Gene Ogami photographs
Gene Ogami photographs
Gene Ogami photographs
We were lucky to catch up with Debra Disman recently and have shared our conversation below.
Hi Debra, appreciate you sitting with us today to share your wisdom with our readers. So, let’s start with resilience – where do you get your resilience from?
I think resilience is something that you can observe over time, and its level shifts around on a day to day basis, depending on what is going on both internally and externally in the moment. One of the most important factors in my practice is consistent work, showing up at the studio each day, and doing what I can to move things forward. I apply this to my other work too: administrative tasks, online presence, applications, writing, meetings, planning and an array of teaching activities. Especially when something feels daunting, I try to do even the smallest task to move the needle. After a while, this can become a habit, and helps to break down the enormity of all that needs to be done into something more manageable and even fun! Speaking of fun, claiming that which is enjoyable, taking moments to relax and refresh, and even “putting it all down” for a time as my Mother used to say, helps me to clear my mind, gather my thoughts, renew my energy, and come back to work stronger and with greater clarity. All the basics, including exercise, connecting with nature, meditative activities, playful time with loved ones, and especially focusing on the breath, can help offset the overwhelm and eventual burn-out that can happen with constant input, and even inspiration. Sometimes we just have to turn all of that off , focus inward, and return to our most basic selves. Be silly for a second! Paradoxically, that process can allow space not only for new ideas and insights to emerge, but may provide inner direction on the knotty choices and decisions that have to be made in everyone’s life. Make room for joy!
Great, so let’s take a few minutes and cover your story. What should folks know about you and what you do?
Springing initially from the form of the book, specifically the western codex, my work traverses tapestry, installation and sculpture to push the familiar into forms that arrest, baffle and bewilder while simultaneously offering rest, solace and contemplation. I employ the materiality of fiber to engage the senses, and invite altered ways of experiencing the world and how we inhabit it, both soothing and confounding the eye with uneven visual repetition. Through this means of stabilizing and destabilizing, I hope to instigate fundamental questions that encourage an exploration and examination of what we think we know and are.
Devoted to material labor, I love nothing more than to be submerged in material manipulation, which inevitably will yield some kind of distilled meaning. The evocative, visceral and profoundly physical quality of materials drives the action of my work, giving its emotional resonance, vis a vis how they are used. I am compelled to layer, wrap, stitch, knot, tie and glue, as well as paint, draw and write, intuitively layering, complicating and disrupting the surface to add levels of meaning, and ultimately a unity of plane and form.
Often, the meaning becomes clear during or after this process, rather than as a directive before, as if it had been there all along, and simply surfaced during the act of making.
If you had to pick three qualities that are most important to develop, which three would you say matter most?
What is described as generosity is very important. Whether it is as a teaching artist with students and participants, a small business-owner with clients, or an artist with viewers, curators, collectors, or any others in the art “eco-system”, I have found that it is critical to consider others’ needs, what they may be going through, and to support their efforts. This is always a balancing act, and thus the next on the list would reverb back to resilience as discussed earlier, and balance: balance between giving to others and giving to yourself, between giving and taking, between doing /action, and dream space. As mentioned before when discussing resilience, it is critical not to burn out before you have even defined your journey! Break down tasks, even the most abstract or indefinable, into manageable “chunks”, do one thing at a time, take breaks to relax your mind, and engage in non-work activities to nourish yourself both on your own and with others. Finally, continue to learn and grow both individually and in community. I have engaged in numerous learning activities which have been extremely beneficial, often in ways I could not have imagined, including organized certificate programs, joining groups where I met with and learned from and with others, and even online activities. Learning in community can be challenging, but even those challenges can help you to grow, and learn even more.
Is there a particular challenge you are currently facing?
The number one challenge I face at this moment is TIME! How to manage it, what decisions to make about how I spend it and how to claim it for myself as the world gets ever more complex and demanding. There is a saying, “The reward for work is more work”, and I have found this to be true. As I do more, evolve my work, take on more projects, connect with more people, participate in more shows and engage with more opportunities, I have to continue to make more choices about how I spend my time and energy in a shifting landscape.
Photographer: Gene Ogami
We’re excited to introduce you to the always interesting and insightful Debra Disman. We hope you’ll enjoy our conversation with Debra below.
I have been privileged to do many wonderful and challenging projects over the years, but I would say the two I am most excited about currently are my book, “CONCURRENCIES: Charlotte Salomon and Eva Hesse: Genius, Trauma and the Creative Imagination”, an exploration through images of the commonalities between the lives and work of artists Charlotte Salomon and Eva Hesse, published by ReflectSpace Gallery/Glendale Arts and Culture in conjunction with my solo show “I Can’t I Won’t I Will I Do” which was held there in 2023; and “The Center Will Not Hold”, a performance piece done as part of “Swept Away: Love Letter to a Surrogate”, which was a community-oriented artistic project that aimed to create a transcontinental heartbeat across America. With two collaborators, I was one of 65 Los Angeles County artists who presented live performances over Earth Day Weekend 2023 at the Santa Monica State Beach near the Annenberg Community Beach House. It was a fantastic experience, and we hope to further develop the piece!
Born and raised in the Chicago area, the Chicago Art Institute became my second home. I took art classes growing up both in and out of school. In high school, I also started working in community arts as a volunteer and continued this when I went to college at the University of Iowa. I was an art major with a focus on painting but also studied drawing, printmaking, literature and creative writing, and was in the Iowa Undergraduate Writers’ Workshop in Poetry. I have always had a passionate interest in both image and text (“art and writing” as we used to call it!) and their interrelationship, and have sought ways to put them together, as evidenced in the work I do now, which traverses book objects, sculpture, installation and hanging tapestry works.
In college I also studied a year in France, learning the language and traveling extensively, imbibing masterworks, architecture, landscape and craft, which sparked a lifelong love of travel and cultural explorations. I have taught since the very beginning of my career. When I moved to San Francisco after college, I began teaching at the De Young Museum and through their urban outreach program, which has informed my work ever since as a teaching artist for many years in the Bay Area and now across Los Angeles County, engaging diverse communities. Working as both a solo practitioner alone in the studio and in the public sphere of community engagement are interrelated aspects of my practice, and offer a rich life filled with creative challenges and rewards, in which to grow, continue to learn and develop, and thrive.
I think it is very important to teach entrepreneurial and business skills including budgeting, financial planning, networking and the ability to source and follow-up on opportunities. Studio space is at a premium, and artists are masters of using what is available! It is critical to provide affordable studio space through city, county, state and federal initiatives and budget allocations, and for government at all levels to recognize that investment in the arts is fundamental to create and maintain a healthy and thriving society.
We must recognize and fight unnecessary gatekeeping and bureaucracy, unproductive and restrictive elitism and status issues and unhealthy competitiveness, hierarchy and internalized pecking orders by providing opportunities to students, emerging, mid-career and established artists in the form of education, exhibitions, presentations and gatherings and support systems.
We must continue to address inequities as regards to race, gender and class which can severely limit opportunities and challenge basic functioning in the art world and world-at-large through civil rights activities, legislation and providing opportunities geared to those disregarded by the system.
There are institutional and organizational efforts being made to combat, mitigate and better these conditions, but it is slow-going, and it remains to be seen whether such efforts will continue and grow or whether they will be revealed to be a trend, momentarily capturing our ever-decreasing attention spans.
I had a San Francisco-based entrepreneurial enterprise for 15 years called ArtiFactory Studio, which provided decorative painting, color consultation, surface design and murals to individuals, organizations and businesses, and I really loved it! I continued to teach at this time, and went through the certificate programs of both the Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center in San Francisco and the International Association of Colour Consultants/Designers in San Diego to further develop my skills in those areas. Later, in Los Angeles, I attended the UCLArts and Healing Social and Emotional Arts (SEA) Certificate Program, The Annenberg—Inner-City Arts Professional Development Program and “Creativity” series, and the Cal State Los Angeles/City of LA Department of Cultural Affairs Community Teaching Artist Program to provide resources, information, further skills and support for my teaching. I found gathering with others in learning communities invaluable! Not only for information, but for networking and sharing. I was in Business Network International (BNI) for two years in San Francisco and learned so much being around other professionals in an organized way, and surmounting that learning curve! It really prepared me for the groups I am involved with now. I learned that nothing is that different…all people generally want the same things: kindness, listening, understanding and support.
When I relocated to Los Angeles in 2012, I knew I wanted to recommit to an evolving studio practice and teach in the community. I began proposing bookmaking and other workshops to my local Library, and to my delighted surprise, was able to start teaching almost right away. I had made artists’ books and taught bookmaking in San Francisco, but took the object of the book and the teaching of bookmaking to a whole other level in Los Angeles, which has developed into an ever-widening engagement with materials and multiple formats. There is so much opportunity here in LA if one is ready to work consistently and put oneself out there! By dint of persistent and concentrated effort, I have been able to develop a multi-faceted practice which has allowed me to exhibit my work in galleries, museums, universities and libraries across LA and the US and teach in an array of community settings and institutions. I am honored to be an enthusiastic local artist in residence at 18th Street Arts Center, serve as an artist-in-residence for the City of LA Department of Cultural Affairs, and to have received a Santa Monica Artist Fellowship in 2021. As in all things, the reward for work is more work!
All images: Gene Ogami 2023