On a recent return trip from Materials for the Arts (a non-profit organization in Long Island City that helps distribute donated bric-a-brac to artists throughout New York), I helped schlep a carful of new fodder for art-making back to artist Camille Hoffman’s apartment in Harlem. Our shop talk on the car ride evolved into more personal chatting about relationships, books, and self-care over tea in her living room, her textured plastic landscape paintings and family photos holding up the walls around us. I had known about Camille’s work for a while after seeing it on view at the Museum of Art and Design a couple of years back, but had only met her recently in preparation for an exhibition I co-curated at Wave Hill called “Here We Land,” featuring site-specific, immersive installations by Camille, Maria Hupfield, and Sara Jimenez, co-curated by Jennifer McGregor and Eileen Jeng Lynch. Munching on the last dregs of caramel popcorn left over from the holiday season, Camille and I talked about art, the irreplaceable importance of our female friendships, and our shared sense of responsibility to serve our upcoming generation of lady heroes.
This is a snippet of that conversation:
Emily Alesandrini: I’ve lived in some remarkable cities in the last few years—Chicago, New Orleans, and New York. But every time I move, the last change to feel resolved and home-like are my newly-developed yet close female friendships.
Camille Hoffman: Agreed, and I think that’s highly reflective of the matrifocal familial structure that dates back to the beginning of human history. Women were exchanging with one another at the hearth as they were making food or weaving textiles, and this is at the core of not only my womanhood but our humanity. Many important touchstones in my life involved or reflect these base relationships. These women with ties to my past can connect my current creative practice to the art I was making and questions I was asking in the 4th grade—like human journals.
Growing up, we moved around a lot, and in the face of financial struggle, my mom taught my sister and me creative resourcefulness through various art projects and museum trips. She would prompt me with these projects in lieu of buying the expensive toys I wanted from Toys “R” Us. We once built a playhouse out of cardboard, and I wanted it to have a garden. My mom brought home stacks of garden magazines from work, and we spent an entire day cutting out flowers and pasting them onto my house, my sanctuary. It’s funny how my current practice of cutting and pasting stock images of idealized landscapes so strongly resonates with that playhouse creation. I’m still relishing in the paperness of the materiality and still embracing and honoring that place the printed object represents. My mom’s sensibility of raising my sister and I really solidified that self-empowerment through the creation of our own world.
EA: I’m totally addicted to happiness psychology studies right now (and highly recommend the writing of Jonathan Haidt, author of “The Happiness Hypothesis,” and anything on the Calm app). Throughout this research, face-to-face engagement with a close-knit community always ranks at or near the top of most influencing happiness factors. This is one of the reasons I cite when people give me a hard time about my iPhone 5 and my regular delays in checking it.
CH: I just upgraded from a 5 to a 6s …
EA: I’ve lost you! Haha. Though that still qualifies as an “old” phone.
CH: I know we’re both meditators. It’s taken me years to make my own happiness a serious priority. I want to be the strongest teacher, artist, and friend possible, but functioning in that capacity requires significant self-care and a lot of trust in myself in working through that balance. I’ve found that the most successful moments in my professional life have come from me trusting my instincts, honoring my inner voice, and setting necessary boundaries with others. When it comes to the framing of my narrative, I honor my past, but I don’t want to highlight past trauma as a justification for healing or for the space that I take up. Reflecting on my power and agency in the present moment, I know that I can envision anything I want for myself right now, and that this is the opportunity for my greatest creativity and invention—when my thoughts about myself aren’t tethered to what I think I should be saying, what people want to hear, or how much money I feel I should be making. I recognize that I am a complex being in a meat and bone reality, but I have the power to create myself anew at any moment.
EA: Hall Rockefeller has this fantastic blog (called “less than half”) and Instagram archive, @all.the.lady.artists, which document solo shows and exhibitions of female artists in New York; there’s Pen and Brush gallery who fights for gender equity on behalf of both women artists and writers; SOHO20 advocates against gender-based discrimination in the arts with exhibitions and programming by women, queer, trans, and other marginalized artists; the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum raises awareness of feminism’s cultural contributions; and ArtTable works to advance the leadership and network opportunities of women in the arts.
In thinking about these resources/institutions and my own eagerness to support the next generation of women in the arts, I’m reminded of this wonderful phrase you used the last time we talked. You said, “I plan on holding the door open behind me.”
CH: The support from the people and organizations you mentioned are still so needed and so important in leveling out the playing field, but I also strive to normalize the inclusion of artists (who happen to be women) making remarkable work, who likely don’t want to be pigeonholed as specific types of artists. Our voices are valuable and have the power to empower others—that is my motivation to work. Having mentors who I once put on a pedestal end up being less than supportive was one of my most valuable lessons. I had to learn to do the work for myself, not for the approval of others. So, I’m holding the door open but I also want to empower people to push through it themselves. I think my best brings out your best, and there is room for all of us to succeed on our own terms and in our own way.
EA: The all-female nature of our recent exhibition “Here We Land” at Wave Hill was, for me, one of the most special components of the show. From both the curatorial and artistic points of production, these were women’s worlds and women’s words.
CH: Definitely—the reason I focus on landscape is the agency I find in creating my own world and defining my own sense of wholeness. Being able to craft these multi-dimensional conversations and ask questions like, “What does it mean to live and belong to multiple places?” was such a rich experience.
After a terrible 48-hour airline debacle, I was compensated with a $900 voucher to go anywhere. Last-minute, and last month, I delighted in this feeling that I could see any landscape imaginable, any landscape in the world. I bought a ticket to Costa Rica on my birthday and arrived at the airport later that day. Travel offers us such a remarkable opportunity to fill in these pictures of ourselves, whether traveling by plane, train, or foot. And when you travel, you still bring yourself. On this incredibly liberating and empowering trip, I swam in a waterfall, slept at an animal sanctuary, and explored this entirely new environment, teeming with life, by myself.
Since returning, I’ve been hard at work for the Jenkins Johnson show, “A Thousand Plateaus”, developing this increasingly intimate work (in my living room) that is more bodily, more personal than before. This body of work stems from and is connected to that trip.
Camille Hoffman is a Harlem-based, mixed media artist grappling with the subjects of borders, race, gender and power. Complicating romantic notions of American landscape paintings and Manifest Destiny, Hoffman uses materials collected from her everyday life, including Disney tablecloths, nature calendars, plastic bags and paint. See her work at Golestani Gallery in Düsseldorf, Germany through October 19 and at the Berrie Center for Performing and Visual Arts at Ramapo College this coming spring.
Emily Alesandrini is a curator and writer who researches contemporary representations of race and gender with a particular focus on issues of displacement, marginalization, and the body in art by women and artists of color.