This artist’s NYC workspace is the pinnacle of pandemic creativity.
Today’s virtual outing takes us to the New York City at-home art space of architect, artist, and our kind of Wonder Woman, Yen Ha. When the COVID-19 crisis crashed down on NYC in March, Ha had just been awarded an artist residency at a Brooklyn art center, along with what would have been her very first stand-alone studio space. Though the citywide shutdown derailed her plans to get situated in that new space, she’s been keeping up her creative work at a familiar locale: her dining room table. It’s a makeshift arrangement in the constant company of her kids and husband, but it gets the job done! And Ha is not one to be deterred. A surface on which to draw, a stellar playlist, and a few dedicated drawers full of art supplies that are off-limits to the fam are all she needs. Ha claims the nature of her medium makes it easier to make time for artwork, but if you’ve seen her stunning, detail-rich original drawings on our site, you’ll join us in disbelief that anything so intricate could be made in stolen moments.
That’s kind of Ha’s M.O., however. She has an astonishing ability to balance an inspiring art practice, a career as a founding principal of Front Studio Architects, motherhood, and seemingly infinite, impressive extracurriculars—something we made sure to ask her about in her In the Studio interview, of course (let’s just say lists are involved). In her feature, she also shares some pics of her multitasking table set up and even lets us peek inside those off-limits drawers. And so much more!
— Team 20x200
Where's your studio?
My studio is my dining room table! At the beginning of March, I was awarded an artist residency and studio space with Trestle Art Space in Sunset Park, but before I could get going, the city shut down. So, my studio is still my dining room table, which it was before shelter-in-place, but now I share it full time with the family. I have my laptop set up at one end, my drawings in the middle and we eat at the other end. Sometimes I forget to put away my drawings for dinner and then I have to yell at the kids for their messy eating manners.
What's your favorite tool in the studio?
I have these three drawers built into our bookcase that are my private space. No one is allowed to open them and inside I keep all my favorite tools for art making. I have piles of ultra thin sharpies, paint pens, xacto blades, pencils, and clicky pens I’ve collected over the years.
What do you wear when working in the studio?
Anything that I can sit cross legged in, on a chair, at my table.
What's on your in-studio playlist?
I usually like the ambient noise of the city, but at home I’m surrounded by too many peripheral conversations between my husband’s work calls and the kids in online school or playing video games, so I spend most of my day listening to music. My recent playlist includes: Waxahatchee’s beautiful new album Saint Cloud, the soundtracks to Les Miserables and West Side Story, on daily repeat, some old school Erasure, and when I really need meditative space, Yo Yo Ma’s recent recording of the Bach Cello Suites.
What's the first thing you do when you arrive at your studio?
Because drawing at home involves a lot of stolen time, when I finally do sit down at my table, I immediately pick up a pen and start drawing. I love that drawing is something I can get into quickly, do a little, leave, and come back to.
What's your work style? Late nights? Intense creative bursts? Slow and steady wins the race?
I find once I get distracted by the day, I lose the time to draw. My treat to myself, especially since we’re all home together, is that, after breakfast, when everyone has disappeared to their rooms for work and school, I take a second cup of coffee, sit at the dining room table and draw for an hour or so. Otherwise I draw in very short sustained bursts. If I’m working on small things, I might draw next to my husband on the couch while he watches TV.
We're continually amazed by your ability to juggle it all: an art practice, an architecture studio, mom-life, myriad commitments and engagements. Any productivity tips, to-do list approaches, or magical potions you can share?
It won’t surprise you that I write everything down. I’m a list-maker. I can remember one or two things at a time, but after that it just disappears so I use a notebook and monthly planner that I refer to constantly. I’m a big fan of phone reminders and post-it notes. But the best thing I’ve found for my own productivity is to ask myself—maybe at night before falling asleep, or in the shower when I’m waking up—what do I want to accomplish today? I’ll look at my lists, prioritize what needs to get done sooner rather than later, and try to make sure it’s something I can actually finish in the time I have. Sometimes it’s making art, but sometimes it’s hemming my pants, sending out an invoice or revising a story.
How has your work space set-up or working style changed since the COVID crisis, and what effect is your new arrangement having on your artmaking?
When Trestle Art Space awarded me a residency, I couldn’t stop smiling about having a separate studio space for the first time in my life. I was so giddy over the moon. Then COVID hit and I was mopey for weeks, sitting at my dining room table again. I had a hard time focusing because all I could think about were the large scale landscapes I’d wanted to make in-studio, that would be impossible at home. I went back to the types of drawings I made when I had first started drawing in earnest—small, very contained drawings. In a way, it was comforting to make drawings that were like old friends. Recently they started getting bigger and more ambitious, so I think I am finding peace with my home set-up again.
What's your favorite way to procrastinate in the studio?
Two Dots. I play Two Dots so often that I actually got to the end of the game and have to wait two weeks for the next update. I once lost an entire weekend on Wordscapes trying to win the weekly tournament so no more Wordscapes for me.
Whens, Hows & Whys
When did you first realize you wanted to become an artist and how’d you get there?
I’m not even sure I think of myself as an artist now! But I’ve always loved drawing and stories and making things. After my youngest turned 5, it’s like my brain exploded and all the thoughts and ideas and dreams that I didn’t even know I had put on hold while my kids were still babies just came out. In the beginning I started drawing with a pile of cheap copy paper and a sharpie, then I got better paper, more markers, and I just kept going. For writers they say the best thing to do is write and do it daily. For artists I think it’s the same thing: if you want to be an artist, make art.
How do you get over creative blocks?
I usually have a couple different drawings or ideas for drawings happening at the same time so I can move around a block instead of forcing my way through it. That’s fun, because sometimes I’ll start something new on a whim and it will lead me somewhere unexpected. Stepping away helps too. I’ll run an errand, make coffee or play Two Dots until I feel guilty I’m not doing something productive.
What do you like best about 20x200?
I didn’t know it was possible to live with art until 20x200. Growing up, art felt to me like something I saw in museums, and could never afford. What I love about “Art for Everyone” is that it’s both the affordability of art, but also the excellent selection of work by a passionate team. I love that 20x200 is invested in supporting art and artists and they’ve found a way to make that accessible for everyone. When my kids were born, I filled their walls with art from 20x200, surrounding them with landscapes, and abstract colors and beautiful things.
Which artists' 20x200 collections do you most covet (and why)?
I have a whole list of things I want to try when I really have time, and chief on this list are woodblock prints. Which is why I absolutely love the whole woodblock prints series from Uehara Konen or Kojima zu. They’re so serene and atmospheric. I will, of course, always hold a spot in my heart for artists like Jorge Colombo who captured Café Fanelli, one of my old neighborhood haunts, so ethereally. Or Chris Mottalini’s pictures of Jones Beach where we spent many a summer afternoon before having kids. And I love the New York of Joseph O Holmes’s photographs. When I’m looking for color and inspiration I drool over Helena Wurzel’s illustrations or Carrie Marill’s work. Color is intimidating to me so I love the way they use color. Flying, Shipping and Selling was one of the first prints I bought for my son’s room when he was born.
Why do you think it's important to have a dedicated work space for your art? What advice would you give to artists looking to build a creative work space?
As someone who only recently found the courage to move to a studio space, I think it’s vital to have space to commune with your work. In January I had a two week residency with MASS MoCA and I can’t even describe how much joy I found in not worrying about cleaning up. I could spread out, be large and messy or small and contained, whatever it was my art wanted to be. But I also believe it’s absolutely possible to build a thriving career out of a non-traditional work space that you happen to share with family meals. Take, for example, Jorge Colombo, who roams the city, making art. For him, it’s an ipad and an outlet. If you don’t have access to a dedicated space, even a kit of pens and a pad that moves around can help you orient to making art. When I travel, I always carry a bag of pens and small papers for drawing.
The 411 on Yen Ha
Yen Ha is an architect and maker of spaces, stories, drawings and dinners. Born in Saigon, she currently resides in New York City where she co-founded Front Studio, an architecture firm, in 2001. She completed her undergraduate work with honors at Carnegie Mellon University, followed by post-graduate work at L’École d’Architecture in Paris, France. Fluent in French and Vietnamese, Yen’s work has been featured in Interior Design, Icon Magazine, Wallpaper and The NY Times and exhibited at The Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York. Her short fiction won an Honorable Mention in Glimmertrain’s Short Story New Writers Contests and was a finalist in the New Rivers Press American Prize. Recently Yen was awarded a writing residency at the Banff Centre for Creativity and the Arts as well as a visual arts residency at MASS MoCA. Her drawings are carried by Goods for the Study in Greenwich Village.