Jenn Dierdorf

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

Naudline Pierre, On Belonging

by Jenn Dierdorf

Naudline Pierre’s large-scale figurative painting encapsulates nebulous worlds where Spirit is revered and connection, touch, and belonging reign. I was introduced to Pierre’s work in 2017 at an exhibition called Landing organized by the curatorial collective Life Lessons in NYC.  The exhibition was held in a former convent in Manhattan and may have been the ideal way to view Pierre’s work. Seven different artists’ work was hung in and around the vacated bedrooms where nuns had previously lived for the past 100 years. Pierre’s work occupied one of these rooms.  A large canvas filled with luminescent figures, perhaps aiding her female protagonist, in what appeared to be a tender moment of ritual. Pierre’s large-scale figurative works run parallel to religious icon painting and have strong references to European Renaissance painting, but they are wildly different, and quite exhilarating.

Pierre is the daughter of a pastor and had a rigorous religious upbringing.  She recognized the exclusionary intent behind such institutions as art, religion and education and sought to reconcile this fracture between representation and real life. This experience has influenced her work, but even more so is her innate ability to guide herself, to move towards the direction where she will find her voice. She obtained a technically formal education with the determination to gain an undeniable level of skill in painting which she hoped would prove her worth as an artist.  Luckily she broke through that glass ceiling in the last few years, moving towards a style of painting that feels ripe with wisdom and reaches far beyond language. In many ways Pierre has created an alternate universe, replete with the compassion and love she has taken from her real experience.

I met with Pierre at her Ridgewood Queens studio on a rainy Friday afternoon.  The modest sized studio was sparse, her materials and work space were orderly and neat. A few paintings hung on the wall and some monumental unpainted “canvases in waiting” leaned against the wall. Beautiful light spilled in from an overhead skylight.  

Tread Lightly, 2017,Oil on canvas, 48 x 38 inches

How did you arrive to where you are at with painting?

I always had a connection to figurative art, especially Renaissance painting,but I knew it wasn't created for me. I wanted to see myself in those paintings.  I think that’s why I create this other world, another experience. In terms of my education, I thought that my value as an artist was going to be in the incredible skill of rendering the figure in a more photo-realistic way.  I learned “the rules” of painting and then I got to a place where I needed to get outside of the rules. I was awarded a residency in France, on the property of Monet’s gardens. I was painting a lot of foliage at the time, but before I got there I resolved to paint solely from my imagination.  It was a catalyst to creating the work I’m making now. After graduating with my MFA, I leaned into all the things I was hesitant of in grad school; my religious upbringing, my Blackness, my color sense. In order to more clearly hear my voice, I stepped away from all the feedback and critique and comments from others and locked myself in my studio.  

I’m always fascinated by how artists use their studio practice as a tool for their own intellectual and psychic well-being - you reference a problematic genre of painting, European renaissance, which you’ve adapted in ways that address those issues, can you talk about why you chosen to reinterpret that style and what you’re adding to it?

When I make this imagery I’m making the things that I want to see in the world. I tell myself that I don’t have to carry the burdens of systems that I didn’t create. I don’t have to actively think about being Black or the political climate when I paint for it to filter in, because I absorb and experience all those things. Which is why I have to be selective about who I surround myself with and who I let in - I block out certain things to be able to create this work.  With painting, I’m not trying to replace anything - but I’m simply creating a world where I hold the power and get to do whatever I want. By proxy that is political, it is adding to the narrative, adding to the greater story of Black people in general. There are many burdens I have to carry every single day - the major aggressions, the microaggressions, the experiences that I have to take on, just to get to my studio. I don’t have to carry the world - all I have to do is make this painting.  And I’m making this painting for myself.

The Thrill of Affection, 2018, oil on canvas, 30 x 24 inches

How do you start a painting?

I keep a small notebook and draw up tiny thumbnail drawings of different compositions that I want to explore. If I’m feeling stuck I might look at some of my favorite artists like Caravaggio, Ensor, Titan and Blake. I went to the Prado this summer and since photos aren’t allowed inside I was scribbling like crazy in my notebook looking at compositions.  One work, “The Descent from the Cross” by van der Weyden has some great moments, the body of Christ, the tears, the nubby fingers, all of it was giving me inspiration, but when I saw the figure holding Christ’s elbow from above, it was a beautiful tender moment.  That became the composition for an entire painting. Sometimes I may take directly from these historical, religious paintings, but most times it’s inspired by them. Or it may be a feeling or sensation I’m reaching for, like how the sky meets the earth or a certain type of light.  Every painting starts with her (gestures toward that female protagonist in her paintings) I’ve tried making them without her and it just doesn’t work.

I’ve heard you describe your work as “painting emotions”, which I agree describes your work beautifully.  There’s a feeling of temporality and ephemerality that your work touches on as if your imagery goes beyond language. Can you talk about what your experience is like, as an artist, working beyond the boundaries of verbal or intellectual understanding?

The place beyond the boundaries of verbal and intellectual understanding  is a very comfortable place for me because that’s where I was raised. A place where you believe in miracles and all of the stories and biblical tales of people being healed and raised from the dead and receiving signs.  It’s a place where I can have control because I’m making the images, but I can be held by the images as well. I don’t have to understand them completely and I don’t have to know what’s going on or have an answer. I’m in love with paint and pigments. The act of painting is like a prayer to me.  To move this material around on a blank canvas and produce images, it is like a miracle. It’s definitely a spiritual practice and it’s a way for me to connect to love, benevolence and God.  Painting is how it all makes sense to me.

Black Crown, Black Hat, 2017, Oil and enamel on canvas, 48 x 38 inches

Your color palette is dark but also colorful and I think serves the emotional content of your work.  Can you talk about how you’ve settled on these colors, how you chose them for a painting? Is color symbolic for you?

Color is definitely an intuitive process for me, and it’s difficult to put into words. I love the way artificially-made pigments vibrate against earth pigments. I paint with colors I gravitate to and colors that make me feel. I’m sure there is a symbolic reason woven into my color choices, like how red is a power color, but I’m fine just letting my gut take the lead, supplemented by more formal understanding of color relationships.

Additional Information:
Pierre is currently working towards two major projects in 2019: a two-person presentation at The NYC Armory in March and a solo exhibition in September in L.A., both with Shulamit Nazarian. For more on Naudline Pierre’s work visit her website or @cluvie on social media.

Eye See, 2017, Oil and enamel on canvas, 40 x 26 inches

Sahana Ramakrishnan: Making Myth

I met Sahana Ramakrishnan in 2017 during her solo show at Field Projects and instantly felt an affinity toward her and her work.  From the onset she conveyed a strong sense of commitment to her practice as an artist but there was also a bit of humor and subversion visible in her paintings and her wry wit.  Her work is deeply rooted in drawing and she’s not afraid to bring in whatever materials are necessary to realize her work.  Colorful beads and gemstones, hair, rope, blood and a variety of fabrics and trim can be found throughout her works on paper.  

Sahana just started a series of mixed media scroll drawings that investigate, among other things, our relationship to animals and the natural world.  She carefully hand-stitches her paintings on to beautifully handwoven silks from India and fits each end with wood dowels. All of her work is treated with a high quality of craftsmanship and attention to detail. I sat down with her recently to talk about the narratives that appear in her work, her studio process and what’s coming next. 

I see you’re starting to work with a scroll format in your work, is that a departure from what you were doing or part of an ongoing practice? 

It’s new. It came about after I finished making a piece called “Her body moves through nebulous time (Only the Gods Know the Trick)”. I had installed it for my solo at Field Projects - it was a large piece, all on paper, and I hung it from rods like a tapestry. The ventilation in the room made the painting wave very gently at the bottom and it felt so organic and natural to me that I wanted to experiment with the format more. With my treatment of the paper like fabric with stitching, collaging, and what I like to think of as skin grafts - cutting out sections and stitching in sections from other works or the same work - it seemed to be a logical step to have the pieces sit somewhere between drawing and tapestry or scrolls. 

I am thinking about animals and our relationship to them, as well as their relationship to other animals. This is the first one and I want to make more. My previous work has more “skin grafts” and things getting cut out and stitched in and that’s something I want to bring to this new body of work.  I use a lot of ferric chloride in my work to treat the paper.  It makes the paper feel like leather. It’s the tone of deer skin or leather, and it changes the paper so it’s smooth and feels like skin. Like drawing on skin. When I’m cutting and stitching I feel like I’m doing surgery or making skin grafts. 

There is a great tactility to your work.  The richness of the paper contrasted with beads, hair, jewels and other objects that add a bit of whimsy. Even in the way you construct a painting - adding paper and images when and where you want. It grows out from a center. Can you talk about that? Will that be part of the new work as well? 

Yes, it’s very freeing. That’s one of the reasons I like paper as opposed to canvas, where the parameters are defined for you at the start. Paper allows for a more organic experience so that the idea can grow itself. If I start with making a drawing and the drawing feels like it can be continued, I’ll just slap on another paper and stitch them together and continue. It allows a back and forth between me and what’s in front of me. The scrolls feel a little different in that I have more of a predetermined size and the malleability plays out in what can be taken away and what can be added by slicing and stitching, but when it comes down to it, it’s a very similar mentality - The surface of the drawing is as malleable and plastic as a skin. It has scars from when things didn’t go right and that adds to it. I hate planning out my images beforehand. 

Vasilisa, 2017

I love that you allow that to happen, it really demonstrated the type of relationship you have to your work.  Have you ever painted on regular stretched canvas? 

Yeah, but I thought those works felt static. It was harder for me to add different materials and to stitch things together. Eventually, I would destroy a lot of my paintings, and put them in to drawings or works on paper. In fact, the same piece I mentioned earlier, (Her Body Moves Through Nebulous Time (Only the Gods Know the Trick)) has a painting within the painting. I made this small painting of a horse on burlap stretched over canvas, but it was boring as hell on its own. I cut it out and put it into this larger work, so now it’s this phallic hobbyhorse type thing and it works perfectly.

That’s the work from your show A Night In The Woods, which also had some sculpture elements to it.  Do you work in sculpture too?  

Yeah the trees! They were also on little rollers so they could be moved around the gallery.  That imagery is also used in the same painting. It was a way to reference the archetype of the young, innocent girl travelling through the woods to carry out a task who, in the process, undergoes a transformation into maturity. A forest of movable trees is designed to confuse someone. It’s my way of alluding to your environment being a setup designed to test you; a way to bring up the question of control, destiny or “God”. My favorite example of this young girl archetype is Vasilisa. It’s Russian. In the story of Vasilisa, this young girl is sent out by her (awful) stepmother to go into the forest and find Baba Yaga, whom they expected would kill her. Vasilisa goes into the woods.  She has with her a small doll in her pocket that was given to her by her mother as she died. It represents a transition of the intuition and wisdom of the mother to the daughter, as it slowly blossoms into your own. She finds Baba Yaga and the old witch gives Vasilisa a series of challenges and if she completes them she will be allowed to live. The girl consults her doll and by some weird and very convenient magic is able to complete all of Baba Yaga’s challenges. Baba Yaga gives the girl a small skull and sends the girl back home, without telling her what the skull is for.  When the stepmother sees Vasilisa coming back home she is absolutely shocked that this young girl is still alive.  She sees the skull in her hand and grabs it from the Vasilisa and as soon as she touches it she instantly bursts into flames. 

That story - the journey of the naive girl going into the woods and having this experience that causes her to learn something about herself - is what I wanted this work to speak to. The trees on wheels are the props that make up the staged set. It’s confusing and terrifying and designed so that she gets lost, and this is the drama that plays out, and how she finds herself more deeply. It’s a contemplation on the idea of destiny and control. 

Her Body Moves Through Nebulous Time (Only the Gods Know the Trick), 2017

Is this “coming-of-age” tale a recurring theme in your work? 

The exhibition “A Night in the woods” was all about that idea. And the idea of going into deep space and finding yourself.  Now I’m less interested in coming of age and more interested in the many different ways that we relate to animals, and our interconnectedness with them and how this has been expressed throughout myth and art historically. Another significant interest of mine is in those moments in mythology where logic breaks down and magic happens. I feel These points are significant because they revert and reduce us to a state of childlike wonder - talk about beauty! They relax and open up our minds to possibility, creativity, and interpretation. I’m curious about what that means spiritually, and whether this is something that influences my process or the subject matter is something I’m mapping out now. Muay thai and fighting have also grown to be huge influences on my work.

Do you use your work to sort out things happening in your life? Like were you focused on this theme in these works because you yourself were going through a similar experience? Not necessarily coming of age, but finding yourself, so to speak. Do you find stories or myths that relate to experiences you’re having in the world? 

Yeah, I think that is true. I think that I have definitely used myth as a tool to process things happening in my life. In 2017 I had just gotten heavily into Muay Thai, and I felt that I was sort of finding my own confidence and self through the sport - it’s so similar to drawing and art in that it’s a beautiful mesh of technique, mastery and self-expression. The works from last year and earlier were me trying to express the process of searching for myself through this new medium (by medium I mean Muay Thai). I felt lost all over again, (I was getting beaten up a lot) and painting gave me the ability to step back and observe this process from a distance. Myth is there for us when we need it. To inspire us to process our lives and our relationships with our environment and others with distance and a refined wisdom. I also just want to give a shoutout here to the book “Women Who Run With Wolves”, by Clarissa Pinkola Estees, because it really helped me process certain stories from a feminist, and very compassionate viewpoint. 

Now I do look a lot at myths and archetypes, but they are chopped and skewed. I’m more interested in developing my own painting language and vocabulary of symbols that sits somewhere in some shifting place between different cultures, geographies and histories. That’s how I feel, and I think that’s how my generation feels too. We’re from everywhere at once: born one country, grown up in another and transformed into an adult in yet another. Fusion and hybridity are very important to me, both in the formal aspects of how the surface and object of the drawings function, in the image/content/subject matter, and in the narratives. 

It’s Probably Too Hot [detail] 2018

When we talk about using your art to process things you’re experiencing in the world, I know a lot of artists had a difficult time after the election.  We were trying to make sense of what it meant to be a woman or person of color or an immigrant, living in the U.S. and what it meant that a person like #notmypresident could get as much support as he did.  I personally felt a huge sense of disappointment in my country and even a sense of rejection. Did that affect your work at all? 

I enjoy your refusal to use his name. What I got from that was that there was such a divide within the country that a big part of the population felt ignored by the system that was in place that they chose to use “He Who Shall Not Be Named” to lash out. That’s a massive generalization, but what struck me was the lack of empathy and the villainization of entire groups of people to the point of absurdity. It’s curious to me because I’ve grown up in a generation and country where different cultures are seamlessly interwoven within each individual. It was absolutely a privilege to grow up like this. It was initially strange for me coming America and seeing many people who never left it. South East Asia is so interconnected with Asia, Europe, USA, Australia. It’s hard because the US feels so geographically far from everybody else (except of course South America and Canada).

I don’t know if my reaction to the election came up in my art, but I started teaching art in 2017 and my teachings were definitely guided by what I felt was needed culturally. Kids can be extremely empathetic, and I think it’s important to educate them about expression, cultures, values and customs that are different from their own at a young age. It’s important to make sure the next generation is educated well, and that we do our best given the time and resources we have. 

Untitled, 2018

Using myth as a personal tool to process something. What does that look like? 

I would describe this as when you’re feeling lots of conflicting feelings that can’t be described with words or language, images often can articulate those feelings.  This is why I love painting and was drawn to it as a child and teenager. I sucked at expressing what I felt and thought and related to the world in words. In an art-object, things that are polar opposite - or not even on the same plane in terms of verbal logical thought - can co-exist and have relationships that you could only otherwise feel with your “gut-mind”. Drawings can speak to something that’s complicated or dissonant or abject, and articulate that experience in a way that is beautiful and opens up the heart and mind.  

I read about myth and how it’s interpreted in order to have the language and framework of those stories - often in the forms of narrative tropes, symbols and archetypes. These symbols and archetypes are understood (sometimes differently) across cultures - they appear in stories and artwork throughout history and they are little cues into the narratives that viewers can latch onto. I throw them into the sahana-blender and serve them up in mutated and hybrid forms in order to express more accurately whatever it is I want to express. This could include the way I feel internally, the way I perceive the stories of other people. I am inspired also by my relationships with the men in my life, there’s an obvious power dynamic, and yet vulnerability, and love and all these things tied in to it. 

Does your need or desire to stitch disparate parts together come out of a feeling of separation or displacement?  

Yes, but it’s different from feeling separate. It’s as though feeling like an alien. How did I end up here?  Feeling that the place you’re in is bizarre and wonderful and that you’re so irrevocably connected to it to the extent of you being hollow and transparent, and yet you are distant and from somewhere else. Its double-think and I’m still trying to understand. Buddhism helps.  It’s not that you can’t access it or experience this world and your experiences, or love them, it’s just a sense that you’re from another place. It’s detachment, but not in a negative sense. 

Even what we perceive to be ownership of our own body, is illusory. Women experience this all the time. We straddle the line between being objects and subjects. Everybody’s body does this but women are often forced to be more painfully aware of it. Bodies are as much objects as they are occupied with life. Let me rephrase that. Our bodies are more bacteria than they are human. Is that ownership? Or is this body an opportunity through which we can experience the world? A responsibility and a shared experience?

Do you feel like your work is illustrating these ideas and questions? Or is it more abstract? 

No, I don’t think that I would be able to do that. Not consciously. These are just things I think about, which usually has ways of seeping in, but I think it might be hilarious for me to approach these ideas head-on because they are so abstract and have been approached in psychedelic art and whatnot. It could make for some real kitschy, funny work though - who knows? My images come to me more intuitively and are often collaged. I’ll draw a bunch - especially studies - of disparate things I am curious or thinking about, and some of them ask to be elaborated on and these guys sometimes get to be more realized images, coming together with other studies and drawings I’ve made to form a larger or more specific narrative. 

And now you’re thinking of animals and their relationship to humans? 

When I was little all I would draw was animals and Spongebob. And I’m an only child so that was my idea of a good time - drawing animals and Spongebob. My mum kept everything, so she has a bunch of Spongebob and animal drawings in her house. I would draw pictures from books of animal and dinosaur stories that I had. I was always drawing giraffes, and dinosaurs and big cats. I remember this one drawing I was trying to make of a jaguar climbing down a tree that for the life of me I couldn’t get the foreshortening right on and I had a massive temper tantrum and ripped up the drawing and chucked my pencil around the room. I was 7 if that makes this sound any better. I loved books about animals and their stories and my parents, especially my dad, loved learning about animals and making an effort to go and see them or study them in the wild. My favorite book was one called “When Hippo was Hairy and Other Tales From Africa”, with all sorts of animal moral folk tales from different regions and tribes around Africa. 

I’ve always felt strongly that animals are extremely intelligent (no, I’m not a vegetarian but I limit the amount of meat and fish that I eat) and get frustrated with the school of thought that animals aren’t sentient beings. It pisses me off because it feels so ignorant and close-minded. And thinking about the problems we have with people identifying with people of another race, or men identifying with women. If we take it one step further to think about how we identify with and relate to animals, if we can make that leap, and have empathy for something outside ourselves, it could be great. Now we’re in the Anthropocene and there’s a need for massive action to help our planet survive and I wonder sometimes if our ability to empathize with animals is part of that process and a step towards that reconciliation. I’m not trying to fix anything, but I think an important question to ask is what are the ways we currently and historically relate to animals? What are the ways we will relate to animals in the future? It’s funny because the way I phrase these questions now its sounds like there’s a duality/opposition between human and animal, but that’s not the way I feel. That’s why for me painting is the place in which this question can be expressed more accurately in all its various mutations and incarnations. I’m working on it. The drawings are the result of my process of trying to understand this - they are what gets shared with the world. There is no finished answer, only searching. 

For more information on Sahana’s work please visit her website.

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: