seems to stand at the crossroads of art, science, and philosophy can you elaborate on this idea?

The reason I’m making art is not necessarily because I have something grand to say but because there’s something I’m interested in trying to understand. It’s important for me to illustrate that we are nature, that we aren’t different than nature. Maybe that is pretty grand, or at least it is fundamental for the thinking of the essence of being.

The nest I’m currently building is also an attempt to channel those animalistic things in me that have been sugar coated with all my culturedness.

Your interest leads you to investigation through scientific means but also through your own subjectivity, is this important to the work?

I haven’t really thought about whether my subjectivity in the work is important, but I can’t deny that it’s there in my attempt of understanding. It’s an attempt at understanding something I don’t know if I am capable of understanding, but I am trying to approach it from as many different angles as possible which also leaves me confused a lot, but I guess I also enjoy confusion.

How has your experience in the US affected your artmaking? Why are you here creating work that is mostly about Denmark?

I don’t think I could make the work in Denmark. The work isn’t about Denmark as a nation or a people, but I feel that I have to be removed from it in order to be able to make this work.

If I were living and being in the field all the time, then I would go ‘native’ I’d be consumed by it everydayness of “hygge” and what not. I need the distance to be able to really think about what the work means and to have a freshness in the way I think about it. The distance is important. I took steps towards making this work here, trying to work with biology departments and bird banders here but in the end my contacts in Denmark proved to be more reliable.  

Ceramics and Something Else

Dustin Yager: A Profile | By Kelly McCafferty

Everyone should occasionally do something that makes them feel like a fool—something they are clumsy or just plain bad at doing.  Being good at things is nice, sure.  But being bad at things, that takes courage. 

I most definitely felt foolish and frustrated when I took Beginning Wheel pottery class at Greenwich House Pottery in Greenwich Village. 

As I signed up for the class, I scrolled through the available faculty and I settled on Dustin Yager.  Dustin Yager is good at pottery—amazingly good.  His gorgeous vessels were scrawled with profanity as a decorative element and a quick assessment of his website confirmed that he indeed was the teacher for me.  It’s as if his scrawled signature sentiment/catchphrase of “fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck” was right out of my own mouth as my clumsy fat fingers struggled to pinch and lift mud into something/anything.  Our Tuesday night classes were filled with Dustin’s calm patient effortless acts of magic and my frustrated but ultimately satisfying sighs of discontent.

In the end I managed maybe 15 tiny lumpy strange bowl-ish objects that are now scattered around my apartment, holding air plants and serving as cat dishes.

I decided to write a profile on Dustin, when I discovered he has two distinct but similar bodies of work—his functional pottery and his more conceptual vessels.  I was fascinated with that split and the economics/meaning/utility of art vs. craft within his studio practice.  I really connected with both bodies of work visually and conceptually and I saw them as twin halves of him.  Our conversation led me to think about my own work and essentially all work in terms of value and use—the external/societal and the personal.

Our visit began with meeting for coffee at a coffee shop near Dustin’s studio in Bed-Stuy.  Injecting caffeine into an interview is always a good thing.  I couldn’t help but notice a recent tattoo bandage on his leg.  The vulnerability of (covering/healing) integrating a tattoo onto one’s body is such a familiar and tender time.  Dustin opened the bandage to reveal both a fresh tattoo of a beet plant, roots and all, and that he grew up on a sugar beet farm in Wyoming.  We bonded over being rural kids floating in an unforgiving urban space of our own choosing.

As we walked to the studio, Dustin told me the story of his move to NYC in 2016 and the finding of his studio.  He moved here from the Midwest, having spent much time in both Illinois and Minnesota. 

His studio came as a result of initially working at Gasworks NYC (formerly BKLYN Clay) in Park Slope, which offers memberships to use the studio for your own work, as well as taking classes. Dustin became a member when the studio opened in 2016 and began teaching classes that fall.  Through other connections in the Brooklyn ceramics scene he met his studio mate and moved into a shared studio/kiln situation in Bed-Stuy.  I looked around the space, which was divided into the area where the kiln was located and his work/storage space.  Everything was neat and tidy—his shelves of production pots, the table, the wheel and the things that had recently come out of the kiln.  What a strange object this and all kilns are—purely functional and anachronistic ovens that hold magical objects.

In his workspace, Dustin had arranged his art pottery on the table for my examination and his production pottery was neatly organized on shelves by size and type. 

The production pots are of varying sizes from shot glasses to goblets and vases and beyond.  Many of them are painted with a black or dark blue slip in painterly fast brush strokes on porcelain with occasional gold highlights.  His scratched handwritten text on top of the strokes plays with every possible fuck phrase in the English language—from the aforementioned fuuuuuuuuuuuuuck to fuck this, fuck that, fuck yeah, piss off, ad infinitum. 

These pots play with and live in the contrast of sweetness and aggression.  The handwritten text is pure sincerity.  But the content of the text is daring the viewer or hand holding the mug to be offended or turned on or both.  It’s a bit like watching Betty White tell a dirty joke.  And I love it.

It was Dustin’s functional work that brought me to him, but I wasn’t there to talk about the production pottery and I felt that.  It was tucked on the shelves though it’s muffled fuck phrases were reverberating through the space and my thoughts.

I was there to see and discuss the art pottery and Dustin had placed it on the worktable for me to examine.  If the functional pottery is Betty White, then the embodiment of the art pottery for me personally is, Miley Cyrus.  Images of Miley, herself, and Justin Beiber and emojis, etc., are cut out and applied as decals to the surface of the porcelain.  In fact, all of the cut-outs are somehow corralled into the world of emojis—they are distilled into easy bite-sized icons whether they are real people (Hillary Clinton, drag queen superstars,) real bodies (porn stills, images of erect penises) or symbols (pride flags, biohazard symbols.) 

This cacophony of images is layered over the surface of the work, but the cacophony doesn’t end there.  The forms themselves are strange, some directly reference both flaccid and erect penises, others read as ceremonial vases, funerary containers and mysterious vessels of unknown purpose.  In addition to the strangeness of the forms, there are occasionally layers of texture achieved by dipping textiles and trims into slip and applying them to the surface. 

The work is all additive—added images, textures, shapes—it coalesces into something tragic and aggressive and heartfelt and sweet, all at once (hence my Miley Cyrus comparison.)

 After my tour of the space and time to take in the work, we settled into his workspace and began our back and forth.  Dustin filled me in on his history after leaving Wyoming.  He went to SAIC and pursued Visual Studies, seeking both the intellectual and physical in his own work and research.  Visual Studies was a field in which he could pursue his own questions about the meaning of design and have a skill set/language to understand why we choose and how we evaluate the objects we surround ourselves with in our lives.  Dustin described his philosophy that we collectively use objects to tell stories about our identities—who we are and what we value.  I couldn’t agree more.

He also worked at Lillstreet Art Center in Chicago.  He volunteered and then  assisted and ultimately began teaching classes there.  He described the contrasts of SAIC and Lillstreet.  I know both places well—I did a Post-Bacc at SAIC and I took a lot of jewelry classes at Lillstreet.  Dustin described the energy that seems to exist in all craft schools and workshops—a lack of contemporary context and an anarchonistic and hard to shake connection to 1960s style retro “brown pots.”  I’ve encountered that energy, those students and that mentality in my forays into the craft world.  I know it well. 

I ask him questions about teaching and he describes the places he has taught in and what he has gotten out of it all.  He says that teaching forces him to make things he wouldn’t normally make, for the purposes of demonstration.  And somehow that process opens up his language of forms.  Teaching forces him to experiment in order to explain.  He also tells me that teaching allows him to directly see different students’ thought processes and it brings him different pieces of the world that he wouldn’t otherwise find on his own.  An example of that he gives me is a student who was constantly telling him about a basket show at the MET—and he went to see the show and it really informed his thinking. 

I ask him if it bothers him that clay is so hot in the art world right now.  And he tells me that he doesn’t have a problem with it.  The clay community can be territorial, but he doesn’t feel that way personally.  He thinks anyone can and should use clay if they feel drawn to it.  But he does mention that in LA and Brooklyn, the clay work being produced—what he describes as “lumpy pots”—has a very different audience than the traditional studio pottery audience.  He is constantly trying to navigate these intersecting worlds of design, craft, tradition, experimentation and art. 

He’s struggled with his art pottery since school—trying to find the right venue and context for it.  We talk about the art and craft contexts—the idea of the same artist making a sculpture priced at $6000 and making functional pottery priced under $50.  How do we make sense of those two economies?  I don’t have an answer. 

The subject of jokes comes up a few times in the work.  A lot of the techniques and choices that he makes in both the functional and conceptual work are about the ceramics community.  Maybe visual jokes are how he makes sense of these two economies and systems of worth?

He tells me about how he came to the current artwork.  For an exhibition in 2015, he settled on the form of the garden stool based on both traditional Chinese garden stools and their contemporary bastardization versions available at Target in bright orange or aquamarine.  He wanted to queer his work and queer this form in particular, the garden stool.  And so he asked himself, how can he make this object queer?  Instead of subdued symbols, he chose to blanket the surface with historical images and symbols that reference the 1980s of his childhood, the HIV crisis and the politics of gay marriage and trans rights.  His use of decals began then.  Layering images, improvisation—they became visually busy as he combined slip, inlaid words, decals, texture and color.  He has refined the work since then—using the same elements, but editing them in each piece. 

Some of the work out on the table seems to bridge the divide between the art and functional work.  It has visual elements in common with the artwork but the functionality of being vases, mugs, vessels of understandable function.

His thinking of these pieces between the two bodies of work is that they are souvenirs of the art pieces—they are priced to be collectable and obtainable.  They are something anyone can take away from the big vessels.  They exist in a middle zone.

I ask him how he comes up with the images—what the images mean to him?  He said the art objects are structured like the thoughts in his head.  There is a stream of conscious flowing between the forms, the images and the techniques.  They are how his brain works; from Care Bear to Drag Queen and back again.  These are the things that have a personal resonance. 

Being in Minnesota for college and again after grad school, it was easy to feel stifled by the pervasiveness of traditional pottery techniques.  He wanted to make objects that weren’t just these quiet passive things.  Vessels and ceramics are of the domestic world and are meant to sit on shelves, but why can’t they reflect contemporary issues at the same time?  Traditional pottery reflects the values of its time he tells me, be it royal French or 1970s crunchy granola pots.  And he wants his work to reflect his values, his time.

He is always testing pottery like a toddler tests the boundaries of parental control or new lovers play mind games.  He tells me the troubled part of him was like, “fuck you Ceramics!  Is Ceramics big enough to contain this work?”  His fuuuuuuuuuuuuck functionals, his dick plates, his visually overwhelming artworks—can ceramics deal?  Ceramics was “like—yeah—no big deal.”

He tells me the world is broad right now and you never know what anyone is into.  He tells me about older women holding up his work in adoration and surprising him with their acceptance of it.  And he says if people aren’t interested in the work, they simply don’t look at it. 

He says his work isn’t for everyone.  But would anyone want work that is for everyone?  My feeling is a definitive no. 

For additional information about Dustin visit his website or Instagram

Hein Koh “Splendor In The Grass”

I first started seeing Hein Koh’s work popping up in group shows around NYC in 2014. Once you get familiar with her style and sense of humor, they’re easy to spot. A knobby red and white sculpture that both hung on the wall and sat on the floor, from a massive show titled Shrink It, Pink It! In Brooklyn. A pair of hugging flowers with tears running down their petals at another in Ridgewood, Queens (Lorimoto Gallery) . Koh’s work is fun, dark and playful in all the right ways.  I had the pleasure of sitting down with her during her solo show “Splendor In The Grass” at Marvin Gardens.  We discuss the evolution of her work from painting to sculpture, and how Ivy League schools, a studio in the 5 Pointz building, web design and twin daughters have shaped the artist she has become. 

Installation View: Hein Koh “Splendor In The Grass” at Marvin Gardens, Photo by Dan Bradica 2018

How did you come to art-making as a career choice?

Well my parents have always been supportive and I started taking after-school art classes at age 9. I was always a good student and by the time I entered high school, I became much more academically focused and didn’t feel like I had time for art, so I quit taking formal classes.  I didn’t make any art at all during high school - I thought I would become a doctor or perhaps an English teacher, because I loved reading and writing.  I also developed an interest in languages, having taken Spanish, Latin and Japanese in high school, so by the time I entered college, I thought I would major in Spanish and become a Spanish teacher.  However, I took art classes for fun, and by the end of my Sophomore year I decided I might as well major in it because I enjoyed it so much.  I felt I needed to have a second, more academic major though, and that ended up being psychology, which is still a great interest of mine.  By senior year, I decided I would take some time off after school and then apply to grad school for psychology and become a psychologist.  I didn’t think being an artist would be a viable profession.  However, after I graduated and stayed at Dartmouth for the summer, I found myself just wanting to paint all the time so I started thinking that maybe I should pursue art.  By the end of the summer, I moved to NYC with my best friend who eventually became my husband, which really shook things up. I was stressed about trying to support myself and figure out what I wanted to do with my life, now that possibilities seemed wide open, so I questioned the idea of making art again.  Also, I sang and played guitar for a riotgrrrl band at the time, Speedy Vulva, with my husband and one of my college best friends, and we took that seriously for a while.  We played a number of shows in the city.  As for work, I temped for a while because I didn’t want to commit myself to a job just yet.  I ended up working in the fashion industry, but I was doing production work and found it pretty boring.  Since it was 1998 and during the internet boom, I decided I needed to learn how do graphic and web design so I could eventually support myself by freelancing and still have time to make art.  My husband worked at a software start-up company, just down the street from my job, and in the evenings after work his boss would generously let me use the computers there so I could teach myself computer programs.  Eventually, his boss decided to hire me full-time as a web designer, and my husband and I also moved to Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn and found an apartment that happened to have a extra tiny room that I could use as a studio.  Initially, we ended up there because we wanted an apartment with a basement for band practice, and the extra room was just a bonus.  I didn’t even end up using it as my studio until months later.  However, with this newfound stability in my life, I was able to paint again, after taking a break for a year and a half after graduating from college.  I realized I couldn’t live without making art, so I decided that I wanted to go to grad school, and after spending another year developing a body of work, I applied to grad school and got into Yale’s graduate program. 

What was your work like after grad school, and how did you move from painting to sculpture?

My work at Yale was mostly big paintings. My thesis show was comprised of holiday scenes being destroyed by cats, which were humorous and dark but also charming.  They were very sculptural, as I used every Golden medium to build up the surfaces.  I even added real objects such as Christmas lights for the Christmas painting, which would plug in and light up.  When I moved back to NYC I found a studio at the 5 Pointz building.  The rent was super cheap there, so I had a lot of space and continued making big paintings, mostly of food and toys.  I eventually lost my studio at 5 Pointz and had to move into a much smaller studio.  Since I could no longer make big paintings, I decided to do a lot of drawings and small paintings, such as portraits of Muppets and other toy and childhood motifs.  Eventually, because of the constraints of my new studio, I became very experimental with my process and abstract.  Drawing freed me up a lot, and I started approaching my paintings differently, watering down acrylic paints and staining the canvas, as well as blowtorching it.  During this time, I felt like sewing, and without worrying about the finished product, I ripped up pieces of canvas and sewed it back together.  I just found the process to be meditative and relaxing at the time, and my interest in meditation at the time started entering into my work.  Eventually I sewed together an eye out of canvas and painted it with acrylic, which was my first soft sewn wall sculpture. That was in 2011.  

Hein Koh, “White X-mas”, acrylic, oil and mixed media on canvas, 86” x 72”, 2003

Can you walk us through your process of making sculpture? Where does the first idea come from and how does it end up as cheeseburger with and eye or a seven foot tall flower?

It starts with a crude sketch.  I’m always inspired by my daily life. I find myself making things that my kids would love. So when I’m with my girls we’ll play around and make things out of Play Dough, I’ll make a little pizza or ice cream cone.  It’s so satisfying to have them recognize and interact with the things I make. They’re very entertained by it.  Afterwards, when I’m drawing in my sketchbook, sometimes these things will show up and I think about how I want to make a sculpture of a pizza.  Most recently my girls and I were drawing with sidewalk chalk outside and I drew a little snake and thought oh snakes are fun to draw, they have this cool line that can be really fun to work with and there’s so much possibility.  Now I want to make sculptures of snakes.

As I make multiple sketches, I figure out size and shape, and then what materials and colors I want to use.  Once I figure this out, I’ll start drawing a bigger version on muslin to make a pattern, cut out two identical pieces, pin them together, and stuff them with polyfill to get a sense of the final form. It usually goes through several iterations before I decide it’s finished and cut it out of the final material.  For this show, I also starting working with copper pipe and concrete to build the armatures. I think I may need to learn how to weld to make the things I want to make, although I’d rather not because it’s going to be a pain.  However, the visions of my sculptures motivate me, so I end up learning new skills and challenging myself because I really want to fulfill my visions. 

What role does your own artistic community play in your life?

In recent years I’ve met a lot of great artists, particularly women artists.  We’re very supportive of each other, like the “Lady Painters” group you started, and I’ve gone to some of the “Women Sculptors” meetings, which are great. So it’s really awesome to see so many strong women artists finally emerging. I’ve been working at it this a long time, since graduating from Yale in 2004, but it feels like I’m just emerging now, having reached a new level of exposure. At the time I graduated from Yale the market was booming and the culture was so youth obsessed.  There was this pressure to become successful immediately for fear it wouldn’t even be a possibility as I got older, especially in a society where women become less visible as they get older. So it’s reassuring to feel like I’ve gained visibility and success after 40 and after kids.

I think the landscape is really changing and I’m learning how important it is to be connected to a community.  After Yale, I stayed connected to my grad school friends but since I had them and also a lot of friends who are not artists, I didn’t really expand my art community until in recent years, after I had kids really.  After having kids, and also because Instagram makes it easy to connect with other artists, I just felt more of an urgency to connect with other artists because I didn’t want to get completely swallowed up in motherhood and disconnect from the art community. So I made extra effort, more than I did before I had kids, and it’s paid off as far as support, opportunities as well as just the joy of camaraderie. 

How does sexuality come in to your work?

Currently, I think it’s more present in the photographs but it does make its way into my sculptures as well.  It’s a powerful tool - it can be fun, dangerous, degrading, fraught, so many things - that make it complicated.  I think it can be difficult for women to navigate their sexuality in our society, because of how we are objectified, reduced or branded, so it’s something I am interested in exploring in my work.  In doing the photos I was asking myself a lot of questions, like, Can a woman be overtly sexual and still be respected?  Can a woman objectify herself and use that for her own empowerment? What happens if the female nude, traditionally passive, is also the creator and has a voice in the artwork?   I can’t say I have all the answers yet, but my photo series is helping me to explore these questions and slowly figure it out.  However, the goal isn’t necessarily to have things figured out completely, rather just contemplate them and gain a better understanding of these things.

Hein Koh, “Selfie with Sculpture #7”, digital photo, 2018

What has being an artist taught you?

I love being an artist because it’s taught me that life can always be fun. No matter how old I get or how my lifestyle changes - I’m over 40 and married with kids now - life can still be fun and interesting.   I feel lucky to have access to so many creative and talented people and events.  I wouldn’t want it any other way.

Koh’s dedication to being the best person, mom and artist she can be is truly inspiring. She has a strong sense of discipline that is only rivaled by her ambition. It’s really fun, if not wacky, to see the world through her sculptures and I look forward to seeing what comes out of her studio next.

For additional information on Hein, please check out her website

Additional Images:


by Mandy Messina

The first point of resonance with Juju Holton’s practice, was during a video shoot for one of my projects--they mention they wrap their head because they have retired from hair.

Intrigued, I ask them to unpack what they mean by the term. They explain that hair acts as a marker for ethnicity, gender, religion, and/or class. Regardless of the subject’s intention, hair is read politically, economically, socially. Natural hair, chemically altered hair, weaves and extensions, hair under a hijab or in a doek. Covering ones hair is an act of rebellion--it omits enough information that the subject occupies more than one category simultaneously. This makes it harder to shortcut to a stereotype.

For the rest of the afternoon I can’t stop thinking of Schrӧdingers’ cat. But instead of a cat, I think of disembodied hair simultaneously an afro, a weave, dreads, intricate braids…

“Hair is everything and nothing at the same time.” they explained as we sit down for an interview at The People’s Perk, a black owned coffee shop in Greensboro.

For the performance piece, (h)OURS, they sit in a wicker chair referencing the iconic Huey P. Newton image, and braid a friends hair into cornrows while calling for testimonials, exclusively from black members of the audience.

“I don’t want to hear from anyone but black people, because--(they) can’t speak to this. Because it's ours.

Talking to this idea of appropriation. Everyone wants to take and take and recreate and rebrand, but you’ll never know what it's like to have your mom work two shifts and come home (to braid your hair).”

We have to backtrack a little:

The primary reason Holton initiated this performance piece (and the environmental justice project I’ll get into a little further on) is because they wanted to learn how to surf.

Guilford College, where they study, offers an interdisciplinary course called, The Blue Mind, which is about the effects of living in, on, around or near bodies of water. One of the three lecturers leading the course, Maia Dery, encouraged students in The Blue Mind to participate in the Art Department’s annual juried art exhibition. Juju starts reading up on performance art - specifically Nato Thompsons Living As Form: Socially Engaged Art from 1991 - 2011, which opens with this nice, light Michel Foucault quote:

What strikes me is that in our society, art has become something which is related only to objects and not to individuals, or life. That art is something which is specialized or which is done by experts who are artists. But couldn’t everyone’s life become a work of art? Why should the lamp or house be an object, but not our life?

Trying to understand the concept of life as form by applying it to their own experience as a black femme, they strike on the concept of braiding hair.

“At this point I had already retired from hair, so to speak, so I said well braiding--what is more powerful in form than getting your hair braided?”

They planned to speak first, while braiding, about how they got to the point of retiring from hair as well as their experiences with black hair during different periods, and then invite the black audience to share their experiences.

“I understand the power of narrative and how narrative can be used to transform, and create change.”

Holton makes the point, however, that often a person simply speaking about their lived experience is not enough - it can be refuted. Once that experience is recontextualized as art, others are more receptive to the concept, some even engaged enough to investigate further.

“Art can take those voices and put them into places that they would not be able to reach.”

By validating the lived experiences of disenfranchised voices through scientific methodology, approaches like PAR (Participatory Action Research) provide similar benefits.

Holton realizes the power in combining both methods within their grassroot activism in Greensboro and beyond.

“I have dedicated a lot of my time and energy into grassroots organizing and learning about community injustice and policy work, and so it's, now I have this whole shift this semester where I’m learning about art and using art to represent.”

They mention the impact The Morris Justice Project has had on their practice - specifically the Stop And Frisk/Broken Windows project.

“As a researcher and as an activist (…) my dream is to do something like that in Greensboro.”

This merging of art and activism is something they incorporate in another piece that came out of the same class. An environmental justice project called H2afrO.

Highlighting a 2010 tragedy in Shreveport, Louisiana, Holton emphasizes the inability and fear associated with swimming, respectively, for many African Americans as falling under the umbrella of environmental injustice issues. In this one instance of many, 6 teenagers drowned after wading in shallow water and stepping off a hidden 25 ft. drop-off in much deeper water.

“My research found that if I have a fear of swimming, I’m not going to bring my child around the water (…) it’s a pattern, but patterns can be changed, this project really wants to pivot and bring awareness to the fact that this is important.”

Coach Kelcey, a woman of colour and Guilford College alum, owns their own company called SwimPhilly, out of Philadelphia. The proposed H2afrO program would offer three 30 min sessions for 3 weeks to three groups, (ages 4-9, 9-teens, as well as an adult class).

“Kelcey would come in with the actual swimming knowledge and I would come in with this concept of environmental justice and how this project fulfills that.”

“Policing is an environmental justice issue.” she tells me, as a means of explaining the theorist, Robert D. Bullard’s term Environmental Racism.

Holton emphasizes the need to broaden our understanding of environment to “include where you work, where you play, where you learn, where you live--those are all your environment.” Considering that definition, the water crisis in Flint Michigan--now in entering it’s fourth unresolved year--stands out as a prime and poignant example of a sacrifice zone. These sites of environmental damage often occur in low-income or marginalized communities, because of the low risk of accountability. Disenfranchised people can’t fight back.

Similarly, closer to home for the artist, is the legal gagging of communities when they do start claiming for damage to property and health caused by the hog waste industry.   

“North Carolina has it all, it has the mountains, it has the beaches, and it also has some really, really interesting things going on in terms of social injustice. But there's a lot of wonderful people here in NC who want to do something about it.”


Juju Holto's Instagram.