Friday, July 14, 2017

Interview: Hồng-Ân Trương and Jina Valentine

In the midst of social, environmental, and political unrest, two of our most important resources are care and creative thinking. Artist-parents play a critical role in both, mindfully raising the next generation while also activating public imagination. Cultural ReProducers explore this intersection through a series of conversations with artists about the future our children will inherit, and the work we’re making in response. 

Hồng-Ân Trương and Jina Valentine are active artists, writers, mothers, and professors based in Durham, North Carolina, where they both teach at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC). Their practices share a deep engagement with issues of cultural identity and social justice, and they’ve joined forces through the community-based project, All Rise, which we were lucky to catch at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago in April. All Rise combines strategies from two ongoing collaborative projects: Hương Ngô and Hồng-Ân Trương’s public performance And And And Stammering: An Interview and Jina Valentine and Heather Hart’s Black Lunch Table, activating candid conversations over a shared meal.  As close friends and collaborators, Hồng-Ân and Jina also operate as a sort of extended family, which in turn has expanded their creative lives. As we sat down to have this conversation over Skype, Jina had just accepted a new teaching position in Chicago, a geographical change that is the start of a new chapter in life, work, community and collaboration.

Cultural ReProducers: First, could you briefly describe your kids? Ages, names, general temperaments…

Jina: My son’s name is Sylvan Miles Palm Valentine, and he is four and a quarter years old. He’s playful, exuberant, and he loves people. He’s also aggressively affectionate, like a Labrador puppy. And Xuân June -  she’s also very affectionate, but also very contemplative. And she’s compassionate, and wise in her compassion well beyond her years. 

Hồng-Ân: I know! Xuân June is two and a half and she is totally this really emotionally mature human. It’s just... I don’t know where it came from (laughter). She is joyful and loves to laugh, but her temperament is very thoughtful, serious, and considerate – she’s aware of how people are feeling and is always asking how they’re doing. And she’s not afraid of trying anything physically – she’s kind of a monkey. Xuân June and Sylvan are like brother and sister: sometimes they totally love each other and then sometimes they totally don’t want to hang out.

CR: What kinds of expectations did you have about what it would mean to be a working artist who’s also a parent, and how have those squared with the reality of it? 

Jina: I think I had some idea that it was a big deal, but I still remember going in to tell the Chair of our department that I was expecting. He has a kid, and he’s like, “I’m really happy for you, but you’ve been really active in the department and have been taking on all these tasks... and when you have a kid, things change.” And I said “oh no, it’ll be fine, I’ll still be on all these committees, I’ll keep doing all this extra stuff, and you know, going out every night… (laughter) ” I couldn’t imagine how things might be different. He said “It’s not that you can’t do these things, but where you want to spend your time may change.” I think that was one of the biggest surprises to me. In Creative Capital workshops, one of the things they ask about is your professional priorities. Before, the way that I prioritized my time had been something like… departmental service at the top, then teaching, studio research, and then family. Now I’ve been trying to figure out how to flip that whole equation: family first, then research, teaching, and service.

I didn’t expect the experience of motherhood to change my worldview so drastically, and change the
way that I work in my studio – I mean not just practically, but what I’m talking about in the work. I knew that having a child is an obligation, of course you have to take care of this person that you made. But I didn’t expect him to be a friend. I miss him when I’m working. I enjoy just hanging out with him.

Hồng-Ân: It’s hard for me to remember what my life was like before Xuân June, which is so bizarre.

It already feels like this very far away thing. I think I did have the attitude that, “I’m going to be just as busy in the studio as I ever was and there’s no way that anything is going to take me away from that. I’ll give myself six months and then its back to normal, back to evrything.” It’s such an understatement that everything changes, and you just don’t realize how it can alter the fabric of your everyday life, and really alter your priorities. But I also didn’t expect that it actually wasn’t going to be that devastating to not be busy in the studio. I mean I remember at first, when I wasn’t really in the studio at all, till she was really about a year and a half, really, I was like “huh” (shrugs) – I wasn’t worried about my art career, it didn’t cause me anxiety.

Jina: That’s interesting. I don’t know that I felt the same way. Sylvan is four, and it’s only in the past
year and a half really that I’ve been able to spend a significant amount of time in the studio. I feel so much healthier, spiritually, intellectually. It’s been good for me and it’s also good for him, cause I’m more… me.

Hồng-Ân: But that time period when I was on leave during the first year of Xuân June’s life was when I started to realize that I needed to focus on being present here, in Durham, in North Carolina. So that was when we actually first collaborated, when I worked on the first integrated Black Lunch Table with you and Heather. So I think there was a shift in priorities in that sense; I wasn’t busy working on my individual material-based projects, but was working on stuff that felt really meaningful to me in a different way than just going at it in my studio. 

Also, I was really lucky in that Xuân June was born in May, and I was off for a year, but the summer after she turned one I had a three-month residency in Dublin, so I think in my mind I was like “That’s when I’m going to launch back into my studio practice.” As an artist you’re always thinking in this future way that’s kind of unhealthy, about what’s on the horizon.

CR: What was that first residency with your family like? 

Hồng-Ân: It was really… hard. (laughs) It was really great, I met great people and it was the most amazing, beautiful place ever. I love Dublin, and the Irish Modern Art Museum -- it’s in this old military complex, and the studios and apartments you stay in are old stables. But the thing that was hard was that my partner, Dwayne, was basically full time care for Xuân June. That was so stressful, and I felt guilty the whole time. I really shortened my days. I didn’t get to the studio until like ten in the morning, and then I’d break to nurse her, and then I’d finish up in the late afternoon. 

CR: You each have separate practices that activate dialogue around cultural identity and community, but you also do a lot of work in collaboration with others, including each other. Most recently you’ve brought together two of these group projects to develop All Rise, a performance and community-based meal that opens conversation about immigration and institutional racism. What do you feel is activated in merging your projects in this way? 

stills from Hương Ngô & Hồng-Ân Trương's And And And
Stammering: An Interview
(top) and Jina Valentine &
Heather Hart’s Black Lunch Table (bottom)
Hồng-Ân: Bringing Black Lunch Table as a central part really added this other level of engagement to the project. Before we did the discussions afterwards, the performance part existed and then we would have this casual, moderated conversation with the audience, but there wasn’t a way for people to engage meaningfully with the thoughts and feelings they were having while watching the performance. Working with Jina and Heather really activates a strong piece that was missing.

In general I really enjoy collaborations. I still have a need to make work on my own, because there are some processes in the studio that are not necessarily shareable in a broader way, but it’s so much more enjoyable to make work with other people. I feel like collaboration is such a more human way to make work.

Jina: I think also practically speaking, collaborations are really important, especially as a new mom… When Sylvan was really tiny I was working on this piece with Heather Hart and Steffani Jemison, where we did over a year of meetings over Skype, and we still talk about how in the screen grabs there’s always Sylvan sitting on my lap or breastfeeding. That was how I was able to stay productive, by having other people to be accountable to, and to have this kind of group conversation that could keep things moving even when I’d only slept three hours.

Heather and I had been talking about how to expand Black Lunch Table, and I think it was around January of 2015 when Hồng-Ân and Dwayne came over to have dinner with our babies.  And we sat and talked about the Michael Brown shooting and about all of these police shootings. We were like “what are we going to do?” besides hashtagging and re-posting and marching, which are also necessary. We ended up getting a little money from the Institute for Arts and Humanities to do the first iteration of the Black Lives Matter Roundtable, which was organized collaboratively with Hồng-Ân and included her amazing community here. We invited the Durham-based activists and the folks from the Center for Documentary Studies, and professors from both Duke University and UNC, and students, and preachers to dine together at two events in Durham and Chapel Hill. That was the first event in a series that we’ve since been doing around the country.

As for All Rise, this collaboration with Hồng-Ân and Hương... Black Lunch Table centered conversation around social justice issues.  All Rise was an opportunity to focus conversation on people’s family histories, or immigration specifically, so I think that was really good for us to do. We also thought that it was our part of our responsibility as professors here at UNC to bring in the community, which has been fairly reluctant to have these kinds of conversations.

This is the community that I’m raising my kid in. How does that relate to my life as an artist here, as a teacher here, as an activist here? So it was a really intentional choice to make work here. It was so connected to everything else in my life as a new parent.

Hồng-Ân: When we collaborated for the first time I was on maternity leave. Xuân June was like six months old. It came together at a moment when I realized I really needed to focus on what’s here in front of me, and I do think it’s related to being a parent. There was a point when I said “I’m not going to fly to New York every other weekend like I used to do. I can’t do that shit anymore!” It made me recognize my desire to be more locally focused. This is the community that I’m raising my kid in. How does that relate to my life as an artist here, as a teacher here, as an activist here? So it was a really intentional choice to make work here. It was this other re-focus, without the anxiety of having an art practice that felt separate. It was so connected to everything else in my life as a new parent.

CR: For any parent, there’s always this question of what kind of world our children are growing up in, what challenges they might face, and what we hope for the future.  How does the current political climate impact your approach to raising your kids?
Hồng-Ân: I’m trying to think of whether I’m living my life differently now than if the situation was different. And I don’t know if I’d be doing anything differently if we were another era, or if Hillary or Bernie had been elected – there’d still be the same things out there. I think the Manchester bombing probably still would’ve happened. It brings up a larger question about global politics in general, and this state of powerlessness. I’m struggling with how to make sense of this era in some way, to temper my feelings of anxiety in having a larger view about the different conditions of violence that have always existed. It feels hyper intense right now. There are different levels of preparation for absolute crisis, and we’re preparing. If I wasn’t a parent I don’t know that I’d be doing anything differently in terms of all that. Do you think you’d be doing anything differently?

Jina: Yeah, I do. I know that I take better care of myself, for him. I started writing my will, and taking out life insurance. Stability is totally a priority. Even if the world is going to shit I try to maintain the appearance that everything is normal for him. Are things more extreme than they were in the cold war? I don’t know. James Moeser, a former Chancellor and now the acting Director of the Institute of Arts and Humanities at UNC, is a wise man who’s seen a lot of history in this state. He said to me, “Everything goes in cycles. I’ve been around for a long time.  The pendulum always swings back the other way.” This period we’re in cannot last.  But it’s also about the reality that the world might actually end. What happens when the glaciers melt? Will there be an earth for our grandchildren? If I was not a parent everything would be very different for me. I think I would be engaged in a very different way. You know? But now we have to engage in meaningful ways that are also safe.

Hồng-Ân: You’re right. In the early 2000’s I was on the front lines. I would be the first one to get tear gassed if… and now I wouldn’t. There is this other level of thoughtfulness around what is on the line. On the one hand there’s a lot more at stake about the future because we have kids now, so we should be working harder, and yet our bodies, our lives have a different kind of fragility and meaning because we have a child that we have to take care of. It has brought up this question of when I want to go to this protest, do I bring Xuân June or not? And then Dwayne and I have a conversation about is it safe, maybe just one of us will go.

Jina: We look for different ways to engage. We do things like Black Lives Matter Roundtable. Or we consider examples to model our civic engagement... like Pierce Freelon, hopefully the next Mayor of Durham, who’s the son of Nina Freelon and Phil Freelon, the architect of the African American History Museum. Or the activist and councilwoman, Jillian Johnson. You and I were just talking about what our roles are here in NC and at UNC... how do we change the system from within? Shit needs to be shaken up, and I see that as a kind of activism too.

Jina Valentine, Testimony (detail), iron gall ink and oxidant on paper, 2015

CR: So how has all this impacted your artistic practice?
Jina: I guess my first substantial body of work after Sylvan was about my inability to empathize with mothers who had lost their sons to police violence. I felt sympathy for them, and our relationship as moms changes to them because we want to empathize with them, but it’s your worst nightmare. When you’re hearing about Manchester, you’re thinking about the mothers of those people who were killed, not even necessarily the people who died. That kind of grief is pretty unfathomable. My most recent project is called Literacy Tests: Rorschach, looking at the most heavily gerrymandered districts in the country, which sort of look like Rorschach inkblot tests, and it’s also a play on the literacy tests that black folks had to undergo under Jim Crow. My work tends to inspire dialogue around the things I want to explain to Sylvan at some point.

Hồng-Ân Trương, On minor histories and the horrifying recognition of the swift work
of time
, phototex, voile curtain, pigment print on fabric, HD video, c-stands, lights     
Hồng-Ân: The big project I’ve worked on for the last year and a half was about my mom. And this other photo-based project that I worked with Hương [Ngô] was also a photo-based project based on our moms together, about women and labor. So the two full bodies of work that I’ve completed since she was born have been about my mom, and you know, not at all unrelated and having this other level of of intense, emotional attachment to my mom vis a vis her relationship with to Xuân June. A lot of my work links together my family history with larger social and political histories, the impact of those broader social and political histories on these more personal narratives. I had done several projects about my dad, who passed in 2013. It was kind of an organic turn to my mom.

CR: You have brought together your creative approaches within an art context, but you also collaborate in everyday life, as a sort of chosen extended family. Could you talk about how that network of support has worked for you as artists, and how it has evolved? 

 Hồng-Ân: It just started really organically. We bring our kids everywhere. We have our kids with us all the time, and by that necessity they’re automatically going to become closer. Jina and I have very different households in terms of what support I have and what support she has, so it makes a lot of sense to share resources, and work together to make it work better and be… more fun! There’s this blurring between hanging out, being a parent, and getting work done at the same time. If we’re both going to be at a faculty meeting, we share someone who’s taking care of both of them together. There were just some very obvious ways we could join forces. We can go out to eat dinner and Dwayne will go run around with the kids so we can talk for a bit. There’s a sharing of caretaking when we’re together, that’s an obvious way to relieve the pressure of being “the parent” in every situation.

Vietnamese as a culture and a language is very familial. So when Xuân June hangs out with Jina she calls her Dì Jina, which is Aunt Jina. Everything is relational, even with strangers, and so I really enforce it among my close friends. I want her to feel just as comfortable with Jina as if she was an auntie. I feel really strongly that that’s a really important way to develop trust in the world, and also have different notions of support and family structure. I foster that intentionally by insisting that she call certain people by auntie or uncle.

Jina: I don’t know if I’m as intentional or if my son is just that weird only child who feels really comfortable around adults (laughter).

Hồng-Ân: I think kids of artists are more like that, because they’re around adults all the time. And
just thinking about your comment about wanting to hang out with Sylvan - I want to hang out with Xuân June, but I want to hang out with… adults, too. So I want her life to have the texture of being… not insular. So texting Jina and saying, what are you doing for dinner, do you want to come over? I just like that fluidness between spaces that are not sacred to that nuclear sense of the family. I really am conscious of wanting that.

Jina: I echo everything you just said, and I would add that for Sylvan and I, there’s just the two of us. His dad lives around the corner and we see him on the weekends, so there’s this attempting to give a semblance of normalcy. I grew up in an ultra-normal suburban household.  My folks have lived in the very same house for 42 years, and have been married for a few longer than that.  Growing up, the five of us always had a sit-down dinner, my mom cooked, and the kids cleaned up. It was the same thing every night, and then we’d have homework, TV, bed. We don’t have that kind of domestic structure now.  But I think for Sylvan it’s like I’ve always had, in my adult life, this chosen family, the people that I text right after I just saw them. We also have his community, the kids he meets at school and their families – I feel like we’ve kind of chosen them together, but it’s a very different thing. You set the date a week in advance, it’s much more planned how long we’re going to be there, what we’re going to do. I feel like it’s really important to cultivate those kinds of relationships that are Sylvan-centric. As much as possible I try to blend those communities.

Advisors, mentors who are official and unofficial, those folks are definitely models for how we might care for the next generation of artists. I feel like that’s part of our responsibility too.

CR: Who have been your models for artist-parenting or parent-artisting?

Jina: Maybe it’s an extreme example, but Hank and Deb Willis have an amazing relationship as collaborators, as friends.  I think about Hank a lot. I mean I think that’s the dream -- to be established to a point at which I want to be established by the time that Sylvan is a teenager or going to college, so that I can pass all of this knowledge and what not to do, how to survive, and also… create work with him.

Hồng-Ân: Deb Willis is an amazing example. She’s actually the reason I went to art school. I didn’t
know her when she was parenting Hank as a kid because Hank is exactly my age, but of course she is still and always a mom. Just thinking about what a powerhouse she is, and how did she do all of this while raising an amazing son. She’s powerful, kind, brilliant… so generous and so critical of the art world, and making her own way about how to exist as an artist and an intellectual. She’s definitely been my role model in general because she really embodies a really ethical way of operating as an artist and an intellectual. One of the most powerful things we can do is to model the way we think artists should exist in the world.

Jina: Other amazing Art moms... I used to have what I called “fairy godmothers.” Advisors, mentors
who are official and unofficial, those folks are definitely models for how we might care for the next generation of artists. I feel like that’s part of our responsibility too.

Lisa Sigal – she has two, three kids, they’re teenagers. She is a painter, and among other things, Curator at The Drawing Center. If she’s not there she’s in her studio, or she’s out in meetings with artists involved through the Drawing Center, or she’s having people over for dinner. She has children, and sometimes her husband is in town and sometimes he’s not, but it seems like it all works out.

Hồng-Ân: Around the time when I started thinking about having kids, a lot of my colleagues and friends had kids. I saw other people having kids and that gave me some sense that, okay, it’s possible. Not in the sense of holding someone up in high esteem, but just that there were people doing it. It’s not impossible. In the arts, you assume that people are parentless until proven otherwise. I think in the last five, six years that has really changed. I remember finding out that Simone Leigh and Saya Woolfalk were moms, and I was like “wow, badass.”

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Not Your Mama's Residency

The following letter was shared by an artist who was recently awarded a place in a competitive residency program. For the sake of professional discretion, identifying details have been replaced with the letter X. Upon contacting them to work out the logistics of her stay, the artist was informed that some of the program’s policies and funding had changed (neither accommodations nor restrictions were mentioned on their website). After further conversations by phone and email, the program declined to negotiate a stay shorter than its standard two months. Her place will be offered to another artist, presumably one without family commitments. Given the months-long process of application, acceptance, and negotiation, this outcome is not just a disappointment but a professional setback. It will impact her ability to fabricate large-scale work for an upcoming exhibition and erases the recognition of such an award as she applies for tenure.

Dear X,

First, I want to thank you for inviting me for a residency in 2018. I was delighted to receive this honor. I spoke with X last week about some of the recent developments that are impacting whether or not I will be able to attend the residency. I’d like to share my concerns with you in this letter.

I applied to X because it was highly recommended to me by colleagues in the field. X is particularly conducive to producing large-scale sculpture and I have an important exhibition in fall 2018 featuring a large structure. I appreciate the opportunity to introduce my work to a new audience in the area, and the focused time for production in a rural area would be a welcome change from my practice in Chicago. Finally, as a mid-career sculptor who is also a mother, I find that most residencies are available primarily for emerging or childless artists who have fewer obligations. Rarely do residencies provide accommodation or the means for an artist-parent to bring their children. My friend and fellow artist, X, raved about his experience at X as a family-friendly residency. While the reasons stated above regarding timing, facilities, and location were all factors in my decision to apply, it was his glowing report of X as one that enables artist-parents to produce their work that was most attractive to me. The fellowship and generous family housing that was provided to him enabled him to produce his work and fulfill his role as a father, and is one that I felt I needed in order to make this opportunity work for me.

I was deeply saddened to learn that there is no longer any housing available for families and that children are unable to be present at the studio at any time. Additionally, the unfortunate loss of the fellowship is of great concern to me. As a parent, I wonder who could take care of my children while work, how I could afford that care, how I could possibly be away from them for such an extended period of time, and where they will stay during the course of my two-month residency. The stipend and family housing would have gone a long way toward making this possible.

As you are certainly aware, the benefits of artist fellowships are two-fold. While fellowships can make an opportunity financially feasible, they also serve as an honor. Funding for mid-career makers are few and far between in our current political climate. The chance to feature the stipend on my dossier as I apply for tenure in 2019 is particularly meaningful, as well as being an honor that can lead to other opportunities. If any small amount of funds becomes available toward the stipends in the future, it would still allow artists to have the honor of the award, if only a token of your original intentions. I also suggest that the policy of having no children or support for artist-parents be stated on the website so that future applicants can weigh that information in deciding to apply.

In light of the recent changes regarding X’s ability to accommodate artist parents, and to provide funding that could make this opportunity feasible for me, I would like to request a shorter residency of four weeks. While a two-month residency is ideal for many reasons, I feel that a shorter residency can still fulfill many of our mutual goals. Last summer I completed a two-week residency at X and found that the short time contributed to the urgency of productivity and I was able to make the most of every moment there. I made important contacts with members of the arts community, conducted research, and started artwork that is now going to be part of a solo exhibition at the same venue this summer. I propose to come to X, and bring my husband who will assist me in making the work, the scale of which will be physically difficult for me to manage alone. Having a shorter residency will significantly ease the financial burden and logistical challenges of this residency and enable me to accept this offer.

Thank you for your consideration and, again, for the invitation to a 2018 residency. I look forward to hearing from you.


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Residencies provide cultural producers with a range of important opportunities, often including the chance to enlarge their community and take creative risks. Every program is different. Some are only open to artists working in specific media, like printmaking or sculpture. A few are not handicapped-accessible. And while some are more transparent about it than others, quite a lot of the hundreds of residency programs worldwide are out of reach for artists raising children.

Researching programs with the flexibility to accommodate parenting artists can be a confusing process. Some programs quietly allow for it on a case-by-case basis and many make no mention of policies or restrictions either way. Among the few programs that do support artists with families in some capacity, that information can be hard to find and, as evidenced here, sometimes changes without warning. Underlying this is the assumption that parenting artists are the exception and not the rule. Can the arts operate beyond traditional capitalist models if they’re continually built around the myth of the lone genius?

Economic parallels between the arts and other careers are limited, since creative practice draws no reliable salary. Artists participate in residencies at their own expense, often paying for travel, residency fees, childcare, or taking time off from other, paid work. But let's look at those entrepreneurial models for a moment, since the professionalized art world seems bent on following their lead. Some would argue that you’d never expect to find a family friendly law firm or bring children to a professional conference. But in fact that’s exactly what’s underway as professionals in other, non-'creative' fields aim for more gender-balanced and productive work environments. If the arts are a space for open experimentation and social critique, it should not be so radical to imagine family life as part of the broader creative community.

participants at Kala Art Institute, which offers support for parenting artists
To be sure, there are practical reasons why not all residencies can accommodate artists with family commitments.  In 2013 the Sustainable Arts Foundation started a granting program to support programs working to creatively address challenges like safety and shared resources. Some provide children's activities and family housing during special sessions, while others offer flexible scheduling or childcare awards that allow parents to participate without bringing kids along. The Foundation states that “the goal of this program is not only to reward organizations with original and effective solutions, but to share the results, so that other residencies might learn from them as well.” Their list of funded projects serves as a valuable resource for any program working to better serve the creative community, as well as for artist-parents researching accessible residency options.

As Cultural ReProducers we recognize that incorporating children into the practice of creating culture is not always simple. We also know that there's a lot to be gained in that process. Not all programs can or will realistically support a diverse artistic community that includes parents, and that's fine. What we ask for is clear information about what residencies can and cannot offer so that we can do the same.