STUDIO VISIT – COURTNEY BANH
Conversation between Amy Boone-McCreesh and Courtney Banh in her Baltimore studio.
Where did you grow up and how did you end up here in Baltimore?
I’m originally from Austin, TX. I came here to attend MICA and I really loved it, so I stayed after I graduated in 2018. After graduating, I felt creatively exhausted that I gave myself a full year to not necessarily make any art. I just wanted that time to think about my next body of work. In tandem with that, I found a job where I could still be physically making, but not my own art. I work at a Sew Lab USA, which is a small business factory that makes soft goods like tote bags, backpacks, etc., so I really took that time to hone in my sewing skills.
You have a lot of fibers based work – some wearable and functional. What would you say are the goals for your work, for you and for your viewers?
I always want whatever object I make to have more than one use. I feel like that gives it more of a presence in its relationship to who wears it or owns it. I want the tactility to be accessible. I love when people can feel and touch the work. I’m filming the objects in my upcoming show being interacted with by a model, so the audience can view it being activated by a wearer in ways they might not have thought of. Every time I’ve worked with a model, I don’t really give them much background or instruction because I want to see how they naturally interact with the garments without any outside influence. I also want to point out that these are meant to be handled by several hands. It’s almost like wheel throwing in making little bowls.
From seeing the objects handled, I want the audience to gain a sense of how the object is made. As for goals I set for myself, I always want to push myself on the sewing machine, seeing how far I can go or at what point do I need to ask for someone’s help to push the large amount of material through the machine. I got a Juki zigzag sewing machine just for this show because I’ve been really wanting an industrial machine after using them every day at work. I feel spoiled and hate sewing on my home machine–it’s just not strong enough and I’ll keep breaking it! My home sewing machine would not have been able to handle the ropes in my work at all.
In what ways do you think about formal qualities like color and texture, is it always in relationship to a series or collection?
Yellow is my favorite color. I’ve always, at least with the previous body of work and transitioning into this body of work, thought that it’s a play on primary colors— red, blue, yellow. I really enjoy that color scheme because I think it’s something everyone can relate to. That might give these pieces that seem foreign or alien in shape some familiarity for the viewer to base their interaction with it. I think it also encourages play because you learn about the primary colors at a young age. So, these colors may bring the viewer into a play mode. In my senior thesis show, I had actually dyed all the yellow pieces myself. When I dyed materials myself, I had sewn everything and then dyed them, which was very tedious.
But for this new work, I found a rope manufacturer in Miami called Ganxxet, and the owner of the company has been super helpful and correspondent with me about custom rope. It took the dyeing step out of my hands since I no longer have access to a dye kitchen. I love dyeing things, but for the recent work it was more important to focus on other areas. So buying rope at wholesale has been an interesting process. I ordered 8,000 feet of rope because I wasn’t sure how much I would need, and I always over order, but I think I’ve gone through four spools (about 4,000 ft).
What do you like to do outside of the studio? Do you have any hobbies or things you like to do to feel good about life?
I absolutely love food. I think if I hadn’t gone on the artist path, I would have loved to re-open my family’s restaurant in Austin, TX called Banh’s Kitchen. That’s an old dream of mine. I love cooking new things.
I’m happy when I’m in the kitchen making things for myself and others, just being able to share something I’ve made. My family has been slowly giving me recipes. I love how many people can be a part of that process, from going to the farmer’s market to cooking together and sharing these experiences. I love watching cooking shows as well.
What do you do in the studio when the going gets tough or you have a stretch of work that isn’t coming together or exciting to you?
Towards the end of my time at MICA, I was only really making garments. I did a couple of MICA’s Benefit fashion shows and did a lot of flat patterning and making garments. But I’ve been happy not making things specifically for bodies anymore. I think that gave me a lot more freedom in my studio practice. I was really happy to be making tote bags or backpacks at work. Whenever I got into a lull with this work, I was working on Halloween costumes! I can always come back to garment, it feels like more of a personal use to me now.
How do you think about scale as it relates to function?
With this specific technique of zig-zag coiling, every time you see an overlap in the zigzag, that’s just where my bobbin has run out and started again. I’ve been measuring things by bobbins, like I’m three bobbins in so I have to decide how many more to finish it. I think it’s more obvious in the vessels.
It’s all by chance where the bobbin ends, but I really like that about the spirals. Sometimes all the bobbins run out on the same side which is crazy. I also tend to work larger, again testing how much I can physically handle at my sewing machine. And my larger sculptures have the potential for more than one person to wear/interact with them.
You are preparing for an exhibition here in Baltimore at Gallery 1628, what can you share about this exhibition?
The title is “Busy Susan.” It’s in reference to a Lazy Susan. I was thinking a lot about the home or what feels like home. Earlier this year I went to LA where my mom’s family lives. Every time we go there it’s like a food paradise. They live in East LA, and it’s just an enclave of really great food. We didn’t have a Lazy Susan at home, but you kind of expect it when you go out to eat Chinese food, like when you go out for Dim Sum. I love how it functions in the act of sharing. The round pieces are specifically inspired by that. I’ve been thinking about this character of “Susan;” a motherly character who nurtures the object of her home and how she does so.
I’m also a vendor at MICA’s art market this year where I’ll be selling more rope coiled objects for the home. I first sold my stuff at an event we held at work called Sewlabration. That was the first time I got to test out what people want to have or are attracted to touch. It’s been interesting working between “craft” and “Art” because I see my work as both simultaneously.
“Busy Susan” is on display at Project1628 gallery in Bolton Hill. The opening is November 10 from 2-5 pm and will be on display til January 4, 2020.