When it comes to the distinctive artistic practices and creative challenges that drive today’s artists, our Pew Fellows have a wealth of insights, representing a diversity of perspectives across age, background, and creative disciplines.
In this installment, interdisciplinary artist Maia Chao and visual artist James Maurelle discuss how they create productive work environments for themselves, their earliest interests in artistic expression, and why they’ve made Philadelphia their home.
Chao’s work in performance, video, sculpture, and social practice investigates systems of value and power within formal and informal institutions such as museums, economic structures, and families. Maurelle works with his hands to create sculptures from wood, metal, and found materials, inspired by five generations of tradesmen and woodworkers in his family.
Maia Chao What is your ideal studio routine from start of the day to end of the day? What is your actual studio routine?
James Maurelle My ideal studio routine starts with waking up in the morning. Waking up is a new birth to me—a fresh start with a little bit of residue of the past. Growing up, I would hear my dad say, “It gets harder to get out of bed every day.” I didn’t know what that meant until I became older. In media interviews, I’ve heard this question many times: “What gets you out of the bed in the morning?”
It isn’t one answer. It’s a myriad. To wake up to begin again with joy, wonder, and promise. Knowing the night before that tomorrow is going to be a studio day means mental preparation, going over the game plan, objects, tactics in my head. The beginning of Rocky (the film), the routine, waking up very early, when the city (Philly) is still and silent.
Cut to INT. — STUDIO — DAWN
I break my knees in prayer, to give thanks for the opportunity to use my creativity, to celebrate existence via making objects. I stand, I grab my phone from my left pocket, I select the John Coltrane studio playlist. A Love Supreme, the whole album, then “Afro Blue,” the versioning of Mongo Santamaría’s piece, then Out of This World, then my session starts to pick up a rhythm/pace, and I catch the zone. I run a set till my day ends with Live in Japan, “Afro Blue” once again, done. I break my knees and pray again, giving thanks. I stand, take a few pictures of my progress, and leave the space.
Cut to EXT. — NIGHT
I make the trek back home.
Maurelle If you could have your ideal home/studio anywhere on the planet, where would it be?
Chao I think my dream would be to have a home/studio in nature (but no mosquitoes!) on a lake and a home/studio in Philadelphia, and to go between them. That said, I don’t really have the most studio‐based practice. I love having a space to think and tinker, but I also get very overwhelmed by material accumulation, and I can get really depressed if I’m alone making work in a vacuum. So making relational and collaborative work that is “social practice” is kind of a necessity for me. Being with other artists and thinkers is when I am most excited about life. I’m a discursive thinker and maker—I gotta talk it out. So my ideal home/studio would be with a group of collaborators and a lot of books, movies, delicious meals, and expansive time. I guess they call that a residency. I prefer to do intense spurts of project‐based making and then take breaks. I’m not very good at sustaining a daily studio practice alongside work/life.
“Being with other artists and thinkers is when I am most excited about life. I’m a discursive thinker and maker—I gotta talk it out.” —Maia Chao
Chao If you could sit down for dinner with any group of artists (past or present), who would be at the table and what would you cook for them?
Maurelle James Baldwin, Nina Simone, [Pew Fellow] Tiona Nekkia McClodden, John Coltrane, Althea Gibson, Alan Watts, Zora Neale Hurston, Bill Russell, Caroline Jean Martin, Thích Nhất Hạnh, Elizabeth Catlett, Sandy Koufax, Yuri Kochiyama, Deborah E. Roberts, Gretel Bergmann, Jennifer-Navva Milliken, [Pew Fellow] Odili Odita. I would make a simple pasta. Plum tomatoes, fresh basil, pecorino, and extra virgin olive oil, al dente, done.
Maurelle If you were a professional athlete, which sport and why?
Chao I’m not very into or familiar with sports, but I love them in theory and want to get more into them. I appreciate the spectacle and power of sports to bring people together, like religion. I’m interested in the lines on courts and fields that reveal the structure of the game. And I’m interested in how uniforms signify relationships of belonging or opposition. But if I really had to choose a sport it would be a very esoteric one called skijor that takes place annually in Calgary, Alberta. One of the events involves a horse pulling two people in a living room (a couch, coffee table, lamp) across snow. The whole structure and its adornments must cross the finish line in one piece. Apparently skijor was a thing in 1928, and it’s having a comeback.
What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
Maurelle A mountaineer. I would love to climb the highest peaks in the world (and survive).
What musical instrument would you like to master?
Chao Maybe the drum. I’m amazed by the really precise subdivision of time. It’s like a superpower. I took a taiko drumming class for a few months and sadly sucked at it. We spent a few months rehearsing one two‐minute song, and at the recital I totally blew it.
We also asked the artists a few questions of our own.
When did you know you were an artist? Was there a moment when you began to identify yourself as an artist?
Maurelle I kind of shy away from that term “artist.” I’m still unsure what it embodies. There are moments when I think, yes, art, but it is ever-changing as I grow as a person. I do know that I’m a builder. I make things. If this making is under the umbrella of art, then yes, I am an artist. I remember two moments, one external and the other internal.
The first was in kindergarten. The teacher handed out a sheet of paper and asked us to write/describe the pencils we were using. I wrote about shape, color, the eraser, then I remember really writing about the teeth marks and why were there teeth marks? I never bit my pencils. The teacher says time’s up and collected the papers. She took mine and started to read it. Her face changed as she read, her eyes scanning each line. She looked at me, then at my paper again. She paused as if she wanted to say something, but she just continued to gather papers. This is my only strong memory I have about kindergarten.
When I was a child, I remember staring up at the sky, witnessing translucent chrysanthemums moving about like sea anemones. Repeating rows of petals would radiate from the center outward toward the edge on the flower, like waves settling on the shore. The petals would vibrate independently in unison. I related this moment/happening as seeing art or defining art or being an artist. I haven’t seen the chrysanthemums in decades. It would be nice to see them again.
“My hands are my most treasured possession...My hands are my guides to the future.” —James Maurelle
Chao My first performance artwork started when I was 7 years old. I asked for a toy cash register from Santa, with the unrealistic beeping sounds removed, because I wanted it to seem real. And Santa gave me a real legit cash register (that my uncle’s company was getting rid of). I created Harland’s, a fictional store in the basement of my childhood home. For a solid seven years, I spent hours and hours checking out imaginary customers at Harland’s, every day, after school. I had an alter ego named Eveny Chefa, and she was the manager. Importantly, she was not the owner. The owner was an old white man named Harland who stopped by from time to time (I painted him on the back of a door), but Eveny was the one who was always on the ground, running the show. My dad got me custom‐printed plastic bags that read “Harland’s” and our home address. And he got me a pricing gun. I price-tagged everything in the basement. Sometimes I’d be lucky enough to get a non‐imagined customer (my mom, sister, or dad) to come down and “buy” something. I always milked the opportunity to have them sign mountains of forms, no matter what they were buying. Purchasing a can of beans from Eveny could be a 45-minute endeavor.
What is your most treasured possession?
Chao I think all the home videos that my mom captured of our childhood. My sister and I were always performing together (she's an actress), and I love having that archive.
Maurelle My hands are my most treasured possession. I don’t just use my hands to make objects. I also use them to see, to communicate, as a teleporter/translator to my past and future self. My hands are my guides to the future. Without them, a lot would be lost in translation, like holding my wife and children’s hands, feeling the pages of a book, clapping, playing music.
Why do you choose to work and live in Philadelphia? In your experience, what makes this arts scene distinctive?
Maurelle I feel Philadelphia chose me. When the universe winks at you, if you’re paying attention to your life (those moments that you can’t quite understand immediately but reveal themselves to you in time), you can see where little pieces of bread were dropped for you to follow.
The history of Philadelphia makes the arts scene very distinct from other cities, but I’m biased. Philly has a lot of firsts, too many to count. It’s a hub of humanity, art, culture, and the beginnings for others finding their freedom, humanity, art, and culture. What stands out to me that reflects the art scene is the Philadelphian accent. It’s GOLDEN, from whatever region it originates and lives. There are flavors in Philly all their own. Philly has all the ingredients, but one thing: you must make/bring your own roux.
Chao After living in my hometown of Providence, RI, I lived in New York City for a couple years. But I couldn’t handle NYC. I’m not the kind of person who can (or wants to?) work a full day and then go to the studio or an event. I just don’t have that kind of energy. I was really burned out and did not want to be living in “the center” of the art world, where time and resources are so competitive/scarce and therefore everything felt really high stakes. Also, I need nine to ten hours of sleep a night! Philly felt like a place where I could get that kind of sleep and meet other artists committed to sleep, leisure, play, and a healthy dose of time spent “unproductively.” I was drawn to Philadelphia because of its DIY, community‐oriented, socially engaged art scene. I appreciate that it’s financially possible for artists to run brick and mortar spaces and counter‐institutions here and that it feels like dominant art institutions have less of a stronghold on everything. It’s a place where it feels more possible for work/earning money to be a part of—not all of—how an artist spends their time and energy. And I love the artists I have met in Philly. It feels like the first time in my life where I feel a real sense of rooted, artistic community. I’m a member of Vox Populi, and while all collective projects are challenging, I feel really committed to and energized by the shared goal of cultivating space, resources, and community for experimental artmaking. I am deeply interested in how people self‐organize and collaborate politically and artistically, ranging from the lofty (How do we define our values as a collective?) to the nitty gritty (How do we distribute labor for collective operations?).