Living in the DMV spoils us.
We have free access to world-class art at nearly every turn. But beyond its revered and iconic collections, the District is also home to an incredible array of artists working in experimental forms, crossing disciplines, and breaking down boundaries between tradition, style, design, politics and social justice. These artists are creating and chronicling the cultural landscape of DC today. They are not just leaving their mark on the city, but are also asking us to examine our own place in it – in a multitude of unexpected ways.
Consider Northern Virginia native JD Deardourff, with works installed everywhere from overpasses to the bottom of a pool, who is helping to literally repaint the face of the city. Or Xena Ni, a designer who describes her interactive installations as “civic journalism storytelling physical sculpture lawsuit art,” and that’s in addition to her line of feminist superhero underwear. Or a performance by Maps Glover, which may as well be a portal into a whole other experience of the world you think you inhabit.
While their mediums and inspirations vary, their commitment to making a social impact will never go out of style.
On Tap: There is sometimes tension around the term “street artist” and what it means to different people. Do you identify as a street artist?
JD Deardourff: I probably would just say artist. The way I got into it was primarily as a screenprinter – that’s sort of my go-to art form – and one of the cool things about it is a rich tradition of wheatpasting and dissemination of imagery, either giving it away or pasting it in alleys or on light boxes. I was doing it before I was doing more “corporate stuff.” I’m an artist who does screenprints, murals, paintings and collages.
OT: When you’re getting ready to start a new project, what are the main factors that you consider and what motivates your creative process? What draws you toward a new project?
JD: I like to think of it as a “one for them, one for me” situation. Some of the work I get to do pays for me to do other projects for free. Murals and commissions are probably half the time. The other half of the time is some personal projects I’ve been working on. I had a show last year where I sold all of the artwork I had and it was also the release of my first zine, Uncanny Fantastic. It’s basically a catalog of all of the personal art that I’ve done in comic book form. I’m working on volume two of that zine, so making a new body of work, which will correspond to the pages of the zine I’m going to drop in September.
OT: It seems like your career has progressed pretty quickly. Does it have to do with DC?
JD: It feels like I planted a shitload of seeds like five years ago and the way that they’ve built up is that they all bloomed simultaneously. For example, conversations for one mural project I’ve been working on near Hotel Hive started in 2016. Sometimes, there’ll be something that’s like two years in production and that will coincide with something where I get an email the week before.
OT: What are some of your favorite projects?
JD: I love doing shows. Last year, a highlight was a solo show I did with CulturalDC’s Mobile Art Gallery at Union Market. And then I’m super proud of Uncanny Fantastic. The recycling truck for the DC DPW [Depart of Public Works] has my artwork on it. This pool in Silver Spring is super cool. It’s in a building call Central. When the art direction is solid, those murals look the best.
JD CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT
My family (especially my eight-year-old nephew), my genius girlfriend Kelly + my friends, but mostly just my dog Bruce
Spotify, live shows + music (The Ramones, The Clash, classic rock)
Actually making artwork
My little field notes book
OT: Do you think that mural arts are rivaling the “high art” that DC is known for?
JD: I think definitely it’s one of those things where this art form has gained momentum. More and more people are commissioning murals. Initially, there were more bar and restaurant-type clients and now I think it’s cool to get, for example, law firm types interested in that kind of vibe. You get more of a critical mass. I don’t know if it’s a bubble sort of situation, but it’s definitely on the uptick.
OT: How do you feel that impacts both the physical and cultural landscapes of the city?
JD: I think it’s good. For instance, Pow! Wow! just happened in NoMa and it’s is super cool in terms of the murals making that neighborhood what it is. It’s all the flavor. I understand some people might call it art-washing or make arguments that it can be bad for the community, but I don’t feel that way. And I think those battles are kind of over. It’s creating a cool flavor that wasn’t there 15 or 20 years ago.
On Tap: What brought you to DC and the art space that you exist in now?
Xena Ni: I had just finished my fellowship at Code for America and was leaving Oakland where I was living. I was just sitting on the train and intentions for the next year popped into my brain. I wanted to make weird art with people. I was keeping an eye out for that when I moved to DC. I’d been assured by one of my coworkers that there were people doing weird things in DC.
OT: And did you find them?
XN: Yes! I’m a designer and I’ve always been adjacent to art. But it was really coming to DC and finding my dream job that gave me mental space to take my art practice more seriously. An organization that’s been really great in DC has been The Sanctuaries. I participated in one of their fellowship programs. We were learning more about how art can respond to events like protests, and also to think more about how to work with communities in a respectful way.
OT: Do you feel like the people or places or themes or issues that you’ve encountered here have guided the work or the projects that you’ve chosen in a specific way artistically?
XN: I have met a lot more working artists or artists who are taking their practice seriously, and realized how important it is to just know and be friends with other artists who are going through the grind. Collaborations have been so energizing.
XENA CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT
The archive (a daily writing ritual)
My IUD (affordable healthcare and reproductive freedom make so much possible)
A clunky, squeaky, dependable Raleigh Sprite bike
Public parks (Kalorama Park, Kingman Island, Banneker)
Overflowing cart of art supplies
OT: What are a few projects you’ve worked on in the past couple of years that really stand out to you?
XN: One that’s been really top of mind: the most recent iteration of it is called “Transaction Denied” and it is a room-sized, immersive multimedia installation, which showed at UMBRELLA in April. It tells the story of what it takes to apply for food stamps in DC and what happens when the government spends a lot of money to make the system work, but there’s not a lot of accountability and the government and the vendors dispute responsibility and as a result, thousands of people in DC either lose their benefits or face unusually long delays that are also really damaging.
OT: What did that look like, visually?
XN: It takes abstract oppressing social issues and creates interactive, immersive big pieces to bring attention. I also wanted people to do something. People left their reactions, or their own stories on the walls of the exhibit.
OT: Where will the installation go next?
XN: That installation is evolving. My co-artist Mollie Ruskin and I learned about a lawsuit a collection of legal aid organizations had brought against the city to seek justice for all the people who had lost their benefits or faced delays. We are now working with one of the main organizations that brought the suit, Bread for the City, and they are going to install it temporarily in their space.
OT: Any other notable projects?
XN: I also like traditional, representational art. [This project] started off with not having any photographs of what my older relatives looked like when they were young because they couldn’t afford photography or they had to destroy when the Communists took over, and I just started drawing what I thought my grandmother looked like when she was my age. It felt like I was reclaiming my history and also underscoring that I could never actually access that history. It has morphed into this less personal project, which is drawing possible portraits from the future.
OT: How do you draw portraits from the future?
XN: It’s like time travel in portraiture. It’s work that usually happens one-on-one with someone interested in orienting. It’s partially like a guided meditation [or] playful interview where I transport people to a scene from their possible future life. What I’ve really enjoyed about it is both what people come up with and their emotional reactions. Usually someone cries.
On Tap: You do a lot of performance art, as well as working within more traditional mediums. What drives you creatively?
Maps Glover: DC has this electric energy that forces you to address social issues on a daily basis, and so that’s really what has kept me here and fueled my practice. A lot of my work really is a commentary about social dynamics. Where are we going? What are we trying to understand?
OT: Is that why you came back to DC?
MG: Yes. I started making art in college and transitioned into doing things in New York. Coming back home, I wanted to see what I could contribute to this scene. There weren’t a lot of artists that were doing performance and I really wanted to dive into understanding what that felt like in DC. I felt like DC was a really good space to do it because it’s the intersection of politics and anti-establishment.
OT: When you’re approaching a new project, what are the most important factors?
MG: Sometimes it’s a matter of what is fueling me at the time. Sometimes it’s something I feel really passionate about, or sometimes I have personal relationships with the subject, whether it be police violence or some of the work that really feels like an introspective experience of me analyzing my internal dialogue through visual interpretation. As an artist, I personally feel like it’s our responsibility to be social commentators. There are issues that may come up that we may not be fully familiar with, but to creatively explore those topics, I think that artists should try to be more fearless in taking on different spaces that don’t necessarily relate to them.
OT: In those instances, how do you get to the point of understanding something well enough to create something that you feel can open the dialogue?
MG: I think that you should educate yourself first and foremost. At the same time, the artistic process is a learning one. It’s kind of like this experimental method and then it becomes this conversation of how does this connect to the larger picture?
MAPS CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT
Talenti mint gelato
Hugs from my very special friend
My mom’s cooking (tries to get down to her house every other week to grab a plate of food)
OT: There are times when it must be a struggle between letting this process happen and also being aware of what it means to people once you put it out there.
MG: That happens all the time, honestly. I’m always looking for the experience that I’m having to be real and true to myself and then I just see other people witnessing that – the authentic experience that I have within myself. For example, I did an exhibition at the Transformer gallery back in October and I really wanted to create a space that was a response to the spiritual connection that I was really beginning to have a dialogue about in my work.
OT: How did you do that within the bounds of a gallery?
MG: We had six weeks with each artist. We transformed Transformer. My religious background is Christian, so I was eventually crucified within the center of the stage. I had a friend who grew up in a cult, so she did a kind of ritual ceremony. I had a friend create a website live and DJ at the same time. It just had so many layers, and that is why I felt like the piece was successful.
OT: DC is in an interesting place in terms of what it does and doesn’t support in the arts. What do you think that looks like in terms of opportunities right now?
MG: We need safe spaces for artists to be able to live and support themselves in a city that is continuously changing. If you don’t incorporate or consider the creatives who are part of the fabric of why people even come to this city, then what’s the point? The amount of channels and space for artists of all kinds to show is just very limited and everyone is scratching for the same resources. To get to the higher levels of creativity, people leave the city.