Cool and Curious Wind

Dana James: A Profile

By Kelly McCafferty

Dana James is the perfect person to meet at a cocktail party. And that’s exactly where we crossed paths. It was the sort of party where you are expected and encouraged to walk up to strangers and start a conversation.

Dana comes across as clear and aware—her presence is strong. She’s assertive but also receptive. Dana feels like wind—cool and curious.

I’m almost positive Dana approached me first and we started a conversation where we discovered that we both had studios in Bushwick and we should probably be pals. Dana felt easy to talk to and we discussed the art world, New York with an emphasis on Brooklyn/Bushwick, mutual friends and her paintings.

I like to play an internal guessing game when I first meet a new artist. What sign are they? And what do I think their art looks and feels like?

Now I know the answers to both of those questions having interviewed Dana, been in the presence of her paintings and asked her flat out about her zodiac chart.

Does Dana feel like her paintings? I would say, absolutely yes.

Dana has recently moved, but when I visited in 2018, she had a live/work space in the part of Bushwick where the train runs above the street. I love seeing studios as much as I love seeing apartments, so live/work spaces fascinate me. There is a vulnerability in a live/work studio visit, both for the artist and the visitor. An artist is opening up the fullness of their life and one can see and imagine how their days and nights fill the space. The aesthetics of their life are on display.

Dana’s space is a beautiful newly renovated apartment with two front street facing rooms and a large kitchen/living space at the back. Dana has compartmentalized her art/life in the arrangement of the space. The left front room serves as painting storage and the front right room serves as active studio space. Moving towards the back of the apartment, there is a hall with closets and a bathroom and then it opens up into a sleek kitchen and combination living room/bedroom.


Dana lives there with her rescue greyhound, Veronica. I recognized Veronica from Instagram and meeting her felt like meeting a model/actress in the flesh—her beauty is otherworldly. Veronica greeted me as soon as I entered the space and stayed present in our conversation.

Is everything in Dana’s world beautiful? Dana, Veronica, the apartment, the paintings—they are all stunning.

Dana’s paintings are big. They are definitely bigger than Veronica. And they are as big as they could be in the space she inhabits.

We settled into the studio to begin our conversation. I noticed immediately that the train runs parallel to the studio window. There are constantly people on the train looking right in. It must be a strange experience to work and feel watched in that way and it must change the work somehow—there is a built in audience and the act of making becomes a performance.

I’ve never lived near the above ground trains in NYC, and staring into the train reminds me of when I lived in Chicago and how so many peoples’ apartments there looked into the train. I would ride the train and daydream as I peeped into peoples’ lives.

Dana is of course immune to the train, as anyone who lives their life looking onto it would be. And when we enter our conversation, I realize later that I’ve forgotten all about it and even stopped noticing the sound of it.

We sit with our backs at the windows. On the left side of the studio, Dana has set up three older pieces that were in her most recent solo show. And on the right side, there is a cluster of new works of various sizes.

Dana begins by telling me that she is in the middle of a transition phase. The big older works in the room with us are from her most recent solo show in October 2017. There were 4 in the show—two are in the room with us and they are all six feet tall. She calls them poured color fields. The top portion of each painting is thin and washy and the lower portions are heavy and thick with texture.

Since then she has moved over to working in the style of the paintings on the right of the studio. These she refers to as crop outs. She makes them by making big paintings and finding sections that are perfect as they are—and then “photoshoping” it in real life by combining fabric pieces. She also has some smaller pieces and collages that were the first ones she made after her show. The flow of the room progresses left to right chronologically.

Dana says that painting again after a show is always weird for her. She describes herself as a contradictory person who after going one way then must go the opposite way.

We talk about the older work first. She seems undoubtedly sure about it and it feels like the logical place to begin to understand her process and thinking. These paintings are really process minded. Dana’s palette is unusual and includes iridescence. It’s hard to see in the current grey light of the studio, but as she talks about it and I move around the paintings, I can see it. There is an inherent shimmer to the work.

I ask about the making of them and we discuss that the studio floor is covered in taped plastic. She makes her work directly on the floor. In the case of these paintings, the top is water media (ink/dye) and the lower portions are encaustic layers with fabric and collage and paint.

She begins by pouring them on the floor and determines the orientation of the piece, then the lower section is rendered with a brush.

We begin to delve into the content of the paintings and Dana says she wanted a contrast between the top and bottom of them. They are based on memories of water and Americana. She didn’t want to just pour this series—it was important to her that there was a contrast of materials and that there was a primal and child-like energy in the mark making beyond the pours.

Dana describes the paintings as mundane meets metaphysical sci-fi. They are based on swimming pools and the contrast of the air meeting man-made bodies of water. These are the vast dangerous memories of being a child and they look ocean-based and limitless but as an adult these spaces are considerably smaller.

Dana confesses to me that she is a native New Yorker from TriBeCa. These images/memories are from a childhood lost to her. They are how she imagines suburbia to be—the idea of swimming pools and backyards and isolation. She has a desire and a curiosity about these spaces/environments that were not her own. The sense of isolation and what she describes as the sci-fi twist comes from the absence of life in these imagined spaces.

I ask Dana about her astrology birth chart—I’m curious what her attraction to water is—and she tells me that she is an Aries fire sun and a Gemini air moon and a Libra air rising. She tells me that Manhattan is an island and she has always had this sense of being surrounded by water.

She thinks the pouring water element in her work comes from initiating a lack of control. She came from doing figurative work and then progressed to watercolor and then pouring. It is a trained skill, to have a controlled accident from using water media.

Dana has a strong love for materials. She speaks fondly of the poured materials sinking into the canvas. But what exactly are these materials? Is it a secret? Yes, actually. She wants the viewer to feel a sense of mystery. She is using chemistry—the essence of painting—to make surfaces that are all at once glowing, flat, waxy, thick, thin, shiny and matte. These works are about contrast. And the alchemical process that Dana concocts in her studio creates a chain reaction on the surface.

For Dana, the canvas or the paper is a light source—and once she extinguishes it, she can’t get it back. She uses these mysterious materials to bring that light source through.

Her newer work is born of the process of saving the best bits from paintings—these orphans—and sewing them together. As a process oriented artist, she has a lot of remnants and pieces left floating around and this new body of work embodies recycling. These are paintings she could never deliberately make, and that is what she likes about them. She confesses that she is the worst sewer ever and that she hates the actual process of sewing, but it gives her paintings that could never happen without the actual quilting of pieces together. The editing and arranging is what makes them beautiful. The new works are so different. Not only are they much more abstract, but they are an entirely different way of working and thinking than her previous works.

I ask Dana about her awareness of the sexuality and seduction in all of her paintings. And she says that she sees her work as both feminine and dark and dangerous. It is beauty with an edge. She likes things that are obviously beautiful. She is drawn to beauty. And she lets herself be. She describes an attraction to the feminine kind of glow of Mother Nature and her pursuit of replicating it.

I ask Dana about her style of working. She tells me that she works on one piece at a time. She is obsessive and she can’t separate herself from her work while she is in it. There are times when she has to be patient—because there is drying time before the next moves can be made. That is extremely hard for her. I can picture her, moving around the piece, circling as her mind calculates the next move.

I feel like Dana addresses landscape in a way that is inherently from the perspective of a New Yorker. Landscape for her is either man-made or not man-made. And her fascination with landscape comes in part, from growing up in a place that is completely man-made. She has a nostalgic memory of a place—a country house outside the city—that her dad built when she was a kid. On summer and some weekends, it was an otherworldly escape from her childhood. And after her father passed, the space felt heavy with family and objects. That nostalgic feeling of sad/strange/beautiful darkness is heavy in Dana’s work.

Dana has chosen to address absence in her work. There is mood and a sense of place or energy, but there is an omission of the human form. She describes it as Malibu, but weird and dark—this feeling that she is conjuring. Hearing Dana describe her work makes me instantly think of Lana del Rey and the Black Dahlia.

The absence of the human form is notable because she began as an artist focused on figuration. She abandoned the figure when she was 25. She described her early work to me as deathly dark portraits of women rendered in pencil. She says she was always such a New York girl—into fashion, make-up and body painting in her teens and early twenties. That all changed when her father got sick. She remembers seeing the loose sheets of x-rays and making abstract poured drawings based on brain forms in response. That was her first foray into abstraction and she received a lot of encouragement in response. The bleeding of the ink allowed her to be loose and open up in a way that she couldn’t find when working with the figure. I ask her if she misses the human form and she says she still makes smaller representational works and pulls out a portfolio of drawings to show me. She tells me one day she could see herself returning to the figure.

Dana tells me she was born drawing. She and her sister grew up in a loft in TriBeCa, children of two artists. Her mom is a painter and Dana grew up in her mom’s art studio. Art was “super normal” to her and she thought everyone knew how the art world worked. She was fortunate to grow up understanding the complexities of the gallery world and how it affects one’s personal life. In fact, her mom didn’t want her to become an artist. She knew it was a difficult path and she wanted something more stable for Dana. But Dana was organized, disciplined and hardworking and she chose the life of an artist. Art has been what she has always done.

For more information about Dana, please visit her website.


Kristen Jensen visited by Maria Britton

I came across Kristen’s sculptures roughly five years ago during Bushwick Open Studios. She had a teeny ceramic piece or two on display. My memory is not accurate, but from time to time, they pop up in my mind as tiny porcelain bites glazed with a little gold. During our visit in her sun-filled studio in Bushwick, we talk about her path to ceramics, sewing, collections of ephemeral items, shoulder pads, and more.

Kristen’s studio space has moved between various locations over the years, but for now is located in her apartment. One wall of her studio has shelving for storage and the opposite wall has a table and sewing machine. Kristen collects all kinds of fabrics, but her soft sculptures are mostly made of denim and used clothing. On the windowsill is a remnant of one of her broken sculptures, a ceramic vessel made in the shape of a foot. It broke around the ankle. I imagine most sculptors working in clay have unfortunate stories of pieces shattering from an accidental bump. Kristen shares a few of her stories with me. Kristen’s sculptures most predominantly consist of both fabric and clay, but she works in other materials as well as performance. She sews at this studio and does her ceramic work at a clay studio.


We start the visit looking at some spindly-legged cedar tables that support smaller sculptures. She torched the cedar tables, accentuating the texture of the woodgrain and giving them a charcoal finish. Like the cedar tables, the surfaces of her clay pieces and soft sculptures retain a memory of their histories. Her attraction to clay has to do with its relation with the body and its ability to hold marks. She says, “it remembers how you handle it. It remembers when you fire it.” Kristen takes a slow pace in hand building clay vessels as opposed to throwing pots on a wheel, which is much faster. She says that the atmospheric firing processes she prefers foil the meditative nature of how she builds with clay. Atmospheric firing methods, like pit firing or wood firing, mark the surface of the clay during the actual firing, leaving a smokey image on the clay’s surface.  

The frustrations and failures of working with clay inform her process. Kristen unwraps a large vessel from its packed up storage state, peeling back a moving blanket to reveal this cracked and put back together vessel. It broke in the firing. The shards look like they should fit together perfectly, but they don’t. Kristen says that while firing, this piece broke in dynamic ways. She put the pieces back together to create this fractured vessel. She intentionally uses clay not suitable for making large forms to make large forms, understanding the likelihood of “failure”. Clay is a volatile medium, and Kristen purposefully pushes the limits of clay’s physical properties. 

Thinking about clay’s ability to hold a history makes me think about the memory of the fabric too. The used fabrics in her soft sculptures also contain a recorded history. Kristen collects different kinds of fabrics and chooses to work primarily with denim because it is such a recognizable fabric. For her, denim is a democratic fabric. We get on the topic of the current state of denim and the difficulty of finding actual denim with the rise of fast fashion and stretchy fake jeans. She’s drawn to older items of clothing for her fabric source, including bits of fabric from her and her husband’s clothing. She shows me one patch cut from her beloved silk blouse with a faint floral pattern. The larger soft sculptures are stuffed with bean bag filler, and the smaller soft sculptures, which I see up close in her studio, are stuffed with shredded bills and papers, rocks, and sometimes tea for fragrance.  

I ask Kristen about her background in art. She went to school in Syracuse and studied printmaking and drawing. Between undergrad and grad school, she made art with a specific idea in mind, which usually led her to learning a new process or working with a new material. This is what brought her to clay. Using porcelain, she slip cast old bathing caps in a series of 12. After that piece, she moved to other materials then returned to clay towards the end of grad school. She repeated that previous mold making process, but it wasn’t working. She started pressing the clay into the molds and then moved to hand building.  

She shows me a small ceramic bowl with a leather strap that she will probably wear or include in a future performance although all of the details have not been fully articulated in her head. She opens a jar with little unfired balls of porcelain. She went on a trip with friends to Staten Island to dig up some clay. On that trip she found several different types of clay. One of the clays is too crumbly to build with so she plans on making a slip, a mixture of clay, water, and other materials that can be used in many different ways with clay.  

We shift focus to some nearby works in progress based on her collection of wire hangers. Kristen tells me that she has a real attraction to ephemeral items, garbage, and mundane things. This series of silver hangers are based on bent and misshapen wire hangers Kristen collects. The original wire hangers are bent and shaped by whatever previous forces they met. She sees them as portraits full of personality. They have distinct shapes and curves formed most likely by someone’s hand to fulfill an immediate need. Kristen recreates the wire hangers out of silver. She has some experience working in metal-smithing. She talks about the final presentation and finishing touches they need.

Kristen brings up another collection she has been amassing. 
Somewhere in her studio is a large trash bag full of shoulder pads. Although the bag full of them is tucked away, out of reach -- probably better for the sake of the studio visit -- I am thrilled to meet a fellow shoulder pad enthusiast! There’s something about shoulder pads, whether cheaply manufactured or well-designed, that makes them beautiful objects. Kristen holds onto them for a future costume or who knows what. I have certain shoulder pads that have lived mixed in with my sewing supplies for years.

Recently Kristen invested in a sewing machine intended for making sails, while it was on sale. She has worked with a Janome and an industrial sewing machine in the past. Her machine for sewing sails can handle multiple layers of heavy fabrics. Sewing machines can be so specific in their functions that people who sew a lot seem to rely on a couple machines for different needs, like sewing heavy or delicate fabrics or special stitches. Another part of Kristen’s practice includes sewing bonnets and pinafores for herself, like her own uniform. 

The first few soft sculptures Kristen made were adapted from bean bag chair patterns. Now she makes her own patterns. She says it’s an interesting process and takes some getting used to. “Even if you’ve done sculpture, it’s totally different--like reverse engineering something. This is the idea of the final form I want to make. How do I literally make a two dimensional thing that will add up to that?” Kristen talks about how the nuances of pattern making and sewing can make or break attempts at elegant forms. 

We wrap up the studio visit with Kristen telling me about her work’s relationship to the body. Looking at her work, she speaks about where a body could fit. She points to one piece and says maybe that’s a neck rest. She refers to another vessel, saying it’s roughly the size of a torso. While we don’t talk directly about the performance component of her work, her pointing out where a body could go illuminates the potential development of a performance. Her sculptures look like they are doing what they are supposed to do, and her own body and actions fit right in as a fleeting yet vital component.

For more information about Kristen, please visit her website.


A Funeral and A Tourist Trap

My Conversation with Tiffany Smith About Her Work, the Commodification of Culture, Immigrant Identity and The Subjectivity of Being a Woman

I visited Tiffany Smith's studio in the summer of 2018 while she was subletting from a friend. When I come to visit her, I get out of a cab on a lush, tree-lined, wide block in the heart of Bedstuy and immediately pivot on my heels in two directions looking for what might resemble a studio building. There are waves of people crowing out of the nearby subway, and I'm a little perplexed since I don't see anything like that. Suddenly I feel a tap on my shoulder and spin around to see Tiffany's wide welcoming grin. She is sort of giggling at me for looking so confused. We laugh and hug, and she quickly leads me up the stoop of a beautiful old brownstone, unlocking the heavy wooden front door and ducking through a second smaller door just inside that one. We descend down a steep staircase, into the basement. 

Tiffany's space is a simple, concrete room illuminated by clamp lights and overhead florescent lights. The room is filled with all the tricks of her trade. She is a multimedia artist with a photography background and a penchant for the theatrical. Her work consists largely of staged photography sessions and elaborate installations featuring elements like colorful lighting, playful patterned, geometric wallpapers, real plants, plastic plants, and various props. It's interesting to see her studio, because one can find most of the props she uses both for the photos and the installations. The real and the artificial co-mingle in an interesting way. 

On the Subjectivity of Being a Woman in the World

When I sit down to talk with Tiffany about her work, one of the first notions that comes to mind is the prevalence of a female empowerment motif. Her series, "A Woman, Phenomenally," in fact features various portraits of immigrant women in almost warrior-like poses, seated in front of staged backgrounds, staring at the camera challengingly and frequently wielding some kind of prop related to their heritage. In another series she photographs people in "throne chairs," wicker chairs with a tall arching back that feel throne-like. Although this series is not specific to women it still feels like it's about empowerment, perhaps more of the idea of empowering people of color or marginalized communities, since these are primarily the subjects she focuses on. But regardless, the female empowerment motif comes through in all that she does. 

From, “A Woman Phenomenally”

I mention to Tiffany that I sense this vibe. We both laugh, and she questions sarcastically,

Ya think?

Do you want to tell us about that? 

Sure, yeah, because I am a woman of course, and I have this certain subjectivity about being a woman in the world. 

She elaborates explaining what all women know– that there are certain things about life and specific "bullshit" as she calls it, that only women have to deal with. She explains that it naturally follows that she would make work from that perspective, and this covers everything from power dynamics, to procreation and menstruation. As an example, she reminds me that she had to cancel a meeting we had earlier in the week, specifically because she had intense cramps. She muses that this is not something men have to deal with. 

Is a man's productivity ever directly impacted by something like this? She asks rhetorically. Of course not.

This launches us into a discussion about procreation. I observe:

It's still some sort of bizarre expectation of women. It's scary that that expectation is put on those of us who aren't doing it.

Yeah, I'm thinking about that a lot nowadays and how we are still such a patriarchal society that that is the way we are judged. People still ask Oprah, "why don't you have kids?" You can be Oprah, you can be a self-made billionaire... [and still have that expectation] Are you asking Stedman the same question? Not to downplay the importance of having children or producing life, but is that the pinnacle of what we have to offer?" 

Our society is not at a place where it is ready to entertain the idea of a single, independent woman as her own entity.

The Personal Verses the Cultural & Culture as Commodity

Tiffany was born in Miami and grew up between Miami and Nassau, Bahamas. Her Mom is from Trinidad/Guyana, and her Dad is from Jamaica. She talks about how her upbringing and multi- cultural background have influenced her work.

Looking at it retroactively and thinking about my interest in community... I think it also has to do with finding a place. Thinking about displacement, shifting through different homes and finding a place to be rooted. At the end of it, the center is in you, so it's a journey to find that place. I think this is what my work is circling around.

Self-portraits helped me figure out how to bring out of my subjects what I wanted out of them.

Building an aesthetic and a visual language, and thinking about posing and lighting and staging, and bringing all those references together... it was a challenge to learn how to pull all those things together effectively.

For Tropical Girls

Tiffany had a solo exhibition called "For Tropical Girls" at The Wassaic Project Maxon Mills Gallery in 2017. I had the good fortune to see it in person. The exhibit featured photography, installation, and video. The center of the room was inhabited by one large installation of a kids' blow up swimming pool, oddly lit with an artificial feeling pale purple hue and surrounded by blow up palm trees, real and fake ivy, ferns and aloe plants. The plants were elevated on little iron shelves and trivet like objects that felt like something that would be in your Grandma's backyard. The blow-up swimming pool contained another smaller blow-up pool nested inside and creating a sort of a pancake stack of pools. 

The entire scene, with its' purple lighting and plastic plants, feels playful yet artificial, fun yet nostalgic. But there is also something unsettling about it. It is so odd, kitchy, plastic. There is something saccharin sweet about it, like too much Sweet and Low in your iced tea. Or that moment when you realized your grandmother isn't just collecting stuff— she's a hoarder.

Surrounding the central installation are various fabric hangings, photographs and other works, surrounded by bits of plastic ivy tendrils, draped between them. In one photograph Smith is pictured wearing a Walt Disney sweatshirt, loudly patterned cheap looking pants, and a fake flower in her hair. She stands perfectly still with her hand on a rolling suitcase. A printed backdrop of a bridge that is badly painted hangs behind her. It looks like the type of photo that you take outside of a cruise liner after you've stepped off the boat. (Smith later tells me that this image was sourced from a vintage postcard about 7 Mile Bridge, which connects the Florida Keys to the rest of Florida.) Nods to tourist culture and also Caribbean culture run throughout the work.

I ask Tiffany about these themes

You're pulling all this iconography from your Caribbean heritage?

Yeah, it’s all a tourist trap. You grow up in a place that is a vacation paradise– all the places I call home. (Jamaica, New York, and Miami) My father is in tourism. So, through that experience I’ve witnessed firsthand the process of selling cultural experience as capital.

5 Kings

For one of her installations entitled "5 Kings" Smith photographed her nephews in a series of "throne" style chairs. She describes them as gilded, gold chairs. This was before she attended graduate school around 2011-12. 

My sister has 6 children and two step children. I call them the Rasta Brady Bunch [laughing]. From my niece down, all of their hair is locked. They had these really nice chairs. I sat each of [my nephews] in the chairs. They are used to it and are hams for the camera now. I took individual portraits and one of all five of them on the throne/couch together. I used those as my first experiment in my first semester of grad school. This was the first photo-based installation. I started making wallpaper and floor coverings using decorative concrete block patterns, and terrazzo tile patterns.

My ambition was to meet the viewer at their point of understanding. There are a lot of stereotypes about the island of Jamaica in general, and around Rastafarianism. People's associations go straight to Bob Marley or weed. So, I bought all of this stuff on Amazon and on at the dollar store I found a whole gang of weed leaf party beads [..] I made a beaded curtain out of the weed leaf party beads. 

You had to go through this beaded curtain and into the space, which is appointed with elements featured in a typical Caribbean home. There are shoes strewn around on the ground, all in Rasta of Jamaican colors. On the wall the photos of my nephews in the throne chairs were mounted in a cross formation.

It feels reliquary-esque.

Yeah, It's like a shrine. But I don't want it to allude to the idea that the life is gone. I want to celebrate their life and existence. The way I placed them in there - the shoes are scattered around as if they just came home and threw their shoes off like kids do.

Info Pollution: Hashtag Thoughts and Prayers

Panic Room

This brings me to wanting to discuss another installation of Smith's that I also fortunately got to see. It's called "Panic Room," and as most of her installations are, it is site-responsive. It can be moved from venue to venue without losing its' basic meaning and structure, because it's sort of malleable or scalable for the environment. I saw "Panic Room" installed in a gallery in Harlem called Long Gallery in the fall of 2016.

I created a hovel, a temporary structure, using industrial blue tarp, cut up and strung up in triangular flag shaped forms... and layered them, mounted them to a movable wall to create a nook space. The idea is to create a protective shell space that can be put up very quickly and taken down very quickly. The idea in creating it was responding to the space in Re:Art Show in the old Phizer building [originally]. 

This was the first show. They invited artists to come and respond to the space, but it had to be able to put up and taken down quickly, so I played more into the temporality of it. What I was responding to in that piece was the media attention surrounding police sanctioned violence on black bodies. It was an alter to actual lives that were lost and the surviving women. It was about creating a space that was meditative. It's like an altar to actual lives that were lost and their loved ones that remain traumatized.

After sifting through a site that lists every death at the hands of police, I settled on choosing four prevalent cases, largely because the emotional weight of scrolling through thousands of names was immense to bear. For me the turning point was the Philando Castille shooting because of the way it involved the media and the camera. The cases that I referenced all involved the victim dying on camera - Eric Garner, Alton Sterling, Walter Scott ... Philando Castille... it happened on Facebook live. You can literally die live on camera, and people still don't value [believe]. I wonder what happened to that 4-year-old girl. That officer saw that child in the back of the car and still pulled the trigger – forever traumatizing that child. The way we interact with images is something I think about a lot. Because of how disposable images are nowadays. Distributing those images helps to raise awareness but also re-traumatizes. 

You re-live trauma. It reawakens your own personal trauma. It’s not healthy for us to consume and digest images in the way that we do. We are doing too much, taking in too much information. We are not built to process information on the level to which we can access it.

That leads us down the proverbial rabbit hole in discussing the prevalence and ubiquity of media and particularly violence in the media and sensationalism in the media in contemporary society. 

How does the prevalence of media contribute to a post-truth society? How do our reactions change from over-exposure?

You don't even think about what it means. How do people die on camera in front of you and people still dispute whether or not there is an epidemic of violence?

People say we are in a post truth culture. And you would think the prevalence of image would make more truth. But it's flipped on itself. And the images are so pervasive and common.

We privilege things that are mundane. Celebrities and people making bags of money in this capitalist society. People who are assholes in front of the camera.

Right. Everything is the same tone and intensity. It can be some bullshit celebrity story which is on par with kids in Thailand stuck in a cave and also Donald Trump doing terrible things.

Now you can make a post about it and bring some attention to yourself. It functions back into this self-serving wave. Why are you really motivated to share this information? Even if it is to say, I'm the one who shared it. I'm just doing my part... is that completely selfless? You can't help everyone. There is no way for everyone in the world to be helped. 

There will always be tragedies and things that deserve our hashtag thoughts and prayers [..] because half the time people don't want to actually DO anything.

Commodification and the Way We Construct Identity:

We segue into a discussion about immigrant identity and how it is constructed and affected by being in the United States. Tiffany's work addresses this in various ways, but primarily as an entry point for the viewer i.e. many of the spaces she creates in some way reference a home whether it be a traditional home or whether it be the hovel-like structure of "Panic Room."

I can look at the iconography of one of your background sets [for your installations], and I can look at the patterning of this piece of cloth, and I think of the plants and it reminds me of the Caribbean, and I can look at the astroturf, and that makes me think of America. But I can also look at the fact that you have this juxtaposition of real verses fake. And I find it really interesting, because this is telling me more about one of your cultures, which is American culture which is all about plastic, reproducible bullshit.

It's a couple of things. It's definitely about commodification. About how culture is commodified. How I can go on Amazon and search "Rasta" shoes or.. It's also about the way we construct identity. It's even more prevalent now that we craft this version of ourselves with social media. 

And the experience of coming here as an immigrant is all about that. It's about crafting a version of yourself. It's a choice between choosing to assimilate. There was a time when that was more socially acceptable. That's what you would do. You would come here and try to assimilate into this cultural context.

That enters the conversation about interior spaces and protecting that sacred space of the home, because in immigrant families and communities that's usually the place where it can be appointed in a way that reflects yourself and your heritage and where you come from and it's also your place where you are most free to be yourself. In public you have to code switch and put on another face or another mask to keep your job - hide your dreadlocks, for example. But when you come home you can appoint the space how you choose. You need that psychologically, you need that sanctity, that safe space.

I see your work as this sort of externalization or merging of your heritages. But then you show me an older piece that is definitely about the home, and I think it's really interesting to think about culture as currency in that context.

That makes me think about when I was developing this work. There's this book I read heavily while I was developing this work. It's called "Front Room: Migrant Aesthetics in the Home" (and there's a documentary and an exhibit as well). It's set in the Caribbean diaspora in England and [is about] the process of setting up this elaborate front room and the different aesthetics that were present there. That's where the patterned wallpaper comes from. There are decanters, a wooden plaque of Jamaica, artificial flowers, images of family...

It's like a showpiece. You don't use the front room. It's an area for presentation. It's about being able to show off your wealth and your accomplishments. It functions with an added level of importance when you are moving to a new place and make a better life.

The way that America functions as a super power, particularly in the islands. People look to America for input. The way you look out at America from there– there's more opportunity. There are more consumer goods. There's a toxic relationship that goes on there.

While your work brings up these topics, it's also joyful and exciting and beautiful and interesting and strange and also feels personal enough to your experience. Obviously, there are certain installations such as "Panic Room" that feel like you are more directly addressing these things, but a lot of your work indirectly references these things. Sometimes work that feels too "hit you over the head political" can be less effective.

Yes, the questions and the problems I'm trying to bring up in my work is not just me saying, I'm oppressed. Rather than repeat the problem, I'm trying to contribute to the solution.

I live with all of these subjectivities on a daily basis: being a woman, being a woman of color, being a woman of a certain financial bracket, being a certain shade of blackness, being in this intersectional place of being Caribbean American. There are all these different layers to your experience and the way you engage with the world, and they all happen simultaneously. I could choose to focus on one thing, but I found my voice more authentically. I felt like I wanted to say all of the things.

Your work also comes across as like a joyful celebration... 

Part of that is definitely intentional. It's like setting it up like a tourist trap to lead you into this thing, and then there it gets a little darker and a little heavier...

It is simultaneously a funeral and a tourist trap.

Our conversation drifts toward what Tiffany is currently working on. She gestures toward the current set-up in the studio. There are fake plants, astroturf, a concrete block and a little tube of fake Halloween blood. 

Field Notes on Planting Seeds in Uprooted Gardens

This one's getting pretty dark. I'm going to place myself in the center of it. I'm going to put fake blood. I will be free bleeding, menstruating. [laughing sort of manically]

Shout out to my horror movie fanatic roots and my John Waters fan-ship. I love a little gore and a little twist. I'm thinking a lot about those issues about what we go though as women.

I knew I loved you.

We both devolve into a chorus of giggles and continue talking about her new work. I'm excited to see how it manifests. Tiffany tells me more about her projects that are in progress, and somehow, we bookend our discussion by bringing the topic back to the expectations of women and procreation. I think as women of the same age group who are kind of at that age where this becomes more of a pressure, we naturally slide into this kind of discussion. 

Do you think of your work as your baby?

It's the only thing I have– myself and my voice. 

And maybe that’s not such a bad thing.


Gyan Shrosbree visited by Paolo Arao 


I first came across Gyan Shrosbree’s work on Instagram. I was intrigued by her bold sense of color and curious about the materials she used to make her work. I visited Gyan this past October during her residency at The Maple Terrace in Brooklyn. During our visit we discovered several things we shared in common: moving to NYC in 2000; being at the Vermont Studio Center in January (though not the same year); working with restrictions (materially and in the rectangular frame of the canvas); and a shared interest in textiles/quilting/sewing.

Can you please tell us a little bit about yourself? Where did you go to school and where are you currently located?

I live in Fairfield, Iowa where I teach at Maharishi University. I attended Bennington College right out of high school. I was lucky to work with so many amazing professors in the early part of their careers there —  Amy Sillman, Rochelle Feinstein, and Annabeth Rosen were some of my first college professors.  I was heavily influenced and inspired by these powerful women.  I ended up transferring, but those two years at Bennington were never forgotten and were fundamental to my education.   I received my BFA from The Kansas City Art Institute in Painting, and my MFA from Cranbrook Academy of Art, also in Painting.  I am really grateful for all of the wonderful schools I attended and people I worked with, both peers and faculty, during that time.

How and when did you decide to become an artist? Do you come from an artistic family?

It was never a question.  That is due to my family for sure.  My father is an artist and my mother is a furniture designer and basically an artist.  I was raised being exposed to the life and it was almost like not an option, kind of like I was in training from the time I can remember.  Or maybe more realistically, being an artist was heavily supported in my family, and never something that was questioned.  This was the case, both regarding who I was surrounded by, in terms of family friends, and also in terms of my parents.  I was pushed and challenged, as well as encouraged and nurtured.  I feel really lucky to have had the upbringing and the kind of constant education from the time I can remember.  

I’m intrigued with your bold use of color and materials. Can you please tell me more about how you think about color and the materials used in your process?

I think about color AS a material.  So much of what I do and am inspired by is driven by color—instinctive relationships, intellectual understanding, play, absolute obsession, repulsion, emotion— all of it!  Material is as important to me as color. I use all kinds of materials, but I am always thinking about paint. In my mind I am always painting with these materials.  A new material or color is often the instigator for a new series.  They can function as a refresh button or something in my process.

You’re exploring a variety of gestures with tape. It’s such a direct form of mark-making. The tape is layered, it’s used as color blocking and in some areas the tape appears to function as “stitching.” Is there any significance to the use of this material? 

I don’t know if it is significant that it is tape in terms of a conceptual reason, but I do love the immediacy of the tape. I love the way the marks can build on one another.  I love the residue and smothering and textures that can happen. I love how it can really end up translating as “paint’ or lead you to a conversation about paint.

I’m fascinated with your use of “masculine” hardware store materials. Conceptually are you thinking about these as gendered materials? Can you elaborate?

Yes.  I like that too.  I find it sort of funny.  Like these are typically ‘masculine’ materials for the most part, and then I am kind of ‘feminizing’ them with my color choices and ‘glamorous’ moves (glitter, reflective silver, fringe, etc).  I am also bringing in references to  crafts that have been traditionally thought of as  ‘women’s work’ such as sewing, quilting, and sometimes weaving to further contradict the initial purpose  of the materials.  I am both interested in celebrating these gender moves, and also destroying the ideas that surround them with the hope that we can evolve beyond labels.  

In the works you have hanging up in the studio – you have paintings on canvas in the traditional sense – but they are incised and fragments of the cutouts are collaged onto the edges – breaking the frame of the rectangle. I love this gesture – it’s like you’re nudging at the restriction of the frame. It seems to me like you’re playing with restrictions. Is it important to place restrictions in your process?

YES.  For me restrictions lead to an abundance of work.  They allow me to get into my body and out of my head; to feel grounded in the process of getting the work out.  I love the frame, and playing off of the frame.  It gives me something to come back to in the work, something to work with and against.  I also like the way a frame directs the conversation back to painting.  Rules are made to be broken of course, but they give me the ability to treat the studio like a game and they ground me in the process of getting the job done.  

I see the canvas as a body.  Something to dress up.  With a front and a back.  An interior and an exterior.  For the most part I like hanging them on the wall, and calling them paintings.  Even using the wall to play with shadow and light and color reflectivity and glow.  They walk a line between painting and sculpture and are very much objects to me. 

There’s an obvious influence of textiles and the construction of quilts in your work – this is most evident in the large tarp-pieces. How did you first come to working with the tarp as a material? And what is it about this material that interests you?

Everything!  I like the fact that they are everyday materials.  Like you can just pick one up at any old hardware store. I like the utilitarian nature of a tarp. I like the plasticity of the materials and its relationship to the plastic nature of the acrylic paint that I use.  I like thinking about making these plastic quilts or blankets that are so heavily worked and tended to, and at the same time made with materials that many people would consider temporary or just plain shitty.  I like taking those materials and transforming them into fully worked, bedazzled, vibrant paintings that hopefully transcend the materials that they are made with, but at the same time are still recognizable and MAYBE that makes the work more accessible to a wider range of viewers, and MAYBE it gives an edge of humor to the work that I like to include in the range of emotions that are possible when viewing my work.   

These tarp pieces came from a place of wanting to integrate a more direct drawing practice back into my studio, specifically thinking about drawing with color. I was at a residency and went to the hardware store to find inspiration in a new material. The tape is a perfect partner, marrying to the surface of the tarp, while it is both forgiving and unforgiving. The materials themselves force me to continue to work the surface through the addition of marks. The buildup of the marks adds a physical weight that makes the pieces sag and slump in a tactile way. There is an inability to control the materials to some extent that I find exciting, and adds not only a sense of play to the work, but a sense of process.

You’ve done several residencies. Can you talk about how they have helped/hindered your process? Do you have a favorite residency?

Residencies are awesome!  I never realized how important they were, or how much I could get from having the experiences that they provide. I feel so grateful to have attended every single one of them, and each one was beyond valuable for both me and my work.  Many things can happen depending on timing and what your current needs are.  For me the benefits have been huge in terms of my work and also in terms of friendships.  At each one that I have attended, I have made real, lifelong friendships and made big discoveries in my work that have been lasting and set me onto new territory in the studio.  I don’t have a favorite, but both The MacDowell Colony and Yaddo were unbelievable, once in a lifetime experiences that I will never forget.  I am forever grateful for those places and their generosity.  

Do you listen to anything (music, podcasts, etc. when you work?

It depends.  Sometimes I like complete silence, sometimes music is the right mood.  The music that I listen to varies and seems to be driven by an instinctual connection to the work that I am making at the time.  It needs to be the same music for the entire series usually and then I tend to not want to hear it for a very long time after the series is finished. It is almost like the equivalent of silence because it just becomes a part of the process and is not overpowering in terms of being another element.  I like listening to podcasts, interviews with artists mostly when I am doing things that are more task related—like preparing surfaces and stuff.  

Who are some of your artistic influences?

I am, of course, constantly feeding off of artists and books and shows and films and experiences that I have had in my life. Matisse is one of those influences that has been there from the beginning.  Jessica Stockholder also an early influence.  Elizabeth Murray, Joan Snyder, Cindy Sherman, so many! The Hilma Af Klint show was a mind blower!  My friends and my family are huge in terms of inspiration and influence. 

Knowing what you know now, what piece of advice would you give to your younger artist self?

I would say hold onto the connections that you have with other artists and the people who know your work well.  Nurture those relationships, and be generous.  We are each other's support systems!  

For more information about Gyan please check out her website or Instagram.


Ayana Evans, Baring Truth

Ayana Evans is a wildly charming, radiant force making her way through the world in a neon spandex catsuit. A self-proclaimed “un-edited” girl from Chicago, Evans uses her personal life and experience to produce performance art, photography, video and even some sculpture, painting and printmaking. Her work challenges societal perceptions of black women and in some cases asks the viewer to take on some of those struggles themselves.

From the beginning Evans has straddled the Fashion and Art worlds, deliberately sussing out her personal niche as an artist.  She’s been working in NYC since 2002 and comes from a Painting background with an M.F.A. from Tyler School of Art. Evans admits that as a young artist she was a bit naive about how you get things done as a professional artist.  It took some difficulty to learn how to navigate the seemingly small and cliquey art scene of NYC, but it appears to be paying off. Evans has performed throughout the U.S. as well as in the UK, Ghana and the Caribbean. She has received a SIP Fellowship from the Robert Blackburn Print Shop and is just finishing up a 3-month residency in Manhattan at Artists Alliance Inc.

What strikes me most about Evans is her punk-rock attitude toward life and art-making. Her “act now and apologize later” strategy is right up my ally. She has an endless supply of fascinating stories ranging from crashing fashion show parties to odd interactions with people on the street during one of her physically rigorous performances. I sat down with the artist in her studio space at Artists Alliance in the Lower East Side (one of my favorite buildings in New York City).  For a (mostly) Performance artist I was surprised to find how much was going on in there; experimental monotype and silkscreen printmaking, custom wallpaper designs and a mini photo set complete with her trademark neon animal print spandex. We sat and talked about how she got into performance art from painting, where her performances come from and where it’s all going.

Ayana Evans in her studio at Artist Alliance Inc. 2019

How did you go from studying painting at one of the top ranked schools in the U.S. to becoming a hard core performance artist?

Well I went from a luxurious studio in Grad school to living in a studio apartment with no space for art making. I was making really small work, 10x12 inches cause that was all I could do in this tiny apartment. On top of that I didn’t understand how the art world worked.  I didn’t know to go out and meet people and network and go to openings. I thought that all those opportunities were based on merit. I couldn’t figure it out cause I was a hardworking girl from Chicago! I was a straight A student, I studied Kung Fu, I worked at a soup kitchen since I was 13 and did other community volunteer work, I played classical flute.  And I was good! I was getting really frustrated because I was getting so many rejections, I lost my job and I just decided to quit art. I made an announcement. I quit painting and went into Fashion. It was something I always loved and was interested in so I just went for it. Fashion was the beginning for me.

Fashion led you to Performance Art?

Yes, well I always loved performance art and I would go all over the place to see them.  One night I was at a performance when this woman, who I didn’t know, walked up to me and said, “You’re in fashion.  Why are you here”? I was taken aback, but she was just curious. She could tell that I was out of my realm, even though I thought I was dressed down a bit that night. I told her I just love performance so much and I want to see more, and she lit up and we exchanged numbers. Her name is Lalee, and we laugh about all that now.  We’ve become good friends, but she was really the person who introduced me to performance art all over NYC. In a single night we’d go from a performance in the Bronx, down to the Lower east side and then over to Brooklyn. It was such a fun scene and I’d see so many performers over and over again. You could really see the evolution of people’s work and how it would change it different contexts.  

How did you start performing?

I was hanging out with some girlfriends - and we were talking about fashion and how we wish we could just wear whatever we wanted.  And my friend introduced me to this designer who runs Butch Diva and I had a yellow neon catsuit commissioned as a way to test out my idea of being myself, being comfortable and wearing what I want.  So I got my catsuit and I walked down the street with my friend who had a small handheld camera and that was it. That was my first performance.

Ayana Evans, From the series "Love Letters to LES” 2018, Photos by Karl F. Cooney

Much of your work addresses challenges that black women face or misconceptions about black women.  Does performance art allow you to talk about these issues in a way that another medium wouldn’t?

Yes and no. I think there are a lot of writers that accurately describe verbally what I am trying to describe physically. And, in lesser numbers, there some painters and sculptors who capture similar sentiments and themes to those I am working from. But for me there is an immediacy with performance art and a level of confrontation that can accompany it that I was not able to achieve with other art forms. With performance art the viewer doesn't just have to deal with my choice of words or imagery; they also have to grapple with my actual presence in relation to themselves. This for me is so important that it made performance art my preferred medium to work in.

How do you prepare for a performance?Are they planned? Rehearsed?

They are not rehearsed. I make notes (usually on post-its) for myself or jot down things I want to include or think about well in advance. However, I don’t plan everything out in a rehearsal. I do write down all the steps I plan to take. I literally write everything out and view it mentally like: "1. put shoes to left after you center the performance area. 2.) Walk forward. 3.)Ask for help being wrapped in fabric." --I write this usually the day of the performance or a day before and I STILL always end up changing the piece as I perform because for me part of what I want the audience to see is my response to the space and the moment. If it rains, if the crowd is louder than I expected, if they are quieter than I expected, if the room is too hot... anything can cause the  steps to change because the mood of the audience and myself will change. The initial list makes me feel more prepared. It’s an outline and if I get nervous I have my outline to use as a reference for what to do and what to reject doing or what to do more of in the moment.

I do work with a trainer to help me complete some works or at least not hurt myself during them. Ha! I didn't have him at first though! And I'm still not in the shape of an athlete. That's part of the point though. I'm trying to do things that I may physically fail at doing.

I do not want to rehearse though. That's theater. I'm not doing theater work. It am showing a real life reaction in the moment. It's not acting. It becomes acting if you rehearse.

Plus who is going to rehearse doing jumping jacks for 3 hrs?? I would not advise that.

I do usually prep for the documentation of each performance, meaning I think through what I want it to look like so that I can describe the shots I want(especially with video work) to whoever is helping me with documentation -- I do this less so with photos because I just trust more in that medium. Even if everything imaginable goes wrong I usually like at least 3 photos taken and I only need 3-5 to tell the story, so I’m happy with that. I also  spend quite a bit of time calling in favors or asking for professional help with documentation that I can afford. But it hasn’t always been that way and I would never not do a performance if I didn't have the money or resources for documentation. Some of my best work was never recorded. Nothing replaces the live experience anyway!

Ayana Evans, From the series "Love Letters to LES” 2018, Photos by Karl F. Cooney

Since you’ve had this studio from Artist Alliance has your work changed?  Is this work here related to the performance? (Referring to various 2D work hung around the studio)

Yeah these are monoprints I’ve been doing at the Robert Blackburn Print Studio.  I had a SIP Fellowship over the summer and I have access to their facilities for a full year. So I’ve been working on some prints that I partially make at the printshop and then bring back here and keep working on them. They have a lot of mixed media in them like coffee and baby oil.  I want them to have bits of everyday materials. The monoprints sort of reference the cat suit pattern that I perform in, and then I’m also working on a wallpaper design of a black print on neon green foil paper.

Ayana Evans, From the series "Love Letters to LES” 2018, Photos by Karl F. Cooney

All of your work is very autobiographical. The performances, of course, because of your physical presence, but even the prints you’re working on have some very personal info them.  I’m referring specifically to the large reproduction of your actual Lease for an apartment you rented. Do you ever worry about how close you let people into your life? The short answer is NOPE.

The long answer is I only tell what I don't mind talking about. I also see myself and the work as somewhat inseparable. There is a side of myself that I keep to myself. There are no rules on that though. I just go with what feels right for me. I'm a pretty open person in my daily life. I do not have a lot of secrets and I don't see a lot of topics as "private" even ones society labels as private, so for me sharing a lot of myself works. I like knowing people on a deeper level, including the people who come to my shows. If I am vulnerable, they will be vulnerable in return and we will then know each other better. I want that.

Besides, if you know someone else has a shared experience with you, particularly if it is as bad as being evicted, you feel less alone (or less ashamed) of/within your own personal experiences. That is extremely important to me. Lately I have been thinking this thought pattern will lead to new work, more deeply personal work… I’m just not sure what that new work will be yet though.

What is coming up for you in 2019?

I have a presentation/performance coming up as part of Rape, Representation, and Radicality, The Feminist Art Project Day of Panels 2019 at the CAA conference, curated/organized by  Christen Clifford and Jasmine Wahi. This will take place on Saturday, February 16, 2019 from 8:30 am – 5:30pm, at the NY Hilton Midtown (CAA conference site), in the Trianon Ballroom (3rd floor). I have been given a lot of freedom for this and the oher artists involved are amazing feminist workers, so it should be something to see!  

Also, I am VERY excited about have a solo show coming up that will happen at Cuchifritos Gallery in NYC. This is the final piece of my 2018 residency with ARtists Alliance Inc. The show title is: " A Black Woman's Art Show  and... A White Man's Exhibition." Specifically the exhibitions consider my experience as a Black femme performance artist, often being expected to explain topics of race, gender, and visibility, while subjects of color theory and abstraction presented in the work are often overlooked or ignored and how this blurs into differential treatment for the two categories of artists.

The exhibition will be separated over the gallery’s new and old location. In the old location the exhibition “A Black Woman’s Show” will be staged, while “A White Man’s Exhibition” takes place in the new exhibition space. Through two coinciding exhibitions, I will use performance, audience engagement, photography, monotype prints, wallpapers, and video to ask “what happens if a Black artist doesn't have to sell their Blackness?” Performative public programming, and installation of works will push given expectations of both the Black Woman Artist and the White Male Artist. By pointing to and reaching for the freedoms of a white man, I am asking the same consideration that is extended to a cis white male counterpart be extended to me.


For additional information about Ayana please visit her
website.