Frank Talks

Dana Lok – Artist & Art Educator

Sound Out, 2019
Sound Out, 2019

This week we chat with Dana Lok, who is an artist that lives and works in Brooklyn, NY. She has had solo exhibitions at Clima, Milan, IT; Bianca D’Alessandro, Copenhagen, DK; and Chewday’s, London, UK. Group exhibitions include shows at Chateau Shatto, Los Angeles, CA; Halsey McKay, East Hampton, NY, American Medium, NY; Miguel Abreu Gallery, NY. She was a 2018 recipient of the Rema Hort Mann Foundation Emerging Artist Grant. She received her MFA from Columbia University (2015) and her BFA from Carnegie Mellon University (2011). Dana Lok’s paintings and drawings approach speech, representation, knowledge and the passage of time as activities that happen on a stage, not unlike tricks in a magic show. Please enjoy this informative and fantastic Frank Talk below!

What was your first job in the Arts? 

An unpaid summer internship at The Hirshhorn Museum in DC as an “Interpretive Guide” in their Yves Klein exhibition. My job was to strike up casual conversation with museum goers about the artworks, which included his pigment-caked monochromes and sea sponges soaked in blue paint.

What was the most useful or important thing you learned at that job?

How to hold a conversation with a stranger. It meant learning to meet a person where they were with curiosity and respect, from the skeptics to the enthusiasts. 

Tell us a little more about yourself. When did you realize you wanted to pursue a career in this industry?

As long as I can remember, making art has always been my favorite thing to do. Becoming an artist and a teacher has been a series of choices to see what happens next if I go ahead and embrace art-making and teaching seriously, over and over, until I find that I’m 31 years old and might not be qualified to do anything else professionally. 

What do you do now? 

I’m an artist and an art educator. I make paintings and drawings and I teach in higher ed and primary ed. 

Where are you from? 

Berwyn, PA, a suburb of Philadelphia. 

What is the arts community like there? 

Philly has a deep classical figurative tradition, and the city is also known for its murals. The Philadelphia Museum of Art is like a mini-Met, and the Barnes Foundation is a must-see oddity and treasure. I see galleries like Vox Populi, Grizzly Grizzly, and Tiger Strikes Asteroid as a vibrant hub of local contemporary scene. In the past decade the curation at the ICA at UPenn has brought really cutting edge, thought provoking shows to town and stood out in a major way on the national scene. That’s where I go when I’m visiting home!

Has where you come from shaped what you do in the arts today?

Absolutely. I was extremely lucky to have encouragement through public programs for art: I could take art classes every day at my high school, including art history, with teachers who were challenging and supportive. The state of PA also used to fund a free, intensive summer program for high school students called the Governor’s School for the Arts. It was a taste of art school, and the first time that becoming an artist looked possible as a profession. I met friends I’m still close to, who are now making art in NYC and Berlin. Sadly, the program was cut after the 2008 crash. 

What is the best piece of advice you can give about working in the art world?

It’s a marathon, not a sprint. 

What is one of your greatest accomplishments in your career so far?

Teaching as the Artist-In-Residence at UT Knoxville. It was an honor to be invited in the first place, I got to work with three classes of vibrant, hardworking students, and I learned an incredible amount from my students and colleagues. 

What has been a challenge for you?

The NYC acrobatic act of balancing money, time, and energy to keep a roof over my head and keep making paintings. 

What is something you do every day at the office (or your current home office)?

Or, the studio: I’ve been using all this time cooped up during the lockdown to jumpstart a daily creative writing routine. 

What is one of the weirdest things you have had to do on the job in your career?

Well, I guess all the weird shit you have to do to make art. My phone is filled with weird videos and photos of myself trying to make references for my paintings: molding butter into letters, making my fingers walk across a table top, holding a piece of paper to the wall with my elbow. 

What defines a good employee? What defines a good boss?

I’ve never had to hire anyone, but I’ve heard that punctuality is important. 

The best bosses I’ve had give clear direction and treat management as a chance for education towards the long-term life of an employee’s career.

What is your advice to making yourself stand out in your workplace? Any good tips for a giving a great interview?

Out of the features that you can control, I think sending signals that you’re striving to hear your colleagues and understand them goes a long way whether you’re already in the office, or meeting a potential employer for the first time in an interview. For someone new to job searches, that might translate simply as: pay attention to your body language, listen closely, ask clarifying questions, restate what you think you heard. 

Is there any advice you would like to give people entering the art world?

One of the most important things I’ve learned along the way is about “networking”, a word that terrified me when I graduated college. It seemed like it was some sly magic I was supposed to work on acquaintances in order to get a job or an opportunity. It took some time out of undergrad to realize I could take “networking” to mean sincerely pursuing the conversations I find exciting, staying in touch with the people I find brilliant and caring, and exchanging opportunities and support with peers whose work I admire.

What is the best exhibition you have seen in the last year?

I loved the “Popular Painting” gallery at the newly opened MoMA, with artworks by Minnie Evans, Morris Hirshfield, Jose Dolores Lopez and Bill Traylor. 

If you could own a work by 5 different artists, who would be in your collection?

Thomas Nozkowski

Vija Celmins— I’ll take a Night Sky, please

Charles Burchfield

Pope L. 

Mary Heilmann

Since we are all at home and exploring more galleries and museums online, perhaps some for the first time, when the quarantine is lifted, what is your first art filled destination?

The Met! 

And finally, do you think the art world should be more transparent?

More transparency undoubtedly means more inclusivity. If the art world at large wants to heed the call to refashion itself as a more equitable and ethical ecosystem, creating transparency sounds like one good strategy to me. I think about the Guerilla Girls’ fierce exposure of the paltry representation of women artists in galleries and museums as one case in point. I think about, more recently, Occupy Museums’ laying bear the ironic economic inequality on which museums and art markets are built. Transparency, or exposure, is a first step towards accountability.