J. Wren Supak Q&A

Wren Supak is a local painter, photographer and collaborative artist. Originally from New York, Supak has firmly planted herself within the Minneapolis art scene and on the UMN campus as an interdisciplinary graduate student, merging her interests in art and human rights. She is a broad thinker and creative soul with a knack for making art that tells a story. Read on to learn about her latest solo exhibition, her recent trip to Colombia, and her thoughts on the power of art.

The Wake: Your exhibition, “Afterimage,” features some of your abstract paintings. What was the inspiration for this body of work?  

WS:Basically, as an artist I work in a style of abstraction generally and then in this project, “Afterimage,” I had a specific theme in mind. My style of abstraction is simply that I believe in it as a creative language I use in order to get to the heart of things I feel other people get at with language better than I ever will. I just feel like that’s not my avenue. And I also believe that abstraction is able to go underneath the way things look or sound. When I say abstraction, I include color. I believe in that so completely that it’s who I am as an artist. Right now, I’ve been studying American abstract expressionists, who were mainly Jewish diaspora, like my family, who ended up in New York City before, during, and after World War II. So, I’m painting in that style out of nostalgia and camaraderie. I’m basically trying to call on a people and a time and a place and trying to embody it. “Afterimage” specifically is an attempt to make portraits of people or places or times that, you know... I could write a novel about my relationship with my mother, or about my boyfriend or my girlfriend, but can I capture it in one image? And, what would it look like? “Afterimage” comes from the idea where, you know when you look at something really bright and it stays on your eyes? So, after like twenty years of knowing you, or five intense years, or even some short time, you leave this impression on me and I carry it with me forever. Just like I do with my great-great-grandparents who fled Russia. So, I’ll think about a person and my experience with them and do color studies and drawings and call to them. Each painting is a product of that.

The Wake: Maybe this is personal or something you’d rather not disclose, but who were the people in your life that you decided to paint?

WS: I debated about whether those names in the titles or not, and I still don’t really know the answer. I numbered them “Afterimage” one to sixteen. I made sixteen “afterimages” in the last year. One of them is an after image dedicated to Patricia. Patricia was an art student of mine and I taught her abstract painting. But, she was also like twenty to thirty years older than I was and had been painting for much longer than I’d been alive. She took my class three times in a row. And, things would come out, like she has work in a gallery or she was a doctor for twenty years, or she would work in a clinic and treat people who couldn’t pay. Then, she caught Hepatitis. She was still enrolled in my class. She was on my student list and I was getting ready before class, and I was reading the paper. Her obituary was in it. So, there’s stories like that. Not each person that I’ve painted is dead. But, the recent deaths of my loved ones produced this work. This idea of painting abstract portraiture has been gestating for years. I’ve been working towards it, in some version or another. In 2016, in this six-week period, I had some serious losses and then I just didn’t want to paint anything else. It’s kind of a way of keeping these people alive.

The Wake: Take me through the process you use to create paintings like those from “Afterimage.” How do you decide which colors to use? Is it planned or does the creativity happen more organically?

WS:I do color studies. I look for colors that are symbolic—that fit into color theory but relate to that person. Then I start painting on small paper and work out some compositional idea. Then I try to create something that has movement and interest and texture and depth. And then I start painting and none of that works out at all. Like, you would never know I did any of that. I mean, I’m exaggerating a little, but you have the urge to plan it and then stick to your plan and follow through to show a degree of professionalism. But, what I have learned by doing this project is that I do need to put in the work when I’m doing studies, but then I need to be disciplined enough to know that when the palette changes to just let it change, and not control the things that I can’t control. My palette started as blue—everything was blue—and it ended in all these weird yellows and oranges.

Source: J. Wren Supak

The Wake: You have work that is on indefinite display at the Tychman Shapiro Gallery in Minneapolis that examines the Holocaust. What did you create? You have personal connections to this moment in time, so how did that impact your work?

WS:My family are Jewish diaspora. They are Hungarian and Russian Jews. They were in ghettos and some didn’t even make it to World War II. Some of them died in pogroms. So, my great-grandparents fled Europe and came to the United States not any time recently. But, I did meet my great-grandma, and sit and her feet, and she told me stories until she died when I was nine. I just feel emotional. My family actually came to Minneapolis. I wasn’t born in Minneapolis, but they were—my parents and stuff. I was raised in New York City. So, that’s the short version. The Tychman Shapiro Gallery is in Minneapolis. During Holocaust remembrance month, I guess it was… or anniversary, the Holocaust and Genocide Studies Department at the University of Minnesota and the Tychman Shapiro Gallery put on an exhibit where they invited contemporary artists to study the artwork of Fritz Hirschberger and interpret his work. He survived World War II. He survived living in a ghetto. He joined the French resistance army and fought the Nazis, and spent the rest of his life in America, and passed away in San Francisco. We also worked with a curator from the Yad Vashem, which is the Holocaust memorial museum in Israel. She came and opened up the exhibit, introduced herself and talked. It was pretty incredible. My painting was about being put into a gas chamber and being killed. That’s pretty hardcore. There was a poem. I don’t have the poem in my mind, but it was a short poem. Fritz used that poem as his inspiration. I have done Holocaust research at length and spent a summer in Budapest where my relatives died doing an artist residency. So, I knew. But, I learned all about the actual gas and the colors and this beautiful purple blue gas that comes from rat poison that suffocates people to death. It’s truly grotesque. There are these reports of little windows and you look through a little window to see, “Is the gas on? Is the gas off? Have the people died?” My painting was about that. So, my question was, how can I make a painting about that that makes people want to look at the painting so that they can learn about this part of history. It’s important to know that part of history so we don’t repeat it. I really, really, really believe in that because my family members were bullied here, in Minneapolis. They were so grateful to have survived, but often times they were silent about being Jewish. It was a self-protective secrecy thing, like “Don’t tell the children all this horrible stuff.” But, then you grow up being like “What the fuck? Who am I? And why are we this way?” So, I had the idea of this door and the color, and I had the idea of these people. There were so people who lived in the ghettos and the camps who risked being tortured and experimented on and murdered to document what was happening. They would bury secret photographs and drawings under the ground. So, what I did was I bought a door at Menards, and I saved good money at Menards [laughing]. And then I took canvas—like raw canvas—and I wrapped it around the door. I took sponges, like the kind of sponge you’d clean yourself with—a loofah or sea sponge—and I took paint and I mixed colors and made a painting. I laid the door on the floor, with the canvas over it, and applied this paint with a sponge. It’s blue and purple—the colors of the gas—but it’s also beautiful. So, that’s contrary. The beauty for me is the person—the person that this painting is for. If you can take something so gross—gassing somebody—into something that memorializes a human being. I made it the size of a door and leaned it on the wall so that when you approach it, it could feel like you were the one standing outside that window. The painting is called “First We Removed Our Shoes.”

The Wake: You are involved in a lot of different art mediums including photography and painting. And, I’ve noticed that sometimes your photography and paintings inspire each other and work together. 

WS:So, I’ve done photo projects, I’ve done painting projects, and I’ve done multimedia projects. When I was getting my master’s in fine art, I intentionally combined all three as literally as possible to create some sort of grand synthesis between mediums. That was cool, and I learned something from it, but it’s not how I work. I work by project, and by taking a personal thread and make work so that I can extrapolate a personal, historical narrative. I’m interested in knowing what’s the big picture. And, I want to connect myself. I always connect myself because we’re all interested in ourselves. Plus, side note: I’m not really interested in taking someone else’s story and making art for them, about them. I don’t believe in that at all. It’s cultural appropriation and personal appropriation. It’s not a problem because I’m not tempted. You can tell you’re looking at the same artist when you see my work. So, that’s good. I do think that photography and painting and writing all serve different needs. And I know that there are things I can do with some that I can’t do with the other. As I ripen, I become more and more aware of it so I know what medium to work in.

The Wake: Has anyone ever told you that you shouldn’t be an artist? What was your response and what would you say if someone told you that today?

WS:I wasn’t encouraged to be an artist by anybody until I started making art. The more I made art, the more I started to hear, “You should make art, this makes sense.” Then any time anyone would say anything encouraging, I would latch onto it like it was gold. And I would just tuck it away. And when I was full of self-doubt or fear about the future and supporting myself, I’d just take it out and remember that thing that that professor or friend said. My grandmother was an artist. She was like my mother. I was going to go to law school. And, I even got into law school. I had my seat and put my tuition deposit down. I was going to study human rights law. So, my grandmother started to die. And so, I deferred my seat by a year so I could take care of her. Then, we had meaningful conversations and exchanges. I don’t know… She gave me her paintbrushes. She said, “You shouldn’t give this up. This is who you are.” So, then I applied to one MFA program. When you apply to law school, the advice is that unless you’re like the President of the United States or a famous rockstar that you should apply to a lot of law schools so you’ll get in somewhere. So, I applied to fifteen law schools. I applied to one art program. The second I got in, that was it... I went. You would have never known that I was ever thinking about going to law school. I didn’t expect to get in. They have an acceptance rate of less than 10%, which I didn’t know at the time or else I wouldn’t have applied. When you go to school, you don’t tell anybody. You just act like you belong there. I’m really happy with the choices. I am.

The Wake: What is your go-to album or music genre to listen to when you’re working?

WS:I love dubstep. I’ve been listening to Pretty Lights a lot, which is a band out of Colorado. Also, synth-pop from England is what I listened to, so I like that. But, you know, I like all kinds, so I listen to Radio K. They really do have all kinds of music. The thing about dubstep and electronica is that there are no words in the music, like classical music. So, it’s conducive to having a rhythm going with your art and it’s not distracting because you’re not distracted by the lyrics. Or, I listen to public radio. But that’s more when I’m cleaning my studio.

The Wake: What is your favorite place that being an artist has allowed you to travel to? 

WS:Colombia. We spent eight or nine days in Bogota. We just got back Sunday night. And, what we did there was that the Grand Challenges Program gave a grant to Voice to Vision, which was created by David Feinberg about twenty years ago, and Luis Ramos-Garcia, who is an associate professor in the Spanish and Portuguese department. Several undergraduate students working on Spanish language came as translators. So, we did a workshop with these women who are called “The Mothers of Soacha.” Soacha is a town in Colombia. “Mothers of Soacha” is a slang term for another thing called “false positives.” “False positives” is a practice from like 2005-2008 or something like that, where military contractors of the Colombian government would go out and recruit young men away from their families and march them out into the middle of somewhere far away, kill them, and put them in guerrilla uniforms. Then they would photograph them and collect a bonus… $70 for each kill. The president at that time, Uribe... he didn’t believe in making peace with the guerrilla fighters. These military contractors were paid to go out and kill guerrillas. So, these mothers never knew that happened to their children. And then Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch—those international, non-governmental, human rights organizations—they did reports about this and documented it. So, the practice stopped. Now, soldiers who either were in charge of it or paid money or did the killing are being brought to justice. And, the mothers are finding out what happened. How do you live with something like that? So, what do they do? They tell the story. And they act in plays. We saw about eight plays where professional theater actresses and actors and survivors like these mothers would perform the story, to say what happened. It was theatrical but also literal. So, we did this workshop and worked with five mothers. We sat at a table… a translator there and an artist here, and in Voice to Vision, we call the survivor the storyteller, and they sat there. We gave them prompts with symbols and colors. They made drawings of their own. They told us any story they wanted. We brought those drawings back here, with their permission, so that we can take them and put them into big pieces of art to help document that story, so that people can be educated about what happened there. So, that’s collaborative art.

The Wake: What is it like being an artist in the Twin Cities?

WS:It’s really thrilling. There’s more happening culturally and artistically than I could ever dream of keeping up with. There’s shows, concerts, performances, expositions… on and on and on and on. I find it inspiring. I feel really supported. In Washington D.C. I felt like the artists belonged over there. But, when art is your life, it’s fun seeing it everywhere. Plus, Minnesota supports the arts financially—like, 11% of the state income tax goes back into arts programming and art projects. I’ve been able to serve as a grant reader and read about arts and education grants going to regular, everyday people—not just fancy people. I feel proud of the arts scene here. I just wish it was warmer!

The Wake: What is the Fallout Artists Initiative to which you belong?

WS:It’s a really loose co-op. A non-profit bought the building and rents out the studio at super duper cheap rates. Then, our rent supports the non-profit’s activities. And the non-profit’s activities are to extricate themselves from abuse situations including prostitution or enslavement and violence. And, then they have a home. They come there and there’s a separate building connected, upstairs, with rooms and showers, washing machines… you know, a home. And then they help connect those women to other ways to set themselves up in the community. They work closely with the police. So, when the Super Bowl was here, the police worked with them directly to route women to a safe place. I haven’t worked directly with them other than handing food out. But, we can all do volunteer hours to help with the rent and clean the building. I like it.

The Wake: What advice do you have for young artists? 

WS:My first one is to make work—not to think about the work you’re making too much. Probably a lot of young artists do that. I used to just make work all the time… tons and tons of work Then at some point I felt like I had to justify it. That threw me off for a while. Then I got back into just making it. I think that’s really important to do that. My experience as an artist is that I felt like I was an empty vessel—like a cup. Everything that I’ve learned and all the work that I’ve made has made me full of ideas and information. But, that didn’t make me confident. At some point, there was a before and after confidence. So before, I was like, “I know this is the right thing to do so I’m going to do it.” But then after confidence, what it is is that, “I believe in my own work, and because I believe in it, you should too.” You have to believe in it before other people can believe in it. That’s what I’ve learned from other artists and my self-experience and from other artists. If you don’t believe in your work, I am not going to take you seriously. But the second you do, you’ve got me! And, you could be like painting gerbils… you know what I mean?

The Wake: Is there anything I haven’t asked you that you’d like to talk about?

I had a really cool conversation in Colombia with this artist who was also making a documentary. She filmed us installing the show. And, she put the camera on me and she was like, “Do you believe art can change the world?” or “How does art change the world?” And, I just laughed. The second I started laughing, I was like, “Oh my god, she’s totally serious, and my laughter is cynical.” I realized in that second that I was cynical, and then I changed—just by her asking me that questions. And I said, “I don’t think art changes the world, I think art changes people, and people change the world.” That’s why I believe in art so much.

You can see more of Wren’s work at her exhibit, “Afterimage,” at the Hopkins Center for the Arts until April 22, 2018.


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