A dialogue between Valentina R & Hannah Waiters
Headrag: Dreams Pick the Dreamers
Heirloom vanity mirror assembled with found nude sheer fabric. 72” x 36” x 3”
Deep for V
Ceramic, Glaze, Envision Glaze
Valentina R, a youth summer intern, conducted an interview with Hannah Waiters, an artist and researcher, about their 3D sculptures. Both are from the Bay Area and each skilled in building. The two artists have a conversation about the meanings behind their works, struggles they’ve faced, and how they got to be here today.
Valentina: To start, what drew you to create 3D sculptures? I was drawn to your work because when I first started taking ceramics class in 10th grade, I was instructed to make vases and pots, and therefore didn't have the freedom to design my own sculptures. I wasn't able to fully be creative until last year, and so that's what brings me to this question, when were you able to be creative with your sculptures?
Hannah: So, I started as a 2D artist before I came to graduate school. When I got to graduate school, I began dabbling in lots of different mediums. I was interested in ready-made practices and started by putting these doorknobs and locks on my studio walls; my peers and the faculty were interested in them, but at the time, those were just my experiments. In one of my first critiques, one of my peers saw one of my ready-made sculptures and said, "you should stop painting." After this critique, I began to understand where I wanted to grow my practice. It was in this critique I figured out what was speaking the loudest. My ready-mades seemed to have a more finished quality than that of my 2D works. And so I began to turn the volume up. My 3D sculptures were loud, experimental, and gestural, all characteristics that my drawings could never quite achieve. My practice is situated in this sense of play and experimentation and wandering to find such objects.
My mentors and teachers said that my drawings should continue to be part of my practice as design and layout- the initial visionary stage of just dreaming how things come together. From this point, I began to move towards found and decaying materials. I became obsessed with Bruce Conner, Noah Purifoy, and David Hammons -assemblage artists who forage work out of materials from the street. Such work began to speak to a personal narrative, situated in houselessness and poverty. So I then started to bring elements from the street into my studio. When I got tired of the work, it went back to the road. At first, it was hard to be grounded in this concept and medium especially because I always felt like so many of the artists I was surrounded by were working with work that ended in polished and pristine forms, forms I didn't feel represented my identity, where I came from, or who I was speaking to. Therefore I wanted to find materials that I didn't have to imbue with meaning, instead find objects that already possessed that meaning. This idea of sentimentality contributed to the way I produced a history. I felt like drawing, I was trying to create meaning out of nothing, which didn't work for me. It feels so much more ingenuine; it feels forced a lot of times. This wandering and discovery felt prophetic and "sincere." And I felt connected to my work when I could use anti-materiality (nothingness) as a material. Space, distance, and erasure are critical materials, and my ready-mades made the visible the erased.
V: That's so amazing! I learned this past year that you can work with space so much. In one of the pieces I made this year for my collection, it was a circle, and it had three different sized holes in the middle, and then three different sized spouts. My teacher commented that it was a good piece because I used the background and the space inbetween the piece in a similar way to what you describe.
H: Exactly, negative space can help viewers realize not only what you've made but also what you have left out. In a broader sense, this speaks to displacement and mass gentrification. My work is about reading erasure. As a conceptual (thought based artist), my work narrates the life of the invisible. I feel like some two-dimensional works, at times- this is not me trying to be biased- are very transactional, meaning they're trying to be sold, and therefore they are not entirely free. And if my work represents a revolution or a new way of understanding... that doesn't appeal to the commercial art world. I can't get to that mode of thinking if I'm trying to appease that type of audience. So my "paintings" are very ironic descriptions of museums and the art world. I call most of my sculptures, excavation paintings, which are "non-paintings."
V: I love that! I agree with everything you say. It is amazing to be able to use 3D space to convey something you can't convey with 2D.
H: It's also just a way of understanding and embodying a lived history. It's not me trying to say this is the correct mode of knowledge or way of understanding that my ancestors operate under, but I'm trying to understand their methods. If you have nothing to create, how do you create something out of nothing? I'm still trying to understand that.
V: Wow, that's very cool. I really like that. I don't even know how to respond, I'm just trying to take it all in.
The Muted Sound of Fallen Things
Framed DC Print
26” x 34” x 1”
H: So why do you make art Valentina?
V: I never used to do Art. Maybe it's because I didn't consider myself an artistic person when I was younger, or maybe it's because I didn't have access to it, I'm not really sure. But, I ended up needing to fill a space in my schedule 2 years ago and I decided on ceramics. I enjoyed it for the year, and then I had the same problem last year, another missing spot in my schedule. So I decided to try out Advanced Placement 3D, which is mostly clay based work at my school. I was thinking it would be something fun to take up my time, and I fell in love with doing it. Honestly, I love making elaborate pieces and seeing people's reactions when I show them my work and they go, "You made this?" I love having that impact on people and being able to express ideas in a different way than writing. Because for me personally, sometimes it's hard to write out a whole essay on what you're trying to tell people, and if I can just build it, it's so much easier.
H: Feeling seen in our art practice is essential. It's a different form of communication that exists in the in-betweens of the written and the real. I'd love to hear a description of what you make and why you have chosen that medium.
V: I've tried other mediums, I've tried balsa wood, styrofoam, paper, etc. Clay is just so much more fun for me to work with. It's really moldable, you can shape it, you can move it, you can add texture to it, you can even paint it. There's just so many options you can do with it, and that's why I love working with it.
H: So you are most drawn to clay because of the process?
V: Yeah, I really like the process of building and working with clay. During the school year, I would spend up to 9 hours a week at school working on my pieces because it's so entertaining for me.
Ceramic, Envision Glaze
V: My next question for you is also about materials. I wanted to talk to you about your past solo exhibition at Mimesis Gallery in San Francisco, Landing on Soft Ground, and your use of different materials. I noted silverware, frames, and paintings, among other things. Why did you choose to use these materials specifically?
H: The starting point for this showcase was the house my great-grandparents built in Redwood City in 1940. Home facing depletion. The underlying concept in this work was attempting to avail a home for my ancestors. A memorialization of space and objects. For instance, the digital photograph, The Muted Sound of Fallen Things, is an image of a bundle of silverware gathered in a modern pink dish. Stately silverwares discovered in the basement represented the status of hunger. Owning elegant cutlery but not necessarily having access to food, or healthy food, was quite a juxtaposition I was trying to subvert. Objects segregated from their purpose. Therefore I separated these silverware from their home to find meaning anew. I framed images to make a play at the idea that it is, in fact, possible to run from oblivion. The multi-disciplinary collection of photographs ready-made in this exhibition were likely to be thrown away when the family house gets sold. Inevitable destruction. And so I brought these temporal objects into the permanent frameworks of an institution. Ephemeral contexts as systems of representations. A system of representation for Black life just doesn't exist as a permanent identity; our frames and existence are inevitably temporal and hopeless. Especially in the gentrified space of the Bay Area. So I thought, if that's the existence that I have to exist in, I'm going to work with that.
I wanted to see if I can own home by simply documenting and experiencing it. These ready-made and photographic objects were resisting a finite narrative. When something enters into the confines of a frame, it's just automatically accepted as more fine Art (capital A art); This was my nod to critiquing an institutional mode of presentation, while also exploring how it can make my family's history permanent. I wanted to see what could happen on the outside of an expected and planned narrative or plot. Plots narrated by houselessness, ownership, and knowledge of freedom through material strategy. In part, this is about the Black Lives Matter movement and modes of storytelling used as historicism in Black gothic literature. Symbols in underground folk tales that move towards the possibilities of other speeches, narration, and symbols. When I came up with the title, Landing on Soft Ground, I was inspired by a line in Zora Neale Hurston's book, Their Eyes Were Watching God:
“Ah hope you fall on soft ground, because she had heard seeds saying that to each other as they passed."
Meaning I hope to find the porous space for a new story to flourish. Porosity and aporia as the idea that a story is unfinished. Symbols of nothingness, hunger, excavated landscapes, and hope were gestures of permanency. Furthermore, the methodologies used in this work were literary, exploratory, autobiographical, and museological. You mentioned earlier that literature and the written form just can't do what art can do, which is very true, but I do still feel like there are modes of performative Black vernacular that art really can break into. And I think it's imperative that marginalized youth look to literature and our ancestors who have written such an important library of literature to understand, how do we take what our ancestors have done, and how do we continue that research?
V: That's incredible how you can have so much meaning behind a collection of artworks. Just to know that the viewer might not always see that it comes from a much deeper place within the artist, and it really does mean so much. And that's just incredible to hear you talk about it and be so passionate about your work.
H: Thank you, that's very sweet. And I love that you say that it's not immediately recognizable because it's very true. It's something I've always worked with, can the subaltern speak? Subaltern meaning ancestors whose voices have been hushed. Echoes within the margins. Voices of the unheard- marginalized voices. I don't want to speak for something that doesn't currently have the right to speak. I feel like when I create these forms and try to understand these forms of underground culture, I'm trying to talk further and further and further out of the sentence because I think that's where marginalized people exist and thrive. It's in those cracks and in those spaces of "non-existence," where we can come to find hope. There are places in writing that lie on the outside of the sentence. For instance, when you write in the margins of a book, or jazz music with no form, or footnotes in a textbook, these are spatial imaginaries that lie on the outside of the sentence. That is what I feel art is—the traditional and classic understanding of something that has become undone through abbreviation. Someone else wanted me to understand this in this way, but now this is my take on it, and it's not necessarily the exact symbols that you're supposed to recognize. Still, it's finding a new way to bring that knot in history, those traditional forms of literature and understanding, and shedding new light to reveal a new context.
V: I love that last sentence, you just said. Art really is like bringing history from the past and changing it to apply to the present.
H: But I mean it's our ancestors that have done that work for us, and it's our job to think through this inscription and think deeper.
V: To translate it! It's great how you can bring history and your ancestors, and other people's ancestors, and their work and what they've done, and bring it into something more contemporary.
H: I think that's something I struggle with too, modernity. Because to sell good work, it has to be modern, and I think that there's a lot of discrimination in that. When I use silverware, it has a historicism to it and a "pastliness". Often, museums want us to leave the past in the past, and to showcase modernity instead. So by using digital photography or new forms of assemblage, I'm taking the old, and I'm bringing it into a contemporary context. A juxtaposition that looks appeasable to a museum or institution, while also critiquing the stamp of modernity an artwork needs to be considered a valuable piece of artwork. That idea of status. Or how you can catalog something or classify something, and I'm very much not about that. I try to break away from those modes and frames of thinking, make it more relational. When that frame is gone, then we can get to that more social frame of thought. So what are the narratives that drive your work?
V: Well, the pieces you saw are actually a part of an unfinished collection that I made. That collection was about how society reacts to objects perceived as unnatural and out of the ordinary. You know currently living in modern times where society, most specifically my generation and the one before mine, no longer conform to traditional ideas of gender, sexuality, religion, race, and culture and are more self expressive since they're not as limited as to what society wants them to look like and act like and be like. So I used clay and the art of teapot and vase making due to their need of form to be functional, and I stretched the limits of shape and design, and I experimented with how far we can go without having to stay in the box we're put in. The pieces I made don't function or look like regular teapots and vases, like one teapot I made has a lid on the side where the water would just pour out if you were to fill it up. I made the collection to be unconventional and unfucntional because their appearances wouldn't function in a traditional world. So that's kind of my take on how my generation is acting now with this newfound sense of freedom.
Ceramic, Envision Glaze
H: I love that you made vessels. What did you learn about yourself from the pieces you first made to these pieces now? Do you make sure to track what you're learning from piece to piece?
V: I definitely learned that I'm more capable of success than I thought I was. When I started creating my first collection at the beginning of this year, I was shy and was doing very simple and classic designs, and I started to get bored of that. I wanted to experiment with texture and color and other materials, and I did. And it was a completely different feeling and outcome than I had previously had. With each piece I'm learning to not be afraid of stepping out of my comfort zone because if I end up ruining it, it's okay. It just wasn't meant to be. I'm learning to deal with failure.
Like Bob Ross once said, mistakes are just happy accidents. Another question I have for you is, how do you find your materials? Before, I would get them from school, but now that it's summer, I have to look elsewhere to find supplies.
H: That's honestly the hardest question. I don't even think it's me picking them. A lot of the time, I will have a vision or dreams of objects speaking to me. I dream in art. A lot of my materials come from the street; the ground is a considerable material. I don't always feel like it's my decision, sometimes I will see things in the garage that're so hideous, and I just think how I can transform the identity of this hollow object into a novel creature? It's a question of how I can make abused artifacts seem cared for? Another part of my process is writing letters to and from these things, even to historical figures. In this way, my subconscious becomes another dimension. When I'm writing to and from them, I do believe I am speaking to them. I don't think it's entirely fictitious and that that form of subconscious taps into 'double consciousness'-a phrase coined by Paul Gilroy denoting a form of metacommunication. A space for Black vernacular to operate outside of occidental knowledge and reason. It's kind of this in-between space, so I don't feel like it's my choice, they kind of just find their way to speak to me.
V: It's interesting to know that you're not actually on the hunt for things and that you mostly use the objects around you.
H: Yeah, it's a part of my recipe. And I encourage you as a young artist, to get closer to your recipe of making because the faster you get to this recipe, the more encouraged you will feel in your making. I would love to know what your recipe is?
V: I like the idea of the recipe. I definitely need to start thinking about what I am going to do and how I'm going to make my recipe.
H: We have the ability to tap into this. And if we try too hard, it will stump our thinking.
V: Exactly! That ties into my next question, which is, does the idea come before or after you start building? For me, it's always usually after. If I try too hard to think about it, it won't come out the way I envisioned.
H: In art school, it's the same thing. When I was younger, and even now, I just make and put reason to it. I don't think my work operates linearly. My work doesn't start or end, and I think it's just there, and it's up to me to help it develop. I don't think the ideas are my own like I said, my ancestors and grandparents started the research, and I'm continuing this research. Which kind of gets to who my audience is. I believe I am speaking to marginalized black youth. Often, I think I'm speaking to my past self, and trying to comfort a younger me. Art is magic, and it's a form of knowing. When does magic start and end? I don't know the answer to that, and I'm still trying to figure it out because I'm trying to struggle with my community. I don't think it can start because, with the Black Lives Matter movement, you can't be a part of it if you're not struggling with your people. And any marginalized people, if you're not feeling that pain, you can't be a part of that process. My work is not linear, and I desire to continue to grow and develop. For instance Barry McGee created an Untitled assemblage he developed from 1996 until 2004, and I loved that concept because a really rich piece of Art is alive and has the power to keep growing. This represents that our lives are a piece of art. When you have control of your identity, you have control over your eternity, and that is the biggest power that you can ever really have. Art is the trapdoor to this eternity. And so messing with that, especially at such a young age, is critical. Your inspiration comes from somewhere, and I don't think its origin is based, I don't believe we are the origins of these stories but the storytellers.
V: This has been so enlightening. I loved talking to you. Thank you so much!
H: I am grateful to have been in conversation and learn about your practice and inspirations as well!
The Quiet Self Portrait
Framed DC Print
26” x 34” x 1”