How would you describe your relationship with failure? Is there any advice you give to young people about dealing with the disappointment that is a natural part of any career?
I guess I am curious to hear how people define “failure.” “Failure” tends to be set up in relationship to “success” and I am a bit wary of both terms being used as absolutes. Life is so beautifully complex!
I explored a lot of different paths personally and professionally before my current work as an artist and educator, and there were many moments along the way where I felt self-conscious or worried about the circuitous path I was traveling. I often did not have confidence that I was “on the right path,” but I did follow my values and curiosity, and sometimes took jobs, like working as a clerk at a little health food store in DC, just to make some money and have some time to think.
I have always sought out relationships with people, both peers and mentors, who I respect and who inspire me. It has undoubtedly been important in my own journey (and continues to be!) to have people with a philosophical disposition who wrestle with questions about why they do what they do and what this all means. Being existentially oriented has brought along periods of feeling alienated and alone, so it has been a real lifeline for me to find connection and community with others who can relate to waves of doubt and confusion, who ponder the big questions, and with whom I can laugh, collaborate, and play.
You worked in environmental and social justice advocacy for a while, including apprenticing on farms and working on farmland preservation before attending MICA in your late twenties. Can you tell me about how that career shift came about?
I was always very much oriented towards art and in high school was in the art club, but I was the child of a single parent who also immigrated to the United States and who herself was the daughter of a single parent, a single mother. So I think there was a sort of ingrained idea that I think is pretty common, which is you don’t go to art school—that’s not what you’re going to do.
Moving to the United States for me was very impactful because I was 10; I sort of came of age in my political consciousness and I was really aware that I had not learned the history of Germany in Germany, and my peer group included a lot of kids who were in Jewish families. [As a result], my social experience of coming of age was really connected with my developing self-awareness around histories of genocide and histories of dispossession. I ended up pursuing that in college because I was very influenced by growing up without awareness. I went to American University with the idea that I would go into diplomacy, but while I was there, I became more aware of environmental issues. When I was graduating, I thought, oh, I’m going to become a human rights lawyer. I got a job thankfully with this really amazing organization, the Center for International Environmental Law, and worked for them for a couple of years, working on climate change and biodiversity issues.
After a year in DC, I went to Geneva, Switzerland, to work as an office manager [for CIEL] and while I was there became very disenchanted when I saw the sort of jet-setting that was happening in the international environmental community. I had some really great colleagues that saw that I wanted a more grounded experience in these issues and they were like, oh, have you thought about working on farms? So that sent me off for some years of doing that kind of work farming.
[I attended the] Kyoto climate change convention as a very young delegate, and because I didn’t know how to contribute, I was making these illustrations. One political cartoon that showed Al Gore on a tightrope got picked up by a newspaper. That made me reflect on the power of art, because I had always thought in high school, oh, you go to art school if you’re a really good painter, but I didn’t really understand the relationship between artistic activity and social movement work. So I think the seeds were really there early on but it took me a while to pursue it.
As someone whose path to the MICA Fiber department has been circuitous, do you believe that people find the community that they’re supposed to be in or do you feel like you had to direct your own path? Was it inevitable you would end up where you are now?
I appreciate that question. I think that is the big existential question of life—am I doing what I should be doing? I keep going back to a moment I had with a lawyer I worked for at CIEL where I was really starting to think about how do you know which direction to go in life? I was like 23 or something like that and he said, “I feel like I could have also ended up being an ornithologist. I was really interested in birds and biology and I would be just as happy. And I just ended up here.”
What I do think about a lot is that I don’t have a terminal degree in fine arts, I have a degree in teaching. I have an MAT, not an MFA, which is very unusual for someone teaching studio art in the college environment. And so, to answer that question, I often feel some level of being a misfit, not in the sense of being a misfit in the colloquial sense of the word, but like being a missed fit. Like there are parts of myself that don’t really fit within the predominant model for where I’m sitting. And at times that feels like a sign that I’m in the wrong place. And at other times there is validation that comes back to me from the community that I’m a part of that it is precisely the fact that I bring other skillsets to my work that makes me actually be in the right place.