Lily Kuonen is a visual artist who works in between painting, drawing, installation, and constructed elements. She has shown her work in solo and group exhibitions on three continents, in four countries, and in 18 different U.S. states. In less than 15 years of actively showing her work, Kuonen has participated in 85+ exhibitions. This figure is even more remarkable when you take into consideration the fact that for nearly seven of those years Kuonen was an honor student pursuing an undergraduate degree from the University of Central Arkansas followed by a graduate degree from the Savannah College of Art and Design. And, since 2011, she has worked full-time at Jacksonville University, where she is now Associate Professor of Art and Foundations Coordinator.
As an artist, Kuonen casts tradition aside. She continuously examines and redefines the mediums and processes through which she creates. In 2009, Kuonen coined the term PLAYNTING (play + painting) to characterize her studio practice, which involves integrating painting with additional forms, materials, surfaces, and actions. Kuonen has worked with a number of non-normative materials, including saw dust, ratchet straps, peg board, and cinder blocks. Her fascination with a material typically continues even after a series is complete. It isn't uncommon for materials from one series to be repurposed for a future series.
Kuonen's work will be on display in FSCJ's Kent Campus Gallery from October 24 through November 14, 2017. The exhibit, titled Indirect Constructs, is a two-person show between Kuonen and abstract artist Tonya D. Lee. Both Kuonen and Lee explore relationships between materials and space through the use of color, texture, and intricate, layered patterning. FSCJ Kent Campus will host an opening reception for the exhibit on Tuesday, October 24 from 6:00 PM until 8:00 PM.
Kuonen is also a contributing writer to Burnaway, an Atlanta-based 501(c)(3). Their mission is to provide coverage of the arts in and from Atlanta and the South. She has contributed art reviews and feature articles connected to Northeast Florida since 2013, covering exhibitions and initiatives by Florida Mining Gallery, Long Road Projects, MOCA Jacksonville, and the Crisp-Ellert Art Museum.
10 Questions with Lily Kuonen
Do you have any patterns, routines, or habits when starting a new project?
They change over time, and fluctuate depending on the amount of professional commitments I have. In general though, I like a good studio cleaning to get a fresh start. Because of my workload, I typically try and “conceptualize” work while enjoying other physical activities, like biking, dancing, or even just the morning commute.
This means that when I get to the studio I can use my time to actually produce those ideas. I also cannot do anything without sketching. Even if they are loose marks, it all helps me. Through sketching I can visualize, and I usually can’t help but get excited about what I want to make.
What have you learned about yourself through your artistic endeavors?
I have a deep respect for work ethic, but it is paired best with resourcefulness, at least some organization, and a heavy dose of grit.
How do you define success in what you do?
I usually ask this same question of my students. We think about it in many capacities: a project, a course, a material/media choice, or even in their career trajectory. As an educator, I would also say that I define success by encouraging more questions. Non-complacency is key.
I have to admit, I am big on setting goals. However, I don’t think goals should be like a to-do list where you simply cross them off and move on. They require time for thoughtful reflection.
Just a couple of weeks ago, I installed a solo show in South Carolina, with over 40 of my works together. I can’t exactly articulate it, but seeing all of those things that I made, all together, and resonating with each other…that definitely felt successful.
What was the best advice or recommendation that you received while pursuing your education? Additionally, as an educator yourself, what do you seek to instill and nurture in your students?
That’s tricky. I don’t think advice in education can be simplified to a mere “best of.” In fact, I once saw a painting that humorously commented on that. It was a painting of a duck that had a speech bubble that said “you make me want to go bigger.” This is a joke on classic “advice” in art school, make the thing bigger if you can’t make it better. But you see, that doesn’t solve the issue.
All in all though, I have heard some really great things along the way. I was given this advice when I attended my first ThinkTank event organized by Integrative Teaching International. Jim Elinski, of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, said, “Speak with the expectation of being heard, and listen with the expectation of being changed.” This was stated in the context of the collaborative process of research and discourse involved in a ThinkTank event, but regardless, I think it is sound advice for all.
As an educator, there is so much that I seek to instill, but I guess I might refer to earlier answers. I hope to instill a strong work ethic, a quality of resourcefulness, organization, and problem-solving, along with grit. I hope to nurture non-complacency.
You added a performance art component to the Indirect Constructs exhibition. What inspired you to revisit dance and how are you utilizing the artistic discipline to support the theme of your work in visual art?
Indirect Constructs will be hosted by FSCJ Kent Campus Gallery. During the planning of the exhibit, I was contacted by my peer and friend, Prof. Rebecca Levy (FSCJ Dance professor and Artistic Director of Jacksonville Dance Theatre). She pitched the idea of collaborating for a performance component, and I was excited about this new challenge.
I am working with Caylin Housley, who is the student manager of FSCJ danceWORKS. I have known Caylin for a couple of years. We met through the dance community in Jacksonville, and I have a great respect for her enthusiasm, passion, and ability to experiment. She is developing the choreography based on our collaborations and discussions on concept, and we are working together to develop the visual aspects (costumes and props).
As a faculty member at JU, I often seek out opportunities to collaborate with dance and other disciplines offered within the College of Fine Arts (CFA). I have a standing partnership with my figure drawing courses to collaborate with choreography and modern classes at JU. Professors Brian Palmer, Lana Heylock, and Tiffany Santeiro, to name a few, have been great collaborative partners for opportunities that combine visual arts and dance. I guess it has just been a matter of time for this type of collaboration to find a place within a personal exhibition of my work.
Dance has been a significant influence in my life for some time. My mom has been teaching dance for over 50 years. I grew up dancing. After a long hiatus, I was encouraged by friends in JDT to return to the practice. Choreography, the concept of “stage pictures,” abstractions of the body, and even narrative communicated through movement, has in some way always been a part of how I think creatively. Even more recently, I have been titling works based off of body positions and movements within ballet, like a terre, effaće, rond, etc.
With the opening of Indirect Constructs, you have five overlapping exhibitions around the nation, several of which are solo shows. What do you credit as direct actions that you have taken that have contributed to you being extended opportunities around the country? Furthermore, how do you determine what opportunities to say yes to?
Being an artist is a job, but it is also a way of life with many different facets. Some of which are not that glamorous. They are hard work and they take time.
I love being in my studio, but I also acknowledge that to make the studio work, I have to put in the time for “administrative” tasks (i.e. documentation, updating my website, promoting my work, applying to exhibitions, grants, proposals, submissions, work for publications, etc). As an educator, I happen to enjoy many of these tasks. They are time “away” from the creative work, but these things are necessary to propel the work. All in all though, I put in the time.
Many years ago I read Anne Truitt’s "Daybook: The Journal of an Artist." This is a collection of journal entries spanning years in her life as an artist. I was humbled by the humanity of her writing. It is an honest journey through her life and the complex ways in which her creativity is shaped by the choices that she makes in her everyday life, including intellectual pursuits, emotional relationships, and moral persuasions.
I really loved this book because it supports the idea that art is a way of life. It does not end in the studio, and it cannot only be found at an exhibition or a gallery opening. I am very thankful for the many opportunities that have come my way, and they are helpful reassurance that I know I am pursuing what I want in life.
I have also had some really great mentors and peers that have given me insight on career strategies and helped me set a pace for myself. As a professor, we are evaluated annually on our professional engagement within our disciplines. I always appreciate this process as a time to reflect on what I have accomplished and set personal goals for future opportunities. This task helps me strategize and plan.
For the last five or so years, I have given myself a personal goal to exhibit annually in at least 10 exhibitions, in at least five different states. This year I have exhibited in 13 exhibitions in eight states. Knowing which opportunities to pursue and “say yes to” is probably why I have been extended certain opportunities. The ones I choose typically lead to further connections and deepen my studio practice.
I definitely weigh all the potential benefits of an offer, when deciding what to pursue. But, it is also a mere calendar issue. Sometimes I have to say no because it won’t work in my agenda. Direct motivations can come from mentors, peers, networking, planning and strategizing, supporting the arts, and being open. You have to be “present” within the arts.
How do you manage the pressure and time constraints that come with being an exhibiting professional artist as well as a full-time educator?
I won’t lie, it is a constant effort to achieve balance. But, I happen to really like working and staying busy. My dad always says he “will work 10 days after he is in the ground.” An obvious exaggeration, but I think I share the same genetic drive to juggle projects, work, and the pleasures of life. Like my father, I appreciate a good adventure with many twists, turns, and surprises.
Jacksonville sometimes has the tendency to be risk-adverse. What techniques have you implemented to introduce broader audiences to the concept of non-normative, theme centric, or abstract works?
Much of the rhetoric that I hear from leadership in Jacksonville is that we want to be a city that is competitive, metropolitan, and enticing with broad opportunities that span from business to culture. If this is truly the case, then we have to take risks. We have to challenge tradition, especially if it is counter-productive to our mission. We have to acknowledge the realities of our situation, and seek growth, progression, and inclusivity. Contemporary pedagogy practices, especially in the arts, are full of dialogue about methods to do what you are asking in this question. In truth though, I think accessible conversations leads to healthy debate.
There is a bit in a Tom Robbins' book, "Skinny Legs and All," where a character asks Ellen Cherry Charles why she makes art. She mentions something to the effect that art is a thing that you envision in your mind, and for whatever reason, you can't keep on going until you can make that idea physical in some form. I like this idea. It works well for all media too - anything from a song, to a poem, to a painting. It also links the thought process involved in creative expression: that something has to come from abstract thought before it can be actualized. For me, art is necessary, it is connective, challenging, and fulfilling. It makes us human.
What leads to your initial fascination or curiosity about a material and what role does trial and error play in your creative process?
If it is in my studio, then it is pretty much fair game. Honestly, this is how many materials have found their way into the work. This type of strategy or material use also comes from the way I was taught to build and construct. I was taught to use what you have, to re-purpose things, and to invest in the continuous project. Meaning, things can continually evolve and change over time.
I also happen to use things that I have an aesthetic fascination with. In particular, this can lead to color, surface or form choices. I also like to try lots of different ways to use something, which accounts for the experimentation and trial and error. My studio is like a 6th grade science experiment, trying outcomes, testing them, and sometimes ending up with a successful result. I push materials to figure out their possibilities and limitations. I would equate this process to how a child tests out a toy.
What would you like to see as an effort to support and grow the city’s creative economy?
In order to grow a creative economy we need local, state, and national leadership that recognizes the need for creative education as a tool for developing citizens that are thoughtful, passionate, inclusive, entrepreneurial, robust, skilled, and critical.
As an educator, I have an increasing number of students who want to study art and who are seeking a creative career. Many of these students have little to no experience with any form of creative practice prior to their first college art class. For a while this struck me as odd. I had an education and an upbringing that nurtured and supported the arts. But my youth and education was different from my students. The current lack of support for creative education at all levels is a serious issue.