Sayge: How did you get started making art?
Valerie: I started doing photography when I was 19. My mom used to work for Kodak in Singapore, and she would bring home the display models and develop whatever photos I took at her work.
When I moved to central Illinois, I started shooting landscapes. I was in a lot of cornfields, flat horizon, monocrops. There was so much unknown when you hit the edge of town — it was like a kind of ocean.
Singapore is a very dense city-state, so seeing the horizon line was intense. I spent a couple of summers riding in tractors with this lovely white farmer who talked about glaciers and why the Illinois land is so rich. I was realizing, very minutely at the time, that taking these photographs of horizon lines was my way of trying to access a space that I was not familiar with. It was an immigrant experience, basically. Over a few years of living there, I started to look at spaces the same way that I would look at photographs — seeing the unknown that appears in images.
I know now that one becomes an artist where there is an earnest inquiry into the deep self and a kind of accepting and hearing of that space. It’s allowing someone — sometimes it’s yourself, but sometimes it’s ancestral, spiritual — to come forward to an expression.
How did you start making art?
Sayge: It started in my bedroom growing up, and it was the way that I would set up the room. When I was in fifth grade, my sister went to high school and I was left to my own devices. I had this whole installation in my bedroom of all these different things that I had gotten from traveling around the country with my family. In school I worked in the wood shop and built shelving, stools, a chair — I was making my own environment.
Valerie: When did you start calling yourself an artist?
Sayge: I think I was called an artist before I would call myself an artist, but it wasn’t a compliment. My creative problem- solving was not usually appreciated, so it was more of a slight. I think it’s always been who I am, before I was even doing art.
Valerie: That’s funny, I rejected being called an artist growing up around artists who I felt I didn’t measure up to. Only recently, in the last five years, have I been able to say, “I’m an artist.”
Sayge: Artists were not seen in high esteem in my circles, so it was okay for me to be one.
Valerie: With clay you are working with material, like I am with dance, but once a piece gets fired, it’s tangible and it lasts, whereas dance has an impact and then it’s gone. I am curious what that is like.
Sayge: When everything’s wrong, I can make a cup that’s right. It’s the thing I can do when the world is blowing up. It’s my safe place. It’s my contribution to beauty in the world. There’s something I get from making everyday ware. When you’re creating, there’s so much presence and it’s so much of a tactile experience, I think that comes through when people are using it.
Clay is a good teacher. When you’re working with the clay, you’re not imposing your will — you’re finding out what clay needs to get what you need out of it.
It’s this collaboration. I think that’s similar to what you’re doing, because you’re working with people.
Valerie: When I work with people, it’s really important to me that they bring their whole selves. It’s very hard for me to work with someone who’s not grounded in themselves and their artistry. A lot of conservatories train dancers to be a neutral body and to do whatever the choreographer wants. I can’t work that way. When I’ve tried, I feel uninspired or empty.
Sayge: I feel similarly. I’m self-taught, and now that I’m teaching others, I’m taking the physicality of my students into consideration. The folks who go to conservatories want to be told exactly how to do it. I give a lot more space than that, so I can frustrate some people. It’s more about learning how to see what cause-and-effect happens with the clay and listening to how your body makes those things happen. It’s getting closer and in tune with yourself. Some people don’t want to do that.
Valerie: Sometimes it’s easier to be with technique or form because you are aiming toward a certain mold. People that I work with, some of them have that skill and some of them don’t. I lean into the intelligence of their bodies and what they want to offer.
In my work, I propose a kind of togetherness that comes from deep difference. For example, I’m working with someone now who comes from modern dance and someone who is trained in classical Indian dance, and we’re working with K-pop. I’m not looking for people trained the same way to do the same thing. I am interested in vastness.
How does money impact your creative life?
Sayge: Money is funny. Until 2012, I was in a marriage and I was mainly a stay-at-home mom. Anything that I made and sold could go back toward my creative work. Then there was a drastic shift. However, I’ve got good hustle. Minneapolis is a place where you are able to make a few different hustles work, and the cost of living isn’t crazy.
Half of my practice — and I consider it part of my art — is creating access and space for people in my community to use.
Valerie: We’re both hustling to figure out cash to pay the rent to keep the space so that the people you love, and that you believe in, can have a sustainable spot.
Sayge: It does feel like we have our own little economy as artists, because we see shows and buy merchandise from each other. I feel like that’s one of the ways that we keep going.
Valerie: It’s like passing the same $5 back and forth.
Sayge: How do you rest?
Valerie: I take naps. I indulge in the things that I want to indulge in, that I usually cast aside when I’m doing work for other people. One birthday I gathered an entire pile of clothing that needed mending and I just sat there all day and mended all my clothes. I felt so energized after that.
Sayge: My son just moved out, and I’m nesting by doing all the little projects around the house that I want to do. I’m taking time to clean out the fridge, regularly address the dishes. I think my rest is when I’m caring for my environment. It feels energizing to see the before and after.
Do you feel supported as an artist?
Valerie: Support to me is when the people I’ve let myself be surrounded by are supportive of the fact that I want to live a life of an artist. That means I don’t just make work, but I also support others in their work. I feel like I have created a space that I feel supported within, and there are people who will pick me up when I feel like an impostor.
Sayge: Did it take you a while to find those people?
Valerie: It did. It also took me a while to realize that I had to make that happen for myself, and only I could do it. It was about meeting my own needs.
Sayge: I spent a lot of my life trying to be supportive of others and not really feeling supported back. I was in relationships where my art wasn’t seen as important or anything worth putting money toward. I did all the mothering and partnering, and if I could find extra time, I could do the art. The shift came when I brought my art-making into the center of my life and decided to support myself the way that I had supported so many other people.
Do you make art for a particular community?
Valerie: I do. It’s people who are in touch with the complexities of their own experience. If you had asked me this question five years ago, I would have said that I make for my grandmother or for the process of working with myself. Now I’m more open to the possibility that I make to share. In the past, I think it came from a kind of unworthiness, like, “Who cares?” Now, because of the supportive community that I surround myself with, I think people care.
Sayge: All of the different mediums that I work in feed me in different ways, but the community aspect of it is for a specific community. It’s not all Black women or one demographic. It’s more that I’m looking for family to build this network of people who are in the same position and facing the same complexities — people who need to find a collection of people they can feel supported by.
How do you nurture your creative spirit in everyday life outside of the work of making art?
Valerie: I used to think that everything I do is related. But now I think that to nurture actually takes intention. I’m learning about my brain and leaning into my neurodivergence in the last year. I’m responding to my brain instead of trying to make it do what I want it to do.
Right now, because I’m working with pattern, I’ve been into bird migration. I’ve been out in the early mornings with my binoculars, watching and identifying and observing. I’m letting my brain obsess, and I now understand that this is how my creativity manifests, this is how I research, how I get into things.
Sayge: When I was parenting, I had the ability to be single focus. I could spend all of my days with my son. I would become completely engrossed in whatever he brought up. Now I have a loose schedule of what I have to get done to pay bills and run the business, but I’m also able to follow those playful things that come up that wouldn’t seem part of my art- making, but feed me in some way. It’s a lot of self-exploration and allowing myself the space to think about who I am and what I want. That’s always been the part that I put off — I was conditioned to see what others want.
How relevant do you think an understanding of your identity is to an understanding of the work you make?
Valerie: In America, an understanding of identity is knowing I’m Southeast Asian, I’m an immigrant, I’m queer, I’m nonbinary — it’s the sum of your oppressions. I think that has an important function in this society, but sometimes I wonder what identity would be for me if I didn’t have to write grants.
Sayge: It’s like mining the sadness of whatever identity you have.
Valerie: Because of the way this society is set up, those things are important — I’m not belittling them — but they also limit the possibilities of what one could identify or feel as who they are. When I work, I try not to work in response to or reaction to these oppressions. I understand my sensibilities are very different from other people’s, so in my work I ground myself in my own sensibilities of who I am. My experiences impact me, but they are not me. I accept that who I am is constantly changing — it’s a mobile, organic, moving thing that I will never get my finger right on, but I can ground into something that I know I feel and be sure of it.
Sayge: I was born in the first wave of the Loving Generation. Being a biracial female meant a specific thing at that time; there wasn’t a group for me to belong to. In that way, I feel like my identity informs the way that I am looking for community. But because I am moving away from the people-pleaser part of myself, I am more inwardly focused. I’m getting to define for myself what’s important and what I think my identity is. Not the identity of Black woman, queer woman — all of those things. It’s more Sayge as an artist who works with clay, what I want in my life, and how that is going to express itself.