Studio visit and interview with Sydney Finch
June, 2022 – Baltimore, MD
Conversation between Sydney and Amy Boone-McCreesh
Amy: Where are you from/ where did you grow up? Do you feel like your formative years influence the art you now make?
Sydney: In reverse order, yes! My formative years did inform my art making in a big way, but I spent those years in a lot of different places, and I don’t identify any one place as where I’m from. My parents worked in a mission hospital in the Philippines. I was born in Rochester, but my family then moved back and I lived in the Philippines until I was 7. Then we moved to Welch WV, Clarion PA, and I went to high school on the Gulf Coast of FL, and university in Orlando (University of Central Florida,). I lived in Austin TX for a few years, Richmond VA to go to VCU, then Baltimore!
I think traveling around so much informs my work in a lot of ways. That shapeshifting mentality that one adopts is definitely something that is visible in my practice. I have always been very interdisciplinary, and the practice has always had periods of big change. My practice shifts to meet the needs of my life wherever that environment is. Right now, I feel that I’m at the beginning of a new shift in my practice. I don’t know what that will be exactly, but I can tell it’s shifting.
Emotionally, the disorientation and dislocation that resulted from all that instability are a big part of the work too. Now my work comes out of a pursuit of balance and healing from that experience–and many experiences, in a way that is more grounded. Creating a sense of home is important and it’s part of why I make quilts; they’re simultaneously comforting, anchoring and very portable. I want people to have a sense of that dislocation without becoming overwhelmed by it.
A: Where is your current studio and how long have you been there?
S: Crown Industrial Park in Greektown in Baltimore.
I’ve been here since moving to Baltimore in August 2021. While I was living in Richmond, I had a studio at VCU for 2 years and then carved out studio space in my house for a year during lockdowns.
A: What is the driving force behind your work – what do you hope it communicates to viewers?
S: For a long time, that sense of dislocation from moving around all the time was a major driving force. A big thing was also the difficulty I had understanding and embodying my transness. Not understanding it on an intellectual level, but knowing it at a very physical level, which is so clear looking back at my work. It took me so many years to catch on because of the lack of integration of my body into consciousness!
The experience in the body is a big motivation, a lot of my performances are about going through new direct experiences in the body. Perceiving that experience more and more clearly and learning how to navigate it more wisely.
Emotional experiences of dissociation as a child are very much in the work. Thankfully, my perspective in the body is a lot less alienated now, because of the changes I’ve made in my life to transition. I feel so much less restless, and experience so much more stability. It’s not totally gone because it comes from a lot of different sources, and resolving one doesn’t make them all go away. That’s one of the things that’s really necessitating that shift in my work now. I’m figuring out new motivation for the work.
A few years ago I really started thinking about my physical practice as being grounded in a healing practice that is related to inner child work. I have mentors for whom healing is a central tenet, and that started to make so much sense to me because so much of my motivation was based in trauma. One’s history of trauma and PTSD can only be motivating in toxic ways, but the motivation to heal is as big as the unprocessed pain. I’m now trying to figure out how the next stage in the practice can expand the reach of that healing.
A: Can you talk a little bit about the roles color and material play in your work?
S: I find the materials from many different sources. Some are scraps and waste from my workplace, others are old clothes, pieces of fabric my mom had in her stash for years.
The amount of waste I see in my day job is kind of incomprehensible. Another aspect of the work is trying to emotionally process the problem of environmental destruction at the scale it exists because the scale is so outside of our experience as humans. As an individual, the process is impossible to fully comprehend, and it can quickly become overwhelming. It prevents us from collectively making fruitful decisions in how to move forward. Moving through those experiences not just with environmental issues, but also in other issues of overwhelming scale is a common thread in my life and work.
In terms of color–I love color! Color is very much a medicine. I think about it very emotionally, spiritually, culturally, and tied to texture and tactility. Not only are the colors of the fabric in each piece different, but I also use a wide variety of fabrics as varied in texture as they are in color. The pleasure of color is really important, it can be a healing and affective experience or it can be too much.
One of the new things that’s up in the studio now is a quilt at a very large scale that is intended to be really immersive even though it’s two-dimensional–stepping into it is a psychedelic experience. Being able to differentiate the sensation of something from the level of metacognition that happens after we experience sensation, so connecting oneself so closely to the raw level of sensation, that’s when one can understand. It’s letting go of conditioning and connecting oneself more deeply to sensation and being able to perceive the cultural conditioning that is associated with color. I think it’s a really important skill for artists–being able to move past that conditioning and gaining access to raw sensation. It really is a process of integration and synthesis, of breaking things down and recognizing the ways they are already connected.
A: What does the perfect studio day look like for you?
S: A perfect studio day is when I get to sleep in a little bit and then have an unrushed breakfast and walk the dog. I like to bring lunch, eat in the studio, and get working by 12:30 or 1. I will comfortably work for 5 – 7 hours, stop when the spirit moves me and go home before I’m dead tired. I don’t think I’ve had one of those since December!
This is one of the first times I’ve had a studio so far from my home, and the 25 – 30 minute drive is not contributing in a good way to my studio practice. It’s been really hard to balance my full time work and my art practice. Sometimes I drive here and might only have energy to do one thing or pick something up then I’m going to feel good about that. If there is something small I can do that’s a success!
I’m working on discovering a new balance of how to integrate it into my life. I just took one of my tables and machines home to be able to work there again.
A: Do you have any coping mechanisms when working in the studio (or life) gets tough?
S: I’d say my most important support comes from my friends and partners. I share this studio with a few people, including my best friend/roommate/ex-partner. He’s a huge help when I’m feeling bogged down, even if it’s just to make a dirty joke.
And taking time off! I do feel good about taking time away from the studio. I have been trying to make sure I rest more. I’ve been on HRT for 16 months, and my physical boundaries, limitations, and stamina are changing. You’re putting your body through puberty again, and that bodily process itself is energy intensive. I’ve been intentional not to push as close to my boundaries in some ways to let my body heal.
The last six months have been a lot less productive in the studio, but my life has benefitted from that! I try to meditate every day, which has been really fruitful. And even if it’s only once or twice a week, that’s still good!
A: Do you have anything coming up you’d like to promote?
S: I have a solo exhibition in Buffalo, NY on Sept 17th at Kingfish Gallery.
I’ve been thinking a lot about saunas, because I used to love to go and steam and sweat. But the vast majority of saunas exist in spaces that are gender policed, so they’re not as accessible to me any more. So I’m going to make one for the exhibition–a sculptural sauna! I had been thinking about it for a long time, and realized now is the perfect time to do it. The sauna can be a tool to facilitate healing. It’s a way of midwifing the soul and body into the future. The way your body reacts to the heat in that environment is similar to stress responses, and physical reactions can lead to an intensely uncomfortable emotional experience. If the environment feels safe, you can learn how to be present with that and start to change the conditioning of the fear and anxiety that have often been linked to the physical sensations. A lot of people end up having extremely positive experiences once they’re used to it.
A: What artists do you think we should be watching?
S: I’ll recommend a couple of the artists who have been really important in my life, and whose work and wise advice I return to frequently.
One person is Hope Ginsburg. One of her big through lines is this project called Meditation Ocean where she stages these beautiful scuba meditation performances. She did one in the Bay of Fundy in Canada, which has the largest tidal shift. That was the first work I saw of hers before I studied with her.
Another mentor who is also very grounded in healing is Guadalupe Maravilla. He has an amazing show at MoMa, and creates epic installations and performances, including the most amazing sound baths. I feel such enormous gratitude to have worked with them.
Both of those people are also dedicated meditators, that was something that informed and encouraged my budding meditation practice