Dana Funaro in her Los Angeles studio, 2021. Portrait by Gina Clyne.
All photos courtesy of the artist unless otherwise noted.
Dana Funaro is an artist living and working in Los Angeles, California. She has established her practice as an artist along with a career in art management and administration. Born in the Bronx and raised in South Florida, Funaro moved to California in 2012 where she has worked for a variety of art museums and organizations. For six years she was the managing director of the studio of artist and activist, Tanya Aguiñiga. This is where we met back in 2019.
As an artist, her practice is rooted in printmaking. But she incorporates a diverse mix of media and techniques related to time capturing, creating devices that allow the viewer to find a place of common refuge in a body of work that acts as an interlude between loss, growth, and transformation. Last year, at the beginning of the pandemic, the artist found refuge in her art studio in Chinatown near downtown Los Angeles. In this historic neighborhood also impacted by the health crisis, Funaro created a beautiful, peaceful, and calm space that she now shares with her partner and that allowed her to focus more fully on her practice and cope with the craziness of the outside world.
Back in April of 2021, I spoke to Funaro for the first time about this interview via Zoom. We continued our conversation via email and as soon as we felt it was safe I visited her studio in July. This is a conversation about her memories, her life before LA, how she transforms her experiences into art, and what comes next.
Claudia Pretelin: I’d like to start mapping a memory lane of Dana Funaro. I read in a previous interview that your childhood memories have been documented in home videos by your mother. I wonder if you could share some of the favorite ones with us and who are the people that inhabit those memories with you?
Dana Funaro: I’m so grateful to my mom for those videos. She captured really wonderful times, beautiful moments. “1985” is the family favorite for sure. I think it’s because there is so much candid joy shared in them. We were such a young little happy family during that time. It’s the memories from the 1985 era I think back on when I want to remember the good times of my childhood…a house full of loud Italian American parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, siblings and cousins, all surrounded by lots of laughter, love, and yelling.
It’s only natural that as time passes memories fade and this makes me appreciate those home videos that much more. After losing my sister, Toni, to suicide in 2013 it’s become bittersweet to watch our home movies and so I don’t revisit them as often as I once used to. Having access to that much of my past in video; seeing, hearing and reliving moments I probably otherwise never would have remembered and ones that I don’t ever want to forget, takes me on a nostalgic journey that ignites a range of emotions that I’m not always prepared to go on. When it’s been some time since I’ve watched them I struggle to remember and I often wonder how many memories have faded over the years that were not captured on video and how many more will vanish with time.
For fear of my memories fading forever and as a way to cope and connect with Toni’s death, I created a memory palace of personal mnemonics using the layout of our childhood home to revisit the past. A memory palace is a strategy of memory enhancement that uses visualizations of familiar spatial environments to help recall information. I use these visual cues to transport me to the spaces and times of my past.
CP: Through your work you have explored your own experiences with personal loss and grief. Has your practice provided you an opportunity to develop a new relationship with the people you’ve lost?
DF: Most definitely. Since the death of my sister my practice has become a form of catharsis. I have unspoken methodologies that reference or honor my sister and family as a way to both honor and connect to my past. My work helps me gain perspective to better navigate the human experience.
CP: Tell me about the process of becoming an artist. What were some of your expectations when you entered art school and do you think your idea of what an artist is has changed throughout your life?
DF: I’ve always been involved in the creative arts. As a kid I drew, I painted, I made sculptures, jewelry, played music, watched movies, wrote poems, performed in plays, made homecoming floats. I was very much influenced by my grandpa “Mimie” Angelo who was a musician, a painter, a hair stylist, a dance instructor in his younger years, and a man of style his entire life. Like him, I earnestly wanted to explore the world through art and surround myself with other creatives. I was open, non-judgemental, and appreciative of all kinds of artists and their work. It was only natural that I would continue my education studying art.
In my formative years at art school, like most, I was learning about different mediums and techniques in search of my visual language. It was important for me to find my voice as an artist. I was young and felt inadequate in my concepts and cohesiveness, and because I’m an artist who works in series, I often felt unfocused. I’ve now learned to embrace this way of working and use it as a way to compartmentalize the themes of the human condition that I respond to in my work.
There was a period of time for a number of years during and after school, and especially when I worked at a gallery, when I thought that the only way to be a “real artist” was to aspire to be a career artist. I placed a lot of worth on where an artist was showing, what collections they were in,and how much their work sold for. I do believe these are accomplishments artists should be proud of, but I would easily dismiss other artists and works, even my own, that didn’t fit into these made-up, pretentious parameters. After 15+ years spent working in the art world, and after a lot of reflection on myself as an artist, I would say that my idea of what a successful artist is has expanded. For me, the focus has significantly shifted away from looking at my practice and art in general through the lens of elitism or capitalism. I am much more focused on the commitment to my practice, personal fulfillment, and being able to share my work with the hope of resonance and connection. While always aspiring to learn and grow, I’m currently feeling that I’m in a healthy place of contentment with my work/studio balance. This is now where I hold space for my self worth as an artist.
CP: In our previous conversation you talked about working with a collective of artists while in school in Florida. Can you share more about this experience and some of the projects that you did together?
DF: Awww yeah, Thread! Thread was an artist collective started in 2005 by myself and a group of artists living and working in Orlando, FL. We had all just finished school and were eager to show our work. Orlando was a really fun and vibrant place full of creatives. Despite there being a lack of galleries and venues there, we always found ways to put on events. Thread curated and produced exhibitions at alternative spaces throughout the Orlando area from 2005-2007. Our first, and probably my favorite, exhibition took place in a Uhaul truck that we made into a gallery and drove to 12 locations in 12 hours. Collectively working with artists in Thread sparked my interest in curating exhibitions and taught me the importance of artist advocacy. I learned the value of community and how much that kind of support can build the self confidence to allow yourself to grow and be seen.
CP: After school your career path slowed down on your own studio production and accelerated on art management and administration. Some of your experiences included working for a contemporary art fair and later on as a director of a gallery in Florida. Could you describe what were some of the most valuable lessons you learned from this period?
DF: In 2006, shortly after finishing school, I worked for NADA, a contemporary art fair that takes place in Miami. I then became a Director of a contemporary gallery for five years where I had the opportunity to work with artists such as Sheila Hicks, Marilyn Minter, Jack Pierson, Pae White, Aleksandra Mir, Jose Alvarez (D.O.P.A.), among many others. I organized exhibitions for the gallery and worked with prominent art institutions, collectors, and consultants on acquisitions. I viewed private collections I never would have had access to, met art historical figures and traveled. However, there was another side of the industry that I was learning so much about. Working at the gallery opened my eyes to how badly artists are taken advantage of. They are constantly asked to do projects and make work without funding and are expected to simply be grateful for the opportunity. They are usually the last to be paid for their work and not enough. Artists now have to be business people. Most of their time is not spent making work, but rather answering emails, managing staff, navigating contracts, hosting studio visits, and all other aspects of running a business. My time at the gallery further instilled in me the importance of artist advocacy and it set me on my path to becoming the studio manager for Tanya Aguiñiga after moving to Los Angeles in 2012. Seeing this reality also showed me the kind of artist I did and did not want to be.
CP: As a studio, you all worked hard on empowering women and people of color through many different projects and initiatives. Could you talk about your specific contributions to these initiatives and what are some of the most cherished moments during your time working with Tanya?
DF: I started managing Tanya’s studio in 2014 and it didn’t take long for us to hit it off. I finally felt aligned with others who value accessibility, diversity, community, fun and kindness in art. Working at the studio gave me the opportunity to amass my 15+ year experience in arts administration and management, making me an integral part in the growth and success of the studio. I managed and maintained all studio correspondence, spearheaded small and large scale commissions for private and corporate clients, worked with Tanya and Sovanchan, our Production Manager, on the development of all exhibitions and projects, grant writing and applications, fundraising and activism events.
One of many projects we worked on in my time at the studio was AMBOS Project (Art Made Between Opposite Sides, founded by Tanya in 2016) and the 2018 exhibition, Craft & Care, at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York which showcased the project along with a selection of works highlighting Tanya’s career. AMBOS is an ongoing series of artist interventions and commuter collaborations that address bi-national transition and identity in the US/Mexico border regions. I feel fortunate and proud to have spent my days working with incredible women at the studio, listening and learning how I can best support these social justice initiatives to raise the voices of marginalized communities so that we can obtain equity and equality.
Another piece I am honored to have been witness to, Metabolizing the Border, was one of our last projects together as a studio team. Through performative wearables made of blown glass embedded with border fence remnants, Metabolizing the Border explores how the body confronts the border fence through sight, sound, smell, taste, and tactility. It was an extremely emotional and physical performance for Tanya, and it meant so much to be one of the few there to support her on such an intimate journey.
After six years, the 2020 pandemic forced us to part ways as a studio. The amazing team of women, Tanya, Sovanchan, Diana, Lydia, Karla, Marissa, Natalie, Jackie, Ceci, Gina, Aneesa, and so many others over the years have given me community, a family, and have inspired me as an artist and a person. I was only living in Los Angeles for about a year when we lost my sister to suicide. These wonderful women continue to be one of my most cherished support systems in coping with the most painful and difficult experience of my life.
CP: Last year allowed you to resume your own practice and go back to your own studio to produce and continue your work. How did it feel and how did you come about creating time schedules for your own studio practice? Could you share with us what you’ve been working on in the last months?
DF: I’ve always maintained a studio practice despite having a full time professional career. Slow and steady, but never really having the opportunity to focus on my own work. Just about when we went into lockdown last March, I began renting a studio space in Chinatown in downtown LA. Having just been laid off, I was nervous about keeping the space with the state of the world in a pandemic and my own financial uncertainty, but luckily I’ve been able to make it work. I was so grateful to have a place to go outside of our home to explore and create. I was in the studio 5-6 days a week as a way of managing my stress, anxiety, depression, and to cope with not being able to see my family and friends. Last year demanded a lot of reflection. Reflection of the world, reflection of this country, reflection of myself and my relationships. I made works on paper, plaster paintings, and sculptures about isolation, healing, transformation, interdependency, and the large fibroids growing in and on my uterus…. basically I had an outpouring! It was a difficult year in so many ways, but the time allowed me the opportunity to make work, think about the kind of artist and person I want to be, and the quality of life that I want.
In the last months I’ve been focused on expanding my oxidation paintings and sculptures. I’ve been bouncing between making earthy mountainous landscapes with reflective peaks and valleys and wild cosmic explosions of wonder. They’re beautifully layered with lots of texture and depth. Because the materials I use essentially change as they react to one another, I’m forever searching for that balance between control and chance while pushing the materials as far as I can. I’ve learned to trust and respect the process, as it teaches me about time, patience, change and acceptance.
I was recently invited to create sculptures for the debut of Story of the Stone, a film by Kendra Adler and a weekend celebration of the Earth, specifically the Tongva land we occupied on those nights in April. This multidisciplinary exhibition also included conversations with geologist Nicole E. Moore and Indigenous Chumash wisdom keeper, Carmen Sandoval, along with a musical performance by Phoenix and video/sound piece by Francesca Heart. Undying Lineage, a family of monolithic sculptures made of brushed copper, natural patina and rock salt is a series of ephemeral works that lived in different stages of their oxidation processes, revealing patinas indicative of a colorful life. The copper pillars acted as a grounding force surrounding and supporting us in this sacred space.
CP: You are interested in challenging traditional ideas of printmaking and have been working with materials that allow you to explore ideas of loss, growth, and transformation. Could you talk about the process of creating one of your pieces? I’m particularly interested in your Encapsulation series.
DF: It wasn’t until I started working with rust in 2003 that I felt connected to a material in such a powerful way. It was then that I learned my visual language. I studied printmaking and painting and the rust pieces were initially born out of my desire to explore other methods of making impressions. Over time I became fascinated with the inherent qualities of rust and oxidation and started using these materials as metaphors to explore themes of time, memory, growth, transformation, acceptance and healing. Through their natural processes, these materials can emote so much.
After working with natural patinas on metals for years and recording the life cycle of my materials with works on paper, I wanted to expand my knowledge through applied chemical patinas. I was working on my Encapsulation series around this time. Encapsulation is a series of sculptural maquettes made of naturally patinated copper and brass pillars with plaster anchors that represent relational support systems. They live atop intricate universes of patinated copper and brass. After the pillars are anchored, they are naturally oxidized by accelerants and encapsulated under glass. The containment [under glass] can be read as preservation, when in fact encasing the pieces like this causes the materials to react and over time suffocate and fail.
CP: Regarding the tools in your studio, what are some of your favorites? Or, which are your most essential? And, why?
DF: I use a variety of natural fiber brushes, such as sheep hair, horse hair, and straw, for a range of things. Some allow me to control saturation, some give me certain effects when used for painting and others are for cleaning. Each one has a specific purpose. I also rely on my eye dropper for accurate and delicate saturation control.
CP: What’s your favorite instrument of memory?
DF: Music has been a prominent force throughout my life. Most of my memories have songs associated with them and can bring me back to a loved one or take me back to a place. When I want to remember someone or something I listen to music. I also listen to music while practicing body scanning meditation, as well as to travel through the memory palaces in my mind that I spoke of earlier.
Thank you Dana!
Dana Funaro is an artist living and working in Los Angeles. Her work is a meditation on the human experience and an attempt to understand our relationships to one another within the cosmos. In search of balance between control and chance, she uses materials as metaphors to explore themes of time, memory, grief, acceptance and healing. Loss, growth and transformation all leave behind memories that are powerfully symbolic. Materials with these inherent qualities are intrinsic in her work.
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