Megan Wilson
Projects > Swell Ten Years Later > Interview

Prior to the exhibition, Berk, Castaño, and Wilson generated a series of questions to reflect on the past 10 years and how their perspectives, personal lives, and careers have grown and changed over the last decade.

How do you think place of origin has influenced your work - outlook, attitudes, or concerns? 

Amy Berk: Place of origin has absolutely influenced my work. So much in my work is (or at least has been, maybe not so much now) about spending my formative years on Long Island—that bizarre mix of money and tack. My love of the dime store and bargain fabrics got their start there as did my obsession with transforming these funky finds into sumptuous objects d' art. Now it's more about the places I've been, that I've traveled to, but my interest in sumptuousness and shiny stuff remains the same.

Carolyn Castaño: I was born and raised in Los Angeles and my parents are from Colombia. I grew up in the center of LA, near downtown, which is a diverse
community. My neighbors were white, Filipino, Latin, and a few African- Americans. Each wave of refugee's would be felt by the change in the faces at school or at church. At first it was your run of the mill Mexican-American families who populated the schools and neighboring markets. Since, there were so few in the Colombian community, my family identified with the Mexicans. We ate Mexican food, my sister-in-law worked at Pup'In Taco, we would sing “Cielito Lindo” at Birthday's and I wore folkloric dresses on Cinco de Mayo. Then refugees from the civil wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua started arriving, the faces became more Central American, the accents more clipped and Tropical. My school would hold an annual International Food Fair, and the myriad of food and flavors would reflect the diversity of the neighborhood.

I think place and origin have really influenced my work in many ways. My early work out of the Art Institute was a series of Tango singers. I had been inspired by a set of records my dad had brought from Colombia. The record covers were really great! They had portraits of the singers, slicked back hair and shiny teeth with pink and baby blue covers. Each would claim the artists' talent with exclamations like, “El Romantico” “El Increible”, “el Rey de America”.

Although the Tango is originally from Argentina, Colombians have a great affinity for it. At family get-togethers, someone would put a Tango record on and then my grandmother would sit there and sing all the words, a tear rolling down her chin. There was always a look of nostalgia and what could have been or was. I wish I could say there was Tango dancing, but my family was not that exciting.

In this early series of Tango series I wanted to capture that nostalgia and romanticism through portraits of these guys and style of painting, which was very thick and shiny oil painting. Since then, my work has changed and evolved. I think about different things and sometimes I revisit nostalgia and the bittersweet. I think what remains is a search of femininity that derives from my love of the glam and gorgeous, but also from the tacky and overdone found in many barrio beauty salons. Also ornamentation, pattern, and textiles which is part my interest in my mother's clothes growing up, architecture in Spain and Latin America, the Baroque which is in my soul, and my love of script and flourish, and colors and graphics of the street, namely downtown LA or the Mission in San Francisco.  Also I've returned time and again to portraiture.

Megan Wilson: I grew up in Billings Montana, the largest city in the state with a population of 100,000. The general feeling of Billings is much like that of a suburb with a relatively small downtown area, few buildings over 5 stories, several two-lane main streets, one museum/art center, four high schools, sporadic strip malls, and a larger one-level mall with a multiplex theater that was built in the seventies. However, rather than lying on the outskirts of a large city, Billings is bordered by the Crow Indian reservation and surrounded by a breathtaking natural environment with plains to the east and north, and the Rocky Mountains to the south and west. The city is also lined across the north side with rim rocks that house a myriad of caves and wildlife. The culture of Billings is a mix of outdoor adventure, the old West, Indian customs, and a desire to emulate a modern metropolitan lifestyle. My experience mirrored this in a number of ways: 1) my parents were great outdoor enthusiasts and every weekend we were either hiking, cross country skiing, fishing, or rafting; 2) my father's family has been in Montana since the mid-1800's and the Western/cowboy heritage has always been a part of our lives – going to rodeos, Western attire, and listening to country music; 3) my best friends from elementary school through high school were Crow and Sioux Indians; and 4) my mother was obsessed with the design and decoration of our home. In addition, I was forced to move out on my own when I was 16 years old. I moved into an unfinished concrete basement of a house that had little light and also acted as the laundry room for the owner of the house. My living space was an area of approximately 10' x 10'; I had an area rug, a bed, and a dresser. To support myself, I worked at Burger King 30 hours/week, while also attending high school.

All of these experiences have had a great influence on my work/life: I'm drawn to the natural world and its colors of greens, yellows, browns, and those of wild flowers; I love the feminine ornamentation on Western wear and gear contrasted with the masculine identity of the cowboy, as well as the contrast of country music's lyrics of heartbreak with the notion of the stoic West; I've always been interested in race, class, and culture and how these different forms of identity affect individuals, communities, and society as a whole; I have a strong love of patterns, textiles, and interior environments; the concept of “home” has been a strong thread throughout my work; and I learned early on what it meant to struggle and work hard in order to survive.

Another strong influence of growing up in Montana was that the only “fine” art that I was exposed to was that of cowboy artists such as Charles Russell, Frederick Remington, and Will James, all of whom I deeply respect. Other than this work, the arts that I knew were primarily craft-based, including quilling, which my grandmother taught me and I've expanded into my work today, knitting, beading, inspired by Indian beadwork, working with dried flowers and home decor.

How did moving to San Francisco and attending the San Francisco Art Institute influence your work?

Amy Berk: I came to SFAI a figurative painter, like so many others, drawn by the powerful aura of the Bay Area Figuratives and the idea of San Francisco as a place to both define and find yourself. My peers at graduate school were very helpful in helping me to shake off the mantle of what was expected and to define my interests and strengths, in color, form, and fabric in order to create a formal feminism that fit. The supportive SF alternative arts scene similarly embraced this unusual work and encouraged me to continue my explorations.

Carolyn Castaño: When I attended the San Francisco Art Institute, I had been in-between college and high school. I felt a kind loss and displacement. I was attending college and trying to figure out what to do with the rest of my life. Big Question!!

I had traveled to Europe and visited all of the great museums. There I fell in love with all of the beautiful paintings and decided this is what my life's work would be. I remember the Salle de Ruben's at the Louvre and all of the Van Gogh's. I just loved the work and the mythos behind these artists. I specially enjoyed the way Ruben's would paint his ladies in this very sensual way, their skin just breathed. I went home and began to prepare my portfolio. I visited the art Institute and had my interview with Tim Robison. After my interview, I was walking down the hill on Chestnut Street I turned around for one last look at my future school. There In front of the school was a couple making out under the Atrium. The guy had dreadlocks, was tall skinny and of African descent, probably mixed and the girl was Asian had really funky clothes on. Cut up and rag tag. They were in this tight embrace, like they really loved each other. I loved their difference, their expression of love, and how cool they were. I decided then that this was my place, that I had found my tribe.

Megan Wilson: I attended the San Francisco Art Institute as a graduate student from fall 1994 – spring 1997. Unfortunately, the experience was not much of a positive one for me. I strongly felt the bureaucracy of the institution, which overrode the sense of an open, creative environment. However, moving to San Francisco and meeting other students at the Art Institute who helped to introduce me to the greater art community had a strong influence on my art and life. I felt much more supported and challenged outside of the school, which I think can be attributed to my early history and need to work from a “Do It Yourself” model, as well as the influence of many other artists in the Bay Area working in this way.

How has the idea of feminism influenced your work? How has it influenced your life? Are you still a feminist? Can we re-define feminism for the multiple needs of a woman today?  (Career, family, love?)

Amy Berk: Feminism is of course a super complicated conflicted issue. Of course I am a feminist—I grew up in the time where that still meant something, still held power. Of course it has influenced my life from my early years talking about the ERA, to marching for the right to choose while in college, to attempting to raise a feminist boy with my partner today.

Can we redefine Feminism? I hope so. It's still such a powerful term that now everybody—women as well as men are afraid to take it on, afraid to claim it. What can we do to rescue it, or to create another concept entirely that could work without the negative charge?

Carolyn Castaño: I think Feminism has influenced my work in that I felt permission to embrace a feminine and personal language. I still believe and use this language in my work. Am I still a feminist? More than ever. But I feel that it is a strange question. I feel that younger generations don't have to question their rights and place in the world as much. Not at least in the Western world. Women are everywhere and doing so much. Girls are out-performing boys in school and in sports. Women are the number one and most sought after painters, namely Laura Owens and Monique Prieto.  They both have homes and children and careers. It's kind of strange to think it was different before, not that long ago, when were growing up or in high school. Of course there is still a lot of discrimination in the work place and we still don't have a woman President. I think feminism today should be defined as Allowing and encouraging a woman to fulfill her talents, and needs, and desires to the utmost potential. I think it is difficult to do it all, though.

Women want careers, they need to bring in money, they want love and husbands, and they also want children. Women can do it all, but I think there is a loss of some kind. You have to compromise.

Megan Wilson: I've always been a feminist, even before I knew the term/concept existed. As a child I was devalued by my family for being a girl. My brother's needs and interests were always held as being of higher importance and I was keenly aware that this attention was gender based. The experience led me to spend long periods of time alone reading (mostly biographies of women), drawing, and making crafts/art. It also instilled in me a strong desire to beat the odds. My senior theses (I had two humanities classes – one required, and the other an elective) in high school were: 1) the portrayal of women in the media; and 2) the flaws of Freud and the seduction theory. In college, at the University of Oregon, I was a militant feminist, which I would translate into meaning “angry.” Any sign of objectification or the misuse of language and I would jump all over it. While I think that was a necessary stage for me as a young feminist, my views on what it means to be a feminist have changed greatly. I no longer get personally offended by these situations because I have a much stronger sense of who I am as a woman and understanding that it must come from within me, rather than be defined by someone else. This doesn't mean that I don't feel anger at the way in which women are still portrayed in the media, mostly because I think it sends an unhealthy message to girls that their value is in their sex appeal. I think the best message we can send to girls and other women, is: to truly understand ourselves, our needs, and ultimately what it is that we really want to be healthy and happy.

How has your identity as an artist/woman/lover/caregiver changed?

Amy Berk: More caregiver than artist, lover these days, I'm afraid, but the balance constantly shifts, I feel it shifting right now. My son Benjamin is almost two and I am finally getting back to the studio and to my “other” work, work that was once everything, and now is a portion of it, an important part, but one of many. Swell came at a real burgeoning period of my life as an artist and as a woman. I had just received my MFA, and was making my way out in the world as an exhibiting artist and member of the lively art community.

Carolyn Castaño: I feel that I am continually evolving as an artist and a woman, a
sister, and daughter. In my career, I have been able to continue to produce and find a new community in Los Angeles. Unfortunately, I feel that there is a wider market and opportunities for artists here. But more importantly I have found an audience for my work and I have been able to develop it into a more mature body of work. As a caregiver, I feel that I a step into the role of guardian of my parents more and more. They're still very active and meddling. But I feel that now that I am older and have a little bit more income, I can give back to them. Either with time, or just hanging out and going places. I've taken them on a few road trips around California, its' funny when you get away how well you can get along!! By returning to Los Angeles, I am trying to understand where I came from and how it is that this place has formed my identity.

Megan Wilson: As previously mentioned, my identity has changed mainly through the development of a stronger sense of who I am – flaws and all. Earlier on, I was much more affected by the way in which I or my work was perceived by others, which is still important because I believe we all want to be valued for who we are and what we create; however, more knowledge and experience have impacted how I define what's most important to me and how I interpret outside response.

How has motherhood changed your needs/ desires as an artist or cultural worker?

Amy Berk: Motherhood has tempered my desires as an artist somewhat—at least up till now. My most magnificent creation at the moment, walks, talks, and more! Making other things remains important but there is perhaps less urgency and maybe a little more fun.

Carolyn Castaño: I am not a mother. But maybe one day. If I may speak without prior experience, I think its all part of the work. Women shouldn't feel divided between their work, and their personal and intimate fulfillment.

Megan Wilson: Well I'm not a mother …yet. However, many of my friends have been having children over the past several years and it's made me think more about how it will impact me if/when I do become a mother. It's also led me to think more about my own mother, who I believe has had the greatest influence on me as an artist. She has always been interested in arts and crafts and I can remember as a young child, watching her paint, work on crafts projects, and spend a great deal of time decorating our home.

My mother was also the first person to introduce me to murals and the issues of working in someone else's space. When I was three, she painted a large flower mural on my bedroom wall (it's true – the fruit doesn't fall far from the tree) as a gift to me. It was quite magical and I was so excited and inspired by this that I took my crayons and scribbled all over it. My mother cried and cried at this response. Her sadness confused me because it was my space and I felt I was adding to her work. The experience left two strong impressions on me: 1) that of rebellion; and 2) that even though one believes they are adding to another's work and honoring it, this isn't always the perception of the other person and there can be consequences.

How has the current political situation affected your ideas about art? family? Being a US citizen?

Amy Berk: Sometimes I want to give up art and become a full time activist, delve into my family more and more and absolutely leave the country. My then partner, now husband joked that we would leave the country if Bush got re-elected, he did, we didn't. But it wasn't for lack of trying. But we also believe that work obviously needs to be done here. Bush got elected, so perhaps it is better to stay in the US and try to do what we can. Of course, SF is not the place, really, in need of help, but perhaps somewhere in the heartland.

Current political climate has also inspired my work for this show. I first saw penguins in the wild in New Zealand where we looked for them in these bizarre camouflage tunnels straight out of some bad war movie. Somehow penguins became a metaphor for the various peoples trapped in this dance of war and animosity that our world is currently engaged in. We are all waddling around from here to there but going nowhere. Creating an installation about the penguin is my opportunity to make fun out of the futility while trying to stay sane in the madness, and to bring some levity to a heavy and clumsy situation. Like the penguins do.

Carolyn Castaño: I would love to move. But aren't we U.S, Americans? Shouldn't we stay and fight it out? Vote, vote, vote!! And move and retire in South America or Asia. I've always been very political. My work is becoming more political, in the way that I am embracing place and identity again. My paintings are of local LA friends. But they are also or brown faces. Not exclusively. But I think its important to see them in a high art context.  Maybe it's more about exhibiting an urban know-how, and mixing that is happening. I swear, Megan I will paint you!!

My parents are practically Marxists. Just Kidding. But my mother has worked for the SEIU 434B, homecare workers union and my dad is an NPR and BBC fanatic. I think we need to be active, vigilant, and somehow survive in this capitalist society. (BTW, I don't know one that isn't capitalist?!!)

Megan Wilson: It's depressing in many ways, yet also energizing. I strongly believe in karma and I think that we are beginning to see the karmic effects of the Bush administration's actions. We also can't forget that life is always changing (annicca) and evolving – nothing stays the same. I think that America will probably be a 3 rd world country within the next 20 years. The current political situation has affected my work in that it's driven me to create several political projects that reflect and comment on the current social/political climate. It's also been very interesting to me to spend time in Indonesia. I find it to be a much more civilized country – kinder, more respectful, more mindful, more tolerating, more aware, and better educated etc. I think it would be a considerably better place to raise children. However, I also see the affects that the Western world and globalization are having on the country, which saddens me and I hope that the connection will be made between what “progress” means as measured by Western standards and the ultimate effects it will have.

How have some of the ideals of being an artist evolved over the years? Some of the ideals from SFAI?

Amy Berk: I have always railed against the romantic cliché of the crazy misunderstood artist away from society holed up in his/her garret. Over the years I have taught a number of different populations and age groups and was able to use my classes as a platform to try to puncture these old myths and create the idea of an artist as a valuable member of the community.

Carolyn Castaño: I remember in SFAI, there being this attitude about being an artist that said don't loose your integrity, make art, don't sell out. They didn't say anything about making a living or that you could make a living doing other things. I think this is a great disservice to artists and to their student body. As artists and cultural makers we have so many talents, besides make paintings and making videos and sculptures. We are inventors and creators and thinkers. These skills can be used in so many fields and mediums. I think this idea of being a poor artist and pushing paint all day long is outdated, some throw back to Ab-Ex days. Luckily I don't' know many people who can live that way for very long, with out being subsidized by Sallie Mae. Which reminds me, I have to send them a check!

Megan Wilson: During the years at the Art Institute and for several following graduation, there was such a high level of importance placed on getting the “right” commercial gallery, getting shows, and whether you were selected for Bay Area Now etc. And often these appointments seemed to take a higher precedence over the work itself. Looking back now, it all had such a high school feel to it – were you one of the “cool” and privileged or one of the rejected?

Today, I'm much more interested in just focusing on the work. I'm honored if I'm asked to be included in a show or project; however, if I'm not than I'm perfectly happy to create a venue myself that best supports the current work or project. I'm also more interested in experiences that often accompany the creation of the work, such as spending time in a different culture and developing new friendships and creative collaborations.

How has our friendship and collaboration influenced your art / life?

Amy Berk: My friendships with Megan and Carolyn have nourished both my art making and my coming into my own as an artist, a feminist, and a teacher. They have acted as supports, as sounding boards, as inspirations, and models (sometimes of what not to do). But in the end, my art would not be what it is without their valuable advice and productivity, and my life would not be as enriched as it is without their presence.

Carolyn Castaño: The friendship with the ladies, Amy Berk and Megan Wilson has had a seminal impact on my development as an artist and woman. I met Amy, way back at the hub, 67-29th Street. She and Marisa Hernandez were looking for a roommate. I showed up, all eager and wanting to move in. Amy and Marisa were older grad students at SFAI and I was an undergrad. I think had only been a year since we all had arrived from our ancestral homes, LA for me, Long Island for Amy and New Mexico for Marisa. Boy what a wild soup that was. Anyway, I think this friendship really helped me evolve into a mature artist. We were constantly talking about art and ideas around the kitchen table. Later on, Marisa moved out and Amy and I were able to solidify our friendship. Our home became a think-tank for art and cooking, teaching, and making love, of course. Megan Wilson soon joined the picture, fresh from Oregon or Montana. I remember this mass of red curls and cats-eye-glasses. Megan was a combination of Oregon nature girl, with east coast/Berkeley intellectualism. She can mobilize an army and then return to her Buddha pose in her apartment without even ruffling her feathers. I learned how community and action and art making can all work together to create really powerful art in the world. Together, we worked on putting together the Swell show. The show was a mixture of girly femme and womanpower. Can we make a movie out of our lives now??

Megan Wilson: It's been over ten years now that we've been friends, and over that time I feel we've become family, which had included many ups and downs and lots of growth. It's affected every part of my life – from my love relationships, to work collaborations, to productive critiques of my work.