"I love exploring depth and complexity, and we often hold many identities, realities, contradictions, and dreams. It is inspiring to me to really get to know someone. To know their darkness, hopes, quirkiness, weakness and strength, which helps me to check my bias and assumptions about people, and honor humanity in a more honest and sincere way."
If there's one word that I can use to describe Xiaolu Wang's films it would be reclaimation. Her work is brave, honest, and real, yet I can feel a gentleness to her style as well. She doesn't allow her films to simily gaze upon her subjects, but rather her films carry an active voice. Xiaolu shows through her work that film can help you speak, film can help you stand up, and film can help you connect with others. Being a filmmaker is more than telling stories, it's also about saying who you are. So with that, I admire Xiaolu Wang. I always looking forward to her work!
Xiaolu Wang is a self-taught filmmaker. She identifies as a Chinese transplant who grew up in the Muslim autonomous region in Northwestern China, now resides in the occupied indigenous homelands of the Dakota people, the twin cities. She believes in using lived experiences as materials for her films and for directing. Dumpling 饺子 is her first narrative short that blends traditional narrative with magical realism to reflect on the struggle to belong. It won Audience Choice Award at the Altered Esthetics Film Festival in Minneapolis, and is an Official Selection in Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival and Tacoma Film Festival. This year, she is developing a documentary with the support of the New Angles Documentary Fellowship through Saint Paul Neighborhood Network, and is a recipient of the Next Step Fund from The Metropolitan Regional Arts Council of Minnesota, and a recipient of the 2019 Minnesota Film, Video and Digital Production Grant from The Jerome Foundation.
In this interview, Xiaolu shares about joy, The Creative Independent, her recent films, among many other important things. Read and admire on!
Happy New Year to you and Happy Birthday to Xiaolu!
Jes: Tell me about your films and filmmaking approach. When did you first connect to filmmaking as an artistic medium?
Xiaolu: Filmmaking is a unique language to me, like advanced-level Chinese and things I can’t articulate in either Chinese or English, like music and hip-pop dance and poetry, like religion and cooking and surgery and sex, like time-traveling and illumination and magic tricks, but not exactly any of these things. Roland Barthes says “Two languages cancel each other out, so we need a third one.” Filmmaking to me is the third language I was desperately missing when I can’t translate my thoughts and experiences with my native tongue or a second language. I found films when I first immigrated to America and had to catch up with English. Watching films with subtitles was my best tool at learning English and getting along with my long-separated mother.
Your films have a portraiture quality - capturing often a single person. What inspires you most about exploring “the person” in your work?
I love exploring depth and complexity, and we often hold many identities, realities, contradictions, and dreams. It is inspiring to me to really get to know someone. To know their darkness, hopes, quirkiness, weakness and strength, which helps me to check my bias and assumptions about people, and honor humanity in a more honest and sincere way.
You are a recent Documentary Fellow at SPNN. What has that experience been like for you and what you been working on for them?
Being a freelance filmmaker and making my own paths in filmmaking means it’s ever more important for me to find community and stay connected. SPNN offers production support and mentoring resources and they are always providing opportunities and programs to help emerging filmmakers to have higher achievement in their filmmaking career. To me, I can’t thank SPNN enough for making space for filmmakers like me, who needs accountability in achieving my vision and practice sustainability for my projects and career. They push me to apply for fellowships and grants to develop my project further, they connect us to different documentary filmmakers who have vastly different styles and knowledge and approaches and work on different topics. They help me see a different possibility in myself and my project.
I met peers who are exploring the most pressing issues in our families and communities. We see on screen, footage of each storyteller revealing themselves in the most vulnerable light to serve the story. I was chosen to be a part of the cohort along with my partner-in-crime, a visionary cinematographer Tahiel Jimenez. We produced 16min of a feature-to-be documentary The Subversive Sirens, and I am just awarded by the Jerome Foundation a 30K production grant to develop it further.
Congrats on the grant, Xiaolu. That’s so exciting! I watched the trailer for The Subversive Sirens and it looks amazing. I'm cuious, do you practice in other mediums beyond filmmaking?
A recent love is taiko drumming and dancing on the street. I love the intention and dedication and repetition it requires to play taiko. My teacher once said, “you have to show up to taiko for at least twenty years and then you can say you are playing taiko.” I want to be able to say that about filmmaking. Dancing has always been a practice to me about vulnerability and accessing my joy. I found in my notes recently what I wrote about joy.
Joy is reliable,
Dumpling is your latest film? What is it about? Where can folks see it?
Dumpling is a short film based on my lived experience of moving from China to a predominantly white, rural American town when I was 14. The story takes place on Xiao Xing’s first day of high school after the move, where she begins to feel othered and isolated in her public school cafeteria. She preserves her identity by eating dumpling she brought from home. Dumpling blends traditional narrative with magic realism to reflect on the struggle to belong. It is currently in the film festival circuit, and I hope to release it online in 2020. There are two upcoming screening opportunities in 2020, one in January with the Twin Cities Film Festival, and one in February at the Indigenous Roots, which is a bigger celebration with other artists and friends and family. Please follow https://www.facebook.com/dumplingshortfilm/ for announcements.
What are the challenges you face as an artist?
I can isolate myself easily and not share what I actually go through. I get distracted by giving my energy and my power to things that take me for granted. I struggle big time with perfectionism, which cause me to procrastinate and miss opportunities that could’ve helped me grow further. I struggle with balancing ambition and capacity. I let uncertainty and my comfort zones prevent me from taking bold steps. I am highly self-conscious, so that means I am in my head, in my head, in my head all the time.
What do you think you need most as an artist?
Discipline. I have to be rigorous with setting up structures in my life, being specific with my goals, and taking actions to align with my vision.
What do you love about being an artist?
I love the ability to make something out of nothing. Being an artist is being subversive, magical, vulnerable, and honest all of the time. What artists do is transformation work, liberation work, humanity work, dissent work, and social work. I love that all I am learning to do as an artist is using my voice.
Accessing resources like grants, calls for art, and friends are a big part of being an artist. What kind of resources have you used?
I’ve been loving this online platform called The Creative Independent. It’s a growing resource of emotional and practical guidance for creative people. They publish free zines on being healthy as a creative, dealing with anxiety as a creative, making a living as a creative, and finding your voice as a creative.
I love the Artist Way books, there are always a good reference to have if I need inspiration or momentum.
Friends and networks is where I get gigs and opportunities, I love deep personal connections and also many intersectional organizations like SPNN, FilmNorth, Springboard for the Arts.
I have never heard of The Creative Independent! Thanks for sharing about it. What a great resource! Speaking of online stuff, where can we find you online?
Instagram: personal account @x140lu
film blog @erotic.lens
Are you working on something new?
I am on a journey of studying cinematography for the next three months. I want to learn how cinematographers think, plan, and communicate. I want to get more familiar with different aspects of filmmaking in order to elevate my abilities, skills, and effectiveness as a filmmaker.
I am really excited about all of the projects you are working on, Xiaolu. Thank you so much for answering my questions!
All images courtesy of the artist.
"I find that women and femme folx tend to have the strongest reactions to the images in a positive way. They hopefully can see themselves in the paintings I have made; the body shared is not their own, but they can identify with it personally. I often hear ‘thank you’ and just gratitude for feeling like large bodies are being shared with love and affection."
My first experience with Erin's Sandmark's artwork was when I installed one of her giant self-portraits at The Southern Theater in Minneapolis. I was volunteering with Altered Esthetics at the time. Erin's piece was part of a group show that we were curating in the lobbies of the theater. We placed Erin's painting in the upstairs lobby. We purposely hung it in a way that as people walked up the staircase and they made their way to the theater entrance they would be exposed to her self-portrait. I watched so many people engage with that painting, from children to older adults. People gravitated towards her image and presence.
Erin's art is usually large-scale and nude. The portraits are bold, memorable, and powerful. The work is an experience, inviting you to explore the agency of embracing one's body.
Erin Sandsmark is a Minneapolis based artist. Sandsmark received her Bachelors of Fine Art degree from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. In the spring of 2017, she received her Masters of Fine Art at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. Sandsmark has been the recipient of the Brown-Makenzie Arts Scholarship and the Sally-Spencer Scholarship. She has been exhibited at the Regis Center for Arts Quarter Gallery, West Gallery, the Katherine E. Nash Gallery, the MFA Whittier Gallery, MCAD MFA Gallery, Co Exhibitions Gallery, New Bohemian Gallery, Gallery 148, Red Garage Studio, Altered Esthetics, Artspace Jackson Flats, Studio 427, Griffin and Archer, and the Freeborn County Arts Initiative with her latest solo exhibition “Ourselves”.
Sandsmark is also the board of the Freeborn County Arts Initiative in Albert Lea, MN, has participated in Art-A-Whirl and the annual MCAD Art Sale. She is an art instructor with ArtiCulture, a non-profit providing art to the community through classes and public art projects, and she is a Continuing Education instructor with the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.
In this interview, Erin discusses audience responses to her art, goals she has for 2020, and her recent solo show in Albert Lea, Minnesota. She also talks a little bit about teaching at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. Enjoy getting to know Erin, an artist I admire for her strength, talent, and commitment to body positivity!
Jes: I first saw your work when I was volunteering with Altered Esthetics. We were exhibiting your paintings. I was blown away by the power and boldness I saw in your self-portraits. When and why did you start painting yourself?
Erin: I started to paint myself when I was 21 years old, in my senior year at the University of Minnesota in the BFA program. I had been in love with painting portraits for a long time, and had experimented with creating abstracted nude figures. But it took me realizing how much I needed to make a true nude self-portrait after I just felt like I was keeping things too safe and easy. I had to confront myself and my body. My sexuality, and all that comes with it. I was scared to expose myself in that way, but it changed my life to move in that direction. The classes I took at the same time in gender politics and the discussions we on feminine power really laid the groundwork for me to be able to create the paintings I do to this day.
I have heard you describe your art as unapologetic and confrontational. What about your art makes it so?
I think what makes my work confrontational is the scale I use. The viewer has to see a figure that’s larger than life, and it might cause discomfort. I want to envelop the viewer and make them feel a part of the flesh and the painting. If you step close enough, you really can’t see beyond the image. I want each painting to have a strong presence and power. My body is large, fat, and full of rolls. The large scale allows me to carve out a space for myself in a room. Instead of shrinking back, I share myself and the bodies of the other models I’ve been working with boldly. I aim to give them the space and power they deserve.
Who do you find most relates to your art and feels empowered by your images. What have those folks said about your art?
I find that women and femme folx tend to have the strongest reactions to the images in a positive way. They hopefully can see themselves in the paintings I have made; the body shared is not their own, but they can identify with it personally. I often hear ‘thank you’ and just gratitude for feeling like large bodies are being shared with love and affection.
I really wanted to see your show Ourselves. Can you tell me more about that show: how you landed that opportunity and the art you had on display? It expanded beyond self-portraits, right?
It was a really exciting show, and the beginning of a long-term project of really exploring bodies outside of my own experience. For a long time, I wanted to paint other subjects, but this show gave me the opportunity to really start that journey. The Freeborn County Arts Initiative is a small arts nonprofit and gallery out of Albert Lea, MN and the president Marla Klein reached out to me about showing my work there. Marla knows me through personal connections, but I was excited that the board agreed to show my paintings. Through planning the exhibition, I actually got involved in the organization itself and joined the board in January 2019. “Ourselves” was a way for me to finally make major changes in what I had been creating, and finding a new way to work using models. All of the women in the show are colleagues, friends, family, and people I admire. Their abilities and jobs were all over the spectrum, but that’s what made it so amazing to have them all in a space together. Each model had the choice to share their faces or not, so that varied in each of the paintings. My goal for each individual was to make their experience positive, and capture their genuine power and presence.
I also saw earlier this year you taught a summer course at MCAD called Gender, Sex, and Society through Drawing and Painting. Please tell me about how it went! Will you be teaching it again?
I am hoping to teach this course again in the summer! But we will see, Continuing Education at MCAD varies. However, the course was a complete success and it’s the kind of class I have always wanted to teach. I love discussing critical theory on gender, bodies, and how those things can relate to artistic practices, so it was amazing really being able to dig deep into these issues. We are hoping to offer it again, and I have so many ideas and readings I want to incorporate into a new session. The paintings and drawings created in response to the theories were amazing, and had so much depth. It felt like a community, not just a standard studio class.
The new year is upon us! Can you share some 2019 reflections you have on your art and practice? What are your goals for 2020?
This year has been extremely busy, but I have realized I have not spent enough time on my personal artistic practice. That is the major thing I am hoping to improve for 2020.
What are some challenges or barriers you face as an artist? What do you need?
I think all artists are facing difficulty in finding a work life balance that benefits them in their creative process. I am so fortunate to have a community that strongly supports what I’m doing, but it’s hard to balance all of what I want to accomplish and create. Being financially set and creatively fulfilled is a hard balance to find.
What do you love most about being an artist?
I love being able to connect with people through my work. There is nothing like creating something, and seeing someone respond to it. It's really empowering and a truly incredible feeling.
Where can we find you online?
My website erinsandsmark.com
my instagram @erinsandsmark
Or email me for any inquiries! (email@example.com)
What artists do you admire?
Here are some artists I continually look up to:
Njideka Akunyili Crosby
Thank you for answering my questions, Erin! Readers, please go Google these artists to learn more!
All images/art courtesy of the artist Erin Sandsmark.
"There is something important about allowing myself to slow down and notice the relationships between the forms that I see every day. "
I am excited to introduce you to one of my favorite Twin Cities-based artists, Liz Lang. I religiously follow her Instagram page to catch her sketchbook posts. There’s something about how she uses line and shape that draws me in! Pun intended!
Liz grew up amongst the wheat fields in Western Nebraska. Being from a generational farming family, she was raised to love the land and developed a deep fascination with the way it is divided for the various crops. Her mother was an educator with a minor in art history. This allowed art to be a major foundation in Lang’s childhood. She went on to develop her visual language by minoring in set design and receiving a Bachelor’s of Science in interior design from Colorado State University. Although she enjoyed the scale and projects of these subjects, Lang couldn’t shake her own creative point of view. This eventually led her to complete the post-baccalaureate in studio arts program at Minneapolis College of Art and Design where she was able to participate and eventually be a teacher’s assistant for the Women’s Art Institute.
Currently, Lang is a gallery assistant for a local commercial art gallery. She maintains her studio practice in an artist loft in St Paul, MN.
Please read the interview and admire on! You’re going to love Liz, too!
Jes: Hi Liz! Thanks for being part of this interview series. The first thing I want to ask you about is your sketchbook project. I love your sketchbook posts on Instagram! I even looked back at your #lizlangsketchbookproject hashtag to see what your first post was! Why make your sketchbook into a project? Does your sketchbook follow you everywhere? Do you sketch every day?
Liz: I made my sketchbook into a project as a reaction to the language of Instagram. I am fascinated with the ability of creating a digital album that is inherently visual through the use of language.
Yes, I carry a sketchbook with me everywhere and sketch every day. I currently have two; one that is dedicated to the hashtag (topical) and one that is more fluid. This habit was formed during my undergraduate studies (1999-2003), and I find it is the purest form of seeing. There is something important about allowing myself to slow down and notice the relationships between the forms that I see every day.
One thing I also love on your Instagram are the abstracted photos from your daily life. Like things on the sidewalk or industrial building windows. The way that you see and frame them, I notice in the photos similarities found in your original art...I can see that line and shape inspires you. So, what is it about the line and the shape that draws you in? Or stops you in your tracks?
Good question! I suppose the best way for me to answer it would be to talk about two deeper truths that provide anchors for my art. Firstly, I have discovered that Instagram fits best into my life as an extension of my studio practice. For me this means I use it mostly as a way to showcase how I move through my corner of the universe by providing access to the things I see. My belief is that it is the artist’s job to show people how to see, what to see and what to notice. I am most interested in developing these access points to patterns and relationships. Secondly, it is within the nuance of living that we build a life. The same route or the same path can be traveled by two different people and there will always be two perspectives/experiences. Even though we are all contained in an identifiable form, we will never be filled with the same energy.
I know you also keep an art studio. What is your studio practice like?
My studio practice is integrated into my daily life through my sketchbook. Because I live in St. Paul and work in Minneapolis, I take the light rail and will sketch on the train during my commutes. Additionally, I have a part-time job which allows me to have one full day dedicated to my physical studio during the work week. Since my studio is a home studio, I find myself wandering in and out of my space everyday depending upon my other obligations.
I understand that you moved to St. Paul from Denver a couple of years ago. As an artist, what has been the transition like for you? Why Minnesota? Also, what was the art community like in Denver?
I’ve lived in Minnesota before, so this move was a “coming back” of sorts. Truth be told, I was anxious about calling MN home again because Denver folks are expansive and energized in a way that is tough to compete with. I think this stems from the fact that everyone there seems to be from somewhere else. The Denver community is built on a vision, where I find community here is rooted in past connections and can take longer to find. However, this time around I have found that Instagram has played an integral part in forming lovely connections. Additionally, I live at one of the artists’ lofts where there is a strong community mindset built in.
Another reason to be in an artist in Minnesota is because of the strong funding and support we have here. It is such a valuable resource and something I do not take for granted.
How have you developed your career over the years? What kind of resources have you used?
My career is in a constant state of development. This year was about forming a consistent studio practice while developing my voice. I have utilized Springboard for the Arts, MPLSart.com and other publications / writings / books to create habits. My plans for the next year/decade are to show more of my work publicly by mounting shows.
What artists do you admire?
Mark Bradford, Robert Rauschenberg, Rachel Whiteread and Carolyn Swiszcz
I love Carolyn Swiszcz too! I subscribe to Zebra Cat Zebra. Her most recent zine about her exercise teacher at the YMCA is amazing! Liz, do you have anything else you would like to share?
I suppose my last parting thought is to give yourself permission to show up. Show up for yourself in your studio, pay attention to what excites you, ignite your curiosities, and chase out your thoughts onto paper.
Excellent words! I can get behind all of that. Thanks, Liz!
Images courtesy of the artist.
"What I try most to express is the fluidity of memory. Places and times can blur together, or have very sharp, focused edges. Seeing an image can remind you of something else from a completely different time and place. This is how stories start, how stories are shared. I just try to be a conduit for those."
It's always nice to meet another Jes. Especially Jes Lee.
I admire how Jes explores nature, landscape, and the environment through her layered and interdisciplinary photography. Her use of narrative, history, and impact in her art is rich and compelling too. Her recent exhibitions explore all of these very themes. One show is an ecological comment on water and light and the other is an intriguing study of a human being through the places and spaces they inhabit.
Jes is a photographer and printmaker, living and working in Minneapolis, MN. She graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of Minnesota in 2003. She studied book arts and printmaking at Minnesota Center for Book Arts. Like me, she enjoys reading and traveling. She has a number of fiber-related hobbies, mostly to justify her desire to buy pretty fabric and yarn. I can relate!
Her day job includes being one of the studio technicians at Anoka-Ramsey Community College in the Visual Arts Department. She lives in a house at the top of a hill with her significant other, and two spoiled house rabbits.
Please read on to learn more about Jes. In this interview, she talks about her recent shows, the processes she uses to create her photography, and what she loves most about being an artist.
Jes: I am interested in the ways you push the boundaries of photography. Can you describe your process and when you first began this approach?
Jes Lee: I have been interested in making multiple exposure images since my first photography class in college. I loved how surreal they could be, how two images together could completely change the story told by just one. During my BFA degree, I took a class on Photoshop, and learned to scan negatives and layer bits of images together, having full control over how the parts blended together. It continued from there.
One part of my practice is creating images digitally. I photograph using mostly medium format film, scan it in to a digital format, and manipulate it in Photoshop. These images exist in the world as prints, and books. This process I have been using since that Photoshop class. The layering of images is a process that takes place mostly subconsciously. I collect images, sort through them, and wait for something to catch my eye. It all goes from there.
The other part of my practice involves printmaking. I use the same process of digitizing negatives, and creating a layered image in Photoshop. The image is printed on a transparency, which I use to expose the image on a hard plastic, light sensitive photopolymer plate. The image is etched onto the plate. I ink the plate by hand, and print the image using an etching press. This process I learned five years ago in a workshop at Minnesota Center for Book Arts. Every time I make an image using this process, it is a practice. I learn new things about it, usually the hard way.
I get very different results between the two techniques. The story within the image dictates what medium I use for the image.
I learned photography using film. While a large portion of my work is done digitally, I still start out almost always photographing using film. I have a relationship with those cameras.
What are you looking to express most through your photography?
What I try most to express is the fluidity of memory. Places and times can blur together, or have very sharp, focused edges. Seeing an image can remind you of something else from a completely different time and place. This is how stories start, how stories are shared. I just try to be a conduit for those.
Tell me about your recent exhibitions with The Phipps and Concordia College. What was it like to organize these bodies of work? What went into these pieces too? What are the themes you are exploring?
Both were continuations of series I have been exploring for a while.
Gathering Water and Light which was on display at The Phipps in Hudson is a series I have kept going back to for many years. It explores our relationship as humans with water and light, too much of each: light pollution, flooding; or too little of each: darkness, freezing, drought. The exciting part of putting together this exhibit was going through pieces I have created over the last few years, and looking at them critically. It was a chance to change their story a bit, and create new work. In May, I finished a year-long project of photographing Lake Superior every month. I was able to create new work from those images, and incorporate it into this series. That was really exciting, to focus on a different aspect of the water side of the series.
The Digital Dreams of You series was at Concordia University in St. Paul. It started out as a way to explore creating Photopolymer Photogravure prints, to teach myself the medium and master it. (I have not mastered it, but I have improved from my first attempts!) The basis for this project is a digital personal assistant that becomes sentient and falls in love with their human. They gather information about their person by analyzing the images this human collects, the places this human visits, objects and trails left behind by this human and others. An attempt to understand what being human means, combining and comparing images to get a more complete understanding. The project grew way beyond what I first imagined. With this series I was awarded a Minnesota State Arts Board Artist Initiative Grant that allowed me to purchase my own etching press. I was awarded a solo exhibition in Iowa at the Octagon Center for the Arts, as well as the solo show at Concordia. Being able to exhibit it at Concordia gave me a chance to once again edit the series, and make new work for it. I don’t believe I am completely finished with this series yet.
Having two large exhibitions at the same time was exhilarating, and completely exhausting. The end right before the exhibitions opens is always the hardest, editing, editioning, cleaning, framing, etc. I am really proud of the work I created, and how the exhibitions turned out.
Do you work with other mediums?
Besides photography and printmaking, I also use book arts and ceramics as mediums to create with.
What is your studio practice like?
This is a tough question to answer! My studio practices change a lot based on the time of year, what I’m working on, etc. I am always ready to collect images. I always have a camera with me, ready to photograph what I see when I want. Some weeks I spend a lot of time developing film, scanning negatives, and sorting images. I share a studio space (that once existed as a science lab) with two amazing women. No matter what I’m working on (digitally layering images, pulling prints, making books) I try to work and be in that space at least twice a week. During the summer, I don’t work my day job, so I am at the studio a lot more. I tend to work on smaller things during the school year, the little pieces of larger ideas, practicing a new medium, collecting images and ideas, things like that. I don’t always have as much time as I would like, so working on smaller things that I can accomplish in less time is much less frustrating. Over the summer I have a lot more time to be in the studio, so I try to save the big things, finishing series and editions, long days of printing, pulling together all the little things I have finished into something larger to be done over the summer.
What are some challenges you face as an artist? What do you need to help you and your career?
Currently, a lot of my struggles come from myself. I was quite burned out after all the work I did on those two exhibitions. For a long time, I didn’t want to create anything, didn’t have any ideas, didn’t know where to go next. That was mentally hard to get through. I tried to be patient, and give myself space. I’m finally coming through it I think. I have some ideas, and some new ideas that I’m really looking forward to working on. For me, being patient and kind to myself, and just being ok with not always creating something new and spectacular is often the toughest part.
What do you love the most about being an artist?
I love how it has taught me to create something from nothing. To gather a bunch of images, or paper, or ink, or whatever, and make something completely different out of it. Being an image maker, especially a photographer, has a unique feeling. When someone looks at old photos, from 50 years ago, they see what life was like back then. Someone witnessed that exact moment and captured it. That is the basis of photography. Someone in the future will look at the images I have created, and see what I witnessed of life as it is now. It is a magical, and humbling experience.
Where can we find you online?
My website is a constant work in progress, and I am making peace with that. Most of my newest work is up there. I am also on Instagram quite a bit.
Is there anything else you would like to share, Jes?
Thank you for asking me to be a part of this!
All images courtesy of the artist.
"I have started a series of paintings about the items that women carry with them for protection while walking, running or just generally out and about. Each item represented in the paintings are from real women and each have a story behind it. It’s really fascinating to know that this is a shared experience between so many women, yet it’s not really talked about."
In the early part of this past summer I visited the Women's Art Institute's exhibition of the 2019 Studio Intensive cohort. I wanted to see my friend Cory Favre's latest series of works. I had seen some sneak peeks of the new art she was creating on Instagram and I was intrigued to see it in person.
As I approached her art in the gallery I was immediately attracted to the bright color palette she worked with. Each piece was a portrait of an everyday object. The pop art feel and bubble gum color, strategically and ironically used, depicts something a bit darker. These objects represent what women have used to protect themselves from being hurt, assaulted, or raped. A set of dirty plastic teeth or keys are among these items. Cory had collected stories from real women on this topic, inspiring this new series.
Cory's art brings to conversation a topic that is terribly real for women and that isn't always talked about. The work is a form of consciousness raising: comforting and upsetting as well as unsettling and relatable. Her art makes me feel like I am not alone; that my fear of being attacked or assaulted isn't uncommon; that other women too carry objects of protection. My objects have often been keys, but I have also held a book and an ice scraper.
Cory’s primary mediums are oil and encaustic (beeswax). She is influenced by such artists as James Rosenquist, Kiki Smith, Jenny Holzer, CJ Hendry, Shawn Huckins, and Nancy Spero. Her recent work lives in the space between sarcasm and snark, humor and the serious, fun and not so fun. Social issues, politics and human nature are all inspirations for her work.
A visual artist living and working in Minnesota, Cory has a BGS from Ball State University with focuses in Studio Art and Interior Design and is an alumni of The Women’s Art Institute. Cory serves on the Board of Directors for the Women’s Art Resources of Minnesota and is a member of Arts Roseville and the Northeast Minneapolis Arts Association.
In this interview, Cory talks about her experience at the Women's Art Institute as well what challenges she faces as an artist (like finding time to make art or apply for opportunities - I can relate!) Read and admire on!
Jes: You recently completed the Women’s Art Institute. For those who don’t know what that program is, can you talk more about it. What was your experience like? How did it help your art career?
Cory: I did! It was an amazing experience that really pushed me to be more deliberate with my work. The Women’s Art Institute (WAI) is a four week studio intensive at St. Catherine’s University taught by Pat Olson (founding member of the Women’s Art Registry of Minnesota) and AK Garsky. It is a mixture of discussions, studio visits with amazing local women artists (we have SO many!!), artist talks, and independent work in a studio of your choosing in the art building. Some of the artists we were lucky to hear from were Hend Al-Mansour, Harriet Bart, Dyani White Hawk, and Katayoun Amjadi.
The class time is directed by questions that we, the students, come up with. We brainstorm on the first day and widdle those questions down into the seven most important. Our class discussions are then prompted by each of those questions. I found this to be a really interesting way to guide a class, it wasn’t as though we were being lectured each day, it was more of all the people in class offering their wisdom and insights. I believe that many answers we were looking for were within ourselves and that when we can all come together we are stronger for it.
The afternoons are broken up into studio time to work on your own project. We would meet with Pat and AK individually once a week to discuss our work and get feedback. This was also very helpful for me because I haven’t really had much ability to get constructive feedback on my work since college. Now that WAI is over, I have a network of fellow students to get support and critique my work. We meet once a month to discuss what we are working on.
By the end of the month, we have a body of work that gets a final critique by Pat and AK, as well as the class, and pieces are chosen to go into the Work from the Women’s Art Institute Exhibition.
This experience was truly something that I won’t forget and was so beneficial for my work. I had been struggling with subject matter and feeling like perhaps my work didn’t have an audience. The Women’s Art Institute helped me get over that and learn I do have a wider audience that I thought and focus my messaging more accurately. Also, it was just nice to work in a huge, bright studio for four whole weeks! I would highly recommend this for any woman artist looking to deepen their own understanding of their work and learn from some amazing women.
What do you love about being an artist?
I love that being an artist gives me an outlet and freedom to try different things. I love that I can have my own space to get away to and just be myself and create. I notice that my mood is better when I get to create something. When I can’t paint or draw in my studio, I have noticed that my creative juices come out in other ways. For example, we moved into a new home this summer and my studio is still not fully operational, so I have been baking. A lot. I find that being an artist lets me do all of these things and that I am very much a real artist whether the medium is cake or oil paint.
What challenges are you faced with as an artist?
There are many challenges to being an artist as well. Imposter syndrome is a real thing and I feel like more than previous years I have struggled with this. The Institute helped quite a bit and I constantly try and keep that thinking at bay.
I would have to say, however, my biggest struggle lately is time. Being a mother of a toddler makes it really tough to find a balance. Since being an artist doesn’t usually have set working hours, it can get really difficult to fit in studio time. I have had to be easier on myself with regards to time, it’s okay not to get into the studio every day. I have to remind myself that my paints aren’t going anywhere, despite the pressure I put on myself to get work done and apply for shows and grants. My son is only going to be little for so long.
What do you need as an artist?
Time. And space. As I mentioned before, time is a tricky thing to manage right now in my life. Kids take up so much of it! Space is equally important. I need a designated, quiet space to work. Currently, that is a home studio in my basement - which isn’t always quiet and I’m usually never alone. But, you have to work with what you have and I am doing my best. Things aren’t always perfect, but I am thankful that I have the space in my home for a studio and that even if I can carve out a few hours a month for my art then that is a success!
What’s next? Do you have any new projects on the horizon?
Currently, I am starting a project that I hope will be funded by the Minnesota State Arts Board Artist Initiative Grant (should find out in a couple months!). The idea came to me at WAI and has been received so well in it’s little beginning forms. I have started a series of paintings about the items that women carry with them for protection while walking, running or just generally out and about. Each item represented in the paintings are from real women and each have a story behind it. It’s really fascinating to know that this is a shared experience between so many women, yet it’s not really talked about. My hope for the project is to complete 100 paintings from 100 different women about what each of them carries for safety. I believe having so many stories shown together in a large installation will both give women a greater sense of community in a shared experience, as well as, show that this is a regularly lived experience for so many. I am really excited about this project and hope that it brings a lot of people together.
I will also have work shown at Gamut Gallery’s Raging Art On during December 2019 and work at Red Wing Arts Small Works show November - December 2019.
Where can we find you online?
You can find me on my website, www.coryfavre.com, or I am usually most active on Instagram, @the.beatnik.
All images courtesy of the artist.
“I purposefully leave questions unanswered. I understand that this can feel uncomfortable, but I think there is merit in complexity and dissonance. I believe that art should be challenging. Unfortunately, the film industry is still heavily male-dominated and I feel, at times, that sexism negatively affects opportunities for my work to be seen.”
My favorite kind of film is interdisciplinary and is inspired by questions, where the narrative is non-linear, lives within a surreal in-between tension, and struggles to be defined by a genre. That is partly why I love the handmade films from artist Kiera Faber. I connect with the intricate, meticulous and dreamlike nature of her films. I am also in awe of her aesthetic abilities and the themes she explores in her work. Her films are haunting, raw, and complex. It’s hard to categorize her work which I think is exciting and compelling.
Kiera Faber is an artist working in animated film, photography, and drawing. Her work explores the repercussions of loss and trauma through enigmatic abstract narratives. Faber creates the entire world and experience of a film; from concept and design to image and sound. Her auteur, award-winning films are entirely crafted by hand and are internationally screened and exhibited at film festivals, galleries, and museums, most notably the Museum of Contemporary Photography, George Eastman Museum, and the Walker Art Center. Faber received her MFA from the Visual Studies Workshop after completing a BA in Psychology from the University of Rochester. In 2018, Faber received a McKnight Fellowship in Media Arts. She has received numerous regional grants and a film production grant from the Jerome Foundation. Faber currently is in pre-production on THE GARDEN SEES FIRE, creating the surreal and fanciful characters and sets for her next animated film. She is a dual national of Luxembourg and the United States and resides in Minnesota.
T FOR TURNIP was the first film I had seen of Kiera's and I was immediately enamored. In this film, 3,467 hand painted 16mm frames metaphorically explore three siblings’ collective childhood trauma. It took Kiera 1,000 hours to hand paint the film, using the smallest paintbrush available to apply silk dyes to the film’s emulsion, while looking through a stereoscopic microscope to see the tiny objects on the film. After I watched T FOR TURNIP, I saw her film LIVING ORGANICS, and I was like, yessssss, Kiera, thank you. You can say that I am a big fan of her work!
I am delighted that she let me ask her some questions. I always want to know more about Kiera and, as the years have passed, I am glad that our paths continue to cross! In this interview, she discusses her hand-crafted film, her path as an artist, and the new film she is working on. She also touches on what challenges she faces as an artist.
Enjoy! Admire on!
Jes: I have been enjoying your hand-crafted film, animation, and photography for quite a few years now. Your style is unique. How do you describe your creative approach and how do you make your work?
Kiera: Foremost, I consider myself to be a traditional fine artist; where materiality and texture are essential components of my work. I want my films to look visually complex and richly textured, referencing the emotional complexity embedded in the work. Creating films by hand, evinces the makers mark, and produces imagery that is raw and imperfect, rather than overly clean or slick. My films involve extensive drawing, sculpture, and painting for sets, puppet stop motion animations, and other forms of frame-by-frame animation. Before I was introduced to artistic, experimental film, I would envision completed paintings in my mind, now I do this within the medium of film. I think of my films as surreal paintings that animate in the viewers unconscious through the transitory intermingling of image, sound, and meaning.
My cinematic process starts organically by snippets of a shot or a portrait of a character presenting itself to me. The remainder of my process is more deliberate, laborious and organized. I spend a lot of time writing; beginning with an initial investigation into what a film feels like and who and what the characters are. I research and experiment with a sundry of materials for character and set constructions. I create detailed drawings of the film’s characters, sets, and write a linear script describing scenes, shots, and characters’ interactions. I love designing and creating a whole world and spending hours working alone on drawings for characters and animations.
I have only one assistant on my films, my partner Ben. The intimacy of working with my partner suits my creative needs and personal expression in my work. My left hand is paralyzed, making two handed activities impossible for me. Ben constructs and animates the armatured puppets for my films, while I create the two-dimensional animations. The valence of sound is important to me, how it emotes and complicates a film: Designing the soundscape for a film is an integral component to my work. Since I work with only one assistant, my films take a significant amount of time to produce, but I find the direct engagement, creative agency, and intensity very rewarding.
What is it that you are most interested in expressing with your art?
My work addresses themes of loss, isolation, and trauma. I am interested in deeply seeing; creating work that is disturbing and validates traumatic experiences by drawing viewers attention to aspects of human behavior we would rather ignore. I create enigmatic abstract narratives; entrusting the viewer to bring their own perspective to their reading of my films. I ask the viewer to watch, listen, and have an experience. This is an interaction; a combination of the world I create, referencing my own psyche, and how it affects the viewer’s affect. The viewer and I meet in a middle space of a shared emotion.
Tell me about your latest film project, Obscurer. What is that film about and where did its inspiration come from? Where can folks see the film right now?
OBSCURER (2018, 19:00, DCP, 4K) explores the fragile microcosm of a reclusive children’s author and her figmental companions where reality, illusion, and madness intermingle. Stop motion animation seamlessly interweaves with live motion to create an abstract narrative where themes of isolation, mental illness, and loss are enacted through characters that evade trust. Obscurer questions agency, power, and vulnerability within a framework of dysfunction and ambiguity.
Two women were the inspirational roots for OBSCURER; the children’s author Sylvia Cassedy (Behind the Attic Wall, 1983) and a curious individual I observed trimming a tree in her front yard with scissors while wearing welding goggles and red coveralls. I molded these women into a fictional depiction of a solitary writer who lives a constrained existence that blurs the line between reality and delusion. She hypnotically writes in an indiscernible script. The language appears linguistically plausible but is semantically meaningless. Her animated companions are psychological manifestations of innocence and malevolence, disparate traits also present in the main character herself.
OBSCURER took three years to complete, was supported by a grant from the Jerome Foundation, and currently is being submitted to film festivals, galleries, and museums worldwide for screening opportunities. It will be screening at MassArt on October 3rd with the Black Maria Film Festival, at Alfred State College on October 7th and then traveling to the Gwen Frostic School of Art in Michigan on November 5 as part of an exhibition titled 17 days curated by Adriane Little. OBSCURER’s trailer can be viewed here: https://vimeo.com/244418412
I am very curious about your path as an artist. What helped start your career and what has sustained it?
I have made art since childhood, drawing at the kitchen table, while my mother, a ceramist, worked close by. I remember visiting her studio; light streaming through the windows, illuminating the aromatic clay dust hovering in the air. It was a place of autonomy, possibility, and exploration. My early experiences with art fostered the value of being an artist. After surviving a deadly car accident, but suffering a stroke, I studied Psychology to understand the mind, brain, and cognitive effects of emotional and physical trauma. I returned to art after meeting my partner Ben, who took an interest in my artistic ideas and offered the use of his hands to help me make my work. A pivotal movement in my career was seeing the hand crafted animations of Stacey Steers and the animated worlds of The Brothers Quay while in graduate school: I knew I wanted to make films that incorporated fine art materials to construct an abstract narrative.
I sustain my career intrinsically by believing that to create is to be fully human. Art celebrates our intelligence and apical cognitions that realize creativity. Art is a collective signifier; exercising personal expression and simultaneously impacting audiences profoundly by challenging perceptions and convictions. I am an artist to honor our unique humanity.
Extrinsically I sustain my career by receiving support and recognition through exhibitions, screenings, grants, and most recently The McKnight Fellowship in Media Arts to validate the merit of my practice. I reach out to other artists and curators to share my progress on projects, discuss ideas, and stay connected. A past mentor of mine once said, “take care of the work and the work will take care of you.” This phrase sustains me after rejections and reinforces me to keep working.
Can you tell me more about your McKnight Fellowship in Media Arts? What was that experience like for you? What type of commitment is a fellowship like that?
It has been a great honor to be awarded a McKnight Fellowship; to have my work recognized by the Foundation and curatorial panel. Through the Fellowship, I have loved working with FilmNorth and meeting current and past Fellows for connections. FilmNorth is a wonderful resource in Minnesota and genuinely wants filmmakers of all genres to succeed by having their work seen and celebrated. For me, the most lasting effect of being awarded a Fellowship has been the validation it grants. This helped me reach out to well known artists around the world for conversations, something that I normally would not have done, as I am an introvert. Since the Fellowship is a recognition of artistic accomplishments, and not a production grant, its scope and meaning extends beyond a specific project and advocates continual exploration, development as an artist, and encouragement to keep creating your work. A short artist profile film created by FilmNorth’s students about my practice can be viewed here: https://vimeo.com/315714095
Are there challenges that you face as an artist? What do you feel you need more of as an artist?
I feel the biggest challenge I face as an artist is that my work is not easily classified, making it difficult to program for film festivals. My films are not advocacy and have a loose narrative structure rather than telling a direct or clear story; they span across the genres of Experimental, Animation, and Avant-garde. I purposefully leave questions unanswered. I understand that this can feel uncomfortable, but I think there is merit in complexity and dissonance. I believe that art should be challenging. Unfortunately, the film industry is still heavily male-dominated and I feel, at times, that sexism negatively affects opportunities for my work to be seen.
I would love for there to be a broader acceptance of artistic film and more venues to share these productions with the public. For me, an audience concludes the artistic process, by sharing in the experience.
Do you have any new projects you are working on?
I am concluding pre-production on a new film, THE GARDEN SEES FIRE. Conrad Richter’s novel, The Trees (1940) and my family’s hereditary struggle with bipolar disorder are catalytic inspirations for the imagery that will inform the film. THE GARDEN SEES FIRE is the second installment in a trilogy exploring mental pathologies and loosely inspired by specific literary works. It will be an armatured puppet and drawing stop motion animation incorporating hand manipulated 16mm film frame-by-frame. The film will explore the untamed wildness of the land and mind and a burning desire to besiege and control both. I hope to release the film in early 2021. Original character drawings and plasticine sculptures for mold making can be seen here: http://www.kierafaber.com/The_Garden_Sees_Fire
Would you like to share anything else?
Thank you Jes for your enthusiasm and support of my work. It is meaningful to me to have my practice recognized and appreciated.
Thanks for answering my questions, Kiera! You’re amazing!
All images courtesy of the artist.
Artists I Admire is a series of interviews with artists I think highly of.