SoEx Intern Isha Tripathi Interviews Aay Preston-Myint
“Is art the right path? Am I good enough for this field? Can my love of art conquer the discouraging structures of the field and the pain of rejection?” Artists often find themselves pondering these questions, facing the difficulties of pursuing art in a capitalist society alongside feelings of being an imposter in a field with so much renown. In speaking with highly regarded artist and Southern Exposure board member Jenifer Wofford, I learned about her own experiences with these struggles and was reminded that a passion for art is a drive in and of itself, past these common obstacles and hurdles.
I asked Wofford (or “Woff”) for her wisdom and advice after her years of experience navigating this field. Woff reminds us that we are not merely artists, but so much more.
Jenifer K. Wofford is a San Francisco artist and educator whose work investigates hybridity, history, calamity, and global culture, often with a humorous bent. She is also one-third of the Filipina American artist trio M.O.B. Her work has been exhibited in the Bay Area at the Asian Art Museum, Berkeley Art Museum, Oakland Museum of California, YBCA, San Jose Museum of Art, Southern Exposure, and Kearny Street Workshop. Further afield, she has shown at New Image Art (Los Angeles), Wing Luke Museum (Seattle), DePaul Museum (Chicago), Silverlens Galleries (Philippines), VWFA (Malaysia), and Osage Gallery (Hong Kong). Wofford is a recent recipient of the Joan Mitchell Foundation Painters and Sculptors Grant. Her other awards include the Eureka Fellowship, the Murphy Fellowship, and grants from the San Francisco Arts Commission, the Art Matters Foundation, and the Center for Cultural Innovation. She has also been artist-in-residence at The Living Room (Philippines), Liguria Study Center (Italy), and KinoKino (Norway). Wofford teaches in the Fine Arts and Philippine Studies programs of the University of San Francisco. She has also taught at UC Berkeley, Mills College, San Francisco Art Institute, California College of the Arts, and San Francisco State University. She holds degrees from San Francisco Art Institute (BFA) and UC Berkeley (MFA).
Interview with Woff:
WED: Thank you for taking the time out of your day to have an interview. I'm really excited because I think that you've made a lot of waves in the Filipino art space, not just in the Bay Area, but on a vast scale. And I think that you make such beautiful art. So, again, thank you for joining me and giving me the opportunity to talk to you today!
WOFF: No problem! Being upfront, I'm generally going to be real with you no matter what. I might be a little bit more or less sassy.
WED: No worries! It's great that you're being completely forthcoming and straightforward, that’s what we’re here for.
Looking over your art, many of your works feel very tied to your identity and navigation of the world. Specifically looking at your work with Mail Order Brides, as well as your other work surrounding Filipino and Asian identity⏤how has identity impacted your art or the way you make art, and what draws you to such topics?
WOFF: Oh, that is an excellent question. My work is often tied to identity for sure. But it's very rarely autobiographical, which I think is a really important point of distinction for me that has a lot to do with the choices that I make as an artist. A lot of it just comes from my fundamentally hybrid experience of the world, how I grew up being a mixed kid and not really growing up, under––I don't even know what “normal” means––normal circumstances. So this dictates a lot of choices that I make. My mother is Filipina, born in the Philippines and raised in Guam. My dad is a big, tall, white American dude, but from a family of Woffords that have wandered across America and never really sat still very long in one place. And so I come from a mixed background to begin with. For example, my parents moved our family overseas when I was a toddler. I had my second birthday in a hotel in Hong Kong. I was in Hong Kong until I was almost seven years old, at which point we moved to Dubai, where we lived until I was about nine and a half. We then moved to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where we lived until I was almost fourteen. While I did go to American schools overseas, I thought I was growing up like an American kid, thinking that I was absorbing all the right cultural markers to become an American teenager. I thought I knew what it was like, because every summer, we’d visit California. When I moved here at fourteen, we ended up out in the suburbs of Walnut Creek in the Bay Area. However, I realized pretty quickly that I had nothing in common with other American kids.
And so it's this thing of never belonging to any of the places that I grew up in overseas. I was a fish out of water in all circumstances, but at the same time, I have to acknowledge, like most foreigners who move around a lot, I come from a position of a lot of privilege, right? I was still there as a middle-class kid going to private international schools, so it wasn't a real hardship situation. But I think that because I have this experience of the world, it is just a fundamentally hybrid experience that dictates the choices I make as an artist. I don't presume to speak from the position of a traditionally lived experience of being Filipino American. It's just this other different creature for me. So I'm always interested in those issues. And I speak to them from where I can, but I don't ever seem to speak for others in a lot of ways. And I certainly don't know how to articulate my own story sometimes, because it's just so weird and specific. Anyway, the point here is simply I guess that I grew up in and around Asia and the Pacific Rim. And so that's my worldview.
I spent a lot of time traveling in my life, but most of my adulthood––besides living briefly in Europe––has been here in the Bay Area. It's the place that I returned to, because it allows for that kind of hybridity and intersectionality and identity. It’s not the fact that you’re just Asian, or just queer, just white, just brown, you can be all things at once here. And people don't really bat an eye about it, whereas I've been to other places in the world where that's less true. So specifically, this brief period where I was living in Europe, and some European friends asked what I missed about California, and I said, Indian pizza. And they were just horrified that this thing exists. And they were like, “No, no, you must have misspoken telling us it is Indian?” No, you just don't know the rest of the world. But that's the operating metaphor here. And I just think, like, I thrive in that. We've been at this, we've been at this shit for 25 years now. I was going to Asian fusion restaurants in San Francisco in the ’90s. Whereas the rest of the world is still kind of figuring that one out. And that's where it's a slippery slope. Because there's some places where you want to preserve the culture and keep it intact in its own traditions and its own value system. And then there's places where they have a right to gatekeep these foods and customs.
WED: Definitely! As a person residing in the Bay Area, I love how it’s a melting pot of different cultures with so many providing care and resources for their community. You are a great resource because you’ve lived this experience as an artist and it’s your main line of work. As a young artist, I sometimes struggle to find space in the art world, finding it daunting that rejection is so common. How did you navigate through feelings of shortcoming in order to be successful in your art journey?
WOFF: I think that the first thing to do is to embrace the rejection and the fact that it's so common. Remember that you haven’t been singled out in any way, shape, or form and you aren’t the worst person in the world. For artists, this is our paradox. We [artists] are sensitive, which means it stings, maybe more than for a less sensitive person. The most helpful metric that somebody gave me some years back was that, whether one was applying for grants or exhibitions, most (if not all) artists get maybe 15 to 20 percent of the things they apply for. This even applies to artists who are at the top of their game who are accomplished and successful. And I think that, to be real, people at that level of the game tend to not have to apply for stuff as much, but it is handed to them. I would say for somebody like myself, who's been at this a couple decades now, that I'm really kind of in the middle of the pack. I know what my strengths are, I know what I have to offer. I know that's not always going to jibe with what a jury or a committee is looking for. And I just can't take that personally. For example, there are circumstances where there's a person on the panel who doesn't like abstract work, but that happens to be the only thing you're making at the time. It's just not going to be a right fit for their exhibition because they're looking for a really specific niche. You’re not fulfilling their specific niche and that’s just not what you're making. I know this because I've now been on a number of different review panels myself, so I've sat on the other side of the process. So you can't torment yourself around those kinds of issues. There have been many, many times where I've been on a jury, where we've looked at amazing work and loved it, but it just hasn't fit the context for what we were trying to curate for. And so I think that's helped me, that whenever I get a rejection––and I get multiple rejections every year––I get a little sad for a minute, and I'm in my feelings. But then I just remember what it's like to be on the review side of the jury, and I don't let it diminish my own light. I do not let it impede my ability to keep making the things that I want from the place of conviction that I'm making from. Also, as an artist, there are things to always learn from the process, which are maybe outside of just being true to your own art. Things like knowing that applications for things or the “professional” side of the art world can feel stodgy and clunky, and that they're not a comfortable fit. A good example of that is being an artist who is not a confident writer, where application writing can be the worst thing in the world. That is when you find a trusted friend, and you work out a trade with them. So they can help craft the writing for you. And you're giving them art or you're scrubbing their floors in return. And that’s where the importance of community in this field comes in. You do the work, you find ways to help and lift each other up, and you return the favor. It’s important to return the favor or show gratitude for your community so that you don’t feel like you owe them. Instead, you take care of one another in a way that feels reciprocated.
But yes, the technicalities of being an artist outside of art is something artists need to master in order to lessen the doubt within themselves. I know that there have been more than a couple of occasions earlier in my career where I made these mistakes. There were times that I waited too late in the game to do my applications, I put things together too hastily, and I didn’t cross my Ts or dot my Is. That cost me some mental health moments, but it had nothing to do with my art, right? That was just being a little flaky or disorganized. So you have to master that stuff as an artist. It’s a completely separate category, the process of application and rejection.
WED: Stepping into the professional world as an artist is a whole different beast than just making art itself. Relying on community is an important part of finding your footing in this industry. On the topic of community and care, how can artists extend their art practice to supporting their community and helping others? Was there a defining moment where you wanted to use your artistic expertise to educate other artists in your community?
WOFF: That's a multilayered question. That's a good one. I'm going to refer back to when I was an undergraduate myself. I took a class from this guy named Carlos Villa (whom you've probably heard about) who has this big retrospective exhibition that's opening at the Asian Art Museum nine or ten days from now. Anyways, Carlos was my mentor, and this class that he taught called “Worlds in Collision” was arguably one of the first classes about multicultural issues and arts. It was really in that moment of the mid ’90s where this class was amongst only a handful of classes nationwide that addressed how straight and male the art world was and asked what are the ways in which we can push back against that. In some ways, he showed that it wasn’t a battle, but a matter of revisioning this space. But I think the most important premise that I got from the class was that it isn't just about your art, like in a studio capacity, it's who you are as an artist. And what does that mean? How are you? How is being an artist about being a really good community member? How is it about being an educator? How is it about being a scholar or a street scholar? If you're not interested in traditional academics, how are you still absorbing information and re-sharing it with others, and being a resource? It is the studio practice, as well, it's about all those things that are not just about the making of a thing in solitude, it's about understanding your place within this network or this community, and giving as much as you take. Often, what I see with new people to town in the Bay Area or younger artists who are still finding their footing in the art world is some confusion about how the process works. For me, and certainly from my relationship with Southern Exposure specifically, it's absolutely about this idea of reciprocity. That you do not get the benefits of a community that you are not contributing to. You don't just get to waltz in and expect people to hand you stuff on a silver platter. And I think that some artists wander in feeling a little entitled about that, thinking that somebody is owing them something. Most other artists are not quite so entitled, they're just shy and a little socially awkward, not really knowing how it works. And they haven't thought to maybe volunteer or just make some friends. And to let the process unfold a little bit more slowly and have some patience in the process.
Make your friends in order to figure out who your allies are. Just figure out who you actually want to hang out with and who you trust. For me, the formative moment was teaching at Southern Exposure, when I was in the summer between my third and fourth year of college at SFAI. The community and workers within the office [at Southern Exposure] were just super, super warm, supportive, and welcoming––as you may have experienced yourself. And that created a lifelong loyalty in me. And I never lost that feeling for Southern Exposure. I never felt anything other than feeling so welcomed into a community. And that has continued to make it hard for Southern Exposure to get rid of me! [Wofford laughs] But I mean, at one point, I’m sure SoEx was like, “Jesus, we're never gonna shake this one off, like, Wofford’s lurking around the door! We may as well put her on the board, because we don't know what else to do with her.” But I mean, that's real, that's love, though. And for me, that's a really important word that is a little uncool to use around art stuff, but I think is really important. Because if you're not getting into this work with love, what's the fucking point? Life is really short, why waste your time getting tangled up in your own ego, about these other things, when you can actually just be making this a delight, and finding your people in your community and your friends? How can your work resonate in that conversation? The worst part of being an artist is getting too stuck in your own head, getting tormented by your own ego, instead of just enjoying being part of a big party!
WED: Yeah, and I feel like I'm uncovering that this year, mostly because this is the first year that I'm actually stepping into the art space professionally, in the sense of galleries and organizational art work. A big part of it is community and those around you do have your back. And it really is important, as long as you do the work, like you said, with reciprocity.
WOFF: We're gonna add one addendum to that that is very specific to women of color. Which is to make sure there is reciprocity, because what I do still see is that women of color, or nonbinary folks of color, in general, tend to be giving a little bit more than receiving. And there's a real culture of martyrdom, where you just keep giving and giving and giving, because you feel like you have got to save the world. That's just where you have to maintain some degree of balance, and not get overwhelmed. Don't overextend yourself and say yes to too many things where you just start to short circuit a little bit. I've seen that happen over and over and over again, for many of the women I know, including myself. Ultimately, you are staying in this for the long game, right? Looking three decades down the line to where you are now, ask yourself, “How do I stay in love with this? How can I continue to get something out of it? What feeds me and feeds others? How can I prevent burnout?”
WED: Yes, it's very important that you added that because it’s affirming to those new in the industry, where some companies will take advantage of new artists and their need for work opportunities, no matter how little pay or how much burnout and exploitation takes place. It tells artists who are just getting started that they don’t have to do anything that makes them uncomfortable or crosses their boundaries in order to be successful.
WOFF: Always be in negotiation! Sometimes you are going to do this thing for free or for not so much money, because it matters enough and there's at least some boundaries around the work that make it a manageable commitment. There will be times where––within the community, especially within the art circles or certain circles of folks of color where resources are scarce–– will ask a lot because there just isn't any other way to get it done. And you just have to be really mindful around that, because that's where you can also get taken advantage of. And I'm not suggesting that these kinds of situations are inherently predatory, but they are situations in which people are just so accustomed to operating from a space of lack. They forget that they should be expecting more of the situation or waiting until the funds are rolling before committing to the thing.
WED: Thank you for that! There will be times where volunteering your skill is necessary in order to help the community. It seems that the most important takeaway is to not overexert or extend yourself to the point of burnout.
I looked up the statistics for artists hired as illustrators and designers in 2022, where 76 percent of people who are in this field are white people. With that in mind, only 7 percent of Asian people are hired in those industries. What advice would you give People of Color who are having trouble in that space, knowing that it feels like there are so few of us? I don't like looking at things through a negative perspective, but sometimes it does feel overwhelming that in the grand scheme of things, there’s no room for us in the space we love so much?
WOFF: To be honest, I think that it can feel daunting. But when you look at the percentages, especially Asian representation in the United States, it's usually 5 to 10 percent. But honestly, that reflects the percentage of the Asian population in the United States. So it's not really disproportionate to that. And that's just an important reality check when it feels imbalanced, which is not to suggest that you should settle for less. But just know that outside of great pockets, like the Bay Area, and certain other areas, most of America doesn't know what Asia is. They just don't understand what Asian Americans are about, unlike in places like the Bay Area, where it's a melting pot of Asian American culture. It's so Pacific Rim here that I think if you looked at the local percentages for professional opportunities, that it’s probably a lot higher. But if you're looking for opportunities, with clients who are less familiar with the Asian American conversation, you're going to have to be patient with some folks as they contend with their own learning curve. So I think that also, in an increasingly globalized marketplace for freelancing or for participating as an artist, Asians are the majority of the world population. There's plenty of opportunities and plenty of representation. But you do have to look outside of the myopia of the American experience. It means considering becoming a more international, transnational, professional, creative professional. That means looking for gigs in Asia, where honestly, they're hunting for more American talent because they know––it’s kind of a screwed-up mentality––that sometimes there's this idea that it's “better” if it comes from America.
A lot of it is just not succumbing to your own negative thoughts, like reiterating the odds to yourself. I don't want to get into toxic positivity stuff, because that's its own problem, too, right? When people are overly telling themselves, “Everything's fine. I'm just gonna be positive.” But I do think that you have to build this muscle for positive psychology on a daily, maybe hourly basis. You have to name your strengths, you have to keep figuring out who your work is in conversation with, especially in terms of whether you want us to situate your work within an Asian or Asian American context. I also want to say that maybe the boundaries aren't supposed to be Asian American anyway. When I think about how many of my friends are Black or Latino, I like to let loose and move around with different circles, as well. To bound your work can also create your own limitations. It's about just continuing to sit with yourself around that. Honestly, the other thing is, you make your own weather. For example, when I was in grad school, I was going through what many grad students do, where we go through a crisis of representation. I just wasn't seeing any conversations around Filipino American art, I wasn't seeing anybody in my grad program who cared about this issue, because they weren't Filipino, or they weren't Asian, they were mostly white. And it was really frustrating and isolating for me. I could either sit around and complain about it, or I could write some grants, curate some projects, make some work, and start to change the game on my own terms. I was very lucky to have certain resources at UC Berkeley and through other friends in my community who nominated me for grants. Again, it circles back to the building of all the bricks of a community, you have some people that you can connect with and some to collaborate with on that work. When I say I made my own weather, it's not just as simple as getting a grant. It's about putting all these pieces into place with your community helping to leverage that work.
WED: Right. On the topic of artists getting “stuck in their heads,” I am noticing the fact that these questions may have also been rooted in being stuck in my own head. I’m glad that I chose these questions, however, because it’ll help other people who feel the same way. After hearing your words, it’s nice to remember that this journey can be a learning experience and resource to others. It’s not just a straight and simple path, but it’s very curved and bumpy, that’s just the process of it. I don’t want to keep asking you too many questions with such intensity, so this last one will be a bit more free flowing. Are there any projects you’re currently working on? If so, is there a specific theme or message to the project? And what medium do you plan on using for it?
WOFF: I want to respond to that one thing about getting stuck in your head real quick, though. Because that's real. That's a super-important question and observation. I want to say this to you and other young people in general, and I sound like an old fart when I say this, but like, oh my God! I was so tormented in my twenties. And that is 100% on schedule. You're learning who you are, because, frankly, you might not know who you are. However, you're still learning things about your own capacity. So I would say that, first of all, just be kind to yourself, and forgive yourself. That's just normal. And I would say, another way to get out of your own head is just to throw yourself into projects, whether you think you're ready for them or not. There's nothing like learning the hard way or learning through experience. Being stuck in your head feels like your own sort of hamster wheel of a never-ending cycle. You can get out of that hamster wheel by just trying something new. It may not be comfortable, but it will certainly make you feel less trapped in your head.
But back on topic, as far as stuff that's coming up for me, I have three main projects that are coming up rapidly. The first is the work that I do with my collaborators as Mail Order Brides/M.O.B. We have just completed a project for the Asian Art Museum as part of the Carlos Villa exhibition that is opening on June 17. We have made a piece that is video, installation, photography, and sculpture, because we're so extra, we can't stop with one thing. But the project is built around a video project that we actually collaborated on with Carlos himself about a decade or so ago. And so it's a piece that is a real full-circle experience of our relationship to Carlos. It’s surreal that we, M.O.B., are essentially the next generation of art elders, much like Carlos was to us. I've collaborated with the other two members of Mail Order Brides (they're my family!) for 25 years now, so this piece is very much a reflection on just our deep relationship to one another, as well. The other thing that's happening is that I am working on some large paintings for a three-person show at a gallery in Manila. So that work needs to be done in about the next month to month and a half. Then, I think I'm probably going to Manila for a couple of weeks––two or three weeks––to see some of my art friends there. Maybe I’ll just go kick it on a beach, as well, because why not! And then in the fall, I'll be wrapping up a project that I started last summer, which is about the San Francisco Filipina American Olympic champion diver Victoria Manalo Draves, where I've been working on a suite of illustrations and paintings about her and her achievements. Some of them are straightforward biography and some of them are just some weird, Wofford nonsense, where I’m just imagining some other world for her. And so those three projects, which are in and around the Philippines, are what will keep me busy for the next little stretch of time.
Wednesday de Guzman
In addition to being a Community Development intern for Southern Exposure, Wednesday is a Filipina artist from the Bay Area. Wednesday has a strong passion for art and makes colorful designs and illustrations that have been featured and exhibited by various local organizations. She's currently getting her Design Studies degree from San Jose State University.