Hughen / Starkweather

Collaborators, San Francisco // December 2011
Our collaborative work, the process and the outcome, has naturally begun to influence our own works and process. What’s exciting about collaboration is the merging of individual aesthetics, bringing them together in a way that still allows for some distinction and contrast.

I was really excited to meet collaborating artists Amanda Hughen and Jennifer Starkweather and curious to see how this little twist to our usual studio visit routine would play out. We visited them at Amanda’s studio in the Mission District— the space is quite large and uncluttered, with occasional splashes of color breaking up the mainly white room. There’s a feeling of lightness and simplicity to it that I imagine must make it quite nice to work in. Amanda and Jennifer are currently at work on their third project together, called Approach, Transition, Touchdown, which is a series of prints, drawings and paintings about the Bay Bridge. They work separately in their respective studios, but they come together to throw around ideas, discuss possibilities, and check in with each other. I was actually surprised to find this out, because I’d imagined that they worked across the table from one another, passing work back and forth. Not so. And now I can see how it makes more sense for them to work this way; it allows them to independently break ground, push at personal boundaries, and make new discoveries, but yet still remain within the framework of a shared experience and simultaneously move towards the same goal. They both talked at length about the rewards of the extensive research they did for this project— the history, the stories, the politics, and the technical and practical realities they uncovered that gave them an acute and layered understanding of their subject matter. But it wasn’t just the actual, tangible knowledge accrued that Amanda and Jennifer seemed thrilled about, instead they were most inspired by the nitty-gritty, sometimes slow, but always steady process of learning. Both Jennifer and Amanda are prompted by a spirit of inquiry and a desire to bring dimension to aspects of ordinary life that are often overlooked; the work they make together is a meeting point where ideas that originate from different directions travel towards each other, cross paths, and come together to interact and interchange.

Do you have a day job? What is it? What does it mean to you?
Amanda: I teach occasionally and I work part-time as a freelance graphic designer. I like doing these things — connecting with students, working with typography and images, but if I could afford to focus only on artwork, I would. However, there is something to be said for not having to depend solely on artwork to pay the rent. The pressure in that could potentially be unsettling on many levels.

Jennifer: I have been teaching painting and drawing for 15 years at The Urban School, which is an independent high school, in San Francisco. I am continuously excited and encouraged by working with students who authentically embrace the beginner’s mind— those who are open and eager to learning and have no preconceptions about what something should look like. I am also encouraged and sometimes forced to practice what I preach in the class: to brainstorm with a particular method; to experiment and take risks and to be self-disciplined. But lately, I am inspired by working in an environment filled with active and engaged young people who are learning, digging into interesting ideas, or exploring subjects that I wouldn’t typically be interested in. Their desire to learn has had a great influence on my desire to learn and to seek out projects where the outcome involves some new knowledge base.

What does having a physical space to make art in mean for your process, and how do you make your space work for you?
Jennifer: Before I had my son, I had a studio that was away from my house. I spent hours there. After I had my son, I kept that space, but also created a little hovel in my basement. I factored in the time it would take me to drive to my studio in Dogpatch and then decided the commute time was better spent making art. Though I’ve continued to keep my Dogpatch studio, I find that I’m doing most of my work at the space I’ve created at home. I often work in small segments of time, so every minute is precious. I work when I can, in fits and spurts. Having a space that is all mine, even if it looks like a bat cave, is essential to my creative process and to my sanity. It’s where I retreat, regroup, revisit old ideas and embark on new ones. I need a place that is quiet although I do listen to bad mystery novels to help keep my brain occupied while my hand moves.

Amanda: I had an interesting experience a few years ago when I was an artist in residence at the Headlands Center for the Arts project space. Working in that huge space for seven weeks, and in that incredible landscape was transformational to my work. Since then I have been more aware of the strong impact one’s studio space can have on one’s work. I feel very lucky to have my current studio; I look forward to walking in the door every day. It’s five blocks from my apartment, it’s nice to walk or bike through the Mission to get here. Before this, I had a teeny tiny studio, about 6 feet wide, for four years, with very little natural light. The light and size of this studio has really made a difference – I can stand back from the work and look at it from across the room. It’s incredible!

What are your biggest challenges to creating art and how do you deal with them? How do you navigate the art world?
Amanda: My biggest challenge is time. With two small children plus part-time work, the time I have set aside for the studio is sacrosanct. What works for me is to be in the studio seven days a week, even if for just a few hours at a time. Monday through Friday my kids are in school in the mornings, so I’m able to work in my studio then. On the weekends my husband and the kids go on various adventures during the day, so by mid-morning I get myself to the studio. Of course, now and again I join the family adventure or go to brunch with friends, but it is pretty rare that I miss a morning in the studio. I fear the slippery slope. In order to maintain a sustained practice, I make compromises. I strive for balance of course, but it’s not always graceful.

Jennifer: Finding time is my biggest challenge. I try not to get stressed out by how little time I have to make art and to just work when I can or when I have a deadline. I have to plan ahead for projects because I don’t perform well under pressure. My focus is really on just trying to make good art rather than navigating the art world.

What are you most proud of?
Jennifer: The fact that I have managed to make art for this long (along with a job, family and a passion for running long distances), and actually continue to do so. And despite the number of times that I’ve wanted to stop, which would free up my life/time/energy immensely, I keep coming back to it.

Amanda: My determination to live a balanced life. Again, not always gracefully, but I try.

What mediums do you work with?
Jennifer: I mostly work with gouache, ink, graphite, acrylic, watercolor and always on paper. Paper is a forgiving material.

Amanda: I work with similar materials, with a focus on pen and pencil, as well as screen printing and mylar.

How did collaboration between the two of you come about? In what ways does the collaborative process differ from your individual practices?
Jennifer:We met when we both had studios at the Headlands Center for the Arts years ago; we had similar aesthetic sensibilities and hoped to collaborate some day. Our first project was a commission by the San Francisco Arts Commission for the Kiosk Poster Project, a series of six posters exhibited in bus shelters along Market Street.

Amanda: Neither of us had ever sought out a collaboration with another artist, it all happened organically, and we have both been inspired by working together on projects that are so different from our solo works. Mutual respect for the other’s work and ideas is key to the success of any collaboration.

Jennifer: Our collaborative practice is very different from my own in many ways. Brainstorming with Amanda helps me to broaden and deepen my ideas. She’s inspired my desire to approach my subject matter with more thorough research. Lately I’ve gravitated towards subject matter with social relevance, and though it might not necessarily be obvious to some people, it’s a way for me to access meaning. Collaborating leads me to create art I wouldn’t have made on my own.

Amanda: We merge different ideas, different handlings of materials and tools, different approaches and processes, so our work is constantly evolving and changing. In a way artwork is like solving a problem, and when you collaborate half of the work is done by someone else in a way that’s different than your own approach, but with the same goal in mind. Jennifer has influenced me to become more loose and free with my work, and to be more trusting of my materials.

Jennifer: I also like being part of a team. Over time, we have found our groove and our individual strengths and we have honed them. I like being accountable; that extra set of eyes, the high expectations from another artist help me avoid getting complacent. Our collaborative work, the process and the outcome, has naturally begun to influence our own works and process. What’s exciting about collaboration is the merging of individual aesthetics, bringing them together in a way that still allows for some distinction and contrast.

How would you describe your subject matter? What themes seem to occur/reoccur in your work?
Jennifer: Much of our collaborative work involves explorations of places and spaces that are corridors or thoroughfares. Market Street, which we explored in our first project, connects the northeast side of the city with the southwest and is a major transit artery. It has carried cable cars, horse drawn streetcars and Muni buses and is the boundary for two street grids. In our second project, we looked at airports— points for arrival and departure. In our third project, Approach, Transition, Touchdown, we are observing and examining the Bay Bridge, which is one of the longest spans in the world and was built to connect the east with the west sides of the bay.

Amanda: San Francisco was in a perfect location to prosper during the Gold Rush and almost all goods had to arrive by ship. When the Transcontinental Railroad was completed, San Francisco was prone to lose its position as the regional center of trade because the train system stopped in Oakland. The building of the Bay Bridge (with a train on the lower deck) created easier travel, allowing San Francisco to become a major city of commerce. It helped to put us on the map. The idea of the bridge is also such a lovely metaphor because it is a structure that is built to span a physical obstacle. And similar to our previous projects, the bridge is a transit artery, a corridor, so to speak, that connects people from different places, it reduces isolation and allows access from one point to another. Through this project, we also hoped to show the beauty and complexity of this ‘structure’ to the public.

How did the project Approach, Transition, Touchdown begin? Beyond its obvious logistical significance, what specifically about the Bay Bridge inspired the decision to explore it as artistic subject matter? How do you approach the necessary and extensive research?
Amanda: Our work explores the layers and patterns that comprise a specific place, focusing on locations that are typically transitional thoroughfares. We initially wanted to do a project about all of the bridges that connected San Francisco to the outlying areas.

Jennifer: We didn’t start out with the idea that we wanted to work within the context of transitional locations or thoroughfares. As time went on, we noticed that our focus and affinities seemed to naturally gravitate towards this subject matter. Certainly we were interested in the historical significance of these places, and it was fascinating to think about how often people travel through them but rarely slow down to experience them or reflect on their significance.

Amanda: There was something about places that are functional and historical, but often overlooked that really attracted us, and made us want to further examine and explore their significance.

Jennifer: As we began to research, we realized how overwhelming this project would be. There was concern that if we reached too far, the work would look diluted. So a conversation with one of the Caltrans engineers convinced us to focus solely on the Bay Bridge. It’s such a ripe subject. It’s a bridge that’s not without its history and politics. And the more we learned about its design, infrastructure, construction and engineering the more we fell in love with it. We ended up getting introduced to all sorts of architects, engineers, educators and designers who were working on the bridge and despite the challenges they had faced, were so passionate about this epic structure. They gave us piles of drawings, photographs, historical documents, data and research that we sifted through for months. There were a few people at Caltrans who met with us several times, supported our efforts and arranged for boat tours to view the bridge from the Bay underneath. They opened up doors for us in ways we never imagined.

Amanda: We also got to go up to the top of the tower, and stand on the scaffolding. It was incredible.

Jennifer: I loved the research, the investigations and the learning. I felt like one of my students.

Amanda: With each project we do, the act of learning and the intersection of social practice and art making becomes more essential to our creative process.

What helped fuel your work on Approach, Transition, Touchdown?
Jennifer: The people, the stories, the photographs of the construction, computer generated drawings created by some of the engineers and architects, driving overthe bridge at night and during the day. I also listened to the entire set of Harry Potter books on DVD while making these drawings.

What do you want Approach, Transition, Touchdown to do? Where do you think this project is headed?
Amanda: We’re continuing with this project. There is so much that we had to edit out that deserves attention. This project also revolved around the construction of the bridge, in a state of transition. Besides, the bridge isn’t complete yet and we haven’t yet seen the deconstruction of the old bridge, which should be amazing to watch and to learn about. Who knows how long this project might last, as we go deeper and deeper into exploring it.

Are you involved in any upcoming shows or events?
Amanda: The second part of the Hughen/Starkweather Bay Bridge series will open at Electric Works in 2013 to coincide with the opening of the new bridge.

To see more of Jennifer’s work:

To see more of Amanda’s work: