Belgian photographer Axelle VM Philtjens’ fascination with Polaroid photography is a family affair. The 22-year-old artist inherited her great-grandfather’s analog cameras along with his love for art and began experimenting with Polaroids while documenting her grandfather’s hospitalization and eventual recovery from COVID-19.
“He was a huge inspiration for me and always believed in me as an artist,” she said. The resulting work led to an ongoing interest in the nature of time and memory that she continues to explore through manipulating Polaroid prints.
What led you to the medium of photography, and particularly the experimental Polaroid Photography you create?
My family led me to photography. My mother would give me throwaway cameras to take on school holidays and shoot photos. My great-grandfather loved photography, and after his passing in 2016, I inherited his analog camera. That’s where my journey started. I loved shooting film and seeing the results after they developed.
My love for Polaroid photography came later on. Instant film has become a lot more popular over the years. I wanted to try it out, but I wanted big frames, and that’s why I decided on Polaroid. I love that it’s so tangible! After 15 minutes, you’re already holding the photograph in your hands. It makes it real and fun to play with. But most of all, it makes me feel connected with the medium — something I don’t always feel with digital photography.
Was there a particular moment that captured you?
“What Remains of You” (2021) depicts an old dress shirt of Philtjen’s late grandfather, shot on a Polaroid 640 Land Camera and made with her favorite water vinegar technique. “He was a huge inspiration for me and always believed in me as an artist,” she said.
The moment I decided that I wanted to focus on Polaroid was when I shot a documentary series about my late grandfather. He had gotten COVID-19 during the first wave, and I wanted to capture his recovery. It brought me a lot closer to photography, and that’s also when I started experimenting with the medium and cutting the prints open.
Tell us more about how your family inspired your artistry.
Both my late great-grandfather and my grandfather played a big role in my life and my art! I did not know my great-grandfather was into photography until after he passed away in 2016. I did have a great bond with him, but we usually talked about other art-related things, such as music. Art and knowledge were very important to him and an interest we both shared!
My grandfather loved photography and traveling. Whenever he would get back from his travels with my grandmother, he would always sit down with me and show me his landscape pictures. So photography was sort of passed down to me by both of them. He was a huge part of my life, and since he loved photography, he always supported me as an artist. His hardworking attitude and the way he never gave up and always fought until the end inspired me to do the same, both in life and in the art world!
The documentary series about my grandfather was a way for me (and maybe my family) to cope with the situation. My grandfather got COVID-19 and was put into an artificial coma. We were all scared for the future, but he made it through. The documentary series shows both him in his recovery and his absence in our lives.
He had to stay in the hospital for about eight weeks, which was hard on all of us. The series was shot on Polaroid black and white I-type film. The series contained portraits of him in the hospital and portraits of my grandmother but also the empty spaces he left behind in the house. I later used one of those prints for one of my first experiments.
My great-grandfather and grandfather were the most important men in my life. I would not be the person nor photographer I am without them!
What other influences help your work take shape?
My mother took me to countless museums until I was old enough to visit them myself. I’ve always loved the Baroque painting style and its incredible detail and lifelikeness. Seeing those paintings and all the art that came before me made me realize I wanted to pursue the arts.
My influences range from the Baroque and Symbolism painting styles to photographers like Nan Goldin, Goran Bertok, and Kirsten Thys van den Audenaerde. They’re three very different artists, but they all inspire me. I was even lucky enough to meet Kirsten Thys van den Audenaerde and ask her advice on working with expired polaroid film and more. I get inspired by all kinds of artists throughout history, not just photographers.
Tell us about your process. How does your work go from idea to execution?
With her experimental Polaroids, Philtjens documents the decay of the Saint-Michael’s Abbey through time. Click to see her portfolio “Tarditas Temporis.”
Almost everything starts with a fascination for me. My latest work, “Tarditas Temporis” started with my fascination with time. After that, I start my research phase. This includes the scientific side but also the artistic. What has been done before? And how can I visualize this? What’s the story I want to tell? Once I have my research gathered, and my story pinned down, the images start forming in my brain. I visualize what I want to capture first in my head, and then I go out and search for it.
With “Tarditas Temporis,” I knew that I wanted to capture time in an image. I looked for ways to create an ever-evolving Polaroid, and I found it. I work with the images I create in my head and try to recreate them in reality or something similar. After that, it becomes a cycle of research and shooting images.
The manipulation of my Polaroid photography can happen in two stages: either right after the image was taken or at the end. I do research on my manipulation of the image to make it a part of the story. It needs to amplify the story and the image. I’ll start cutting the prints open and add chemicals or ink.
That’s just as much fun as taking the image. I love seeing new images form inside one polaroid, and watching the effect of time on the image. It also brings me close to my work.
At last, I gather everything. I’m a collector of images. Once I have all my pieces, I start to puzzle my story together.
Describe the environment you create in. Do you have any rituals to get in the zone?
Axelle VM Philtjens
The environment I work in depends on what I’m working on. Most of my ideas start in my room, and I’ll quickly take them outside. It starts with walks and travels. I like to work on-site but also develop ideas on site. My ritual is putting on my favorite bands, Type O Negative and Ghost, and then going out to explore, maybe taking a few impulsive pictures of things that I like or that fascinate me. Once that’s done, I come home, and the research and photography cycle starts again.
When do you feel most creative? How do you boost your creativity and push through creative blocks?
Image: In Philtjens’ images like “Stairway to heaven,” the damage and alterations symbolize the damage emotions have on memories, thus making them subjective.
I feel most creative at night or when I’m on site. At night, a whole new world opens up. It’s so quiet, and I can stay in the flow. When I’m on-site, there are so many things that catch my eye and that I need to see and explore, and that piques my creativity.
Something that both boosts my creativity and helps me push through creative blocks is walks in nature. Nature is so fascinating, and it gives me time to think. I use those walks as a moment to think and to follow my thought trails wherever they go. It gives me a moment to unfocus on the world and look inside my own head for a minute.
Another way to push through creative blocks is experimenting on old failed Polaroid prints. I love seeing the process and learning new things.
What is one tool you could not live without?
Except for my cameras? My Polaroid cutter knife. It’s an old hobby knife that’s all rusted due to use and covered in paint and chemicals. I use it to cut open my Polaroids, and it’s the only way I’ll do it.
What subjects are fascinating to you most right now?
My current fascination is time and anthropology. I love the human mind and how it deals with concepts like mortality and time. But also time and how we experience it. We know time has passed, but the only proof we have are our memories. Remembering is time traveling in your own mind. At this point, I’ve nicknamed time “the devourer of things.” I’m fascinated by subjects and concepts that we cannot touch or grasp.
What do you hope audiences take away from your work?
Memento Vivere. Remember to live. Our time here on earth is so short. I hope when people see my work, they remember that one day their time is up. Live your life, explore and learn. That they can find a love and fascination for even the littlest things. I hope my art can help people start a journey into their own mind.
And for the artists who dream of doing what they love, I hope my work inspires them to follow that dream. Chase it, and don’t ever let it go.
What’s one tool Nicole Holloway can’t live without? The library! The artist from Newfoundland, Canada, researches narratives and sources images in the stacks before creating her mixed-media and digital collages. Her narrative-driven work explores feminism, the environment, Newfoundland’s singular terrain, and more through a personal lens. Her pro tip: Befriend your local librarian to get first dibs on discarded materials you can repurpose. Learn more about Holloway’s inspiration and process below.
Nicole Holloway lives and works in Newfoundland, Canada.
Caption: Nicole Holloway lives and works in Newfoundland, Canada.
Tell us about your journey to becoming an artist. When did the visual arts become a passion for you? When did you decide to pursue the arts professionally?
I like to think I’ve always been a creative person. I knew going into high school that I wanted to get a visual arts degree. I never even considered anything else. Looking back now, I don’t think I actually knew what I wanted to do with the degree, I only knew I wanted one. When people would ask me about the future, I would usually say I wanted to teach, because most of my friends in art school were planning to do that. In retrospect, I’m glad I didn’t know because it allowed me to just do what interested me in the moment. In art school I focused on two-dimensional design like painting and printmaking. I got hired at a flower shop after I graduated and apprenticed with the owner for about four years. That job really helped me branch out with my artwork and not be afraid of adding form and shape to my work.
Most recently, you’ve been working in collage. How does your process go from idea to execution? How do you know when a work is “finished”?
I work in an academic library, so I like to start with research. The library is shelved by subject, and I love walking up and down the book stacks and borrowing books that connect with my chosen subject matter in exciting ways. Once I pick my research material, I look for artistic material. Most of my digital stuff comes from royalty-free image websites. For physical collages, I check the library for discarded books with pictures in them. I’ve also befriended the librarian at the public library, and she’ll usually call me when they discard their magazines.
I like to start by reading through my research material, so I can get a better understanding of my subject matter. The more I research the subject, the easier it is to narrow down my imagery and build a design that feels appropriate. I use Photoshop for my digital work. My paper collages are done with scissors, an exacto-knife, and a glue stick (usually pilfered from my kid’s craft box). I also like using different materials for my collages too, like found objects and ocean debris, all kinds of stuff.
Finishing a piece is tricky for me sometimes, I rarely know exactly when to stop. I tend to add too much to a work, reconsider, remove pieces, and stare at it for a long time. I also like to give myself a day or two to sit with it before I finally put it out into the world.
“Single Ladies” by Nicole Holloway pays homage to Newfoundland’s Great Depression-era women who, unable to work due to being married, found meaning by contributing to the greater good.
How do your personal narratives intersect with political narratives in your work?
I use my work to express an idea or opinion on something, and I like to weave a personal narrative into my work because it’s a representation of me and my ideas. When I’m dealing with broad subjects like feminism, politics, or the environment, it’s easier to relate it back to my situation. A lot of those personal narratives involve spirituality, where I live (Newfoundland, Canada), and my ideas and opinions on the future.
How do you find a “resolution” to some of these issues?
I like to combine the images I find with the principles and elements of design that visually reinforce the message behind the piece. Presenting an idea in an aesthetically pleasing way will make people spend more time considering it, because it can appeal to their visual sense. They may not agree with the message, but they can appreciate the way in which the message is presented, lending weight to the idea. In my recent body of work, we’ve gone so far, we’ve come full circle, I used the circle shape to unify each work, colour to emphasize the season and position in the sequence, and used repeated imagery in each work to reinforce my message.
“No. 4 (Beltane) Let Me Tell Ya ‘Bout the Birds and the Bees” depicts a potential future in which Mother Nature reclaims her place.
Describe the studio environment you create in. Do you have any rituals to get in the zone? Do you have a mantra or a motto?
Hollow Hill Studio is a name I came up with for my artistic practice that combines my last name with hill, because our first house was on the edge of this steep hill that went down to a big waterfall behind our house. I used to work in my dining room there, and stare at the waterfall as I painted. We moved to a bigger house in 2020, and my studio is technically in the spare bedroom. There’s lots of storage in there for materials and space to set up my easel if I need it. Everything else is pretty much still done at the dining room table though, or the family computer in the living room. Since I work full time and have kids, getting studio time can be difficult. I always tell myself to aim for 30 minutes of “studio time” every day. The way I see it, half an hour is always doable. I always look forward to sitting down with some coffee or tea and puttering away at something for a while.
When do you feel most creative? How do you boost your creativity and push through creative blocks?
I’m a morning person, but unfortunately my schedule only allows me to work on art in the evenings. If I’m not able to work on art until after supper, I usually find myself going over the concepts during the day and refining the message I want to send. That way when I’m working in the evenings, I can focus on the mundane tasks like cutting, assembling, etc. If I’m stuck creatively, I like to go back to the original idea and re-examine the research.
What is one tool you could not live without?
I would say my computer, but that seems too obvious. I know this seems cheesy, but the library is a tool I use all the time. Not only for research, but for the sheer volume of free material I’ve gotten from librarians after they’ve weeded their collections. Books, magazines, all kinds of stuff.
“It’s a Different Kind of Cold” celebrates Newfoundland’s isolated landscape and rugged inhabitants.
Who are your influences?
I really love art that’s more conceptual or contemporary. In art school, I was influenced a lot by artists like Marcel Duchamp, Jenny Holzer, Tony Cragg, Cornelia Parker and Rachel Whiteread. I’m also a fan of Petah Coyne, and some contemporary artists like Elyse Dodge, Natalie Ciccoricco, Nneka Jones and Sara Khan.
What subjects are fascinating you most right now?
Lately I’ve been really hung up on the idea of utopia, and how the different components of a utopian society are perceived based on the community’s needs. It’s such a broad subject, with so many different approaches.
What do you hope audiences feel when they see your work?
The goal of my artwork is always to create possibility and courage in the face of frustration and despair. It’s a personal journey to understand current issues facing our society. I want to create positive potential outcomes that can bolster people’s faith in our collective future.
When a shortage of oil paints hit Addis Ababa in 2015, Ethiopian artist Minas Kahsay turned to the same strength that always gets him through hard times: his creativity. With a pair of scissors and household magazines, the self-taught Kahsay launched into a new medium of paper mosaic art. In his works, Kahsay depicts portraits with traditional Ethiopian geometric patterns. He both celebrates the beauty and elegance of Ethiopian culture while drawing awareness to the conflicts that grip the country through more recent digital artworks he plans to release as NFTs, with a portion of the proceeds dedicated to victims of war.
Minas Kahsay is an artist born and raised in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
Below, Kahsay tells Art Guide about when he decided to pursue the arts full-time, how he continually refines his technique, and the joy and challenges of making art. (This interview has been edited and condensed.)
How did you discover your medium of paper mosaic art?
The shortage of oil paints on the market in Ethiopia happened around 2015. Ethiopia is a land-locked country, and it takes a lot of effort to get your hands on any kind of product, to begin with. And suddenly, the people who used to provide us artists with the necessary art materials told us that there are no oil paints coming to their store, and that was it — no explanation provided for the cause.
They only said, “These things happen all the time.” So I had to look for alternative means to create my artworks. Luckily, I had a lot of magazines lying around at home, so I decided to experiment and use those magazines as an input or raw materials to create my artworks. My work evolved drastically. When I first started with paper mosaic, I understood there was a lot of potential to be explored with the medium, and I proved myself right by repeatedly creating multiple artworks and improving my techniques gradually.
“Ornate #2” by Minas Kahsay depicts an Ethiopian woman bathed with colors of her culture, complemented with geometrical patterns and motifs which create a rhythm that amplifies her beauty.
How do you choose your subjects?
I grew up in Ethiopia watching these geometric patterns all over the place, especially in traditional Ethiopian clothes, which both men and women wear, and traditional baskets which most Ethiopians use to decorate their houses with, including my parents’ house where I grew up. So, it is only natural to be inspired by them since I literally grew up surrounded by them.
The women in my artworks are generated from my imagination, but I am sure my imagination is influenced by the beautiful Ethiopian women whom I grew up admiring. I choose my subjects to represent the culture of Ethiopia and the elegance of its women. And when people see my artworks, I hope they gain insight of what Ethiopia looks like through the eyes of its’ artists.
What subjects have been inspiring you lately?
The subject that is fascinating me the most right now is creating artworks that represent the genocide and civil war that has been going on in my country for more than a year now and to let the rest of the world know about what is actually going on in the besieged northern region of Ethiopia called Tigray.
I previously did abstract geometrics on my laptop, and since it is digital work, there was no reception for such artworks in Ethiopia at that time, so I put most of my time and effort on my paper mosaic artworks. Some of my latest works are digital paintings which I am planning to release as NFTs and designate some of the income to the victims of the war. In that way, the rest of the world would understand what is really happening in Ethiopia.
The digital work “Fruits of War #5” by Minas Kahsay depicts the devastating situation in the Ethiopian region of Tigray.
Tell me about growing up in Addis Ababa.
Addis Ababa is a metropolitan city where you can find diversity in many forms. It is considered the capital of Africa since the African Union is based here. The weather rarely exceeds 28 degrees celsius and seldom descends under 12 degrees celsius, so it is an ideal environment to live in. Many cultural events are held in the city. The people are very hospitable to visitors and foreigners. Things used to be even more interesting and vibrant when I was growing up. Since Ethiopia is under an ongoing civil war, there is a fracture between the society on ethnic lines, so honestly speaking, this is the worst time for the city and the country as a whole.
When did you decide to pursue the arts full-time?
I started making art as long as I can remember.
After graduating from Addis Ababa University, I spent a year looking for a job (jobs are hard to find here). Then I get a job as a junior human resources officer in a company called Agency for Government Houses. I worked there for 2 years there and I applied for a job in a Canadian-based NGO called DOT Ethiopia and worked for a year as a community facilitator.
The moment I knew for sure that I needed to be a full-time artist is immediately after getting my first job. I knew that life was not for me, and I did not have time to create my artwork. I could not create in my spare time too, because I was already exhausted from my day job. I felt like my soul was being crushed from all sides; I felt lost, and to make matters worse, time was passing by without me creating any substantial artwork which I was thinking about doing growing up. I had a lot of ideas to create, and I was not able to do one of them.
But I was also aware that I needed to provide for myself financially and had to continue working. That is why I worked for 2 years while I prepared in advance for my ultimate strike of becoming a full-time artist. The second NGO job became a transition for me because the job was for a fixed one-year contract and it paid relatively well, so it gave me a chance to prepare and save a little bit of money. After the one-year project ended, I started my life as a full-time artist. Even though I hated my time at both companies, i actually won awards from both. I was chosen as employee of the year from the first company, and I won a social enterprise workshop competition from the second company.
What is your motto?
Strive to make your latest work your best-ever work.
Tell us about your creative process. What do you hope audiences take from your work?
Paper mosaic art “Ornate #4” by Minas Kahsay represents the ideal Ethiopian beauty who serves as an ambassador for her culture.
I feel most creative when I am by myself surrounded by nature. I boost my creativity and push through creative blocks by continuously sketching and doodling whatever is in my mind. And ironically enough, my creativity could also be aroused when I am not actively creating for a while and suddenly get inspired by something beautiful I encounter when I go out and about in Addis Ababa.
Then I return home and contemplate on how I can combine and create an ideal Ethiopian beauty from what I saw earlier. The environment I create in is in my studio by myself listening to different genres of music, loads and loads of magazines by my side, references of my past works nearby, pencils, pens, ruler and scissors on hand.
I go through the magazines I have at home and rip out all the colorful pages which inspire me. Then, I will start drawing a portrait of a woman from my imagination and use minimal references from different photographs. I include the geometric patterns which I saw on the traditional dresses of the women I encountered earlier. This combination simply represents both the beauty of Ethiopian women and its culture within a harmony created by the combination of both.
I hope audiences feel and see the beauty I saw and imagined when they see my works. When people see my artworks, I hope they gain insight of what Ethiopia looks like through the eyes of its artists.
Growing up playing in the woods at the foot of small mountains near his hometown of Arita, Japan, Takashi Harada might have followed in his father’s footsteps as a ceramic artisan where it not for a series of fortuitous events. Now working in New York City, the practitioner of Nihonga, which translates to Japanese painting, describes his technique as a meditative process, from mixing the ink and natural minerals he uses as pigment to layering brushstrokes until the outlines fade into the indistinct shapes of childhood memory.
“The haziness or slightly washed-out quality makes me think of the in-between moment of waking up from asleep and also the in-between moment of falling asleep from the state of waking,” says Artrepreneur curator Masahito Ono. “I do not think timeless is a word I want to use to describe his paintings. Instead, I want to say that they are timeful. They are yesterday, today and tomorrow. Nature has been with us all the time and it will continue to be with us in the future if we do not lose the desire to co-exist together.”
Read on to discover how Harada honors his childhood experiences in nature, the transformative moment of encountering a Nihonga masterpiece in arts school that changed his trajectory, and how he hopes his works will one day make the world smile.
You grew up in a family of artisans. What role did creativity play in your early life? How important was tradition?
I was born to a family who made porcelain in a small town called Arita in Saga, Japan. The town is very small, but well known to people for its over 400 years of production of many types of ceramics. My father’s house was filled with many artistic porcelains and art and craft books. However, I didn’t care so much about these books until I graduated from an art college in Tokyo.
During my childhood, my favorite thing to do was play around outside in nearby woods with friends. My second favorite was to walk around and watch how all the artisans and factory workers managed and created all those ceramics. I learned so many important lessons about how to create something from not only my father but also from those factory workers.
When it comes to tradition, what is important is not to keep the tradition, but to observe it well and alter it or create something new from it — to always keep thinking about how to make it better.
How did you ultimately decide to pursue Nihonga painting out of all the paths available to you?
I was nearly persuaded to take over my father’s kiln, since my elder brother was always good at playing baseball. He played all the way to the college league. But unfortunately, he got something he couldn’t overcome, and needed to give up his dream. Instead, he started to learn the way of ceramics to take over my father’s kiln.
Meanwhile, I got into a Nihonga department at a college that my grandfather had recommended to me. Why did my family recommend Nihonga to me? It was because the way of using brush strokes was similar to the way we paint on those ceramics. So, in a way, it was preparation for the way of ceramics, but I started to just simply paint with Nihonga technique, not just to learn the way to use the brush stroke.
When my brother started to learn ceramics, I thought, now I want to be an artist. An unfortunate thing for my brother opened my path. In addition, while attending art college, I encountered a painting which is one of the national treasures of Japan at the Tokyo National Museum that is a few steps away from the college. The painting is black and white, with rough brush strokes, yet creates a very serene atmosphere. This screen painting is titled “Shōrin-zu byōbu” meaning the pine trees screen, and it shows several pine trees standing in fog/mist and you can barely see a mountain from afar. This is my favorite painting and when I saw this for the first time in person, I decided to pursue Nihonga.
After your formal fine arts education in Japan, when and why did you move to the U.S.? Tell us about the events that precipitated that decision.
After completing some doctorate programs at the graduate school, I got on offer to stay at the Nihonga department office, but I wanted to see the world outside of Japan. I had been wondering: Why weren’t Japanese artworks more popular in western world? At that point, Takashi Murakami was still there and Yoshitomo Nara was not known yet. Kusama was already big, as well as some other contemporary artists from Japan were known, but not Nihonga artists. I wanted to see if there was any reason for that.
Also, while attending the doctorate programs, one of my colleagues died. I felt that at any point, we could die maybe even the next day. So I thought I did not want to stay in Japan without seeing the world outside. I decided to leave Japan.
In the late 80s, contemporary art in Germany looked very attractive for many Japanese artists like me, so I went there first. Next, seeing some possibility in France, I moved to Paris via TGV. But still, I couldn’t find any suitable taste for me there. I decided to move to an English-speaking country, and aimed at New York City as the final destination.
There were a few locations that followed where I learned to speak English, starting in Hawai’i first, the closest state of the U.S. from Japan. I got a contract with a gallery there, then moved to the mainland, San Diego, California, where I have made contracts with few local galleries. But the gallery artists of the last gallery I had a contract with were mostly from the East Coast, so in 2007 I moved to NYC, the most competitive art city.
For people who are unfamiliar, how do you describe Nihonga painting? What traditional aspects of Nihonga do you practice? In what ways do you break the rules?
Nihonga, which uses animal skin glue as the medium and binder, is considered the traditional painting style and technique in Japan. There have been many different ideas of what Nihonga is even amongst artists who actually practice these methods. I would choose four key elements to consider what Nihonga is. First, materials and equipment. Second, technique, which is connected to the use of those materials. Third, artistic convention of traditional Japanese style and last but not least, Japanese sensibility or philosophy.
These techniques were introduced to Japan from China nearly 1,400 years ago. The technique of making the color itself, a mixture of natural pigments and animal collagen, has quite a long history, possibly as long as human history. Some might know that archaeologists found some lines and strokes on a rock at Blombos Cave, near the Southern cape in South Africa, where there was also found a sea shell that contains finely grounded ochre, charcoal and protein/fat, which is considered a painting kit dating back to about 100,000 years ago. In a way, we can consider that Nihonga technique started here, and we are still using pretty much the same technique today. I think this is incredible.
Nowadays, many artists who call themselves Nihonga artists also use acrylic paint. The makers of Japanese traditional-style materials are getting scarce in Japan. Many of the makers of Washi paper, Nikawa glue, and Japanese-style brushes are having serious supply problems. It’s actually a huge problem in Japan. Most fine materials are only from Japan, so when I need it, it takes time to obtain. After the Covid-19 pandemic, the cost got higher. I have been using linen and cotton canvases as my foundation for more than 20 years, and finely grounded mineral pigments, hide glue, and dry pigments from a shop in New York.
When it comes to my style, most of my paintings are vague, which is intentional. Historical paintings in Japan usually have outlines to express the mass, shape, and distance. I do outline when I start, but erase it by overlayering pigments many times. This way it is closer to Mourou-tai, which literally means “vague style” that was developed after the Meiji period (1868–1912) in Japan after Western paintings were heavily introduced. I combined this style with more graphical composition more commonly seen in the Rimpa style, which started roughly over 400 years ago.
The reason I make my artwork vague is actually quite simple: I believe that it makes it easier to connect the visual effect of my paintings with the viewer’s memories. I believe that the human mind would be healed by just being in the nature and I would like to recreate those experience by evoking those feelings in my paintings. Even if you could feel one tree in one of my artworks, it is not one particular tree that you could see in front of you in real life, but the tree was certainly in front of you in your past and in your mind, and in our memory. I would like to connect them. There are no distinguished differences between all of us. We can hold shared memories together, or one by one.
What is your process like? Do you have a routine or do you try different things? How do you know when a painting is finished?
II always watch trees, clouds, and flowers when I walk around. I capture those images in my head and also on my camera, or cell phone these days. I usually have decided 90% of the compositions, colors, etc. at the first point of my creation process, which happens mostly on site when I saw the scene. I have already started to think about how to make layers of colors to create the image in my head. Something like this first, then this color in this way, then this line, then that color, etc. So most of the time I just follow the process I have already decided. I have developed this by my experience. I do sometimes experiment to test other ways, always remembering the results. I know when it is finished when the image appears in front of me.
Nihonga process takes time. It doesn’t happen with your emotional instincts. You need to think ahead of the process, so it naturally makes you slow down your life. Imagine preparing the glue the day before, making the black ink for a couple hours by hand, then mixing the white pigment at least an hour before starting to throw the first line of brush stroke. It is like a meditation. Then you need to wait a few hours or overnight to make another layer of color and you want 30 to 50 layers on one painting. You really need to have patience.
Similar to your technique, how can people “slow down” when encountering or experiencing works of art such as yours? What effect does this have?
This current society works mostly at a fast pace. We need to slow down our pace. If we can do it, we have more time to contemplate what is primarily necessary to make this life rich and healthy. Ironically, COVID-19 gave us time. Many people found their time to be important. In NYC, we felt connected to our neighbors. But at the same time, we felt our wounds more clearly, too.
I dream that the world is like this: One can have my painting in the bedroom, see it every night before sleep, remembering their childhood playing under the tree. That time would heal all the stress from the day. They would have a good sleep, and wake up with a clear mind, so then that person will stop when they see their neighbor and give a smile the next day. People will smile back at each other, and to the other neighbors, and the neighbor gives their smile to the others. No matter what you believe, it doesn’t matter where you belong, we all have smiles and help each other.
I know this is so naïve but still I believe and hope this will happen.
“The best way to learn about anything is through art,” says Korean American artist Lauren Hana Chai, whose paintings explore her family history and cultural heritage. The first in her family to be born in the U.S., Chai was raised by her paternal grandparents in Honolulu, Hawaii, earned her B.F.A. in painting at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, and lived and worked in New York City and Austin before coming full circle and relocating to the island, where she is part of a growing arts community. In her practice, she says she is constantly seeking balance: Between East and West, dark and light, work and rest, and classical techniques with folk art. Find out what fuels her creativity and the inspiration behind her latest works, which she describes as “the Korean folk art version of Hieronymous Bosch’s ‘Garden of Earthly Delights.’”
When did you start making art?
I’ve been creating since I had the motor skills to hold a pencil. In my immediate family, no one was exactly artistic. My uncle, a blues musician in Korea, was the only other artist in the family I was exposed to as a kid. I later found out there were creatives on my mom’s side. But even though my family didn’t fully understand it, they never discouraged me from pursuing art as a career — although they didn’t know what that would fully mean, including a lot of broke moments!
When did you decide to pursue the arts as your main focus?
After graduating in San Francisco, I saved up some money and moved to Austin, where I decided to live off of my savings and made the art thing happen, just creating my work every day. In Austin, I kept trying to create the work that I used to create right after graduating or while I was in school. But nothing was coming out correctly and I hated everything. Then some type of shift happened where I developed a style that was fitting for who I was at that time. I was looking more into my Korean heritage and roots and doing a lot of research and connecting with the family, and so all of that came out of my paintings and everything became very bright.
Eventually, I had to get a part-time job again. At first, I felt like I’d failed, when really I made so much work. Those were the paintings that ended up being in many shows on the island when I returned back home. What I thought was a failure since I wasn’t selling anything during my time in Austin ended up becoming a very fruitful time.
Being an artist and trying to make a living means that I have different avenues to make it work. For me, I like to create merch out of my art, something that is a bit more affordable for people like stickers and prints. I will sell them in a store locally as well as doing pop-ups and conventions and selling them in the artist alleys. For a while there, I was also doing murals consistently. Along with part-time jobs that give me plenty of time to create, it all adds up.
Tell me about your process. How does your work go from idea to execution?
I picked up this technique during my senior year of art school: I put together a composition in Photoshop of files and images I’ve saved in a folder on my computer I’m attracted to, and create a digital collage to paint loosely from as a guide.
In my earlier years, it was much more intuitive. At this point in my practice, I’ve seen where all of that has led to and why I’m picking what I pick: Korean American culture, a clash of East and West. I’m classically trained in Renaissance painting, but also inspired by art out of Buddhist temples and Korean folk art.
What’s inspiring you lately?
For my recent series “Souls in Motion,” I really wanted to step back and world build, and take everything – whether it’s about my identity, Korean American culture, sex and death – and find the sense of universality and sacredness within those personal themes. I describe it as a mythological Korean folk version of Hieronymous Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights.” But instead of painting about fear, which Bosch often did, I’m painting about love.
I’ve painted a lot about dark themes, especially straight out of school. Right now, I’m interested in finding healing through love, the progression in life through love, how love moves us all. It’s always about the balance in my life.
Lauren Hana Chai
Describe the environment you create in.
I’m very lucky: I live in a live/work home studio by Artspace, a U.S. nonprofit that builds affordable housing for artists. It’s the first one to be built in Honolulu. It’s got cement walls and floors, exposed ceilings so you see all the pipes – it is definitely designed with artists in mind. My living room is my studio. Once I wake up, I step out and see my work.
I’m so glad i’m back home. For awhile there, I thought I needed to be back in a city, or in New York. But being around family has been really healing. Being away from them for so long was kind of painful while I was going through hard times. They raised me so now being able to help them out means a lot to me. Also to be back in Hawaii and see how the art community has grown — it’s a really amazing feeling.
Do you have any rituals or routines to get in the zone?
My routine is always changing. Lately I’ve been enjoying more peaceful mornings, taking my time. I find myself getting more energized in the afternoon. These days, I’ve been trying to schedule in rest and also that balance of getting out of the house helps clear my mind and gives me the energy to come back and work.
I’ve always loved working from home, what I’ve always done whether in San Francisco or Texas, and now here. I’m one of those people who kind of enjoyed isolating during quarantine and lockdown. I like hunkering down. So basically I spent a year hermitting and creating and then spent another year or two showing all of those works. Now I guess it’s back to being a hermit, now that I understand that this is my rhythm.
How do you boost your creativity and push through creative blocks?
It’s a lot of internal searching. When I initially started out, my very first series was “Last Known Locations,” about the search for my mother who went missing when I was 11. Creating it involved looking at old VHS tapes of us, painting from stills of me as a baby, looking into my family history, looking into my Korean heritage and learning about Korean art.
The best way to learn about something is through art. I was really going to the root of traditional art and what makes Korean folk art so different from that in other Asian countries. All of that then kept catapulting me into questioning who I am and the bigger questions we have in life about truth and figuring out how to tame all of this chaos and darkness and turn it into some kind of strength. I’m always researching and reading books, usually nonfiction, about Korean culture.
Residencies are also a great way for me to get out of my space and out of my home, be somewhere completely new and have more clarity in my work or be able to create things in a new environment which allows new creative ideas to emerge. Also I like that it allows me to connect with other artists and different communities. Having that experience is invaluable. I learn so much from traveling and meeting new people.
What are your biggest influences?
I love the ten symbols of longevity in Korean folk art, or minhwa, that commoners and anonymous artists used to create and give to each other or sell, that symbolize different things like a happy marriage or Lunar New Year.
I’m also fascinated with Korean classical literati painting, which was for the educated and wealthy who could afford it. That’s why Korean commoners created folk art as a version for themselves.
Both are huge influences on me, and I love to combine them. I’m a big believer in breaking rules. There’s a place for everything in this world and there shouldn’t be limitations or boxes. Everything is borrowed from something else. Anyone should be able to enjoy these forms since art is a universal language.
“I’ve Come Home” by Lauren Hana Chai
What is one tool you could not live without?
My oil paints! They’re the first medium I fell in love with. I actually went to art school as an illustration major for the first three years until I used oil paints and switched over to painting.
I felt like painting came to a point where it was a little too familiar. I was stuck in a formula. Something was happening where I needed to jog things up. I thought, “Oh no, am I going to have to break up with my love of oil paint?”
But I just can’t do it. I couldn’t ever let them go, even as much as I am exploring other mediums right now. I’m working with ceramics and woodworking and video and experimental art and soft sculpture, using dish sponges as a medium.
All these things I’m playing with further inform my practice. I love change, experimentation, and the unknown. These new practices are definitely helping me reinvigorate. Try to figure out painting in your own way without being educated; it creates its own character.
What do you hope audiences take away from your art?
I hope they feel some type of magic. Whatever emotion it might be, I hope something ignited in them. I was just looking at an artwork installation that won a proposal project and when I saw the winner, something lit up in me and gave me goosebumps. There’s so much power in that. I want to be able to give that to other people.
Edward Bock recalls spending hours knee-deep in the swamps and creeks near his boyhood home in St. Louis, Missouri, covered in duckweed and collecting specimens for study. Now at 75, the former photographer-turned-painter is in many ways trying to recapture that spirit of discovery and connection with nature in his multi-layered abstract canvases.
“My focus in the last 15 years has been on fine arts, and it took a long time to get here,” he said.
Bock considered a career in biology before pursuing filmmaking and photography professionally. He served in the U.S. Army as a motion picture photographer for informational documentaries and went on to work for a private communications firm before launching his own multimedia and commercial photography business. In his spare time, he created original art by melding photographic images of patterns, textures, and various subjects, experimenting with color palettes, exposure times, and image layering. Creating art was a hobby, but he had difficulty believing in his abilities, he said, and never dared call himself an artist.
Cut to several decades later when he built a studio at his current home near Minneapolis in 2006, and he began to question what he really wanted to do. He decided to pursue fine arts full-time a few years later.
“In my career, I made a good living and got to explore my creative interests but it was always in the service of somebody else’s ideas and needs,” Bock said. “I wanted to find out what kind of artist I was.”
Today, the entrance to Bock’s studio features his mantra, which reads in part: My deep inner artist has been gathering everything I need, my whole life. All is available to me and for me now.
He describes his process as totally immersive, with no preconceived notions of what will result. He sometimes becomes so absorbed in his work he forgets to turn on the music he intended to play as a soundtrack. Daily excursions past his still fish pond fuel his desire to create. His “endlessly patient” wife, also his walking companion, waits as he snaps pictures on his iPhone of moments that inspire future canvases. As he paints, childhood memories of fascination with nature float by, like catching a fish and releasing it back in the pond.
His photographic training and predilection for scientific inquiry also play a role, as in the 2018 seriesDarkfield Biome.The dynamic body of work is inspired by photographs he took through a microscope of organisms living in his aquariums and envisions overlapping movements of tiny animals, plants, pollens, seeds, algae, microbes, insects, and blooms.
Another series, Language of Clams, draws from a visit to a friend who operated a marine sciences research facility in New Guinea. Bock became fascinated with his friend’s shell collection, including the distinct markings of a species of saltwater clam called Lioconcha hieroglyphics.
Language of Clams
He wondered: What would the language of clams look like? Would they use pheromones seeping through the water, sound vibrations, colors, or inks released like an octopus? If they had an alphabet, would you read it right to left or from any direction as the letters floated away? The resulting abstract symbols and shapes continue to inspire his works.
From that voyage, Bocks says he saw the life he could have had with a career in the sciences. It would have been a good life, he thought. Yet he regrets none of his choices.
“From the viewpoint of an older person looking back, there are a lot of lives I could’ve lived,” he said. “I don’t bemoan anything. Instead, I relish that I still have the opportunity to explore my interests.”