This week is the last week to check out the Residence Lab exhibit on display at 10 Hudson Street in Boston’s Chinatown! The closing event will be held this Friday! See more details here.
Our final Residence Lab artist interview is with Ponnapa Prakkamakul, a painter and a landscape architect based in Massachusetts. Growing up in an extended family of artists and musicians in Thailand has a strong influence on her artistic creativity. In watching her mother diligently make drawing paper from mulberry paper pulp, silk cocoon, and tree bark, Ponnapa learned that the making of the essence of art emerges before the white paper and continues to evolve beyond artist’s hands. This idea inspired her to use the Earth as a canvas and pursued a study in landscape architecture. Ponnapa started using soil as her main drawing media while earning her master’s degree in landscape architecture with honors from the Rhode Island School of Design.
Family and Background
Where did you grow up?
I am originally from Bangkok, Thailand, where I lived for 23 years. I came to the US by myself in 2009 to attend school in Providence, Rhode Island before relocating to the Greater Boston area in 2011. My brother came in 2017 and decided to stay in California but the rest of my family still live in Thailand.
Are any of your family members artists or musicians?
My father was a self-taught pianist and part-time DJ for a classical music radio station in Bangkok before he met my mother. His family has a print-making studio and a fabric factory, so when we had family gatherings, all the kids would sneak in to play in the studio and factory. My mother is a self-taught artist. Before having children, she he did mostly oil painting, and then changed to acrylic and watercolor because of the smell. She became a full-time artist when I was in junior high school.
Was creativity something supported by your family?
Definitely. It was part of our lifestyle, but not something we were forced or compelled to do seriously. My father used to play a violin to wake me, my sister, and my brother up in the morning for school. It is not like what you think, as he did not know how to play...so it was more like making us get up to stop him from playing!
What or who inspired you to make art and how did you get started?
My mother has a lot of influence on my artistic path. We did a lot of art related activities together since I was really young. My mother told me that there was one time she scolded me and my sister when she saw us tried to break all the oil pastels into small pieces. Then, she noticed that we were trying to make a model of a bridge from these pastel blocks. After that she never told us what to do or what not to do. She just let us explore whatever we wanted. During junior high school until freshman year, I was her studio assistant helping her prepare for solo exhibitions or art fairs doing things such as making labels, hanging work, and making reproduction work. Seeing my mother painting and making her own paper from mulberry pulp at home inspired me to pursue my study in landscape architecture.
What is your preferred medium and why?
Site is an important part of my work. For painting, I use found materials from the place that I paint, such as soil, plant materials, groundwater, and rust. I use the performative acts of searching, studying, and collecting painting materials to create connections with new places. The textures and colors from these materials also express the feelings and atmosphere of the place for the viewers to experience. For landscape architecture, existing geographical conditions of the site are as important as local materials and cultures.
Which artists or artworks inspire you?
There are a lot!! During summer in 2011, was a studio assistant for Ellen Driscoll, who was then the head of sculpture department at the Rhode Island School of Design. I really admire her work and work ethic, and Ellen was a wonderful mentor. It was a great learning experience working with Ellen and three other studio assistants; Dianne Hebbert, Rose Heydt, and Megan McLaughlin. This experience made me interested in public art and still has a strong impact on my thinking until now. I also admire Yayoi Kusama for her strong belief in what she was doing and how she created opportunities for herself. I really like Gerhard Richter’s work, the blurriness that creates a subtle movement in the paintings, and inspired by Roberto Burle Marx’s work on how he uses painting to inform his landscape architecture design.
What is one piece of advice that you want to share with an aspiring artist?
I actually consider myself an aspiring artist too, so I am not sure if I can provide any advice. However, I can share my personal philosophy which is: keep doing it, be true to what you believe in, and believe in yourself. That is what Ralph Waldo Emerson told Henry David Thoreau when Thoreau said he would like to be a writer: “Trust yourself.”
When and why did you decide to highlight the Chinatown community in your art? How do you think art can play an important role in community organizing or activism?
Growing up with a strong connection to Chinatown in Bangkok, I always find Chinatown in any city an interesting place to visit and learn about urban anthropology. My aunt has a fabric store in Bangkok’s Chinatown and my mother used to live there for a while. She always brought me to Chinatown instead of malls when we needed to buy things, so I know the place inside out. I was fascinated by the diverse programs this space can accommodate from being a cultural icon for tourism, a center for social and religious gatherings, to a wholesale business center to import and export specific products. To me, there is a lot to observe and learn from. Therefore, when I travel, one of the places on my to-go list will always be the Chinatown neighborhood.
Chinatown in Boston has a unique condition that interests me. With its role as a tourist destination and the fact that the area overlaps with a regional public open space (the Rose Kennedy Greenway), this reinforces public perception of Chinatown as a city’s public open space. This condition together with local cultural difference creates a little tension between outsiders feeling unwelcome and longtime residents having concerns regarding their privacy and safety. Then there is gentrification that’s impacting the community.
I have been participating in the Rose Kennedy Greenway’s Play Ambassador program at Chin Park in Chinatown since 2017, and did some collaborative design for hopscotch games on the Greenway. I think there are rooms to introduce more public art in Chinatown area. The best thing about art is that it is very broad with a vague boundary which allows space for personal interpretation and imagination. This creates a grey area where you can touch upon the issues that are sometimes forbidden or uncomfortable to talk about. Although art cannot solve the problems altogether, it raises awareness for the general public to pay attention and gain a better understanding of the issues, which can ultimately, hopefully lead to changes.
How do you want your work to impact the community?
For this project, I wanted to empower local community and make them realize that their collective actions can create changes in their community. I would like the residents to feel that they can also take action and make their viewpoints and visions known through the realm of public/private space. Art can give individuals a feeling of agency, particularly when it is created by and for the residents, or at least with their specific concerns in mind. I hope to see a ripple effect emerging from young generations and see they do the same things (or even bigger) that I did for their community. It is like you planted a seed and wait patiently to see that one day it will be a forest.
What was your favorite art project? Why?
I like all projects that I have done. However, this project for Residence Lab was very special to me as we had a lot of community engagement in the design and making process. I believe in the impact of the process as much as the final product and to be able to work on both in one project is ideal. I learned so much working with everyone; my teammates, participating artists and residents, ACDC and BCNC staff, the Chinatown community, my Sasaki Colleagues, and Sasaki Fabrication Studio. Although I am the leading artist, there are tremendous amount of input on both ideas and physical support from so many people who offered to help because they believe in community-based projects. One example is when I had a software technical issue with missing Braille fonts for some contractions in my laptop. Our translator, Amber Pearcy, was on her study abroad program so I did not want to trouble her during her traveling, but we also really needed to laser cut the Braille dots on the plywood within 2 days. I googled online for a translator and emailed Paul Hostovski whose name was the first result that came up. It was the weirdest email to me. However, Paul responded promptly with a clarification of all the missing contractions and really saved our tight working schedule. There are so many moments like this throughout the project that I felt so grateful for. I feel that it really takes the whole community (and its extended community) to have made this community project possible!
Why did you decide to be a part of ACDC’s residence lab?
Last summer I was inspired by the existing Chinese chess board paving pattern in front of the Chinatown gate and wanted to propose an oversize Chinese chess pieces for local people to play with tourists. However, the location is part of a fire lane so we cannot place anything there. Therefore, when ACDC contacted me about public art in Chinatown, I said yes right away. It started with this simple idea, then, when I realized how important this project is to the community and my working goal changed.
How has the generation you are in impacted your lived experience as an artist?
I feel extremely lucky to be born in this generation where female and artists of color are more recognized than in the past. This really offers me opportunities to use my insights as a female artist of color to express a voice and create work to accommodate existing underserved communities.
What are your future aspirations as an artist? How would you like for your artwork to grow?
I would like to make my work more interdisciplinary, inclusive, and accessible. I started to explore the idea with this project on small details such as including all generations in the interviews (both children and seniors), adding Chinese and Braille translation, and add a “Queen” piece into Chinese chess so that players can choose a female representation, instead of simply using two Kings. Another intention is to incorporate sound with my visual work. I actually put some objects found in Chinatown inside the benches so that they would make sound when they rock. Although the implementation is not quite successful yet, I will continue to explore this idea in future projects.
What is your favorite art medium and why?
Currently, my favorite painting medium is rust. It is so unpredictable how it reacts to the weather and environment. When I do a rust print using metals, even if I somehow know approximately that it might turn out a certain way, it often gives me a surprising pattern to work on. I found this process similar to landscape architecture that you have a given site with unique existing conditions to work in it is not a white paper. Like what Michelangelo said “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” Similarly, with paintings and landscape sites - especially community projects - the designer needs to coax out what the community actually needs or wants to say from within the urban fabric.
What is your inspiration behind your art? What drives your art? Where do you imagine your art to take you in the future?
As I am also a practicing landscape architect, natural and cultural landscapes together with their relationships with people are always interesting and never fail to inspire me. I am always looking for inspiring landscapes to work on. Therefore, I imagine myself travelling to places with unique natural landscape that shapes the lifestyle of the community in the area. This will also help me reflect back and understand our lives in the city. I just finished my artist in residence at the C-Scape dune shack in Provincetown and will be at Atacama Desert this October. Please visit my kickstarter page to see my latest project! https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/ponnapa/beyond-the-planet-earth
Thank you, Ponnapa, for being part of Residence Lab and for sharing your story!