Saya Woolfalk’s artistic universe is built on a unique blend of science fiction and fantasy, inhabited by a race of time-traveling â€œempathsâ€ able to commune with the natural world.
So when Woolfalk was invited to participate in an artist residency at the Newark Museum of Art, the institution herbaria collection was a natural source of inspiration. These plant specimens, along with the museum’s landscape paintings, have become artifacts to be reinterpreted from the perspective of empaths.
The resulting exhibition, “Saya Woolfalk: Field Notes From the Empathic Universe,” features more than 20 works in a variety of media, including a kaleidoscopic video installation, colorful collages, and textile works. She even transformed the elevator by installing digital murals that set the stage for her vision of another world.
We spoke with the Japanese-born, New York-based artist about life in her studio at Brooklyn Navy Yard and how she adapted her practice during her residency at the museum.
What are the most essential tools in your studio and why?
My studio time is spent inside and outside the studio. Either way, the item I need the most is a welcome creative collaborator. I am a strong believer in collaboration because I believe that different people – and different energies working in tandem – spark creativity. A few weeks ago, I went to the Catskills at Olana State Historic Site and Thomas Cole National Historic Site to visit curators Amy Hausmann and Kate Menconeri. My spatial memory of the two houses, the conversation I had with the curators, and the land itself are all things I brought back to the studio and now work with.
What are you most looking forward to doing in the studio tomorrow?
I am truly delighted to be preparing for a meeting with the City of Los Angeles Mayor’s Office to discuss a multi-site monument project that I have been working on for the past two years in honor of the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. I can’t wait to spend the day tomorrow thinking of Judge Ginsberg, Coretta Scott King and Marjory Stoneman Douglas, the three incredible American women whose landmarks will be created this year as part of the Made by Her: Hulu Monuments campaign.
How did your studio practice change during your residency at the museum?
I spent my time as an Artist in Residence reflecting on how the Hudson River School paintings continue to shape our view of what America is. We believe in the Hudson River School paintings as historical documents of American land and life. I want to change the museum’s public understanding of these paintings. These paintings from the Hudson River School contain the desires, hopes, fears and love of a certain population of a nascent country. They present America as a kind of Eden that naturalizes the displacement of indigenous populations, celebrates agrarianism without recognizing the constant precariousness of the lives of sharecroppers, while wiping out the African slaves who worked farms all over the country to produce. unprecedented wealth for America.
This foundational sense of Americanity was built to leave certain people and stories out of its narrative, and that’s what I tried to struggle with.
What atmosphere do you like when you work? Are you listening to music or podcasts, or do you prefer to work in silence?
When I’m in the studio, I spend a lot of time discussing current events, inequalities and what’s going on on social media with my brilliant studio manager, Isabel Sakura. Spending my days with her is a joy.
What characteristics do you admire most in a work of art and what characteristics despise?
The Newark Museum of Art recently acquired a Bisa Butler quilt, and this piece represents a lot of what I love. Bisa is so clearly dedicated to crafts, is generous to the public in terms of physical and historical material. and amplifies stories outside of the traditional art world.
I really like the quote “consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” by Ralph Waldo Emerson – it expresses my dislikes quite well.
What’s the snack you can’t live without in the studio?
As an artist and mother, I am often in the studio with my 10 year old daughter, Aya. She is a huge fan of string cheese and popcorn. These are two things that my studio will never be able to do without!
When you feel stuck in the studio, what do you do to get out of it?
I have a group of female artists who are my favorite people. Wendy Red Star, Heather Hart, Natalia Nakazawa, Nyeema Morgan, Kira Nam Greene, Valerie Hagerty, Lauren Kelly, Paula Wilson and Vadis Turner are badass women that I call, text or Zoom when I’m stuck. I’m lucky enough to have them all in my life.
What is the last exhibition that you saw that marked you?
I spent a lot of time at the Newark Museum of Art. I love the way Tricia Bloom redesigned the historic galleries to incorporate the stories of self-representing women. I was also at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA) for a site tour and saw the incredible Joan Semmel survey curated by Jodi Throckmorton [on view through April 3, 2022]. In this show, you can really see how Semmel ambitiously experimented with representations of the female body and sexuality for so many years.
If you had to create a moodboard, what would be there right now?
I tend to do intuitive dream boards instead of mood boards. The last one I did had a lot of animals with human bodies and a picture of me in the wild, surrounded by friends dressed in white and doing yoga.
“Saya Woolfalk: Field Notes From the Empathic Universe” is on view at the Newark Museum of Art, 49 Washington Street, Newark, New Jersey, from October 21 to December 31, 2021.
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