Simonette Quamina coalesces printmaking, drawing, and collage seamlessly. She is using only paper, graphite and ink to create richly textured surfaces in subtle yet bold monochromes. Her images vacillate between stillness and movement, personal and epic narratives, memory and tangible presence. I first saw her work at the Elizabeth Foundation open studios and invited her to share her ideas and methods. Besides this interview for Art Spiel, her work was included in an article I recently wrote for Kolaj Magazine (upcoming issue).
AS: Tell me a bit about yourself and some milestones in your art education.
Simonette Quamina: I was born in Kitchener, Ontario to parents who are from Guyana and St. Vincent. At an early age we relocated several times between both places, until we settled in Brooklyn, New York during the early 90’s.
My parents have always been extremely supportive and still continue to encourage the path I’ve taken towards a career in the visual arts. It wasn’t a big shock for them when I decided to change academic majors during my undergraduate studies from Biology to Fine arts.
From there I had the opportunity to study art abroad in France; lived in Maui, Hawaii to learn more about printmaking under the guidance of the master printmaker Paul Mullowney and my previous printmaking professor Mitchi Itami. It was such an eye-opening experience working alongside Paul, as well as having an opportunity to engage with invited visiting artists. Upon my return, I applied to the graduate program at the Rhode Island school of Design and was accepted into the printmaking program where I earned my Masters of Fine Arts degree.
AS: I would love to get your insight on how your experience with multiple cultures has affected your work?
Simonette Quamina: The experience of constantly adjusting to new social, and cultural norms, continue to influence the narrative of my images. Listening to many hair-raising stories told by my father has perfected my eavesdropping skills to learn about extended family “drama” (credit given to my older sister). I can honestly say I had quite a few culture shocking experiences. Perhaps my pieces are some form of therapy and function as means of understanding the past.
AS: You have background in printmaking. How do you think that informed your vision as a visual artist?
Simonette Quamina: My background in printmaking has been extremely informative, since the decisions I make are informed by many aesthetics of its process and the materiality of paper. It also helped me to visualize and create in a layered way. In broad and loosely used terms, you are also trained to become “mechanical”, especially when you get into the edition printing aspect of printmaking. I still consider all of what I’ve learnt as having a slight case of a “middle child syndrome” – not fully conforming to some of those principles. It’s another reason why the work doesn’t function within a framed space. They always need shaped edges, which allow the narratives to begin, unfold and continue.
AS: Can you tell me about your process – how do you start, media, thought process?
Simonette Quamina: My process begins with a clear image of the narrative I want to tell. It’s followed by a series of sketches to breakdown the pictorial space, tonal changes, and patterns that will be used throughout the piece. During this stage, which I like to call the “ big fight”, I have to take several long walks, then return because the sketches sometimes don’t fit the idea I’ve already formulated in my mind. When it finally comes into fruition, I can then start processing the order of each layer, consider paper choices, mix inks and figure out which printmaking technique can effectively enhance the final collaged image.
Since I use graphite in various forms (powder, putty, solid stick) to mix inks, draw, and print all the collaged elements of the work, it also means there is a lot of testing that transpires in the studio before I begin the larger version. Every graphite product I purchase varies in tonal quality based on its manufacturers formula. Despite the years dedicated to learning how it can reflect and absorb light simultaneously I’m still fascinated in its ability to transform from a dry medium to a printing ink, as well as a wet-medium.
I turn my phone off during the time I’m in the studio. All it takes for a dramatic change in the work is receiving a distracting email, text or phone call!! Then I’m stuck trying to regain the momentum I had before. I must admit that it always leads to my studio receiving a thorough cleaning – I guess the secret of how I maintain a clean studio is finally out.
AS: There is a strong sense of construction and deconstruction on multiple levels throughout your work. What is your take on that?
Simonette Quamina: My work disassembles and reconstructs visual narratives, which manifests into a physical form on paper. Every mark and tear in the paper records a mental and physical state of being. My attraction to this process stems from my childhood upbringing and a need to be resourceful based on the lack of “readily” available materials. I can vividly recall my grandmother using every part of a coconut; the pulp, its “water” for drinking, husk and shell for igniting and fueling the fire that would later bake bread.
I place certain limitations on my material choices, which is paper, graphite and ink. I have labeled bins of scrap paper, and printed-paper, which I reuse in later pieces. Even my printing matrices are collaged from materials in my studio They are rolled with relief inks, then printed.
AS: Are you looking at art history and if so, what are some influences on your work?
Simonette Quamina: As a contemporary artist, I always acknowledge my predecessors and find ways of learning from the lexicon they’ve left. It has certainly influenced the modes of making in my studio whether its technique based or themes that drive the context of the work.
For example, my drawing titled “The swing: an ode to the romanticism in art” was a commentary on Fragonard’s “the swing” painting. The overly romantic scene depicted in the original painting did not reflect the experience I had which left me on the ground in a heap of crumpled clothes, limbs, and loose ribbons.
I was always fascinated by works of the impressionists and can admit to being mildly infatuated with the artist Édouard Vuillard! Parallels can be drawn between my art, as it relates to impressionism, especially in the way the paper is torn and brought back into the final piece. In many ways piecing together all bits of the paper emulates the way strokes of color are applied onto the canvas. Believe it or not each piece that is pasted back into the drawings, are torn in a very specific way.
AS: You are working with both two and three dimensional forms. What is the relationship between your collaged print / drawings and your sculptures?
Simonette Quamina: I’m consistently working in both two-dimensional and three-dimensional formats. Somewhere in my head they are connected to each other and seemingly cannot function on their own. The drawings always reference specific spaces and “physicality” is reflected through the materials collaged back onto the paper surface.
The connection between the ceramic pieces, prints and drawing is that they are made to accept the use of graphite or “graphite-like tones”. If I am participating in a wood-fired kiln the work is placed in the kiln where it can accept darker tones. I know I might be exposing some of my weird quirks but I also collect the soot from the kiln bricks after firing for later use in the studio. The tones I get are so intense, pure and since it’s in a powder form it lends itself to multiple use.
AS: Do you see your work going more one direction or another?
Simonette Quamina: Well based on the rate my mind generally fosters ideas I have no doubt my studio work will continue to evolve in various directions. Oddly enough, most of my thinking ensues during the moments I’m alone (which occur more frequent than I would like to admit).
I hope to continue allowing myself to engage in unfamiliar studio practices that can force me to simultaneously fail and learn. I believe that placing oneself in unfamiliar territories can potentially generate new ways of thinking and visualizing. Hopefully that moment reaches its ultimate peak, and I can recover from its brutal impact without any permanent damage. If it happens you’ll be the first person to know!