Hughen/Starkweather

Studio Sessions

Hughen/Starkweather

By Selene Foster March 3, 2016

Studio Sessions offers behind-the-scenes access to artists, writers, curators, and creative individuals through a variety of tête-à-tête conversations that consider the how, and what, and where of making art. Studio Sessions are presented as interviews, profiles, and studio visits through text, photo essays, and videos.


When I arrived to visit Amanda Hughen and Jennifer Starkweather, I had no idea I would leave itching to brush up on my Jesuit history, but this is why I love talking to smart artists who make beautiful images. Oh, the places you’ll go.

Amanda Hughen and Jennifer Starkweather in the studio.

Walking in to see their most current work on the walls, I immediately felt as though I’d landed in a very foreign territory where the available maps revealed not the direction to my destination, but rather the taste of the food there and what the weather would be upon my arrival. Which makes perfect sense when considering that these works were inspired by interviews about memories and imagined realities.

For their upcoming exhibition Adjacent Shores at University of San Francisco’s Thacher Gallery, Hughen/Starkweather conducted interviews with University of San Francisco faculty (a poet, an environmental scientist, a cartographer, and so forth) in which they asked each person to describe a memory of a place along the Pacific coast and what they envision that place will look like in 50 years. The languages extracted from these interviews tell the story of what some might call the coming apocalypse: population growth, industry, earthquakes, rising sea levels, and so on, but they also speak of the kind of love and belonging one can get only from place. And it is these individual languages that Hughen/Starkweather used to create the abstract forms evident in this new body of work.

Conversations, interviews, and deep research are a significant piece of their process for every project they take on. Feeling a “responsibility to educate the viewer, to give them a window in,” they have, over the course of the last decade, developed a nuanced strategy for avoiding what many artists fail to acknowledge as a problem: leaving their audiences out in the cold.

Which brings me to the Jesuits.

Hughen/Starkweather. Antoni Ucerler, Big Sur/Japan, 2016; acrylic paint, ink, watercolor, pencil, and gouache on paper; 30.25 x 39.75 in. Courtesy of the Artists.

One of the works Hughen/Starkweather have created for Adjacent Shores is titled Big Cold Land. It’s an interpretation of a Japanese interpretation of a Jesuit and Chinese interpretation of the entire world as it was known in 1602.

Around this time, a shift occurred in the strategy of Jesuit missionaries. They set aside the practice of imposing Western customs and the use of the Latin language onto the populations they encountered and initiated a scholarly process of adaptation.

One Jesuit by the name of Matteo Ricci, a Roman Catholic born in 1552, was, at the age of 30, delivered to Macau, a small peninsula on the East coast of China administered by the Portuguese Empire, and tasked with infiltrating mainland China. However, Ricci immediately set about learning the language, literature, and etiquette of the Chinese, eventually becoming one of the first Western scholars to master Chinese script and Classical Chinese. In his words, he wanted “to win their hearts and, by the example of [his] good life, to move them in a way...” 

In 1601, Ricci was one of the first Westerners allowed to enter the Ming capital of Beijing. He brought with him maps of the Western world previously unknown to the Chinese. The Wanli Emperor, Zhu Yijun, asked him to combine the atlases of East and West into a new world map, and this map became known as Kunyu Wanguo Quantu, or “A Complete Map of the Myriad Countries of the World.”

Matteo Ricci. Kunyu Wanguo Quantu (“A Map of the Myriad Countries of the World”), public domain.

It’s the oldest surviving Chinese map to show the Americas, which are placed on the right, with Eurasia and Africa on the left, and China and the Pacific Ocean smack dab in the center. (It will be on view at the Asian Art Museum from March 4 to May 8, 2016.)

Just as Ricci could have approached his creation of this important new world map differently, perhaps refusing to place China at the center of the world, Hughen/Starkweather could choose to disregard the languages of those they interview in an effort to ease their artistic process. Instead, they include both the source of their inspiration and the end viewer every step of the way, and this may help to explain the capacity of their work to inspire reflection. Surely this same inclusion is what makes Ricci’s new world map so extraordinary.

Hughen/Starkweather. Sabrina Oliveros, Space Between Batan and Sabtang/ Philippines, 2016; ink on paper; 27 x 31.25 in. Courtesy of the Artists.

Inviting other minds and perspectives into one’s own work is not an easy path to tread. However, I sensed a well-earned confidence in their process—what I referred to earlier as a nuanced strategy. The titles of their works and the accompanying text they provide, while not didactic, are explanatory, and invite the viewer to think of a personal association they might have with each work. For example, works in Adjacent Shores are accompanied by quotes from the interviews they are inspired by. Dean Rader, Ocean Beach (2015) includes the following:

And still I wind up thinking about the waves. They show up in my poems. I remembered being mesmerized by their consistency, watching them come and seeing how they broke and crashed. I remember looking out at the ocean and the deep unknowingness was a little overwhelming. I went back to my hometown in Oklahoma and … I was standing up on a little ridge looking over the farm, it really reminded me of looking out over the ocean.  ...when I go to Ocean Beach, it is the closest visual memory of looking over the wheat fields in Oklahoma.

When the colors and shapes of a nonrepresentational work of art rearrange themselves into remembrance or recognition, magic happens. Hughen/Starkweather describe this as “closing the space between abstraction and language.”

Hughen/Starkweather. Dean Rader, Ocean Beach, 2015; ink, pencil, and gouache on paper; 34 x 30 in. Courtesy of the Artists.

As humans we work hard to place ourselves somewhere, anywhere, in every moment. Hughen/Starkweather harness this natural tendency to create work that reminds us of the places we might have forgotten, or have yet to experience. Hughen/Starkweather invite us to explore new territory and, like Ricci, in so doing, to find that we have come home.

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This article is made possible through the generous support of the Artists' Legacy Foundation.

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