Usually, the Queens-based artist sTo Len picks up his own trash—and lots of other people’s, too. You’d expect no less from the New York Department of Sanitation’s official artist in residence, who uses traditional Japanese techniques like suminagashi (or “floating ink”) and gyotaku (“fish impression”) to catalog flotsam he trawls from waterways in ecologically damning, strangely beautiful prints.
But his residency at Level Retreat in Chapel Hill was short enough that he needed folks to wade in for him. Luckily, a Haw River Assembly river cleanup was perfectly timed to deliver “10 bags full of goodies, like Christmas,” just as he arrived. While the prints, and some of the goodies, are on view at Peel Gallery in Carrboro, we spoke with sTo Len about his fascinating day job, his journey into Japanese printmaking, and his deepening collaboration with the water.
INDY WEEK: What have you done as the New York sanitation department’s artist in residence?
STO LEN: First, I spent a lot of time interviewing and hanging out with workers and following the waste trail, from the household curb to the collection truck to waste transfer stations in all five boroughs. From there, the trash gets put on barges that go down the Hudson or East River to New Jersey, or it gets put on trains to landfills in Virginia or upstate New York.
I wanted a studio, so they took me to this place called the Central Repair Shop, which is the size of the Empire State Building if it were horizontal. Everything broken in New York goes there, from trucks to upholstery projects. They put me in an old silk-screen studio that hasn’t been used in 20 years, and I’m doing mash-ups of their old designs with my own. That’s been really fun to do around the workers, who come in and go, “Oh my god, I remember that!”
In the same building, there’s an old TV studio, and I’m working with the last guy who worked there to digitize this incredible film and video collection they have, dating back to the 1930s. I’m making video art with it, and I’m working on a television show that should have some episodes out by the fall.
An artist residency at the sanitation department sounds like something an artist came up with, not the city.
You’re absolutely right. In the 1970s, Mierle Laderman Ukeles wrote to the commissioner and said, “Hi, I’m really interested in sanitation and maintenance and in being an artist in residence,” and luckily, that commissioner said yes. It was an unsalaried, unfunded position that she turned into a career for 40 years. She’s in her eighties now, and I’ve hung out with her; she’s amazing. The city, inspired by her work, started the Public Artists in Residence program in 2015, and that’s what I’m in. I’m basically the second one after her.
How did you get into the Japanese printmaking techniques you use?
I did a show in Japan in 2009, and I fell in love with calligraphy. Coming back to New York and continuing to play with sumi ink, I realized that it floated. I thought I had invented something amazing because you could make a floating painting, and if you put paper down, you could actually print from the surface of the water. Then I discovered that Shinto monks had been doing this since the 12th century.
I got really into suminagashi, the floating-ink printmaking process. Shinto is an animistic religion, so the act of printmaking with water was this connecting of spirits—a non-hierarchical way of thinking about things like water and land and animals. You can’t control water; you have to collaborate with it, and that began opening up my ideas for collaborating with nature and situations. It taught me to be more fluid and adaptive in my art process.
It’s funny because we basically live on a series of islands in New York, but it’s not island life at all, and people don’t generally think about the water. The waterways are often some of the least-populated areas, and I was always finding these cool pockets to hang out in. In doing that, I was learning about the industrial histories and pollution of these waterways, and I realized they were like the floating paintings I was printing in the studio.
I had a eureka moment. I started going around New York City with paper, printing the surfaces of the water, which were often combined with sewage overflow and other detritus but came out really beautiful. I realized that my studio could be a boat, or the waterways. In New York, people would say, “I didn’t even know that was there!” So, it’s a placemaking process that also brings awareness to issues like combined sewage overflow.
What about gyotaku, which is the printmaking technique you use in this exhibit?
The fish-impression technique was something that I got interested in because I had continually done these river cleanups and had bags of stuff I’d collected laying around. I began inking the objects and printing from them. Gyotaku is considered an art form, but it’s also a way to document the catch of the day and a way of honoring that fish. I’ve done a lot of these river cleanups in Vietnam—I’m half Vietnamese—and it’s just an overwhelming sea of single-use plastic. For me, this process is about acknowledging these objects that we’ve created and abandoned, as they become part of the landscape.
Did your environmental consciousness breed this work or vice versa?
I’ve always been ecologically minded without always knowing how to voice that as an artist. Things like suminagashi sent me on this trajectory when I started to think about the waterways around me as potential collaborators in every town. Doing weeklong trips along the Saigon River, where my family used to live, and using water as a theme, has enabled me to voice environmental concerns and dig deeper into my cultural heritage while figuring out how to be a traveling artist. I’ve always been jealous of touring bands, but when I did tour in a band, I hated that you were only there for a night. How can you travel as an artist, create real relationships in a place, and get to know it, collaborating with it in a meaningful way?
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