A detail from a drawing in progress by Adonna Khare.

Adonna Khare won ArtPrize 2012 with her drawing Elephants. A massive charcoal drawing of animals on paper, the work extends onto the walls on which it hangs. Adonna spoke with ArtPrize Exhibitions Director Kevin Buist in January 2013. This interview is part of a series of interviews with past ArtPrize winners produced for the ArtPrize Member newsletter. Become an ArtPrize member today.

Kevin Buist: What has happened since ArtPrize?

Adonna Khare: So much has happened since ArtPrize, and it wasn't that long ago that I got back. I came home and I started drawing the next day, I hadn't got it all out of my system. I guess the news of the win kind of went viral on the Internet, and quite a few sites like My Modern Met picked up the story and Juxtapose picked it up. I went from 200 likes on my Facebook page to, I think I have 4,500 and growing.

So I got a lot of exposure from it. I was surprised, I didn't realize after the win it would continue, that the exposure would grow. I started getting e-mails from people all over the world that enjoyed it. I started getting people interested in my other work, so I've been selling my previous work that's still at the gallery. So I've been selling that work because of it. I realized that I don't really have any inventory left and I need to get back to drawing as soon as possible.

KB: So now you've been busy drawing.

AK: Yeah, I haven't stopped. I'm still working in my garage, but probably next month I'll move into an official studio. I got a place and I'm still kind of moving in there and transitioning out of my place, because I'll work in both places. When my daughter is napping or home I can work in my garage, and when she's at preschool or at an event I can actually go to the studio and really work on larger scale things. It's a beautiful space, it has a huge blank wall and I can back up more that four feet, which is something I could never do before.

KB: So what new projects are you working on? I was looking at your Facebook page and you had posted some images of a book you're hoping to do in the spring?

AK: My sister and I have always wanted to do a book together. She came out for a little bit during ArtPrize to help me for a couple days. As soon as I won we were on the phone already discussing it. I'm working on a book with her. We can't really release what it's about yet, because we're still working out the details, but I started releasing some of the images. So, I've been working on that with her in conjunction with working on some large pieces for commission and some large pieces for my show this June. I'm just drawing as much as I can, and it's exciting to be able to do that for the first time as my job.

KB: Tell me about the show in June. Where's that going to be and what are you preparing for it?

AK: The show in June is going to be at my gallery in Santa Monica, the Lora Schlesinger Gallery. I think it opens on June first. I have to prepare a show for the whole gallery, so I've started two large images for that, not as big as the ArtPrize one, but pretty large. And I'm working on a series of smaller ones for that. I'm in contact with a printer now to work on my first ever set of prints for my work.

KB: How are those going to be available?

AK: My goal is to have the book and some prints available by ArtPrize [2013]. So give myself a year to do the book and kind of figure out how to do prints. Because a lot of people have expressed interest and couldn't do an original and so I'm trying to find a way to get it to more people. I just feel like I'm trying to branch out and try something different, and go for this. I got the opportunity so I'm really trying to go for it.

KB: That's fantastic. For your show, the one in June… Most of the people reading this are going to be most familiar with Elephants that was in ArtPrize. How does the work that you're doing for the show compare to that? Does it seem like an extension of that, or is the work evolving, or what's happening now?

AK: I would say an extension, but it evolves. The pieces I'm working on now are interesting because I started them the day after I got back from ArtPrize, because I had this idea of floating. They have to do with the lack of ground, these floating elements in the same style as Elephants, but Elephants was very grounded. These are in the same style but very much ungrounded.

KB: You mean the representations of the figures in space are not on physical ground?

AK: Yeah. They're literally floating. Which was kind of this feeling I had after ArtPrize. It's almost like a dream come true, this idea of "I don't know where I'm going, I don't know what this means, but…" So there are these ungrounded figures. Whether they stay ungrounded or not I'm not sure. For now they're very much ungrounded.

KB: That seems to be something that you explore, even in Elephants and a lot of other work, is you're using this way of building an image that feels accessible and realistic, but then once you start to see what's going on you see that there's all sorts of physical properties that could never really happen. Particularly in Elephants there're all these scale shifts, where you have a chimp then there's a deer on its shoulder that's six inches tall. It seems like that idea of dispensing with gravity pushes that a little bit further.

AK: Exactly. It's kind of pushing it further. It masks what they're doing or where they are, it's a more elusive background. I don't know if it's going to stay that way. I'm having some issues with me wanting to put some things in there. I'm just going to see what happens. I have until June, and they're definitely going to change whether I like it or not. Right now they're a series of floating figures.

KB: That's interesting. As you're talking more about your drawing process, it sounds like a process of invention and discovery as you go. Whereas, I can imagine other… well two years ago Chris LaPorte had a very large pencil drawing that won that was also at GRAM and that was a very meticulously planned work. He had this reference photo and he knew more or less what it would look like. How is your process different? The way you're talking about this new work it sounds like you don't quite know what it will look like?

AK: Yeah, I have no idea what it's going to look like. I had an idea when I started it but it's already deviated from that. Thinking about it on the airplane home, by the time I translated it to paper just the next day it had already changed. I'm learning now maybe to trust that a little bit more and to accept that that's part of the process, instead of fighting to make it that original idea that I had. I'm learning now that it changes so much that I'm now excited about every time I come in here day to day to go with what I feel. If I don't like it I take it out. That's when the really exciting stuff starts to happen. I can trick myself into reinventing it every day, and that's one of the most exciting things now, starting to let go of this idea of a finished product.

KB: Let's go back to Elephants a little bit. Explain the story of that drawing. How much of that was the execution of a grand plan, and how much was improvising as you went?

AK: When Elephants started, I knew it was going to be elephants that would be the binding factor. As I started drawing Elephants, the primates started coming in. The primates really started to represent the main things that were happening in my life. A lot of the, I guess you would say tragedies, that I had a difficult time dealing with came out with these primates because I could really humanize those elements. They started to come in and I couldn't get them out. They just started to become a really important part of the composition, and to express these certain ideas. I had no indication that they would come in when I thought about it. To begin with there weren't going to be any primates.

When I first imagined the piece, it was going to be a series of elephants with maybe some smaller events going on. But the elephants were going to be the main figure, and as I started drawing, especially the center panels, all of the sudden the elephants started getting put back as a background element, and the primates started coming out in front as these other really important elements. At first I fought it and I took them in and I took them out, and I realized that it's better to just go with it, because I obviously need to do it for some reason.

KB: What about the other animals, particularly the scale-shifted elements, the small ones?

AK: Those are a lot little stories that I kind of translate into silly stories or events. It's hard to explain. I've been trying to talk about so it makes more sense. I'm using them over and over again in my drawings, a lot of symbols and things that are happening in it, it's my language to describe things.

KB: When I started looking at your other work on your web site and I would see those fantastical little animals, or combos of animals, as stand-alone drawings their inclusion in the large drawing started to make a lot more sense as characters.

AK: They're evolving as a story, almost. I drew [the small drawings], then I keep them in my mind, then as I'm drawing the large ones they come back. I remember what I drew the first time, then it translates into this bigger story. They're now these symbols that I'm reusing in different ways to tell new stories. In a strange way, they make a lot of sense to me, these combinations, and I reuse them and evolve them for the next one.

KB: The sense that there's a narrative happening that's not entirely clear is incredibly intriguing. I think that that's what gets people—that's what prompts them to view longer and view again. In my second and third viewings of the drawing I kept noticing hints of a larger narrative, what these characters were or could represent, but also that the drawing is a lot darker than I originally thought. At first glance I didn't quite pick that up, but then once I started to see these interactions, particularly all the piercings. The way that piercings are connected with threads and things, creating a strange latticework where if the animals attempted to move they would hurt themselves. The more I looked at it; I thought to myself, ‘whoa, this is a little freaky.’

AK: Yeah, oh yeah. That's part of the reason I was so nervous about bringing it out: it's not a Disney show, it doesn't have that feel. A lot of the things I'm expressing are, I wouldn't say darkness, but a lot of the things happening around us are tough. Sickness and death and coming to terms with it. I sometimes think I'm not made for this world. I take things very personally, I'm very sensitive to things and I have a hard time when things happen, making sense of it. Life is painful a lot of times. Nature and our interaction with nature can be painful. There's survival and there's extinction, and there're all these things we're all tied into whether we like it or not, that are constantly going through my mind.

KB: I can see that, I think it comes out in the work.

AK: My mom sometimes even has a hard time looking at the stuff I draw. She thinks I'm disturbed, but I probably am.

KB: I think we need artists to articulate those things.

AK: I can't get away from it. It's a compulsion, whether it's nice or not. A lot of comments I got from people at ArtPrize were how dark it was, and why was I so dark. I was like, well, life is dark and life is light and everything in between, but if I drew happy Disney characters I wouldn't be fulfilling what I need to do, which is try to get this across.

KB: Tell me about drawing on the wall; was that part of the plan?

AK: [laughs] That was not originally part of any plan. It was something that kind of happened, like most of the stuff I do, it was an impulse. I started thinking, especially on the airline over there. A couple weeks earlier I was in my studio working on the last panel and I always draw off the paper a little bit onto the wall. It helps me complete the form more accurately, so I can kind of connect the lines below. So I do that all the time, and I started thinking, I wish my studio was just a little bit taller or a little bit wider so I could complete this form. Then I started thinking, well, my original plan was to set them up with more space in between, so there would be three separate panels, but maybe 2 or 3 feet in between. I thought it would be kind of neat if I did what I do in my studio where I complete some of those forms into the wall so you could imagine them going out into space. Then I thought maybe they wouldn't let me, I'll just let it slide. I sent an e-mail a week before I went just to feel them out and see if maybe they would let me draw some of the forms slightly off the paper. They said, ‘we can discuss it when you get here.’ I was surprised. I immediately thought, ‘That’s not a ‘no,’ so that's good.’
Then I got there and I hung it up. We had to move them closer together than I anticipated, because of where it was hung in the hallway. Had we hung it as originally intended, with more space between panels, the whole left panel would have been lost. So we ended up putting them very close together, almost connecting them. I was expecting more space so I said, ‘it's such a small area, can I connect those little areas? Because it would look strange with those gaps,’ and she said ok.


So I came back and said ‘if I take responsibility for cleaning up the wall can I start to continue some of the drawing onto the wall space?’ I think maybe they thought I was joking at first. They quickly realized I wasn't and they said ok. So I started working on that big tree on the center elephant to create a more balanced composition. Then I just didn't stop. I showed up every day and they let me in and I drew all day. And then I came back the next day and the day after that, until I just became a fixture there during the event and nobody really questioned it too much.

KB: That's great.

AK: Drawing calms me down. I figured, I got into seeing how it could change and I just kept going. I was going to stop when ArtPrize began, then they said I could draw before and after [GRAM] was open, so I started doing that. Then I would just sneak in and draw a little bit during the open hours, not on the ladder or anything, just on the floor.

KB: It was an iconic scene, to see the crowds there and you there drawing and talking about it. People really liked it.

AK: It was definitely a fear of mine to draw in front of so many people. I was in this strange mindset, that if I'm going to do it, I'm just going to throw it all out there. If they like it, they like it. If not, it's ok. I needed something to change in my life, I wasn't happy where I was and I was desperate to show people what I can do and to try something I've never done before. So I really wanted to do that all the way and say that I did it, and come back feeling like I did everything that I could.

KB: That's great. It worked.

AK: It did. I can't believe it. I barely remember how it happened. It's sort of a fuzzy area in my brain. … I look back at ArtPrize and it was a dream come true. I'm going to work so hard to keep this momentum going so that I'm able to draw and see what I'm able to do. I've never been able to do this full time. It's always been something I've wanted to do, but I had to wait. Now, at least for a couple years or however long I can make it last, I'm going to try to do it, to see what I can do on my own.

By Kevin Buist on