One on one with world-famous artist Saya Woolfalk

February 17, 20226 min read
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Courtesy of Ka-Man Tse for @TSqArts
Courtesy of Ka-Man Tse for @TSqArts

During Frieze Los Angeles art fair, Yieldstreet will debut a mural designed in collaboration with Saya Woolfalk, an artist whose career has probed the wonders of immersive world-building

Where does the process for a new piece typically begin for you? How did you approach the mural for Yieldstreet and Frieze?

  • I work digitally and also in analog formats, and so when I started thinking about this piece, I dug into my archive of digital files that includes material from all of my projects for the last 20 years. I think of these files as an archive of something I call the Empathic Universe.  The Empathics and their corporation ChimaTEK are parts of a story world I have been working on for most of my career.  

What interested you in working with Yieldstreet on this project? 

  • I love making new work, and having a chance to make something this large and ambitious for the event during Frieze LA has been very exciting. I became interested in the project when I learned that Yieldstreet wanted to invest in making something big, experimental, and interactive. I love trying new things and this is the largest mural I have ever made as a textile. Yieldstreet was immediately on board to make it happen which I am so grateful for and I can’t wait to see how it turns out. 

Storytelling is woven into the worlds you’ve rendered. What story will you be telling through this new piece of work?

  • I want to immerse everyone in the digital archive of the Empathic Universe in the form of what I call The Cosmic Quilt. Quilts often take the well worn pieces of our everyday lives, and recombine them to create something new.  When the elements are recombined, the quilt retains all of the traces of history and becomes an object that can be used in service of something else.  A quilt is an object of comfort, warmth, and protection, and it is also a space for dreaming.  With this work, I took a number of historical elements from the Empathic Universe, and quilted them together so the audience can experience what being immersed in that world feels like. 

Much of your work deeply considers the audience, they are brought into the experience, and this project is particularly interactive. As an artist, why do you think it’s important to invite engagement into the process?

  • I love making work that is participatory and that allows people who may not have a lot of experience with art to take part. When I design my work, I try to make it operate on many levels. I use color, and texture, as well as design so people can interact with the work at whatever level they feel comfortable. 
  • I have never made a work where people can touch the textile based elements of my work. I build worlds, and want people to inhabit and participate in the worlds I build.  This is why it will be exciting for me to have people touch and feel the mural during the Yieldstreet event. There is something special about getting to touch art. I often have performers in my work wear special garments that transform their bodies. I think that the textile elements in this work for YS are transmitting additional information. People not only will get to look at the world that I propose, but also become a part of it. 

What can people learn from engaging with art?

  • I think that depends on the work they are engaging with. But speaking for my own work I make in ways that the work is physically accessible, so a wide range of audiences can be inspired and transported by it in their everyday lives.  From a 300 ft led wall installation that people would encounter on their commute at World Trade Center, to an enormous basketball court mural in Marcus Garvey Park, I try to make content that can be accessed on many levels. 

Friday will mark Yieldstreet’s inaugural ARTSPARK event. It is emblematic of their commitment to the art investment community by providing a gathering point to showcase artists at different points in their careers. What is the importance, in your opinion, of having these kinds of gathering places for art and artists?

  • Artists need people to invest in the work that they make.  Early investment in my practice by places like the Studio Museum in Harlem, and social exchanges and studio visits with the Friends of Education at MoMA made the work I make now possible.  Cultivating and engaging a creative community that includes artists, curators, thinkers and supporters of the arts has been crucial to the development of my practice. 

Why is it important for people to invest in art?

  • Art is transformative and transportive, and art and artists allow us to see the world just a little differently than we saw it before we encountered the work.  We live in a world full of images, and many of them are made really quickly and for a profit.  Art and artists give us a chance to engage in a slow read, even if the image is a fast image. The artists I respect and love are artists who think hard about the impact of the images they make and what those images can do for us in the world. 

You’ve said in the past that there is a physical and digital “back and forth” that occurs with your work. In other words, digital and physical spheres are not mutually exclusive. Yieldstreet, in its own way, is also engaged in the dynamic between physical and nonphysical. How, in your opinion, do each of these spheres compliment each other?

  • It is always important for me to create collective embodied experiences for my audiences in the real world, even if the work begins as a digital image. I love that the work I am making is an enormous digital image that was fabricated as an interactive textile mural.  The digital world is always impacting our physical world, it shapes our movement and how we live.  I explore that in the work I make, including the piece I created for the ARTSPARK event. 

In literature and cinema, an extended metaphor can allow one image to stand in for something greater. Is there a tile or two within the mural that you’d pick as a kind of “key” to the greater piece?

  • There are so many elements in this work that are important but four that I would love to call out. They are the Four Virtues. I love to think of them as the ethical goddesses of the Empathic Universe, ushering in a world where Justice, Temperance, Fortitude, and Prudence are integral elements of the conversation. 

An Art-Spark is “a celebration of an artist whose career is catching fire.” Who are some artists on your art-spark radar? People who are particularly inspiring you.

  • I have a group of women artists who are my go-to people.  Candida Alvarez, Wendy Red Star, Heather Hart, Natalia Nakazawa, Nyeema Morgan, Kira Nam Greene, Valerie Hagerty, Lauren Kelly, Paula Wilson, and Vadis Turner are badass women I call, text, or Zoom when I am stuck. I am pretty lucky to have them all in my life. I am also a teacher at the graduate level and Amaryllis Dejesus Moleski, Ayoung Justine, Yu, Patricia Renee Thomas, Caroline Garcia are just a few of the amazing young artists I have had a chance to interact with while they were in school and now religiously pay attention to. 

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