SPEAKING: Kóan Jeff Baysa
with Tatiana Ryckman
Kóan Jeff Baysa is the Great Meadows Foundation 2020 Critic-in-Residence, a program which brings noted critics and curators to Kentucky to meet with artists in the state and facilitate meaningful discourse on the arts in Kentucky. In addition to being a collector, curator, and critic, Koan is a physician of clinical immunology and an allergy specialist. Though his interest in the arts began with Mexican female surrealists like Frida Kahlo, he’s dedicated himself to the arts by helping grow world-class art communities outside of New York and Los Angeles. During his time as a visiting critic, Koan has met with roughly 60 artists living in Kentucky and the surrounding area to help them grow creatively.
Tatiana Ryckman: What first led you to be involved in the art world?
Kóan Jeff Baysa: One way of staying in the art world as a non-producer was to be a collector. So that's how I entered the art world—as a collector, while I was a med student and a resident doctor and a fellow and practicing physician. Because I didn't want to be seen as a dilletante, I started curating exhibitions in Hawaii in a friend's restaurant. And that segued into curating exhibitions at the University of Hawaii Art Gallery. Then I was hired by a commission in Washington D.C. to do an exhibition about the hundredth anniversary of Philippine independence and sent to the Philippines. I thought, “Hey, this could be another, parallel career for me.” I got into the Whitney Independent Study Program based in New York and I eventually moved there and opened a clinic in Tribeca, where I served medically uninsured artists for free or at cost. All along, these interests have been in parallel. I've never given up one for the other.
TR: What interested you in the Great Meadows Critic-in-Residence program, and in coming to Kentucky?
KJB: I already had links to Kentucky. I'd worked with a local curator here on a project that was mounted in Atlanta called Red Beans and Rice. That show had to do with artists of Asian heritage who were raised or educated in the South and consider themselves southerners as well as Asian Americans. That kind of duality, or subculture within another culture, is a subject that's always intrigued me. At that time, 21c only had one space in downtown Louisville. Stephen Irwin was still alive and I was really happy to meet him. I met Ed Hamilton at that time, too, as well as people associated with Zephyr Gallery. I feel really good about coming back here to see the changes and to promote Kentucky artists.
TR: What are you doing in the visiting critic role to promote arts in Kentucky?
KJB: I think if you question any of the people that I've done studio visits with, I've always taken notes and I've always made recommendations in terms of other work to look at, other sources to read, and pointed them to exhibitions that I think would be helpful to inform their work. I've done that with every person that I've met with. I also recommended people to residency programs based on the work. People want to derive income from their work, and that goes along with the relative paucity of venues to show and sell the work. Which is the reason getting the word out outside of Kentucky, through residency programs, art fairs, et cetera, is important. That's one of the things I was recommending as part of my assessment: to get the word out.
My mission overall is to bring communities that are underserved or under the radar to a global platform. Part of my excitement in art, as in medicine, is to take a grassroots approach, to be there in the trenches and help people from the bottom up. My presence here is temporary, but long-term there has to be some proactive movement by the people here. There has been, with Ruckus and alternative spaces like Sherazade and houseguest, but we need some self-starters to galvanize people into action.
TR: Who are some of the artists that have really stood out to you during this residency?
KJB: I had a wonderful visit with Matt Weir, who is a sculptor based here in Louisville, and I think that his work is really outstanding. He is someone who could “survive” in coastal cities like Los Angeles or New York, but has chosen to stay here. I think that's admirable. In terms of people moving here from elsewhere, they're primarily attracted by the university salaries and the ease of life and the lower cost of living here. I met Tiffany Calvert 14 years ago, and I think her work is totally amazing in terms of conflating painting with technology. I was very impressed with Josh Azzarella, who is working online. That work is amazing in terms of digital culture and new technologies. I had a really nice conversation with Crystal Gregory. I like that she's working with these new materials—well, working with materials in a different way. I was really fascinated with the fact that she's combining fabric and concrete. That is an unexpected and wonderful way to approach the materials that she's working with. I also did a museum visit at Georgetown College for Megan Bickel’s show. I thought her work–and the installation and space–was outstanding as well. I was also looking at artists who are taking the name of Kentucky outside of the state. Keltie Ferris, in New York, shows work at a gallery that I worked with, and Letitia Quesenberry is also known beyond the borders of Kentucky. Vinhay Keo is doing his training and education in California. I'm a big fan of his work.
TR: What parts of Kentucky have you visited?
KJB: I’ve been focused primarily on Lexington and Louisville, because that's where the concentration of artists is. But I wanted to explore other parts. We're trying to give a good survey of what might be out here in Kentucky and not just in the metropolises.
I went to Cincinnati for a panel discussion at the Kennedy Heights Arts Center to hear a talk that included John Brooks and Kia Celeste, artists who are based here in Kentucky. En route to Nashville, I stopped in Bowling Green. I had wonderful visits with two people on the faculty of the university there. I visited the Kentucky Folk Art Center, which I visited when I was here years ago, and was sad to hear that it's having funding problems and may close. Hopefully someone will be able to help rescue it. I've been to Morehead and visited with several artists affiliated with the university, but I really wanted to get more of an idea of what’s happening in Appalachia.
TR: What do artists here struggle with?
KJB: From Christine Huskinsson of UnderMain, I received a copy of an email response by a New York-based writer and critic who was asked to cover the planned Critical Mass IV conference: “I'm not sure what your event is, but I should tell you, I don't write for any publications that would take a piece on an event in Kentucky unless there's a national hook. I wish the situation were different, but that's what publication looks like right now.” I can kind of understand the rationale. But the attitude that this area is not a priority unless it has a national hook—that needs to be overcome. Kentucky is considered a flyover state, right? Defined as a place people aren’t stopping, airlines aren’t stopping. But I was looking up statistics, and five or so years ago, Louisville was listed as one of the most cultured cities in the US.
My impression as an outsider coming from Hawaii—there are some parallels here. Most people don't know or don't realize that Hawaii is the most remote metropolis, defined as 500,000 people or more, in the world. This kind of isolation was what prompted me to do things like the Honolulu Biennial, which I helped establish. I'm trying to use those kinds of strategies to bring Hawaii to a global platform, just as I'm trying to do here in Kentucky.
Also, professional development—being able to create a portfolio, and be articulate—is a very important way of promoting one’s work. I think that's something artists struggle with, not just here and not just in Hawaii. It's everywhere. I think there’s reticence on the part of artists to approach people who can help them. And it might come from this culture of hospitality. Maybe they don’t want to ask too much.
TR: What is your impression of the resources available to artists?
KJB: The Hadley Creatives program is vital—you encounter a wide variety of artists in that group, and professional development wise, they set up meetings with accountants and lawyers. I think that's very important.
There are a handful of local collectors that are supporting artists as well. Larry Shapin and Ladonna Nicholas' collection is focused primarily on Kentucky artists. It was an amazing experience for me to see artists that I was not aware of in one space, all from the Kentucky area. And then Al Shands, of course.
TR: Have you noticed any trends in the arts in Kentucky?
KJB: I can’t speak to trends because I haven’t been here long enough, but I’d like to see more representation. It might be the demographics of immigration to Kentucky, but I haven't found many Asian artists or Asian American artists, and I haven't seen any Native American artists. I'm not sure if they're present here, but certainly this is the land of Iroquois and other Native Americans, so I feel an absence of that representation. There’s also an opioid crisis and I’m not sure I found an artist who was addressing that. Also, I haven't seen many works addressing the homeless situation here, though it's quite real. Another thing I learned is that Louisville is the fourth most segregated city in the US; that came as a surprise. I wanted more exposure to the LGBTQ community as well. There's an entity called Queer Appalachia that I'm looking to making contact with, and Appalshop is another entity that's been pointed out to me that I want to reach out to.
TR: Throughout your conversations and visits, has anything surprised you?
KJB: One of the things that surprised me is, for a small city, Louisville is outstanding because it has the opera, it has theater, it has music. It has a lot of great things going for it. I've been very impressed with the talent that is here. It's definitely world-class, and I think it could be brought to venues outside of Kentucky, to put it on an international platform.
Another thing that has struck me here—and I've been asking around because I'm not from this area—is the Southern hospitality, which is wonderful. It's courteous, it's warm, it's welcoming. But in the field of critical discourse, I wonder about the impact that it has on true constructive criticism. Is this a small enough community that people are reluctant to constructively criticize art because people are dependent on these friendly relationships and there might be a tendency for people to alienate one another through well-intended criticism? Perhaps that's the role of the outsider.
Contributor for Ruckus