“So perhaps what’s shared in the work is a set of values flowing from experiences that cross generations and cultures: take care of yourself by any means and respond to your environment, no matter how challenging, in a responsible way. And if you can manage, always find ways to be inspired.” – Athena Robles 2006“So perhaps what’s shared in the work is a set of values flowing from experiences that cross generations and cultures: take care of yourself by any means and respond to your environment, no matter how challenging, in a responsible way. And if you can manage, always find ways to be inspired.” — Athena Robles 2006
When you choose to be an artist in this country, you accept certain truths.
Working with emotionally and politically loaded raw materials such as handmade paper sculpture, sugar and bamboo installations, Athena Robles’ works are mix with themes of survival, immigration, home and family. As a Filipina American artist, Robles, 39, was one of 26 artists included in the show “Alimatuan: The Emerging Artist as American Filipino” at The Contemporary Museum in Honolulu to mark the Filipino Centennial Celebration in Hawaii this summer, and also recently showed her work in the “New American Talent” exhibition at the Laguna Gloria Art Museum in Austin, TX.
An art and psychology undergradute from Drew University, Robles went on to earn a master’s in fine arts from Cornell University. During this time, she switched from 2 dimensional printmaking to creating installations. Her early installation work Artifacts (http://www.dumboartscenter.org/gallery/stereoimages/robles.html) is a series of twelve huts made with prints of her family in American on paper that create square houses “American style” posed on stilts like nipa huts, which the artist explained are a reference to the houses in the Philippines. Each house is illuminated from the inside like lamp and were shown in an otherwise darkened gallery.
In the ‘90s, Robles was a part of the Asian American visual arts collective Godzilla where she participated as both an artist and curator. Born in New York City and having lived in Europe and across the U.S. in her 20’s as well as visiting her family in the Philippines, she now divides her time between Washington D.C. and New York City as an artist as well as arts administrator at Creative Capital, and serves on the board of the Asian American Arts Alliance.
Robles is currently working on a collaboration with sculptor and installation artist, Anna Stein on a conceptual and community-based project for the upcoming exhibition Jamaica Flux 2007. Asiance sat down with the artist to learn more about her work and driving ambitions.
ASIANCE: How did you become interested in being an artist?
Athena: I used to draw a lot when I was young. I would draw women in fashionable clothes, copying the pictures on those envelopes used to package patterns from McCall’s or Buttericks. We had plenty of those in the house. I liked the gestures and styles portrayed by the models. When I think about it now, it sounds more like the beginnings of a fashion designer than a sculptor, right?
When I was a little older I had a friend, who is still a friend, who studied and made art. We were kids but she knew she wanted to be an artist. One of her heroes at the time was Nancy Spero. I was influenced by my friend’s commitment and creative processes and saw how you can express yourself through art. I also have a couple of mentors, one who has since passed, who saw my abilities and really pushed me to pursue art and not medicine (my destiny at one point). In school I studied art and psychology, which was a compromise that seemed to make sense since both fields explore behavior.
Now I make sculptures and installations, using natural and ephemeral materials like paper, sand, and dirt. The work stems from my family’s experience as immigrants. Making something out of nothing and being resourceful are principles I saw in family members and were expected of me. For example, in that story I told you about watching my uncle’s handiness with rope to solve a problem, there were many instances like that—some more challenging than others—of overcoming obstacles, quietly, simply, and with resolve. Humor works, too, but basically you stay strong no matter what.
ASIANCE: Who are some of the artists that influence your thinking, your work?
Athena: Conceptually, I love the visual art of Yoko Ono, especially her glass skeleton key series (“Keys to open the sky”). There’s also Doris Salcedo, Kcho, and in terms of form, Martin Puryear and Isamu Noguchi. Earlier I studied cave paintings and petroglyphs and master printmakers and papermakers.
ASIANCE: Can you tell me a little about your work with installations. Why do you choose to work with installations as opposed to more 2D type mediums where you had started in print? How did you decide to start working with Bamboo and paper?
Athena: Drawing is always the starting point for me. I was pretty mediocre at painting so I took to printmaking for two reasons: first, it felt like a way to expand upon drawing and second, the history of the medium to be a vehicle for politically and socially conscious messages was very appealing. At some point the processes of printmaking became more tedious than inspiring and I started making individual works on paper, combining techniques like collage, chine-collé, photolithography, and my favorite, woodcuts. When I was in grad school, I received a grant for a proposal to create a multimedia installation. I had envisioned using my prints as part of a light sculpture—similar to the way Noguchi uses Asian paper, although at the time, I was clueless about his work. I made a series of house-shaped light sculptures using balsa wood and photolithographs on Nepalese paper and that was my first installation. Though I still use paper, I’ve added more materials into the mix, depending on the idea.
ASIANCE: Can you tell me a little about your works you showed at the exhibition in Hawaii?
Athena: At the Contemporary Museum in Honolulu, I showed two pieces. One was a hanging installation called Casualties of Life. This piece uses woven bamboo reeds and old letters folded into origami butterflies and is from a series of sculptures reflecting nostalgia for things that are lost in our modern lifestyle. I like to think that the handwritten letters, some dating back to the 1970’s, are reborn here and transformed.
The next piece, titled Cane, was a drawing made in sugar depicting a sugar cane field at sunset. The sun motif in the drawing is a composite design of a logo representing the five logos of the “Big 5” sugar companies that ruled Hawaii when Filipinos first came to the state to work in the fields.
ASIANCE: What is the importance of audience participation in your works?
Athena: It’s a dialogue with the audience. I think most creative people would agree that it’s a 50/50 relationship with your work and the audience. I aim to get a message or idea across and want someone there to receive it, even it’s not what’s intended. Some people say, “Art should make you think and feel.” I think that’s true.
ASIANCE: You were a member of Godzilla. How did you become part of the collective and what attracted you to it?
Athena: In the mid-’90s in New York I met some Godzilla members Skowmon Hastanan, Ken Chu, Michi Itami, Paul Pfeiffer, and others. I remember going to one of Godzilla’s exhibitions and the annual Christmas party at Michi’s loft in SoHo. When the next project came up, which was an exhibition at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, I was a participant and an organizer. Even though Godzilla had changed by then in terms of activity and function, there was still energy and a purpose there that was needed in the artworld. You felt the importance of the work you were doing towards visibility and awareness of Asian American issues.
ASIANCE: You advised Godzookie as well. Why was it important to you to continue with working with the legacy of Godzilla in mentoring younger artists?
Athena: Godzookie made me feel old-school. By then (2000), the spirit of urgency and need for inclusion had given way to globalism, the Internet and a generation unfamiliar with the old “causes.” But some issues like ignorance and injustice never change so I wanted to share what I knew about that and learn the new forms, ideas and messages of younger artists.
ASIANCE: You were an artist, teacher and arts administrator, sometimes all at the same time. Do you find it difficult sometimes to play all these roles? Why is it important for you to do all these?
Athena: When you choose to be an artist in this country, you accept certain truths. One of those truths is that you will probably not earn very much money, even though you live in the richest country in the world. In time, you find your place in the industry. It’s a place dictated by your voice and what messages you deliver. To maintain, you find all the places where you can express yourself, and inhabit them, especially if it means helping others or learning something.