I work on each small textural painting slowly over time, and I stop when I get to a place where they are strange and I no longer understand them. I hold my paintings in my lap while working on them and even though they made of paint on canvas, I relate to them as objects. Writing is also part of my practice, and through writing both casual gestures and life changing events become intimate. I use my writing as a starting place for the paintings because even in an abstract image I want there to be absolute specificity.
Interview with Lumin Wakoa
Questions by Emily Burns
Hi Lumin, can you tell us a bit about your background and what motivated you to become an artist? How has your work evolved over time up to this moment?
I grew up in rural northern Florida way out in the woods. Behind my house is a sixty-five foot deep, spring fed sinkhole that is the truest blue you have ever seen. We swam all the time, wore clothes or didn’t, and in many ways I grew up living in my own fantasy world. I realize now that this isolated and unselfconscious childhood has shaped me as an adult and as an artist. Even living in Ridgewood surrounded by people everywhere, I often feel kind of spacious and unseen.
My father was a huge influence on me. He was always making things. He built the houses we lived in, he was an amazing draftsman and he could draw anything he saw with absolute accuracy and confidence. For a time he also taught art at the small school (Full Flower) that I attended. I have loved drawing, painting, sculpting, collaging –really just creating, for as long as I can remember. If I look back at the evolution of my work the path to now is not a straight progression. It’s difficult for me to create constraints for myself, to choose one path over another, and it takes me a long time to process what I’ve made. I still have to ask myself what I want out of a painting? A painting I’m looking at, a painting I’m making…that question for me is complex and illusive; it keeps me right at the edge of my seat.
Can you walk us through your creative process and planning stages for the paintings? Is drawing a part of your process?
Currently I do not make drawings that are plans for my paintings before I begin. I draw as a way to shift gears in the studio and to generate ideas. I have found myself making a drawing of a painting after it was finished. I’ve always kept this to myself and felt kind of embarrassed about it until I saw Thomas Nozkowski’s show where he made the drawings after he made the paintings and then paired them together for all to see. This really made me laugh, there just isn’t one right way.
You have mentioned in previous interviews that writing plays a big role in the process of making your work, how does the writing coincide with the making of the paintings?
Writing, especially writing poetry has been helpful in the studio because I see it as kind of an equivalent for what I’d like my paintings to do. I’m not interested in linear narrative, but I am very much interested in the specificity of experience. Whether I’m looking at paintings or making them, I want to be aware of difference; I want to be aware of the act of looking before I am aware of the brand. Certain poets/writers have this amazing ability to give you everything, the time of day, the weight, the light, and at the same time they give you nothing, no back story, no logic. Reality is upended and in the process the act of experience is revealed.
You have mentioned that your childhood continues to directly inspire your work and that you grew up without television, which meant that stories and oral histories were paramount to your understanding of reality—can you tell us more about how these stories manifest in the paintings?
I used to talk about my childhood more and think about it all the time. My husband jokes that I have my own personal mythology. He is right in a way. By growing up without religion and with limited access to popular culture I used the stories of my childhood and the stories that my parents told me about Vietnam and Krishnamurti and protests and Caribbean islands to define my identity. All of those stories live with me but I am less likely nowadays to need them to you in a painting.
The surfaces of your paintings have a unique texture, do you prepare the canvases prior to beginning work or is this a natural building through your process?
I use linen on panel and I gesso it quite a few times before starting a painting. I like to paint intuitively and quickly on several panels at once, then sand down the surfaces and paint over them. Sometimes a painting changes completely, but more often, it just changes slightly. I find it more exciting to respond to shapes and marks that are placed on the canvas, editing them over time, than to plan every move ahead of time.
Can you tell us more about the materials you use and the structures you build for your paintings? How important is the actual physical stretcher or canvas?
There have been times when I have played with the structure, added relief elements to the canvas, changed the overall shape of the canvas, but right now everything is about painting within the traditional rectangle of the canvas. The texture and surface, and buildup of the paint are important to me.
Your compositions often resonate as vaguely representational or landscape-esque—do you use references of any kind?
Usually I do not. I rely on memory and writing as a reference point. I will often use quick thumbnail sketches as a starting point and sometimes I will make small mock ups out of clay, cloth, and wood if I am having trouble getting a particular space in the painting.
What artists have you looked at the most over the years? Who are you looking at now?
Growing up I looked at Kathe Kollwitz, Rembrandt, Goya, Picasso, Paul Klee, Ben Shahn, and Georgia O’Keefe. These were the artists my father loved so we had prints and books of theirs in our house. More recently I have been looking at Giorgio Morandi, Milton Avery, Charles Burchfield, Howard Hodgkin, Charline Von Heyl, and Mary Heilmann.
What is a typical day like for you?
I have a four year old daughter, so my mornings and evenings revolve around her and family time. From 9:30 to 4:30 Monday–Friday I am either teaching or in the studio.
What type of studio scenario do you need to get work done? Can you tell us a bit about your workspace? What are absolute necessities in the studio?
I can work in a small space but I have to have a window. I don’t need to be able to see out of it, but natural light and the ability to feel time passing and daylight changing is essential for me. I have a table/area for non-painting stuff, like food, books, music, etc. then the rest of the studio is for making messes in. I sometimes paint holding the canvas in my lap, or on the floor, or on a small easel. I was trained to work on the wall, but something about that bothers me so I stopped doing it. I have to have good overhead lights as well. A combination of fluorescents and track lighting usually does the trick.
Is there anything that significantly supports or destroys your mood or energy in the studio?
Hearing loud music that I would rather not listen to through the studio wall from a neighboring tenant is annoying. I then have to turn my music up loud and have a music war, which kind of destroys the mood.
Has there ever been a book/essay/poem/film/etc that totally changed or influenced you? What are you reading right now?
If I am feeling stuck or stale, I pick up American Primitive by Mary Oliver or almost anything my Louise Gluck. I have quite a few books of poetry in the studio but these two authors are my go to favorites. They are able to clear my head and open me up in a way that almost nothing else can. As for subway reading or reading for pleasure in the evening, right now I’m racing through Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation. Its especially fun for me because the fictional “Area X” is based on the actual Saint Marks Wildlife Refuge, which is about five miles from where I grew up. We went there often and all of his descriptions of the lighthouse and alligators and the way the sky changes color remind me of home.
What do you listen to while you work? Is this an important part of being in the studio?
If no one around me is making lots of noise, my first choice is to work in silence. The studio is my place to be alone, be in my head, to write, to paint, to recharge, and I actually really enjoy just the ambient noise of traffic, doors opening and closing, or the occasional muffled conversation. If there is some overpowering music or conversation that is not distant enough to blend into the background, I use music to drown out the other person. I get most my music mostly from my husband; Max Richter just came into our house and I have been enjoying listening to that.
Any advice from your past that has stuck with you or helped you?
Lots of little bits of practical advice are always echoing in my head from past teachers. I can’t think of much at the moment except that one should always clean up the studio before leaving. For me this is definitely true, it really bums me out to come into a messy studio in the morning.
How important is the place where you live to your studio practice? This could include geographic location, city, neighborhood, community, etc.
Right now its just important that my studio is not too far away from where I live because I’m juggling lots of things, family, teaching, and art.
What are your go-to ways to find out about interesting shows or artists?
Word of mouth usually. The See Saw app is great as well.
What is one of the things that might be most beneficial to your career as an artist at this point?
A residency close to home, lots of time and space to work with a great community of peers!
How do you view technology and social media and has any particular platform or tool impacted you as an artist?
Instagram has been useful for increased exposure but it also has its drawbacks. Sometimes it just becomes a way to waste time.
From other interviews, it sounds like you have lived in a lot of interesting places—places that are close to nature, in particular. What is it like living in New York City now after growing up in more rural environments?
It doesn’t really make sense but I love NYC. I have a garden and in many ways that is enough. I love the neighborhoods of New York, the walkability, the trains, all of the movement and bustle. I love the old buildings and the vibrancy of the parks. I love all of the people crowded together on the subways, and I love the seasons here. Most of all I love the accessibility and quality of the art and the community of artists who are collaborative, competitive, and vibrant.
What is one of the best exhibitions you have seen recently?
“Now and Forever the art of Medieval Time” at the Morgan Library was an exquisite, intimate show. I also really enjoyed learning about the ways in which time was experienced and illustrated in the Middle Ages.
Besides art, what are some of the things that interest you or that you enjoy the most?
Gardening, camping, exploring, traveling, writing, teaching, playing with my daughter, spending time with my family.
Do you have any news, shows, residencies or projects coming up?
Some things in the works but nothing that I can talk about yet!
Thanks so much for sharing your work and talking with us!
To find out more about Lumin and her work, check out her website.