Friday, January 8, 2021

Interview: Susie Wong

Susie Wong (photo credit: Tamares Goh)
Susie Wong’s current work contemplates memory, mass media, and the consumption of circulated images. Active as an artist and arts writer since the 1980s, she forged her own path in Singapore’s art scene. Her practice has been enhanced by curatorial projects and her work as an educator at LASALLE College of the Arts. She has contributed art criticism for the Straits Times as well as features for magazines including ID and d+a in architecture and design, among many others. Recent projects include a multimedia installation for Objectifs gallery, and a site-specific video projected on the windows of her HDB flat as part of the National Gallery of Singapore’s series, out of isolation: artists respond to covid-19.


Cultural ReProducers is pleased to share four conversations with parenting artists in Singapore, begun during a residency there where connecting with fellow artists often meant meeting online, because of the pandemic. This interview is part of a creative exchange between Cultural ReProducers and the artist-run gallery CommaSpace


Susie with Anmari, at her 1993 solo exhibition Portraits & 
Places, National Museum Art Gallery, Singapore

Cultural ReProducers: Did motherhood change your relationship with the art community in Singapore? If you could, what might you change to create a more supportive environment there?




Susie Wong: During that time, in the 90’s and early 2000s, even being an “artist” was quite a new phenomenon in Singapore, in terms of numbers. I experienced the art community as an inclusive place. I felt – as a single parent – like I belonged. Perhaps it was a less structured place, and I can make it effective for myself and my child by including her in most activities. In retrospect, the art community had been fluid and accepting.  By art community I include as well the institutions I worked with along the way – I brought her everywhere - meetings, events, workshops - and I have not encountered any exclusion. It could be on account that I work with more women than men who led the projects. 

As for the wider community of Singapore–being an artist, let alone a single parent/artist, does attract more prejudices, as one can expect—culturally, traditionally. Today perhaps, there is greater acceptance of artist as a profession, a career, than before. Being a single parent, particularly a woman, still attracts a stigma. There is a national idea of “family”– traditional mould– that is being heavily rooted, and endorsed politically, and therefore societally, as the conservative segment of our society holds to gendered stereotypes in a family. So if I were to promote changes for inclusivity, I will propose new “family” models, alongside other forms of diversity. Examples of discriminatory policies are the lack of subsidized care or support for single women/parent with “illegitimate” offspring, in public housing, and in childcare. There do seem to be some changes, at least, support from various NGOs.



CR: Could you tell us a little bit about your daughter? 



Susie:
Anmari is precocious, an independent spirit. She is now very involved in the arts, an arts manager

Susie and Anmari at Susie's 1997 exhibition Soul & Flesh
Valentine Willie Gallery, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

in the F&B industry, also a curator, writer. She has always been assisting me, recording or documenting my work.  She just shared with me a picture of us at the opening of an exhibition at The Substation in the 1990s. in it, she was holding a voice recorder, looking all serious, and recording our speeches.

Cultural ReProducers: How did parenthood shift your creative practice? Were there changes in the work itself?

Susie Wong:
Anmari was born in 1989. Prior to her birth, I was already searching for my artistic practice and voice; I had spent one or two years teaching art, and had participated in small group exhibitions. My daughter was born at a time when my marriage was breaking down. Around that time, I was in Indonesia, in a kind of artist space/studio/residence in which I had made paintings, drawings, and connected with other artists there. In 1990 I returned to Singapore with her.

My practice still continued to be paintings, and I had some solo exhibitions. Painting is a very solitary practice, a space of solitude; in terms of time and space, it was a manageable way of juggling baby/child minding and art. The most difficult part was obviously the income that I needed to cover my living expenses. Selling my work had not made me financially independent. I had to resort to writing, editing and teaching; I have been a freelancer since those days. 

I think motherhood has provoked a certain interest and questioning of my place as a woman / single parent in society; this can be seen in several exhibitions and works. Being isolated in terms of my freelancing work— not fully connected in the conventional sense — meant that my work tends to take on more domestic perspectives and family situations. The frequently flailing empowerment in a society that presumes women as equal resulted in a new awareness. This became an important source from which ideas flowed. From the 1990s and on, collective engagements were important for my artistic growth.

Being a single parent and being an artist both involve… a lot of constraints. But I think the separation of two - being a parent and being an artist - there’s not very clear demarcation in these roles for me. She is really a part of my work. And today what is really lovely is that we bounce a lot of ideas off each other. She is very interested in the arts, inevitably, right? It’s her destiny. [laughs] Throughout the 30 years that she’s been around, she’s been exposed to a lot of artistic practices. So it’s – what is the word for it? It’s synergistic.

video stills from dancing alone, 2020, Objectifs, Singapore


















 

 

CR: What advice would you pass on to a new parent struggling to balance parenthood, paid work, and an artistic practice? 


Susie:
I think of life and art as quite seamless. I always thought of the child as precious, placed as foremost in my sights. Once that is so, the struggle to balance becomes less acute. As for paid work, such a necessity, I live simply, and do what I can. Looking back, those must have been difficult years (maybe even depressive years), but I learn to live literally day-to-day, perhaps hand-to-mouth. I have been a part-time or freelancer for decades, and I actually believed for the longest time that this is the future model of work. The wonderful thing is that all this extra work - writing, workshops, teaching, curating - revolves around art as well, so I rarely need to step outside the field. It is at the emotional level that the child has played an important role in my life. You learn utmost patience, in growing slowly, and savoring the world.



Saturday, December 12, 2020

Artist Alisha B. Wormsley Launches Residency for Black Mothers

A Sybils Shrine meeting takes place over Zoom

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

When she first learned she was pregnant, artist Alisha Wormsley found herself excluded from artist residency opportunities she had already been awarded. Now she's turning that experience into a new program supporting black artist mothers in the Pittsburgh area. Cultural ReProducers looks forward to following up on this project and the artists involved as it gets underway in the new year, but in the meantime, we're sharing this lovely article, which first appeared on the Carnegie Mellon University news.

by Heidi Opdyke

 Alisha B. Wormsley built her career as an artist around residencies, which provide opportunities to live and produce work in different environments, including in places like Houston and Cuba. Then came her first pregnancy.

"I had two years of residencies lined up," recalled Wormsley, who is a Presidential Postdoctoral Research Fellow in art at Carnegie Mellon University. "I reached out to the organizations and they were all like, 'I guess you're not coming.'"

The experience was eye opening, and provided the inspiration for Sibyls Shrine, which gives residency opportunities to Black women who are mothers and identify as artists, creatives and/or activists. Wormsley founded the organization in collaboration with Naomi Chambers and CMU alumna Jessica Gaynelle Moss.


"For these women, the challenges of parenting in combination with systemic racism and sexism often make the barriers to entry into the art world insurmountable," Wormsley said.

Named after the priestesses of the Black goddess Mami Wata, Sibyls Shrine is motivated by a similar goal: helping Black mothers with opportunities for self-care, childcare, space and support so they can further develop their craft and create a sustainable arts practice.

"As soon as Alisha told me about the project, I was in love," said Chambers, who was selected for a Community Liaison Residency for Sibyls Shrine. "Being an artist in Pittsburgh, and being a Black mother, there's not a lot of opportunities that you get to take advantage of to still be a really good artist and maintain your practice while also trying to be a really good mom."

As part of her role, Chambers, who is a painter and assemblage artist, will be creating a marketplace for artists while working on her own art. She and her husband previously ran the Flower House in Wilkinsburg, which served as a community art studio.

"We all look at art making as problem solving and world building. It's just one of the ways that I've been able to survive and figure out things in my life," Chambers said. As a community liaison, she's looking to understand how to help people find resources they might not have known were available as well as develop her own identity as a leader. "I'm learning more about what my skills and strengths are to understand how that can align with how to help those who need help," she said. "I'm excited by the opportunity."

Sibyls Shrine includes three additional residency programs and is funded by the Just Arts program of The Heinz Endowments, The Pittsburgh Foundation, and Opportunity Fund. Additional financial support has been provided by the Mattress Factory Museum and Silver Eye Center for Photography. Along with the Community Liaison, the Visiting Artist and Home residencies will begin Jan. 1, 2021.

"There's nothing else like this," Wormsley said. "Our goal is that this is not only successful for us but we want to create a model that can be replicated around the country. That's part of our mission."
Sibyls Shrine is a new artist residency program for Black women. The organization is named after priestesses of the Black goddess Mami Wata. The term, which predates Greek history, was used to name the guardians of the Matriarchy.

SIBYLS SHRINE VISITING ARTIST RESIDENCY

A deliberate force in the landscape of contemporary American art for the last three decades, Renee Cox is an internationally renowned photographer and mixed media artist. Cox frames her self-portraits as poignant arguments on race, desire, religion, feminism and visual and cultural aesthetics. Cox will begin her yearlong residency in January 2021. As visiting artist-in-residence, she will be supported for one year with an unrestricted honorarium, material and supply budget, travel and residential accommodations. While in Pittsburgh, she will have access to the facilities and support of multiple arts organizations and institutions, ultimately resulting in an exhibition with additional members of the Sibyls Shrine team. Cox will participate in public programming throughout the city and will serve as a mentor to the three Sibyls Shrine Home Residents over the duration of her residency.


SIBYLS SHRINE HOME RESIDENCY

The Home Residency will support three Pittsburgh-based artists, Mary Martin, LaKeisha Wolf and sarah huny young, with professional and personal development, space, connectivity, mutual aid, financial and creative support, mentorship and exhibition opportunities. The artists will remain in their own homes, but will be supported with relief from some of their day-to-day tasks of homecare, childcare, cleaning, and grocery purchasing and shopping in order to provide them with the time, space and resources to support their creative practices. Other Black creative mothers and working professionals from the Pittsburgh area will be hired to provide support and assistance.

Martin is a high school visual arts instructor at Winchester Thurston School and a member of Women of Visions, Inc., an arts collective of Black female artists. She exhibits nationally and collaborates on educational programming for various cultural institutions.

Wolf is an artisan and owner of Ujamaa Collective, a micro-enterprise centered on making and wellness. She has grown her skills working to uplift and center her

own healing, as well as other Black women and the Africana community, using nature, arts and culture. Wolf's resources are stones and natural elements, symbols and affirmations.

Young is an award-winning visual artist primarily documenting and exalting Black womanhood and queer communities through portraiture and video. Framing her muses as collaborators, she often shoots on-location across the country in personal, intimate spaces of the subject's choosing. Her work has been featured in Pittsburgh City Paper, New York Magazine and The New York Times.

At the conclusion of visiting artist and home residencies, a final group exhibition will be held at the Mattress Factory Contemporary Museum.

PANDEMIC PIVOT

When Sibyls Shrine was first conceived, Wormsley had added travel and networking costs into her team's budget. COVID-19 changed those plans.

"We were like, well, we have this money, we can't travel, and moms need support. Let's create a network where we can," Wormsley said.

The Network Residency was born. Cohorts of 30 participants meet virtually for eight-week sessions. Each participant receives a stipend for joining as well as an honorarium for presenting on a topic of their choice. So far, 60 mothers have gone through the program. About 75 percent are from the Pittsburgh area. Wormsley said presenters provided information on everything from gardening, website tutorials, budgeting to discussing their artistic practices or doctoral research."I'm so happy. It's actually the right thing for right now," Wormsley said.


While Sibyls Shrine grew out of Wormsley's own experience, it continues to feed her art as she constantly explores ways to engage and create community. At CMU, her research fellowship is focused on the resurgence of practices in Black communities such as herbalism, plant medicine and midwifery. Skills, which Wormsley said, allow Black women to be sustainable in their communities.

Monday, May 18, 2020

CR Favorites List: Pandemic Edition Part I

Christa Donner, Two Interiors (installation view), 2014
Sheltering in place with the complex dramas of young children doesn’t exactly lend itself to thoughtful article-writing or transcribing interviews. But there are so many great projects coming out now that are relevant to this community, we wanted to collect some of them together in one place. Whether you’re looking for inspiration, or just something that’s interesting to watch with the kids in your life, we hope there’s something on this list you’ll like. We'll keep 'em coming. And if you’re on Facebook, please join the Cultural ReProducers Network, where parenting artists are actively skillsharing and posting great things like these from around the world all the time.

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Experiment 120: A Playlist of Short, Experimental Films for Kids
Looking for something interesting to watch with your kids besides Netflix cartoons? Look no further than this great playlist. After watching, introduce your kids to one of the many free stop-motion apps out there, and see what they come up with while you dedicate some time toward a short creative project of your own.

Labor: Motherhood in Art 
Joey Fauerso, “You Destroy Every Special Thing I Make” (2017-2019),
installation view, Labor: Motherhood & Art 2020 (images by Trey Broomfield
courtesy of New Mexico State University Art Museum)
I think most of us would agree that it's tough to replicate the experience of a physical exhibition online.
However, there are some advantages, including the chance to see (and document!) a show you might never otherwise know of or travel to see in person. So perhaps it is in everyone's best interest that this exhibition, co-curated by museum director Marisa Sage and artist Laurel Nakadate, has been meticulously documented, reviewed, and shared virtually. The show features an outstanding collection that includes pieces by Yoko Ono, Patty Chang, Amy Cutler, Hồng-Ân Tru’o’ng & Hu'o’ng Ngô, Wendy Red Star, and many others.

The exhibition also features two smaller exhibitions: one collecting of Mexican mother-and-child Retablos organized two curatorial studies MA candidates, and a gallery dedicated to the creative output of MFA students Katrina Chandler and Maggie Day. The two mothers applied and participated in Lenka Clayton’s Artist Residency in Motherhood, thanks in part to childcare support offered through the museum to support the development of new work, artists statements, and bios to support their studio practices.

Artist Residency in Motherhood
Speaking of which... maybe now's a great time to apply? This generous and generative ongoing project grew from artist Lenka Clayton's own struggles to reshape a professional identity and creative practice as she entered into motherhood (twice), and has built an active and international community of exchange between mothers, using the challenges of life at home with children as a creative prompt.

Parenting Artists Singapore #2: Meetup with Christa Donner on May 22
Parenting Artists SG is a new group generating conversations about caregiving and creative community in Singapore. On Friday, May 22nd, Cultural ReProducers founder Christa Donner will present to the group about the work she’s been doing at home as an Artist-in-Residence at Yale-NUS in Singapore with her family, as well as the strategies of other artist parents and family residency experiences she’s learned from along the way. Depending on where you are in the world, be sure to check your time zones before signing up (Singapore is roughly 13 hours ahead of Chicago). Registration will be capped at 30 participants.

Shaun Leonardo and Mckendree Key paint on tree bark with their children
in Vermont during quarantine. (photo courtesy Mckendree Key)
During Pandemic, Artist-Parents Reflect and Get Creative with their Kids
Hyperallergic is posting all kinds of interesting things about artist-parents these days. This article features in-progress work by parenting artists Edgar Arceneaux, Shaun Leonard, Mckendree Key, and others getting creative with their kids during the Pandemic. They also shared a great Mother’s Day review of the book “Inappropriate Bodies: Art, Design, and Maternity.



 
A Mother Uses Art to Ease Her Sons' Pandemic Fears

If you could use something inspiring and hopeful, take a minute to watch this beautiful New Yorker video about photographer Elisabetta Zavoli, and the work she’s been making with her two sons in the garden at night, as a way to work through their collective anxieties during Italy's quarantine, and an opportunity to reconnect with them in the process. The NY Times recently shared this photo essay by conflict photographer Paolo Pellegrin on the choice to stick with his family instead of covering the pandemic, and the work that has resulted. And if you haven't yet, take a look at our recent interview with Amber Dohrenwend, who developed her creative practice during time spent in the apartment with her small children in Tokyo.


Saturday, May 9, 2020

Inappropriate Bodies: Art, Design, and Maternity

Reviewed by Chrissy LaMaster

Rachel Epp Buller begins her introduction in "Inappropriate Bodies: Art, Design, and Maternity" by posing a question to readers: is maternity appropriate? The answer (I don’t think I’m giving anything away here) is both yes and no. “Maternity is both a cultural ideal and a cultural taboo, both appropriate and inappropriate” she writes as she goes on to explain how she and co-editor Charles Reeve went about deciding upon the overarching theme for their book. The result of their effort, 20 texts by practicing artists, designers, curators and academic scholars, is an amazing collection of both essays and conversations and an invaluable addition to the field of maternal studies.

Divided into the three sections of “Body Politics,” “Family Practices,” and “By Design,” one finds scholarly essays interspersed with personal testaments, conversations and interviews. Contributors seek to “examine maternity’s centrality as a defining term of female identity” for all women, regardless of whether or not they have chosen to have children. In addition to Epp Buller herself, featured are many artists, writers, and collectives familiar to the Cultural ReProducers community: Courtney Kessel, Lena Simic, Irene Perez, Jill Miller, Lise Haller Baggesen, Miriam Schaer, and many others. These contributions are significant, thought provoking, and at times inspiring. One piece that stood out to me was a a conversation between the curator, artist, and scholar Natalie Loveless  and "mamactavists" Martina Mullaney (Enemies of Good Art), Christa Donner (Cultural ReProducers), and collaborators Andrea Francke and Kim Dhillon (Invisible Spaces of Parenthood). Many things have changed since that initial conversation, which took place in 2016, from the “#MeToo" movement to the global pandemic that has thrown the complex expectations of working mothers into sharper focus. It is interesting to reflect on the shifts that have taken place and what they may (or may not) mean for mother's rights, mother's bodies, mother artists, maternal studies, and mothers in general. I also appreciate the exchange of letters between Rachel Epp-Buller, Lena Simic and Emily Underwood-Lee for many of the same reasons. "Discussions" like these are rare in most books on maternal art, but it is this collective approach that makes the book engaging to a range of readers, from those seeking scholarly documentation of maternal art practices to any creative person thinking through their own dual labor as artists and caregivers, and perhaps seeking solidarity.

Lise Haller Baggesen, Mothernism, 2013-ongoing. Audio
Installation. Copyright Lise Haller Baggesen
As a feminist and an artist who is interested in a more authentic representation of motherhood within both contemporary art and society in general, I found the book particularly relevant. Although several excellent texts concerning the maternal in contemporary art have been published in recent years, "Inappropriate Bodies" has quickly become my favorite. It is a wonderfully diverse combination of critical theory and personal perspectives. Intentional in its design, it is at once academic and approachable, which allows it to be accessible (and I feel more useful) to anyone interested in issues surrounding the maternal in art. 

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *   *  *  *  *  *   *  *  *  * 
Doreen Balabanoff, Birthing Room conceptual model, bird's
eye view, 2016. courtesy of the artist
"Inappropriate Bodies: Art, Design, and Maternity" is published by Demeter Press,
an independent feminist press committed to publishing peer-reviewed scholarly work, fiction, poetry, and creative non-fiction on mothering, reproduction, sexuality and family.

Chrissy LaMaster is an artist currently living in Billings, Montana. Chrissy holds an MFA in Photography and Certificate in Women’s and Gender Studies from Illinois State University and an MA in Studio Art from Bradley University. Her primary areas of interest and research include the history of photography, gender studies, historical and contemporary representations of motherhood, and the history and theory of craft. Chrissy has experience in teaching, curating, and programming in a variety of arts related settings. Her work has been exhibited internationally, and can be found in both public and private collections.


   








Friday, April 17, 2020

Interview: Amber Dohrenwend

Amber at work in her home / studio. photo: Yuki Sato

 
Amber Dohrenwend
is an educator and self-taught artist who grew up in the US and is now based in Tokyo. We first met Amber through a shared interest in Adventure Playgrounds: open-ended spaces where children shape their own environments using repurposed materials. Amber’s artistic practice – which developed in her small apartment with kids at home, using simple tools and recycled cardboard to make amazing things – feels especially relevant right now, as so many parenting artists find ourselves working to restructure creative time at home with what limited privacy and supplies we can manage.

This interview is the second in a series of conversations organized through Cultural ReProducers Tokyo, thoughtfully conducted by artist, art researcher, curator, and CR Tokyo organizer Catherine Harrington. These conversations explore some of the culturally-specific challenges of working as an artist-parent in Japan, and the fundamental questions we are all working to sort out together.


Cultural ReProducers Tokyo: To start, tell us a bit about you and your daughters.
 

Amber Dohrenwend: I am originally from Michigan in the U.S. and I grew up on a farm there. In 2018, my husband and I moved to Japan. Previously we were working in Egypt and Pakistan. My two daughters were born here (now nearly 8 and 10 years old.) We all have been deeply influenced by our time living in Japan. My daughters go to Japanese schools, and are really rooted in this place. I still feel like a foreigner, but Japan has also come to feel very familiar to me.

CR Tokyo: First as a parent and then as an artist, how did you begin to find community and connection here in Japan?

Amber:
My husband teaches science here, so when we came there was a community of foreigners, but I was one of the few women at the time who was not working a day to day job, and was at home as a caregiver. This was a difficult time because I lost my identity as a professional. I really felt that because I wasn’t “making money” in many ways I was invisible. I had to build a new identity for myself from the ground up.

Amber working on a sculpture with her daughter. Photo: Peter Dohrenwend
I started studying Japanese at a nearby community center, then I started to make some Japanese friends through some of the early learning programs for children, and also by going to local adventure playgrounds. There were usually always a few people that spoke English, and would very generously help me navigate difficulties. It has taken a long time to build the patchwork community that I have here, and it’s very special to me. I know and spend time with a very diverse group of people.

In terms of the art community, I am a self-taught artist and I am still trying to find my place in the art world here. I mostly began my art practice in isolation, and until recently didn’t think I would be able to easily connect with artists in Japan because of the language barrier, but I am just now realizing it might be easier than I had thought. I’m excited about meeting people through Cultural ReProducers.

 CR Tokyo: During our conversation today, you said your journey into art practice began after you became a parent.  Can you tell us more about this journey, and how your art practice emerged in the midst of parenting?

Amber:
I started working with cardboard as a material because it was easy to collect. I would just ride my bike around on recycling day and find interesting pieces of cardboard that other people in my neighborhood had put out. I didn’t need many tools or much space to work, and we lived in a small apartment. Even now I mostly work on the floor in my tatami room with just a pair of roofing shears and a stapler. It took me about 6 or 7 years of engaging with the material to get enough skill to be able to communicate my ideas.

When my children were very small, I was immersed in their worlds. We spent a lot of time playing together, and it was this time of engaging in the act of play again that really ignited a spark in me. As they grew and played, I played too. The play turned into making things for them, and then making things for myself, which became my current art practice.

CR Tokyo:  How do you manage to find a balance between your art practice and parenting? Do you schedule time to make artworks?

Amber:
When my children were younger it was more of a struggle to work. I was mostly just exploring the material, but nevertheless I needed time to concentrate. I remember at one time I got a pair of overalls, and would try to wear them so that everyone in my family knew that when I was wearing the overalls, they couldn’t disturb me... but it didn’t really work. Sometimes there were times when my husband would take the kids to the park, or my children were napping that I could work, but mostly I had to wait until they entered school to have more time. Because I don’t have a studio, I wear headphones and listen to music when I work and my family is present, and sometimes I put the doors on the tatami room so I have more privacy. I sometimes even wear headphones at home without music when I am by myself, because I guess I have conditioned myself to know that’s a time to focus.

Detail from cardboard installation. Photo: Amber Dohrenwend
CR Tokyo: You mentioned that cardboard was a medium that was easy to come across in your area, and also that it was an easy medium to use in a small apartment space. Can you say more about why cardboard has continued to be a key part of your practice?  Has this medium taken on new meanings for you?

Amber:
As I have reflected on my practice, I realize that collecting cardboard; foraging for it, makes me feel human. It takes me back to my childhood cutting willow branches and weaving them. I feel more connected to nature in this way than actually going to the park and walking through the forest.  Honestly, it’s a real puzzle to me, and I always wonder why green space doesn’t do more because I feel so intrinsically connected to nature. Collecting and making, and particularly communicating something  sculpturally through the use of a found material, it just feels good to me.

…I also feel very connected to the ephemeral nature of making things with cardboard. I don’t have a desire to make something that would physically outlast, me, in fact just the opposite. I am very devoted to the idea of impermanence, of making things that can be recycled and then made into something else; more paper, soil, staples that can be melted again, art, and on and on. Cardboard is a byproduct of consumerism, so I also think it is particularly interesting to show work in a consumer context, both subverting and promoting it at the same time. That tension feels very interesting to me.

I love that when you hold cardboard and shape it with your hands, you are actually leaving marks on the cardboard with your fingertips, much like when working with clay. This is something I find infinitely interesting; what cardboard looks like in this bent and twisted, softened state. This is the way I like to work with cardboard, and how I hope to keep making discoveries, and playing with this material.
"At one time I got a pair of overalls, and would try to wear them so that everyone in my family knew that when I was wearing the overalls, they couldn’t disturb me... Because I don’t have a studio, I wear headphones and listen to music when I work and my family is present"

CR Tokyo: How did you begin exhibiting your artwork in Japan?
Amber:
Before showing my work, all along I was hosting pop-up cardboard play days, and teaching classes about working with cardboard. Before I started my current work, I was an elementary school teacher. Teaching is also about communicating ideas and engaging with people, so I’m sure that teaching people, making things and “playing” with others will always be a part of my practice.

 Through teaching, I got to know the designers Mike and Yuri Abelson who own Postalco, a Tokyo-based business and they really encouraged me. They asked me to do a workshop at their shop and then, later, create an installation for a window display. After that, I started to get some commercial work and the opportunity to do exhibitions and workshops.

Builders of all ages at Adventure Building Camp.
Image credit: Amber Dohrenwend
CR Tokyo:  You run a summer camp in Michigan and you run workshops on using tools for very young children.  Can you tell us more about these projects and practices?

Amber:
Adventure Building Camp is a program I run in Michigan in the summer. It came about from spending time working with Gever Tulley who helped start a small educational movement in California, out of his experiences working in Silicon Valley.

His project, Tinkering School, was focused on an approach where children would learn tools in context through tinkering and experimentation rather than a step-by step: learn this, and then you can do that approach that we mostly find in education today. It’s very much process-based. When you need a tool, that’s when you learn how to use it. It was a counterpoint to technology and high stakes education and all of the simulation that kids face in learning, where they don’t actually get the experience to really do things, make things, try things out, make adjustments, and keep working. Tinkering School is a lot about removing the barriers that children face, so they can see for themselves if their ideas work. This is what inspired me to create Adventure Building Camp, which is based on the same philosophies as well as some of the guiding principles from Adventure Playgrounds where I have spent a lot of time here in Tokyo.

Working with kids in this way really surprised me, and also inspired my art practice. Teaching a 6-year-old to use a power drill and start building something out of wood and screws that they sketched, is a truly wonderful experience.

CR Tokyo:  When we talked earlier, it seemed that “tools” themselves have special significance for you.  I wonder if you could say more about this.

Amber:
Yes, I love tools, I love really good tools. They are usually at the forefront of overcoming barriers. I could talk about this for a long time, but let me say that, one day when I was taking a shower, I had a kind of light bulb moment when a lot of the things that I had been thinking about and wondering about for many years came together, as a kind of unifying idea, and that idea was about understanding “barriers to making.” That has really become my “question,” even though it’s not really a question. I don’t know if many other people experience this, but I can’t really get away from the fact that most of what I do is always about engaging with this idea of thinking about barriers and how to remove them, both for myself and others, in all kinds of contexts.

So tools have this significance for me because they are often the things that I turn to when confronting barriers. For example, when I work with children, the main barrier they face is getting access to tools and materials because parents think the tools are too dangerous, or the kids can’t handle them. So I give them tools and materials, and I am there, and we slowly and safely work together and amazing things start happening.

This is also what I experienced working with cardboard, developing a relationship with tools so I could communicate my ideas. I think it’s about making space for the ideas and the connections.

CR Tokyo: Have you had any role models for artist-parenting/parent-artisting?

Amber:
Images of Ruth Asawa weaving wire sculptures with her children at her feet have definitely been an inspiration to me.

CR Tokyo: What advice would you share with other artists struggling to be both a parent and an artist?

Amber:
Parenting is a season of your life.
Do what you can. If you can’t make the art you want to make right now, put as many ideas down, and leave as many bread crumbs as you can for later. Live in the moment with your children and learn to play again.

If you are afraid of losing your career, or your identity, or of facing discrimination in the art world as a parent, all those things, I would say are very real. But, if we can make art we can make a new culture too, and there are more side roads in, and fewer gatekeepers now than there have been in the past. I want to be a part of changing the culture for parents making art and I hope you will too.

Amber introducing her work to the next generation. Photo: Minoru Nomura



Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Interview: Natsumi Sakamoto

Natsumi Sakamoto in her studio in Glasgow, UK
Natsumi Sakamoto is an artist exploring the relationships between memory, history, and mythology through a range of media including video installation, painting, and animation. Her work has been exhibited in London, Tokyo, Seoul and beyond - including shows at PlaceMAK, Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, and the 13th Gunma Biennale for Young Artists. Sakamoto is also a member of the feminism-focused artist collective Back and Forth Collective

This interview is the first in a brand new series from Cultural ReProducers Tokyo, thoughtfully conducted and translated by artist, art researcher, curator, and CR Tokyo organizer Catherine Harrington. These conversations explore some of the culturally-specific challenges of working as an artist-parent in Japan, and the fundamental questions we are all working to sort out together.



Catherine Harrington (CR Tokyo): To start, tell us a bit about you and your son. 

Natsumi Sakamoto: I’m an artist, mainly working with multi media. Focusing on untold histories such as individual’s and women’s histories, and everyday customs and beliefs, my aim is to examine the possibility of preserving the ephemeral, as a way to recover a loss. One of the documentary films I made in 2014 took me to places in Japan and the UK that were connected with my grandmother’s significant, personal memories.  I have been developing this project in my more recent work, and in 2019 I am going to start a new project in Scotland about Scottish superstitions and witch hunts.

My son’s now four years old and he’s very active and inquisitive - curious about everything.  Now, at his age, he asks why, why about everything. That was something I was really looking forward to. I wanted to answer those questions, even if they are sometimes silly questions, or really huge questions. For example he asks, “Why do you see the moon everyday?” and I try to be respectful to him as a person and I try to answer everything, even the little questions.  Sometimes I need to Google them.  He’s opened up a new world for me and made me more curious. Life has become richer than before, I would say. On the other hand, he’s stubborn.  He doesn’t easily change his opinions.
 
CH: What kind of identity shift did you experience when you first became an artist-parent?

NS:
I didn’t really have a clear shift because I was working all the time.  When I came back to Japan from the UK, I was pregnant and I really wanted a chance to network and show my work again in Japan. I kind of knew that it is going to be difficult to do an exhibition for maybe another year once our little one had arrived. So I thought I should plan something in advance, and decided to curate a group show just before the baby arrived. That was my first experience organizing an exhibition by myself – from getting the funding to finding a venue, and it took over a year and a half. The exhibition title was Everyday Fiction, and included work by artists from Japan and the UK dealing with two different worlds: reality and fiction, and the flexible boundaries between them.

I applied for several open calls and funding applications a few months after the baby was born - I was trying to keep on doing as much as I could in my spare time such as during the baby’s nap times. It was very tough! I probably did that purposely so as not to make a clear transition point between being an artist and being an artist-parent. It was thanks to support from my parents, my partner, my friends, and temporary childcare that I was able to do it. 

I tried not to change my everyday schedule and attitude to life.  You physically change and you psychologically feel that you have to be a good mother. It’s not like I became someone else, but more like I have a mother-identity and my artist-identity, and I shift between them, instead of trying to combine both. So, I don’t think about art when I spend time with my son; I become just a mother.  If I can switch easily between these two identities in a given moment, I can enjoy them. But sometimes it doesn't work and it becomes a bit of a mess. Exhibition time is very stressful because sometimes the switch doesn't work, and I’m always thinking about art while I’m talking to my son.

Natsumi Sakamoto, still from Rowan Wards off Witches, 2019


CH: With that in mind, do you feel that parenthood changed your art practice in some way?


NS: 
Before becoming a mother, my art practice was all about me and the environment around me. But after becoming a mother, I started to see the structure of society and the mother’s position in society. I guess I started to be interested in feminism more, and began to think about these questions through my art practice. I wouldn’t have been able to think this way without the experience of being physically incapable of certain things while being pregnant and while looking after a small child. You suddenly become so powerless in society. This was probably my first experience of becoming seriously aware of gender equality issues in real life.

In that first year I had this very concentrated time of being with my son twenty-four hours a day. I went to parks or the jidokan* with my son almost every day. It was a happy time, but when I saw other parents in those places, I started to become more aware of this unequal situation.

Note: *Jidokan(s) 児童館 and hiroba(s) 広場 are playgroups or play spaces where children and parents can play or socialize with other children and parents.  These spaces or groups can also involve organized singing or play activities.

At jidokan, I rarely saw fathers and mostly saw mothers, because the fathers were working on weekdays. Most of the mothers I met were unable to get a place for their child at a nursery. We talked with each other about how difficult it is to get a place in a nursery, how to make a successful application, and how hopeless our future careers would be if we couldn’t get a full-time nursery place for another few years. I actually met a mother who was thinking of a ‘temporary divorce’ from her partner so she could change her condition from ‘married’ to ‘single mother’ and strengthen her nursery application. The situation is so desperate. I hardly ever met fathers who had taken paternity leave, and whose partner had gone straight back to work after their child’s birth.

I was disappointed and angry about this situation. Japan has a declining birthrate, which is a big social problem, and the Japanese government encourages couples to have children as well as encouraging women to work more to help with economic growth. This is a contradiction: how can you encourage women to work without offering child care? There were many women who felt the same at this time and took part in protests. All this made me really aware of the issue of gender inequality. I felt I should do something – so I started to work with a few of my artist friends as part of a group we call the Back and Forth Collective.

CH:  Yes! The practice of the Back and Forth Collective is really important and valuable, and I hope you can continue to pursue this project.  When did you form the Back and Forth Collective?

NS:
We met at a workshop called Feminism for Everyone at Kosaten* in Tokyo around two years ago. I met Asako Taki and Mei Homma there. We all graduated from the same art university in London, but at different times. So we had known each other, but this was the first time we actually met altogether. We hit it off at that meeting, and started to talk about working as a collective.

Note: Kosaten* is an intersectional community space in Tokyo. Events such as discussions, conversations and workshops are held there with people from different backgrounds, and for instance; of different nationalities, ethnic identities, religions, sexualities, genders and (dis)abilities.


The core members are three artists at the moment, but we often collaborate with different artists and researchers. Each artist has a different area of interest but our common interest is feminism, so we started by working on this topic together. We’ve held workshops, exhibitions, and had a meeting with invited female artists. Last summer we had an exhibition at Tokyo Metropolitan Museum called Quiet Dialogue – Invisible Existences and Us.  Artists from Japan, Austria, Turkey and Indonesia showed work responding to the theme. The topics explored included Japanese women’s suffrage, the history of home economics, immigrants and minority ethnic groups, witch hunts, the issue of female labor and sex trafficking in East and South East Asia including Japanese girls serving as sex workers called Karayuki-san, and so on. To show the wide range of each artists’ research, we made a library in the exhibition space, which also functioned as an open space to talk.

If I didn’t have that intensive first year as a mother, I might not have joined.  I’m not sure how to put this, but I think that experience I had has given me stronger opinions about solving these problems.

 filming on the Isle of Bute, UK
CH: Did your experience with the art community shift when you became an artist-parent?  What kind of changes would you like to see in the art world?

NS:
Tokyo is quite big and there are many galleries and museums. It’s also an expensive place to live, so it is not easy for artists to have a studio in the city. I always feel that working in a local artists community has a good energy, with a lot of encouragement and exchange of ideas. But there are a lot of artists like me, working with digital media or small-scale work, who work from home. There are groups organizing events and meetings for artists and curators such as artist talks, screenings or discussions, and reading events. I met quite a few people through those events, and we often ended up doing projects together.

There is a certain difficulty to taking kids to art events. I’ve never tried. I would probably leave the room every time he gets fussy or cries. I just always think, “oh, I have to find somebody to look after my son.” My partner is very helpful and supportive with what I want to do, and always looks after my son so well. I need that help. But I feel bad every time I do this.

There are some changes recently: I’ve seen more and more baby-friendly event descriptions, including childcare services, on museum websites etc. This is a great improvement, but it is still not enough at all. If I go to events in the evening, everyone always asks me “What is your son doing?  Who is looking after your son?” I’m just thinking, if any fathers go to these events, probably not everybody is going to ask them this.  Probably they think that the mother is looking after their child.

Natsumi Sakamoto, still from unforgettable landscape (ROWAN TREE), 2014
CH: Have you had any role models for artist-parenting?

NS:
I don’t think so, no, because those stories are quite hidden, I don't know anybody personally.  Most of the successful female-artists I know are either single or they don't have a child.  Maybe the situation is different in the UK or other countries, so I hope I can meet some more artist-parents there.

CH: One issue that has been raised a lot in Japan – which is also a wider issue - is that of childcare. You had that first year when you were with your son for 24 hours a day.  After that, did you continue working alongside your son at home, or did you use childcare?  What was the next step?

NS:
The first year I didn't get childcare, so I had to wait another year.  From two years old, he went to nursery. He goes five days a week, so I could work on my art as well as working at my part-time job. I became more financially stable and I have a lot more freedom now than in the first two years.

In Japan you can only apply for the nursery if you have a job. It’s very competitive. So I was teaching two days a week. For those two days [before getting a nursery place], my mum helped out by looking after my son. That was such a big help. I put my condition down as freelance artist, editor, teacher and translator, working two days outside, and three days at home. I made a schedule with all the details such as who I work with, what kind of project it is, and where the funding comes from.

Basically I tried to combine all the types of ‘work’ I do – no matter if it’s paid or not – to fill up my working schedule. Other mothers were working full time, five days a week, and more than 40 hours a day. I needed to make my schedule equivalent to this, even though my work schedule isn’t a fixed one. The reality is that I often worked in the middle of the night and between nap times, so it was almost impossible to count how many hours I actually worked.


CH: So you found another way to apply for a nursery place ‘as an artist’?

NS:
Yeah, I was trying to find a solution. But I know it is not easy for everyone – another artist-mother friend gave up applying to nursery. She was making her artwork at home every day when she had time, and didn’t have a part-time job. She was a full-time mother-artist. The reality is that an application from someone working from home or as self-employed isn’t as strong as one made by a full-time company employee. So for her, there was almost no hope of getting a nursery place. From the government’s perspective, the occupation ‘artist’ isn’t as reliable as other occupations. I presume they don’t want to provide childcare for people who don’t make money, so it might be a bit different if an artist is only working on commissions. But the reality is that not a lot of artists actually make their living from only art!

Under these circumstances, being an artist-mother is very difficult in many ways, and it makes us feel guilty to work on our artwork. And when the baby is small, you have so much housework to do … there’s so much invisible labour that needs to be done. 

CH: This issue of what counts as labour and how different forms of labour are perceived is directly related to being an artist-parent in the art world.  And with all this invisible labour to deal with - how did you find time for your practice? What was your strategy in those first two years?

NS:
Before getting nursery care five days a week, I just had no time.  But I had this group show, so I had to make time.  So I got up super early in the morning every day.  Morning was the best time for me, before the baby woke up. If anyone else wakes up then a mess appears, or some other work - it becomes difficult to keep working or doing.  So I decided to wake up really early in morning, sometimes 4am, in the dark, and I just had to make a deadline for every little thing.  For example, “this writing has to be done in the next hour”, or something like that.  I made a super tight schedule.  And then when the baby cries I have to go and pick him up.  I’m like an athlete… running.

Natsumi Sakamoto, The Interview with a Witch, 2019.  Installation view at Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum

CH: So how did you deal with sleep deprivation?

NS:
Yeah, I can’t remember.  I think I went to sleep early with my child.  I often used social networks, just to show or prove that I’d done something. At the time I felt I was invisible in society.  I couldn't go to see my friends because I had to be in the house.  I wanted to connect to somebody.  As an everyday routine, I would make one small drawing and post it to Instagram – like a diary – it works, you see the progress every day.  You make a little bit day by day.

CH: I recently read about a parent and child- friendly studio residency at the Washington Project for the Arts in the US, where the children can stay in the studio while the parents work.  Would this kind of initiative be helpful here?  If this kind of studio programme existed near you, would you want to be part of it?

NS:
A studio, with childcare? It sounds interesting. But I do wonder whether they have a strong barrier between the kids’ area and the parents’ area. I can imagine my son often coming to interrupt me... so, personally, I’m not confident that I could concentrate on my work when my kid is with me. It is a contradiction, because I totally agree with this idea of making your workplace more accessible to kids, but then, I know how difficult the reality would be.

Not only workplaces, but public spaces like museums or theaters still have a strong separation between kids and adults, and the unspoken rule is that kids shouldn't disturb the adult’s world. Having a separation is definitely the most productive and less stressful way for adults. For example, I am always nervous when I take my son to the museum. He loves to make noise in a quiet space, so the other people’s evil eyes towards me make me really sad and upset. I can totally understand what they feel, so my feeling is complicated. I feel angry and I also feel bad to have disturbed the other people at the same time. This situation is probably more particular to Japan than the UK.

I think it’s definitely worth trying these kinds of new ideas – otherwise the situation is never going to change.

Note: At the time of this interview Natsumi Sakamoto was based in Tokyo, Japan.  She is now based in Glasgow, Scotland.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Events: Graham Foundation Series

Tatiana Bilbao Estudio, from Unraveling Modern Living, digital collage, 2019
Cultural ReProducers is excited to share a new series of events created in collaboration with the Graham Foundation this Fall, in conjunction with the exhibition Estudio Tatiana Bilbao: Unraveling Modern Living. The Mexico-City based architecture office transforms the former domestic space of the Graham Foundation's historic Madlener House to explore new forms of collectivity. CR and other groups will activate and intervene in these spaces throughout the season.


Alberto Aguilar, "Portal Court" (detail), sidewalk chalk, bean bags, rubber
balls, and public participation, 2019
Portal Court
Alberto Aguilar

Sunday, September 15, 2019
1:00pm
Graham Foundation, 4 West Burton Place
Chicago, Illinois 60610
To join us, RSVP HERE


Using pavement, chalk, bouncy balls, and bean bags, artist Alberto Aguilar transforms the sidewalks surrounding the Graham Foundation's Madlener House into a floor game court and participatory performance. This event is designed as an outdoor program for children and families though participants of every age are invited to join in.

Alberto Aguilar is a Chicago based artist. He has exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit; El Centro de Desarrollo de las Artes Visuales, Havana, Cuba; Palo Alto Art Center; National Museum of Mexican Art, Chicago, IL; Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago; Minneapolis Institute of Art: Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, AR; and The Art Institute of Chicago. His work is held in the collections of the National Museum of Mexican Art; Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art; Soho House Chicago; and the Chicago Cultural Center. Aguilar is the recipient of the 3Arts Award.

Cultural ReProducers, Making it What We Need at Glass Curtain Gallery, 2014

Making it What We Need
Christa Donner
Saturday, November 23rd, 2019
9:30am - noon

Graham Foundation
4 West Burton Place
Chicago, Illinois 60610

Help create the creative community you'd like to be a part of - in conversation with curators, artists, arts administrators, and others. Making it What We Need is a generative workshop considering alternate models for living, making, and making a living as artists, led by Cultural ReProducers organizer Christa Donner. Non-parents are welcome to join the conversation, which will be relevant to anyone working toward a sustainable life in the arts. Free, on-site childcare will be available through pre-registration. Space at this event is extremely limited. If you'd like to join the conversation, please fill out this Participation Form by November 7th.

Christa Donner is an artist, curator, and mother who incorporates drawing, participatory performance, and small-press publications to create multi-layered projects that are both intimate and community-centered. Donner’s work is exhibited widely, including projects for the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science (Berlin, Germany); BankArt NYK (Yokohama, Japan); Chiaki Kamikawa Contemporary Art (Paphos, Cyprus); Yale-NUS (Singapore); the Museum Bellerive (Zurich, Switzerland), and throughout the United States. In 2012 Donner helped launch the collaborative platform Cultural ReProducers, providing skillsharing, critical dialogue, participatory events, and an international community supporting the dual work of artists raising children. 

Exploring the Grahamlener Bilbraoducers Commons
Hui-Min Tsen, view of the Graham Foundation, 2019
Hui-Min Tsen

December 7, 2019
10am

Graham Foundation
4 West Burton Place
Chicago, Illinois 60610

Come explore the Graham Foundation! Participants will be given a diverse range of prompts and sent out to interact with the historic Madlener House and Tatiana Bilbao's exhibition, "Unraveling Modern Living." What will you discover? How will you perceive the building? On return from your explorations your tales and impressions will be woven into the broader story of the building and some of Tatiana Bilbao's ideas.

 This intergenerational program is open to participants of all ages.


Hui-Min Tsen   is a photo-based, interdisciplinary artist whose work contemplates the spatial and mental landscapes residing in the gap between Here and There. In projects ranging from walking tours to boat building to works on paper, she uses research and observation to interweave stories of history and the collective imagination with our everyday experience of place and the unknown. Tsen received a BFA from the Tisch School of the Arts, and an MFA from School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She has exhibited and published with the Hyde Park Art Center, Chicago Artist's Coalition, MDW Fair, and Sector 2337, among others. Her book, "The Pedway of Today" was published by Green Lantern Press in 2013. She currently teaches photography at Loyola University.