Joshua Zirschky’s photography portrays the struggle and humanity in daily life from war-torn countries around the world. In this month’s Visual Arts profile, he tells us why the voices and experiences of people he’s crossed paths with are indispensable.
On another cold, drab and wet Portland day, the city is almost camouflaged. Everything seems to hide in an endless sea of gray. In response, Portland native Hannah Concannon battles that dullness with extremely bright and kaleidoscopic colors. They are so rich they almost seem to emanate heat from the canvas. Perhaps as a defense to the cold months of winter, Concannon literally drapes herself with the warmth of these colors. Her body-based art explores makeup, costuming and self-portraiture.
Eleven: You are a Portlander by origin, but you lived in San Francisco for some time where you came across The Convent Collective. Will you tell us about that time and what you gained from that experience?
Hannah Concannon: I moved to Berkeley first, and it was wonderful, but it was also very slow and neighborhood-esque. I responded to a Craigslist ad for The Convent Collective. It was a space that was literally a converted convent with 19 bedrooms in the lower Haight district, and the requisite for living or moving there was to be an artist. Later, I found out that you also had to like to party and hang out. I interviewed there and they gave me the opportunity to move there, and I lived there for two years.
It was absurd and also amazing because half of the house was actively working on artistic projects at any given time, so to be around that many creative people was amazing. Everyone had their day jobs as well, but at night we had this basement that was the artistic space where everyone would go. There would be painting, screen-printing, drawing, people playing music … that was really cool. That experience definitely led me into doing what I do now, and I wouldn’t be doing what I am without living at that house.
11: What was the name of the project you were working on while you were there?
HC: That is where I started my Daily Faces project and doing face painting. I also got into costume designing and apparel. The project platform was to make an image once a day for 50 days, and I ended up doing it for a whole year. I didn’t have very much time to really plan what I would be doing all the time. The inspiration came from someone just making a suggestion, or being on Pinterest and seeing a pattern that caught my eye, or just seeing another person’s work out at a gallery and being inspired by that.
In the worst case scenario, I would just sit down and start painting, and three hours later I always landed at something. Sometimes I’d hate it but still have to document it because that was the project. The Dress Up Box and the Daily Faces project were very much a response to being around the people I was around and the environment I was in. While it did fizzle out, it definitely left me with a portfolio that I could then get into graduate school with.
11: Through this process you also made your own costumes as well?
HC: I studied costume design as part of my undergraduate degree — theater design as a minor and English was my major. That is where I got started with everything in a more formal sense. I was also always the kid wearing all kinds of ridiculous things and loved Halloween and was amazed by the concept that I could make Halloween into a job.
11: Do you have a favorite costume you have made?
HC: I was in a performance art piece in the SE Bay area, and I helped some of my friends, who art directed the show, make these gigantic bird costumes. It was about bird watching, but throughout the show these huge elaborate birds would pop out from the grass and do a dance to music. We made this one bird that was a huge disco owl costume. The feathers of the owl, I can only describe as potholders made with these psychedelic ‘70s-inspired fabrics. I also wore this huge owl head that was made out of a sombrero and all this random stuff and huge owl feet. The whole thing weighed a ton, but it was so much fun to wear and to make. It was transformative. I put that on and I became the disco owl, whatever that means.
11: I think it is unique that you use your own body to make your work. How has that challenged you?
HC: With all of my new work, it’s my hands covered in tempera paint, which I was taking photos of. The Blue series is the very first time I discovered this. I was pouring paint over my hand for a class and then I turned my hand over and noticed this really cool marble design. I was like, “Holy shit! How do I get a photo of this?” I have since been asking my friends to let me take photos of their hands with paint, or shoulders or whatever so that I could direct the photos, because attempting the one-handed photographing of myself was too hard, and it’s not very practical.
11: Does all of your art incorporate bodies in some way?
HC: It does! With the face painting, I just wanted to get better at makeup, so that’s where it came from, and it was easy to use myself to practice. Since then, I wonder why there is such a focus on myself and the body. Beyond just being a social media artist, there [are] the meditations and focus on beauty, superficiality and image manipulation that interest me. I am fascinated by how you can make your face and body look any way you want. It’s a body, yes, but the way you can easily camouflage and radically change what is on top of it is crazy.
11: Is there any value to superficiality, especially in our overly consumeristic culture?
HC: Oh my god, yeah. Jeez.
11: I always feel like there is a negative connotation to that, or at least a harmful one.
HC: It’s so funny because there’s superficiality, and then there is aesthetic sense. If you have too much of one and not the other then, yeah, it’s a problem. There is always this balance that you are trying to create. I see this most in the Instagram makeup girls I follow, and there is this really high level of superficiality of the selfie and the implied narcissism there.
On the other hand, to create those images, whether it’s conscious or not, takes a strong aesthetic sense. You are putting colors together and choosing angles and lighting and presenting this crafted, completely perfect image. That’s cool because it takes a lot of work, but then it’s also very superficial too. I think especially female artists get really hit hard with a lot of judgement for being superficial when it’s really a skill also. It is an art form too.
11: How do you feel the fashion industry plays into the beauty standards and how women see themselves?
HC: I have worked retail, and I studied a semester in fashion when I was abroad because I wanted to be a fashion designer at first. It’s amazing in one sense, but as I started getting into that world, I felt like it was a slap in the face to be exposed to the reality of what it means to be in that industry. It is really awful.
To help fight the negativity of that, I appreciate the rise of the online shop versus the large retailer. People have the tools and the power now to create badass clothing lines that are non-gendered or niche or that offer a more diverse size range, and that is more possible now than it was before. Running a clothing shop is historically a money-losing business, so I think that is a major deterrent for a lot of people, but we need as much involvement as possible.
11: How do you feel your creativity has been influenced by this new Trump era?
HC: I remember right after the election I was struggling a lot because I was thinking of my work as being really frivolous and not really making a “difference.” I realized that being an artist and actively making art in and of itself is a radical gesture though. I think as part of the negativity of this political climate, the message is to stop making art so we have to resist that and we can’t stop. I think being a female making body-based work and having a visible online presence is where I center myself now in that regard. I used to feel like I needed to make more ham-fisted political statements with my work, but I realize now that there is still room for subtlety and you can still make a political impact.
11: If you could pick a color that represents you, which would it be?
HC: I think I have more of a color scheme. I would choose blues of all kinds, especially in combination with hot pink. I also love, love, love pastels. Hot pink is my favorite color. If you looked at my face painting set, those are the colors that are used the most.
11: Those selections are a good yin and yang.
HC: Yeah, the cool of the blue versus the really vibrant and warm hot pink. Maybe it’s a response to living in the very gray Northwest, but I always seem to gravitate toward the really vibrant colors. We had an assignment the other week where the professor asked us to think about how where we come from influences our work. I think I choose high chroma colors because I am surrounded, for a majority of the year, by muted tones.
11: Do you have any advice for other artists as far as how you maintain your creative motivation?
HC: I think it is important to make a schedule and make something every day. The daily deadline is very helpful, because the more work you make the more you can perfect your art and find what you like, discover your style — that’s how all of the best things come out. Putting myself online gave me some accountability as well, which was helpful. It can be hard to put yourself out there and to be judged, but it’s important not to be embarrassed, even if it is not up to your standard.»