A studio of one’s own

Three working artists find reflection and inspiration when they make the Mills campus their home base in a semester-long residency program.

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Zarouhie Abdalian in her Mills studio

Artists in residence are awarded the gift of time and space to explore, share, and create  

By Sarah J. Stevenson, MFA ’04, photos by Phil Bond

Residence. The word itself evokes notions of home, of place, of wholly inhabiting a particular spot. It is a fundamental way of looking at our existence in the world: a stable starting point against which we measure movement and change. It is the place we return to at the end of each day “out there” in the world, and it is the place where journeys inevitably begin.

The three participants in a new artist-in-residency program, Art+Process+Ideas, made Mills their home base through the spring semester, and their artistic explorations culminated in June with an exhibition at the Mills College Art Museum showcasing the results of six months of reflection, creative investigation, and interaction with the campus and surrounding community.

Artists Zarouhie Abdalian, Jacqueline Kiyomi Gordon, and Weston Teruya were selected by a committee of museum staff and art department faculty in part because of their focus on site-specific artwork: art that questions our relationship to our immediate surroundings, whether engaging its physical aspects, as with Gordon’s sound art, or connecting with its social and political history, as demonstrated by Teruya’s partially collaborative paper sculptures and Abdalian’s installations.

By bringing an artist to a discrete, specific location in order to create new works, the very idea of an “artist-in-residence” seems to demand attention to issues of place and space. New surroundings can have a profound influence on an artist and her work—a physical transition can prompt a fresh perspective or a drastic upheaval—and in turn the artist brings something new, vibrant, and exciting to the place she temporarily calls home.

Revitalization and rejuvenation were very much on the minds of A+P+I organizers Catherine Wagner, professor and chair of the art department, and Stephanie Hanor, director of the Mills College Art Museum. After a period that saw the unexpected death of sculpture Professor Anna Murch and the retirement of longtime department luminaries Ron Nagle and Hung Liu, a residency seemed a perfect way to re-energize the practice of art on campus and to provide a needed support for working artists.

Wagner had recently returned from a year at the American Academy in Rome. As a recipient of the Rome Prize, she was one of a select group of scholars and artists who gain the opportunity to push their practice forward in an environment with a rich and long-running cultural legacy. “I was recognizing how important it is to have a beautiful space to work away from where you live, a place to be able to go to and simply be creative,” Wagner says.

Stephanie Hanor saw the A+P+I program as a prime opportunity for Mills to step in and provide such a space. “We had three studio spaces available, and each artist could use the facilities on campus and have access to the faculty,” she says. “Part of our mission as an academic art museum is to be a laboratory for contemporary art practices.”

Jacqueline Kiyomi Gordon considers her work in progress.

“We wanted to give these artists uninterrupted time to create new work,” adds Wagner. “We also wanted the campus to be in some ways an inspiration, because it’s both in the middle of the city but still kind of a retreat. Less than a third of the approximately 500 artist residency programs in North America are in urban areas—and yet, these are some of the areas whose artists are most in need.

 “When I came back from Rome, many artists were leaving San Francisco because they couldn’t afford studio space,” Wagner says. In fact, artists from all over San Francisco have been priced out of their studio spaces and their homes—especially in the vibrant and growing Mission District, a neighborhood that was once a hub of thriving artistic activity, from colorful public murals to cutting-edge collaboratives.

Many of those artists and galleries chose to take their chances with the less exorbitant real estate market in the East Bay. Weston Teruya’s project Means of Exchange (25th and Telegraph) directly involves one of these displaced art spaces: Spun Smoke, a new storefront gallery in Oakland’s arty Uptown. Intrigued by the idea of what it means to live and work in this distinctive location, consisting of “small, mostly culturally specific storefronts,” Teruya decided to coordinate with existing businesses around the gallery to do “sculptural exchanges”—collaborative works that utilize the expertise of neighboring tenants. For Teruya, this was a critical entry point for starting a dialogue about the activity and life of the neighborhood itself.

Over the course of three exchanges, he’s consulted with the vinyl record store across the way to create a paper-sculpture turntable with a flexidisc that actually plays, made paper clothes for the dry cleaning business down the street and had them to make “alterations,” and built a functioning megaphone made of paper for a nearby community organizer. These items were on display at the Mills College Art Museum over the summer, and Teruya is working toward the next iteration of the project to be exhibited at Sweetow’s space.

“One of the reasons I like paper sculptures is because they evoke architectural models, or the idea of creating a representation or projection of a space,” Teruya says. “I often use my installations to pull out or isolate certain dynamics within a place.” Exploring the implications of geography is an ongoing theme in Teruya’s career. He grew up in Hawaii, where mountains and ocean served as constant wayfinders. When he moved to the crowded, flat, mountain-ringed Los Angeles basin, he became explicitly aware of how deeply physical and cultural landscape affected his way of being in the world. “That shift really made me aware of the impact of place on my sense of belonging and navigating space.”

Like many artists, Teruya had been using part of his garage as a studio space, which doesn’t always foster the ability to produce freely and creatively. The residency provided dedicated space for art, enabling the artists to develop fresh perspectives on both new and existing projects. At Mills, Teruya shared an adjoining studio with Abdalian, who notes, “It takes a while to get settled in a different space. The physical setup changed. I felt like the structure of my day also changed.”

The residency also offered the privileges and opportunities of an academic environment.

“Liberal arts colleges are a perfect place to be an artist-in-residence,” says Wagner. A great deal of cross-curricular collaboration becomes possible when an artist has access to the physical and intellectual resources of an entire campus. Wagner and Hanor specifically sought out artists with interdisciplinary approaches to artmaking who would make the most of the chance to branch out.

Sound artist Jacqueline Kiyomi Gordon, who chose to live on campus during the six months of her residency, found a natural fit in working closely with faculty and students in the music department, as well as in ceramics—her works Linda and Tammy 3 feature handmade acoustic diffuser tiles. Combined with other materials such as felt, aluminum, and silk scarves, the ceramic tiles serve to alter the tones emitted from high-frequency directional speakers.

Technical as it sounds, the process has sometimes felt more like play than work—an important aspect of artmaking for Gordon. “All this time to play and experiment and explore enables me to be very in tune and very intuitive.”

Interactions with students and the community were also a major component of the residency. Open studios, public lectures, and artist talks attracted visitors from beyond the Mills campus. Studio visits with graduate students were a part of the program, and each of the artists-in-residence also led a creative workshop open to students from any discipline. Abdalian presented an informal survey of contemporary and historic site-based work, followed by a set of written prompts to get the students thinking site-specifically about various locations around the Mills campus and beyond. Teruya, who also works for the San Francisco Arts Commission, put together a grant-writing workshop for students.

Gordon’s workshop on musical scoring and the language and vocabulary of listening was one of her favorite parts of the entire residency experience. “I’d already done studio visits with most of the students who showed up at the workshop,” she says, and that prior knowledge of her audience was invaluable when it came to establishing a real connection with the student artists. “It really felt good to show them what I do, and, because I knew their own interests, I was able to talk about my work in ways that I knew they could respond to.”

Having the space and time to reflect on her own work was a great benefit for Zarouhie Abdalian as well. Indeed, space and time themselves are key elements in Abdalian’s installation art, which she characterizes as not simply site-specific but “context-specific,” engaging with the social and political history of a location. A vibrant example is her 2013 public commission in downtown Oakland, Occasional Music, which consisted of brass bells pre-programmed to ring at varying times and in a randomized pattern. Bells, of course, have a myriad of associations, from festivals to emergencies to the regulation of our lives via clock time. The project resonated symbolically as well as literally: the work was installed through January 2014 at Frank H. Ogawa Plaza, the site of Oakland City Hall—whose own clock tower is empty of bells.

Abdalian used the residency period to extend prior investigations such as Occasional Music beyond their sites of origin, and to deepen her relationship with her work. The titled drawings she exhibited in the culminating exhibition directly reference specific earlier installations, delving even more deeply into issues of history and meaning for each piece and creating “a visual and textual language” that provides her with yet another avenue for analyzing her work.

“Importantly, I am doing analysis in a way that can be generative of future works,” she says.

Wagner stresses that this is a major purpose of the residencies. “There’s a lot of research that goes into the daily practice of making art. For some it’s an intuitive response to the place that they’re in; for others it’s repetition over and over again; but every artist is engaged with process before he or she can actually make the work.”

Weston Teruya creates an installation piece.

Wagner and Hanor are eager to revisit the year’s successes and refine their strategy for a second iteration of the residency program in spring 2016 (pending funding). The two foresee a continued focus on strengthening the ties between the campus and the wider community, even greater potential for cross-departmental collaboration, and opportunities to enrich the student experience both for art majors and for those in other fields.

“Mills has always housed artists,” says Wagner. For instance, during World War II, the Mills Summer Sessions brought in a cadre of well-known European musicians, dancers, choreographers, and visual artists who were escaping Nazi persecution. Artists such as Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, Fernand Leger, Max Beckmann, and Alexander Archipenko were invited to teach at Mills for the summer and hold solo exhibitions on campus.

“So much art comes from ideas,” says Wagner. “We are always looking at times in which we live, how past history has shaped culture.”

Mills’ own past history as a sanctuary for artist-scholars resonates throughout this new creative endeavor, and the Art Department is well on its way to making history yet again, providing up-and-coming interdisciplinary artists a welcome stopover on their creative journeys.