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  • Writer's pictureJennifer Oladipo

If you play and you clay, you can do it this way.

Photo by Eli Warren, printed and stitched by Diana Farfan
Photo by Eli Warren, printed and stitched by Diana Farfan

I’m hearing that “art is a verb” with what seems like more frequency, and more urgency lately. It’s perhaps a defense that seems necessary now, when venues and institutions remain closed, and our engagement with the arts is mostly digital and two-dimensional. Creators are reminding us of what we all know, that artistic production is more than the sum of its parts, more than the paint and pigment, more than the plot, more than the choreography. Its absence creates more than a spatial void.

There’s a corollary refrain: the artist is more than their art.

I hear that sentiment from Diana Farfan, who, to the naked eye, is a ceramicist. But the clay is just a medium to trigger a certain psychic and emotional response. She could do it another way, say, youth education. So, she’s creating a curriculum.

The questions Farfan poses in her work, and even in casual conversation, are usually existential, but, she likes to play. She played a bit with her commissioned portrait (above), using her hands to do a bit of sewing in between time spent with clay. The result perfectly reflects Farfan and her work; comfortable in the murky dark, but somehow full of light.

The excerpt below from our studio chat this past spring, starts with the dark place that birthed her youth education project. Looking out the window of her former studio space, she saw dogs chained and abused as they were kept alive only to breed for profit. After joining a door-to-door effort to reach the owners, she realized there was an artist-led path to change.


Diana: The sad part for me while we did these visitations, was to find kids as part of the families living these situations as normal. These kids were pretty much going to follow the same profit business patterns as their parents. So, that’s when I thought, “I need to start creating a way to fight this through education.”

Eventually, I started thinking, How I can just create some changes in these kids’ lives. How I can come to their schools and talk to them, not only about animals and the care of them, but also our planet; you know, our resources, our rivers and trees.

Through a Liberty Fellowship, I started developing this project called HEArt. The H comes from human, the E coming from earth or environment and then the A coming from animals, and then art.

I envision a bank of images created by the students, in which they're going to express to the community those messages about, “What are we doing with life? Life that an animal lives, our plants, or our natural resources?” So, what I want to do is to bring out the problem and then challenge them to create the solution through a piece of art.

2019 studio visit during Metropolitan Arts Council's annual Open Studios Weekend
2019 studio visit during Metropolitan Arts Council's annual Open Studios Weekend

I would like to find ways to promote those images on places like billboards, Green Link buses, churches, the airport, hospitals—as many places as possible. I want the children to have a voice and to be able to teach the adults in their community for them to think about what the children are doing, what they can also do, or how they could just, though an image, create an impact; a social impact.

So, it's been a lot of work, talking to a lot of people. Creating something from nothing specifically, because it's not my area. I'm not an educator. I don't have that skill and knowledge, but I've been learning about it.

Jennifer: How long have you been working on this?

Diana: Two years already.

Jennifer: Wow! And what strikes me is it sounds like you're basically trying to empower the kids to do what it is you do. It's like, “Okay, here's an issue,” and you want to express artistically a vision of what we can do about it.

Diana: Yeah, exactly. I definitely believe that the art has the power to address situations and to change situations as well. At least to help us see, through images, what we don't see or can’t see through words, or through readings, because this art goes directly to our feelings and emotions.

Diana Farfan's "Conversation Starters" series is currently in progress.
Farfan's "Conversation Starters" series is currently in progress.

Also, I do believe that the artists have to function as social channels. I believe in that type of art that has strong content and is also appealing visually. And so, during my whole career as an artist, I've learned that, what we do is very much being “solutionaries.” Art has the power to bring solutions as well.

We need to start seeing ourselves more like leaders of the image, leaders of the aesthetic world.

Jennifer: Why?

Diana: Because we are trained to understand how we can communicate through color, through texture, through composition, through line, through painting, and through any material that is not necessarily the conventional spoken word or written commentary.

And I think those are basically strong tools that we have not used properly. I think we are used to the idea of art coming from just beauty. We're used to thinking that art is just for decorations.

Jennifer: Just to be pleasing aesthetically without maybe saying much other than showing the artist’s skill and presenting something people like and respond positively to?

Diana: Yes.

Jennifer: The conversation of artists having a role in facilitating social change is not necessarily new. Do you have a sense that there's more thinking that way? Or that it's been more about the image lately and less about the responsibility?

Diana: What you're saying is very interesting, because it is very cultural. My training as an artist was at the Fine Art University in Bogota, Colombia. That Academy is very strong in teaching their art students how to think first of, you know, the aesthetic problem or the social problem, and then create a body of work that would address that idea. So, my way to see and approach my art is because of the academy I had, which is not the same everywhere.

The first time I showed my work in Greenville, around 2007, I heard the comment, “Oh, you make naked figures. You know, we like family friendly art.” It was like, “put that back in the closet, please. We don't want these in a gallery.”

Jennifer: Oh. Really?

Diana: Yes. And that hit me hard. I started thinking, “Where am I? I mean, what… what kind of world I’m in? Is this the medieval?” It’s art, it's not pornography, right?

I was representing my figures, because I was talking about humans. I was not talking about specific people. I was not kind of creating characters, but talking about what it means to be human.

Now, 2020, fortunately things are changing. I think that first comment shaped my work. And I just challenged myself on how to create art that could be family friendly. Otherwise, I would probably be making something else right now.

Jennifer: And what would that be?

Diana: No idea, but I would be working more with naked figures maybe, which is what I enjoyed at that time. Now, I'm a little bit shy about it, but not necessarily in a bad or negative aspect. I think I create my work based on how I'm living based on my own life experiences. It's what has shaped a change, gradually, in my work.

But talking about culture in societies, I do think that artists in this area are very shy. And we are mostly creating art to satisfy the audience, but not to express what we really need to.

Jennifer: What you need to express for yourselves, or what you need to express for the community?

Diana: I think we have to be honest. I mean, artists need to be honest in order to create work. So, if creating landscape, seascapes, flowers and portraits is important, it's okay. But also, we do have a social responsibility.

And I would like to see more challenging work, more work that shows serious topics, and that talks about serious things. I don't really have any visual idea about how that would be, but, I would like to see some more theater, concerts, and more poetry like Glenis Redmond’s style. That type of art that moves you very deeply and asks you, “What am I doing here? What am I doing for my surroundings, of my existence, of me as a link, an important link of this community? What am I leaving behind?” So, I think those are questions that mostly art is not formulating these days. Or it is, but shyly.

Jennifer: You feel like a lot of artists are holding themselves back because they don't think their work would be palatable in the community right now or where we are geographically?

Diana: Yeah, I think it could be something like that. I also understand that we artists need to make a profit. We need to really sell. So, I do get why we do work that is more specifically for profit gain.

But there has to be another side of us who dedicate time to create more. To create a safe space to talk about, you know, politics, the minorities, and LGBT community. To be more instigators, the lenses that bring the problem that is making us uncomfortable, what is dividing us, and what is just killing our trees because there is so much construction now.

"Holy Family" sculpture by Diana Farfan
"Holy Family"

I would like to see more around Greenville. And not only visual through the plastic or visual arts, I would like to see more like theater. I haven't seen a good play in a long time and that hits me as a human and just makes me question myself or, you know, just creates questions for me, or just makes my brain and mind to spin over and over and over for me to find answers.

Jennifer: Do you feel like the art should present answers?

Diana: I think it should present both questions and answers. Art should be that trigger to poke people on whatever is uncomfortable.

Not that I want to compare, but Bogota is huge in theater in terms of bringing international companies in from Czech Republic, Russia, Canada, and France. And Bogota offered a whole two weeks of theater, from free entries to everyone, you know, paid tickets for those who are less privileged.

I grew up with a lot of theater in my life, and I think that is what also influenced my work in terms of how I see the circus and the marionettes and the articulation in my pieces, the theater box. I play with my figures casting shadows on the wall, and I incorporated music and movement.

I stopped making those types of installations because it just demands a lot of space. And those pieces are hard to sell; I’m not a business person. I’ve ended up with a lot of pieces in my garage, and I don't want that to happen anymore.

Jennifer: So, what you feel art should do and can do for a community or for a society when you're actually sitting there, in your studio with your clay; how is that conversation actually happening for you personally as an artist?

Diana Farfan's sculptor's tools.
Some tools of the trade.

Diana: I think it’s 99 percent first; have the idea. I do sketches, then some research if I feel like I need it, and finally I create the base. So, I start from the rational part. So, you give 50 percent on both ends to have a 100 percent coherent and complete piece present. It’s very rare when I just create something because I want to, very freely and very openly.

Jennifer: And how often do you feel like you're successful then in getting that 50/50 marriage?

Diana: It’s a tricky question. I feel like I do a good job about it. But then if I accomplish that in terms of people seeing my piece and understanding what is behind it, that’s what doesn't really match, you know? I would love to deliver a much easier message for the audience to understand it rather than for me to have to go to the process of explaining what my work is.

But I feel that my work has different layers of information, and I really like sharing about them, because that's what makes my work alive. And I also feel that, as an artist, I am responsible to educate my audience on my work.

What I do enjoy is challenging myself on how to create work that can be beautiful and at the same time meaningful for any audience, adults and kids, and they both have different readings on what my work means, and it's okay.

Another challenge: talking about technical issues. I'd like to present my work outside of the regular gallery setting. I try to get rid of the pedestals. I love making suspended pieces, because that gives a different reading to my figures.

It gives it the feeling different from the elegant, unapproachable presentation that they have when they're on a pedestal. Like, “Wow! this is so important. It was made by an artist. It's so pricey and it's so precious.” No, I want my pieces to be like really alive people. Like they have their own life and they just got there, and like to be there.

I don't get the results all the time as I want them.

Jennifer: Does anybody?

Diana: Good question.

Photo of Diana Farfan by Eli Warren.
Photo by Eli Warren

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