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Q&A with Samantha Modder

Samantha Modder (MFA-VA22) brings an interdisciplinary background to her artistic practice and has already begun to build connections in St. Louis. We caught up with the Sam Fox Ambassador Graduate Fellow about some of her recent work, how she’s been connecting with St. Louis in the time of COVID-19, and her work on initiatives within the School.

What brought you back to school for your MFA?
I’m Nigerian-Sri Lankan. I did my undergraduate at Dartmouth—I originally went for engineering, but I also did studio art, getting a double major and doing my thesis in art. When I graduated, I went to work at a nonprofit in Beverly, Massachusetts. The organization was working on healthcare outside the United States, in Haiti and South America. I was working as a research engineer, but they didn’t have any communications people, so I also took on being the graphic designer and general creative person on the team. I also kept up my practice outside of work, reaching out to galleries and growing my practice. Eventually, my job became more about the art side than engineering, and I felt like that was a sign I should pursue arts completely. I applied to a lot of schools, and WashU seemed really excited to have me!

Since you’ve arrived, how have you been connecting with St. Louis?
I try to make connections wherever I am to feel supported. I’m not from here—I’m not from St. Louis, and I’m not American. It’s a fresh slate for me. I didn’t know much about St. Louis before—I knew there was an art scene you could get familiar with quickly, a large black population, and a large art activism population. I wanted to connect with the larger St. Louis community from the get-go, but it’s been slower because of COVID-19.

Through conversations with the Office for Socially Engaged Practice and Roseann Weiss (Lead Educator for the Arts as Civic Engagement Program at the Gephardt Institute and director of ART +), I’ve gotten connected to some local artists, including Adelia Parker-Castro and Con Christeson from the community collabARTive. I’ve also been exploring the art scene with a friend who works at the Saint Louis Art Museum, seeing shows at places like Angad Arts Hotel. I’m on the Olive Beautification Committee, which is looking to install murals along Olive Boulevard in University City. Over the summer, that will ramp up. I’ve offered up my graphic design skills to help with their media campaign. There’s so much cool stuff happening across St. Louis, and I’m trying to squeeze myself in.

What’s your approach to getting connected in St. Louis? What advice would you give to other students trying to plug in?
My approach is to try a lot of different things and something will stick. I email people randomly, and some of them respond. Most people really like talking to others and sharing their knowledge. I’m not really asking for anything specific or feeling entitled to anything. I go in with a conversation. There’s always something that comes out of it! You learn something interesting or hear someone say something cool. It’s a low-risk way of reaching out to people and helping make you feel more connected instead of feeling like you’re in a big, lonely city. It really helps that I don’t have a specific interest—I am broadly interested in a lot of things.

You recently designed a card deck for Flick Solitaire. How did this collaboration happen?
Instagram is such a strange place—you just get random messages! Flick is a gaming company based in the U.K. They’re all about creating these card packs that are inclusive and diverse, and they have a lot of different card packs on their game. They wanted to do a set for Black History Month, and it was a really short turnaround. I wanted to do something that celebrated Black hair, which is a really important theme in my practice, addressing self-empowerment and self-reflection. It has a lot of deeper significance in my work. I decided to do a series of masc and femme hairstyles, where the Aces were different types of combs—cornrow comb, edge comb, wide-tooth comb, an afro comb. I liked the shapes, and I thought it would be fun.

Why is Black hair such an important part of your practice?
Growing up in Asia, it was accepted that straight hair was neat, beautiful, and professional. I straightened my hair throughout school. I really struggled with my hair. The products would make my hair coarse and break, and I had chemical burns from using relaxer. When I came to the U.S., it was the first time I saw other people with hair like mine. Before, it was just me, my mom, and my brother. In school in the U.S., it was a whole process of learning to care for my hair with other people—we were learning about hair together, trying different products, which is good. We learned through YouTube videos and trial and error. Hair became a metaphor for caring for yourself and getting to know yourself.

In my practice, I’m describing the shared recognition for Black women that comes through hair. Even if you have different textures, even if you’re from a different culture, there’s still a shared connection through hair. Also, I love drawing it! There are shapes that defy gravity and do their own thing. Hair can be frustrating, difficult, and uncontrollable—and it becomes a metaphor for talking about what it feels like to be a black woman navigating racist and racialized settings. My pieces speak to that frustration directly.

What was the creative process for developing the card deck?
As soon as I got the message, I started thinking about what I could do. I downloaded the game and started playing it, noticing what worked well and what didn’t. I saw that some had different base colors. When the base color is different, it’s a lot easier to play. My set is purple and yellow, so all the suits are one color.

I also looked at the sizing, to see which graphics were too complicated, and which were really clean. I knew I had to have something really simple, and something with bright colors. I love purple and yellow—purple feels royal, and yellow is its complement.

With the tight turnaround, I needed something that would be easy to replicate. With faces from the side, I could have the same face and change their hair. I spent 3 days intensely working on it. I focused on creating one character first and started with the Bantu knots because they were more complicated. Then I duplicated her and started making more hair. For the masc character, I shaped the face edges.

It was really fun, and it was a way to make art accessible to a broader range of people. That’s an edge that design has over the fine arts. You can interact with these cards, and they can be part of your everyday life in a way fine art in a museum can’t. Sometimes in art practice, it can be overwhelming—no idea is too big or too small. But when it comes to doing stuff in a limited timeframe, I can be very practical about how it all should work.

You’re also serving as a member of the Sam Fox School Fairness & Diversity Committee. What’s that been like?
It’s been really good to see what’s happening in the Sam Fox School, and it’s cool that the School is doing things beyond what the larger University is doing. It’s exciting to be part of it. In so many conversations, to be the only Black person in these spaces is definitely difficult. I feel like I have to speak for a whole community, and I don’t like that. Bringing students into conversation, like being on this committee, allows room for advocating for these kinds of things. I’ve also been reaching out to prospective incoming students, giving them a chance to talk to someone who’s actually in the program. When I was applying, not being able to talk to other students like me weighed heavily for me. It’s always nice to have someone to talk to.

How did your mural project as part of Project HEAL come about? Talk about your process for creating that commission.
I went to Dartmouth for undergrad and had a couple of friends share the open call with me. I had actually started my application for it when one of the student leaders from the Geisel Gold Humanism in Medicine Honor Society reached out to me, saying she had seen some of my work on Instagram and that I should apply for the call. The goal of the mural was to “highlight Black leadership, creativity, and resilience at the heart of struggles for health equity. It demonstrates institutional solidarity to Black patients, students, and other community members. And importantly, it visually grounds ongoing anti-racist efforts in history and the BLM movement.”

I was really excited to get the project because I haven’t done a public mural before and it was awesome to plan my work for that scale and audience. Also, I know what it’s like to be a student of color at a predominantly white institution and try to push for the changes you want to see in your community, so it was an opportunity for me to help these medical students do that. I really want to show my appreciation to Washington University’s Office for International Students and Scholars—they pulled together CPT work authorization, almost at the last minute, so I could take on the project and get paid for it.

Working on the mural itself, I decided with the students that it would be a digital print, and that I would print here in St. Louis and ship to them in Hanover to frame. A lot of my visual references were scenes from various “White Coats for Black Lives” and Black Lives Matter protests across the country. I started drawing and composing different protestors, particularly those from the more silent, kneeling moments of different medical professional outside their institutions. I wanted the image to be solemn and reflective, but also hopeful and a call to action. I chose to keep most of the characters’ eyes closed and heads down, inviting people to look and observe, but then to have the closest protestor looking directly at us, almost confronting or implicating us in her gaze. It was such a delight to see the image come to life, off my computer and into this large, massive print, and finally up on the wall at 108" by 72".