Welcome to KQED Arts’ Women to Watch, a series celebrating 20 local women artists, creatives and makers who are pushing boundaries in 2017. Driven by passion for their own disciplines, from photography to comedy and every other medium in between, these women are true vanguards paving the way in their respective communities.
San Francisco-based visual artist Amy M. Ho builds installations that explore the psychology of space. Her work asks: How does a built environment make a person feel, both physically and emotionally?
The installations often start as models of real or imagined spaces. Rendered in white paper, rooms, tables and chairs become ghostly. Light slants through open doorways, but also through the doors themselves, revealing their material nature. Ho photographs the models and projects those images into existing or specially made architectural spaces, rendering the once small-scale paper constructions eerily life-sized (or larger).
In her ongoing series Spaces From Yesterday, Ho collaborates with incarcerated artists from San Quentin State Prison -- where she has worked with the William James Association since 2012 -- to recreate inmates’ memories of specific places. In each iteration of the project, which Ho purposefully identifies as a two-person show, her collaborator’s illustration of the same space hangs alongside Ho’s installation.
In this and all of her work, uncanny projections of psychologically significant spaces coexist with carefully constructed physical structures, blending real and imagined spaces, image and object, and personal memory with the artist’s abstractions.
How did you start working with incarcerated artists at San Quentin?
At one point when I was in college I thought I would be a human rights activist. But the activist lifestyle seems really stressful to me -- you’re always fighting and you won’t necessarily see any immediate change. I really believe in expanding human rights but I wasn’t sure I could live that lifestyle.
Some time after grad school, I still cared about these issues and I wondered how I could participate in prison reform. [Oakland-based curator, artist and writer] Kevin Chen put me in touch with the William James Association. When I started, the program had no money and people were volunteering at San Quentin for free. In the last three years the California Arts Council slowly started refunding the “Arts in Corrections” program -- now it’s up to $8 million a year.
How has your work at San Quentin influenced your own art practice?
A big part of going inside for me has been interacting with the people that I meet there; a big part of the art program in general is treating people like human beings.
In that way I really got to know a lot of people that I work with and hear their stories of their lives before prison. It became obvious that these memories were really special to them. As an artist I was interested in capturing or preserving their stories in a way.
I started writing them down, but I’m not a writer. It was easier for me to think in a visual way. I decided to build installations around these stories.
There are a lot of projects that exist where artists work with incarcerated people as a group, but I can only think of a couple where artists work with incarcerated people on a personal and individual level. I really wanted Spaces From Yesterday to be about these very specific people that I had met. Instead of making work about them, the whole premise of the project is individual collaborations.
It’s important for me to have their work represented in each show. I use the word collaboration to describe it, but it’s more like an exchange -- we’re inspiring each other to make work. The process -- the storytelling and conversational part of it -- is really important to me, not just the final work.
You’re the studio director of Real Time & Space (RTS), a former print shop in Oakland’s Chinatown that’s home to 15 artists’ studios (yours included) and a residency program. What does it mean for you to be part of a studio community and manage a space like RTS?
I kind of see RTS as my home now; it’s a place to go back to where I know for sure that I'm going to have friends and people who care about me. I feel incredibly lucky that I’ve met so many people who have worked in or done residencies at RTS. Those are the people I look to for inspiration or advice.
It’s also a huge contrast to San Quentin. It’s a super supportive and really strong community. At San Quentin we kind of have that in the art classroom, but it’s a prison -- it’s not supportive, the atmosphere is inherently negative. To have something else in my life that’s so positive is a good balance.
What else are you working on that you’re excited about?
I have this Instagram project happening right now in collaboration with Ronell "Rauch" Draper called Voices from San Quentin.
Right around Trump’s election when a lot of people were protesting, 100 Days Action started and I asked the guys [in San Quentin] if there was anything they’d like to do to participate. Rauch said he wished there was a forum for them to speak freely. We came up with the idea to do it via Instagram. There’s a bit of censorship -- the prison gave us a few guidelines about what they can and can't say. But Rauch collects all the quotes from people inside and he gives it me and I post it online.
Do you have any “women you watch”?
I really admire the work that Nigel Poor’s doing inside San Quentin. In the radio programs she’s done inside, she works with the men as peers and not as someone who’s superior.
[Editor’s note: The third episode of Poor’s current San Quentin project, the podcast 'Earhustle,' features Ho’s 'Voices from San Quentin' collaborator, Ronell “Rauch” Draper.]
What does your ideal future look like for women artists in the Bay Area?
This is something I’ve been thinking about lately, but I’m not sure what the answer is exactly. I think my gut reaction is to say that women would be treated as equals to men. But I want the world to change to be more accommodating to women and the way that they approach the world. If you’re aggressive and put yourself out there and are pushing your own agenda, the art world responds to that. I don’t know what the opposite of that looks like. But in my ideal future the world doesn’t hold those expectations for artists.