Christina and I were meant to meet. She is one of the select artists who sell their work through Uprise Art, an online art gallery founded by one of my past brides, Tze Chun. And she also works as the Creative Coordinator at Poppies & Posies, which is how we ultimately met briefly in person, while she was setting up florals at a wedding I was photographing. Somewhere through these connections we started following and supporting each other’s work and, after this interview, I understand better why we are so connected and why I am drawn to her work. It expresses how I feel deep down when I am at peace, how I always want to feel, and how I want my photographs to feel: light, quiet, and alive.
Christina invited me into her new light filled studio about an hour north of NYC back in late April, and she was so full of insight that it has taken me some time to digest all the things she shared. On some topics, I only realized what she was saying until weeks later. This is not at all because Christina speaks in a complicated, arrogant artist way. Just the opposite. Like her work, her words are clean and simple but they hold a deeper meaning for the attuned listener. This was our conversation.
I’ve never seen anything like your work. What is your inspiration process?
I keep my eyes open. And apparently I’m really obsessed with circles. The porcelain I’ve been working on for the last 5 years, it’s the Murmurations series, those I’m pretty sure started with a barnacle shape, and I wanted something that was more approachable and less specific. When I was in art school I was really attracted to trying to figure out the different meanings to each approach to work. It could be as simple as ‘I really like the shape of a circle’. And because it’s an impression of me, because they are my thumbprints, but in an really abstract way. But I have always been interested in how the body plays a way in work that is quiet. That is how that started. But as far as inspiration in general, being outside and being in nature is also really important.
I always try to stay awake and aware. And that is something that really helps. Because I could feel inspired by the way light reflects on the side of a building in Manhattan or something as simple as the birds that fly by here (in upstate New York). And I’m lucky lately, I haven’t had to try very hard. The world is just a very inspiring place right lately. I find that often, light in general – reflective light, light on the water – is something I see.
How does the inspiration translate? Do you write ideas down in a notebook?
I have lots of different notebooks in different places. Or tiny little sketches where I have time to wash a painting together. I keep one by my bed too. That happens a lot because your mind is so rested and relaxed. Having this space is really cool because I’m able to make physical sketches and leave them around. It is important to have room to tack something to the wall and see it every day and see how it changes.
At what point do you retire a series?
I think I’m getting close with the Murmurations series. I was feeling really ready, and then I came into this space and it was completely rejuvenating to me for whatever reason. So I’m not done yet. And it is a combination of people still really loving it. And I’m just a little pickier about the jobs I take because I want to do ones that are really special at this point. I actually just ordered a bunch of new glazes that have a crystal effect to them and I’ve been introducing terra cotta into them, which is also different and took a little while because people kept seeing the gold and the porcelain and wanting that. And there is only so many of those that I can do because then it starts to feel formulaic and that is not as exciting. I’m going to wait until it feels like I’m done. At this point I’ve done almost 20. It’s not like I’m going to stop at 30 or 25. I’m just going to stop when it no longer feels fresh.
Customization requests from clients. How far do you go so it’s still yours.
It is tricky. The cool thing about site specific work is that you can make something catered to a specific person. Whereas with a sculpture or a painting, they are buying what they see. With this series I think it’s really great to work with someone and their space and suggest things that are specific to what they live in already. I work with designers a lot to get swatches and make site visits to see who walks through, how they pause, where the light is. So there definitely have been times when people have ideas that I disagree with, and I always try to convince them to trust me which is tricky. But I find if I can just meet with people and talk with them, I can make samples or show them the combination I think works best or bring them to the space and say this is why I think this works. Usually most people say, We like what you do, and we trust you going forward. As far as the installation, I provide a sketch. Some people say, come here and do whatever you want, and that is the best. But even when I do provide a sketch, I always tell people, “This is a sketch. You are getting a site specific installation so if I get there and map out the sketch and it feels wrong, I will edit to my liking, but I promise it’s going to be for a good reason”.
There was a specific time at this lobby installation I did on 5th avenue – The designer was really concerned about my not wrapping the installation around the corner. And it was the most exciting part to me because that is where you would start to see it. If you were a person like me who was looking all the time, you would notice it and then all of a sudden move around the corner and see this whole swell of work. The little details are what really keep it alive to me. She said, please don’t do that, I don’t think they are going to like it. So I said, you’ve just got to trust me on this. I saved it to the very end and told her, I’m going to do it, but I can take it off, and it ended up being her favorite part. I’ve learned to trust my instincts, but a lot of people don’t feel confident in that. So if they don’t trust you, you just have to push them a little and hopefully they come around.
Do you work mostly with mostly designers or average home owner?
It’s a pretty even balance. I work with Uprise Art on about 80% of my work. They are awesome at being the middle man, but because of my history doing displays for Anthropologie and Free People, I’m pretty good at explaining things to people who don’t understand art. That is not something a lot of artists can do because it’s such a personal space. It’s frustrating to me too, but I’ve learned how to not make it personal. That’s been a valuable skill set to learn.
Trusting instincts. Can you explain how you do that?
I used to be way more type A than I am now. And I used to be really rigid and there was a time where I used to be, “This is my plan and I’m sticking to my plan”. And I had this sculpture professor who just kicked my butt. She said, all you need to do is come with way more materials than you need every time and you need to take risks and not be afraid. But a lot of times it’s just you telling yourself that, not practicing it. I really attribute a lot of my fearlessness and ability to listen to instincts to her.
In my thesis project, which I did soon after my grandfather passed, I was trying to build this space where I cut the gallery short and built a faux wall. Then I took the door to the cellar of the house my grandfather built, because I loved the image of the door that was to something deeper in a home that maybe had more to say. I took that door, and that was the way you entered. It looked like the gallery just stopped and then there was this door. You opened the door and it was all of his old collared shirts. They were abstract enough that anyone could look at these mens shirts and not necessarily place them in a time or person. In all my work, I never want it to be super overt. I want people to think whatever they want to think about it. I built this wall and had them all starched and painted on the wall, so it was this wallpaper of mens shirts. And then she came in, her name was Deb. She said, Honey! What are you doing? This isn’t breathing. You have to pull them off the wall. And I was done as far as I was concerned. And she physically took one of the shirts and pulled it off the wall. The reason I hadn’t taken the risk to pull them off is because I didn’t know how I’d get them back the other way. As soon as she pulled them off the wall I thought ‘Oh my gosh, this is a totally different and better piece because it breathes’. And all of a sudden you saw the pattern of the shirts inside because they weren’t painted, and it completely came alive. She did the scariest thing I could have imagined. And now, I don’t think there is an installation I’ve done where I haven’t thought about that experience and how not pushing past my rigidness would have hindered me. I think that contributes to listening to myself. Learning to trust your intuition is a lot about not being afraid of it.
At this point when I plan an installation I still really plan, but just enough to stay awake and aware, so if something leads unexpectedly I can listen to the work and let it guide me where it wants to go. Sometimes I could be fighting with a material that doesn’t want to do what I want it to do. So I think, OK what if I do what it is telling me, so I try that. It is still really hard, I’m still learning to listen to my intuition but I’m getting a lot better. I think it’s because I don’t take things too seriously anymore.
Priorities for me are planning and really having fun with it. The having fun with it part is the part that helps me listen to my intuition.
It’s supposed to be fun. So how do you handle negative thoughts.
There are usually moments in every piece where I get to the point where I hate it. It happens almost every time and I remind myself, keep working, and you’ll go past this, and it’ll be ok. Just don’t stop and fixate on this, just push through it and keep working. That works for me. Keep going, what else can you do.
How long does it take to get to the point where you are ready to show a new series?
This [Dichotomous Air series] is something that was created specifically for Etsy. I was approached by the art manager who was in charge of finding new artists to install at their headquarters in Dumbo. We proposed two different ideas – one was the root thing. Etsy is such a green company that they wanted to make sure it wasn’t something that would contribute to global warming. It was tricky and sometimes frustrating to work within those rules, but also restricting yourself in some ways helps creatively which was a really cool thing. I’ve been wanting to use this oppulecent plexiglass but I knew plastics wouldn’t be good. So I called my sister who is a scientist and asked her – what material can you think of that is plentiful on this earth that has some sort of cool translucent surface? I actually call her for a lot of things because she thinks of these things in a very different way as a coastal biologist. She said, What about mica?
So I wanted to make this canopy of mica material and to be honest it is completely different in the space I installed it in than I intended. I was waking up at night thinking it’s going to be different, and it was, but it is different in a beautiful way. That is a perfect example that it didn’t come out as I planned or experienced here in my studio. It does things in my space on a white wall. And when we brought it into Etsy it was totally different. So we had to problem solve in the space and we gave ourselves enough time. Rather the light shines through it and makes this diffused amber canopy which is cool too.
I’m so excited about the material I’ve continued to work with it in my own space. It’s not available through Uprise yet, but it will be. I have ideas.
How do you protect time in your schedule for new ideas.
Honestly I didn’t used to have time when I was working in a corner of my tiny apartment. So I didn’t have the physical space to play and let things happen. So maybe that is why. I finally have this space where my ideas can manifest themselves whereas before, it was ideas in my sketch book. If I can, I try to leave a little part of the day when I’m in here to explore other stuff. The other day I really felt like painting, and I did even though I had deadlines but I just needed to let myself do it for an hour. It was important and it helped. I think it’s important to feed that hunger. Even if it’s just a little bit. It keeps the other work alive and breathing to be able to explore something that feels really intense at the moment.
Something I love about your work is that it feels light. Where does that comes from?
When I’m making work, I want it to feel quiet and I want it to allow you to occupy the space at your own pace. And it’s like in the morning at breakfast when it’s quiet and it’s so contemplative to me. I go through phases where I write in the morning and it’s the most meditative space for me every day. That’s one way I can describe it. It’s that quiet and that really patient purposefully quiet time is what I try to bring to the work I’m doing. And keeping it very neutral in color and very earthy allows it to be more approachable. Using materials that are very earthy – like clay and roots – but using them in a way that they aren’t just clay and roots, they are manipulated or connected in a way that changes them from how you are used to seeing them. For me, that is why light is so important. Because the way light plays on things is such a quiet exploration of life.
You can find more about Christina’s work on her website www.christinawatka.com and follow her at @christinawatka.