"We always like to say we have several cords tangled in this relationship. So we're artistic collaborators but we're also a married couple and we're best friends, sound technicians and art critics so there's a constant give and take / push and pull where we're exploring together and separately."
BEATRIX*JAR is Artist Collective/Dynamic Duo Bianca Janine Pettis (Beatrix) & Jacob Aaron Roske (JAR). Formed in 2003, the pair works across multiple artistic disciplines. Their eagerness to try anything paired with their “Yes…and “ approach to art making has led them to creating work in Video, Sound Art and Live Performance, Visual Art and Theater.
Beatrix*Jar also works as Artist/Educators having spent numerous years hands-on Circuit Bending Workshops, Sound Art Residencies, Sound Art Festivals and Community Engagement Events. As Visual Artists Beatrix*Jar has collaborated on murals, screen-prints and fabric birds and cats they call Art Pets. Beatrix*Jar explores and encourages experimentation and play through multiple artistic mediums. Together they like to see what happens and share the results.
Jes: I am so into your mural in St. Paul. Can you tell me more about the project? How did you both come up with the whimsical design?
B: Thank you so much for the interview, Jes. We’ve enjoyed taking in The Artists You admire!
B: We wanted to paint something bold and impactful. We were devastated by the murder of George Floyd. We both felt so much grief - fear, paranoia - it was a very traumatic time. When we approached the wall - we thought it needed something unexpected - optimistic and playful.
B: We came up with the birds - because as a girl I had a little company I called “Bird Art”. I would make little cartoon drawings of birds. I had a line of puffy paint t-shirts...holiday cards - my friends would buy them. When I went back to school for my MFA in Art 2017 I started to revisit some of those drawings.
J: Yeah - and for about ten years we’ve sold these stuffed animals we call Art Pets. Bianca makes fabric birds and I make cats. The birds on the wall remind me of the birds you make.
B: We never imagined we’d be mural artists.
J: I couldn’t imagine painting on a wall with Bianca - but it makes total sense because we absorbed so much street art. As musicians we had the opportunity to travel a lot and see a lot of incredible work by artists like Os Gemeos, Mr. Brainwash, Invader, Swoon, Banksy...all of it.
B: Yeah - seeing large scale work is so exciting!
J: Given the opportunity we just went for it! Behind the scenes we did a lot of drawing, researching and planning to see what kind of design worked best.
B: We gave the building owner a few options and this is the design they chose.
As a long-timer collaborators, how do you describe your artistic process?
B: Have we ever talked about our process? No - we do talk about our process. I think our process usually starts with us talking about what the process will be.
J: That's a big question! We’re constantly bouncing ideas off of each other to see what sticks. We always like to say we have several cords tangled in this relationship. So we're artistic collaborators but we're also a married couple and we're best friends, sound technicians and art critics so there's a constant give and take / push and pull where we're exploring together and separately.
B: We like to work in all these different mediums so we’re always learning and reinventing our process. I joke that we have a mental file cabinet that has instructions like “how to paint a mural” or “how to record a podcast” - so when a new project comes our way - part of our work is refamiliarizing ourselves with the process and technique.
J: Lately we’ve been using the “yes...and” approach from theater - building on ideas instead of knocking them down.
B: I like the feeling of learning and creating simultaneously. That’s where the fun is!
What have been some of your most memorable art projects?
B: Painting this mural is certainly top on the list. It was fun to be outdoors, up high. We’ve only formerly considered ourselves visual artists in the last few years - before that we worked primarily as “Sound Artists” leading hands-on circuit bending workshops paired with sound collage performances - and events we call Audio Playgrounds. During that time we had Artist Residency with the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. We worked with a teen group for a week on a program called “Make an Album with Beatrix*Jar”. We spent a week teaching the kids our process as musicians then invited them to form their own bands or solo acts. Each group created a song and there was a performance at the end of the residency. It was so fun to go to Boston and to be able to share our approach to music with a group - and see the outcome in their work.
J: Circuit bending in Hawaii and leading and Audio Playground at Northern Spark 2019.
What kind of resources have you used to help your art career?
J: As Independent Artists we're always making it work out by creating something out of nothing. We imagine an idea and use the law of attraction to make it a reality.
B: Oh we’re always just figuring it out. We’ve reached out to Springboard for the Arts several times over our careers. We’ve received grants from the American Composers Forum, Bush Foundation, Jerome Foundation. I come from a corporate background - working administration positions at places like Wells Fargo and different law offices. At some point I decided to quit my day job and work as an artist - so that administrative background helped me navigate the business of it.
J: I look to people who I am inspired by and what their path has been.
B: There’s not always a clear path for the work we do - so looking at other artists helps! And your blog is a great resource!
I really appreciate that! And the resources you speak of I have used too! What do you love most about being artists?
J: I love the ability to put your most creative idea on the table and make it a reality. I love it!
B: Creating my life and having what I consider to be an authentic life. My strategic planning is like “I want to learn how to...paint murals” for example - and it becomes a goal.
J: It’s amazing to get paid to put your most creative idea into effect. You create something out of nothing - it’s all from our imagination.
B: I love watching my life as an artist unfold.
What kind of challenges have you faced as artists?
B: The usual issues - financial worry - wondering if we should walk away from our practice completely and get normal jobs. We had a few years of medical issues that knocked us off balance.
J: Self doubt is my biggest critic and what I try to overcome when I create new work.
What do you need most right now to support your work and practice?
B: That is always changing. Since we’re living through the pandemic - right now I suppose it would be nice to have more space. Right now our living room is our music studio - and we move things around to make a big painting - or to do yoga on the floor. It would be nice to have specific rooms dedicated to things or a big enough space that all the things we do could co-exist in one room.
J: Yeah - having a large dedicated space for work and home feels essential right now.
Are you working on anything new?
B: We are! We’re back in the music studio playing with new instruments. I’ve been working on a character based self portrait project.
J: We’re taking a music making class together and writing songs in the studio! It’s been fun!
How exciting! I look forward to hearing more about your new music and visual art. Thank you for answering my questions!
Readers, if you are obsessed with Beatrix*Jar now, I suggest you follow them on Instagram and then take a look at Jacob and Bianca's 2020 Round up here.
You can also check out Beatrix*Jar on Bandcamp here.
All images courtesy of the artists. Interview written and edited by Jes Reyes.
"I am a one-child-only generation of China-born in the 80s. Growing up, I hadn’t any siblings, I couldn’t have pets, and making friends was limited by rules, inhibited communication and confidence. As a child, I often caught all kinds of small bugs, put them in jars. I spoke to them, played with them, and they were the only listeners in my childhood. Now I still often talk to these creatures, but instead of putting them in the jar, I put them into my creations."
Hi Suyao! I would love to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell me more about yourself?
My name is Suyao Tian. I am living and working in the Twin Cities as an artist, designer and independent curator. Painting is my own language to connect to the world, and my way to find and connect the similarities in our soul that we all share.
I am a one-child-only generation of China-born in the 80s. Growing up, I hadn’t any siblings, I couldn’t have pets, and making friends was limited by rules, inhibited communication and confidence. As a child, I often caught all kinds of small bugs, put them in jars. I spoke to them, played with them, and they were the only listeners in my childhood. Now I still often talk to these creatures, but instead of putting them in the jar, I put them into my creations. They become a symbol and language of my own.
I mainly use watercolor medium, but I also use different pen marks to define the details of each painting to give the audience layers and depth of the painting. For example, I use color pencil, ink marks and a variety of pen marks in each painting. It creates a very interesting micro and macro world.
My creative process is to extract the fragments of memory and separate, reorganize and integrate them. This process is my communication with them, and a process of self- release and expression. These peculiar images often appear in my memory, dreams and subconscious imaginations, so I use abstraction to catch a moment, feeling, and unclear form when they appear in my mind. I use bright colors to celebrate my freedom! The title is the moment in time when I start creating, these moments are transferred my mind through beauty or ugliness I put into my work, that becomes my identity to speak out to the world.
I first came across your art through Art to Change the World. I was immediately drawn to your surreal images. I also see a sense of play in your work too.
My work inspired by my childhood memory, imagination, and my subconscious thinking. I had the habit I had when I was a little girl where I would go out into the street or in nature and find little things that interested.
What draws you to paint with watercolor?
Watercolor is so dreamy and unpredictable. This feeds a feeling like an unclear memory, like a subconscious that is not defined.
What is your art process like? Do you have a studio space you work out of?
I start off most pieces by doing a kind of sketch in my mind. I like to gather my thoughts and ideas and play with that any time of day, even at 3am! I will sometimes sketch on paper, but most of the time, the ideas are most often developed in my mind. As I paint, I will pause and reposition everything that appeared on paper. I used to share a huge studio with a great couple of painters in Vandalia Tower, but we moved out last year and now I’m working out of my home with my little angel!
I recently learned about your social impact business Modern Cover. When did this business start for you? How did you get it going... and where can folks buy a pair of mittens to help support your cause?
Long story short I will just direct you to the website here and Modern Cover Instagram here. Also in one my recent posts you will find the answers to these questions here. People can also purchase through the website.
I know that you are also a curator. Does your art practice inform your curatorial approach? What was the last show you put together?
Curations is a collaborative process that I love because it’s a creation that reaches a complexity that any single artist can never reach on their own. [Curated] DIALOGUE: 23 participating artists from different countries…we are all standing at the intersection of art, immigration, citizenship, and Identity, facing severe issues. As loaded as these issues are, can these topics unpacked? [Curated] TRANSFORMER: 10 participating artists from different states.
It can be a daunting task to put together an art show. What do you recommend to other artists who are interested in curating shows? How do you get started?
Curating a show is a ton of work! For artists interested in curation, I say always be curious of everything and always ask why and how. Curation arises organically in the ideas you have where you find that not only do you need the help of others, but in problems where the resulting collaboration produces results far greater than you could do on your own through working with other talented artists. Come up with ideas and keep your eyes open for people with shared interests and passions!
What do you love most about being an artist?
Creativity, freedom to be yourself, and honesty!
What kind of resources have you used to help your career?
People, books, my ears and my eyes! Existing stunning artworks of a wide variety, not only painting!
Are you working on anything new?
Yes, I’m always making new works!
Thank you for answering my questions, Suyao! Do you have any last things you would like to share?
Thank you for this great opportunity!
All artwork images by Suyao Tian and courtesy of the artist. Interview written and edited by Jes Reyes.
"I felt an internal need to express something after the 2016 presidential election. As that administration continued to be staggeringly awful in almost every fathomable way, I grew increasingly angry and disheartened by the ways Trump openly promoted rape culture and diminished the importance of those who identify as female (and basically anyone else who wasn’t a Cis-white heterosexual Christian wealthy able-bodied male)."
Carly Swenson is primarily an acrylic intuitive painter originally from northern Montana. She spent more than a decade as a mixed media artist before shifting to acrylics. Swenson received her Visual Arts BFA/Art History Minor from Bemidji State University (Bemidji, MN). She’s traveled and lived abroad, studying in China, traveling throughout Europe, and living in England and the Azores, Portugal. The influence of this exposure to other cultures and her love of art history is especially evident in her earlier work. Throughout her career she’s created several bodies of work playing off themes of feminine ideals, gender roles, and social justice.
Swenson’s work has been shown in solo and group exhibitions throughout the US and internationally. Her freelance writing and mixed media journals have been published in nationally distributed art magazines. She facilitates art workshops for various age groups. Her work is also included in the permanent art collections of the Angra do Heroismo Museum (Terceira, Azores) and Bemidji State University.
Currently, she lives in St. Paul, MN with two weirdo dogs. Carly says they’re nice.
(If you click on some of the images it will take you to her site where you can read blog posts about the work - how cool is that?!)
Jes: Carly, I have always admired your art. Please tell me more about your background. When did you first call yourself an artist?
Carly: I have been creating art, honestly for as long as I can remember. As a child, I wanted to create something out of everything I could find. Despite receiving a BFA in Fine Art, I didn’t call myself “an artist” until about my mid-twenties. At that point, I realized I didn’t need outside permission or acceptance to be considered an artist.
Your series Bloodwork is so intriguing. When did this work start and where do you see it going now that you have built such a body of work with this project?
I felt an internal need to express something after the 2016 presidential election. As that administration continued to be staggeringly awful in almost every fathomable way, I grew increasingly angry and disheartened by the ways Trump openly promoted rape culture and diminished the importance of those who identify as female (and basically anyone else who wasn’t a Cis-white heterosexual Christian wealthy able-bodied male).
My breaking point, and ultimate artistic inspiration came after Christine Blasey Ford’s brave and vulnerable testimony flooded my social media with women sharing their own experiences and gratitude for Ford’s selfless willingness to speak up in a culture that will do everything to discredit her. Menstruation felt symbolic of all the ways women (or those who identify as women) experience the world differently, yet are conditioned and expected to minimize their experiences for the comfort of maintaining a patriarchal narrative. One piece created in 2018 (Trump painted in menstrual blood surrounded by his own misogynistic quotes), turned into a series of 6 portraits, and 50 statement pieces by 2020.
Bloodwork incorporates so many elements of social justice, politics, the body...your personal voice. How have people responded to this work? What kind of audience reactions have you received?
I have been lucky in the fact that most people who’ve seen this body of work have responded fairly positively to it. I’ve seen the comment threads from other artists working with blood and I know how angry, insulting, and cruel people can be toward this type of work. However, it’s a very thought-provoking body of work for anyone willing to examine or move past their initial discomfort with my artistic medium.
In turn, I think the positive response is due to the fact that I’ve been unable to build much interest in this body of work beyond my own social circle. For any artist, it’s difficult to get people to pay attention to your work, and the social commentary/political nature of these pieces combined with menstruation seems to be a difficult sell, even to organizations or artistic institutions that I’d thought might be more receptive to this work.
I enjoy your intuitive paintings - they have such narrative. It’s so easy to get lost in them! How do you get started? Do you just dive in or is there something that spurs or inspires a piece?
With my acrylic intuitive work I just start painting with no expectations, I’m fully embracing uncertainty with colors, textures, and brush strokes that simply feel right. I try to enjoy the act of creating, instead of focusing on the end result. Abstract layers eventually become atmospheric. Implied forms reveal themselves and I intuitively fill in imagery. It’s similar to the way we find animal shapes in clouds or faces in tree bark. Painting without an identifiable concept of success is daunting and beautifully freeing at the same time. I’ve found the finished works take on an unintentionally surreal quality.
COVID has put a pause on so many things. Life just isn’t the same. I am wondering how COVID has impacted you and how are you coping or doing during these times?
Honestly, it depends on the day. Painting is already a solo activity, so when I’m deep in my element it’s calming because I can almost forget how strange everything is. Because my work schedule is more flexible, I’ve been able to paint a lot and try new things like making time-lapse recordings of my painting process. However, this prolonged isolation and sense of constant uncertainty can take a toll on a person’s mental and emotional well-being. For me, maintaining motivation can be tricky.
Are there any particular challenges you face as an artist?
I’m not good at talking myself up, and networking. As an introvert and empath I tend to be very, “Hi, excuse me, I have art you might like, but you might not, and that’s okay. I’m very good. But lots of people are very good, and plenty are better than me, so I get it if you aren’t interested…”
Again, the art world is a weird and difficult place to cultivate a living, and the constant challenge is to try to get anyone to care about what you are creating.
What do you love about being an artist?
Creating. I know that sounds sort of obvious and cliche, but art journaling, painting, sketching, has all become a very cathartic experience. Making art helps with my own mental health. It’s also an absolute joy when I meet someone who finds a work of mine that really resonates with them. I love learning what sort of atmospheric narrative or imagery they take from a piece. I love learning how it makes them feel and why.
What kind of resources have you used to help you with your art career?
Locally, I’ve taken several workshops from Springboard for the Arts, which is a phenomenal resource.
Thanks for answering my questions, Carly. Do you have anything else you would like to share?
I guess, just that I hope people are taking time to take care of themselves. The world is a very difficult place for everyone right now, and it’s important to be gentle with yourself.
Humans are creative, and it’s important for everyone to have a creative outlet. Something in our lives that we do simply because it makes our hearts happy–because we can get lost in the beauty of the process. People tend to avoid making art because “they aren’t good at it”. But it doesn’t matter, play with art because you enjoy the process.
In the same way you can enjoy playing guitar, but you don’t plan to pursue a professional music career. Or if you love golf, but are never going to qualify for the PGA, you still enjoy the game. If singing makes your heart giddy, you can still have your weekly karaoke girls night, even if you aren’t going to be quitting your day job. Art is the same thing, if you like making art–make art. You don’t have to be ‘amazing’, you don’t have to consider yourself an artist. You don’t even have to let another living human see it (but show it to your dog, dogs are great, they won’t judge you). Just make art because it makes your soul happy. You have nothing to prove to anyone.
Images courtesy the artist. Interview by Jes Reyes.
"I hope that my work can help the public look at a problem or a situation with new perspective and in a way that is empowering. Successful community organizing requires building power -- and I believe building power begins with having new insights and believing that change is possible."
Rachel Breen is a visual artist who works at the intersection of drawing, installation and public engagement. She has exhibited her work both locally and nationally and is the recipient of four Minnesota State Arts Board grants, the Walker Art Center’s Open Field fellowship, and the 2019–2020 Jerome Hill Artist Fellowship. Rachel holds an MFA from the University of Minnesota and an undergraduate degree from The Evergreen State College. She is a Professor of Art at Anoka Ramsey Community College.
Jes: Rachel, I am excited to get to know you a bit more through this interview. I watched your artist talk recently with the Minneapolis Institute of Art and I was so drawn to how you incorporate ethics and social justice into your artistic approach. I can tell you are deeply motivated to raise awareness and create conversations with your work. Can you talk more about your background and what inspired your current show The Labor We Wear at the museum?
Rachel: My commitment to social justice through art is deeply connected to being Jewish. One of the important values I was raised with is the idea of social responsibility -- that all humans are responsible for working to make the earth a better place for all its inhabitants. The fact that I am a descendent of immigrants, a member of a people who have faced and continue to face discrmination and am white and have an enormous amount of privilege all contribute to my belief in the need to work for change and advocate for social justice. I see art as a platform for communicating about solutions, ideas and values about justice.
My current exhibition at the Mia was inspired by horror over the Rana Plaza Factory collapse and the more than a thousand lives lost. It was also inspired by a realization that the ways garment workers are exploited are not new -- that garment workers have been mistreated since the birth of the industrial revolution. I realized this in part, because I connected this disaster to a disaster I grew up knowing about -- the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire that took place in 1911 in New York City. One hundred forty six mostly Jewish and Italian immigrants died in this fire, one of the worst worker disasters in the US at that time. I wanted to make work that showed that Americans are not removed from the exploitation of garment workers -- first because this kind of exploitation has taken AND CONTINUES TO TAKE place in the US today, but also because we are connected to these kinds of disasters through the way we purchase clothing made in these factories and under these unfair conditions.
Can you describe how community organizing or building has been represented within your art practice?
It really influences how I think about what I want my work to convey. I hope that my work can help the public look at a problem or a situation with new perspective and in a way that is empowering. Successful community organizing requires building power -- and I believe building power begins with having new insights and believing that change is possible.
Shroud, 1,281 used white shirts commemorating the lives lost in the Rana Plaza Factory Collapse, Bangladesh, 2013 and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, NYC, 1911. People of the Jewish faith and the Muslim faith are both buried in white. All of the shirts were worn, discarded and purchased by the pound in Minneapolis -- showing the way consumers are complicit in the working conditions of the garment workers who made these shirts.
The Bottom Line, plackets removed from used shirts, This work draws attention to the way clothes are mass produced is inextricably linked to the bottom lines of major international brands. The color palette of this piece suggests corporate culture. The people who wear these shirts are making decisions that impact the working conditions – the pay and safety of the workers who made the same shirts.
I am so curious about your sewing machine! I know it’s so important to the art you make. Do you have one that you prefer to use, or do you use a mix of machines?
At the core of my practice is a sewing machine, which I think of as a deeply symbolic and practical object. Most humans on the planet wear clothes made by this same tool -- a symbol of our connectedness. I divert sewing's original purpose of creating and mending, toward social critique. I call attention to the stitch as a symbol of human interdependence, using it to express belief in the possibility of social change.
I have a lot of sewing machines -- people keep giving them to me! Many of my friends have mothers who have machines that they aren’t using any more so they call me up when their mothers are getting rid of them! I used many of them in a Northern Spark project I did a few years ago called Behind the Seams. I am beginning to plan another community engagement project that will involve many sewing machines so stay tuned.
My favorite one is still my Nechi, an old steel Italian machine that I bought at a garage sale for $3.00 a few days before grad school started because I thought it would be fun to play with in my studio. The rest is history.
I have heard you call the sewing machine your third arm. When did it become so instrumental to your creative voice?
In grad school I played with my sewing machine a lot but it wasn’t until the day I was sewing some fabric onto some paper and my machine ran out of thread and I noticed the beautiful punctures the needle made in the paper without the thread. That moment set a lot of things in motion for me -- I loved the mark and then I realized it also had a lot of meaning embedded in it -- which has now become embedded in my work.
COVID has put a pause on so many things. Life just isn’t the same. I am wondering how COVID has impacted you and how are you coping or doing during these times?
As a Minneapolis resident, COVID and the murder of George Floyd will forever be intertwined. They have laid bare the injustice of racism and the inhumanity of our economic and political systems that impact people of color more harshly than white people. I feel an even greater sense of responsibility in acting for change. In thinking about where my energy can be most effective I return to the community college environment -- which is where I teach -- it is such a powerful intersection of race and class and I see many opportunities for and critical need for making change.
Are there any particular challenges you face as an artist?
Time. It's always hard to find enough time to spend on making my work.
What do you love about being an artist?
I love having work that is so engaging -- physically, intellectually, creatively, and psychologically. I love that my ability to engage as an artist will continue (I hope) for a very very long time. I love being part of an amazing art community in the Twin Cities that challenges, supports and nurtures me. We are so rich with so many talented, smart and dynamic artists and it feeds and energizes me. I am proud to be an artist here!
What kind of resources have you used to help you with your art career?
I have been supported and mentored by many many other artists -- friends who have been willing to come to my studio and provide critical feedback in response to work in progress or read a grant application, for instance. Grant support has also been incomparable -- multiple state arts board grants and my recent Jerome Hill fellowship have been critical to helping me scale up my work. They have made it possible for me to accomplish ambitious projects that just would not have been possible without them. They have allowed me to think big.
I see that you teach drawing and painting at Anoka Ramsey Community College. Do you have any recommendations for other artists who are interested in exploring teaching as part of their art practice/career?
Teaching is not for everyone. If you think you might be interested in teaching I would highly recommend volunteering in a school or at a community center to see how you like it. Try working with different age groups -- each age provides special challenges and joys.
You have a variety of forthcoming exhibitions coming up. Can you share about these projects and what we might be able to expect from them?
I have an exhibition coming up at SooVAC -- it will open mid-November. We are working on the title right now. This work wil be a series of “maps” I have been working on for the last 6 years, since I returned from a research trip in Bangladesh. While in Bangladesh I collected a bag of fabric scraps taken from the many many mounds of fabric scraps piled up outside of garment factories outside of Dhaka. I have sewn these fabric scraps to paper in “map-like” configurations to show the connection between our clothes and these fabric scraps. I call these “supply chain maps.”
I’m excited to show this work because it is so different from the work that is currently being shown in my exhibition “The Labor We Wear” at the Mia -- which is installation based. The work at SooVAC is thematically connected but visually it is very different -- its works on paper and involved a lot of hand stitching. The making process is entirely different.
Thanks for answering my questions, Rachel. Do you have anything else you would like to share?
You asked a lot of questions -- I can’t think of anything else right now!
I did ask a lot of questions and you answered all of them! I so appreciate it!
All images courtesy of the artist. Interview and edited by Jes Reyes.
“As the child of immigrants, born and raised in New York, grind/ hustle culture is in my blood. But since I can’t do many of the social things I enjoy, I’ve been truly focusing on being still. Rest and healing is also part of the “work”. I don’t have to be productive to be of value. I don’t have to produce to earn my space in the world. I am valuable, you are valuable whether we are productive or not. I don’t know if that’s necessarily a coping strategy but this train of thought has been helping me during this time."
There's an amazing person I want you to meet. If you don't know her already, her name is Valérie Déus. For Minnesotans, we are lucky she lives in Minneapolis. Valérie is a poet, film programmer and radio show host. Her work has been featured in Minnesota Women’s Press, The Brooklyn Rail, Midway, the St. Paul Almanac, The BeZine and most recently in A Garden of Black Joy Anthology and Under Purple Skies: A Minneapolis Anthology. When she's not writing, she is the host of Project 35, a local low-fi radio show featuring music from all over the diaspora and poetry on KRSM radio. She curates Film North’s Cinema Lounge and is the Shorts Programmer for The Provincetown International Film Festival.
Jes: I am so excited to ask you some questions. I have always admired your poetry, film programming background, and community work. Can you share more about yourself?
Valérie: Thank you for being interested in interviewing me. So, I’m a Haitian American art maker and I moved here from New York. I’m a poet and I program local shorts for FilmNorth’s Cinema Lounge and shorts for the Provincetown International Film Festival. I am also the host of Project 35, a low-fi radio show on KRSM. I’m involved in several different practices because they influence each other and help keep me inspired. It helps when I get writers’ block and I need to jolt my imagination.
I just ordered a copy of Skull-Filled Sun! Can you talk more about the themes within your writing? Is it a collection of work from a particular time in your life?
Oh, wow thanks! Skull-Filled Sun are experiences from my hyphenated childhood.
What was it like to put your first book together? How did you get connected to Is a Rose Press? Do you have any recommendations for other poets or writers who want to publish their work?
Putting Skull Filled Sun together was stressful because my mom was really sick at the time and I couldn’t focus the way I needed to on the book. My mother passed when I was working on the final drafts and I’m just happy I had a wonderful friend and editor working with me and helping me through the process. Is a Rose Press is run by former Minnesotan and friend, Michael Dekel. He runs the press out of Jerusalem and has always been a fan of my work so when he approached me about publishing a book, I said yes. My recommendation to other poets is to send your work out, connect with people and make friends. Figure out which journals reflect your aesthetic and send your work out. Make your own chapbook. Find a group of readers who get you and send your work to them for feedback. I have a group of readers, poets and non-poets who give me feedback from various perspectives.
Thanks for that advice! I recently learned about We/Here! I love zines so I am definitely interested in learning more about this project and how it’s organized and distributed.
I love zines too but We/Here is unfortunately on hiatus. I had to put it on break because I overextended myself and needed to be realistic about what I can and can’t do well. I only have 2 issues of it out and honestly it was hard to get people to send me work.
That’s an honest answer that I can appreciate and also relate to. I often have to consider projects that way too. I feel sometimes as artists we can add too much on to our plate so it’s important to realize when we have to step back and make sure we are taking care of ourselves as well as honoring the quality of work we want to make. Speaking of taking care of ourselves, has COVID-19 impacted your art practice or career? Has it impacted your programming with FilmNorth or your radio program Project 35?
So, I get inspiration in lots of different ways and one of my favorite ways is to go to a coffee shop or bar or whatever and listen to the way people talk. Those bits of conversation will send me down a rabbit hole of thoughts. My favorite is listening to first dates. People say the most interesting things when they’re nervous or smitten. Well Covid-19 has made that not possible so I’ve turned to giving myself assignments and trying to read my enormous stack of books.
I have to admit my reading hasn’t been great either. It’s hard to lose yourself in a book when there’s so much going on and you’re worried about the world. It’s hard to concentrate and I have to make a real effort to focus and finish things. I try to be kind to myself and give myself time to feel, to grieve, to exist without feeling like I have to DO something. All of this is part of the process. As for programming for FilmNorth’s Cinema Lounge, Covid-19 has actually expanded our viewership because now it’s online and I am able to screen more filmmakers in the 5-state regional area instead of focusing on the hyper local or on folks who can attend the screenings.
That’s really cool to hear that you have been able to expand your audience. I have experienced that while teaching online. I am getting people signing up from all over the country for my classes; when normally I was only teaching people within the state of Minnesota. It’s been neat to see how online programming has increased reach and accessibility that way. Now that it’s been six months or so of living through a pandemic, what have been your COVID-19 coping strategies? What helps you stay positive?
There’s so much more to cope with besides Covid-19. There’s the shit storm political climate, climate change with fires and floods, coupled with state sanctioned violence against Black folks. It’s a lot and I have to remind myself that none of these things are new in the world, right? The only difference between now and the past is now we know about what’s happening in the world. Social media means we can’t be ignorant anymore. So, navigating the various levels of madness in the world definitely takes a toll.
As the child of immigrants, born and raised in New York, grind/ hustle culture is in my blood. But since I can’t do many of the social things I enjoy, I’ve been truly focusing on being still. Rest and healing is also part of the “work”. I don’t have to be productive to be of value. I don’t have to produce to earn my space in the world. I am valuable, you are valuable whether we are productive or not. I don’t know if that’s necessarily a coping strategy but this train of thought has been helping me during this time.
What kind of resources have you used to help your career as an artist?
My resources have always been people. Get involved, ask questions, get a mentor, connect with other writers and other artists, build community. Connect to artists outside of your discipline. I believe in networking and letting people know you are open to try different things and open to new opportunities.
I have personally been thinking a lot about values lately and how I can incorporate them into my practice as an artist. For example, I am deeply into sharing, collaborating, and building community. What values do you lead with in your work or artistic approach?
I have similar values, I love collaborating with folks like I tend to co-curate on special projects. I always like to connect my communities to each other, if you need someone with a specific skill, I probably know some who can help. I want people to reach their full potential and do what they need to do in the world and I just hope to help.
Are there challenges you face as an artist?
Time and money are my biggest challenges. Though I have time now, the pandemic overwhelms everything. It’s hard to focus on getting writing done but I make myself because that’s where the healing is for me. I can’t let this time silence me so I fight shutdown into my turtle shell.
Which artists do you admire?
Oh, wow so many! Edwidge Danticat, Jeannette Ehlers, Danielle Legros Georges, Betye Saar, Cauleen Smith, Harmonia Rosales, Amir George, Natalie Diaz, Rachel Eliza Griffiths, Christopher Harris, Leila Fanner, Charles Aznavour, and so many others.
Where can we find you online?
On Instagram, I’m Urbnnerd.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
I worked on a project with Dara Beevas of Wise Ink and Mary Bruno of Bruno Press where we printed some posters that speak to our revolutionary times.
Thank you so much for answering all of my questions, Valérie! Thanks for helping me think about resisting the hustle and, importantly, to also remember that there's more to cope with right now besides COVID. I admire you! Now I am going to research all of the artists you just told me about...
All images courtesy of the artist. Interview written and edited by Jes Reyes.
"I realized that a large part of the Exit Strategy process was just coming to terms with my own experiences and feeling like I deserved to tell my stories. Making these works, and having the works programmed has been an opportunity to reconnect to myself, and to others."
Readers, I am going to get serious with this interview post with some self-disclosure. First, let me introduce you to Kym McDaniel.
Kym is an experimental filmmaker, media collaborator, choreographer and performer currently based in what is now known as Binghamton, NY. Her experimental films have shown at Slamdance, Chicago Underground Film Festival, Antimatter, and in group and gallery exhibitions including the Rochester Contemporary Art Center (NY), Whitney Humanities Center at Yale University, and Bow Arts Gallery (London), among others. She has an MFA inFilm, Video, Animation, and New Genres from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She currently teaches in the Cinema Department at Binghamton University.
It was a couple of years ago that I was first introduced to Kym McDaniel's work during a Cellular Cinema screening of short films. The program was curated by Ariel Teal and featured femme-identified filmmakers living or had formerly lived in Milwaukee.
I was immediately connected to Kym's work. It was her Exit Strategy series that appealed to me. I was interested in her ability to create consecutive works that explored the experiences of emotional and physical trauma, using video, movement, and her own body and voice to confront these themes. Not only could I relate to the premise of these films but I recognized the power of self-reclaimation found in the work.
"So how do I find my way out," Kym asks out loud in Exit Strategies. As someone who has personally experienced childhood abuse, I've asked myself something similarly. One thing trauma has made me feel is that I am alone. I have felt emotionally and physically trapped because of trauma. It disconnected me from own body, even as the trauma lived and breathed within me. Trauma stirred in my veins, in the crevices of every inch of my body. It compartmentalized in my brain. It found its way into my stomach, my shoulders, and my lower back. The emotional ramifications of the trauma I had experienced manifested into physical pain throughout my body. As a child and young adult, I hid my trauma, from myself and others, out of shame and disbelief. I lived knowing it was there. I lived trying to distance myself from it, quieting it to the point that it boiled underneath. It wasn't healthy.
Finding my way out of repression and silence, which I often used as a form of protection and safety, was difficult work. It's mind-body work. Motivations to this work came from deep hope, a desire to heal, and a place of exhaustion. I wanted to move past the pain and fatigue that went with being a victim of trauma. I wanted to find bodily interconnectedness. I needed empowerment to live beyond and find recovery.
So when I come across artists like Kym McDaniel I need to tell them how much their work matters to me. I need to be exposed to artists like Kym McDaniel because I need films like Exit Strategies. Art like this validates my experiences. This kind of art speaks to me and I know it does for others, because one thing I have learned over the years, is that I am not alone. Possibly you can relate?
I am lucky that Kim let me ask her some questions about Exit Strategies. It's not always the case that you get to ask people directly about the art they make.
And you know what else? Kym is returning to Minnesota! She will be curating a program of films in partnership with Cellular Cinema on March 15th. I will be there and you should be too! Check out more info on the event here.
Read and admire on!
Jes: Kym, I am so excited about your upcoming program with Cellular Cinema. Can you tell me more about it and what we should expect?
Kym: Thank you, I’m excited too. This program has been a real treat for me to curate because of it’s hybrid nature. I had the opportunity to integrate both of my worlds as a dancer and filmmaker.
The program is called The Language of Gesture, and includes both single-channel videos and live dances. Last fall I taught a class called Movement Media Collaborations, and one of their projects was to create a work about gesture. I was really inspired by their interpretations of what a gesture could be, and how the meaning of gesture changed in the different mediums of dance, film, and performance art. Their project prompt was an extension of my own work since gesture is a part of my creative process. I love when teaching and research have such a reciprocal relationship like that!
The works in the program investigate gesture in a way that is specific to each artist’s medium and voice. One thing that ties the works together is my passion for curating work by women and non-binary artists. I naturally gravitate towards the themes and stories shared in their works. Artists in the program include Chelsey Becher & Ivy Jerin Robertson (performance), Tasha Holifield (performance), Ariana Gerstein (video), Amielle Gibson (Super 8), M.O. Guzman (video), Terrance Houle (video), Marissa Jax & Maria Tordoff (performance), Chanelle Lajoie (video), Chloe Nagle (performance), Arneshia Williams (performance), and Nina Yuen (video).
I have been interested in your Exit Strategy project. As someone who has also experienced emotional and physical trauma, I have connected to the premise of the work. What’s next in this series?
Thanks for this question. It’s a privilege for me to connect with others in this way.
The works were created to be modular, but I hope #1-6 will be able to screen as one in festivals and/or other pop-up, DIY, or independent venues. They are single-channel videos, but I think of them as performative, so having them screen as one feature is another dimension of their performative life cycle for me. I also started seeing the works as episodic chapters in my life and recovery. When screened together, they embody oneself piecing together aftermath and moving forward as one entity.
When I watched #1-6 together last week, I couldn’t believe how fast the hour went! I realized these works represent 1/100 of my experience as someone in physical / emotional / sexual / spiritual recovery. There’s a sense of empowerment in that idea that I am the only one who truly knows what I have gone through. And, on the other side of that- an empowerment in sharing the series and having the privilege of connecting with an audience. I’ve been reading the book Blogging in a Postfeminist Age by Jessalyn Keller and she talks about a “pedagogy of hope” … I’ve been thinking a lot about what a pedagogy of hope means, and I think sharing the series as one feature is part of that hopeful process for me.
I am curious to know more about how making this work has been healing for you. Could you talk more about that?
When I started making the videos, the intention was to release embodied shame in the hopes that my chronic physical pain would lessen. The initial experiment of the project has grounded me over the last several years. Why is this story essential to tell, how does it relate to shame? How is this video considered an exit out of shame? Will telling this story facilitate a release so I can integrate a dissociated part of my psyche into my body?
The first time I watched the movie Thelma by Joachim Trier I was crying…There is a quote about the movie by Sheila O’Malley that says, “[the movie’s] engine is the emotional awakening of an extremely repressed girl, a girl who finds emotions so stressful it ruptures the fabric of her reality.”
To step outside my habits of repression, shame, and silence in order to create these works was a huge risk. I used repression and silencing as methods to keep myself safe when I was younger, but now as an adult, I realized those techniques were actually keeping me a victim. It was (is) a risk for me to be vulnerable. After I created Exit Strategy #1 and #2, I started translating this risk of vulnerability from within the series to my “real” life. The series became more than just making art, but about how to feel and cope with being human. This was something I had not allowed myself to do for almost 20 years.
I think I chose dancing as my original medium because I could express myself with choreography and the body, and I never had to talk about my experience directly. But, I kept getting injured. All of my feelings were bound inside me: physicalized emotional pain. When I first started working in video and tried voiceover, I couldn’t handle hearing my voice... I kept receiving critique to stop whispering! But I was only whispering because I couldn’t speak any louder. Since all of the strategies have a voiceover (except #4), I see how far I have come. I imagined my voice being a key I could use to free memories trapped inside my chronically ill body. But I’ve also learned this isn’t enough – I needed to transform my narrative of victimization. I needed to reclaim my own memory, and change the ending to stories I had kept in my body for so long.
I realized that a large part of the Exit Strategy process was just coming to terms with my own experiences and feeling like I deserved to tell my stories. Making these works, and having the works programmed has been an opportunity to reconnect to myself, and to others. The experience has been validating, bittersweet, and healing. I think a part of the series is about how I feel disconnected from my body, and how disconnected I feel to others, and the amount of pain, loneliness, and destruction that alienation has caused me. Connecting with others kinesthetically and empathetically has been an unexpected outcome and healing...
My Alexander Technique teacher, Luc Vanier, introduced me to a quote by Suzuki Roshi’s Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind that is often on my mind about process. The quote in part is “In a fog, you do not know you are getting wet, but as you keep walking, you get wet little by little.” This is what healing has been like for me. I could not foresee the impact of this work on my identity and my transformation… it is not until later (or when I’m crying about Thelma) I see how the works have aided in my process of recovery and healing.
Thanks for sharing, Kym. It’s powerful to see how Exit Strategy as a series has not only created connection with others for you but that the creation of the works has supported your own voice and ability to tell your story. I think that means a lot, especially when it comes to using art as a way to process through events and experiences from our lives. It’s very relatable.
On different note: I have admired how you incorporate curation into your art practice. How do curatorial practices advance or add to what you do? Do you have recommendations for others who want to extend or expand this approach into their work? How do you manage to curate and develop the art projects that you have?
I view curation as an extension of my collaborative practice... not only between me and another artist, but how each piece collaborates with other works in the program. I think curation is a way to test out how themes work with one another and how the audience responds to a framework I have facilitated. I grew up playing competitive chess and curation feels a lot like chess to me. Piecing together moving parts and following a strategy with a goal in mind.
When I was living in Milwaukee, my curation practice started because I needed to keep my choreographic practice alive when I was in grad school for film. I would put on shows in the summer when I had a break from grad school. I was able to connect and build a platform for dancing, friends, and artists in the area and beyond.
I think a recommendation would be to think about the relationship of power, privilege, and oppression when you are in a role of power, like a curator. I think about who is visible and invisible in our society, culture, and art world. I also believe that art shouldn’t be separated from the artist. I want to support people who are doing the work and aren’t personally or professionally hurting the community.
Are there any particular challenges you face as an artist?
Getting paid for my work. Paying other artists for their work I’m curating when I don’t have a specific funding source. Believing in myself and my work. Not having health insurance, and/or the possibility of losing health insurance. Finding good mental health support when you’re moving around/can’t afford out of network/don’t have health insurance. The student loans. The instability, not knowing what’s next professionally/artistically. Finding time to make work in the sea of other responsibilities. Being a woman in this industry. Negotiating the idea that rejection does not have a relationship to my worth. Dating other artists. Dating non-artists. Honestly maybe just dating in general.
What do you love about being an artist?
Ultimately, I became an artist because I had to… being an artist is too difficult unless you are so in love with creating there is no other option… I love creating a life rooted in discovery, surprise, and self-expression. I love learning how my work informs me about myself, and feeling like my work is making an impact or helping someone else. I love the excitement of integrating movement, writing, and images into a practice, and meeting new minds through teaching/curation/choreography. I love being in collaboration with another artist and creating a work together that I never would have made on my own. I love the friends I have met along the way who understand me (and give me critique!). I’m grateful for the opportunity to have met my mentors who have changed my life.
What artists do you admire?
Chantal Akerman, Anne Charlotte Robertson, Dani ReStack, Wu Tsang, Zeinabu irene Davis, Trisha Brown, Pina Bausch, Stephanie Barber, Nazlı Dinçel, Carolee Schneemann, Will Rawls, Maggie Nelson, Yvonne Rainer, Numa Perrier, Roxane Gay, Robyn, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. My graduate committee at UW-Milwaukee was amazing. I was able to work with Carl Bogner, Lori Felker, Kelly Kirshtner, Jesse McLean, and Cecelia Condit.
Where can we find you online?
My website is www.kymmcdaniel.com, and my instagram is @kymcdaniel
Is there anything else you would like to share?
The quote I mentioned earlier about walking in the fog can be located here. Thank you for letting me think about these questions and sharing this event!
Thank you so much, Kym, for being part of my interview series. I look forward to the event on March 15th.
All images courtsey of the artist.
Did you know that I am starting a new cinema program in St. Paul for women and non-binary/gender non-conforming filmmakers? I am! Moonplay Cinema’s first event is June 28th. Our first screening will open with a program of short films and conclude highlighting the work from Kiera Faber. You can learn more about Kiera in an interview I did with her last year.
Submit to screen with Moonplay here.
Contribute to our first season’s crowdfunding campaign here.
Artists I Admire is a series of interviews with artists I think highly of.
Artists I Admire
on Instagram today!
I try to post interviews 1 or 2 times a month but sometimes there's a longer break, because life can get busy. I am sure you can relate!