Interview with Johannah Silva


Neoteric Art: Give us some background information on yourself.

Johannah Silva: I was born in the Philippines and immigrated to the U.S. when I was a teenager. My family settled in San Francisco and I started high school there in the 10th grade, shortly thereafter attending the University of California at Berkeley after graduating. Although I was exposed to art as a child, always drew and remember making a finished painting around eight years old, it was at Berkeley that I took my first-ever art class, an art and composition course with David Simpson, a fairly well-known painter in the Bay Area. It was soon after taking this class that I decided to pursue art more seriously. After finishing my undergrad at Berkeley, I moved back to San Francisco and set up a studio practice in painting, while also continuing to explore other media such as photography and performance art. I moved to Chicago in 1997 to pursue my MFA at The School of the Art Institute and have stayed in Chicago since. The Art Institute was great and also challenging for me. I don’t think I was completely ready to be in that environment at the time I was there. Nevertheless, I value my experience there and am glad to have gone there, for having known and met the people I did, and for the experiences I had while I was there.

NA: Discuss your overall thought/work process when starting a new piece.

2JS: Sometimes I get a very strong visual or conceptual idea in my head and other times, I just start by making a mark somewhere on the paper or canvas. I have been working with a personal vocabulary of marks and shapes in the last few years and I usually start from these. I ritually draw and sketch a lot when I first get into the studio; it usually takes me at least an hour to get warmed up and get into the space of creating. I often generate more ideas and plot studies for larger works during this initial drawing period. Some of these drawings become finished works unto themselves and others end up in a pile, later to be unearthed and completed. Others serve as a reminder and record for me of my thought process, which help me understand my work and its direction better.

The act of painting is about a kind of meditation for me. I interact with my paintings with full presence and careful attention, much like mindfully observing one’s breath. Art-making is a space in which I connect with myself, and in turn, also hopefully connect and share with others through their experience of my work. Space, color, form and composition I would say are my primary, ongoing and recurrent preoccupations. In the end it is about invention, imagination, discovery, sensuousness, perception, and beauty.

NA: In the last few years you have used the circular shape/form in your work. Elaborate.

JS: Yes. When I started painting again after a few years hiatus after graduate school, I found myself painting these circular Forms. It started around 2003, and it was also around that time that I started using watercolor. There was something about painting these circles that felt right to me. I worked with them in repeating patterns, often employing them in various grid-like compositions. I liked the limitless variations, combinations and compositions that were possible with such a simple and universal form. It is to me a form full of associations; I like the fact that they can allude simultaneously to small dot-like microscopic
things as well as massive macroscopic bodies such as planets and systems.

image_08_1_BIGI also like the circle’s symbolic meaning – it is a complete form and also a soft and feminine form that is a very fun mark to make with the hand and the stroke of a brush. I like to experiment with figure and ground, positive and negative space, interiority and exteriority and I’ve found the circle, and any organic or biomorphic form, lends itself nicely to these interplays. On a philosophical level, my iteration of these forms is akin to the repeating cycles of life and creating a deliberately limited set of parameters for myself. On an everyday basis we carry on with our regular routines and while things sometimes appear unchanging, everything is, in fact, vibrating and changing rapidly all the time at the molecular and infinitesimal level. Each iteration of the forms I work with is therefore never the same, and I hope the energetic pulse embedded in the individual marks and in their complex totality come through in the work.

NA: At a recent artist talk you gave at Harold Washington College you mentioned enjoying working with watercolor. Discuss further.

JS: I do enjoy working with watercolor very much. As I mentioned previously I started working with it in earnest about seven years ago and it immediately felt like the right medium for me to be working with. I like the fluidity of watercolor, as well as its immediacy and directness. I also think of it as a humble medium – soft and fragile, and quietly powerful. I believe in the zen of art-making and subscribe to the idea of a sustained art practice as a spiritual discipline. Watercolor, for me, serves these purposes very well, at least in the manner in which I work with them. I love seeing/witnessing the “accidents” and surprising interactions of material on the surface, bare whispers sometimes, as though the paintings appear to have effortlessly made themselves on their own. While watercolor has an ephemeral quality to it, it is also a very palpable medium to me. It seems to me to have the ability to move mountains, transform spaces, and create clearings with the tiniest of incidences.

NA: Regarding your “art career”, where would you like to be five years from now?

JS: Five years from now, if not sooner than that, I hope to have it ALL figured out!… well, in all seriousness, I would like to be represented by a good gallery by then and perhaps also exhibiting in museums. I am working on the gallery representation now and putting together materials for submissions. Five years from now is not really a long time and we all know painting is a slow process. The important thing is to keep on working, keep on showing, and keep on talking to artists and art professionals in the art world, and remain engaged in the art community in however way one can and however it makes sense. On that note, I am excited to be starting a project/experimental space soon (stay tuned for the opening in mid-July)… I truly believe there is a place for everyone in the art world and it’s up to each artist to figure out for him/herself how and where he/she fits in to this community. I value being a teacher, for example, as equally as I value and am committed to my artistic practice; I believe these two roles and activities of artist and art educator have a symbiotic relationship to each other. I am definitely putting more energy on the business side of art these days and am looking for ways to market my work and expose it to a bigger and wider audience of appreciators, collectors, gallerists, critics, and curators. I would like to be in a solid place as far as these are concerned in five years’ time. In the meantime, I try to take things one step at a time, not get ahead of myself, and trust in the process. I am, after all, in this for the long haul.

image_08_7_BIGNA: You have been living and working in Chicago for more than a decade now…do you consider yourself to be a Chicago artist? What is your take on the Chicago art scene?

JS: I consider myself an artist who happens to live in Chicago. The world has gotten and continues to get smaller and I don’t think it matters so much or it’s so important where one lives and works; if it is, then I guess I just don’t pay attention to it. One doesn’t have to live in New York to show in New York. There might be many benefits to being in New York, or L.A. or Berlin and probably one does have to establish presence in these places in order to be shown there, but I believe there are alternatives. I truly think there is a niche and market for all kinds of work and its’ up to each artist to understand their work, know their audience, and direct their energies to marketing or getting their work in front of those people. We are fortunate in Chicago to have such a strong alternative art scene , of homegrown spaces and artist-run spaces. It’s also still fairly affordable to live here, and it makes it possible for a lot of people to continue to make work and not spend all their time working to pay for rent. Also, with Facebook and social media in general, we can keep in touch and abreast of goings on everywhere.

NA: Who (or what) has influenced your work?

JS: The artists I like run the gauntlet and change all the time. I have some all-time favorites and some that emerge as new loves as I find myself making work in those same veins. I am fairly focused on my abstract work right now but also continue to make figurative work to keep myself in the conversation about the Figure, as I teach Figure Drawing and want to continue to bring new things to the classroom. Artists in the figurative vein that I like are Lucien Freud, Elizabeth Peyton, Egon Schiele, Francesco Clemente, Paula Rego, to name a few. As far as abstract artists, right now I have been looking more at Klimt, Julie Mehretu and Jennifer Bartlett, among others. I’ve also always liked the work of Terry Winters, Thomas Noszkowski, Ellen Gallagher, Philip Guston, David Hockney, Yayoi Kusama, Sam Francis, Charles Burchfield, and many more. Some of my old-time favorites are Cezanne (whose watercolors are exquisite!), Matisse and Derain. And there are many younger, contemporary artists whose works I admire, especially anyone who is similarly preoccupied as me with space, color, composition, and the creation of sumptuousness paintings!

NA: What are some of the art blogs, magazines, etc. that you pay attention to?

JS: Chicago Art Magazine, Time-Out, Chicago Art Review, Paul Klein’s Art Letter, Dawoud Bey’s blog (I really like the way he writes and respect his opinions and criticism), ArtSlant, are some I can think of right now. I also read some of the standards like ArtForum, Art in America, ArtPapers, New York Times Art Reviews, New American Paintings, X-tra etc. I also like reading the newswires like Flavorpill and updates on CAR and reading local magazines like Proximity. It’s hard to keep up with everything. Facebook, as I said earlier, is a good source of information as people are always posting interesting articles, news, events, and links and is a good way to keep in touch with artist friends and art goings on in general.