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Meet Kiva Singh

Today we’d like to introduce you to Kiva Singh.

Kiva, let’s start with your story. We’d love to hear how you got started and how the journey has been so far.
I’ve always been a maker and collector of things. As a kid, I’d marvel over a particular rock or fern frond for many long, still moments. I’d try to catalog every intricate part. I remember thinking one pebble was so special that I carried it–curled in my palm–all day. I can still bring to mind the sensation of it in my hand: warm and a little clammy after hours of holding it. I kept it there through all the activities at preschool and the walk home, where I then stowed it, lovingly, in a mason jar next to identical pebble receptacles lining the top of my bookshelf.

Another time I had a ziplock bag of peanuts that, by the end of the day, resembled a crude peanut butter. It was empowering. I had transmuted peanuts. I started conducting other experiments. Later that year I thought it was strange that I only seemed to exist in one body. It seemed too absurd. I closed my eyes and tried to switch to another body; but after a few focused attempts, I concluded that I was bound to this one and that my whole life would be spent inside of it. In first grade, I rode the bus with my friend Chella, I’d devised an experiment based on my advancing theory that our minds are unique and whole in each body–even though our language is shared. I would say a word and we’d both attempt to capture the very first picture that came to mind. Then we’d recount the images and look for similarities or differences. For the word “chair” we both pictured the same type of ubiquitous quaker construction in all the New England kitchens we’d known. This surprised and captivated me.

We ran through some other words that ushered disparate visuals. Eventually, we hit on “milk” which yielded a cartoon raccoon holding a glass of milk. For both of us! I’m still absolutely delighted by that. Chella ran out of interest pretty quickly. She was a wonderfully in-the-moment child. I was a researcher, an engineer, an analyst. I did a lot of mulling. A lot of watercolor paintings. Rendering motifs ad nauseam. The word experiment–how we share concepts and influences, and the idea of mind/body monism took early root and still influences a lot of the ideas I’m working on.

I could tell you any number of stories that illustrate the inclinations that led me to the place I am now. But these earliest ones are so full of verve and discovery for me that I like them the best. A brief accounting of the interim looks something like this:
I left school when I was twelve and I never returned. This really freed me up. There was a great resource center for unschooled teens called Northstar where I received critical support. There’s a similar spot opening in Los Angeles called Alcove. I’ve been working with them in their planning meetings and I’m incredibly excited to be involved with their project.

Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
I’ve been really lucky. And really privileged. I get to do illustration for a living, so I’m always working on my skills–even in my day job. But it’s been really hard for me to pursue my own art outside of my commercial work. I had a breaking point a few years ago. I felt like I was finally skilled enough to make the type of work I wanted, and my work-for-money schedule was regular enough that I could afford all the supplies and take a good bit of time off. Conditions were perfect! So naturally, I crumbled to pieces because if life was this good why wasn’t I making anything “important”?

Meanwhile, I was making a lot of gifts for other people (I’ve always made most of the gifts I give, and I’ll give them sometimes for no special occasion). This work was going well, but when I’d try to draw for myself, I’d wallow in a mire of meta-critiques and shame. So, I’d switch gears again and do a portrait of a friend’s beloved dog or something. And it felt great. It was an easily attainable task that yielded a potent reward. But then I’d kick myself for falling back on this old crutch; for being a coward, a boring sop of milquetoast that had nothing to say as an artist. Rinse and repeat. The big change was set off by my partner, actually. He said, “You know Kiva, gift-giving is not ignoble. Gifts have a radical edge. Their power is different from other things.”

After that, a sequence of “oh duh” moments cascaded through my life. The idea that art should be technically astounding and/or revolutionary is a deeply flawed and arguably patriarchal and capitalistic concept. I know, that’s a big claim with a lot to unpack, but that’s for another moment. Come with me on this. Women, in particular, have been making lovingly detailed, heavily wrought gifts of folk-art for hundreds of years. Works that take so much time they can’t be commercialized for most markets. Hand embroidered, sewn, and adorned gifts of love. These artists were not provided patrons, or chapels, or galleries. They were rarely given recompense. They made their art of love for others or because they sewed their voices in their thread. And yes, also because of the expectations family and society had for their service as unpaid laborers. And here I am, tied to this history of womenfolk givers, thinking I’m failing by not making brash statements that change the world.

I had to decide every day that my work was important. The work of gift-giving, of nurturing, is incredibly important. Each of us is uniquely qualified to express our love.

If I could give only one piece of advice, it would be this: art doesn’t have to have any meaning; you don’t owe a single person a reason for making the art you want. And you don’t owe yourself the tremendous weight of being impressive all the damn time. But if you do want to find meaning in something, caregiving is enough.

Please tell us about Kiva Singh.
I’ve been working on a series of watercolor faces and more intricately refined silk paintings. The silk paintings, I feel, speak for themselves in what they are (for me, they’re largely an outlet for getting my technical-skill rocks off, while being as absurd as I want with motifs). The watercolor faces have been an absolute revelation. Sometimes I feel like they are the only “real” art I’ve ever made. Each face is a really tender and intimate experience (tender and intimate enough, I think, where some resonance with my gift-giving practice has kicked-in). Here, I’ve shifted my attention from the imagined desire of a human recipient to the ever-forming, enigmatic, and quiet desires of the faces I’m painting–all of which emerge slowly, independently, and as if on their own power. I go slowly with them, waiting for them to reveal themselves to me. Instead of reference photos and a plan, I discover. I find them in the accidents and subtitles of the paint, urging them to the surface.

I know it sounds a little nuts and woo-y. But it’s true! And it’s a wonderful experience to be a part of. I’ve done a lot of work based on photographs and I can argue with myself about if it’s “good” or “not good” depending on how well it resembles my plan. But the faces live outside of that judgment, that quality-control styled safety blanket. With this work, I’m committed to conjuring present feelings rather than hitting a mark. And instead of making something conform to something else – especially some logical reason­-for-being – these faces are along the lines of “Oh, here you are, I see you. I’ve found all this magic, and I love you.”

Do you look back particularly fondly on any memories from childhood?
Next to the house I was born in, there was a long concord grapevine that clambered up a massive tree, weighing down its canopy with heavy bunches of blue-black fruit. To harvest the grapes, my dad and our family friend-cum-nanny Dean would climb up onto the roof and out into the branches, while my brother and I waited on a network of bedsheets laid out below. The forest came right into the yard, and I remember the feeling of the moss under the sheets. Dad and Dean would then shake the tree until all the ripe grapes rained down onto us. I could eat as many as I wanted, and there were still plenty leftover for making jam. I can only remember two images from the basement of that house, and one of them is a collection of jam jars with handwritten labels.

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