Tell me a little bit about you! Can you tell me a bit about how you came to be an artist?
I was born in San Diego, California. Grew up for some years in Norfolk, Nebraska. Came to Saint Louis to live with my father’s side of my family. Growing up, I volunteered all over the place in middle school and high school. At one time I wanted to be a wrestler for the WWF, now the WWE, I think. I love Food Network, so I then thought I was going to be a chef. I still love to cook. I owe that to my grandmother Ernestine Irving. I owe her everything. She has always supported me no matter what I wanted to do. She trusted that I would figure it out. She was a huge force of love and support. I played baritone saxophone, volunteered at the farmers market and the YMCA. I started to make pottery when I was twelve. So among all of the opportunities that I have had, I started to work at a non-profit organization that offered classes in ceramics. It was quite a process and experience. With that experience, that is what led me to apply to art school. I only applied to two, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the Kansas City Art Institute. I did not get much scholarship from SAIC. KCAI called and shared with me that I was awarded a full tuition scholarship. This changed my life.
I had no idea that I was going to go to college but as I attended college at KCAI, I learned what it took to be an artist. I started school thinking I was solely going to learn how to be a better potter. That changed. I studied Ceramics, and then added a double major to Art History. After that I also took on the certificate programs that are Art as Social Practice and Asian Studies. There were so many opportunities available when I was in school. I worked to take advantage of every single one. When I studied abroad in Hungary for the second time in spring 2013, I learned I was an artist. I was able to create work with all the intentions that I aimed to add into the objects. This work from this time abroad is the beginning of where I started making the series I am making today. I call the series, “Street views”. So from my time in Kecskemet, Hungary to now, I have become an artist. To me it is a complete progression. I learned a lot in school about how not to be, I have great mentors, and most of all, I work my ass off. That is how I became to be the art I am today. It really was hard and frustrating. It still is stressful but I could not do anything else in my life. It feels like it was meant to be, a natural progression.
You work in a variety of media, but have been focusing recently on ceramics. Have you always emphasized that in your practice, or did you come around to it at some point?
Coming into this practice as an artist, I made pottery for almost six years before college. Then when attending college and graduate school at the Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts at Washington University in St. Louis, I have worked through quite a few ideas in a variety of media. Currently, my work consists of three series, the “Street Views”, “Black Matter”, and “Undocumented”. There are components of clay in each series. The “Black Matter” series has stemmed from the construction of these large black ceramic vessels for my thesis. Now it has components of performance, soft sculptures, flags, and works on paper.
I am working through a lot right now with several upcoming exhibitions. In several installations I will include new works that I have not shown before. I am also working on making several new works. So even though I started by making pottery towards studying ceramics, my artistic practice now is focused on working through ideas that challenge how objects exist in history and relate to a contemporary experience. That’s kind of what led me to working with photographic jacquard woven objects. I love exploring and trying new things. I have interest in working with a printmaking press to make a new series of works on paper. I would also like to work with a ceramics factory to produce multiples. Maybe I will go to the Kohler Factory residency to make new works. So there are several materials at work right now.
What ideas or themes are you exploring in your practice? Do you do any sort of research in preparation for, or while making your work?
What am I exploring? That is hard to say and sum up here in an articles response. I am interested in labor and how things are made, from handmade to industrially produced objects. I am interested in ideas and theories about color. There are a lot of people making work about Racism; I feel that it is inherent in the system so it is impossible to not be dealing with Identity and oppression. I would make this statement even if I were to be making non-representational work because it is apart of our context. I am interested in how images are created and circulate digitally and in print. In a lot of the works that I have made, images are reprinted, repurposed, and collaged to take a new form. So as I describe that it comes to my mind as a kind of camouflage. I want to use old materials to make important statements that are referential to the future and the past.
In so many ways I think through my practice also as a means of survival. Questioning, hustling, finding things that fit to get to where I want to go or what I want to present. How does living in the 21st century work?
In undergrad I studied art history and wrote a thesis and all that. It is hard for me to not use history as a foundation to the impetus to what I do in the studio. In the past few years I was really interested in all of Post-war American Art. So I worked to process Warhol, Lichtenstein, John Chamberlain, and Richard Serra. After a while I started hearing more and more names of Black contemporary artists. So I started watching every single lecture I could find from artists, Kerry James Marshall, Sanford Biggers, Rashid Johnson, Kara Walker, and Mickalene Thomas. In my education I had to work hard to diversify the voices that I could hear in the studio. That was not just to hear perspectives from black people but it was also reading out artist like William Edmondson, the first black man to have an exhibition at the MOMA in 1917. James Hampton with “The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly” in the collection of the Smithsonian Museum in DC. So I am working to grow a historical base and grow from there.
Some other parts of my research are within Historical decorative arts collections at the museums too. Meissen Porcelain factory in Dresden, Germany was the first European porcelain manufactory. The establishment of this factory fascinates me. What made these Germans want to make porcelain so bad?! At the same time so much of the world was being or had been colonized by so many European countries. Colonialism is a major reason that that the world is in the positions it is in. We are still dealing with the affects of this international terrorism. From the first porcelains made in China, to European porcelain objects being made in the 18th century, to the production of objects that are cheap copies of historical objects. This evolution is quite interesting to me. How I can address and question historical occurrences and share truths that may not be heard. When I interned at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri. I learned so much about what happens to an object during its lifetime before it becomes a permanent part of the museums collection. I am thinking about every aspect of what I am making. I am working to figure out how to employ questions and responses into my work while thinking about all this in the studio.
Overall, I am researching on every level of the process of working in the studio. I desire to keep a bit of intuition and spontaneity while working. In the end, I hope the resolve is authentic.
Can you tell me a bit more about the ceramic Masses?
The ceramic mass works began when I started making ceramic tile assemblage works. From above they were abstracted cityscapes. The next semester I studied abroad and I had desire to make more 3/d sculptures. Up to this point I had just made pottery and tiles. It all began with adding materials to clay. Then through the process the materials that were embedded in the clay were all burned away. I then proceeded to cut the objects with a masonry saw. The interiors of the objects were absent spaces where all the objects once existed. The spaces and gaps had the textures of all the objects. I continued this work in Israel the following semester. I studied at Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem. When returning to the United States, the work I started to make evolved from burning objects to actually casting and making molds from found objects. Then from the cast forms I assembled them into the works we see today. The first series sat in my apartment for six months without getting the extreme over glaze details. I added different metallic lusters, enamels, and decals to get to the direct social and cultural significance of the objects. I originally slip casted to-go food boxes, soda bottles, and soda cans.
The most recent series of sculptures apart of my exhibition “Streets:Chains:Cocktails” are all masses comprised of references to European porcelain objects, paint can forms, old ceramic slip cast soda bottles, also previously cast porcelain to-go food containers. The imagery on the glazed surfaces are decals made from scans newspapers sharing stories of the death of Michael Brown. I used these images because I did not feel the sources were telling the story completely straight. So I rearranged the text to say what really should have been said. I made statements like “Daily Killing;Killing Daily”, “Cop slay Michael Brown”, “No charges for Wilson”, and “Pastor locks arms, tear gas flies”. The imagery is intermixed with metallic, bright colors, earth tones, and white unglazed porcelain.
What is the significance of the titles of your work; is there particular inspiration there? [Some recent titles include “ConcernedStudent1950; or the Johnson Family Reunion,” or “Seven Pack –Memorial edition, August 2014 (RIP).”]
The works from my recent exhibition at Callicoon Fine Arts were made in response to narratives presented in newspapers. Many media sources are biased and complicated. They do not necessarily share clear and unbiased opinions. As a way of thinking through concrete poetry I constructed narratives that I felt truer from the text that was printed. Within the work the text was present and in the titles there is more added to the story I am working to tell with each work.
More generally speaking, I try to create some context with the titling of my work. I think it can be quite fun sometimes. Especially when the work has been sitting in the studio for a while.
I love making things and trying different material investigations and they will sit in the studio or I will carry them around for a while. Then later on somewhere the objects will get reincorporated into new works or will become a work.
Overall, making titles for my work is a balance between the poetics and reality of what is all being presented. I am reading historical texts, poetry, and thinking about how do I want to be remembered. So I try to create something that has personal autobiographical connections and relational information within the titles.
Do you begin with any sort of preparatory sketches, or does the work take a more intuitive direction?
Some of the work is prepared with sketches and drawings. With the large platforms for the Undocumented works, I draw everything out. All the platforms need to be drawn out so I know how and where to connect the wooden parts. Another reason I lay it all out on paper is to know how it will be structurally sound. The sculptural mass works in “Street Views” are more intuitive and layered by what may be available in the studio. I usually make all my clay, glazes, and decals, so I start with a certain amount and I have to work with focus to not necessarily run out of anything. I love options when I am working. I think there was a big interest when I was in school in Kansas City to make a lot of parts and then assemble them together in the end or for an exhibition. When I was in school I did not feel like I was doing that, but now when it is coming to organizing my exhibitions and installations. I do that for sure! So it is nice to reflect and see that connection to my colleagues.
Several upcoming projects including a two-person exhibition at St. Mary’s College and a solo exhibition at Hesston College will be comprised of parts that are then assembled together for the installation. So it is like a balanced, reflective, or guided intuition.
What do you have in the works right now?
Currently I am in between several studios. I am a special artist in residence at the Luminary in St. Louis, Missouri. So there I have a substantial space that I have a lot of works in progress. This spring I will be a visiting Assistant Professor + Artist in Residence at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. So it is a lot of arranging, rearranging, shipping, and moving in the mix right now.
I was recently awarded one of the 2017 Artist Fellowships from the Regional Arts Commission in St. Louis. This is an award of $20,000, which I plan to use to purchase and or build kilns for myself. So right now I am in the planning stage of coordinating a space that I can use. I have also applied for several teaching fellowships all on each coast of the country. So I may be moving to a new part of the country. Honestly, my life is a bit up in the air and I am waiting to hear back about several opportunities. I am interested in a variety of places my life may go in. So as all of this is in the works right now, I do my best to stay in the mindset of my work and what I desire the most of my time right now and in the future. No matter if I had a specific studio space or not, it is all about balance.
What’s your studio or work routine to get you in the creative frame of mind?
For the last seven years, my routine was going to the studio in school and working non-stop for hours. When I was in undergrad I always made so much work I had no idea what to do with it all. Lately I have been trying to find more of a balance between the administrative work, my life, and making. I took my first vacation over the Christmas break in December. It was fantastic but three days in I was all ready to get back to work. I want to be healthier. So yoga, a more scheduled week, and more time off is apart of my goals for continuing to work.
To get into the mood of the studio I enter and if I need it to be silent to sort through what I am going to do, I start there. If I enter and I want to get going, I listen to a lot of music. I have a playlist depending on my mood. Music interests include:
The Whispers, Outkast, Erykah Badu, Tracy Chapman, Kanye West, Goodie Mob, Mos Def, MF Doom, Damien Marley, Thundercat, Sade, Carlos Santana, Pepper Adams
This is only a few.
When I have my dream studio, I may start the week with getting my hands dirty either making things out of clay, printmaking, or organizing found objects. In the middle of the week I would look over whatever I have made and see if I would like to make more or completely recycle everything. I really like testing and trying things as apart of my routine. So some time depending on deadlines and projects timelines, weeks can be devoted to developing new work. Then at the end of the week I may be taking work in and out of the kilns and listening to music while layering imagery and surface decoration. I feel like everything I do in the future will be an evolution from where I am now. I could have a small ceramics studio and travel the world to make work, and then ship it back to my home studio to finish it all. Another possibility would be that I have a studio that is equipped with everything that I would ever need, a print shop, woodshop, metal facilities, and a ceramics studio. Now that I am done with school I feel that there are so many options that could be made happen. I would love to have enough space to where I can lay everything out that I have not matter the scale.
What do you value most as an artist?
I feel like I just stumbled upon what it means to be an artist and started my own practice. Now I am working on figuring out how I can make it work for me. There are so many ways people can live and work today, so how do I make this work well for me. I value that an artists practice can be as inventive and challenging as possible and people who can make it, can be great changers and examples for others in the world.
I value my voice and the space to be inventive. Granted, I believe if one wants something, depending on circumstances, we can make things work. There may be more than others to work through to get there but I am an example, that with “will”, community, and extreme heart/drive things can be made happen. I am starting my own LLC soon and I feel after all this work that I have been putting it, it is making a difference and now I have to continue to make it happen. Now in my life I have attained a certain level of freedom. I want to keep growing on that and building a relevant and consistent practice.
Now that I am building a strong foundation there is so much available now. I am working on making more goals and dreams. That is a big part of being an artist, setting goals, making statements, and working toward a better future.
You just recently finished your MFA; how has the transition been from graduate school to the so-called “real world?”
Knowing how to balance the business part of everything has been my biggest mountain. After school knowing I need health insurance, get a car, insurance for everything, and still have funds to eat and pay rent. The challenge is to keep all the balls in the air and still be able to put funds aside for savings and travel. I feel we need better education on how the world works because it is not benefiting anyone to not know the things that make for a healthy life. Whenever people ask me to talk to students, this is what I will bring up a couple of times just so some seed can be planted for them.
Growing up a mentor and now a friend told me everything will work out, I didn’t always know that I had my mind made up. In so many ways I did. So now it has been continuing to work and make things happen. So trusting myself and being realistic about whom I am and where I want to go has been hard because there are life problems that can get in the way. Families, love, friendships, are some of the pressures we face from every angle. So building a network and stable mindset has been hard for me. Now I feel I am a bit more secure to take more risks and do things I thought I never could do. I believe, apply apply apply, get better, do better, no matter how good you may be. We have to keep growing. That’s what makes a difference no matter what.
Find more at kahlilirving.com and on Instagram @kahlilirving!
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