calvin liang

Photographs by Santiago Peuser

Interview by Morgan Becker

Introduce yourself, and your art.

My name is Calvin Liang. I am a senior in Columbia College, majoring in architecture, also studying sustainable development and civil engineering. Most of my art is architectural photography and some portraiture photography, which is done both digitally and on thirty-five millimeter film. I also do sculptural work and casting, which is tied into the architectural work that I do.

Are there specific facets of your identity that you consider essential, or particularly influential, in your work?

In terms of my family, I was always kind of the oddball in the sense that I was doing my own thing, and they had a very different mentality. I’ve always looked at things differently than a lot of my peers growing up. I’m from Arizona, from a pretty conservative high school and town. I think that growing up with that kind of cookie-cutter community, and my weekly routine being so mundane, I tried to find some way to let my inner expression speak for itself.

Tell me about some of your inspirations. Who introduced you to art, and who pushes you to continue today?

My family background is not so artistic. My parents both work in very much the STEM, science fields, but from a very early age I had a creative side. Whether that was in a school art class or music class, I always tried to find a way to have some form of self-expression, that was never really within the stereotypically ‘academic’ fields. So I was always kind of looking for ways to express myself. And that is kind of what’s continued to inspire me till now: is finding an outlet for creativity outside of my academic responsibilities.

Photograph by Calvin Liang

Photograph by Calvin Liang

What has influenced your gravitation toward architecture as an art form?

My inspiration for architecture actually came from a lot of traveling that I did. I’m a fencer, and I fence for Columbia. But before college, I was competing for the US team, and it took me to a lot of interesting places around the world; going to Asia, South America, and Europe, and seeing all these different buildings and different ways of living that were so foreign to me—both in a literal sense and a metaphorical sense. Seeing how those communities operated, how those cultures operated, was the first push for me to think about expressing my artistic tastes in this kind of practical construction that is architecture. And the dialogue between art and architecture is something that I’m always working with in my artistic and academic work.

Would you say there’s one place that has influenced you most in terms of architecture?

I think Japan was the big place [of influence] for me. I have family there, but I never really thought about Japanese architecture until I started studying it as a discipline. I ended up working in Japan last summer at an architectural firm and realized that its architecture manifests itself in so many different ways. It literally has completely re-informed how their social lives work, and how they operate, both on an infrastructure level and on a socio-familial level. You see Japanese architects kind of going in the same direction of taking architecture, not necessarily as an academic discipline, but as more of an artistic discipline—expressing artistic moves or going for radical interpretations of what space can be.

What’s your creative process like? Do you know what a piece might end up looking like before you begin?

Whenever I do architecture photography, I’m always thinking about detail. It’s not too often that I try to take a picture of the whole building on its own, or a whole scene on its own. A lot of times the focus is on either some material detail, or lighting detail, or architectural form that I find in a structure or building that makes you think. And that always is something that I strive to do. I want people to really think about the spaces that we occupy. Similar to sculptural work and casting where I don’t necessarily have a direction, it’s a lot about trying to create new language with materials, for example. Whether that means making something solid, like concrete, or wood, look fluid; or making something fluid, like water, feel solid. But I never have like, a hard idea in my mind.

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How much planning goes into the architectural projects that require more technical attention?

In that ‘academic’ work, there’s a very formal process that always ends up happening. Whether that’s going through actual structural diagramming, or thinking about basic logistics that are fundamental to any architectural project. A lot of times, especially in more conceptual architectural work, you don’t actually have to think too much about that structural detailing. It’s actually more about your creative expression and developing your concept. And that closely ties into what we call ‘visual arts,’ where it’s a lot more self-expression, or trying to express some kind of idea through form. Those questions of technicality get answered later on [in the process].

Do you have an audience in mind when you work? If yes, does it ever change?

In architecture, there’s always an audience, whether it’s a client or someone else I’m designing for. In terms of photography or sculpture, my content is for everyone. It’s a lot about showing people a side of architecture, or a side of their daily lives even, that they may not notice at first glance—or making them think about the relationships that exist in our daily lives that we take for granted.

Photograph by Calvin Liang

Photograph by Calvin Liang

You say you want to make people think in new ways. Do you have an example of a piece you’ve done that embodies that desire?

A lot of the photography that I’ve done, particularly in Japan and the West Coast of the United States, was about discovering the substitutions for things that occur in nature with [a] man-made structure. Whether hills were being replaced by circular buildings, or in the case of a place I visited in San Francisco, where the beach was replaced by this sloped concrete sidewalk that sloped into the water [with] the waves crashing on it; I took a picture of it, just to take a picture of the wave. But when I looked back at it later, it became a picture of a beach, the sand replaced by concrete. These relationships between man made materials and natural materials were some things that I tried to highlight when I went back to the West Coast over the last two breaks.


Do you find yourself working with certain materials more than others? Are there any that you see a big future with in architecture?

Throughout all my work, wood has been the most pervasive. And that’s just because, over generations and cultures, everyone has used wood as a form of housing or as a form of construction. I think there is a reason for that. I think it has a lot to do with the fact that it comes from the Earth and that it can go back into the Earth; whereas, with concrete or metal, there isn’t that same longevity. It doesn’t have a positive impact on the environment. Now I think people are trying to find ways that we can push the use of wood. In the artistic sense, thinking about how we can express something like a wooden house in a way that is inspiring, that isn’t boring—that’s the challenge that we’re faced with now.

What are the merits of sculpture and architecture over two-dimensional arts, like photography or drawing? Or vice-versa.

Architecture, for me, is art that’s trying to solve a problem. With other [artistic] mediums, I don’t believe that problem-solving is necessarily the goal. I can posit questions, or bring attention to details, but I don’t necessarily have to have a solution. I think the beauty of art is that you get people to think about issues, or even just things that exist in their natural state. Different issues and different problems have different mediums. I don’t necessarily have a bias over material or representation. It does come kind of case-by-case for me, really. My sculptures are mostly castings, or types of ‘outside-of-a-scale’ studies of construction. So the result of that is they answer very abstract thoughts, or attempt to resolve very abstract notions or concepts. And so I don’t see myself ever really working with a sculpture that would just be the ‘solution.’ For me, that would be kind of antithetical to my thought process.

 
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Would you consider architecture to be representative sculpture?

You’ve hit it on the head. Architecture is the final product—the final model that’s a cumulation of these sculptures and castings and material studies and fabrications that you do. It's the summation of all those questions you’ve asked. Architecture is always toeing the line of art and science, academic and artistic, and that’s what I think is really beautiful about incorporating art into the process.

What constitutes a successful photograph?

A successful photograph isn’t just taking a photo of an object. I think there should always be something that you’re trying to bring attention to that takes more that, maybe, a quick glance. That might mean that you have to circle back to the photo in a week, or a day, even. What I want a photograph to do is bring attention—or even evoke a feeling. That doesn’t have to be super serious, but even just getting people to be like, “Oh, that’s really cool.” Bringing [up] an emotion, basically, should be the goal of a photograph.

When you say ‘circle back,’ do you mean that you can come back to a photo and realize that it evokes something? Or do you know prior to taking it that it’s going to have a desired effect?

I think the former is what I was going for. That’s a very technical thing that I’m not the authority to speak on; but for me, what’s great about photographs is that you have a slice of time that you’ve frozen there. And you might be able to circle back and say, “On this day, the light that filtered through this window was super beautiful;” but when you took it, maybe you weren’t focused on that, maybe you were focused on something completely different. And what’s nice about photographs is that you get to look back on moments and really think about what that day was like. It’s a lot of reflection, and I think that is the beauty of it.

Outside of the visual arts community, what are some of your biggest influences?

In general, having a separate space within architecture has been really interesting and eye-opening for me, to think about what kinds of questions I ask. That mainly stems from first coming here, and not really knowing what I was going to do and doing photography and sculptural art without really any direction. The great thing about Barnard’s architecture department is that all the other students are also working in other disciplines. The richness of that is you get to draw from their walks of life, and see how they’ve interpreted types of architecture. From that, you can circle back to other constructs and notions. That’s definitely a community that I treasure a lot. Also, music has always played a role in terms of evoking a feeling that I want to emulate in my work. Figuring out where the music starts in something visual or tangible is a fun thing to play around with.

Are you working on anything currently?

Currently, I am working on a small, independent architectural project [in] which my friends and I have decided to let loose of the reigns of convention. We’re designing houses for extreme situations, like, what does a house for just two cats look like? Or, how do we fit three generations of family in a forty foot by twenty foot New York apartment? It’s just pushing the extreme questions of architecture [so] that people would be like, “Oh, that’ll never happen.” But the reality is that sometimes these are cases that exist. It’s this exquisite corpse of absurd questions that people don’t think about when we think about the space that we live in. That’s kind of the move that I’m always trying to go for.

Photograph by Calvin Liang

Photograph by Calvin Liang

Anything else that you’d like to add? Closing remarks?

If students are interested in submitting architectural work, or commentary on architecture, the Columbia Barnard Architecture Society does do a publication at the end of the year that they can submit to. And that’s at bcarchitecturesociety@gmail.com. Other than that, people can find me on Instagram.

Sarah Courville

Photographs by Pedro Damasceno

Interview by Uma Halsted

 

Introduce yourself.

I'm Sarah. I grew up in South Carolina. I study urban studies and public health as a senior at Barnard. I have a big family. I have a pet python -- not here, unfortunately. I love to bake, and I like mid-twentieth century country music, like anything from Hank Williams to Patsy Cline to Kitty Wells. I do a 30s and 40s country music show for WKCR. And I make collages.

 

What are you a part of on campus and in New York?

I'm really not a part of many things on campus per se. I've been programming for WKCR since my first year, and that’s been consistent, but I like to get away from the bubble of Morningside Heights. I'm a bit separated from campus, I left for my whole junior year to study at Freie Universität Berlin and came back this year.

Outside of campus, I'm involved in the harm reduction community of New York. I work at the Lower East Side Harm Reduction Center, which is a needle exchange downtown in the Lower East Side/Chinatown. Same with Berlin, I was working in a needle exchange van there, with this group Fixpunkt, so I would say that larger sphere of harm reduction is what I'm a part of.

 

How did your time in Berlin shape your art?

I really didn't start collaging until I got to Germany. I guess the winter came, and I had to figure out a coping mechanism or a way to kind of track my mental, physical, and emotional health, channel it into something. And in Germany in the winter, the sun sets at like 3:45 pm, so everyone lives mostly in darkness, indoors.

 My collaging was totally shaped by being in Berlin. There are lots of these secondhand bookstores in the city that sell old magazines, books, newspapers, and the like. I picked up a couple things at one of these shops, just because I like images and old things. Then I began thinking about the images and texts through a different lens and found that it was a good channel to develop my creative thoughts.

Berlin for me was extremely conducive to creating. The cost of living there is relatively low, compared to New York, so the quality of life is has the potential to be higher. And the stress culture is different. There’s no living on campus; everyone commutes. University is not your entire life. So I had a lot of time to work on my art. Outside my windows was a Friedhof, a little forest-y park/ graveyard. Just having windows not blocked by other buildings and actual nature sounds, it's very conducive to understanding oneself and one’s creative process. So I think it entirely shaped the way I create.

I was also surrounded by other artists and creative people constantly. There’s this amazing queer haircutting project called Butch Cut, run by Hank Bobbitt, who does donation-based haircuts for queers in Berlin. I was baking for their events while living in Germany and participating in the larger community of queer artists and performers who flocked to Butch Cut. And I worked at a record store/ cafe/ performance space called Rita Records, where I was also a baker, and constantly meeting exceptional people who inspired my work.

 

Describe an early moment of creating when you were young. What did you produce?

The earliest one that I can remember is from my house in Florida. I was born in Florida, but I always say I grew up in South Carolina because I moved there when I was six. I don't necessarily remember Florida all that much. But one of my first memories of creating is from there.

My parents' house was this small, one-story house. It was basically just a big square, and the rooms were reflected in that as well. And one side of the house had all of these sliding glass doors, because the house used to be an indoor pool. And so we would paint on the sliding glass doors and wash them off when we were done. Thinking about it now, it's very interesting because I love transparent things and negative space and light.

Have any specific life experiences shaped your personal view of or the way you want to create your work?

I try to channel my disability and queerness through my art, and I guess it's been interesting to think about because it was never my initial intention to focus on the body. But it subconsciously becomes nearly every single piece of art that I create.

As someone who's chronically ill, it feels like my body is violating me constantly. I've had chronic intractable migraine for a decade now, and that's the way I know how to function. I realize that it's this constant process of feeling like I'm not in control of my body, but there's a way to sort of channel that through ascribing these futures to the body and projecting myself onto the work that I'm doing. This violation has forced me to think about flesh in other ways and investigate the body as a site of potentiality.

And also with queerness. Growing up in the South as a queer person was not the most comfortable, so that also created a feeling for a long time of another violation of the self. And so I sort of subconsciously try to channel those things. I think it's just that the images that I end of creating are focused on the body. But being chronically ill and queer have shaped sort of how I create, definitely.

Do you think that exploring the body in your work is an act of giving yourself back control of the body?

Totally. It’s the same reason I like having tattoos on my body. When you exist in a body that you can't control -- and me it's like ninety percent of the time I can't control it -- you are forced to seek agency in other ways. And I'm attracted to images of the body. So a lot of the magazines and things that I've collected over years have to do with the body in some way. I have old Playboy magazines, and I have amazing German magazines on Freikörperkultur [free body culture], books on body language, anatomy.

 

Are you drawn to other subjects?

Besides bodies I'm drawn to shapes and architecture. The other thing I have a lot of is old German architecture magazines from the 60s. There's this sort of order and disorder playing with each other in my work, and it's a way of being able to give myself calculated control and calculated loss of control in some way.

When I'm doing a piece, it's not really planned out. I'm like a collector of images. I have these clippings all over, hundreds of hundreds of things. I have an entire miniature bookshelf of magazines I use. There's just images everywhere. And if I see something that I like, whether it's the texture of it or the color of it or the image itself or a shape or angle, then I'll kind of put it on my desk. And I go through this process of reacquainting myself with all of the images that I have. So it's kind of this puzzle. And as my week or my month goes on, and I think more about the images subconsciously.

With this work of mine, I had these two images, these two eyes, for a really long time. And they were sitting on my desk, and I had no idea what to do with them. And I had this other large piece from Life Magazine 1940 with these people building a house that I wanted to do something with. I hadn't looked at the Life Magazine one for a really long time, and I kept looking at those eyes. I had a piece of cardboard, and then it just kind of came together.

I was actually really sick when I was doing the piece of work. When I'm really sick, because my body is not functional, I feel like maybe my vision will be functional, or I can do something that can translate like my bodily feeling onto a piece of art. And that actually is a big part of the process, being able to dissociate from the images that I've been looking at for a long time. So it's disconnecting myself from the image and then being able to reconstruct it in some way.

 Why collage? What is the power of repurposing text and image in the work you create?

That's a good question. We consume images constantly; that's what human beings do. I have a lot of anxiety around over-stimulation, especially in this city, and I think that translates into my work. I want to be stimulated in a way that's somewhat controlled but still allows me to give myself up to a something. I can construct something that is supported by the existence of another image, shape, or color. I do other things; I do a little bit of sculpture and stonework. But I think collaging, it's an expression either an emotion or bodily feeling. But it kind of seems like the easiest way for me to control what I'm seeing and have it make sense to me.

 

Your also taking from and reusing images that originally had different intentions attached to them. Do you think that gives you more agency?

Yes. The ability to pair images with other images to reconstruct meaning or reconstruct how something looks is powerful--being able to look at something and pair it with all of these other shapes and angles and texts and different geometry and things that can come together to mean something totally different.

 

Can you elaborate on your use of negative space in your artwork, as you discussed in your artist's statement?

In a lot of collaging, you use negative space to play on existing forms. It's a way to layer images and be able to have space between them. One of my pieces, it's this piece that's sewn together with bookbinding wax thread, and it's a bunch of these little pieces of paper, and it's sort of collapsable in your hand.

 

The interplay of spaces is really thrilling, and also something that I was doing a lot of in Germany. Because they have have amazing print shops there that are very cheap, and there're tons of artists, I was printing a lot of my collages on transparent paper. I gave them all away, because it was mostly just an experiment to start. But that added another element of negative space, as being able to look at something with the background of whatever's in front of you - and also how it plays with light and movement. I like to make hanging things and things that move, like this piece used to be up on my wall near my window in my bedroom in Germany. And it would just sort of sway constantly.

 

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What space do words hold in your collages?

Less now, but when I was living in Germany, words played a huge role in my work because my life was in this constant state of translation and moving between languages. I was studying at the university solely in German, working solely in German. But then I would come home to my partner, who I was speaking English with, and with some of my German friends or friends who spoke German, we would speak what they call “Denglisch,” this mixture of English and German.

In German the nouns are really amazing, and in English, you have better adjectives. Certain German words would stick out to me when I was there. You ascribe meaning to words when you're learning a language or getting better at communicating in a language. I went to Germany already speaking a good amount of German, but never having lived in a German-speaking country for more than a month. So I didn't know how to function in German yet.

Also a lot of the collaging materials I was getting were in German. One of the first pieces that I did there- it was this really small little piece with a woman in two planes, and it said "isoliert" (isolated), and it had an exclamation point, and it was from some advertisement. But I really liked the text.

Language occurs in this weird kind of liminal space, when you're living somewhere that people aren't speaking your native language, and you're communicating sort of half of your life in German and half in English. It kind of lends itself to language being important. I probably used about half and half English words and German words in my art. In the beginning, I wasn't sure if I wanted to incorporate words or if I felt that need to at all. But there were so many interesting words in German that I had some attachment to, or that I or people around me would use frequently. So it kind of lent itself to this interesting combination. The pieces I produce now tend to have less words.

 

Which artists are you most inspired by?

One of my favorite artists is an Austrian artist whose name is Valie Export. She's in her seventies now, but she was big in this movement called Viennese Actionism. She makes these amazing films where it's like constant image manipulation. She has this one, and I think the English title of it is "Invisible Adversaries." It's similar to Sci-Fi; it's very experimental. But I just love consuming her images.

There's this collective in Berlin that I'm very inspired by called the Objects of Desire Collective. It's a sex worker-led collective, and I became really close with the curators of this big project, when I was baking for Butch Cut. They're putting on a really big show at the Schwules Museum in Berlin, which is the first gay museum in the world . They collect objects from sex workers and stories from sex workers themselves, so it's like archival work and narrative work, and it's really powerful.

 

Some of my other favorite artists are David Henry Nobody Jr., Emma Kohlmann, Milf City (formerly Lance Romance), and dollargenderstore.

 

What's the last song you listened to?

I actually listened to a great song this morning. It's called "Marry the State" by this Berlin band called Gesture. And it's a really amazing synth-punk song. Super good.

 

Do you have a favorite movie or book?

That changes all the time. I do have a favorite book; it's Near to the Wild Heart by Clarice Lispector. She's maybe my favorite author. My favorite film changes constantly. But one that's stayed pretty consistent is by this artist Valie Export. Invisible Adversaries is the film.

 

Describe yourself in three words. Describe your work in three words.

Empathetic, deliberate, unstructured.  Bodily, communicative, reflective.

Myles Zhang

Photographed by Eliza Jouin

Written by Elizabeth Meyer

There is movement in cities that creates a spontaneity, a grittiness, and an identity that many artists have attempted to capture. In his project, Ten Days Walking in Manhattan, Myles Zhang, a senior at Columbia college majoring in the History and Theory of Architecture, creates a collage of representations through watercolors, photography, and large-scale maps.

His artwork reflects the movement of the inhabitants of Manhattan as well as the flow of the city from one unique neighborhood to the next. Myles walked from Chinatown to Harlem and captured what he saw in spontaneous watercolors while painting on the sidewalk or sitting on benches, as well as vast, intricately detailed maps created in his studio. The project, though titled Ten Days Walking in Manhattan, took Myles three years on and off.

Myles prefers the experience of walking through a city because, according to him, “We usually look at cities from an aerial perspective of maps, but the way we experience architecture and cities is from a human level of around five or six feet. Walking around New York City on the street gives a different perspective than looking at maps.”

Myles brought me back to each area of Manhattan that he explored in his project. In each neighborhood we visited, Myles relived how his perception of it has shifted as he has grown up living in proximity and now within the city: from as a child in Newark, NJ to a student at Columbia University. Myles detailed how the art created for Ten Days Walking in Manhattan has become a part of his personal archive. For each of his “days” in the city, Myles explained what he saw and the art that the neighborhood inspired.

Photograph by Eliza Jouin

Photograph by Eliza Jouin

Day One: Chinatown

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I feel I have a close affinity to Chinatown. I have a Chinese last name and a Chinese father. As a child I would do grocery shopping in Chinatown with my parents. It is an intimate neighborhood, and though I cannot speak the language, I feel deeply associated to it.

I wanted to communicate a sense of separation between the foreground and background in this image because the short buildings of Chinatown are surrounded by large skyscrapers that physically tower over the small neighborhood of structures.

As I child, I would walk down the streets and look at the individual signs on the stores, so I copied these sign fronts onto the map. The map is an exact representation from above, and I could get from one location to another by looking at it.

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Day Two: SoHo

SoHo is a neighborhood that I associate with my childhood experiences on scooter and bike, touring NYC with my parents. I think SoHo, more than any other neighborhood, has a beautiful chiaroscuro - play of light and darkness - when you walk down the street. Lower Manhattan has all of these big skyscrapers -- they’re flat, like boxes -- but SoHo has extruded forms of arches and columns. A lot of classical architecture in SoHo is inspired from buildings in Rome and Renaissance Italy as well as ancient Greece. There is a visual language that references Greek and Roman architecture in the arches, Palladian windows, and Corinthian columns. When I walk around, I try to play a guessing game - identifying specific buildings with their ancient sources of inspiration. The old architecture has a kind of permanence for me.

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Day Three: The East & West Villages

I pick the spots I paint in based on whatever interests me on that day, the size of the paper I’m going to work with, how fast I can complete the painting, and the weather. I prefer to paint in watercolors because they convey a sense of spontaneity that I am trying to capture in the city. You have five or ten minutes to complete the painting, so the process is more dynamic than if you were sitting in a studio.

This image of Washington Square Park arch might be the same dimension of the image of SoHo or Chinatown, but they each took different lengths of time to paint and the process of creating them was different. Doing a painting on the sidewalk like the image of Washington Square Park is very different from painting it in the studio like I did for the map of Chinatown.

Day Four: The High Line

I think the High Line is a distinctly New York phenomenon. It’s called a park, but it’s a strip of concrete elevated above the ground. I think the High Line is a victim of its own success. Due to gentrification, a lot of what makes the High Line unique and interesting is being lost. The industrial edge, the grittiness, the taxi cab rental services and car garages are being taken over by fashion stores and multinational organizations. I don’t think I succeed in representing this dichotomy of grittiness and gentrification in my art. I think a lot of the spontaneity of New York City is difficult to capture in art - particularly two-dimensional art that is static on the page. I think the quality of my work done in the studio is lower; I am more intrigued with my work that is done spontaneously on the sidewalk.

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Day Five: Madison Square

The Flatiron building is at the intersection of Broadway and 23rd street. It almost looks like a cartoon of a building because it takes all of the qualities that we associate with a skyscraper like narrowness, thinness, and height, and exaggerates them. For me, the Flatiron building is like the prow of a ship that plows down the street. I don’t know if I succeeded in representing this idea in my painting. As I painted the Flatiron building I thought about how the two streets on the side of the building, Broadway and Fifth avenue, diverge like parting waves.

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Day Six: Midtown

Midtown is one one of my least favorite neighborhoods in Manhattan because it embodies the worst qualities that we associate with Manhattan: it’s busy, dense, crowded, overwhelming. It is not as comfortable of a place to draw or paint as Chinatown or the Village because it’s busier; it’s hard to find a place to sit or stand. The kinds of people you are going to meet are very different from those neighborhoods as well. There are a lot of religious missionaries in Midtown. I took a photo of a Korean lady closing her eyes and handing out flyers about the salvation of Jesus and of a Muslim man reading from the Quar’an. I don’t associate Midtown with a neighborhood people live in, more a neighborhood people pass through.

Day Seven: Central Park

Central Park is beautiful; there are nice people there; it is pleasant, but it doesn’t have that sense of grittiness or fast paced-ness that I associate with many other New York City neighborhoods. I personally prefer the small pocket parks like Washington Square Park because the city is always there.

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Day Eight: Riverside Drive

That watercolor was done around 69th street on Riverside Drive. There is an old industrial area adjacent to Midtown with rusted derricks that were used for ships. In this image of the Hudson River, there is an old derrick [industrial crane] in the foreground. Before there were tunnels for trains beneath the river, ships carrying freight cars would unload onto the derricks. The train cars would roll onto the tracks, and the tracks would deliver the trains into Manhattan. The derrick that I painted is not in use anymore, but it’s preserved there as a monument.

Day Nine: Morningside Heights

At each stage of my life and at each place that I’ve visited, I want to have some kind of souvenir. I made architectural models of every school that I’ve attended, my high school, my university, the university I studied abroad at. My hope is that twenty or thirty years from now, I’ll look back and have a model or a drawing of the place to remind me of it. This detailed drawing that I’ve made of Columbia University is a very personal thing. The drawing is so scrupulously detailed, it is like a map that I can look at in twenty years and remember: where my dorm was, where I went to class, where I met trouble.

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Day Ten: Harlem

This is an image of the 125th street viaduct [bridge-like structure that carries a road or railroad across a valley]. The composition is based on the spiraling arc of the Golden Rectangle, a rectangle whose side lengths are in the golden ratio of 1:phi. On the top of the image, I have painted the viaduct itself. I painted the viaduct from two different perspectives in this piece, from beneath the viaduct and from above it. I’ve always been interested in engineering projects. When we look at a bridge like the 125th street viaduct, we see something structurally pure, something that is not cloaked by plaster, cardboard, and concrete the way a building is. When we look at the viaduct, we see all of the lines of tension in the structure - the engineering of it.

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As Myles took me through his ten days in Manhattan, I gained insight on how the city has influenced both his creative process and his artistic growth. Myles makes the vastness and remoteness of the city intimate through his art and memories. The beauty of Ten Days in Manhattan is that the project tells the story of Manhattan through the individuality of Myles’ experience, allowing the viewer to feel as if they are on close terms with the impersonal city.

Aside from Ten Days Walking in Manhattan, Myles uses his art to become involved with community activism. He is currently designing an exhibit about a vacant former jail in his hometown of Newark, New Jersey. Another project Myles is working on involves using data to visualize distribution of lead in water pipelines in Newark.

Myles has also utilized data to create a visual representation of the New York City subway ridership over the course of 24 hours. The project combines the sound of a human heartbeat with the pulsing of human activity on MTA train lines over the course of a week and can be watched here.

Kosta Karakashyan

Photographed by Natalie Tischler

Interviewed by Zoe Sottile

Hi! Can you introduce yourself?

I’m Kosta Karakashyan. I am a senior in CC majoring in Dance, and I’m from Bulgaria. I’m half-Bulgarian, half-Armenian. I’ve been dancing since I was five.

What made you want to pursue dance?

When I was five, I had a girlfriend in kindergarten, and she was going to start dance lessons. My parents signed me up because of her, and then she never made it to the first class. But I went, and I liked it, so I stayed.

When I was in high school, I got an offer to join Dancing with the Stars in Vietnam as one of the pro dancers. I was 18 and had no clue what I was doing. I was the youngest ever pro on the show there. We had to work with a team to pick the music and choreograph and work with the lighting designer and that’s when I started liking this whole production side of [dance]. And now I’m not done with performing, but I’m more interested in creating something on stage that other people with more virtuosic bodies can express.

What was the first piece of art that really inspired you?

The thing that I respond most to is books and reading and storytelling. A lot of the dance work I do now is more narrative-based. Of course, I loved Harry Potter like everyone. I think I was the same age as Harry Potter when the books were coming out. There was this contest -- I made a clay dementor, and I sent it in, and I won a free book. That’s one of the first things I made. I was maybe 13.

What are some artists or creators that inspire you?

In terms of film, I love Baz Luhrmann. He has a reputation that he meddles in every department of his productions, and it produces a very clear visual style in his work.

Is that similar to how you work?

Yeah, I like to give my collaborators a lot of freedom but then at the end I want to shape the edges of everything so it fits the story we’re going for. There’s an Israeli choreographer that I’m super obsessed with right now. Her name is Sharon Eyal and she makes these really alien, weird, sensual, sexy, tortured movements. I just did a review of one of her pieces. I like a lot of disparate elements from different people. I think nothing is original. So I like to draw inspiration from a lot of old things and a lot of new things. Music is always a big inspiration. I like a lot of classical composers like Erik Satie.

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Can you speak about the senior thesis you’re working on?

It’s a solo, but I ended up involving a lot of people. Allison Costa and I are the inaugural student artists-in-residence at the Movement Lab at Barnard. I’m using the space to develop the thesis. I want to make a piece that’s about the anxiety and the stress that we collectively face on campus, because I think dance is a good medium for sticking it into the audience’s heart a little more than just reading about it. You can feel it more when you see something visceral on stage. Movement-wise, it’s a contemporary flamenco fusion. I’m working with the flamenco professor at Barnard, Melinda Marquez. Guy DeLancey, the technical director of the Movement Lab and LaJuné, the current artist-in-residence are working with me on creating lighting that responds to my heartbeat in real time on stage. I am working with Antoine Assayas, a composer from France who I met on Instagram, and I’m trying to get another costume person -- it has all these moving parts.

Why does stress culture figure so prominently in your work?

Last semester I was reflecting and thinking about my art practice, and I realized that everything I’ve made or everything I’m planning to make revolves around anxiety. I realized this is clearly getting to me and I need to externalize it in some way. So I choreographed a piece for the Columbia Ballet Collaborative about four friends who are there for each other, but then get whisked away in their own problems. One of them has a breakdown. It jolts the others out of their own things to come together and lift her up. I think there’s a power to acknowledging [anxiety] and reclaiming it and being okay with knowing how that feels instead of trying to convince yourself that everything is fine. Of course Columbia as an institution needs to do a lot more, but the things we can control are our reactions; I’m interested in making things that give back some agency to people.

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How is dance different from other media, like film and writing, that you work in?

The most important thing about a dance is a title, because that’s the one place where you can guide the audience. It’s always overlooked. I think context is really important. When I approach making art, I don’t necessarily like to be vague or confusing just for the sake of it. I like art that will take you with it so that it doesn’t exclude the audience. Dance is already a little bit underappreciated, and I think it’s because people feel scared that they don’t “get” it. You can do service to your audience and present it in a way that’s understandable.

One of your interdisciplinary projects is the music video for “Drips” by Acrilics, in which you worked both as a choreographer, director, and editor. How did that project come to be?

The way that video came to be was quite random. A friend of mine -- who I haven’t talked to in years -- randomly reached out to me and said, ‘I saw you’re directing things; do you want to make a music video for me and my friend?’ And I said, ‘yeah, sure.’ It was the Sunday before finals. I grabbed all of my class’s dance majors. It was very last minute. I found the director of photography, Xuelong Mu. I’d never worked with him, but he was down. We rented a camera, we found a makeup artist, I went to H&M at Times Square. I always style people from there because it’s open till 1 am. So I went at midnight the night before, got a bunch of clothes, and then we just made everything happen on the set. We had six hours in Diana. It was something out of nothing. The girls were so good. I had prompts or ideas for them but they improvised everything on set and they looked great.


How do you navigate between dance films like that project and live performances?

For me, if I use film for a project, it’s usually because I want it to be more shareable with people. I think film is good for sending a message or making something that serves a specific purpose.

For stage I work really collaboratively. I want to make sure that everyone who’s going to be performing it feels really comfortable with the material and that they feel invested in it. If it’s film I control a little bit more. I have a clear vision in my head; it’s more detail-oriented in a way.

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You also created a film about the LGBTQ+ persecution in Chechnya, “Waiting for Color”. What inspired that piece?

I remember when news first started coming out about the situation in Chechnya, it was so horrible and I wanted to do something about it. So I joined the activist group here in NY, Voices for Chechnya, but I also wanted to make something that confronts people with the situation. It’s based on these 33 anonymous stories of people who were tortured and then released. It’s from a report published by the Russian LGBT Network. [The film has] gotten a pretty amazing reach. In the U.S. it was featured by GLAAD and by Conde Nast. Now I’m presenting it at Short Waves, a festival in Poland, in March. I did a presentation in my home country [Bulgaria], which is still pretty homophobic, but surprisingly the media was really into it. I ended up doing seven interviews in five days. Sadly, it’s still relevant: now, there’s a new wave of violence. I think now my next projects are going to be in that social realm as well.

How does it feel to speak to such a large platform?

It feels like the more and more I talk about it the more energized I get. It’s a really tough topic. Now when I watch the film I feel so distant from it. I can’t believe I actually made that. I edited it and have watched it so many times that I can’t objectively look at it anymore. I just know it’s out there. It’s not necessarily easy to talk about, but I know that publicity brings awareness to the situation. I’m thankful to be able to bring more light to what’s going on there and hopefully it helps in some way.

What is your experience like as a “working artist”?

My plans now after graduation are to move back to Europe, where there’s a lot more state funding [for art]. In New York it’s really disheartening to see successful people who already have a career still barely scraping together budgets and things. It’s a really sad reality. I don’t like that the expectation that you should love your art so much that you should have a shitty lifestyle to do it. Of course, it’s not easy everywhere. But there are places that are more accepting and more supportive.

Gisela Levy

Photography by Margaret Maguire

Interviewed by Louise Sandback

Introduce yourself.

I’m Gisela Levy, I’m a sophomore at CC. I’m studying East Asian languages and cultures, and I paper cut. Paper cuts are drawings cut out of a single sheet of paper and are a common folk art around the world. Personally, I use a variety of small knives to cut my own drawings out of white rice paper or colored light drawing paper.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in the Washington D.C. area, in Maryland, but also in Brazil when I was little, until I was 7 years old. So that was a big move for me—when I was seven I moved to the U.S and learned English, and that’s definitely influenced me as a person, though I’m not sure where it is in my art.

What is your favorite word right now?

I don’t know if it’s my favorite word, but the word that’s on my mind is brilliant. And also the phrase in sweeping motions. I don’t know, that’s been stuck in my head.

Any particular reason?

For brilliant, it was a part of a conversation I was having with someone and their choice of words really struck me, so I’ve been trying to think about why they said it and what it meant in that context. In sweeping motions is one of those things … sometimes you hear something and it feels like the first time you’ve heard it. I wrote it on my board and put it up in my room to try to incorporate it into something, but I haven’t yet. So it’s just like, there.

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What is your approach to incorporating words and text into your art?

Usually my motivation for making a piece of art is that something is stuck in my head. Something about my life or about the world … it’s in there and it’s not coming out. I’m constantly thinking about it, and I have to say everything that I want to say otherwise it will be stuck in this rotation in my head. When I get it on the paper, or cut out of the paper, I feel like my head gets emptier, and I’ve processed what it is that I’m thinking.

Where do these words come from?

So a lot of the words that are physically in my pieces, they are often things people have said to me or written to me in messages, sometimes they’re captions from my instagram posts, and I just cut them out of paper. They’re how I think about the world. It’s a very particular type of language -- it’s not something that I’d be able to say to someone, and it’s not something I would be able to write into a poem. It’s so disjointed that it actually feels more visual than verbal.

When did you first start making art?

I started paper-cutting when I moved to China for a year as a study abroad [student] in high school. I had never paper-cut before then, so I think that that was probably the biggest influence on [my] artwork. But I’ve been drawing and making art my whole life, casually, not professionally. I’ve just always been in art classes and enjoyed that kind of space [and] trying on different mediums.

A lot of people didn’t like that about art class, having these constraints about what kind of materials to use or what kind of subject to draw, but I always felt that it enriched whatever I was doing. Because one way or another I always brought my style to it. So it just helped me discover what it was I was trying to do by pushing it in a different direction.

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How did you come about developing your unique style?

When I was in China learning to paper cut, I was working with very traditional designs and methods. The only thing I had done with cut paper before then were snowflakes, which I still really enjoy doing. It’s a fun thing to do, to cut out really intricate snowflakes. But that was something that was completely devoid of all emotion or personality. It was more like: how complicated can I make this?

Then, when I was learning to cut with a knife and build compositions, I started thinking about space. A lot of traditional paper cuts, I think, need to have lots of different images that are separate—either because they tell a story or because there is an in-built symbolism—and they have to come together in different scales. You have to manipulate how everything comes together to fill up the space completely in an aesthetically pleasant way. That was something I was already doing in my doodles. I really enjoy filling up a whole page with a drawing, and in order to do that you have to manipulate the space so that there’s a good balance of black and white, of positive and negative [space], etc.

How has your time learning to papercut in China influenced your practice today?

I consider traditional Chinese paper-cuts and patterns to be an influence on my art, but they work mainly aesthetically and compositionally. I am not trying to lay claim on any of the cultural meaning of these designs beyond my personal experience with them as an artist and as a student in China. I hope that this comes across when I incorporate personal elements like words and faces which are totally separate from that tradition.

What was the first papercut in which you incorporated these personal elements?

The first more personal paper cut I ever made — I feel like it might have been one called Rose. That was the first time [my personal style and traditional training] came together: I added the face, and that made it personal, but I kept this kind of boundary of the themes and motifs that I had been working with before. Then it just exploded from there.

What are some projects you’re looking towards in the future?

One of the things I want to try making is mobiles which sounds really hard. I have one mobile in the submission, but that one was more of an accident, actually. I had written this sort of rambling poem. It was a disjointed piece of prose, and it wouldn’t have made sense as a poem so I was like: “I’ll cut it out of paper and then it will make sense.I was working on that in a high school art classroom, and this girl spilled a bottle of turpentine on the piece. I was about halfway done cutting it; it had taken me weeks, and she spilled a bottle of turpentine on it which ruined the paper.

So I got really upset and frustrated, and I just took my knife and I started kind of sheering these things and trying to get the pieces of turpentine off. It got very weird and I was like “well, the piece is ruined.But then I picked it up to throw it away and the way it folded — all the strips fell behind the words and I loved the way it looked. And I was like, “this is better than what I was going to do.” I really enjoyed manipulating it so that it fell exactly how I wanted it to fall, and then I spent a long time photographing it and figuring out what I was doing with the light and the closeups, and how the organic words were mixing with the turpentine strips. It’s called Ruins because my friend said it was too rude to call it Rebecca Ruined It, which is what I wanted to call it, because, well, Rebecca did ruin it.

What kinds of intentional mobiles do you foresee yourself making?

I’m moving towards making portraits into mobiles. A lot of the portraits that I do are single line drawings, and when you pick those up the paper is very fragile and it will bend. Sometimes the hook of a nose will catch on a cheekbone or lip and that’s kind of what I want to play with. I want to figure out how to make those cuts so that they purposefully form a shape in 3D. It sounds impossible but, that’s kind of what I’m moving towards.

Is there anything else you want to add?

One of the things that I was really thinking about since being selected to be a Featured Artist is, like: am I a fraud? Am I really an artist? I haven’t been as prolific as I was in the past; I have a lot of other stuff going on here at school. [I’ve been having] these feelings of “my art isn’t done yet, it’s not ready to be shown, and is anything I’m doing even worth it for other people?” So many of my friends who are artists themselves, have been reassuring me, saying it’s okay to present your art and to be proud of it. But they’re not doing it with their own art.

So I just want people who read this interview, and who see Ratrock as a space for like only “artist” people, and who think “I’m just me, doing my own stuff over here, and that’s not the same:” it is the same. Just put your stuff out there and be proud of it, and be confident in the fact that you’re doing something at all. That’s all it takes. If you view your art as important and value the act of making it… that’s it, that’s what makes you an artist.

Anton Zhou

Photographs by Lola Lafia

Interviewed by Isabella Rafky

Tell me a little bit about yourself and your work.

I’m a sophomore studying visual arts, and I plan on minoring in business management as well. I'm primarily an oil painter: I started oil painting when I was seven, which is a bit early for oil painting; but at the same time, I had a drawing foundation I have been working on since age four.

I’d say I come from a very artsy family, my father enjoys to paint as well and that has definitely passed on to me. My early work was representational, but slowly I feel like my style and focus have evolved. A lot of my recent pieces revolve around the human condition and the concept of ephemerality.


How do you like the visual arts major?

Quite frankly, it's very different from what I expected, it’s very theoretical: they definitely push you to organize and articulate your thoughts. Which is something I really appreciate because, before college, a lot of my classes made me feel like a machine, churning out art for the sake of a grade. Here at Columbia, professors really push you to think carefully about your work and really explore different opportunities. It doesn't matter if you fail or you don't like your work. These experiences add up, and you learn from them. That’s something I’m really enjoying so far.


How does it feel to be an artist at Columbia? What are your creative outlets on campus?

I appreciate all the student-led groups devoted to the arts on campus. Being an artist at Columbia, I’m not so focused on learning how to paint or draw, but rather learning from other individuals around me who are interested in related disciplines. I often myself collaborating with filmers or photographers. I think the collaboration between creatives is the best part of being a student artist at Columbia.

Photograph by Lola Lafia

Photograph by Lola Lafia

What’s an art piece you wish you made?

Several really. But I think one, in particular, is Monet’s Impression Sunrise. It's not the most technically amazing or astounding piece, but what he’s able to achieve with such simple yet powerful strokes is incredible. I’ve been on a mission to simplify information in references for my work and create more with less. I often find myself studying Monet’s work if I feel like my work is lacking dynamicism, or if it feels “overdone”.

If you could have coffee with anyone living or dead who would it be?

I look up to a lot of classical oil painters, my favorite being Rembrandt. I would love to talk to him about how he approaches portraits. Because I absolutely love his self-portraits and the texture he is able to achieve with paint; it’s just so tangible.

If I'm thinking of people who are alive now who I really want to meet, I’d choose J. Cole (the rapper). He is always on repeat when I paint in the studio, and I love his deep and insightful lyricism. I think I’m drawn to his music because it feels genuine. He keeps it real and always has a nice balance between pure musicality and meaning. He's not just focused on delivering a message but also making it very appealing to the ears.

Where is a place you go to be alone?

Of course, my studio is a very secluded place - if you want to call my dorm a studio. But a lot of the times I will go into the city, with or without friends. I’ll have my camera with me and go around documenting city life. So I guess you could say I’m not alone if I’m out there. But mentally I'm in a zone where I can just think freely, thinking about what really appeals to me when I observe things like the colors, the contrast in the lights, and some of the often overlooked details of city life. These are observations that inspire a lot of the environments you see in my paintings. Sometimes just going out late at night is a good way to feed your artistic inspiration.

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Are you into photography or do you take photos to paint?

Actually, I just recently got into photography. I am excited to experiment with my new camera. In the past, I never really relied on reference images, but now I’m starting to realize how quality photos can influence my thought process. I’m not saying you have to have the perfect image to make a painting, but your sources definitely have a huge impact on the end result. I want to gain more meaningful content and stories through photography and use this towards a larger blueprint for various projects.

What is your favorite material? Why?

I would say oil paint is my favorite medium. In terms of mixed media, charcoal and oil have always been a very fascinating combination to me because I like to sketch in charcoal first and then layer on top with the oil paint. These two mediums are very compatible, and you achieve a lot of depth and volume.

I have also been trying to experiment more with technical tools, which is where the camera comes in. I have been getting more into cinematography as well. I think learning about the technical aspects of photography and cinematography creates a better understanding of light, which is crucial to my artistic practice because I like to render form - especially for humans - in a natural way.

Three words to describe your work.

Spontaneous, juxtaposing, and layered. When I think of juxtaposing, I think about infusing classical painting approaches with contemporary elements based on color, texture, things like that. I like to say my work is layered, both in terms of meaning and the actual application of paint; I think these characteristics combined make a painting very profound. In most of my paintings, you will never see the white of the canvas showing too much. The pigment always makes its presence known.

Three words to describe yourself.

Disciplined. As an artist who has a very active lifestyle, discipline helps me get up for the day and get ideas flowing. I think it’s important that I have the drive to get up every day and paint. And I’m not too concerned about whether I like something I make immediately. I would rather make ten bad paintings and have those learning experiences help me in making one masterpiece.

I’d also say I’m extremely self-critical. Looking back at a lot of pieces I wish I’d done something different. It’s hard for me to call something finished. I wouldn’t say I’m a perfectionist in the sense that I don’t strive to render every minute detail. I feel like most of the time I find myself brooding over the composition of a piece. I might tell myself I’ll spend an hour the next day doing final touches, but then I end up spending a whole week rethinking the composition.

The third way I would describe myself [is] as a student: a student of art, a student at Columbia University, a student of many activities. I think it’s easy to become good at something but to reach the next level requires a lot of devotion. I study masterpieces at museums a lot and read a lot of books on fundamentals as well. I never was a fan of learning how to paint or draw from videos.

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How do you relax? Is making art an extension of that?

Not really. I think the process of making art amplifies whatever energy I start with. I never sit down in my studio. I am very engaged with the piece, and it lets you interact with the material much more. Sitting down gives you tunnel vision as well. When I was young, I was taught to step back and evaluate the big picture. The thing is - and I still struggle with this -  I sometimes get too caught up in one part of the piece, then realize something in the opposite corner feels off. It can be a nonstop train of thought.

Music also makes a big difference. It creates a mood for you -- different types of music push me to paint at different paces. Sometimes I’ll start [painting] a piece very rigorously because of an upbeat tempo. But when I get to the final stages of a painting, I'll slow down [and] listen to very tranquil and peaceful music to make sure every mark I put down is what I want to be on there. Sometimes I just forget the music at this stage.

Would you say painting is more of a mental or physical activity? Is it both? How do they interact?

I think it’s definitely both. I think one aspect of painting that deserves attention, is the performance aspect of it. Not saying that I intentionally make a performance when I’m painting, but you know if I get into the music, and I move along with the rhythm; my brush is an extension of that rhythm onto the canvas. Everything is so intertwined - all these art forms - music, dance, performance art, studio art, I think it all comes together when you’re a studio artist. That’s something I really appreciate about being an artist, just being able to indulge in all these art forms and let it steer you in different directions where you never know what the end result will be, but that’s what makes art so exciting.

We already talked about this a little bit, but what is your history with art? How did you get into painting specifically?

My father worked a lot with Chinese ink and calligraphy. His passion for that passed on to me, but I found myself more interested in paint, mainly because of all the color combinations. I was learning painting and drawing at the same time. Some people would say to focus on a drawing foundation first and then move onto color. But for me I thought no, why not take an unconventional way of learning art because there is no right way to learn art. I was drawn to Monet and other impressionist artists when I was young. I think I was just fascinated by color and texture. I think my practice has matured and taken some detours towards academic training, but still I feel like a lot of my current work is reminiscent of early inspiration.

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How has your work and your perspective towards art changed over time?

My early work was impressionistic: lots of bold colors and texture on canvas. I wouldn’t say I’ve completely departed from this. I guess I’d describe my work now as impressionistic, narrative realism. People have become my primary subject matter, and I am always trying to position my subjects in an environment - sometimes it’s real and sometimes it’s ambiguous. It’s just this idea of ephemerality that I am so interested in. Painting the human condition in an immersive environment speaks to me. It’s intrinsic and conveys something natural. I’d say my work feels realistic, not through a photographic lens, but rather a tangible reality. I’m not focusing on pure realism, but rather something that you can feel in front of you.

What does style mean to you? How do drawing and painting differ? Does the genre dictate the form that you are working in?

Style is something that can’t be artificially created, you can’t force it upon yourself. That’s why there is debate about whether or not it’s helpful to actually copy old masters. You can build technical skill but not style. I think style is a reflection of experiences and observations; it’s something that doesn’t require much planning, something crude that needs to be laid out on the canvas or drawing pad I think that’s how you preserve [your] authenticity.

How do you want your work to be seen? What do you notice? What do you want others to notice?

I want people to get up close and personal with the artwork and really see every stroke and layer of paint that went into that piece. It’s not just the overall image that’s important [or] that is what captures a viewer’s eye, but what makes you really appreciate a piece is the work that the artist puts in and the intimacy you have with the piece.

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In making a piece, what’s the hardest part of the process for you?

Honestly, it’s very taxing on the body. When you devote literally three months to one painting or one drawing, your mind just becomes so clouded with just this work of art. You think, “could I pull this off?” “can I finish it?” That’s honestly the hardest part: just knowing do you have what it takes to finish a piece. I remember I did this one drawing last semester where I would stay in Dodge every night until two AM right before finals week. I wanted to make the drawing as real and tangible as possible. There have definitely been moments when I wanted to give up on a piece but having devotion led to an end product that I really enjoyed.

What are you trying to capture in a portrait? How would you describe your type of portraiture?

With every portrait, I try to leave something to be desired. I never paint a full-on portrait. I don’t think it’s the best way to capture someone’s face. Sometimes I’ll omit an ear or leave out a nose, or really develop the eyes and forget everything else. I want viewers to engage with the face and search for missing pieces.

When is a work finished?

For me, there are definitely moments when I feel I can close the curtains on a piece. But deciding this point can be difficult. I think different levels of finish tell different stories. I can paint a decent hand in ten strokes, or I can go on for maybe a hundred, or two hundred. When do I draw the line? It’s a decision you have to make. I think about what aesthetic and feeling I am trying to go for. I’m always cautious of overdoing something.

Ellen Alt

Ellen Alt is a sophomore at Barnard College, majoring in biology and minoring in sociology. She is a visual artist and dancer.

Ellen started painting at an early age, notably from the influence and encouragement of her father. She then progressively developed her own unique style and technique: “I use impressionist themes of french culture from my childhood, sometimes using childlike colors, but always capturing my influence.“

On campus, Ellen dedicates herself to her dance practice, taking classes and performing through Barnard’s showcase at New York Live Arts. Ellen also paints for herself in her free time.

Ellen sees her artistic practices, dancing and painting, as therapeutic. She feels they allow her to connect with herself and her identity.

Ellen describes her artwork overall as “political.” In her paintings, Ellen is particularly interested in “lift[ing] women of all identities up by promoting their image and making them known.”

In the future, Ellen would like to focus on depicting other subjects and identities. She would also like to experiment with new techniques and mediums. She is currently working on a new series exploring sexuality.

Interviewed by Noa Levy-Baron

Video by Ruby Guralnik Dawes

Bernadette Bridges

Photographed by Morgana Van Peebles

Interviewed by Courtney DeVita


Introduce yourself.

I’m Bernadette Bridges. I’m a senior in CC, and I’m studying creative writing.

Can you talk a little bit about your introduction to directing?

I used to be a double major in film. I transferred to Columbia from the University of Georgia, and my freshman year there I directed two short films and also had written a play that I directed in a New Works Festival. It was supposed to be a Samuel Beckett emulation, and I’m very embarrassed about the play now. Then I came to Columbia and directed a short film with the Society for the Advancement of Unrepresented Filmmakers. It was called “What She Created” and set to a score that my brother wrote actually. It’s poetry and dance based.

I have always acted, so I knew what theatre was like, but I always wanted to direct theatre. Acting is fun, but you don’t have that much agency and it’s interpretative more than creative. I was excited about the design elements of theatre because it’s performative and whimsical and there’s more room for experimentation.

My first directing experience in theatre was “Middletown.” I worked on that last year through Columbia University Players. The play has a lot to do with mental health, which is something that I think is really important to address and talk about. I wanted to take a show that’s a comedy, and create some sort of community among audience members and the people onstage and also the process of it. That in itself is the art. Then I directed some sketches with CU Sketch Show. I’m also directing the Varsity Show.

What is the process of directing the Varsity Show like?

The Varsity Show is a very different process because it’s being written as I’m directing it. So I’m directing scenes out of context without knowing what the show is really going to look like in its final terms. I know what the plot is, but I’m missing a lot of the details that come with the revision process.

It’s a lot of fun because I really like collaborating with people. I get to work a lot with the writers, the composers, the choreographer and everyone is really involved from our creative team. It is hard, because you’re juggling edits, but also treating everything as if it’s the final draft: giving the actors direction without confusing them. But also keeping in mind that the dialogue, characters, music, choreo - it all might change.

At the end of the day, it’s very freeing to know that it’s just student theatre. It’s supposed to be fun. No one’s ever gonna look back on a Varsity Show and be like, what a masterpiece. It’s a place where we can flop if we need to, and it will still have been a worthwhile artistic process.

Photographed by Morgana Van Peebles

Photographed by Morgana Van Peebles

How do you feel like you’re going to put your own stamp on the Varsity Show, since it’s a yearly tradition at Columbia?

Traditions can sometimes feel exclusive, so I wanted the show to be as inclusive as possible. I wanted to open it up instead of closing people out. We’re really trying to get as many people involved and let the Columbia and Barnard community in on the buzz rather than letting it seem closed off.

In terms of the creative side of Varsity -- not that that’s not creative -- my biggest focus coming from a film background to theatre, is lighting and design. I think you can say a lot with the design, and it’s a cool dialogue to have with the script and actors. That’s my favorite part of directing -- creating a space you couldn’t get anywhere else. You get to create a spectacle.

Where does your creative process start when you’re developing a show?

It’s been different each time. With “Middletown” I started with a lot of visual research. From there I began to mine the script for literal images in the text that would recur and try to think about those in the context of what they mean for the characters and how they may strike the audience - visually or emotionally. I also thought about traditions in theatre - which ones I wanted to talk about. I think as a beginning director it’s helpful to use past theatre traditions as a source for discourse.

What I was trying to do with “Middletown” was push against Brechtian theatre. I don’t like the Brechtian style - Epic Theatre. It’s a call to action but it’s impersonal. With Brecht, the characters aren’t important they’re just these archetypes. “Middletown” uses this same idea in the script, because the characters are all named after their jobs, like Cop or Mechanic. It’s set up like a Brechtian show but then it disassembles because the characters all have these beautiful monologues and are granted individuality. Within the realm of mental health and then also being an American, a citizen, it’s important that people aren’t just objects. People are individuals and that in itself can be a call to action.

How do you feel like your work engages with the Columbia community?

My biggest goal is to just be someone who people want to work with. So that the other collaborators feel happy and comfortable. Feeling like you can create something together in a place that makes you happy and excited is more important than productivity.

Through transferring I’ve learned that Columbia is a very specific community, focused on goal orientation and productivity. But something that I appreciate in the projects that my friends and I’ve been doing in the arts community on campus is that we’re allowed to just be trying things and creating a community where people feel happy - where we can strip away from the idea of adding another bullet point to the resume.

Photographed by Morgana Van Peebles

Photographed by Morgana Van Peebles

What are things that have been inspiring you lately?

I really like Edgar Wright, who’s a comedic director. My brother and I watched a lot of his work over winter break. He directed “Scott Pilgrim vs the World” and also “Hot Fuzz.” “Hot Fuzz” is a comedy about these cops in England and it’s just really such a great movie. It’s funny because I don’t write a lot of comedic poetry – if you write comedic poetry I bow down to you. I guess comedy is inspiring because it points out the absurdity of...most everything.

In general, I find a lot of inspiration from country music. I’m from Atlanta so I’ve inherited an Atlanta-n appreciation for both country and hip hop. There’s something cool and lonely about country music. There’s so many different sub-genres of country, and it’s all stems from the blues, which I guess is the saddest musical genre. But then country is somehow subverted, so people think it’s inherently sunny and happy. At the end of the day, you can’t extract that sadness from country music. It addresses sadness - either explicitly or implicitly - because it’s about monotony. That’s something I really like. Thinking about the smallness of everyday life and how that can be sad but also absurd. Nothing’s ever just sad; it’s sad but it’s also funny.




Is your approach to writing poetry different than your approach to playwriting?

It is a little different. With my poetry I have this weird journal of words and phrases and randomly collected definitions. I think the way we define the world is really interesting, the words we use to define another word; it’s all just words. That’s something I like to record, the definitions people give me or that I find somewhere. From there I’ll go through and skim the page and look at it and then I’ll flip the page and write down what I thought I saw rather than what’s on the page. For poetry, I also read a lot. My poetry is mostly inspired by other writing. All the other genres I work in are usually inspired by visual mediums. Art or movies.

You talked a little bit about growing up in the clash of cultures in Atlanta. How do you think your identity and where you grew up comes through in your work?

It’s nice to be in a city that has different demographics. There’s a lot of diversity, not just racially, but socioeconomically. Also diversity of identity: people have lived so many different types of lives which is something I’m grateful for. I often think about the individual and what it means to be inside a body. I think you can’t really know what it’s like to be an individual if you haven’t experienced or met a lot of people. A lot of people that aren’t like you. That’s something that Atlanta does. There’s also so many cultures coming together there. Atlanta’s a nice hub for creativity.

Photographed by Morgana Van Peebles

Photographed by Morgana Van Peebles

How do you think your work and writing changed when you came to the Columbia community?

At UGA I wasn’t writing as much, and just wasn’t as committed to it. All my life I’ve been trying to mimic other writers which is I think a common practice that helps you find who you are. But I think the writers that I am influenced by have changed a lot because my values have changed. A lot of young people when they are working in the arts really value intellectualism. As I said earlier, I was really into Samuel Beckett -- things that are straight up boring. I think I’ve opened myself up to enjoy life and its expressions more. Art can be entertaining and still be art.

What are you working on now, short term and long term?

I’m doing the Varsity Show right now. I’m applying to jobs and fellowships. I’m going to take a year off between undergrad and grad school - so if I don’t get a fellowship I’ll just be trying to save up some money. I’ll most likely apply to grad school for poetry. My brother is in film school so during the summer we’ll hopefully be together to work on a creative project.

Last question. What was your favorite book as a child?

Tuck Everlasting.





Mamadou Yattassaye

Photographed by Natalie Tischler

In conversation with Nigel Telman II


Mamadou Yattassaye has been a solo artist for a number of years but has recently set out to make a name for himself in New York along with our band soul for youth, a hip-hop/jazz band based out of Columbia. Through soul for youth I had the good fortune of meeting Mamadou and was recently able to sit down with him and talk about his evolution as an artist and his integration into the world of live music.


NT - Alright, sitting down here with Mamadou, this is Nigel with Ratrock. Go ahead and introduce yourself for us!

MY - What’s good, my name is Mamadou Yattassaye. I’m 19 years old. I’m a sophomore at Columbia College studying creative writing with a pre-nursing track (that’s TBD though). I’m from Harlem, NY - but my family is from Mali in West Africa.


NT - Alright cool, cool. So what three words would you use to describe yourself? I’m curious. Now that you’re introducing yourself to us.


MY - Well I think for sure number one humble. I’m not the biggest person to brag about what I be doing; I just keep my stuff on the low. I’d say spontaneous. I feel like I can be quiet but in the right setting I have fun, get a little lit. And the last word: just grateful. I’ve seen a lot, you know, and I think through it all just being able to know that I'm still breathing and that I’m still alive for a reason, I still wake up the next day for a reason.


NT - You’re grateful for the life that you’ve gotten to live, here in New York, here in Harlem.


MY - Absolutely.



NT - But also at Deerfield, right? The boarding school you went to for high school -- how did you get out there from Harlem?


MY - Basically, I was part of a program called KIPP when I was in middle school. That program was helping a lot of inner-city youth be better academically and socially. Y’know we were surrounded by a lot of paranoia, a lot of gang violence and all that stuff in Harlem. Basically, the mission of the program is to bring a lot of inner-city youth together and give them, like, a structured, scheduled system to prepare them for high school. There were a couple counselors over there that saw the potential in me and they wanted me to get out of New York and see, experience some new things. So they helped me apply for boarding school. I only applied to Deerfield [Academy], though, because I didn’t really know where else to apply to. So I only applied to Deerfield and by Allah I was able to get into the school.


NT - So you’re from this predominantly black, predominantly African area in Harlem and suddenly you’re taken out of that and put in the cornfields in Massachusetts. How did that affect your worldview?


MY - Whenever I be reflecting on my journey, those four years were definitely a big culture shock. I was in the middle of nowhere, seeing cows, trees and all that stuff. And just being an inner city youth I was like, “what the hell am I getting into?” I was mad young, too. 13. I think all of that took me by surprise: like do I even fit in, am I even ready for this environment? But if it wasn’t for that environment, I wouldn’t be as open-minded as I am today, with all of the different cultures, sexual orientations, people from all over the world …

MAMADOU 2.jpg

I didn’t know how to interact with them, because I was marginalized by my environment. [In Harlem] I only knew certain types of people and I only knew how to approach things in certain types of ways. I always had to be two steps ahead because of my paranoia. So coming from that environment of Harlem to going to an environment where all the people are free-flowing and from all these different places, it made me realize what life is. The world is so big, so large, and so complex -- and it’s not only defined by the environment that you grew up in. But I was blessed enough -- that’s why I say I’m grateful cuz I was blessed enough to have the opportunity to get out. Not a lot of people have the opportunity to get out of their environment. They don’t have the resources.

NT - And so ... just a quick background question, how long have you been writing poetry for?


MY-  Seventh grade is when I started writing poetry. I had a teacher named Mr. Raysor who was in KIPP. He was my English teacher. Throughout that time he just had all these exercises bro where people could write creatively cuz he was a creative himself. So he was just pushing everybody. He pushed me, too. He was like, “Hey Mamadou, you should try writing; just write out some thoughts or whatever, and see what’s good.” So I just tried it, making it my own. Since then I’ve been writing poetry. Poetry is my first love. At first it was just, like, putting my thoughts on paper and then I started crafting it and they just became poems.


NT - So from 7th grade, when you first started writing poetry, did you ever notice a distinct change in your writing alongside your scenery change?


MY - I think what happened was the lens in which I was looking at the world was just sharpened and defined more, through being able to go to a school like Deerfield. Before I went to highschool I wasn’t really speaking. I had good ideas, but I just wasn’t able to articulate them the way I wanted to. So I was struggling with that - but I think that just going [to Deerfield] and being in that academic environment helped my learn to articulate my thoughts. [My writing] was still the same -  there was some new imageries and experiences that I was writing about, but I was able to go back and write about old things. [My words] just got sharper. The strategies that I would use to convey my thoughts and experiences became more defined.


NT - So now, from the cornfields and cows of Massachusetts … Re-transplanting yourself into New York City but in a different space than you were before: Columbia University. I imagine a very similar student body to Deerfield in terms of the level of white people here.


MY - There’s mad boarding school kids here.


NT - Boarding school kids definitely come here. But basically, your old neighborhood Harlem - did you see any change in your writing from your move back to Harlem?


MY - I feel like my writing is always evolving, just every day. I feel like it be little things too that just, like, spark a change in the way I see things y’know? A conversation, a song lyric… So I don’t think my change to Columbia has been a big difference, y’know what I’m saying? In terms of my experiences, though, it is different, like, going to a school like Columbia but being from Harlem. My image of Harlem is totally different from what this is.



NT - Right, like this is definitely not the traditional Harlem area.


MY - No absolutely not. It’s a totally different bubble. The people here are just so… it’s like they’re within their [own] bubble. It’s weird when I go back home to be like “bruh I just escaped, got out of a little alternate universe” type shit, y’know? [But] I got my family, bruh. So above everybody else, above all the people, the core curriculum, I got my little sister, I got my mom, I have my dad, and I got my day one homies so it’s like ... no matter what bruh so I’m not really fazed by whatever this school be throwing at me.


NT - And so would you say your writing is sort of, like, a stream of consciousness from what you observe and what you perceive in the world and that kinda flows out when you’re writing or when you’re rapping?


MY - I mean yeah because I’m always inspired by, like, my environment. That’s what continues to make me write in different ways, write about different subject matter and the way in which I go about it, different perspectives. So I think that’s true. The environment and people I talk to influence the way I go about the specific pieces of writing I’m doing and in terms of style and language.

MAMADOU 7.jpg

NT - Speaking of, what is your writing process? How do you sit down and decide what you’re going to pen on the page?

MY - I don’t know, my style is very spontaneous bro, because I can’t be forced to sit down and try to mash out a poem. I mean I probably could, but I wouldn’t be proud of it y’know? It just happens where I experience something, or I hear something - either through a song or a lyric - or I’ll talk to somebody, or I’ll see something while I’m walking; and right there in that moment I’m sparked; and in the next 20 or 30 minutes, I’m just writing down everything, and it’s kinda like word vomit, just writing anything. And then once I got all my ideas and creative things out, now I try to format it and revise, revise, revise; make sure the way in which I wanna say things is precise. That’s how I be writing my poems. And it's similar with how I write my lyrics too, with rap. I have the same spark, have a certain subject matter in mind, just word vomit and then try to match that with the way I wanna say things, cut off words, revise. So I mean they go hand in hand in terms of my approach in lyrics for rapping and my poetry.


NT - When did you first get into rapping, actually? Because I know it wasn’t when you stepped foot on this campus.


MY - High school. I was just doin’ it for fun. I had my bro, Tarek [Deida, CC ‘19], he go to Columbia now too. Cuz I met him over there and I started rapping with him - he be rapping - so I just started rapping with him and trying it. It was whatever, it was just for fun bruh, and I wasn’t really good.



NT - Do you see the connection between hip hop and poetry? I know a lot of people do but there are also plenty of people who would say they’re two different things.


MY - I do. I mean I’m starting to get annoyed a little bit, bruh, people categorizing me as only a rapper. Cuz, like, I just started trying to rap, y’know? I was always a poet first. So I mean it’s cool, like it's whatever. Rap is an art form too, of course, but there’s a certain stigma with what rap is today. It kinda marginalizes people. It’s like “oh if you’re a rapper you sound like this” or whatever. I don’t know, I always like to tell people first that although I do rap I’m still trying to figure out how to be better because I’m a poet bro, you feel me?


NT - Where do you see yourself in terms of other rappers, other artists? How would you put your work in comparison to people like Kendrick Lamar, Drake, y’know, Lil Pump, Kanye West?


MY - I think in terms of style the person I’m very inspired by is Noname. Cuz she’s a poet first too, and you can literally see it in her songs or whatever. So I think right now, like a Noname. A little bit of Saba - that whole Chicago collective I think I really resonate with.



NT - I feel a lot of Chicago from you.



MY - I’ve been telling people, I’m a Harlem kid but I’ve never been the stereotypical type of New York dude, you know? I’ve always been the quiet, reserved, observant type of kid so I didn’t really catch on to all the gritty. I mean I can get gritty with my verses if I really wanted to but the trend which I do is very reflective, very calm, laid back. I feel like whatever I write has to be a representation of who I am. I’m a laid back, observant, like to have fun type of dude.


NT - Authenticity is very important to you, yeah?


MY - Absolute- that’s first. That’s major, to be authentic. Cuz that’s all you got bruh, to be yourself.

MAMADOU 4.jpg

NT - What would you say your top five hip hop albums are?

[after much deliberation]

MY - I gotta put “All Eyez on Me” by Tupac first … I gotta put “To Pimp a Butterfly” up there … probably, like, “Beats, Rhymes and Life” by A Tribe Called Quest. I just love that album. That’s three so far. Yeah this is definitely not top 5; these are just albums that I listen to. “Telefone” by Noname bruh. Yeah that’s an album I bump.


NT - That is a potent album. The replayability of that album is ridiculous. You can listen to it 10 different times and hear something different each time.


MY - She’s probably one of my biggest inspirations right now in terms of, like, the way in which she attacks her music. Saba too.

NY - You’re like a student of them too -- you study them, right?

MY - I study that shit bro I be studying Noname lyrics. I be reading on Genius, y’know, seeing how she’s doing her flow, her subject matter, crazy … I’m tryna think … I mean “Care For Me” too … Alright so all in all bro those are the five albums I’m listening to right now but that is not [my top 5 of all time] - that’s my disclaimer. “All Eyez On Me,” “Beats, Rhymes and Life,” “To Pimp a Butterfly,” “Telefone,” “Care For Me.” That’s all the albums I’m listening to right now, that don’t mean they top five of all time. I listen to too much music bruh.


NT - Alright, so let’s pivot a little bit and talk about performance. Is it accurate to say you’re more of a spoken word artist rather than purely written?



MY - Yeah! I’m trying to be more spoken word because before I had a big problem with trying to share my work. Just being able to be comfortable. But I think now I’m starting to evolve into  more of a spoken word artist.


NT - Oh so when you were writing you weren’t thinking about how you were gonna say it.


MY - Right because it’s a big thing to be able to write and perform because, like, some people are just great writers and aren’t able to perform. For me I thought that was me. And that’s something I’m still working on. I’m still tryna be better and evolve.

NT - So as, like, a spoken word artist, how do you approach performance? How would you prepare for a show somewhere?


MY - I don’t even know. I remember Robert [Lotreck, drummer and fellow soul for youth member] asked me that the other day: he be like “oh how do you prepare to perform?” I was just like I don’t know bro. I just kinda mentally run through it, and then just like [perform]. I like to gesture too and look at people.


NT - Do you see some growth as an artist and as a writer based on your time in the band [soul for youth]?

MY - Yeah I think being more confident in my lyrics and how I express myself through them, and really holding a connection with my lyrics even more. I always held a connection, obviously through writing; but when I perform it too, I’m saying those words, I’m reciting those words, and it feels even closer. So I think I’ve evolved in that, and just being able to perform for big crowds and stuff because I was not used to that.


NT - Right and it seems like you’re getting into the flow of it a little more. At the Rockwood Music Hall [http://rockwoodmusichall.com] concert you were doing a very good job of audience interaction and just being with the band in general. I feel like last year all the way to now you have grown, in performance, to become more a part of the band as opposed to just a frontman. Now you have Robert stopping on certain things for emphasis. You queue us: you queued me to start the bassline a few times. I feel like now the connection between you and the band is like, less separated. It’s coming together.


NT - So, not counting soul for youth performances, where have you performed?


MY - I’ve performed at a little event at my school called Koch Friday Night and I performed at this writers conference, my poem. That conference was the first time I read my whole poem out. The writers conference was in Vermont at Middlebury College, so I was over there.


NT - How’d you get involved with that writers conference?


MY - Oh my english teacher helped me apply. There were a lot of writers from the New England area and we was just looking. That was a different experience too, bruh. It was like three days but that shit was crazy.

NT - How was that by the way? Do you think that affected your writing as well?


MY -  A little bit because it made me more confident.

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NT - So confidence is a big key to how you write?


MY - Yeah. That conference was a little thing that motivated me. Because I was sharing with people outside of my high school at the time and I was still in the process of being comfortable with that. I remember after I read my poem they were taking pictures of the page. They were passing it out for selected regions to read. And there are still some people I talk to from that program that be asking me about my writing.

NT - So now that you’re in college, I’m curious, you talk about being a poet, talk about being a rapper…  how would you squarely define yourself?



MY - I would say poet but also just an artist. I don’t know I’m just always trying to continue to evolve as an artist.



NT - You’re a product of your environment and your environment is so varied you can’t be defined by one thing.


MY - Right, so I feel like I consider myself just an artist now.


NT - Speaking of your environment, you’ve made a few comments about your childhood environment informing a lot of the content of your writing. You talked a little bit earlier about the paranoia you felt growing up, do you think that was a product of the Harlem environment?


MY - Yeah I think, yeah… you know a lot of kids, bruh, they don’t have outlets to express things. There’s a lot of mental health problems in these environments, you know what I’m saying? There’s a lot of concerns of PTSD; somebody’s seen somebody that they loved, loved ones getting killed shit like that. So I think that PTSD and paranoia and all of that stuff -- and other things like schizophrenia and just health disorders bruh there’s not a lot of outlets for people like that in these environments and there’s not a lot of awareness in these environments too.

That’s why I say I’m grateful because I had a teacher and I had a program like KIPP to at least give me some of the resources to help me on my track in terms of finding myself and what I want to become outside of my pre-existing environment. So I think whenever I write, I try to stress in some way that paranoia, but also that growth too. I’m tryna evolve, I’m tryna be better. It’s not perfect because sometimes I can revert to that, that paranoia and those moments. But it’s all in the growth, y’know, it’s all in the evolution, who I wanna become as a person.

Writing has definitely been that way of allowing me to narrow it down to what I should be becoming. I mean it’s cliché, but I consider everything I do to be poetry in motion so the grotesque and the beautiful has a certain cohesion. The way I believe in things, bruh, God, Allah, wouldn’t put bad stuff or good stuff for no reason. There’s no reason why there’s a bad or there’s a good thing without a purpose. Everything has its intention. There’s a beauty with that y’know? So I don’t regret anything that has happened to me. I mean obviously there’s been times, but when I reflect and been more mature - I’m blessed to be able to experience the bad and the good. It’s shaped who I am as a person, you know? I wouldn’t be who I am without all of those experiences.

NT - What do you hope audience members get from seeing you rap, seeing you perform your poetry etc.? Is there something you wish to impart on them?

MY - I mean I just hope they hear my perspective and, if anything, it sparks a new perspective. That with the words and stuff that I’m saying - I mean obviously you can’t fully get into somebody’s world but you can have a preview or a sneak peek into my mind or the things I’ve gone through. And if I can at least have sparked a change in somebody’s mind then I’ll know that I’ve done something with my writing, you know? To make people think  a little bit differently, that’ll have been an accomplishment for me. I think that’d be my intention: for people to really listen, hear the words and just think about things a little different and consider their own perspectives in comparison to my perspective and just in general. And just grow. I’m growing, I want people to grow with me too.

Veronica Suchodolski

Photographed by Margaret Maguire

Interviewed by Elizabeth Meyer


Introduce yourself.

My name is Veronica Suchodolski. I am a senior at Barnard majoring in English, concentrating in creative writing, and double minoring in French and philosophy. I grew up in Amherst, Massachusetts. I am a writer, and I write a mix of long form prose and poetry. On campus I’m one of the managing editors of the Barnard Bulletin.


How do you see yourself? Do you define yourself as a writer?

I do define myself as a writer. I didn’t for a long time in part because I didn’t think I was very good, and I thought I had to get a “real job.” As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that this is what I want to do, so it’s silly to define myself as anything else. I also think because I’ve been writing for so long, it’s hard to tell whether I am a writer because I have certain personality traits or if I have certain personality traits because I’ve defined myself as a writer for so long. Things like being a listener and more quiet and observant.

Have you published your work in any on or off campus publications? If so, which ones?

On campus, I’ve been published in Echoes, Four by Four, Surgham, and also the Barnard Bulletin. Off campus, I’ve been published in Z Publishing’s New York’s Best Emerging Poets Anthology for 2017 and 2018.

How did you begin creating?

It’s not a very interesting origin story. I’ve kind of always been creating. I found this Lisa Frank notebook in my closet at home. I must have been four years old because the spelling was so bad, but I wrote this little story in the notebook about this princess with a pet Newfoundland, which is the type of dog that I grew up with. Writing has always been something that I’ve been interested in, and I don’t necessarily understand why. I was lucky enough to have teachers and a family who encouraged me to pursue it more seriously.


What is your writing process?

It depends on what else is going on in my life. Because as a student I’m really busy. Normally I try to write down fragments of things that I think would be really interesting and wait for something to build out of them. If I have more time, like during the summer, I’ll start writing from those fragments and see what ends up sticking into a longer piece. For example, at one point this summer, I started eight different things at once, and I was working on them in tandem until one of them started picking up speed. That was what I focused on. My process is a lot of free writing until something happens.


What are three words that describe you and then three words describing your work.

Post post-modern urban anxiety. Right now, I’m really into this idea of post post-modernism, it’s what I wrote my thesis on. Post post-modernism is about pushing back on post-modern irony, absolutism, meta-narratives, and this idea that there is no meaning. I’m tired of that mode of thinking; I don’t want to hear about it anymore. I’m interested in creating new systems of meaning and looking at old systems and acknowledging that those don’t work. But just because those don’t work doesn’t mean that we have to be hopeless and that there’s no meaning now. The urban anxiety refers to a sort of distrust of urbanism and capitalism. I’m from rural Massachusetts, so living in the city is an interesting experience.

Photograph by Margaret Maguire

Photograph by Margaret Maguire

Do you have a favorite writer?

As I child, I was into all of the cliché books. I read a lot of Harry Potter, and I read the Warrior series. I was into John Greene and the Hunger Games. Right now, I really like Ruth Ozeki who wrote All Over Creation. She also wrote My Year of Meats, which is one of my favorite books. I read it in high school and then re-read it this summer. Her writing is really accessible. It’s not prosaic and long and literary, but the way she writes a story is really impeccable, and the way she presents a character is so masterful. I was reading it this summer, and it was a million times better than I remember it being in high school. It’s so good.  


Do you believe that accessibility in writing is important?

I’m really pro-accessibility in writing, and I think that’s partly just because I don’t see myself as someone with a huge vocabulary. Accessible writing is writing that is as clear as possible. A pet peeve of mine is when a writer uses a really complicated word, and they could have used a simpler one. I’ll be reading something for class, and I’ll come across a word and not know what it means. Even though I read a lot, I forget what things mean. I tend to write in more a simplistic style, and I appreciate when a sentence flows really well, and I don’t have to read it several times to understand what it means. I think it can be interesting to read a poem that doesn’t make sense on the first pass and work out its meaning. But in my own writing, I like to make it as clear as possible what I’m trying to do.  

Are there writers and creators that whose work would be classified as ‘post post-modern urban anxiety’?

The conception that I’m working with regarding post post-modernism is called “new sincerity;” but if you look up new-sincerity, it’s all about David Foster Wallace and John Franzen who I do not like. Right now, the book that inspires me the most is Edenborough by Alexander Chee. His style is so interesting. It’s really evocative and metaphorical in a way that I haven’t seen before. He writes about really horrible things that happened to him, but he does it in such a beautiful way that you can’t look away; you have to keep reading even though it’s devastating. That’s sort of the model I’m working with right now.

What other artists and teachers have inspired you?

Alexander Chee is the big one right now. I am in Mary Gordon’s thesis seminar this semester on Virginia Woolf and something that she said in office hours was that she actually was going to be a poet, and then she read Virginia Woolf and was like, “oh I didn’t realize that you could do this with prose,” and that’s why she became a very famous short story writer. I’m really interested in how to make prose not dead, how to make prose poetic and lyrical - which is very hard I’m finding out.

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Photograph by Margaret Maguire

How do you try to make prose lyrical? What is your preferred form when you write?

My preferred form is prose, but the reason that I write poetry is that I think it’s a useful pursuit on learning how to tighten up your writing because poetry has to be so tight to be at all good. I like writing poems: not because I want to be a poet, but because I think it’s going to be useful in getting at the kind of prose I want to write. Normally, when I write a poem, I’m trying to use as few words as possible to say what I want to say. When I go to writing prose, I try to keep that mindset of not just writing these long prose-y sentences with a lot in them that you don’t need.

What does your writing and revision process entail?

The writing process entails a lot of writing fragments until something happens. In terms of revision, my process is about trying to cut down words while keeping the same meaning. I also do this when writing poetry. Something I like to print out the draft of the poem I’m working on and cut out all of the words and play around with all of them. With prose, it’s a lot of reading and re-reading and when something doesn’t work, being ok with letting it go and completely starting over. I also read out loud a lot.

Pas de deux, 1957 engages with dance imagery. Why did you choose this title? How do you engage with dance? Do you dance?

The title is a really deep cut to this pas de deux that was performed by Arthur Mitchell at the New York City Ballet in 1957. I had the bizarre fortune to interview Arthur Mitchell the semester that I wrote for Spec. He was the first African American principal dancer in the New York City Ballet. I was thinking about that interview at the same time as I was thinking about this relationship that I was in. A pas de deux is a partner dance. There is a lot of tension but also a lot of working together, and so the two just went together in my mind.

In terms of dance, I don’t dance or really know anything about it. I wrote this title down and the first four lines of the poem which I think are the same in the final draft. And then I wrote this completely different poem that has almost nothing to do with dance, and I showed it to a friend who was like, “this isn’t bad, but you should really tighten up the dance imagery because that’s what’s working and nothing else really makes sense.” I watched a lot of dance videos and read a lot dance reviews to try to find the words to write about this thing that I don’t really know about.


Your piece 90-10 has vivid descriptions of places. Are there specific places that you are inspired by that manifest themselves in your work?

Yes. Anyplace that I’ve lived in for a long time ends up in my work. That poem was written the last summer I spent in my hometown. All of that humidity and farm imagery is very Amherst. I write about New York a lot because I live here. I spent a semester in Paris and wrote about Paris very often. Both of my parents are from Gdańk, Poland, and so I spent a few summers there with my grandparents and have written a lot about that.

Is writing a form of catharsis for you? If so, how?

Yes, definitely. A lot of times one of the first parts of my process, if I haven’t written something substantial in a while, is to do this creative journaling where I’ll write about things that have happened to me but in second or third person to create a narrative distance between what happened to me and what I’m writing. Ideally a good line or two will come out of that. I’ll take those lines and make something else out of them. It doesn’t always end up having something to do with what happens to me;, but since it was borne out of that emotion, it feels good to finish something.

What are your plans post college?

Post-college, my ideal goal is to spend some time doing arts and culture reporting for either a print newspaper or an online media company. You can view some of my work on my website.



Matthew So

Photographed by Morgana Van Peebles

Interviewed by Uma Halsted

Could you introduce yourself?

I’m Mathew So, a student of Columbia.


Where did you grow up?

Staten Island. I went to school on the Lower West Side.

What’s the last song you listened to?

It was probably from the album that we were just listening to. It was “Hosono House” by Haruomi Hosono.

First movie you saw as a child?

I remember when I was a kid, I had one movie downloaded on my ipod, I would watch that on repeat like every night before I went to sleep. And it was The School of Rock. So that definitely was an important movie.

Did your parents or any members of your family drink a lot of tea or create it as a culture when you were a child?

When I was growing up, my grandpa would drink a lot of tea. Every year, we would get these shipments of really nice teas from family members we knew in China. But then my brother David actually got me into collecting tea a couple years ago. For my birthday, he got me some really nice teas to start with, a temperature controlled kettle, and some basic brewing material; and that’s how I started learning about the art of tea.

Do you have a first memory of drinking tea, or if not, do you have a fondest memory?

Most of my favorite memories are just drinking tea with people that I know, like my friends. All of my closest friends I have made at Columbia, I’ve met through making tea for them. I mean I always think that I enjoy tea the most when I’m talking to other people, getting a feel for how they respond to the taste of the tea, what they connect it with. Like people will say, ‘this tea reminds me of this cereal that I had when I was a kid’ or something like that.

Do you drink coffee?

I do drink coffee. But it’s different; like I also drink tea-bag tea, but I use that as more of a utility. When I want to have something nice, I’ll drink tea like this loose leaf tea, using traditional Chinese and Japanese teaware. But if I need energy, I’ll definitely drink coffee or tea.

Photograph by Matthew So

Photograph by Matthew So

Photograph by Matthew So

Photograph by Matthew So

You mentioned that there are six primary types of tea, could you explain this a little more?

This is called black tea (referencing tea in hand). What we would call black tea is traditionally called red tea [in China]. There’s white tea. There’s blue tea, which is called oolong tea. And then there’s yellow tea, which the process for making was lost for many years. So only in the last couple of years have we been able to make authentic yellow tea.

In general, what is the most basic process in which you brew your teas?

If you’re using something like a Gaiwan - a Chinese tea brewing vessel - you just measure out the amount of leaf that you want and then put it in. Then you get the temperature-controlled water, add it, and you steep it for however long you’re supposed to steep it. After that, decant it using a strainer, and then pour it out into small cups.

For a lot of tea, you want to throw away the first batch, because you want to open the leaves and get rid of what they call “tea dust.” You want to essentially clean off the leaves. So that’s the bare-bones, most basic way to brew tea. And even for specific teas within the sub-branches of tea, you’ll get very specific brewing methods. So for example, if you’re brewing something with buds versus older leaves, the way you would brew those things are very different, but they could both be considered white or green tea.


The tea making process feels very scientific. As a computer science major, have you seen any alignments between that and tea making in the way of thinking or approaching each practice? Or do you see your practice of tea making as more of a break away from the world of computer science?

Tea making definitely appeals to a different part of me [than computer science], like soul versus brain or something. But I guess I do apply a sort of science-y perspective to tea. Using a scientific lens on tea is not uncommon in the hobby. Like in Japan, they have this government organization, where they run studies on tea. And they’ve put out all of these studies and scientific articles about the best way to brew tea or, if you want to brew tea to get a certain flavor out of it, how you do it, or what temperature is best. Applying an empirical and experimental mindset to tea is something I like doing on my own as well.

 

As tea making is also a very ingenuitive and creative process, did you have a different creative hobby as a kid? Can you describe an early memory of creating in some way?

I didn't do a lot of art or things that you would normally consider [creative]. I played music. I still play music. I play guitar. But in terms of visual art, I didn't really do a lot of that. I liked tinkering with things: taking things apart and seeing how they worked, or trying to see how things worked, but then just breaking them. And I have sort of a similar scientific approach to tea with trying things and seeing how tea responds to very specific changes in the way you brew it.

Photograph by Morgana Van Peebles

Photograph by Morgana Van Peebles

How do you see tea and making tea as an art form rather than simply a series of steps or just the drinking of tea?

I guess it’s just that I’m cognisant of all of the factors going into making tea, from the farms it comes from to the type of cup it should be served in. I’m definitely cognisant of the environment that I try to serve tea in. But also I’m trying to improve my tea making skills to a point where it goes beyond just something for utility.

Whenever people come in [to my dorm room], they’re like ‘is this room even a dorm?’ And that’s exactly what I’m going for. I want people to just come in here and be taken out of the whole college environment; like this space is its own world for the hour and a half that you’re in here drinking tea. And then when you leave, you get to go back into the real world. But here, people say they feel like time’s stopping or something, which is exactly what I’m trying to do.


You mentioned in your artist statement that you’re trying to push the envelope of what can be considered tea, by mixing old and new. What elements of your practice are old and traditional, and what elements are newer?

When you’re building a traditional Japanese tea room, there are specific ways the room is supposed to be structured, specific fixtures of the room that you’re supposed to have; and even going into the teahouse, the pathway to the tea room is supposed to look a certain way. So I’ve been trying to keep these things in mind when I put this space together.

For example, in every Japanese tea room, there is a little alcove, where they’ll put like a flower, and they’ll hang down a piece of art. And part of the Japanese Tea Ceremony is drawing attention to the art, for example. So that is what I really had in mind over here, with this door being an alcove framing the artwork hanging on it; and that accomplishes a certain aspect of traditional Japanese tea culture. But also, at the end of the day, no matter how close to traditional tea culture I try to get, I’m still brewing tea in my dorm. So there’s always going to be an aspect of something new.

Photographs by Matthew So

What's the wildest form of or type of tea you've brewed, or your favorite experience surrounding tea?

The first time I had tea that was brewed using traditional methods, it was life changing. I thought, 'I didn't know tea could be like this!' And so there have been a couple of other moments like that over the course of my tea journey so far. One of the most eye-opening experiences was [when] my brother and I were in this really small tea shop in Japan. We just [went] up, and looked at the guy's menu. He had this tea, which in English translates to "green pillow." And he gave us this tea. He poured out a lot of leaf and filled the brewing vessel up with water only up to the level of the leaves. And then he just left it there for like five minutes. The water was only like forty degrees Celsius. So at the end of this five-minute process, you're left with this sort-of room-temperature, very very concentrated five drops of tea. And it's the most concentrated, craziest-flavored tea you'll ever try in your life. I wish I could go back and experience that for the first time again.

 

In your artist statement you write how your “art only exists for a moment and the moment you enjoy it, it’s already gone.” Can you elaborate on this? How does this inspire you with your tea making being an art form?

Every time you brew tea, it's different. Even the slightest adjustments in how you're brewing tea, what you're brewing it in, the amount of time that you're brewing, how much leaf that you're using - even if it's just a little bit different, you're gonna get a different experience. And to try to recreate one experience exactly would be really, really difficult. Even using one set of leaves in one pot, every brew after that is going to taste different; that's a big part of this form of brewing. With every new infusion, you're getting different flavors from it. If you want to go back and try the first one, it's gone; you can't get it back. So that's what I keep in mind. A lot of times when I'm making tea for people, I'll ask them how they like the last brew, and then they'll say something like 'I liked it a lot, yada, yada, yada.' And then the next time, they'll say ‘that was so different. I like that one less,' or whatever. Then, I’ll have to explain to them that we won’t be able to taste past iterations again.

 

How much control do you have over that, if any?

If people tell me that they didn't like the last brew, because it was too light or because it was too dark or astringent or whatever ... I definitely have a lot of control in those factors. But also after I get a sense for what they like initially, if I'm going to start making new tea, I can definitely cater it to their tastes.

Also, when I say that it's really hard to get a tea back, I also mean in the sense that every year, when new tea is grown - even on the same farm in the same location - the tea of the next year can be very different from the tea that came the year before from the same tree. So that's part of it. And when I drink my favorite tea, there's this sad feeling, because I know that even though I like it a lot right now, I can't keep it forever. In a couple of months, the leaves that I have are going to be bad, and tea with an identical flavor can’t be made again so easily.

It's the same thing for aged teas. If you're aging teas and keeping them for many years, over time, there will be peaks and valleys in the different flavors of the tea. So I definitely believe that you have one shot. Japanese people have this term一期一会  ichi-go ichi-e, and it means ‘every moment, you have a chance.’ They use this a lot in reference to tea, in particular the tea ceremony; they think that even if you have the same people doing the same tea ceremony on two different days, it will be two different experiences, because whatever factors contributing to the first will be different going into the second one.

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Photograph by Matthew So

How does your photography coincide with the tea making practice? Do you take pictures separate from your tea making? What do you usually photograph?

I use my photography just as a tool to share my tea experience with people on Instagram,

and I honestly would not say that the photography itself is the focus of my Instagram. It’s for sharing what I’m doing, what I’m drinking. I do photography on my own. But that’s a hobby. I guess tea is a hobby [too], but photography’s definitely more casual for me. [I photograph] people. I travel a lot with my brothers, and I like to photograph them candidly on our trips.

 

Do you know what you would want to do with tea making, professionally?

Yes. My brother and I like to do a lot of tea experiments. And we have lots of ideas of various ways we could brew tea to get different effects. For example, after we learned about this Green Pillow tea, we tried brewing other teas the same way. Most of them didn’t do so well, but a few of them did. One time we tried to make a tea espresso; that didn't go well either. We haven't really gone into mixing blends yet, but we do want to. Over fall break, I went to California and took a class on how to brew masala chai. I feel that there is some way we can professionally apply all of this, but I’m not sure what that would look like at the moment.

 

You talk about your brother a lot. Do you see yourselves as partners in this tea journey?

Sort of. Yes. When he introduced me to [tea], I had a lot of time, so I was really getting into it. For as long as we've had the hobby, I've had more free time [than him]. In summers I have time to read about tea history and culture. But whenever one of us learns something new or discovers a great tea shop, we always tell the other. We also go out of our way to drink tea together, and it has become a fixture of the time we spend together. One of our goals is to go on a trip to visit the best tea growing regions in the world.

 

How do you see your practice of tea making evolving in the near future? Do you have a plan, or are you just taking it day by day?

I’m definitely taking it day by day. This is really for myself; I just want to learn more. I could definitely see tea becoming a bigger part of my life, as it has consistently been up until now. But I just don't know how exactly, or if it would be anything even career oriented at all. I see it as a thing on its own. And I just like to do it because it's fun.

Photographs by Morgana Van Peebles

You mentioned that you've taken classes to learn more about tea making, like the one in California. Do you have any recommendations for others interested in the art of tea?

Online obviously is the best way to learn about and get into tea. There's some great books, too. The Story of Tea is a really interesting book on the history of tea. And if you're looking to learn more about tea, you definitely have to watch MeiLeaf videos on YouTube.

 

Do you have recommendations of tea shops or teahouses in the city?

Yea, my brother and I have gone to a lot of teahouses together. Probably my favorite one is Té Tea Company. It's right below 14th. It's a small shop, and it's really, really homey.

 

Why did you submit to Ratrock?

It was just to get the word out about what I'm trying to do and to get people interested. If people are interested, they can definitely message me on my instagram @leafinmyeyes.

Henry Adeson

Photographed by Nico Lopez-Alegria

Interviewed by Louise Sandback


Introduce yourself.

My name is Henry Adeson. I’m in CC, class of 2021. I’m majoring in Art History and potentially minoring in Literature. I’m a visual artist working largely in two-dimensional media like pencil, pastels and oil paint, but I’m always eager to find a new material or technology to draw with. I’m from London originally but was born to American expats. So I’m sort of “American-passing” as it were.

How does your upbringing in London influence your practice?

This is something that I’ve been trying to diagnose for a while because I’ve never really thought about my art in terms of a biographical narrative. I think there is a big difference in aesthetic principles in England versus America. There is also generally just different art available, and it is shown in different ways: the prototype of white-walled gallery seems to have greater legacy there, while in New York my experience has been that art is integrated in a more interactive way into the city and its inhabitants’ lives.

These distinctions inform artistic production for me. My exposure to art has been through spending a lot of time in museums and galleries. This is a total generalization but because of this in England I found there to be a greater stress on art as an artistic product rather than as something with function, agency, or an ability to effect change. So I was always much more aware of art in a museum context, with those very specific aesthetic qualities, rather than more dynamic art with punch or chutzpah.

Do you have a favorite museum back home?

Victoria and Albert is really good, Leighton House is this beautiful little wunderkammer [collection of curiosities] of a museum, National Gallery and NPG (National Portrait Gallery).

"South Haven" - Henry Adeson

When would you say you started developing your own style?

My individual style is definitely a recent development. A lot of my drawings used to document artworks and artistic events that I liked, and create an inventory that I could look at and use — but never anything actively creative or ideoplastic. It was always in reference to something or a eulogy to an artist. I think it’s maybe America that has changed me. I’ve now had time to digest this derivative catalog of imagery and come up with an artistic individuality of my own, to synthesize all these things and give new meaning to them rather than just copying.  

Would you say that paying homage and drawing inspiration from other artists in that way still incorporates itself into your practice?

Yeah, I think so, in a kind of perverted way though. A lot of my recent art has been in response to my preceding practice of paying homage to artists. I’m now letting myself ridicule that in a way. I’m very attracted to the performance of genres, types, and affected artistic moments, which are all about the artists themselves. My art will always be artist-centered, but instead of being reverent to them, I want to parse through what it means for an artist to make art.

For me, that looks like addressing what art is as a constructed discipline — how it has genre, specific functions, visual cultures; and all these other contrived aspects which are beyond just expression, beyond just trying to convey a message or an idea. In this way, art-making is a very art historical exercise for me. It is as much about the ways in which the artwork exists as the content of it.

In your artist statement, you describe your approach to art-making as “cerebral more than affective.” Can you elaborate on this?

I had this epiphanic moment the other day in class. We’re now looking at Victorian Aestheticist painting (an effete, schoolish late-19th century movement), which is essentially the principal period that I ingested when I was young. I realized how formative that was for me: growing up, the epistemic value of art was very much defined by that era. This movement’s credo is essentially ‘art for art’s sake,’ or ‘art as an end’ — art existing for itself and being a contained event, which doesn’t serve to expedite something else. For me, art has ended up having a much more aesthetic purpose than some of what you currently see today, which is not to say either is definitive at all. A lot of the imagery I was drawn to from my youth is aestheticized. It is luxuriant: nudes draped in silks and reclining on meticulously painted marble architectural units. It’s so vapid but gorgeous and sumptuous and delicious. I think I’ve managed to cling onto that functionality and that definition of art-making; it seeks to be the best at being art rather than being the best at being expression.

How do you explore language in your work?

I guess a good way for me to describe this is with this document on my computer. It’s called “Henry’s Jargon File” or something. Basically, in all the classes I’ve taken here, I add the terminologies we use that I like to a collated list. I really like the culture of ascribing these intellectualized “ism” words to certain tropes or events. So I’ve got this list of things, of these terminologies that I like.

Last year for my poetry class — this is kind of where it started — I would review this document and see ways I could transcribe and transpose these poetic constructs and terminologies into either visual form or my own poetry. That kind of process of conversion is where the playful, linguistic element of my work started. And then subsequently, as I’ve gone into Art History more that has continued. I also think terminology is fun because it’s such a constructed thing. Motifs and tropes are repeated across poets and artists, and they’re so affected and contrived. I’m very drawn to that. So to reinterpret it or deconstruct it in a way, whether visually or lexically, I think is interesting.

Henry photographed by Nico Lopez-Alegria

Can you describe your creative process?

It’s very chaotic, very volatile. I’m very impatient. At school it’s honestly quick sketches, small scale. This summer was nice; I set up kind of a provisional studio in my bedroom, and I had spatial distinction from everything else. I could really set up and establish process patterns, which I hadn’t had previously because I never really had my own studio space. So as far as process goes, it was recording information in my sketchbooks, synthesizing it in sketches and paintings, and then finally producing a finished sketch or painting. It was kind of tripartite: record information, play with it, then produce. As far as the atmosphere, I’ll put on a playlist that I compiled at some point and exhaust it — listen to it addictively, end up disliking every song on it.

You describe in your artist statement being in a ‘transitional phase’ in terms of how you deal with and think about images. Can you elaborate on this? How has this transition changed your practice?

My work’s recent shift has been very reactive to what I’ve done in the past. I aspired to this grandness in my artwork because I was looking to these very impressive, grand artists. For that reason, my art kind of made lofty claims, and it was very convinced of its own force and quality. I think I’m much more self-deprecating now. I like to criticize ever pretending to assert myself like that artistically. I’m more taken now by the ways in which art fails to live up to its truth claims. There’s a quotation that we mentioned in Art in Britain with Professor Gamer the other day: “Art may be said to be the individual quality of failure, or the individual coefficient of error … in [the artist’s] effort to attain to the expression of form.” Looking at the failures of artists’ attempts to mirror nature really interests me. It’s bound up with this question of performance — performing an artistic value and a certainty that creates pretension.

What have you been working on recently?

All the images I submitted [to Ratrock] were very much from one series In the Big Country: South Haven, its own concept. I’ve gone into a smaller scale for this new series. Drawing and watercolor are great because they’re private, they’re intimate; you can do them on your own terms. For painting you have to set up a performance in some way — there’s an easel, there’s posturing, there’s a lot of grandeur. Artistically, though, watercolor and drawing permitted small concentrated production which was important to me. I also think I am going more into watercolor now because it’s easier to be poetic, quicker with watercolor, to make poetic marks. I think oil painting is quite prosaic and literal, so it’s nice to have that fluidity and fluency with watercolor and pencil. My new series goes into sensitivity a bit more, and it’s a very intuitive thing for me that watercolor is more sensitive and vulnerable than oil paint. Oil paint just has such a history in the Western tradition of being substantial.


What do you mean when you say you are going more into ‘sensitivity’?

This summer I went to my grandparents’ home in rural Michigan, where I spent a lot of time in my childhood. It was an upsetting and destabilizing experience after a year at Columbia—perhaps this is a snobbish thing to say, I don’t know. It was strange for me to go back, and it prompted a lot of introspection and isolation, solipsism, misanthropy, self-doubt, and insecurity. I felt as though I had to make artistic products that reflected that.

These were predominantly self-portraits because it seems like the natural pictorial form for introspective painting. I think for me so much of this resistance to Americana — or to the kind of presiding Michigan culture — was a spatial and physical one. I felt like my body wasn’t the right size; it felt like there was a disunity between the space of Michigan and me. So I tried to convey that in my artworks; I wanted to look at different disparities and dichotomies that exist in art that I could relate to the disparity I felt between me and my environment: disparities of genre, compositional disparities, painterly disparities, etc.

"South Haven" - Henry Adeson

What were some other sources of inspiration for this series?

I was looking to other artists who have that sensitivity and sense of confessional directness. I was looking at Tracey Emin’s lithographs, Louise Bourgeois’ watercolors, which are very raw and vulnerable. I really like them. As far as other artistic inspirations for this I was looking at Regionalism, and Grant Wood, and how they navigate both the alluring and the unsettling visual aspects of Americana and American life. I was also reading Sherwood Anderson’s “Winesburg Ohio,” which is this book that has vignettes of life in small towns, and a lot of it is just about repression and these anxieties that very much resonated with me. It’s told in this fragmented style. The facture of the book kind of reminded me of watercolor in some ways: the brevity, the laconism, and the subsequent assimilation of form and function, verbum and res. There was a connection there.

A movie I watched while making this was “True Stories,” which is a David Byrne movie. It’s very good. The song “The Big Country” by the Talking Heads, too, and “Badlands” by Terrence Malick — all these things look into the ways that American culture is performed visually or musically. I wanted to see how American happiness, the American Dream, is presented visually, and then undercut it. So a lot of my interest is about the phrasing, how assumed happiness is phrased.

Were there any themes, visually or otherwise, that you saw running through your sources of inspiration?

Brilliant simplicity, which I really liked. You see that in Regionalism, where things are just uncannily reduced to the simplicity of blue skies, green lawns. That’s the thing, sometimes the simpler things are presented as the most beautiful in art. The American utopia is very reductive and is held up as this ideal. Ideals are often very simple. Ultimately, a response to that would be that complexity is the real meaning of beauty, which I think I stand by now.

Amber Lewis

Photography by India Halsted

Interview by Karen Yoon

Can you introduce yourself?

My name’s Amber Lewis. I am a senior in CC. Yeah, that’s me.

Can you describe your creative process?

As far as music goes, it was different when I was at NYU before I transferred, because I had private songwriting lessons. For that, it felt kind of weird if I wasn’t working on something consistently. But these days sometimes I’ll just write a song in the night; it just happens. Happened the other night. Sometimes I’ll go months and months without writing a song. And for poetry, that’s really changed this semester, because I’m in a writing workshop and we’ve had to keep a consistent writer’s journal and have at least a poem to show per week, and that’s been really helpful. I just write a lot about things I see and use that to write, which is also very therapeutic for me.

As both a poet and musician, how do the two mediums intertwine?

I mean lyrics are really just poetry. There are plenty of songs that are corny and not necessarily poetic, and that’s fine too. For me, I try to look at my lyrics the same way I look at poetry, sometimes I write a poem and it becomes a song.

How do you choose the instrumentals for that particular piece of writing?

Sometimes, I’ll write a poem, and it doesn’t need to be sung, but this feeling or landscape or space I’ve created could be instrumental. And when that happens, I write piano things. Over the past year, I’ve written a small piece for string quartet with a piano in it. And I feel like I’ve created a very specific feeling in space that could be music.

Where would you say that your passion for creating art began?

It’s how I’ve always been. I’ve always had to make things. Even before I was constantly making music, I was always singing, even before writing lyrics. And my dad went to Pratt, he’s an art guy, always been very artistic. My grandma is a painter, a fine artist, that’s how she makes her money. I grew up spending a lot of time in her studio, looking at her paintings. It was always understood that I would create.

You highlight your bilingual childhood in your music video for Puddles. How has being part of an intercultural household shaped your work?

A lot of my work has to do with identity, which is usually defined in terms of relationships with others and myself. And I think that being biracial and having two pretty distinct cultures in either of my parents- my mom is from France, grew up there. My dad is Jamaican, born in Brooklyn, raised in Yonkers. I’ve always been trying to find out where I fit in between those two. And I think a lot of my poems have to do with that; although more recently I’ve tried to branch out from only speaking about race.

AMBER 8.jpg

I noticed a lot of your work explores relationships, particularly with queer undertones. Can you expand on that?

The first song I thought was pretty good was Lampshades, and that was about a girl. And it’s pretty obvious because I use “she” pronouns. It’s a choice to use those pronouns in a love song because people assume so much about who you are. And it’s intimidating to know that the second you sing that, people already have this idea of who you are that might not necessarily be who you are.

How do you navigate the arts scene in New York City as a queer Black woman?

I write mostly folkish-indie music with some bedroom pop flares, and there aren’t a lot of mainstream Black women who do that. It’s a recapitulation of growing up in my neighborhood, where I was the only Black girl in my entire grade. I’ve found myself in another white-dominated space, and sometimes I feel out of place. With poetry, everyone is writing what I’m writing. I don’t feel so out of place, and I haven’t had any uncomfortable experiences with that.

How do you feel being part of the Columbia arts community, another white-dominated space?

It’s more of the same, you know. But I’ve felt more part of a music community at Columbia than I ever did at NYU, because it’s really hard to find a space where you can ever be heard since there are so many voices there. But here, I went to two events, and suddenly I know everyone who does music on this campus. I feel like I’m fairly active in this scene on campus, and it’s been a positive experience so far.

How has your process of creating changed after transferring from NYU?

I felt like I had more time to write music at NYU, because it was literally what I was studying. But I’ve had way more time to perform here and actually be heard. So, it’s nice that I’ve been having more time to share with people. And I’ve been writing more poetry which has been really cool. I applied to this Advanced Poetry Workshop on a whim, and I got in. And it’s been nice to gain some confidence in that.

How do you feel when you perform in front of an audience versus when you’re sharing work in your poetry workshop?

I am never as nervous singing a song in front of people, and I’ve sung in front of a decent amount of people. It doesn’t really phase me. But when I read a poem that I wrote to 2 people, I shake. It makes me really nervous. Because it’s a different state from when you’re singing and writing and playing a guitar. Even those two realms of performance have been very different for me.

(For Context: Amber released her first EP in 2017 on Bandcamp.) How would you describe “Back Home”?

It was a proud moment for me, the first time where I put together some amount of songs I actually liked. It’s about my first two years after leaving home, and the things that you think about. It’s nothing new, but it’s about what happened to me.

How did you decide to paint your own album covers?

I like painting, and I had this one that was kind of significant to me. It’s just of a house that I saw from across the lake when I was in a vacation house while in Michigan, and it just needed to be the cover of an album. And from that point on, why pay anyone else to do it when I can do it? I’ve always been a person who makes it all by herself, so it just seemed to be in the same vain.

What are you working on now, short-term and long-term?

For my poetry workshop, I am working on a poetry chapbook with 10-15 poems. I might paint a cover for it, don’t know what of or what it’s titled. I just wrote a song Monday night for a performance next week. I would also love to record with CU Records: a few new songs and a few old ones off of Back Home for a new collection of sorts, maybe an album. I also want to record this one quartet, because all I know about how it sounds is based on Logic. I would love to hear it live.  

RUBA NADAR

Photographed by India Halsted

Interviewed by Morgan Becker

Introduce yourself.

My name is Ruba, and I’m a sophomore at Barnard College. I’m majoring in Art History and hopefully Visual Arts as well. I’m an artist. I collage, and paint, and embroider. I’m also a student athlete, among other things. I’m slightly all over the place.

Describe your evolution as an artist. Have you always been drawn to collage, or did you work your way toward it through other mediums?

When I was very young, my dream was to be a fashion designer. I started sewing when I was about ten. I would make pillow cases and bags and make my mom’s friends buy them, which was extortionate. And then I made it into clothes. From the ages of ten to fifteen, it was sketching and doing design. I think that although it seems different, [fashion design] is very related to what I do now. In high school, I did a lot of painting and drawing, but found that just one medium wasn’t right for me. Though sometimes I think, with rowing and other things, I’ve left that passion behind, it’s definitely led me to where I am; with what materials and crazy things I like to work with.

I was particularly interested in the embroidery you use in your collages — how did the transition happen from functional sewing to what you do now?

I was very particular about hems. Around age twelve, I had a uniform at school and I changed everything in it just a little bit. And then I got bored — there wasn’t enough expression in it, really. I started using more yarn, thicker thread, and I would embroider random stuff on the clothes I was making. Then that led its way into my art class, and onto paper, and into journals. I would take photos and I would stitch into those. The thread was, kind of, thethread, from the start of my creative endeavors to where I am now.

Ruba Nadar - 2018

Ruba Nadar - 2018

How does your own identity come across in your art?

So I’m Egyptian-Lebanese, but my parents mainly grew up in the US. I grew up in London. I don’t speak Arabic, but I’m learning currently and I feel this kind of strange identity of being English but not really. Being American, but also not really. Not speaking the language of where I am actually from has made me really passionate about it, and curious. So I practice Arabic calligraphy, and I’ve stitched Arabic letters into some works. I try and incorporate where I’m from because I feel it has something to say about who I am. Even if I fully can’t articulate it, I can articulate it better.

What, or who, has inspired you this week?

This week, one of my favorite artists — his name is Hassan Hajjaj, he’s English-born but I believe he’s Moroccan — is doing a documentary series on this all-women biker gang in Marrakech. He does a lot with mixed-media and taking different brands and logos and fabrics and creating some kind of social commentary with it. It has the most amazing color as well. I’ve been on his Instagram, just enjoying it.

Favorite artists?

My favorite artists are Robert Rauschenberg and Anselm Kiefer. Robert Rauschenberg makes what he calls ‘combines,’ like big collages with mixed media and random things. It’s the kind of art that I really look to for inspiration — not the kind of art that I’d put on my walls. It’s weird and interesting. And Anselm Kiefer does mixed media, as well. He’s just a genius. He’s amazing.


What kind of art do you put on your walls?

I actually have a slightly obsessive personality when it comes to interior decoration. I’ve maybe redesigned my dorm four times this year. It’s ridiculous. I started off the year like, yeah, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, this is what I want to be seeing, and it was just too much color. And I had maybe, twenty posters up? It was ridiculous. I took it all down. Now, I’ve got a Botticelli, and I have some Northern Renaissance, very smooth paintings, and I only have two posters up. That’s what I’m enjoying looking at, which has nothing to do with anything that I make.

Photograph by India Halsted

Photograph by India Halsted

Where and in what context do you work best?

Usually, on the floor of my room. And the context — it’s slightly strange — I have these ridiculous bursts of needing to get something out. And I’ll sit on my floor and it’ll literally look like a war zone, with paper everywhere and magazine cut-outs, and so many accidents. Paint everywhere. I’m really scared for the end of the year when I have to move out. It’s kind of like a frenzy (which makes it seem so dramatic, it really isn’t) that lasts like, two, three, days, of prolific — I don’t know about impressive — work. When I’m done, I don’t look at any of it. I put it all under my bed and then, when inspiration strikes, it all comes back out and the whole cycle starts again.

To what extent would you say the process is spontaneous? Do you know, generally, what a piece might end up looking like?

Definitely not. I’ll start by getting a massive book of A1 or A2 paper. Paint every single page of them, let them dry, leave them for, like, a month, bring them all back out, then just go from there. One day I’ll finish something: I’m like, ‘Wow. Amazing,’ then look at it the next day and I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, what was I thinking?’ And so then I’ll add something else. I definitely have a tendency to overdo some of my work.

It seems like a lot of your work involves reconfiguration — of advertisements, novels, other artists’ photographs. At what point in the creative process would you say a piece becomes cohesively yours?

That’s definitely tough, because collaging with found materials involves a lot of other people’s work, which I’m very conscious of. But when it’s done, and I look at it, it’s saying something about me. Some message. With a lot of the things that I do, it’s about what’s not there. I’ll put something down and then paint over it, or rip it off and you’ll just see what’s been left. It’s more about the thought behind it. I cut out other people’s images, but it’s all about the composition. Once it’s something that I identify with myself, once these colors are in line, once this stitch looks good with this, then I can say that this work is my own. Yeah, that’s someone else’s face, but it’s all working together for something bigger.

Tell me about the piece that you’re most proud of.

I framed a work for my dad to put in his office. When I was in Cairo, I brought back all these newspapers — it’s a collage, and essentially the obituaries page is the background. I collected all of these old photos from old Egypt and romanticized Alexandria and put them on there, kind of painted over it, and put a picture of my dad. It’s an interesting look at who he is, in relation to where he’s from, but also where he’s not from. And I think it says a lot more than I’m used to my work saying. I’m quite proud of that.

Tell me about the role color plays in your collages. If you could only create monochromatic works from here on out, which shade would you choose?

Probably red. Color does play a big role; it works in different series. If red works on one piece, I’ll do that for the next ten and get sick of it, move on to blue. But yeah, red is the most striking color in any shade. It also has something to say by way of what it means to both me and to the viewer. Whether it looks like your grandmother’s trademark lipstick or your favorite pair of socks, it relates to the most random of things.

What’s something that everyone should know about you?

Everyone should know that I’ve taken to carpeting my dorm room. I tell people and they’re confused at what that means. I quite like the aesthetic of putting carpet where it shouldn’t be. So I’ve carpeted the wall behind my bed, and I’ve carpeted my dresser.


Is it like, a headboard-type situation?

You could say that. Some people don’t agree, but I would say that there’s definitely a 70s vibe going on, which I’m quite enjoying.

Who do you make art for and why do you continue?

Interesting question. I’d say I make it for myself, but I don’t know. I get very sick of my work very quickly. I think I make it mainly because it’s something that I have to do. Not in a pretentious way or in like, a tortured artist way. I spend so much time doing many different things that don’t relate to my actual passions in life, and this is something that’s very important to me. Whether I’m good at it or not, it’s something that I want to pursue. In thinking about what I want to do, and who I want to be, I want to be someone who creates things.

Anything else you’d like to add? Closing remarks?

I’m a culturally-confused collage artist. Living in New York. Doing my thing. Rowing on the Harlem River, but also going into creative frenzies on the carpet of my dorm room. Yeah.

MICKAL ADLER

Photographed by Eliza Jouin

Interviewed by Zoe Sottile

Please introduce yourself.

I’m Mickal. I am a junior in Columbia College, and I’m studying Classics. I’m from New Orleans. I am a Featured Artist this month!

What do you do to impress someone?

I have lots of random songs memorized, and poems, so I either do the first few lines of T.S. Eliot’s “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock,” or all of the words to Lil Wayne’s “A Milli.”  I also can put both of my legs behind my head. It was a talent that I used for nefarious purposes. One time in middle school, I hid behind this one teacher’s podium. When they came into the classroom, I had both of my legs behind my head and crawled out on my hands. I was that kid.

Place you go to be alone?

For the past two semesters I’ve scheduled it so I have all of my classes on one day and no classes the next day. I’ll go to Butler early in the morning, and it’s like my mindful Butler time. I’ll get a snack and make myself “study” but in a leisurely way, so I don’t feel like I’m studying. The room that faces Ferris on the 3rd floor of Butler has all of those alcoves, and I feel like as long as I have one of those alcoves I cannot be a part of stress culture.

What is your relationship to fashion like?

I love to dress myself; I am a work of art. I get everything that I can from thrift stores. I really like baggy pants; I’m very inspired by streetwear, really love sneakers. Red is my favorite color to wear. For Halloween this year, I went to a party that was themed around The Shining, and there’s the one scene where all the blood comes down the hallway, and I realized that I could go as the blood in a head-to-toe red outfit.

Do you have any style tips?

So thrift for statement pieces and then layering. Tactical layering. Long shirt under t-shirt, love a turtleneck, crazy shoes are always great. Never take it too seriously. My vibe is sexy toddler.

Greatest trend of all time?

Baggy pants - I just don’t like skinny jeans. It is my thesis that skinny jeans are a one-time trend and that I hope that they never return. Mostly because they don’t fit anyone right, especially men, and it just ends up making them look weird, like they have giraffe legs. I like super baggy pants.

When did you start taking photos?

I grew up around a lot of art. My dad painted for a long time, and my grandmother does just about everything: she paints, she sews, she ran a weaving shop in New Orleans. I didn’t get into photography until pretty late but my dad is a huge photographer. All of my cameras are my dad’s that I borrow. I didn’t really get into photography until my first year of college. I came home after college and thought, “I wanna do something,” and felt confident enough to tap into my dad’s resources.

Series of New Orleans - Mickal Adler

Series of New Orleans - Mickal Adler

What artists, teachers, and artworks have most inspired you?

Definitely my first artist inspirations were my family members, my dad specifically. We have a lot of his artwork hanging around because he did art in high school and college. He has this one landscape painting of these mountains and a sunset: it’s all different shades of blue and orange. It’s in our kitchen, which he decorated. My dad is also an interior designer and he owned a furniture company briefly, so our whole setup is blue and orange around the painting. That was probably the first one that really inspired me.

In terms of artists, I’m really into art history and have a lot of favorite artists. In terms of painters, I really like Cezanne. I like new media art - like this work called “Valley Curtain” by Christo and Jeanne-Claude. I really like that - it’s the opposite of what I do, super collaborative pieces that require big amounts of manpower and space.

What did you first start photographing?

The first few were just around my house and my neighborhood, and I didn’t submit any of those, mostly because they’re so empty and so boring. The exercise there is walking around a space that isn’t really meant to be walked around. I live in a neighborhood that’s close to New Orleans proper, but it’s technically a suburb, so it’s rolling streets of separate houses. It’s a place where you know your neighbors, but everyone drives to work. You don’t walk down the main streets.

I walked around my neighborhood - it was at night too, so it was totally empty - and realized that there are certain places in which people just don’t interact with in certain ways. Walking a neighborhood that I feel like has never been walked before was very interesting.

Series of Grandmother’s House - Mickal Adler

Series of Grandmother’s House - Mickal Adler

What do you feel can be captured by an image of an exterior or interior that cannot be captured by an image of a human subject?

In one sense it’s really fun to take pictures of people because your camera becomes the means of interacting with them, and they’re aware of that. With things, they can’t change because you’re taking a picture. So it becomes less about the experience of being photographed and more active on the photographer’s part.

In New Orleans, especially in the summer, you don’t stay outside if at all possible. The only people who are outside are people who absolutely have to be. So you get that suburban feel all over New Orleans because no one really walks, so the streets are empty of people. There are lots of cars, and the streets are very active, but it still feels empty. In my pictures there are dogs and cats, but not people. There’s one where the dog’s on the porch, and the door’s open, and you have to assume that people are inside, because why else is the door open?

I feel like in those pictures you can tell how hot it was by looking at them, and that’s what I wanted to convey: the actual experience of being outside and being alone and noticing little things. By not having anything to focus on, in terms of subjects in the pictures, you look for little things.

How is your artwork reflective of your identity? How is it personal to you?

I use photography as a means of self-exploration. It’s personal, but also I’m inspired by members of my family. I included a few photos from my grandmother’s house, a couple pictures of her bathrooms, which are really great. Her whole house is really cool. She’s been a big inspiration for me, in terms of how she lives her life as an artist. She’s really interested in every kind of literature and reading; she reads the craziest things. I feel like what’s grounded me has been my family and where I’m from.

Why take photos of your grandmother’s house?

My grandmother’s really shy. I really want to do portraits of her, but I haven’t gotten up the courage to ask, mostly because I know she wouldn’t be into it. In addition to being so learned and being so interested in everything, she’s also the bookkeeper of our family history. Her house, it’s like a physical family history, and so in the way that I want to catalog New Orleans I really wanna do that with her house.

New York Series - Mickal Adler

New York Series - Mickal Adler

Your artist statement grounds your work in the city of New Orleans. Do you also take photos in New York? Do you have a different artistic relationship with the two cities?

The one film thing I did in New York is a whole roll of film that I accidentally shot on the first exposure. It’s 25 images all stacked on top of each other. I feel like that’s my relationship with New York - all of my photos have so much going on, where they really don’t in New Orleans. This is this one [image] that I really like from NY, because you can see trees, but also a building, but also a woman, and traffic. But at the same time, I took all these photos because I was with my dad, and he told me we should just go and take photos today. So the photo is still grounded in me, my family, and New Orleans.

What is your relationship with social media like?

I’m a lot more fun on social media. If the picture isn’t gonna be in some way funny, even if it’s just poking fun at the fact that I’m doing something extra on Instagram, then I don’t really wanna post it. Definitely the way that I interact is like humor value, fun value. I definitely like connecting with people; I’ve met a lot of people through social media, which is an undervalued use of it. It’s hard because it’s really easy to attach worth to it and get caught up in like oh, who has followers. But it’s an easy way of personal expression. It’s like ultimate accessibility photography.

There’s definitely the push that social media implicitly gives everyone to create, create, create, post, post, post, and so it’s hard to say: no, I wanna take the time and have these developed and think about how I want to present them. That’s the hardest part, I think, once you have the photos, not to just post them all immediately. And just keep them and think about what you wanna say with them.

It’s really hard to do important photography through Instagram or representative photography through Instagram. I think it's helpful to think about social media as new media rather than the new way of consuming other media. It's helpful as a means for connecting people, but it's not the same as physically going and seeing someone's photos or painting. It's a very fixed context for representation: there are rules about how your posts are constructed by the apps, like how you have a certain amount of canvas or a certain kind of camera. It's probably the most restricted method of expression despite being so accessible. So yeah, I'd say social media is more a means than an end for me.

SONIA KAHN

Photographed by Margaret Maguire

Interviewed by Yosan Alemu

Sonia Kahn is a first year in Columbia College, intending to pursue a joint major in visual arts and art history. You can follow her (and her work!) on instagram, and on her website.

Your first semester is wrapping up. What have you liked so far about the Columbia/NYC art scene? How is it different to that of England?

The creative people that I was surrounded by in England were mainly musicians, due to the the group of people I fell into. A lot of the work and the projects I was involved with were focused on music, where visual art was assisting the music, not necessarily the main focus. Coming here, I really wanted to focus on the visual art itself. My first semester has been really awesome. I got into a basic drawing class, and my professor is great, gives wonderful advice, and is a practicing artist herself. Also, the art scene on campus is extremely diverse — in a good way — and there’s always loads of things, events, exhibits to see and to be a part of, like Postcrypt and Ratrock!

With your work, I know that you express yourself through various different mediums: image manipulation, film, animation, projection, etc. How did you find these avenues?

In terms of avenues, or how I decide to use these mediums, I usually start off with a concept, an image, or literally any kind of thought. And from that I'll brainstorm; I was always taught that brainstorming is really good for when you’re in the beginning stages of creating a piece, especially when dealing with abstract ideas. With the brainstorming, I then begin working through massive ideas that lead me to begin working on themes, or the bigger picture of my work (what do I want to convey, how can I convey it).

When looking at themes, I think again very conceptually, and from that I pick a medium to work in. I also go through a bit of experimentation along the process, notably in how I decide to use certain mediums. Most of the time, I begin with collage as the first entry because it gives me the most visual keys as to what I can continue to create moving forward. Collage is a great way to physically see what you’re working with. From that, I'll try to change mediums , like using print or projection, or quite literally any kind of medium I think best fits the central project of my work.

I would also say that I experiment with different mediums by way of my high school, and the education I received there. I was really lucky because at my school back in England, not many people took art classes, so I had a lot of attention and careful guidance from my teachers. Our curriculum was very open-ended, so I was practically given free reign create any type of artistic work.

"Magic Puzzle", Cyanotype, 2018.

"Magic Puzzle", Cyanotype, 2018.

What themes or concepts do you find yourself working with a lot?

I always end up doing work that is related to the female experience. It comes up in one way or another, and I don’t ever want to escape something that is integral to my identity. I'm working as a female creator, and this is something that I will continuously grapple with (in terms of creation, work, vision). I’m also always interested in the uncanny: the weird things that we never fully accept (or want to accept), and acknowledge. For instance, mixing old and new, familiar and unfamiliar. All the strange things of the everyday experience that seem minute but can really have substantial effect or responses in my work.


Are there any life experiences that shape the way you think about art and your work?

I had this really influential teacher up until I was 17 or 18 at my high school. She was basically my mentor and introduced me to all of these crazy artists that I found myself in. Artists that worked outside of the conventional framework of what is accepted as ‘art,’ artists that weren’t afraid to produce work that meant something to them, and not solely for an audience. She also taught me so much in terms of using analog photographic processing — a medium that I now love working in. Looking back at all that she has taught, I can see how my everyday work is inspired by her passion and guidance.

When people see your work, what do you want them to feel? How do you want them to engage?

I like to have fun with my pieces and I like for my pieces to have bits of humor in them. If I can make someone laugh or feel intrigued, I feel as if they’re really engaging with the work. I also really enjoy when people figure out my work, like a puzzle, because it’s fun for the both of us. It’s aesthetically and conceptually interesting.

Describe yourself in three words, then describe your work in three words.

Perfectionist (that’s a double-edged sword), busy, and passionate. And then for my work: analog, digital, and experimental.

If you could consume one medium of art for the rest of your life, what would it be?

Film. Definitely film.

Do you find freedom in making art, in creating experiences for others, and for yourself?

Yes, I absolutely think so. It’s also helped me to to find freedom within myself, and in terms of how I can express myself - feelings, thoughts, etc. - through my work, which I never really had until I started making art. Not to be cliche, but as I started creating for myself, that's when I began to actually understand myself.

AMY GONG LIU

Photographed by Maya Hertz

Interviewed by Isabella Rafky

First, tell me a little bit about yourself.

My name is Amy Gong Liu. I am a senior in Columbia College majoring in Human Rights, English, and Asian American Studies. I write poetry, lyric prose, and essays on the Sino-American diasporic experience, translation between Mandarin and English, love, longing and loss.

What is the Sino-American Diaspora?

The term refers to several different waves of human migration and settling from China. My work focuses mainly on my parents who left Beijing when they were in their twenties and came over to the United States. It’s also about growing up first-gen and only knowing family as my younger sister, mom, and dad—and dealing with the kind of longing for family outside of immediate parenthood. I would see kids with grandparents, aunts, or uncles growing up, and would wonder what that kind of familiarity felt like.

Tell me about how you write and when you started writing.

I’ve always been writing poetry and prose. When I was younger I did so under the guise of anonymity and submitted a lot of pieces to different publications under pseudonyms because I was too afraid to bridge the distance between artist and artistry. I stored most of it in this semi-private blog that only close friends had the URL to, and in it, I rarely mentioned names. Publishing my work and connecting its symbolism to identity or personhood or even my name is only something I recently started doing, but something I absolutely want to run with in the future.

How young were you when you first started getting published? What inspired the pseudonyms?

I think I was in elementary school. It was a class assignment, so we all had to do it, but the story I wrote won an award. There was even a cash prize. My teacher slipped the money into my backpack and said something like: “Don’t tell anyone.” I carried that home; both the money and the symbolism of having words out there crystallized in a form of permanence, but also her words, warning me not to “tell anyone about this.”

So I kept writing, but I kept the writer behind the writing secret. There was a lot of desire to break free from whatever cultural rigidity I was trying to denounce in myself. I think as a child I had this ideation towards whiteness and any kind of assimilatory behavior, and what I was doing behind these pseudonyms and my work was trying to break away from myself.

In your artist statement, you write “my words seek to constellate stories of remaining.” What does remaining mean to you?

I think of it mostly in the context of place. Of people who leave established things, places, families, cultures, or people behind in the hopes of creating or finding something new. Often, when that process of migration occurs, people that either in the place that they left or the self that they left, that there’s something that still hasn’t been filled—and whatever that is is passed on through children and through generations. The kind of melancholy that lingers that is what I'm trying to explore in words. Remaining is something that remains in me, but also remained before, in parents, and what and who came before them.

“Storefront Windows” by Amy Gong Liu

“Storefront Windows” by Amy Gong Liu

I remember in your poetry you speak about your grandmother and that communication between the both of you…

I definitely write a lot about her. I’ve met her twice in my life, and both of those interactions provide all of the memories and images that I have pulled from when I’m writing. I find that even when I’m writing about immediate family, a lot of it I have to rely on something close to imagination. Not much is known to me about them, and part of the writing process borderlines into the fictional, simply because it’s the only option I have.

In describing your work as almost fiction, was there any semblance of magic growing up? You also talk about the disjointment of religion growing up, so how does that all come together?

Maybe magic isn’t the most specific term. I’m thinking more in terms of fantasy in coming back to this aspect of longing. I write not necessarily to find answers, but to find the questions around these answers. It’s why I think spirituality and religion really tie into a lot of my writing. I come back to memories of specific Buddhist practices done only for ritual; it was never explained to me why I went to the altar and said mantras. Now that I’ve returned, fifteen or sixteen years later, I discover that now, maybe I want to—and my writing is a way of reinventing and restorifying that memory into something with actual meaning.

What is one of the main things that is passed on through you and that you show through your work?

I’ve written a lot of poems and prose about the freedom behind movement, and a lot of this comes from stories I’ve been told about foot binding, and of using ribbons to wrap or control the women in my family. Writing about it helps me to explore the symbolism between physical and emotional staticity, and the trauma of femininity/feminine desire to move still limits me in some way today.

How have you engaged with Mandarin and English in your personal life? How does it come through in your work?

It’s become, as a writer and as a person, the biggest question for me to answer. I tell people that I have a mechanical fluency in English in that I can speak it, that my hands and head know exactly how to work with it. But as I have started writing more about Mandarin and family and culture, I find that English just isn’t enough to be able to capture whatever I’m trying to put on the page. There’s a heart fluency, almost, that I have in Mandarin, that English will never reach. Mandarin exists in something like blood or form or poetics in me. Even in the things that are unsaid.

My latest project is a series of essays about the gaps of translation between Mandarin and English, and the loss of meaning in intimate spaces, specifically between me and my mother. I’m trying to capture the difficulties of growing up and never being able to speak the same language as your own family, and the things that get lost along the way. The realization that I’ve come to, and the realization that the book is coming to, is that whatever language you’re working in—Mandarin, English, whatever—language is only the best option we have to translate emotion and experience. We all know that there are things that we see or feel, though, that no words will ever be able to capture.

“Storefront Windows” by Amy Gong Liu

“Storefront Windows” by Amy Gong Liu

How does the effect of language come through in your poetry?

Poetry is a chance to suspend or intimate rather than to say something directly. I like working with it because it can capture so much stillness. I can say something in English in it and mean something in Mandarin. That’s the beauty of it.

Did you read poetry before you started writing?

Not as much as I’m reading it now. Part of the beauty in sinking so deeply into writing poetry is that I’m reading a lot more of it. Specifically, poetry written by other Asian American authors. I’m also making an effort to read poetry in translation from Chinese poets like Bei Dao and the other Misty Poets. I love the different kinds of form they work with, and doing this kind of translation work myself, reading and comparing, has been really great in shaping my own work.

Do you like to write within a form of poetry? Do you see a difference between writing within boundaries and writing without?   

I used to love working in prose because it was fundamentally about structure. I was afraid, I think, of how open ended poetry could be. But one of the things that I’ve been trying to play around with is mixing different forms in a singular poem: I’m working on something right now, dedicated to my father, that’s written in free verse, and has a section that’s a list, and has a section with a Google search history, and more. I’m just trying to see how they gel.

How does that reflect in the paralleling between your usage of Mandarin and English in your work?

It’s a sense of reclamation in a way: instead of trying to make something familiar to me, I’m simply sharing my own defamiliarization with everyone else. I’m sharing what it’s like to always be jarred in my own body and with my own work, to not be able to be familiar in one language but to use another. That experience of self, the simultaneously confused author and product, is something that I’m trying to understand.

Tell me about your senior project in Chinatown.

I’m working with the Center for Ethnicity and Race Studies on a photojournalism project about Manhattan's Chinatown. It’s called “Storefront Windows,” and it’s form of documentary reporting where I take pictures of semi-reflective window surfaces as an attempt visually trace Manhattan Chinatown’s history of commercialization from the 1950s until now. Instead of a story about show and tell, it’s more of a story about show and sell. It’s a look at the politics of display—who and what are we showing for whom? What are we saying about the commodification and development of land, its residents, and tourists passing through?

So, you do photography, poetry, and essays? Are those the big three for you?

Yeah, and I also make music. I grew up playing piano and I am self taught on guitar; it’s nice to have a break from words sometimes. I’ve been getting back into basic jazz composition and am trying to write from my chromesthesia. Basically if I hear a pitch on the chromatic scale I have a mental and almost visual association with a specific color. The coolest thing about this is once I hear a song I’m able to remember its visual colors and recreate or transpose it onto a piano. Sometimes I’ll listen to a song and translate it out to a visual format, or to try and write words to it.

How are photojournalism and poetry different? How do they feel similar?

I think they’re much more similar than they are different. When I think of a picture and a poem, I think for both to be good, they have to be first and foremost self-aware. Self-aware of their own limitations, of the fact that they are both two-dimensional. Good photography, good writing, good poetry—it does something with its self-awareness, tries to take it and move something or someone outside of the image or text. It transports itself outside of its own limitations.

How does it feel to be a senior? What are your creative outlets on campus?

(Laughs) It's very scary. It’s filled with a lot of uncertainty; not just with the immediate future, but in the far future too. Part of the magic of this semester though, since I’m graduating this December, has been sinking into the communities of artists that I’ve found on this campus and spending time with the people in my life who are also creators. It’s a bittersweet thing to recognize that the community I’ve found through Columbia won’t be the same again, but it’s pushing me to take advantage of it while I have it now.

How has your work changed over the years?

And another question that’s related to this would probably be “how is it going to change in the coming years?” too. To both: I’m actually not too sure yet. Since writing is one of those things that develops and matures alongside you, I wonder if what I’m putting out now may be written in the same way in the future but read differently. I don’t have access to a lot of what I wrote when I was younger, but if I were to go back and read it now I’m sure I’d understand it differently. The same probably goes, in ten years or so, to understand whatever I’m writing now.

STEFANI SHOREIBAH

Photographed by Lola Lafia

Interviewed by Elizabeth Meyer

Please introduce yourself:

My name is Stefani Shoreibah. I am a Sophomore at Barnard College, and I grew up in Florida. I am a visual artist and art history major, but I am also pre-med and studying to be a breast oncologist.

What made you decide to be an art history major and pre-med?

For me, both art and medicine are fields that critique the human condition in different ways, but their approach is similar. In that, you have to not only analyze what is in front of you, but also reflect on your own activity [and] see how you can look at something from a different angle. At the core of medicine is humanity, and I think that often gets lost in translation between all of the science classes that pre-med students have to take and the competitiveness in these classes. At the end of the day, medicine is about healing others and addressing their problems. Empathy is itself the medicine many times.

Does art also have a lot to do with empathy?

Absolutely. Art requires empathy for others and an understanding of the environment and space in which we live. You are looking at yourself and challenging how you perceive something, how you perceive the world around you. The work that I do is very personal, very vulnerable.

When and why did you begin creating?

I’ve always loved to draw, and I’ve always loved to paint. I was that kid who scribbled everywhere in coloring books because I hated staying inside the bold lines of whatever shape I was being told to draw. I would actually take my mom’s old medical textbooks because I thought they were advanced coloring books. There were all of these lines and dots and shapes and I would find myself coloring in them. My parents found me doing that one day, and it did not end well.

I went to an arts high school, and that was a huge turning point in my creative process. It was enrollment through audition only. It was a very competitive visual arts environment, but at the same time it was great to be surrounded by so many creative minds. Even though we were all visual artists from the same town and age, we approached things in a different way. It forces you to look at yourself and not only improve your technique but cultivate a better understanding of the art you were making.

Details of Stefani Shoreibah’s work by Lola Lafia

How does your work manifest on campus?

I am an illustrator for the Barnard Bulletin and the Columbia Science Review.

What drew you to using both photography and hyper-realistic graphite drawing in your series, “Feet in the Desert”?

Half of my family is from Egypt; the other half is from the Philippines. My father is an immigrant, and came from Egypt to America. We go back every couple years and visit a farm my family owns on the Nile Delta. During my most recent visit, I went to all of the areas that are stereotypically Egyptian: the Sphinx, the Pyramids, and I took pictures and reflected on the idea of roots, ancestry, and heritage. Being an Arab-American in this cultural climate in America made me reflect a lot on what it means to be who I am. I chose to draw my feet because I felt that I was stepping into a space that I’m seemingly a part of, but in reality not. I’m Egyptian but only by blood, and not by experience. I grew up in America. This idea made me think of feet in the desert. The title is kind of ironic, because I’m in a state of mind trying to connect with my ancestry and while I was physically present in the land of my ancestors, I’m simultaneously detached and disconnected from being truly “Egyptian,” even if I call myself that. I thought that photography and drawing would be interesting to put together while reflecting on these ideas.

Why draw the feet instead of photographing them?

I wanted to capture Egypt for what it was; I didn’t want to touch it in drawing. I feel detached from it in a way. My feet are my own, and I wanted there to be a barrier in medium that would translate to the barrier between my identity and ancestry. This barrier also speaks to how everyone sees Egypt. What I photographed would be stereotypically something you would see in a magazine, and my photographs are not unique. They are images of Egypt of what foreigners see, people from the outside looking in, and ultimately, these images are what I see when I go back to Egypt. As much as I try to connect with ancestry, there’s always going to be this barrier, and to a considerable extent, I’ll always in some way be an outsider looking in on a place that I am supposedly rooted from.

Feet in the Desert - Stefani Shoreibah

Feet in the Desert - Stefani Shoreibah

For your sculpture, “subMERGED,” what drew you to creating a sculpture made from reused materials such as old newspapers, matches, cardboard boxes, Styrofoam, and plastic?

That was a fun piece to make, but I got into a lot of trouble when I made “subMERGED” in my senior year of high school because it was thought to be too political. I grew up in a red part of Florida, and art considered to be political was essentially controversial. “subMERGED” is a statement on American consumerism and human waste, a critique about where our environment is headed from the way we treat our planet.

The sculpture visually depicts objects submerging into the ocean. There are plastic bottles, matches, chicken wire fence, 1960s sewing pattern kits, styrofoam, newspaper, among other things. I literally went to a junkyard to gather materials. I wanted to use trash and junk, things that were tossed away, literal waste. My goal was to turn it all into something that spoke to how mankind has taken the planet’s natural resources and other living creatures for granted. The ocean is a major victim of mankind’s waste and, so much that it is practically a junkyard itself. I wanted to show all of these elements in my sculpture, a piece that I hope reflects the mankind’s carelessness in contaminating the ocean. So while “subMERGED” was thought to be political, it shouldn't have to be. Understanding environmental science should not be politicized. “subMERGED” serves to reflect the state of mankind’s relationship with Earth.

When did you start incorporating your political views into your art?

The area where I grew up in Florida is not in alignment with my political views. I began to embed politics into my work as I grew more aware of my anxiety around topics at the political forefront, such as climate change and women’s rights. Many things were happening while I was in art school, like the 2016 election, and I responded to these external events and adjustments through my art.

Art is my voice; my outlet of expression, as it is for a lot of people. I felt it even more so in a town where so many people were against what I believed politically and pushed back. That’s why I wanted “subMERGED” to be my piece for an exhibit we were doing senior year. My instructors insisted that it was not going to be received well. I thought to myself, if we are capping our voices and limiting how we can express ourselves, is what we are creating truly art?

subMERGED - Stefani Shoreibah

subMERGED - Stefani Shoreibah

In what ways do you incorporate nature and anatomy into your art?

With “subMERGED” and other pieces, I went outside and collected dead things. This will make me sound crazy, but I like to collect dead parts of nature. Not just dead leaves, I like to collect dead flowers. One time I found a butterfly wing and thought it was really beautiful and put it in a piece. I think it’s just artistic preference, to incorporate of anatomy and nature into my work. I like to think that my art reflects me responding to the space I’m in. Nature being actual, literal mother nature, but also the nature of our culture and of our political environment. Art reflects the space where I am and how I incorporate this into a piece reflects how I’m responding to a space.

Regarding anatomy, I love the human body. I think it’s so beautiful in its different forms, and I love drawing hands and feet. There’s an aesthetic to the human body that is raw, something simultaneously fragile and formidable. Anatomy is an essential aspect in studying medicine, and likewise, in studying art. Every art class sequence incorporates some aspect of anatomy. Anatomy is the the strongest visual tie between medicine and art.

In what ways do you work to achieve a binding between the arts, current events, and perception of self in your work?

I made a collage that responded to the Women’s March, and I think it really speaks to art reflecting on current events and my perception of self. When I made the collage, there was tension between cultural identity, personal identity, and what the 2016 election symbolized and threatened. There was also tension surrounding how people in our country could explore their identity. The Women’s March happened in January of 2017. I had a piece that I was working on for school, and the news was on while I was working on it. I thought, ‘I’m not doing this anymore,’ pushed it aside, and I started making my collage. As I was watching the screen, I was illustrating the women I was seeing protesting. This made me think of myself. I began to wonder, ‘What does this mean for me as a woman of color?’ Watching the Women’s March made me question so many different things, and I projected the anger, frustration, and anxiety that I was feeling onto this physical entity that became this collage.

To create the collage, I went back to old Radio Guides from the 1940s and 1930s, another time in which America was experiencing political tension, as well as war and the Great Depression. I ripped out ads of women of that time from the radio guides as well as photos of women in the domestic space cooking for their husbands. I put their faces next to the illustrations that I had drawn of women marching in the Women’s March. This was to show unity, in bringing women of different times and generations together, but I also did this to show stagnancy in the pursuit of gender equality. Women have come so far, but at the same time there’s a long way to go. It was a way for me to bring these women from the forties and thirties next to us in spirit as we enter another era of tension that already jeopardizes the rights of women.

Farm On the Nile - Stefani Shoreibah

Farm On the Nile - Stefani Shoreibah

In your portfolio you say, “There’s always a bit of vulnerability revealed in sharing art, but that’s a vital part of why I started my art blog.” In what ways does sharing art reveal vulnerability for you, and why do you feel that is a vital part in sharing your creation? Do you think vulnerability is an essential part of being an artist?

Art is my voice and a lot of times it expresses my thoughts and feelings in ways that words cannot. A lot of vulnerability goes into sharing parts of yourself that can’t always be expressed in words and conversation. Sometimes I have to project anxiety, tension, and internal conflict onto a physical entity. Art is a literal manifestation of voice and how I’m responding to something in a moment or over time. It’s important for artists to share so that we can see how others are feeling about something we might be responding to as well. Art goes back to human connection, which is also why I love medicine. Medicine is about human connection and looking at humans in their most vulnerable state. Art for me is a form of healing and medicine is healing as well. As I’ve grown, I’ve realized that medicine is an art itself. The worst thing is to have passionless art and passionless work. Passion is embedded into everything I do, and especially into my art.

What does the intersection of art and medicine mean to you?

I think the intersection of art and medicine speaks to the human condition in its most vulnerable state. Art, I think, is a critique of self. Art admits vulnerability, anxiety, and inner tension. By creating a physical piece, you’re releasing that energy into something that is going to be viewed by the world.

Medicine is learning to better yourself as a physician through working with a patient. There is often a power dynamic put into place between patients and physicians, something that must be eliminated. Of course, as a physician you have the education and training to address physiological problems humans experience, but you never know how that knowledge is going to be applied until you meet and converse with your patient and see what they want. It’s often said that medicine is about preservation of life, and I think it is about saving people, but saving someone differs with each patient. As an aspiring oncologist, and especially in oncology, life is such a fragile, vulnerable conversation. In the clinical experiences I have had, I learned that sometimes a patient doesn’t want the treatment meant to save their life, because perhaps, saving their life could mean something else for them, something that doesn't involve taking numerous medications or having radiation treatment. Empathy and understanding are especially crucial in oncology because of this. Humans are much more complex than the idea of “saving lives” because there is a point at which this differs among individuals.

Art and medicine as a whole speak to the complexity of the human. Both reveal that there is always, always more beyond the surface. Both teach to approach new situations with listening ears and an open mind and heart not only to others but to yourself.

CAMERON LEE

Photographed by Morgana Van Peebles

Interviewed by Noa Levy Baron

Introduce yourself. Name, year and what you are studying.

My name is Cameron Lee, and I am junior in CC, majoring in Creative Writing and concentrating in Visual Arts. I am one of the Editors-in-Chief of Quarto Literary Magazine here. I am a visual artist and a writer.

What mediums do you use to create art?

I mostly draw in sketchbooks with markers and graphite. Sometimes I paint with acrylic or watercolor, but I mostly draw. I would say that I use sketchbooks mainly out of convenience and because I like to keep all my art in one place. For a while it was daunting for me to have a whole separate piece of paper laid out that had to become “my drawing.” So it was much easier for me to experiment in sketchbooks and really track my growth. I use graphite because of the ease of being able to make mistakes, of experimenting; erasing and going back. More recently I have been into markers because I always wanted to find a way to incorporate color in my art, and I am a little too impatient for color pencils (laughs). In my experience, it takes a while and you have to work with layers. Whereas markers, for me, tend to be a faster way to add color and make a drawing vibrant.

As you introduced yourself also as a writer, how do you create in this medium?

My writing and my art are not usually directly tied together in the sense that I write prose in my sketchbook alongside a drawing, but occasionally I will illustrate something I’ve written to help bring a character to life in my mind. I almost exclusively write fiction, mostly in the third person, because I love the freedom it gives me to inhabit the minds of my characters while still getting the chance to invoke strong visuals and describe the setting, the characters, the world, etc.

How have your writings influenced your drawing? Have your drawings also influenced your writing?

Definitely. It’s funny because a year or two ago, my mom said she didn’t know whether she sees me as an artist who writes or a writer who draws. I love that she said that, and I think that is true about me. The way I write, the worlds I create and the kind of absurd, strange fantastical nature of my fiction definitely informs the way I draw. Even if it is just a few details, I prefer to give a character a little bit of a strange aspect.

I also think the way I describe people in my fiction is with the intention of making someone see the image or see something. I am a very visual person, just in life in general, so I really try to evoke images that help people see what I am describing and a lot of writers that I love do that so viscerally. I really see what they want me to see.

Papaya - Cameron Lee

Papaya - Cameron Lee

Are there any particular moments when you prefer to draw?

I think my favorite time to draw is first thing in the morning just because I love when there is a lot of natural light in my room. No one else is awake or moving around so I can just sit there in the silence or listen to music. And I’m more productive in the morning too, so I am really motivated to get stuff done when I first wake up.

How did you learn how to draw ?

I started drawing before I started learning how in school, but I took some level of elementary, middle school, and high school art classes before I came to Columbia. I think most of my early knowledge came from practice, outside of proportions or some other basic things I was taught in high school or before. I was (and still am) always drawing and looking at other people’s art. More recently I have learned a lot from my college classes, artists I’ve found online, museums I’ve had the privilege to visit, and my incredibly talented friends and classmates.

In that regard, would you say there is any difference in the creative process of producing works for classes and for yourself?

Yes, I definitely think so. I do most of my drawings in sketchbooks and they just happen on the fly, so there is not as much thought and planning that goes into those as what I draw for class projects. For example, I was in the Drawing II class last semester and we had a project which was supposed to be an enormous drawing. The professor wanted us to try and meld styles and techniques that we had and had not used before and so that lead me to think differently about the subject matter. Having some form of limitation or guideline definitely changes the way I decide to create. In that case, I did not want to do graphite for an enormous drawing so I used chalk pastel and some color pencil and charcoal - that directly informed the subject matter and the process.

Has your life influenced your work?

I think I can definitely speak to life influencing my work because when I was younger I would always be so freaked out if I made a mistake. I’d be like, “This drawing is ruined, I am going to throw it away.” I was very dramatic and my parents always told me that it was not the end of the world, that I could fix it; but at the time I was using crayons or Crayola markers so it wasn’t easy to erase or to go back. I think through high school my favorite medium was graphite because I could just erase it. My fear of making a mistake that would ruin the drawing drove me to a medium that was easily erasable. I am only realizing now, as I am using markers more, that I was so terrified of messing drawings up in the past I would use almost exclusively graphite and do pretty realistic drawings that took a long time so I could think a lot about my next moves. Now I think I am slowly losing that fear of making a mistake. So I just decided to use markers and let it go where it goes and see what happens. If I make a mistake or if I don’t like the final maybe someone else will like it; and if not it’s not the end of the world. Or so I have to keep reminding myself.

Building off of this, in what ways does your work express your identity?

I almost exclusively draw women, faces and bodies and part of that comes from the fact that I identify as a woman and for some reason it is instinctual for me to draw women. I haven’t thought a lot about why, but I am just really attracted to that area of art and that subject matter. I think I should probably try drawing men more because it might diversify my skill sets. But as of now I definitely think that I gravitate towards those themes because I am a woman and that is such an integral part of my identity.

What are the main themes you highlight? Do you want to communicate something through your drawings?

I think it’s kind of funny because I have been asked this question in the past and in different contexts: what is your art about? What are the themes? Do you mean to say anything with your work? I think the majority of the time, not necessarily. It is exciting if people can read into my art in certain ways, but most of the time it’s just aesthetically pleasing to me and for my own practice to explore different faces and bodies and positions and just learn and grow as an artist.

Medusa - Cameron Lee

Medusa - Cameron Lee

Why do you focus particularly on faces and bodies?

I started drawing faces initially because that is what you usually first see when you look at a person. You look at their face and you see their body in front of you and it was intrinsic to me to try to represent that and to put that on paper. This is also partly why I enjoy drawing women and figures. It is so fascinating to me to see how we all more or less have the same features on our faces but everyone ends up looking so different. I am really interested in representing the variety of people that exist: the diversity of life and figures, the way faces and bodies can move, and the way bodies and faces can represent different emotions. It is funny that I am saying that actually because all of my figures are making the same expression but that is not intentional; just an unfortunate default of mine. I’m working on it.

Have you ever drawn self-portraits?

I have done a couple. Maybe only once or twice voluntarily, mostly for class assignments. I am interested in doing one huge self-portrait of myself because I did a painting in high school of myself, but it has been a while. And I use pictures of my body and hands as references all the time, so it may be nice to see how well I can draw my face, or how I might draw my face. That’s something I’d like to explore more in the future.

Do you have any specific artists or individuals who inspire you?

I can name a few artists that I have been interacting with and learning about recently and that I find really inspiring. It’s funny because a lot of them are actually painters. One of them is David Hockney, who had an exhibit at the MET last year. I had not heard of him before then but I was so struck by the colors and how he represents his figures. It was one of the best exhibits I have ever been to. A lot of the painters I love inspire me to try my hand at painting more because I love what emotions painting can evoke in me.

I also love Frida Kahlo, because of the subject matter of her art and because of who she was. The rawness with which she painted is always inspiring to me.

Recently, I have also learned about Charles White, who was a mentor of Kerry James Marshall, and I love both of their work. I was at the Charles White retrospective at the MoMA and the way that his portraits moved me was crazy; I did not expect that. That is part of what I want to do in art: just make someone feel something. Then I feel I have succeeded, whether they are chuckling or sad or angry.

Living in New York and being able to go to all of those museums, and see all those paintings, drawings and sculptures in person always inspires me. On Sunday I was at the Wallach Art Gallery, looking at an exhibition called “Posing Modernity” about black figures in art. Just being able to stand there in front of a painting with no glass between us and seeing how the brushstrokes look and what rich colors were used really inspires me to go off and try to emulate or learn from that.

Also funnily enough, a lot of my inspiration does not come from famous artists but just artists that I follow on Instagram: random people that I find through having an art account, or people recommending things to me. I just love the creativity of artists such as @pollynor who draws women and their demons and touches upon sexuality and gender. Also @a.creature and @flesh.png who are not afraid of playing with color, figures or creepy and weird things and just messing around with sketchbooks, forms, and all sorts of techniques that I would love to be able to do one day with my art.

Are you working on any future projects? Do you have any specific goals?

I think future goals of mine would definitely be to further shed my reluctance to try things that make me uncomfortable. I would love to paint more in my free time, and not be afraid to pull out the watercolors or ink even though it might involve more time and effort than something else. I have never done oil so I would love to try oil painting for instance. I would also like to explore the darker side of my art and what it means to be a woman or a demon or both. I have always loved weird things and strange things and the idea that there might be another world. This is why I like imagining things that should exist outside of our world inside our world, marrying the strange with the normal, just to bring a little more fantasy and interest to everyday life. I would love to continue this exploration and broaden my horizons.

As far as future projects go, I would actually love to do a self-portrait. I have been thinking about that for a while and I never managed to do one for myself that I feel really happy about. There are also a couple of unfinished things in my sketchbooks that I need to get back to. I would also like to be more experimental. I do a little bit of digital art and I usually forget that I can do it because it is not at the forefront of my mind but I would love to get back to experimenting with it. Overall, just trying a lot of new things and not being afraid to mess up and not like something.

KASSIA KARRAS

Photographed by Nico Lopez-Alegria

Interview by Courtney DeVita


Introduce yourself.

Hi I’m Kassia Karras. I’m a first year at Barnard. I grew up in Beijing, China for 15 years and then moved to Atlanta for high school. I went back and forth between the two growing up. I’m half Chinese, a quarter Greek, and a quarter Cherokee. I’m planning on double majoring in Art History with a concentration in Visual Arts and Political Science.


What were your first moments creating?

Art has always been part of my life. I started with finger painting when I was one year old, and honestly I don’t think I’ve made better abstract art since 2001. I’ve never been scared to use color, and I’ve been drawing all my life.

I started my art account in eighth grade. That negative social pressure that forces you to post on Instagram was kind of positive in terms of art because it forced me to create consistently and become part of the art community on Instagram. I got to see what other people my age were doing. A lot of the artists were also 14 and 15 and now they’re all 18 and 19, so I’ve gotten to see how they’ve grown too.

What role has social media had on your art making?

It can be a really positive business tool when the intentions are clear. My art account is mainly a digital portfolio and a way for me to commercialize my art and build an audience. When it comes to personal accounts it’s really a gray area, and kind of weird that we’re all mixing business and personal. The audience is also the creator, which is really confusing. I definitely like my art account better than my personal because everything is set out with clear cut intentions. I like being able to interact with all the other artists.

I’ve done collaborations with other small artists on Instagram and have gotten a lot of commission opportunities through illustrating people’s band covers. I just did a project with this Chinese children’s shoe company where I designed their logo and brand characters. I’ve gotten projects to illustrate for books. Instagram’s opened a lot of doors. Instagram is a great tool for artists in this day and age.


What mediums do you use?

I use Copic markers on Muji paper always. I hand draw everything and I also use my ink pens. Sometimes I’ll use water color and oil pastel, acrylic paint, oil paint, or charcoal. I use a lot of different mediums, but predominantly it’s pen and marker. Then I’ll scan the drawing and sometimes I’ll photoshop a digital background or color digitally.

Photograph by Nico Lopez-Alegria

Photograph by Nico Lopez-Alegria

How do you think growing up in two contrasting places has shaped your art?

Having lived in such vastly different and contrasting environments, it has taught me to learn from the differences. Comparing and contrasting, not only the two countries but how the people in them socialize and how different they behave, has shaped my worldview. I started thinking about the individual’s relationship to the environment once I moved to Atlanta, because I found the lifestyle to be so introverted and isolated compared to the city lifestyle. Everybody drives everywhere, and you rarely bump into friends. Whereas, in a city there’s a lot of chance and that’s definitely what I prefer - being able to walk everywhere, and not being able to plan everything. I try to incorporate that sense of spontaneity in my art.

In your artists statement you say your art style is superficially innocent, but underneath explores themes of corruption and deception. Can you expand on that?  

I like the idea of a lot of tension or contrast within an image. I just did a portrait of a young boy with really bright orange and green colors, but he’s sad. There’s a story built off of that tension and I like that with broader themes as well. I do a lot of pieces about deceptive things. I did this piece with pills and limbs coming out of them to talk about big pharma and the corruption within that. I’ve really been influence by Mark Ryden and Marion Peck. Their work is really pretty to look at but there’s a darker subtext that seeps through.

Can you talk a little bit about your use of animal and clown heads that pervade your illustrations?

I think the animals I draw are very unrealistic and more like toys or masks more than a literal animal. I really like the idea of playing with the masks we wear, because everyone has that persona they put on or multiple personas. Whenever I draw clowns or smiling animals it’s to display these different masks. I like the idea that you can’t tell what they’re really like or what they’re really thinking. You can only see what they’re presenting and that doesn’t always tell you a lot. It’s up to the viewer to interpret, but often times there aren’t a lot of clues so you end up feeling like you’re searching. I like to put a lot of different elements within a piece, so you can search around and uncover something.

Illustration by Kassia Karras

Illustration by Kassia Karras

How did your clothing brand, O.K. Fun, come about?

I got frustrated by online clothes shopping for graphic tees. I felt like artists with really cool art were holding back in terms of what they could do with their art in combining it with fashion. They simplify drawings. It just felt like there was another way to do it. I’m also interested in commercializing my art a little more. I think illustration is the base, but there’s so much more you can do with that. I just figured out Square Space and then I got a bunch of my friends from high school and we did a fun photoshoot. I wanted to limit the clothing line to seven or eight pieces. I definitely want to put out a new line soon for winter and spring with a more cohesive theme.

How did you decide on the name of the brand?

I thrifted this sweater that says, ‘bad fun,’ which I liked, but then I ran it by my dad and he suggested not to use a word with a negative connotation. I like ok fun because it’s like a neutral good - It’s not great fun, it’s just okay fun. It doesn’t expect too much from anyone. It has a very mellow vibe, which I think reflects the art and clothing.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a some of track and album covers for a couple of rappers, and a tattoo commission. I’m also doing illustrations for the Blue and White. In general, I’m trying to make more art. I want to get to a point where I have a cohesive series that would show in a gallery space. Whether that be paintings, or illustrations blown up on canvas, I think a show would be dope to put on, and maybe with other friends’ art and live music. My main goal is to just keep making art, I think that’s the best way to improve, to just keep making art.