Safer at Home: An interview with Patricia Yossen

Patricia Yossen is an Argentine-born contemporary artist and educator based in Los Angeles, California where she established her practice in 2008. Twice an immigrant, Yossen’s immersion into art came about in Mexico in the late ‘90s when she refined her sculpting techniques and experienced the artistic and cultural life of the country’s capital – an experience further enriched by her move to the United States. Yossen’s intimate body of work investigates contemporary ideas of domesticity and its intersections with professional life using a minimal and eloquent visual language. Her thoughtful and delicate pieces are inscribed with evocations of the early years back in her home country, her identity as an immigrant, and her experience as a mother, an art maker, and a professor. Yossen’s work reflects the influence of conceptual and feminist artists but it aligns better with the figure of Lola Borrás, an aspiring actress who lived in Yossen’s hometown Recreo and had a huge impact in the community and on Yossen. To talk more about her practice, her influences, and how she’s dealing with life in the age of the Coronavirus, I visited Patricia Yossen’s studio virtually back in May and we continued our conversation via email. 

Claudia Pretelin: Growing up in Argentina, what drove your need to create art, and what were your earliest experiences of making art?

Patricia Yossen: I grew up in a time and place where many of the things we used were handmade, often by someone in my own little town: food, clothing, furniture, even the bricks used to build houses. On top of that, my mom is a maker and she ran a general store where you could buy the raw materials needed to cook, sew, embroider, knit, and even string together jewelry. Doing it yourself wasn’t something I discovered; I was born into it. My memories are of using clay and other materials at a very early age as a way to express myself non-verbally.

I never thought about “making art” as a concept until I began to pursue a degree in art education in a nearby city; until then I’d never even visited an art museum. Even after getting my degree and moving to Mexico to study sculpture, I struggled to understand what to say with my work or even with calling myself an artist. There really wasn’t a moment when I became an artist, but I can say that over years of making things, concepts and ideas began to come to me. It seems to me now that my transition into being an artist came when I stopped thinking about what to say.

CP: Tell us about Lola Borrás and the influence of this woman in your work.

PY: Lola was a woman in my hometown of Recreo who taught many women, including my mother, how to embroider and sew at a time when girls received no education after sixth grade. She became a de facto educator for the women of my town and was a big influence in my mother’s life, motivating her to read, write, and to fight for what she loved. Like me, Lola was an immigrant. She was born in Spain and moved to rural Argentina to escape unrest and conflict in Europe; self-educated, she brought books, magazines, and other materials to a town that didn’t have them and gave its women an intellectual life.

I had been thinking about her for a long time and finally began researching her life around eight years ago, going through piles of documents and other archives preserved by a dear friend who happened to work for the town government. Among the papers and books, I found a sketchbook filled with strange symbols that I couldn’t recognize. My mother explained they were a kind of embroidery stitch pattern code used by Lola. This was a kind of Rosetta Stone moment for me: being able to understand the language my mother shared with Lola and other women in town somehow gave me a new connection with my mother and the women of her generation. I realized that what was really important about Lola’s contribution to my town was the safe space she gave women to talk and to be excited about ideas.

Inspired, I began making a series of works based on those strange, rune-like symbols, employing long rolls of paper that seemed like a path to follow, or a contemporary codex, yet also had domestic connotations of repetition and handcraft. Lola has been the underpinning for a wide range of works on paper, in porcelain, charcoal, ink, embroidery, jewelry, and other media. For example, one project was based on handkerchiefs that she showed her students how to embroider. I took some of those original pieces and reimagined them in porcelain, then arranged them in circles in the same way that Lola and the women of Recreo sat together to work and talk. I called the piece “Circulos de Confianza” or “Trust Circle.”

CP: Professionally, your work experience is located at different geographical points. In which ways have these experiences informed your art? What were some of the challenges and rewards in producing work in these different environments?

PY: One of the main struggles I’ve had in creating work has been finding a balance between having a job that covers my living expenses and having time to work in a focused way on my art. Sometimes I can find a balance between those things and it’s fantastic; sometimes it’s more difficult. That tension has followed me from country to country and isn’t really any different in Los Angeles than it was in Mexico City.

What perhaps makes my experience disparate from some other artists is the fact that I’m a two-time immigrant. I have left not only my home in Argentina but my second home in Mexico as well. That feeling of displacement and change can be observed in a body of work that I find myself coming to over and over again: a series of landscapes depicting the huge clouds that roll in over Recreo before a summer storm. My personal landscape keeps changing, of course, but I always go back to those clouds as a kind of emotional rudder to keep me on course.

CP: Your practice embraces the domestic space as a site for the investigation of multiple aspects related to femininity, motherhood, language, and memory. What goes into the process of transforming these concepts into actual works of art? And how do you give them meaning through the materials that you choose?

PY: My work is a process. It depends on being involved with making every single day. In that way, my artistic practice itself is a mirror of and commentary on the repetition and constancy of domestic life;. I have a very intense and human relationship with my studio and my materials and ideas come through actively working rather than a formal process of contemplative or meditative thought. It is hard for me to talk about where ideas come from because they emerge only through lived and repeated experience. There is no “eureka” moment where I fall upon a concept and then execute it in a specific work; rather the concept slowly emerges through the practice itself. That extends to my work as an art educator, where working with students informs my own practice as an artist.  

CP: Part of your work could be read as echoing the influence of artists such as Mary Kelly or Anna Maria Maiolino. Do you also find parallels with the work of these artists in your practice? I’m thinking specifically of the work that observes the mother-child relationship through simple objects like diapers or the studies of handkerchiefs as a reminiscence of the maternal bond.

PY: For sure, I can see some parallels between what I produce and their work. For example, in my diaper series I did a daily portrait of every diaper my son used as a baby. It was a record, a compilation of moments, and a timeline that helped me understand my new identity as a mother, caregiver, and a nurturer for a new human being, and it absolutely has a strong resonance with Kelly’s “Post-Partum Document.”

When my daughter was born three years after my son, I found myself making work that reflected less an exploration of my own identity and more an exploration of our experiences together. I no longer had to confront my new role as a mother or to try to gyrate between being an “artist” or “mother” or “teacher” and instead could be all three at once.

As for Anna Maria Maiolino, I am extremely drawn to her work and relate very much to the connection she has with materials and especially clay. I admit I am not totally versed in her early body of work, but it strikes me that her motherhood-focused pieces reflect a strong discomfort with the identity and duties that having a child in that era, and with those conditions, put upon her. Those are very relatable tensions that many women artists feel even today, particularly given the art world’s exigencies and discomfort with motherhood.

CP: On that same note, which artists have been important to you and why?

PY: The list of artists who are important to me is long; there are a number whose work inspires pretty much every day and have a huge impact on my life and practice. Not all of them, in fact, most of them, are not well-known and especially not in the US. Near the top is Raquel Minetti, a sculptor who was one of my mentors in art school in Santa Fe, Argentina. Her influence comes not only to her approach to her work, but also the organic way she balances her roles as an educator, community organizer, and mother. Another example would be Silvia Gonzalez, an Italian-born Mexican painter who was a close friend and guide in Mexico City. These women artists taught me a lot about the craft and daily practice of making art, but perhaps, more importantly, it showed me that being an artist can be a rich and enjoyable path and one that doesn’t have to compete with other important aspects of life.

CP: I know you’re currently devoting a good amount of time to teaching online. Besides teaching, what else are you working on?

PY: In this time of shelter-in-place and social and cultural upheaval, I’m dedicating a lot of time to reading, thinking, and taking lots of notes. There is a lot to unpack right now and I’m trying to imagine what future I’d like to see. I try to make time for this kind of thought every day, but immediate and urgent activities seem to be endless right now. At the same time, I’m a very compulsive person and I need to find time to go to my studio and put my hands on clay pretty much everyday. I don’t necessarily think about any body of work but instead the pure need to connect to this material that helps clarify my thinking in an organic fashion. I also make time for my garden; taking care of my tomatoes, squashes, flowers, and herbs feels like “una apuesta al futuro” – a commitment to work for the future.

Patricia Yossen in her studio in Eagle Rock, CA.

CP: Before the current health crisis home meant for many of us a place of rest and relaxation. After the stay at home order, the lines between home and work life are increasingly blurring or have become completely blurred. Have you developed routines or a structure for yourself and your art practice that’s helped you to keep working on your personal projects but also allows you to take a break from the outside world?

PY: I grew up in a house that often felt like a semi-public space; people from the community came and went all day long. It was more than a living space; it was a place to make important decisions, to meet extended family, to make social and business connections, and to work. Everything happened at home.

Because of that foundation, shelter-in-place has perhaps been a little less challenging for me than some. It effectively has reduced my entire world to my home. My practice already involved what you call “blurring” of the lines between studio time and other aspects of life. That said, the major missing component has been the social aspect:  welcoming people into my home has been stunted and I sorely feel that absence.

CP: What’s your favorite instrument of memory?

PY: My first and immediate thought is my home and clay. The domestic space and that most primal of materials are truly at the center of who I am and what my practice is about.

CP: Thank you, Paty!

Patricia Yossen was born in the rural town of Santa Fe, Argentina. She studied education and sculpture and her life in the countryside has a profound influence in her artwork and pedagogy as an art educator. In 1996 she moved to Mexico City, where she studied techniques in stone carving and ceramics. In 2005, she moved to New York, where she worked in the education department at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Museo del Barrio. Yossen received an MFA in sculpture at Pratt Institute and subsequently relocated to Los Angeles, where she currently works as an art educator at Heart of Los Angeles (HOLA), the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), and is a Professor at Occidental College where she leads the ColLABorate workshop. Her work as an artist has shown at numerous galleries in Argentina, Mexico, Spain, New York, and Los Angeles.

If you are interested in collecting or learning more about Patricia Yossen’s work, check out her website or follow her on social media @pyossen

In addition to this interview, don’t miss Yossen’s takeover for the Instruments of Memory Instagram account!

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