Before her fellow Artist-in-Residence Xia Zhang hopped off to her next opportunity, Paige Ward sat down with Xia to chat about her work and her experience at Arrowmont. Check out their conversation below.
PW: Tell me a little bit about yourself.
XZ: I was born in Southern China, grew up in suburban Maryland, and did a lot of schooling in Western PA and West Virginia. I did a residency with Sonoma Ceramics right after grad school and stayed on as a studio tech for a year before I came to Arrowmont.
PW: Were you very creative as a child? What is one of your earliest creative memories?
XZ: Until I was 6, I lived in a farming village in China, so for me, playing meant going into the fields with my grandfather and finding little vegetable nubs and chopping things up and playing with slugs – like dirty stuff. Which is essentially what I do now, you know? I basically play with dirt. But I think creative expression wasn’t really considered to be a career path for me. I never thought of it as something that I could pursue. It was something that I just did my whole life.
PW: I am a firm believer in us having an inclination towards our chosen career in our childhood. Having said that, did you always know that you wanted to be an artist?
XZ: Well I remember in second grade we learned all about manatees and what it means to be an entrepreneur and I decided that I wanted to be a manatee entrepreneur – whatever that meant. I just remember that I wanted to work for myself but I also wanted to protect manatees because they were endangered, and I just thought that they were really sweet.
When I was in college at Slippery Rock University, I went through a lot of majors. I thought that I wanted to be a physical therapist and then I thought I wanted to be an elementary education teacher and then I wanted to be a geographer and then I wanted to be a historian. So I finished my degree in history and I even took my GREs, because I was planning to get my Masters in conservation work. I took a semester of ceramics as an elective, and I really didn’t like it, but I took another class because I wanted to prove something. Then it began to click for me. I decided I wanted to get a BA in Art in addition to my degree in History, so I spent another semester at Slippery Rock taking a bunch of 3D classes like fibers and metalsmithing. I didn’t really come to decide that I wanted to be an artist until I was 21.
PW: Were you studying art history or what kind of history specifically?
XZ: Ancient history specifically, but I took a lot of art history classes as well, so I do have a minor in that. I wanted to be a forever student, really. And I feel like I get to do that with art because I get to learn new mediums, processes, and histories of art.
PW: Do you feel that having that degree in history with a minor in art history is still important to your practice today?
XZ: Absolutely. I have always been fascinated with history because it is essentially stories of consequence. History is a big part of my repertoire and vocabulary as an artist because if we are going through something as a society, we can reflect on the past to look at other instances where something similar has happened. History can be a very important teaching tool for us today.
PW: Clay is traditionally a craft-based medium and so are fibers and metalsmithing in the ways that you described them. So how do you define yourself and your practice within the greater art/craft world?
XZ: I would say that my work is conceptual craft because I use process as my medium, and process is a lot of what I am trying to convey through my work. By working in such a repetitive manner with materials that are hand based, it allows me to fully consider all of the experiences that I have gone through. Process is very rooted in my personal history. My ancestors worked the fields in China. My mother works in a process way, in a factory where she is using her hands to create something for mass consumption. It took me a while to consider myself as someone who works in craft just because it has such a specific image in a lot of people’s heads of what craft looks like and should function. I use the idea and history of craft in a personal and cultural way.
PW: As a person working in ceramics today, how do you see the field of ceramics evolving?
XZ: There are a lot more interdisciplinary practices happening in clay. The future of ceramics could be very exciting as it becomes more intersectional with people of different backgrounds, with work that is more conceptual. Work that could be interactive or performance based. Slowly, there’s room opening up to include anyone who wants to be involved in contemporary ceramics.
PW: We’ve talked a lot about your path of getting to where you are as an artist, but can you speak more about the content behind your work?
XZ: I am an artist who works with ceramics, sculpture, photo, video, and recorded performance. I make work about the effects of colonialism on personal and collective scales. The work is autobiographical because I firmly believe in the phrase “the personal is political” in order to cross barriers, to use experiences as a way to connect to a wider audience. I reference a lot of historical preconceived notions, stereotypes, and erased histories in order to place my work on a firm foundation.
I create autobiographical work rooted in history, tradition, and contemporary popular culture to speak about injustices that I feel are prevalent to being an East Asian American woman today. Some of those issues that I combat are fetishization and exoticism of East Asian women as well as the model minority myth. I used to feel singular in my experiences with racism, but when I look at history, it allows me to see the roots of these issues. I’ve learned through art and popular culture that my experiences are tied in some degree to many other people of color who face discrimination. History has the tendency to steamroll over us because history has largely been written and taught by the “winners” who are very often white men.
PW: Has this been a common interest or motivation throughout your studio practice?
XZ: I wasn’t always so interested in trying to change sociocultural ideas. Rather, it used to be more about belongingness. I created a lot of work at first about that feeling of not belonging somewhere. It took me a couple of projects to figure out why I didn’t quite belong and so my work is almost equated with how I feel in my own skin. I used to be very uncomfortable in my own skin. Art has helped me to understand why, and to realize that it is a social and cultural thing, and to find some level of peace while still calling out injustice. I think that my perspective on things is very different from 10 years ago because I have learned a lot about myself and the world around me.
PW: So, it’s not a personal problem for a specific individual, it’s a more universal problem?
XZ: Well, yes and no because yes, it is personal and all of our personal experiences affect us in our own ways, and while I might have had similar experiences to others, they will never be the same as someone else’s experiences. It’s really about putting representation out for other young people to know that we are more than our stereotypes. That we can be whoever we want to be.
PW: I guess what I meant is that those injustices that you are describing aren’t happening to an individual just because of who that individual is intrinsically, but it’s more because of this universal stereotype of a certain group of people in a way?
XZ: Yes. My experiences of being a Chinese American woman are different than those of a Chinese American man or from a Chinese woman. The variety pack of discrimination is unique to each group based on where you are in the world.
PW: So your work has evolved from individual belongingness to greater sociocultural issues that are universal to your specific community?
XZ: Yes, socio-cultural. Our society affects us on an emotional scale and so my work is about the internal and external worlds, both tied to labor. The emotional and physical labor of just existing in a hostile landscape that might not necessarily want you to be there, which is where the emotional labor comes in and that sense of belongingness. Wanting to belong in a space that doesn’t really want you. My work used to primarily be about that feeling, but I think that it has evolved to include a lot of other explorations and investigations through history and popular culture.
PW: So you have talked about how it has evolved conceptually, but do you think technically it has evolved from the beginning?
XZ: I’ve always liked to learn new techniques and mediums. Often times, I begin with an idea of what I want for a future piece and so I have to think about what material will complement the idea. If the material is conceptually important, I will try to learn it. This year, I started using a lot more silicone to reflect ideas of translucency and longevity.
PW: With your ceramics process, I know that you talk a lot about using the multiple. I see that in a lot of ways as a representation of the labor that you mentioned. If this is true, can you speak about conveying that idea of labor through your use of the multiple specifically?
XZ: I use the multiple in a way to either fill a space or a segment of space. I want to use multiples of something in a way that makes people feel things viscerally.
PW: How do you think the multiple controls how someone feels?
XZ: The first installation piece that I did was a big wall piece called, “Belongingness” and it consisted of many panels that held these really small wheel-thrown cylindrical tubes that I called holes. They were different widths and heights and there must have been thousands of them. When they were all assembled together and you went toward the piece, it seemed to move with you because it was kind of an illusion in a way. I wanted to create a sinking feeling with that piece so that it would overwhelm the viewer. And that is what I wanted to communicate: an overwhelming feeling that just sits with you. With a recent piece, “Under the Weight of Model Minority Tears / Truck Nuts,” I wanted to communicate a physical burden to show the visual effects of stereotypes and fragile masculinity.
PW: Changing gears a little bit, do you think that your work has evolved over the course of this residency?
XZ: I think that my work has evolved because I have never used so much color in my work. Being in a supportive community of artists has been very nurturing for my studio practice. There used to be a lot more angst in my work, but I feel supported in trying to communicate the messages that I’m interested in, and I think that shows. I believe my work is now more firmly rooted in conviction.
PW: How did you first hear about Arrowmont?
XZ: I think that I first heard about Arrowmont when I was in grad school because one of the instructors at WVU was Jen Allen and she teaches at Arrowmont quite a bit. She emphasized the nurturing nature of this place. I was interested in residencies that have a network of people to interact with. I wanted to make my work within a community rather than in a bubble. I was really attracted to the professional practices that the residency offered and the exhibition possibilities. I also thought it would be interesting to live with 4 strangers for a year because they would be my peers in the contemporary craft world, and I wanted to see how others approached their studio practice. The private studio space was also very attractive since I had a lot of ideas that I had been itching to create. That skylight!
PW: During this residency what would you say have been some of the most valuable experiences?
XZ: I really enjoy living and working with 4 other artists. I think that has been invaluable in spending that quality time with a group of individuals who are also creatively inclined. I learned so many things from this group that I didn’t think I would learn, like how someone might organize their applications or structure their artist statements. I got so much feedback. I think I learned the most with the other residents because we are all on the same track and we are in a very similar place in our art careers and so learning how others approach the things that I might be struggling with has been really helpful. I also enjoyed gaining gallery experience because I was able to learn the steps of how to prepare a show, how to do condition reporting, how to treat work, what works for installing in a space and what doesn’t work, how to ship work, and what not to do, so those have been really valuable for me as an artist.
PW: Do you feel like this residency achieved your goals?
XZ: I think that it did. I gained a lot of experience teaching which I wanted to do as well because every demographic is different and some people may learn in a different way and so being able to learn from my students in that manner has been very beneficial. I believe that this has been one of my most valuable experiences.
PW: I totally agree. So based on your experience with Arrowmont this year, how do you see Arrowmont playing a role in community education and supporting artists and craftspeople?
XZ: The community classes at Arrowmont provide an opportunity for the local community to come learn something different and new. Some students have come to Arrowmont for many years, but because of the variety of resident artists who teach those classes, there are always different methods or mediums taught here every year. It keeps the interest of students who come here. The scholarship matching program for the national workshops also helps to bring in younger students from universities. I think that is so beneficial to young makers. It gives them the opportunity to have a broader experience outside of academia. It introduces students to other ways in which they can create.
With the work-study program, I think people are given the opportunity to learn about a lot of other instructors who are teaching classes and the ways in which an institution like Arrowmont functions as well as the number of hands it requires to run. And you know that is also a very valuable experience to have because you are also meeting other younger makers.
PW: What is next for you, Xia!?
XZ: I will be participating in a residency this summer called The Growlery that is right in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco. And I’ll be teaching in the fall!
You may view more of Xia’s work on her website, www.xiayzhang.com.