People's lives really do change overnight and as quickly as one email. I really love emails so this story is very special to me. One day at work I received a long and thoughtful message from Carnegie Vanguard HS junior Lynn Huynh. She told me that she was preparing for the year-long Texas Performance Standards Project (TPSP) and she was in need of a mentor for her upcoming project "Found: Our Selves." The show focused on what coming-of-age means in marginalized youths and aimed to "show that no matter the struggles within achieving a safe sense of self in the society you live in, it can be done."
*Internally screaming* I remember sitting at my desk smiling so hard because her message felt like deja vu. A memory of familiarity and excitement repeating itself. The year before (2014-2015) I happily mentored another teen artist (Zoe Herring) during her TPSP and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to do it again. Lynn's project was different in that it focused specifically on art, curation, and aspects of sociology. What immediately struck me about Lynn was how much of myself I saw in her. She's already ahead of the game.
During our first meeting at Black Hole, she had more than half of the conceptual work finalized and the entire exhibition checklist outlined. In the middle of the project, Lynn was awarded an Idea Fund Spark Grant to make, print and distribute a zine to go along with the exhibition. The "99¢ Dreams Zine" was coordinated by and for Houston teens who wish to showcase their talents and raise their voices about cultural trends, social and political issues, and artistic endeavors. She is one of the most brave teenagers I know and she *thought artistically* the whole time. Wow ... and to think that her work has only just begun.
When I first heard about your ideas and project, I was shocked that someone so young was so organized and ambitious. What motivated you to organize this show? The boring, easy answer is that this show is for a high school project. Whether I pass or fail a class dedicated to the Texas Performance Standards Project largely depends on how successful my product (the show) is. The whole goal of this class is to give students an opportunity to pursue projects that don't fit into the confinements of the typical high school curriculum, thus giving students an opportunity to expand and explore unorthodox interests. Underneath that "boring, easy answer" is actually what I hope people will think is a really interesting, complex one because I've always wanted to pursue an artistic production like this because I see curation as a convergence of all the different art forms-dance, piano, film, writing, studio art, photography-that have touched my life. With Found: Our Selves, I learned that I don't have to settle on just one specific art major, which is a decision I have always struggled with. Beyond the personal motivation, there is a bigger picture. I'm taking AP Art History this year, and I've learned that there is a pattern of Western male domination strung along the history of art. Very rarely do we ever hear the voices of people of color or those who do not identify as a cisgender, heterosexual male. This pattern isn't only apparent in the art field-it also exists in the past, present, and even future of our societies if we don't begin to amplify and listen to the voices that have been stifled all these years. Found: Our Selves stood as a platform for these voices to be communicated through art. I think the voices of today's young artists are important because we're the next generation that is expected to take responsibility of our world, and one of those responsibilities is to dismantle the hierarchies that have been built by oppression.
What was the easiest thing to do? What was the most difficult? The easiest part of this whole project was (surprisingly) securing a space for the show. I always thought it'd be hard for a number of reasons: art galleries have tight schedules that would be hard to work around, they wouldn't be paid for this, and even then, who would take a high school junior and her project seriously? The answer to the last is a lot of people, but from our first introductory meeting, BLUEorange Gallery showed so much support and enthusiasm. I've built a personal and lasting relationship with the team there, not just a professional one. The hardest part was managing all the work/artists and designing the zines. I had selected over thirty artists to be featured and probably almost fifty works of art. Now imagine emailing/texting all those people, keeping track of everyone's artist statements and biographies, logging all the physical art work in and out of the gallery, etc. to that extent. There's a reason why curation is a full time job for a lot of people. Meanwhile, I was expected to maintain good grades, my social life, and my various extracurriculars. With all of this happening, I ended up picking up the final copies of the zines literally the day of the opening.
What did you learn from this experience? I don't think I'll ever NOT be amazed at how close-knit and generous the art community is in Houston. While I was hopping between print shops and galleries and all the in-betweens, I learned that that the Houston art community is so interconnected that everyone literally knows everyone. This was how my show garnered so much attention. Everyone was just so supportive of what I was doing and kept sharing my Facebook event, video, website, etc. The reaction everyone had to Found: Our Selves was overwhelming...the good kind that warms your heart (as cheesy as that sounds). From this, I learned that beyond the walls of my school, there's a whole world out there just waiting for me. With how much school consumes our lives, a lot of students, like me, are led to believe that grades are your primary measure of success. This idea, which I have always maintained prior to Found: Our Selves, was honestly kind of beating me up pretty hard. It took the process of building Found: Our Selves and all the following interactions with the Houston art community to make me come to the realization that beyond those school walls, grades do not define me nor my capabilities. When Found: Our Selves started taking on so much momentum, what with the Idea Fund Spark Grant and the encouragement of BLUEorange Art Gallery, I began to realize how seriously people (as in like-minded! artistically driven! professionals I strive to one day become! not just the administrators and teachers monitoring my grades, as much as I appreciate them too) will take my art. I learned that having the energy, commitment, and passion to achieve all I want to achieve can and will take me so so far. So anyways, Houston art community, if you are reading this, I love you and I have so much to owe you (which I hope to one day pay back somehow?).
How was Houston Couch Collective formed? Couch Collective started as a group of friends with a lot of ideas and I hope for the collective to remain based on this same concept. There's this air of pretension associated with the world of art: you have to have a certain amount of experience or a certain look (aka "aesthetic") or as mentioned before, be of a certain identity to be included in the art world. The beginnings of Couch Collective and the following success of the collective show that this hierarchy is a sham. Anyone can do art and anyone can be good at it/find success.
Why did you chose to highlight "coming of age" and identity? It started with a conversation with a friend, she's actually one of the artists in the show - Hannah Taurins! We were talking about how different our lives had become after coming out as lesbian to both ourselves and the people around us. It was nearly surreal of me to realize how much our identity influences the people we surround ourselves with, our opinions, our politics, our future, etc. A lot of these life changes first happen in our youth. Growing up doesn't just mean that there's an increase in your age number. There's also an expanding amount of experiences and epiphanies that come with coming-of-age. Found: Our Selves is a celebration of youth and a retrospective of all that we associate with it.
What do you think is special about teen artists? We're the unexpected. No one ever talks about or expects anything from teen artists. Especially when we are in the years just before college, just before declaring a major and then going out into the real world, teen artists always hear about how art can't be a "real" job. We have always grown with this sort of invalidation, but we keep marching on...and then you hear about something like Found: Our Selves, about something teen-directed and teen-driven, about the crowd that showed up to see something beautiful bloom, about the community it took to make the exhibit as grand as it was and then you realize ... Hey they did it, we did it, we made it. You're going to hear about these young creators and movers and shakers within the next few years. You're going to see their work in museums and galleries, read their award-winning books and essays, see them on Broadway shows and concert halls. I think that's what's special about teen artists, we're an unseen force in the making.
How would you describe "finding yourself" compared to "creating yourself"? Finding something, anything, though "yourself" in this specific case, implies that you've already lost it. We grow up in a world that is largely defined by social hierarchies, stereotypes, and norms. We're always expected to be someone else, anyone else BUT ourselves. I think that creating yourself implies newness and even restructuring. You can always create and recreate yourself or versions of you but to find yourself means to go back to the beginning, to remember who you are and have always been even if you get a little lost along the way.
What is next for you? For Houston Couch Collective? Couch Collective's future endeavors hinges on the idea of collaboration between teen artists and the showcasing of their works. Upcoming projects include a zine featuring the works of young creatives, Recess - an event where artists are able to trade with and/or buy prints, music products, zines, etc. from each other, and Spectral - a film photography show about color and its connotations. We're also working on expansion, which essentially means developing an open door proposal submission process for young artists who want/need help developing a project, an online store that would host zines, prints, merchandise, music, etc. of artist partners, and networking at local art functions. We've also talked about somehow getting a studio space of sorts which would be pretty ideal for meetings, community events like Recess, small shows we are hosting, etc. As for me, I'm currently working with a few incredibly talented pals on some personal projects which I hope to further develop with Couch Collective: dancers Liv Morrow & Tania Saiz and filmmaker/animator Elizabeth Hoskins on a collaborative work between dance, film, animation, and voice/writing mediums; costume designer Maegan Fahy in producing a fashion line that would be designed for and marketed to people of all genders, races, body types, etc; and writer Kizer Shelton in a MenilFest zine table.
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