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Art AND: Valeska Populoh

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Valeska Populoh has questions. For herself, for her students, and for the global community. My interview in late May with Populoh is one of those conversations I’ve continued pondering in the months since because she is a person who has the unique ability to challenge without coming across as forceful or unkind. Speaking often in questions, Populoh throws such whoppers as “What does it mean to be part of the nonprofit industrial complex? Am I feeding the capitalist machinery or am I creating spaces for liberation and change?” into casual conversation.

Like other educators and thinkers I’ve had the privilege of speaking to for BmoreArt, there were moments in our dialogue where I could tell this natural empath wanted to be asking me the questions instead of speaking about her own experience. It’s clear that she draws deeply from everyday human interactions, that she is open where others of us might keep our heads down and keep moving, too afraid that a back and forth with a stranger will take too much time. And like a good therapist, Populoh’s inquisitive nature gets anyone in conversation with her to view the world from a new perspective.

A German immigrant, Populoh moved to the US with her mother when she was 10 and has been living and working in Baltimore since 2003. Moving to the US as a child of a single mother was impactful for Populoh, who experienced the phenomenon of being an outsider from a young age; it’s that profound perspectival shift that doubtlessly has made her an empathetic adult, cognizant of her impact on others. Typical also of a working-class immigrant’s experience, she was not particularly encouraged to pursue a life in the arts. Instead, for a time, Populoh considered becoming a human rights lawyer but decided, after earning a dual BA in International Affairs and Language Area Studies from American University, to work on climate change and biodiversity issues for the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL). 

In her role at CIEL, there were some opportunities to be creative, and later, while working for a farmer’s market organization, she found that she was “always taking photographs [and] using the photographs to illustrate our story, the story of the farm. I was making these public education [handouts that functioned as an] installation to talk about the loss of farmland. I didn’t know what installations were at that time, but I was exploring other ways of communicating. I saw that people wouldn’t read big policy briefs.” Seeing that visualizing ideas for an audience was a skill of hers, art became a tool Populoh wanted to use to communicate with wider audiences.

"Herring Run", with Sun English, Azaria and Dirk Joseph and Marian McLaughlin, performed at the Crankie Fest, Creative Alliance 2019, photos by Ana Tantaros

When her position working for the farmer’s market organization ended due to lack of funding, with the encouragement of friends, Populoh applied for and was awarded a scholarship to attend MICA to earn a BFA. At 28, she returned to college thinking she would study illustration. But after taking a class with Susie Brandt in the Fibers department, she was hooked, falling in love not only with the medium of fiber but also with “the way that they talked about art-making,” she says. “It helped me put some pieces together.” MICA’s expanded approach to art-making freed Populoh from previous mental limitations she had about what could be called art.

Fiber’s “material intimacy,” as Populoh calls it, resonates with her deep understanding of agricultural products gleaned from years of farming. Working with fabric and wool has been a way for her to channel “where those things came from, [the] political histories around labor and . . . all of the social and ecological issues [in addition to issues relating to] gender and international fashion and production practices.” For a natural questioner like Populoh, fiber’s open-ended meanings and education’s opportunities to perpetuate dialogue have been a natural fit. After completing her Masters in Art Education (MAT) at MICA, she joined the Fiber department’s faculty in 2005, where she continues to work today turning over questions large and small with her students.

Over Zoom, Populoh and I talked about the nature of her collaborative practice which incorporates fibers into performance, how we can’t honestly call ourselves anti-capitalist and live in the US, and how much she values the Baltimore arts community.

SUBJECT: Valeska Populoh, 45
WEARING: “A woven jacket made in Ecuador by Inter-American Trading that I bought in NYC in 1997 and a pair of maroon Levi’s from the thrift!”
PLACE: Zoom

 

Suzy Kopf: What is the most important book (or books) you’ve read or are reading? 

Valeska Populoh: There are several that have really informed my thinking over the last few years, especially in regards to ecology and developing greater awareness about how our understanding of the world has been shaped by dominant forces (and learning about other ways people have understood their place in this world). These include:

Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teaching of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer

Research is Ceremony: Indigenous Research Methods by Shawn Wilson 

Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation by Silvia Federici 

The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World by David Abram

 

What makes Baltimore a great and unique place to be an artist? 

I value living in a city where so many people are deeply committed to serving and uplifting their communities, to giving their time and creative energy to create alternative visions. I value the rich history of experimental art that has flourished here for so long, and that so many artists are eager and willing to collaborate, share skills, and learn from each other. It feels like a city where there is plenty of opportunity to practice patience and compassion, and that makes for a lot of shiny souls and powerful spirits. 

What is the best advice you’ve received? The worst? 

No decision is a big decision, they are all just decisions. You don’t really know if turning left or right might change your life, and it might! But you don’t stand at the door each day paralyzed by trying to figure out—should I go left, or right?! You just go. And so, there are moments that feel really momentous. “If I decide this, then it will create this whole series of events that I can never return from.” I feel so privileged to have had many opportunities in my life to decide which direction I wanted to go.

I can relate to feeling overwhelmed by forks in the road! But ultimately, you make a decision. And it is important to remember that you can always make another decision later if you don’t like where your path has taken you. A related piece of advice I have received that I still need to hear: There’s no shame in coming back or realizing that something—a job, a new city, a program, a sweetheart—ends up not feeling right, even when it did just a couple of months ago. It just means it didn’t work out, and chances are you probably learned a lot in the process, and that adds up over time and can be a powerful part of your education. 

Some “advice” I have received that has not been helpful? Well, I have gotten advice to “professionalize” or “brand” my work, to show in galleries over the years, build the “solo shows” part of my CV. But that doesn’t resonate for me. Why is individual work valued over collaboration? I have also been encouraged to apply for residencies. I really haven’t [done it]. I love working here—in my home studio, in collaboration, and in community with artists here, in response to this place. I really like being in relationship with others through the art-making and sharing process, and that feels more possible to me in non-art spaces and in a place where I have community, like in Baltimore. 

There are so many ways of being an artist, and I want to hold space for that—and encourage making as a way of building community and marking time, making things as a way to strengthen relationships. I want to feel a sense of spaciousness in what is seen as the “work” of artists. I have seen students of mine have the energy drained out of their budding art practice because they don’t identify with the world of galleries. There is so much more!

Going on tour with crankie artist Kathy Fahey a few years ago, as well as performing my own crankie that I made in relationship to the anti-incinerator campaign led by Free Your Voice and United Workers was such an empowering experience for me—performing puppet shows for kids and families in rural community halls, at community festivals and events, at libraries and schools, at little venues, in people’s houses. That has been so fulfilling. So, in response, you don’t need to show your work in galleries or do residencies to be a serious artist, and you can laugh and make work for kids and feel informal and playful in your work, and still be serious about your work, hahaha! 

 

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.

What do you predict is going to be the next big trend and when are we all going to catch on to it? 

Flight shame. “Flygskam” has been trending in Sweden for some time. It got me some years ago. Taking trains, staying more local in your travels. I want that prediction to come true! We are in the midst of climate chaos disrupting people’s ability to SURVIVE, and we can’t seem to give up on airplane travel. Oh, and the deep connection between climate and justice becoming clearer to the mainstream. That’s another movement I am seeing. 

Do you have a favorite local restaurant or a go-to order? What is it? 

I am a devotee of the Waverly Farmers Market. Unless I am out of town or have a serious commitment, I am there—rain or shine or snow. I cook a lot, and the pandemic just made that even more the case. When I am feeling luxurious, I love to order the delicious falafel wrapped in collards from Farm to Face!

I’d love to talk more specifically about your work. You’ve done many performance pieces both alone and with collaborators and I thought it was really cool the way that your website is laid out, where you really list everybody very prominently. Could you talk about what collaboration means to you, how you find collaborators or how they find you, and how you try to center that collaboration in the way that you present the work?

I think that one practice that I very much am being informed by is that I’m trying to find ways that are not culturally appropriative in terms of my own references. [In presenting work, I aim to] acknowledge a sort of kinship and community and that I am interconnected with others. I also understand that kinship and community are deeply rooted cultural forms that precede capitalism in the peasant class in Europe. I think we are living in a time where this idea of the atomized independent person or artist is being rightfully questioned. I have resisted for many years, sometimes I think at my peril, but I’m grateful that I haven’t really been too motivated to become a famous artist.

I’ve really resisted the overemphasis on solo work. The way that people are told to put their CV together [emphasizes] solo, then duo, then group exhibitions. A part of me really questions that—the implied hierarchy—why is it more valuable to be doing a solo thing somewhere in a gallery than to be a collaborator or a participant? I think that they’re just different skill sets. They’re different aptitudes. So I personally believe from my experience that to be in community with a group of people, particularly across difference—difference of race, difference of class identities—that to be invited into collaboration with people across difference is a really significant threshold of trust that needs to be created. I want to uplift that.

I think that we need to have very careful, thoughtful, sustained relationships with people that consistently demonstrate our trustworthiness and our integrity and our self-reflective nature to respond when I’ve misstepped or when I’ve done something that has been felt as harmful. Over time, those relationships will yield themselves open to collaboration. I can not force that. And so I don’t think that’s actually any different than getting into a prestigious gallery. 

Riparia: Ecological Fortune Readings, 2018-ongoing, photo of performance at the Grotto of the Never, Never, Never-Ending Neverland curated and organized by Laure Drogoul, photo by Ana Tantaros
I am very inspired by living in Baltimore and in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, and being part of this ecosystem of artists and cultural workers and other beings here.
Valeska Populoh

Do you have a daily “uniform” or specific favorite piece of clothing? What is it? 

I am a fan of thrift and vintage stores. I have a one-piece jumper from the ‘80s that is made of black rayon with a gold and green pattern on it that I LOVE to wear. 

If you had unlimited funding and time, describe the project you’d make or the collaboration you would love to actualize.

Right now, I’m dreaming of a space (like Black Cherry Puppet Theater) that is fully funded. We would have workshops on a sliding scale for anyone who wanted to learn more about puppetry and mask making and processional work. We would have all kinds of wonderful artists teaching there, who would be able to make a part of their living by sharing their skills and love of puppetry with others! Oh, there is a community center, drop-in space there too for kids in the neighborhood.

I had a place like that to go to as a latchkey kid in Germany, a place where adults helped me do my homework, and where there were snacks and other kids. We would have regular shows, help communities make parades to celebrate their neighborhoods and their local heroes, including the animals! We would collaborate with community groups and social movement organizations and develop visuals for actions and rallies. There would be rituals and festivals we would co-create! 

What are the last three emojis you used? 

Oh, always hearts. 

Inspiration comes from everywhere but a body of work is likely to be put into context with other people, at least posthumously. Who do you see as your contemporaries? Whose art is yours in conversation with? Or ,if there aren’t any other artists whose work you see your own in, are there structures, places, or other notable influences on you? 

I feel a kinship with other artists who make work in relationship to where they live, to their communities—human and non-human. I feel connected to artists who have a relationship to folk art forms, to embodied practices, to popular traditions like processions and parades, masquerade, festivals, puppetry, storytelling. I feel inspired by other artists who are grappling with ecological and social justice issues in their work, through the stories they tell, the movements they support, the materials they use. I am very inspired by living in Baltimore and in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, and being part of this ecosystem of artists and cultural workers and other beings here.

There are lots of people who inspire me, lots of places that hold meaning for me here in Baltimore. I am wary of naming just a handful, because I do feel like I exist in this incredible web of people and other nonhuman beings who all help me understand myself better and deepen my relationship to this precious spot of earth I call home.

Do you believe in astrology? What insights can your signs give our readers into your personality and mindset? 

I am definitely interested in astrology. My sun sign is Leo. I never really identified with that sign. Prideful, self-centered. I felt too concerned about other people to understand how the Leo made sense.

But then I had my chart done in my late twenties, and the astrologer was like, “Oh, your rising sign is Aquarius. This has to do with your outside sphere, your interaction with others. Your Pluto is in Pisces, that means that you have a heightened awareness of others’ emotions. This is balanced by Leo, which is about your inside core, your sense of pride, your sense of identity, your self-awareness. How this manifests is through your work in the world. You derive a large part of your sense of self and pride through how you are in relationship with others, how you support them, if you are in harmony with them.” My Venus and Uranus are in opposition, so I was told that there would be tension between my imagination and sense of responsibility. And I was like: “BAM! That’s it!”

Who are your art or career heroes and what do you look to them for? Do you have anyone whose work you’ve always admired or whose career you’d like to emulate or just someone you think would be a cool person to have coffee with? Why are they the coolest? 

There are a lot of people I really admire who are right here in Baltimore—like Laure Drogoul. Laure has done so much for our local arts community, has co-created so many spaces and events for people to share their work, to experiment, to try on performance ideas, including the 14Karat Cabaret and Transmodern performance festival. She’s so open to collaborating with people, curating all kinds of people into shows, and has this absolutely awesome lack of hierarchy in her approach, which is very inspiring to me. And she’s just amazingly down to earth and humble, and has made all of this crazy, wonderfully weird, moving work over the years, singing to earthworms, building see-saws, sprouting sculptures!

In terms of folks I’d like to have coffee with: John Fox and Sue Gill. They founded Welfare State International in the UK in the ‘60s, and did these massive collaborative happenings. Some years ago, they turned away from this work, because they felt a calling to support community ritual, and founded the Dead Good Guides. I am drawn to their work and would love to listen to them talk about their journey as cultural workers, artists, ritual facilitators, community builders. 

What would your teenage self think of you today? 

My teenage self might be very surprised by the life I lead and the person I have become. I think I am living outside of the imagination of my former self. 

What have you learned the hard way?

It has taken me a long time to understand how my need for approval from other people affected my decisions. And that I was often looking to others to receive permission instead of trusting my own instincts or insights. I think I felt shame about these aspects of my personality—since seeking approval from others felt weak. But I have learned why we develop these responses—the need to prioritize other peoples’ needs over our own, or to not be able to feel tuned in to our own needs at all.

I have also learned that curiosity and gentle awareness are probably the best way to respond to those parts of myself, rather than judgement or shame. Now that I am about to celebrate my 46th birthday, I feel really excited about feeling so much more in touch with my own needs and desires, and much more able to follow and trust them. I feel so much more grounded in my own sense of self-worth. And that is incredibly liberating and exciting when I think about the work I want to pursue in my studio and the way I want to show up for my community! 

Photography by Justin Tsucalas for BmoreArt's Print Journal Issue 11: Comfort

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