This is the third installment of the Vox Lacunae artist interview series. Vox Lacunae features work by Sobia Ahmad, Sera Boeno, Marta Gutierrez, Nilou Kazemzadeh, Jason Kuo, Kim Llerena, and Yuli Wang.
Kim Llerena | Artist | Exhibiting in Vox Lacunae from July 18th to August 22nd, 2018 at The Stamp Gallery | University of Maryland, College Park | Interview by Kat Mullineaux
Before we get started talking about your work in Vox Lacunae, I’d like our readers to get some more information about you. Where are you from and how did you become based in Washington DC?
I grew up in Maryland but went to undergrad in New York. After a few years working at an arts non-profit, I went back to grad school for my MFA at MICA in Baltimore. From there I found teaching opportunities in D.C. and have now been in D.C. for five years.
You received your MFA in Photographic & Electronic Media from a university not too far from UMD: MICA in Baltimore. Were you always interested in photography as an artistic medium or did this interest start after your time in undergrad? Have you always been an artist?
I have been interested in photography since I was a kid. Most of my family members are artists, actually – we’ve got a painter, a print-maker, a musician, a writer, a filmmaker, and me! So, almost every medium is covered! I regretted not majoring in Photography or Art in undergrad, but I was always making my own work. I decided to pursue it seriously by going back for my MFA.
In your prints you take a 3D form of writing meant for the blind, Braille, and flatten it into 2D images that are transformed with dynamic colors, making them a feast for the eye in an ironic twist. What draws you to photography of something like the braille text in the prints from your series “Ekphrasis”?
The idea for this series emerged from a lot of thinking and reading in grad school – my program at MICA changes the way that I think about the medium. It made me more thoughtful, more critical, and more informed about its history and implications. Photography has always been characterized in dualities (art/document, truth/fiction, etc.) For my thesis project, I wanted to both address my frustrations with the medium (how it strips something from the subject, how it can never fully transcribe even though we accept it as the most truthful artistic tool) while simultaneously celebrating it (in the flattening, it creates a digestible, aesthetic, permanent art object, which is proof of this “truthful” medium’s inherent subjectivity).
Also, why braille? Do you have a connection to this sort of language/transcription or the blind community? Is your interest aesthetically based? Or is it both?
Right – I guess I didn’t exactly answer this question of “why Braille?” in the last question, did I? Well, in thinking of the best way to communicate this duality (powers/limitations of the medium), I thought about what subject matter would allow me to strip away its utility but in doing so create a new, previously unrelished aesthetic piece. I was thinking a lot about vision, language, text, codes… Braille came to mind. The work is less about the use of Braille by the blind community and more about what it allowed me to say about photography and 2D art-making.
I wonder then what your thoughts are on the inaccessibility of the language in your prints to most. By taking away the 3D nature of braille those that usually consume the text cannot do so, and on the flip side, those that visually consume the artworks are held out at arm’s length by most people’s lack of ability to read braille. What do you think about the distance between art and viewer? Do you enjoy the mystery that is attached to this distance?
Yes, exactly – this tension is very important to the work. Both audiences are unable to fully, completely access the work. It’s not to be cruel or to make something specifically inaccessible to a group of people. The tension is more about recognizing the role of the photograph as both limited and powerful at the same time; the Braille is a tool for highlighting an instance in which the photograph flattens something 3D to the point of rendering that thing useless, but in the process turning it into an object of purely visual admiration for someone else (presuming that most sighted people cannot read Braille, but can appreciate the patterns, colors, etc. seen in the large prints). Viewers are supposed to feel a bit tense, even frustrated, trusting that the title of the piece accurately describes what’s happening in the Braille text that they can’t appreciate verbally, but hopefully can appreciate visually.
I love the way your images are a series of layers. Transcription of familiar texts like The Giver in your piece “I think it’s what you call seeing-beyond” Jonas said brings in intimacy and nostalgia that surprised me. As you engage with the touch of red that begins to absorb the bottom of the image, the text depicts the character of Jonas describing the color red–something that was unfamiliar in his life of black and white. How do you think of this back and forth between popular literature or whatever is being transcribed affect the visual experience of the pieces?
You said it well – layers. That’s also what I appreciate most about the work. First I took the text that I wanted to describe or visualize (usually it had some relation to art, photography, or vision). Then I knew that I was going to be transcribing the passage into Braille and re-photographing it, so I thought about how the colors, lighting, and printing could just hint at what was contained in the passage. For this one, the seeping of red into Jonas’ black & white life looked to me like the reddish light leak that often happens by mistake in analog photography – so I caused a light leak. (Sidenote: some of the texts were kindly printed for me the the National Federation for the Blind in Baltimore, where I had been doing research for this project, and some of them I learned to hand-punch myself.)
The colors in “Ekphrasis” (a word meaning the description of a work of art) are intense and saturated. What does this use of color do to the braille–to the language?
For me the color was another tool to hint at what was being discussed in the passages, another clue for the viewers who presumably cannot read Braille by sight – Van Gogh’s painting contains a lot of green, the night sky can take on shades of navy blue, and there really is no way to describe “Red” other than with itself…
“Ekphrasis” was created in 2012. Would you mind telling me a little bit about what your art has consisted of since this series?
This was my MFA thesis work, and to be honest, it’s visually quite different from what I’ve been doing since then. After grad school, I started teaching and taking summer road trips – my friend, who is also an artist, and I have taken three road trips so far all around the country. Most of my work has been focused on the human relationship to place and landscape, and how we assert ourselves upon the landscape, especially in the American West.
What is on the horizon for you artistically?
I have a collaborative project with my friend and road-trip partner, Nancy Daly, opening in Tennessee in September and traveling to Florida in April. I also have a show coming up next year at BlackRock in Germantown that will be all new landscape-driven work from my most recent road trip.
Any last thoughts you would like to add about Vox Lacunae as a whole or your work in the show specifically?
It’s been a wonderful show to be a part of – everything in the show addressed the theme in a unique way, which is what made this group exhibition so cohesive and thoughtful. Thank you for including me!
Thank you very much to Kim Llerena from the Stamp Gallery. We wish her the best in all her future endeavors.
Llerena’s work is included in Vox Lacunae at The Stamp Gallery of the University of Maryland, College Park, from from July 18th to August 22nd, 2018.
For more information on Kim Llerena, visit http://kimllerena.com/ .
For more information on Vox Lacunae and related events, visit https://wp.me/PG50y-fi .
This is the second installment of the Vox Lacunae artist interview series. Vox Lacunae features work by Sobia Ahmad, Sera Boeno, Marta Gutierrez, Nilou Kazemzadeh, Jason Kuo, Kim Llerena, and Yuli Wang.
Sobia Ahmad | Artist | Exhibiting in Vox Lacunae from July 18th to August 22nd, 2018 at The Stamp Gallery | University of Maryland, College Park | Interview by Erin Allen
Before we begin talking about the works you have in the exhibition, let’s get to know you. Where are you from, what’s your artistic background, and how did you get into art?
I was born and raised in Pakistan and moved to the US when I was 14, a little over a decade ago. I studied Studio Art and Behavioral and Community Health at University of Maryland, College Park. I wanted to work in a field that served people. I didn’t really think art was a way to serve so didn’t actively consider becoming an artist until after a personal encounter with an illness. I began taking some art classes. I quickly realized how art became a safe space, a sanctuary, that allowed me to explore my multifaceted identity of being an immigrant, a Muslim, and female in the US. I found it not only therapeutic emotionally, but also saw that it allowed me to communicate larger issues beyond my own existence, like socio-political ideologies and how those affect community and personal narratives. I felt a strong pull to dive deeper, so I got two degrees: Behavioral and Community Health and Studio Art. Later, it became more and more clear to me that art IS a way to serve people. I’m also really drawn to how art can allow for collective healing in the face of adversity.
In Mirror, you display “the often under recognized fluidity of the Muslim female in relation to Hijab.” Can you speak a bit more about the way that the intersection of these identities impacts your work?
Mirror is a very vulnerable piece. I made it at a time when several questions about selfhood were arising within me and I was trying to reconcile my various identities – an artist, a woman, an immigrant, an American, a Muslim, an individual caught between vastly contrasting worlds. One night I was in my studio during the Honors Program in my last year at UMD and I was experimenting with putting the hijab on and taking it off, and rearranging it. I was by myself and I didn’t have a mirror. I began to look into the camera, seeing it almost as a placeholder for a mirror. This later became as if I was looking directly at the viewer. The camera becomes the viewer. I was not planning to share the video, but made the decision to. It now feels like I’m inviting the world into my personal space, and I’m inviting you into my personal dilemmas. So, speaking to your question about the fluidity of identity: as a Muslim woman, and as an artist, there is a certain expectation, not only from your own community but also from the art world to uphold your identity as a Muslim woman in very specific ways. There is a certain way a Muslim woman is supposed to look. You’re oppressed or you’re too liberated; you are always labeled. So while making this video, I was thinking about the dualities and dichotomies of existence and identity in that way, but also fluidity of personal beliefs. I’m really interested in the varying symbolism of cultural and religious items and articles and their associations with identity within personal and political contexts. Once considered a symbol of oppression due to Western hegemonic influence, the headscarf now has become a symbol of political resistance. Identities are in constant flux, whether due to internal or external factors. Right around 2016, I made the decision to not wear the headscarf. That was a very personal decision – neither a political statement, nor a religious one. It was a deeply spiritual decision, where I felt like I wanted to embody modesty and my relationship with the Divine in an authentic way and I began shedding layers of expectations that didn’t serve my personal spiritual quest at the time. Yet, I mourned the loss of a part of my identity for quite some time. I’m not sure what the future holds. Again, identities are ever-changing.
Given the political climate surrounding religious headdress, how do you believe showing the intimacy of donning Hijab in Mirror, and reflecting that onto the viewer, helps convey the risk of this everyday action to a Western audience?
I suppose the risk here is not directly about violence in the current political climate. I’m not overtly referencing that. The connection to risk is subtle – I guess it’s the risk of being misunderstood. It’s almost an invitation for the viewer into my deeply intimate struggles of forming and questioning identity, rather than convey the political relevance of the headscarf today. That being said, the work will never be apolitical, no matter what my intentions were while creating. I think social, cultural, political landscapes, as well as people’s personal, inner landscapes, will always play a role in how someone – be they “Western audience,” or a Muslim woman – understands or relates to the work. I’m not just speaking to a Western audience; I’m also speaking to Muslim women. I’m speaking to my mother, my own community as well. Taking a personal practice into the realms of public performance is a way for me to use intimate struggles of identity and belonging to draw connections with larger conversions about womanhood.
So in Mirror, the screen itself acts as a way to reflect back on the audience, thus making them very much a part of the work. Similarly, in Fate, you juxtapose a very permanent material like ink onto transparent plexiglass, adding changing shadows and other impermanent aspects to the work. What role do the mediums you’ve used in these pieces play in their political and cultural significance?
I’m really interested in intersections of art, activism, and womanhood. Most of my work sits at that intersection of how can art become a tool of raising awareness about issues of social justice, as well as communicate about identity as a female, as a woman. Most mediums that I’ve used in my work are very feminine and delicate, and conceptually they speak to the themes I’m exploring. The ink in Fate is permanent, but the plexiglass is transparent; when light is reflected on the piece, it shifts the shadows of my hands – the palm line becomes stretched or they shrink, referencing the ever-changing nature of identity. In Mirror, you don’t see a physical mirror, but you are the mirror that I’m looking into. Here, the viewer’s gaze itself becomes a medium. By choosing to title the work “Mirror”, I’m using what is considered a feminine object for beautification as a medium to challenge notions of womanhood. The delicate chiffon fabric in When Denied Home We Build a Memory Palace is also using this same idea of letting the materials and mediums communicate the concept. The chiffon is not hemmed; it was cut hurriedly. Threads are coming out of it. It references impermanence of home for an immigrant, both physically and metaphorically. I’m referencing injustices on both personal and broader levels. When denied a physical home due to unjust policies – ranging from persecution of religious minorities in Pakistan to US foreign policy of drone attacks in Asia, Middle East and Africa to, most recently, the Muslim Ban and overall structural racism and institutional discrimination in US – you begin searching for a home that’s not tangible. You begin carrying home in images, memory, and language. So speaking to the immigrant experience, I collaged my own memories of my childhood home and wrote repetitively in Urdu on the chiffon to create a home that cannot be taken from me – a memory palace. The medium may be delicate, but it holds a lot of weight due to several layers of strong political and cultural references. So, I’m using the mediums to materialize the connections between deeply intimate struggles of belonging and the larger conversations about the intersection of art, womanhood, and social change.
How does the intersection of fate and self determination culminate in your work?
Concepts of fate, and references to cultural or religious practices serve as starting points for a lot of my work, but I think my work doesn’t end there. It allows me to draw connections for a larger audience and raise questions about how can we talk about complexities of selfhood, hyphenated identities, and trans-nationality, which is all politicized. I’m also really interested in how can we transcend expectations and really explore fluidity. This is almost a spiritual practice for me, which I’m currently trying to explore through art. I’m not sure if I’ve really figured out what it all means. But questioning is the key, both in art practice and my spiritual path: questioning every cultural, religious, or socio-political assumption or expectation that is thrust upon us. Through inner exploration, I’m trying to reimagine concepts like fate, faith, individual agency, and their relevance to larger social, religious and political systems.
A quote from Obaidullah Aleem (“How are they to know the depths of your sorrows/ those who only meet you on the surface.”) reoccurs in your works. What drew you to his writings?
This is going back to intimate struggles and how those sit in the larger context of community narrative and not just personal narrative. My dad used to listen to his [Aleem’s] ghazals. When I was fourteen, I found a book of his Urdu poetry in my dad’s bedroom once. Some of his work references persecution of the religious minority group that my family belongs to, which he was also a part of. He also commented on the political system of Pakistan in his poems. Yet, most of his work is about human passions, of love, attraction, loss. Growing up in a somewhat, I would say, conservative Muslim family, his work inspired me to show up as myself and not as a representative of any community that I belonged to. I began identifying a lot with how he used his art to not only raise awareness about social issues but also unapologetically embraced and shared his human desires of love. Some of his poems, I think, are unapologetically sensual – this was something I was not used to seeing at all in the community. It wasn’t until years later that his work informed a little bit of decision making for me – I decided that I want to liberate myself from the expectation and burden of being a representative. I also realized that my work is can be deeply intimate, vulnerable, and at times sensual, (though it’s different for a woman) and simultaneously political.
Are there any other artists that you take inspiration from?
I’m really inspired by Mona Hatoum’s work, and I’ve also been recently studying works by Ana Mendieta, Walid Raad, and other artists whose work is about displacement, geography, language, and history. Recently, I’ve been reading and thinking a lot about James Baldwin’s writings on the creative process and I’m finding them deeply spiritual. They’re helping me draw connections between my art practice, my personal narrative, social-justice, collective healing, as well as my personal spiritual quest of knowing Divinity and myself.
In relation to the overarching theme of this exhibition, how do you think art can bridge the gaps that are inherent in language?
Language, in this context, can have various connotations, not just another tongue. We all speak various languages – social, cultural, religious, political languages. Art itself is a language and it’s universal. I’m a strong believer in the power of art for social change. I believe that art allows us to question, to rebel, to provoke, to answer our own questions, but also elicit a certain response from others. I think art speaks to the humanity of an individual. I really think that visual art, or art in general, can really help us leave the concept of “the other” behind and understand each other on a deeply human level.
How do you see your art in relation to the other pieces in the gallery?
I think what’s really remarkable about this show is the depth and the variety of cultural backgrounds of artists and how the element of language appears in very different ways – from explicitly written, to very subtle. I really enjoy how I learned about the artists’ cultural backgrounds and connected with them on an intimate level, past the visual aesthetics. It’s interesting to see Mirror as the only video in the show, in which the reference to language is sound, not written.
Is there anything else you’d like to add? Upcoming projects or plans?
My practice is increasingly becoming socially engaged. I’m currently working on a project about Muslim immigrants called “Small Identities.” Circling back to what you said about how art can bridge the gap between languages or cultures, I’m thinking about how can we use art as a tool for activism. How can art not be elite, but a community experience? I’m collecting ID photos of Muslim immigrants, transferring these photos onto Islamic-shaped tiles, drawing contemporary interpretations of Islamic architecture and Islamic art to speak about identity and home. I’m responding to the Muslim Ban through this deeply personal and simultaneously political project. It’s an ongoing project and I’m now conducting interviews with people who decline to submit their photos. It’s kind of becoming this time capsule of documenting fears of my immigrant Muslim community.
If you would like to submit an ID photo, or share why you do not feel comfortable doing so, please contact Sobia at MuslimImmigrantsArtProject@gmail.com.
Sobia Ahmad’s work is included in Vox Lacunae at The Stamp Gallery of the University of Maryland, College Park, from July 18th to August 22nd, 2018.
For more information on Sobia Ahmad, visit https://www.sobiaahmad.com/.
For more information on Vox Lacunae and related events, visit thestamp.umd.edu/stamp_gallery.
This is the first installment of the Vox Lacunae artist interview series. Vox Lacunae features work by Sera Boeno, Sobia Ahmad, Jason Kuo, Yuli Wang, Kim Llerena, Marta Gutierrez, and Nilou Kazemzadeh.
Sera Boeno | Artist | Exhibiting in Vox Lacunae from July 18th to August 22nd, 2018 at The Stamp Gallery | University of Maryland, College Park | Interview by Erin Allen
Before we begin discussing the works you have in the exhibition, let’s get to know you. Where are you from, and what is your artistic background?
Born and bred in Istanbul, Turkey. I moved to the States to attend Dartmouth College where I double majored in Neuroscience and Studio Art with a focus in sculpture.
Does your experience with neuroscience ever come up when making your pieces?
Yes. Definitely. I would say at various degrees, from pieces that are directly inspired by neuroscience texts to those that borrow a scientific research methodology in their conceptualization. Even in terms of formal decision, I find myself thinking about perception of different colors, biases towards text vs. image, abstract vs. formal content etc.
Kelimeler Kıyafetsiz (Words Naked / Are Not Enough) is directly influenced by gender-related power struggles throughout history in Turkey. Could you speak a bit more about the historical context of your work?
I think of Kelimeler Kıyafetsiz as text research: an ongoing collection of quotes extracted from current Turkish mainstream media, which refer to women or use the word in them. This collection of quotes has now become a mini archive of representation of women in current day Turkey, representing the conservative push in my motherland over the last decade and a half. The text is embossed in concrete on to archaeological forms that denote that while the immediate subject matter is contemporary, the omission of women from representation is neither a new story nor one that is exclusive to Turkey.
Formally speaking, the different editions of Kelimeler Kıyafetsiz monuments are inspired by archeology; by monumental artifacts that have historically glorified men, namely Orkhon Inscriptions –bilingually inscribed Turkic artifacts erected to glorify 8th Century Göktürk Princes–, Assyrian Reliefs – bas-relief panels eulogizing kings who once sat in the now ancient palaces of Nineveh by depicting them as lion hunters–, and lastly the obelisk of Pharaoh Thutmose III – a phallic monument displaced and re-erected in Constantinople as a marker of power and conquest. Ornaments are inspired by corporeal punishment devices, namely scold’s bridles (google it!), muzzles and gags that have been used to silence women and other oppressed groups. Such monuments and objects are ubiquitous in different context, cultures and histories.
While gender is a primary lens within the work, the other context that I situate the pieces in is colonial history and concurrent Western ethnographic museology. Most of these Eastern artifacts I mention are shown in Western institutions in a way that create a power dynamic between the global East and the global West, and essentialize the cultures they have been taken from.
Ornaments IV-VI are sexually charged pieces that all deal with prohibiting speech in some way, either through caging the mouth or gagging the wearer. Where does sexuality fit into the narrative you’re illustrating?
Sexuality is a big part of identity, especially that of gender identity so I believe that a discussion of one without the other is an incomplete story. With that in mind, the popularization of BDSM and erotic gagging is a fairly recent thing. The history I am pulling from here is not one that is purely sexual or erotic; It is one that made use of such objects for corporeal punishment, for the oppression of women who “nagged too much” according to their husbands, etc. I do like the appropriation of such oppressive things by oppressed cultures as a form of empowerment, like gags in sexual liberation. Oppressive words have been adopted and turned around by the groups they oppress in similar ways.
Your work juxtaposes beautifully intricate and feminine-looking bronze sculptures with roughly textured, more stereotypically masculine-looking concrete wall pieces. What is the meaning behind the juxtaposition of these mediums?
The Monuments came first, before the Ornaments. The end-game is a post-gender outlook, however these were loud and rough and in your face so I couldn’t help but start seeing them as traditionally Male – with a capital M. After all, even though the first people who used writing were women, writing has been a platform that women have been historically excluded from. At the same time, as I was handling the collection of quotes, I kept coming back to two quotes that situate Turkish women as not an equal but a complementary counterpart to men, and as the ornament of their home. So I became really interested in creating a not equal but complementary counterpart to the works. Similar to the Monuments, I was looking for historical forms that reflect such sentiment. Tezhip is a form of Ottoman illumination style that is used to ornament the pages of handwritten manuscripts. The parallel was clear: like Turkish women ornamenting the household, Tezhip ornamented the house of the word, the page. Applying this stand-in for the Woman on to forms that do the opposite of record and monumentalize, that silence and punish, like gags and scold’s bridles made all the more sense. It was also important for me to propose these gags as Ornaments, and within that, draw attention to the hard and soft ways in which such silencing occurs.
In Monument II, you’ve utilised both Turkish and English on the panels, while also leaving some devoid of words. What’s the thought process behind this decision, and what’s the significance of the phrases and excerpts you’ve included?
Silencing and omission are things that I think about, especially in terms of recorded history. The voids on the monuments are gestures towards this omission. Most of the time information is denied to us. I use this denial as a part of my work. Formally, the incompleteness winks to archaic artifacts and their museum displays. The aesthetic both poses the question of what is worthy of being unearthed and displayed, and creates a modern day historical object, much like the antiquated conceptualizations of women in the contemporary world.
Given the political climate surrounding media and censorship in both Turkey and the United States, what do you think is the role of art in discussing these issues?
I think the Artist has a way of making connections in non linear ways; stir up and reveal things that might not be apparent at a first sight, including our own biases. Great art might even establish a platform around itself that is a timeless safer zone for discussion. I think such things are rare in climates of censorship, which is one of the reasons why art is so valuable.
Are there any artists that directly inspire your work?
I am not sure if directly or not, but artists I have been thinking about include – and are not limited to – Jenny Holzer, Shirin Neshat, Louise Bourgeois, Marwan Rechmaoui, Issa Genzken, Walid Raad, Jochen Gerz and Esther Shalev-Gerz.
Is there anything else you’d like to add? Upcoming projects or plans?
I have a show coming up at the Menial Collection in Baltimore titled Counterweight with two phenomenal women artists from the Middle East who work with concrete. The opening reception is August 10. Would love to see anyone and everyone there.
Sera Boeno’s work is included in Vox Lacunae at The Stamp Gallery of the University of Maryland, College Park, from July 18th to August 22nd, 2018.
For more information on Sera Boeno, visit http://www.seraboeno.com.
For more information on Vox Lacunae and related events, visit thestamp.umd.edu/stamp_gallery.
This is the fifth installment of the capital lives artist interview series. capital lives features work by Bo Chen, Sydney Gray, Sarah O’Donoghue, Brea Soul, Christine Stoddard, and Nevada Taylor.
Sydney Gray | Photographer | Exhibiting in capital lives from May 30 to July 4, 2018 at The Stamp Gallery | University of Maryland, College Park | Interview by Rina Goldman
Can you tell me a bit about yourself, where are you from, how did you end up in Washington D.C.?
I am originally from the suburbs of Philadelphia. I am a student at the George Washington University which brought me to Washington, D.C.. I started photography my sophomore year of high school but my passion for it really developed after I tore my ACL four times in 3.5 years and realized playing sports was no longer going to be in my future.
As a student at George Washington University, how does your environment affect your photography? Is there a direct correlation between the two?
Being a student at the George Washington University has put me in a different environment then I was used to. In high school I would always complain that there was nothing for me to take pictures of for photo class because the only things in walking distance were grass trees and houses. Now, being in the city there is a wealth of interesting subjects to photograph. The people, the architecture, the streets are all available to me with ease. But my favorite type of photos to take are portraits and consistently being surrounded by other students and friends makes portraits very accessible. It also does wonders for my creative process because things feel so much more attainable being in such an open and inviting environment.
Where do you find inspiration? What about photography inspires you?
In many ways I feel I still have yet to grasp my true inspiration. For now I enjoy exploring what I can do and learn through my camera. I feel I can really capture moments and places with my camera, but I can also capture people. The pictures that were on display for this gallery for instance, I took for my photography class. I love how I was able to pair the blurbs that the subjects wrote with the pictures to truly tell the audience about who they are.
In your work, you showcase the “true beauty” of black women, what effect does being a black woman have on who you choose to photograph?
In general, I am not picky about who I take photos of. I love to capture the essence of people from various races, nationalities and ethnicities. In fact, I hope to take photos of a more diverse group of people in the future. With that being said, as a black female I feel a sense of attachment to other black females. In a way taking pictures of other black females is an extension of myself. My favorite feeling is when my subjects can truly see themselves as a strong and beautiful person no matter how they felt about themselves previously. I know that through my photographs I am changing people’s perception of themself, whether it is for a brief second or the rest of their lives I know in my heart I am making a small positive difference in their lives.
Can you elaborate on the process of taking these photos, particularly Confidence from Behind?
Each photograph and scene had its own creative process associated with it. Confidence from Behind is probably one of my favorite photos from the grouping. It is of my roommate and it was actually taken in our dorm room. I knew we were in a safe space so I wanted to take the opportunity to push the boundaries a little. I wanted to display confidence and many times that goes hand in hand with body image so I figured let’s show some skin. On a whim I asked my roommate if she would feel comfortable asking pictures with just a jacket on and no shirt underneath it. To my surprise she said yes almost instantly. Once we finished taking the pictures I was so excited to show her the ones I really liked but she didn’t want to look at any of them. I had to push and repeat how great they looked before she finally gave in and looked at them. In that moment I was definitely struck by how my project could really help people see themselves in a new way.
How are these women an example of D.C. today?
When I think of DC I think so people coming from so many different places. The group of women that I took photos of represent various backgrounds. The backgrounds of those represented in the gallery include, Kenyan from Princeton, New Jersey, half Jamaican from Steven City, Virginia, and Nigerian but lived in Ohio, Texas and most recently Virginia. This just proves that the people that live in DC tend to have very diverse backgrounds and many times aren’t originally from DC itself. That is just one thing I love about living in this city, I have met people from and learned so much about various cultures that I never knew about before.
Do the flowers you’ve incorporated into two of the pieces have any specific meaning?
The idea behind the photos with the flowers was to parallel natural hair with nature.
Some of the pieces are accompanied by quotes from the models, how did that come about?
Originally I was not going to do this. My photo professor had suggested it early on in a general setting but I had not thought about it again until a couple of days before the project was due. After looking at all the photos as a whole I realized how strongly they oozed black beauty and Black Girl Magic. At that point I thought back to my professor’s suggestion to have quotes that accompany the photographs and I thought having my friends speak to their experience as a black female would bring the photos to life. The quotes that my friends provided exceeded my expectations. They ranged, some spoke on personal struggles, others took a humorous approach but together I believe they really embodied what it was like to be a black female.
Do you have a favorite piece, or one that was most exciting for you to shoot?
My favorite picture was probably confidence from behind and I would love to reshoot photos like that with better lighting and equipment. I also love the simplicity of Lisa. There also a few that were not in the gallery but part of the full project that I loved as well.
What camera did you use for the portrait photography displayed in capital lives?
I use a Nikon D750.
Are there any future projects in the works?
Currently I do not have any big projects in the works. I hope to brainstorm ideas and maybe carry them out during the summer. I have a list of places I want to have fun photoshoots at around the District however. I am also studying abroad next semester so I am looking forward to the beautiful photographs I know I will take overseas.
Finally, the last question we are asking all the contributing artists is, what lies behind the image of power?
Power can be expressed in so many different ways and it isn’t even all through people. If the subject is a person I believe power comes from within that person and it will exude from the photograph. But if the photograph is not of a person then I believe power comes from the audience. Different things make different people feel power. Overall, I do believe the right balance of power in a key to confidence and success.
Gray’s work is included in capital lives at The Stamp Gallery of the University of Maryland, College Park, from May 30 through July 3, 2018.
For more information on Sydney Gray, visit sydneyellephotos.wixsite.com/photos.
For more information on capital lives and related events, visit thestamp.umd.edu/stamp_gallery
This is the fourth installment of the capital lives artist interview series. capital lives features work by Bo Chen, Sydney Gray, Sarah O’Donoghue, Brea Soul, Christine Stoddard, and Nevada Taylor.
Christine Stoddard | Multimedia artist | Exhibiting in capital lives from May 30 to July 4, 2018 at The Stamp Gallery | University of Maryland, College Park | Interview by Rina Goldman
Can you tell me about yourself, where you come from and where you are now?
I was born to a Salvadoran mother and a New Yorker father in Arlington, Virginia just across the river from Washington, D.C. I lived there until I graduated from high school. Then I spent a year in the cornfields of Iowa before moving to Richmond, Virginia where I lived off and on for five years. Scholarships allowed me to study in France, Scotland, and Mexico during my Richmond days. I moved back to Northern Virginia for a couple of years, bouncing around Arlington, Alexandria, and Falls Church. Today I live in Brooklyn with my husband, David. Though I live in Ocean Hill, I dart across all five boroughs for art exhibitions, readings, residencies, and other events. Even though I’m based in New York City now, I’m still involved in the Washington, D.C., Baltimore, and Richmond art scenes. The DMV will always be home. My husband and I still have family in Virginia and Maryland. In fact, my husband’s side even has a few UMD grads. (Go Terps!)
Right now, I work for the Art Deco Society of New York and run Quail Bell Magazine. I am also completing my art planning fellowship with the 2018 Reclaimed Lands Conference for the Freshkills Park Alliance at NYC Parks as a CUNY fellow.
You obviously have a connection to the DC area as seen in your works, Autumnal Death and “Thirty Pounds in Three Years”, how did growing up so close to our nation’s capital influence your work?
Growing up in Arlington heightened my understanding of history and politics. I saw firsthand that governments are made up of people. Almost everyone I knew as a child had parents who worked for the federal government or companies that served the government. Al Gore and Colin Powell came to my public elementary and high schools simply because my classmates’ parents worked for them. My proximity to D.C. meant I had personal connections to so many national events and figures. The September 11th terrorist attack on D.C. happened in my hometown: Arlington, where the Pentagon is actually located (not D.C.!)My senior year of high school, I interviewed First Lady Laura Bush for a feature on children’s literacy for Teen Ink, a national literary magazine.
When I go home to visit my parents and husband’s family, I still feel a strong connection to national politics. It’s not always for good, of course. I went home to visit my family for Easter and stayed in Arlington for a few days. Since one of those days was a weekday, just about everyone I knew had to go to work, so I accepted a gig to make extra money. Well, guess what gig this Arlington girl accepted? A mascot handler for the White House Easter Egg Roll! I wasn’t happy to see Trump speak that day (or ever), but I was happy that I could help bring smiles to the faces of thousands of children. Plus, I have so many strange little anecdotes from the experience. Surely those details will wiggle their way into my art somehow. You can take an Arlington girl out of Arlington, but you can’t take the Arlington out of an Arlington girl.
How did it feel to photograph a place that means so much to Americans, while representing a place of sorrow and loss? Was there a specific feeling you were going for with the photo collage? What drew you to the title Autumnal Death?
I took the original photographs that I used for Autumnal Death in 2012 while visiting Arlington National Cemetery for documentary work. Then I assembled the images into a photo collage in 2015. The initial piece came about simply because I was revisiting folders of digital photos and scans on my computer and wanted to see what I could revive in Photoshop. I made several different printed versions of Autumnal Death in 2016 and 2017, including printing on canvas. It wasn’t until this year that I printed the work on paper and added pencil, pencil, and marker accents.
Photographing Arlington National Cemetery conjured all kinds of emotions. Of course it’s a place of sorrow and loss, but it’s also a place of reverence and even celebration. It’s full of tradition and people who are proud to visit the graves of their family and friends. ANC is also another national landmark that’s located in my hometown. In that sense, it feels very ordinary to me. I can’t being to count how many times I passed ANC as a kid. It was just more roadside scenery. That’s one of the reasons why I layered the headstones in the image. Remarkably for a place of such national prominence, there’s a certain banality and repetition to ANC for me. When you grow up with something, it’s quite easy to downplay or even forget it. You just don’t have the life experience to contextualize yet, no matter how book-smart you are.
The title Autumnal Death was fairly literal for me. I took the photos in the fall when the leaves were ablaze. The whole cemetery looked like it was shrouded in crimson. It was beautiful, illuminating, and ominous all at once.
Your work touches on some very intense topics, especially “Thirty Pounds in Three Years”, was there something specific that provoked you to present this poem at this point in time?
“Thirty Pounds in Three Years” is a work of fiction. It’s based loosely on family lore, as well as the story of a woman I interviewed for an article I wrote for a feminist website. My personal feelings and experience influenced the work, as well. Like many people I knew, I was unusually sluggish after Trump was elected. I ate too much, spent too much time in bed, and left my apartment as little as possible (working for home made that all too easy.) I got a lot of writing and art-making done, but I was not taking advantage of the fact that I lived in New York City. It was hard to enjoy anything. Too many activities and pastimes felt frivolous. Eventually I got out of my rut and delved into my local community. It was not easy, but I think anyone who enjoys relative comfort in life has a duty to give back to others. If more Americans cultivated a generosity of spirit in the first place, Trump never would’ve gotten elected.
In your artist statement, you mentioned layers – both physical layers, like collage, and metaphorical layers pertaining to womanhood and femininity – can you elaborate?
Stories and interrogation drive my work. I use photography and video to explore how the digital age has both empowered and silenced women, immigrants, people of color, and other marginalized voices. For every #metoo or #blacklivesmatter movement, there are trolls producing opposing hashtags. My process is one in which analogue meets digital, mimicking how our real lives and online lives overlap. I make sculptures and paintings and then photograph them to merge with screenshots from social media. I scan clippings from books, magazines, and newspapers and composite them with photographs of gutted electronics. I take video footage in my neighborhood and cut it with video footage downloaded from free websites.
Exploring feminine power and energy is integral to all that I create as an artist, both online and offline. I feel that energy and power everywhere in nature, which is one of the reasons why I am drawn to flora and fauna imagery in my work. Just as the digital age has failed to truly empower marginalized people, it has failed to solve our environmental challenges. A culture of technological obsolescence and a culture of disposability go hand in hand. We must foster a culture that allows all people and nature to thrive.
Where do you see your art going from here? Any more projects in the works?
At the moment, I just want to take it project by project. I have some firm ideas about what I want to create, but I’m still in an experimental phase. That’s one of the reasons why I decided to go back to school. I just finished my first year at The City College of New York (CUNY), where I’m pursuing an M.F.A. in Digital & Interdisciplinary Art Practice. Everyday is a new chance to try something and possibly fail in a supportive, academic environment where I’m supposed to learn. Learning often means failing and starting again. Since I’m in this experimental stage, it’s also a good time for me to try out residencies. I had completed residencies before coming to grad school, with my longest and most intense one ending just before the academic year began. I was the artist-in-residence at Annmarie Sculpture Garden, a Smithsonian affiliate in Southern Maryland. Honestly, it was one of the best experiences of my life and set me on my current path. I want my work to be playful while investigating important issues across disciplines. Artists are also researchers and communicators.
Right now, I have an artist residency at Brooklyn Public Library’s Eastern Parkway branch in Crown Heights through mid-July. I’m making sculptures and assemblages out of found and recycled materials with the public and then using them in photo and video shoots. The residency will culminate in an exhibition on July 14th. On June 23rd, I have a mini residency at the Woodstock Artists Association & Museum in Woodstock, New York. They have a program called Habitat for Artists that’s kind of funky. Artists work in a temporary, 6’x6’ studio installed in a public space and invite the community to watch them or even create a project with them. After I finish up at Eastern Parkway Library, I’m headed to Laberinto Projects in El Salvador as a visiting artist for a couple of weeks. I have some ideas for a photography and writing project in mind based upon exploring where my mother lived during the country’s civil war. We will see what comes to fruition. In August, I will begin a 6-month residency with Staten Island MakerSpace, which is partnering with organizations like the Small Business Development Center at the College of Staten Island and the NYC Business Solutions office to help artists get their ideas off the ground. The details for this opportunity are still being solidified.
The ongoing project—at least until I graduate—is my M.F.A. thesis. I don’t have to solidify my thesis quite yet, but it’s certainly on my mind. I’ve been researching and making smaller projects as prototypes. One is an interactive electronic book called girl with camera. You can view it here. (See if you can find the hidden elements!) We will see where my art projects take me when I graduate next May.
You wrote a book, Water for the Cactus Woman, can you tell me about that process and a little bit about the book itself?
I have always expressed myself through both words and images. Thus, creative writing is a strong component of my artistic practice. After successfully publishing multiple chapbooks—Jaguar in the Cotton Field (Another New Calligraphy), Mi Abuela, Queen of Nightmares (Semi-perfect Press)and Ova (Dancing Girl Press) are a few of my favorites—I felt confident someone would publish a full-length collection of mine. That someone was Spuyten Duyvil Publishing in New York City. I was floored that the publishing team suggested the book include my visual work, which was something I hadn’t proposed or even considered. The manuscript flowered into a whole other work once I began curating images and pairing them with poems. I’m very proud of the final result, which recently placed in the Danielle and Larry Nyman Family Project Award competition at The City College of New York (CUNY). The official award letter stated that “the committee members unanimously expressed their admiration for the beautiful interplay between word and image as well as for the haunting themes of family love and loss woven throughout.” The Nyman Award recognizes creative and research projects that examine the complexity of family dynamics, which is exactly what Water for the Cactus Woman attempts to do.
I think Moonchild Magazine founder Nadia Gerassimenko describes Water for the Cactus Woman quite beautifully: “Water for the Cactus Woman is an uncannily familiar story about first unrequited love: that of madre absent and grieving and that of abuela prematurely gone but hauntingly present as torrential silence and forlornness—and that of many madres/abuelas before and that of many madres/abuelas after. Water for the Cactus Woman is ‘a coyote’s last cry before the hunter’s bullet’ is ‘a drippy desert watercolor’ is ‘a dewdrop of hope.’ It is a cactus split spilling nectar, desert oasis blooming after monsoon, the sun finally shining its light on you. It is the primal thirst to love and be loved. It is the hopeful courage that self-love could fill all the heart chambers after all.” Ms. Gerassimenko also published my electronic chapbook, The Silhouette Woman, which also peels away the onion skin from matriarchal relationships.
Are you planning on writing any more books?
Yes, I have and I will! For me, it’s more of a matter of getting what I’ve written published—the plight of writers everywhere. Fortunately, I do have a few books coming out this year and next year. First up is The Tale of the Clam Ear (AngelHouse Press), which is a narrative poetry chapbook. The book is about the stories a young woman born with an ear deformity tells herself to feel powerful in this dark ocean of a world. Another book is Naomi and the Reckoning (About Editions), a novella. Naomi is about a 25-year-old woman raised in a conservative Catholic household who has trouble consummating her marriage. Yet another is Belladonna Magic (Shanti Arts Publishing), which is similar in format to Water for the Cactus Woman in that it contains poems and photo collages, but the content is completely different! The themes are different, the narrative is different, the images are different. Another title I have coming out is The Book of Quails (Clare Songbirds Publishing House), which is a children’s book about quails. It was illustrated by the talented Sami Cronk, a fellow VCUarts graduate. Luminous Press will be releasing my prose chapbook, Things I Do Well That Nobody Will Ever Pay Me To Do. I think the title says it all. The book is as funny as it is sad. Then there’s Desert Fox by the Sea, a collection of short stories coming out from Hoot ‘n’ Waddle.
I’m thrilled about all of these releases. Over the past year and a half, I’ve been publishing myself to submit my manuscripts and it’s been working. I’m hopeful that more of my manuscripts will find homes. I have a couple of other titles that are under contract, so we will see what happens.
As a final question, pertaining to the theme of this exhibition, to you, what lies behind the image of power?
What lies behind the image of power is imbalance. I’m going to link you to the artist statement for The Orgasm Archives, a project I created during my first semester at City College. You can learn more about my thoughts and creations related to heteropatriarchal power dynamics here.
Stoddard’s work is included in capital lives at The Stamp Gallery of the University of Maryland, College Park, from May 30 through July 3, 2018.
For more information on Christine Stoddard, visit www.worldofchristinestoddard.com.
For more information on capital lives and related events, visit thestamp.umd.edu/stamp_gallery
This is the third installment of the capital lives artist interview series. capital lives features work by Bo Chen, Sydney Gray, Sarah O’Donoghue, Brea Soul, Christine Stoddard, and Nevada Taylor.
Brea Soul | Multimedia artist, photographer, and designer in the Maryland DC area | Exhibiting in capital lives from May 30 to July 4, 2018 at The Stamp Gallery | University of Maryland, College Park | Interview by Grace DeWitt
Can you tell me a little about yourself? Where did you grow up, and where are you based now?
I am a multimedia artist and photographer who is dedicated to highlighting new, blossoming and vibrant artists, and the cultures of minorities in Maryland and D.C. I am originally from Trappe, Maryland, a small town located on the Eastern Shore. Since moving away to attend University of Maryland, College Park, I am now based out of College Park, MD.
You graduated from UMCP with your Bachelors this past December. What did you study, and what are you up to now?
I studied Studio Art with a minor in Art History. I currently work as the in-house graphic designer for Brentwood Arts Exchange, a contemporary art gallery in Maryland, and as a photo contributor for Capitol Standard Magazine, a magazine for young professionals in the Washington, D.C. area. I hope to move in the direction of multimedia production and directing.
Could you briefly describe your artistic practice?
I always felt like I didn’t belong, but in reality, relatable representation just lacked around me. So, in my photography and webseries, Soul Series, I choose to capture the essence of a person’s true identity and natural lifestyle. I seek modern representation of African Americans and other minority groups because I want to highlight the identities and stories of those that are still often overlook or ignored. My goal is to encourage the world to observe these races and cultures closely and then to connect in a way they have not before. I love working with color, natural lighting, composition/framing and movement. My influences include Gordon Parks and Roy Decarava, music, and cultural relativism.
What is your personal experience with D.C. at this moment? To what extent do you have ties to this city?
My personal experience with D.C. comes from my relations to its people and its culture. There is a renaissance happening in D.C and around connecting parts of Maryland that most are not ignoring, but rather, overlooking. Knowing this and a lot of the young upcoming talent that is based out of DC or close to it, I believe it’s a job of mine to constantly capture the culture: whether it’s related to art, music, fashion, or simply the lifestyles that DC produces.
How would you describe D.C., or the D.C. vibe, to people who have never been to the city?
D.C is a traditional place with a lot of history. When you visit D.C. and learn more than what is shown on TV and through articles, you learn about all of the rich culture D.C. produces. D.C. consists of a lot of creative activity, networking, and opportunity. D.C. is not as big as NY but D.C. consists of endless industries and because it’s smaller, you have plenty of room to connect, learn and grow here.
Let’s talk about your photographs in capital lives. Do you know any of the subjects personally? Were they all taken in the district?
I only know two of the subjects personally and the others I connected to through networking. This may come to you as a surprise, but only one photo was taken actually in the district. Can you guess which one? The other three were taken relatively close to Washington, D.C., in places such as Hyattsville and College Park.
Do you consider these images to be portraits of individuals, or a more collective observation of a regional city culture?
It’s hard to answer that question because it’s technically both. Although these images are simply portraits of residents/performers of the area, the people involved are important to the creative history of D.C. at this specific time. One is an upcoming wordsmith and poet who is known for his skill all over the city. The model in Liberation represents the Latino community that is being directly affected from the current state of the United States and its presidency. Kweku Collins, is a rapper/singer performed at an annual D.C. festival called, All Things Go.
I understand that the prints exhibited in capital lives are part of a larger series. What is your intent for that series?
My intent is to constantly portray the lives existing in Washington D.C. and the surrounding area, and create a series that shows who is living in D.C. and what they are doing. Basically, I want to document the current times and culture.
What was the reasoning behind the titles for Dazed 1 and Overtime 2? Were these planned images, or candid?
Dazed 1’s title stems from the expression presented by the subject throughout the entire photoshoot. A woman is shown wandering aimlessly and although she is giving direct eye contact, one can assume that there is something on her mind. Something has her distracted or stuck.
Overtime 2’s title comes from personal background of the subject and plays off of that narrative. The subject was a UMD dropout and then after a year, decided to return back to UMD. Throughout the photos from this photoshoot, he can be found in a classroom, outside on campus and walking through hallways. Wherever he travels, he is focused on the task at hand. In Overtime 2, he is seen with a black notebook and pen on campus with an alarming look. I like to believe this photograph embodies when a lightbulb goes off for a person and that usually happens after a while of focusing on a certain subject.
Can you explain what’s going on in All Things Go (Kweku Collins) 2 and Liberation 1?
In All Things Go (Kweku Collins) 2, Kweku Collins had just finished performing and starting a meet and greet. I wanted to capture his presence while meeting his fans. He is normally shown on a stage and singing so I thought it would be cool to get another perspective of him and his style. Even while not on stage, he kept the same aura and presence of light and joy with him.
In Liberation 1, I was on a mission to portray a new-found sense of freedom. I selected an aspiring model and did a photoshoot at an isolated hotel. The location was chosen for the narrative of one running away or being forced to be on the move. During the subject’s time alone, she reflects. So Liberation 1 portrays the outcome of her journey when she has finally come to a point where she is prepared and ready to take on whatever is next.
Music culture seems to be an intertwined part of some of your photography work. What part of the D.C. music scene do you interact with in your photography, and do you feel that your photography is meant to bring attention to or comment on that scene?
I find myself in rap and R&B spaces within Washington, D.C. because that genre of music is a heavy part of my own personal culture and I know more people within that space than other genres. However, I hope to break into other music scenes because although Rap and R&B is special to me, my goal is to capture creatives and artists of all sorts of backgrounds. There are a lot of talents out there and I want to capture as many as I can. I guess I just started off in a familiar space. My photography, in those scenes, serves as a way to capture timeless moments that the people never get back; but through my photography, they will never forget it.
What do you hope viewers take away from your photographs, perhaps in conversation with the other works in capital lives as a whole?
When people visit capital lives, I simply hope to introduce them to people and/or cultures that are blooming here in the area and start a conversation there. Media coverage and photo documentation about Washington, D.C., is usually centered on politics, protests, sports and or fancy landmarks. I want to introduce people to people. Simple. Real people that you can learn from, bond with and or help in some type of way. I hope that in combination with the other photographs from the other artists, visitors will get a complete 360 realistic perspective of DC. For example, Bo Chen successfully and effectively captured people protesting on the streets of D.C. while my photos show the residents of D.C. Having this imagery together shows a complete image of the time right now in D.C.
Which of your photographs in capital lives do you connect with the most?
I connect with them all but if I had to choose one, I would pick All Things Go (Kweku Collins) 2 because the imagery involved is someone of color and a flower. In my opinion, a sunflower embodies a source of light. Within my photography, but more importantly within my life, I try to radiate positive energy and show others love.
What camera did you use to shoot the images in capital lives, and what are you shooting with now?
Since gifted, I have been shooting my photography through a Nikon D3400 and it’s been amazing to learn and practice on. I have plans to upgrade in the near future, either to another Nikon or Sony.
You’re also working on a webshow called Soul Series. Can you talk about the project and goals for the show moving forward?
Soul Series is an original web show that follows me, a 22-year-old spirited artist from Maryland, as I navigate throughout the DMV/DC area interviewing other artists and creatives. In season one, Brea comes across an illustrator, a fashion brand and one painter. Season two involves more musicians: ranging from a music group, a disc jockey and percussionist. The goal for the show is to constantly discover and highlight talents, in this area, who are steadfast in their skill whether its related to visual arts, music and or fashion. The biggest goal for this project is to get the show picked up by a local production company or studio, in hopes to reach a bigger audience, which could result in income, connections, and exposure for the artists and creatives interviewed.
Any future shows or projects that you would like to promote here?
Through my photography and webshow, I meet a lot of artists who are so fresh in my mind. I thought about a show I would love to curate even at the Stamp Gallery, involving a showcase of artwork by the people I have interviewed and will meet. This project would provide opportunity for those creatives to have a professional chance to exhibit their talented work.
We’ll close with a question that powered the creation of capital lives. In your own words, what do you feel lies behind the image of power?
The image of power is in direct correlation to the person that produces that image. For me, the power is in the people and that’s why it is important for me to capture D.C.’s people. People fighting for rights and succeeding in their individual lives is power to me, so I choose to show that.
Soul’s work is included in capital lives at The Stamp Gallery of the University of Maryland, College Park, from May 30 through July 3, 2018.
For more information on Brea Soul, visit www.breasoul.com.
For more information on capital lives and related events, visit thestamp.umd.edu/stamp_gallery
This is the second installment of the capital lives artist interview series. capital lives features work by Bo Chen, Sydney Gray, Sarah O’Donoghue, Brea Soul, Christine Stoddard, and Nevada Tyler.
Nevada Tyler | Exhibiting in capital lives from May 30th to July 4th, 2018 at The Stamp Gallery | University of Maryland, College Park | Interview by Kat Mullineaux
KM: Before we start talking about your work in capital lives, I want our readers to learn a little bit about your background. Where are you from and how did you get into art?
NT: I grew up on the border of Frederick and Montgomery County Maryland, so basically farmlands. I guess I have always been interested in art. My mother always provided my sister and me with paper and markers and it was more when I was a kid that I actively explored art. I felt like art maybe wasn’t the most practical route to take in college so I studied political science. Then I realized I really wanted to do art more than politics and there is no use in not doing exactly what you want to do with your life.
KM: What is your connection to D.C.? You’re currently an undergraduate student at George Washington University–what do you study there?
NT: I’m a DMV native. Living in Maryland means visiting Washington D.C. on a regular basis. When you live in a major city or a major city is close to you, do not take that for granted. I currently live in D.C. attending GW and so now I get to explore it as much as I please. I have always loved this city. Maybe that is because I’ve spent so much time here but people think it is all business, but really, we have everything. At GW I study fine arts and communications. With fine arts though, I’ve centered my studies around more technical and new media art mediums rather than the more traditional fine arts mediums.
KM: Your photography in capital lives seems to be centered on candid, un-posed moments. What about photographing people in their everyday existence are you drawn to? Why?
NT: The moments we take for granted are the moments I aim to capture and share. We experience people every day but never take a second to really look and see. I am personally attracted to those who are blind to their own beauty. There is something curious about the oblivion they inhabit that brings them to a place of pure authenticity. The modern world is over-saturated with posed and highly manipulated photographs, creating a societal goal to constantly be poised and perfect. Where that may provide visually pleasing photographs, it is not reality. Because of this, I believe people have forgotten how to enjoy being human. I hope to make photographs that bring back an awareness of what it feels like to live life, to inspire others to stop and relish in the quirks and similarities of themselves and others, and remind everyone just how beautiful the boring parts of the human experience can be.
KM: I love how you have such a appreciation for the reality of moments. In the same vein, there is an intimacy that is tangible in your work. When viewing the photos I feel like I’m there, sitting in the room viewing a private moment–regardless of whether that is watching a man at his desk doing the same work he’s been doing for years or viewing a woman praying in an empty church pew. Is this intimacy important to you? What do you think it does for the viewers of your work?
NT: I want viewers to feel like they just entered the moment, that they just happened upon this scene, just as I did. I want them to feel the, kind of magic, I felt which made me pick up the camera and make the photograph. Intimacy is very important to me. It is difficult to describe. It is a concept I place an enormous amount of weight in my own personal life and I really try and transfer that over to my artwork. I want the viewer to create a relationship with the work. I don’t care if that stems from their personal experiences with religion or family members, whatever, I don’t care if they make up a whole story about the subject for kicks. At least a viewer stopped and thought about it, the scene, the subject, the context, the feeling. That is all I can ask for.
KM: One thing that capital lives is interested in is the identity and lives of people existing in the capital city of the U.S.A. I notice that interestingly enough there is a large amount of anonymity to the figures in your work aside from “He Pretended to be Bitter, but he Wasn’t”, which I will touch on in a moment. Is that anonymity important to you? How do you think it informs the stories you are telling through your images?
NT: Some people are not comfortable being photographed, their demeanor suddenly shifts and the moment no longer feels natural. So in a way, I sometimes need anonymity to make the shots I do. I do not aim to objectify any of these subjects, I only hope to reveal a beauty we often forget is there. Anonymity also helps viewers to create their own stories about the people they see in the photographs. There is little information, but I feel like it always just enough with the given settings the subjects are in and any expressions they may possess. I think that encourages the viewers to let their imagination run a little bit.
KM: On the note of your piece “He Pretended to be Bitter, but he Wasn’t” (and the interview audio paired with it) there is a lack of anonymity. We hear “Capital Jim’s” voice and we are transported into the independent bookshop that he runs. Is this type of work a departure for you and what do you think you got out of the process? Would you like to interview more of your subjects in the future?
NT: Yes and no. I have always been interested in sound design and have worked with various programs to create sound pieces, but I never really thought about conducting interviews before. This is actually the second interview I’ve ever put together and I am really happy about how it turned out. It was a tough process. Sometimes, subjects are difficult to work with, sometimes they’re fantastic. You never know what you’re going to get. For me that is the hardest part, coming up with questions and conducting the interview. The rest is extremely time consuming, but my material is collected and then I just have to buckle down to edit an hour’s worth of material into 3 minutes and edit that to my satisfaction. I definitely would be interested in interviewing more subjects. I have been thinking about it for a while and I think I want to go about conducting interviews just for the fun of it and see where it takes me.
KM: I know you work in the medium of photography, but do you have any other favorite mediums or other artistic passions?
NT: I love writing and music. I am so enamored with the way that words and a melody can convey ideas, stories, and feelings. Writing helps me sort out my thoughts and capture sentiment, it doesn’t always come with a melody but I love it either way.
KM: What do you want to do in the future? Professionally or personally?
NT: I just want to be able to create content of all kinds, professionally and personally. I am open to all art mediums and I do feel they are all intertwined and should be explored together and that is really my plan.
KM: Finally, since it is a theme of capital lives, I wonder–what do you think lies behind an image of power?
NT: An image of power will make you stop. It will emit a weight that draws your attention. An image of power can depict anything from horrors to honorable acts. In terms of street photography, I believe an image of power must be honest. In other mediums, I believe an image of power must hold or reveal a truth. Really any image that makes you stop and stare, I think that is an image of power.
Thank you to Nevada for participating in the capital lives Artist Interview Series.
The Stamp Gallery’s summer hours are: MON-FRI 11AM-4PM