Makiko Harris was born in Breda, The Netherlands - and after stints in Tokyo, Boston, New York and Sonoma, CA - now lives and works in San Francisco. She studied Philosophy and Studio Art at Tufts University (B.A. 2011), focusing on Aesthetics, Philosophy of Art, and Feminist Philosophy. After graduation, she continued her studio art education at the California College of Arts in San Francisco and studied with Patrick Dintino and Mel Prest. Makiko has worked in the fashion, music, and design industries - and in addition to making art, she runs her own digital product design consulting business, Silent Howl Studios. Currently Makiko is a Studio Artist at Root Division - a fellowship for emerging artists that provides subsidized studio space in downtown San Francisco and professional development support.
Kacy (K): Hi Makiko! Thank you so much for being here! Can you tell me your name again and a little bit about your art practice?
Makiko (M): My name is Makiko Harris. I'm an abstract painter, and I also do assemblage work.
K: May I ask what your background was before you became an artist?
M: I’ve had two different careers before art. One was a brief career in costume design. In college, I majored in philosophy and minored in studio art. I studied costume design as a part of my art minor, and did a lot of work with the theater department. I designed costumes and did alterations for costumes. After graduation, I moved to New York and worked as a costume design assistant on movie sets and TV shows. It was really fun, but a totally unsustainable lifestyle.
K: What do you mean by unsustainable, like working too long hours?
M: Yeah. You don't know when you need to be on set until the night before. So if you're on a project, you pretty much can't have a life.
K: May I ask usually how long is one project?
M: I did this for less than a year so I don’t have a ton of experience, but I did work on four different projects.The length depended on the project. For example, I worked on Law and Order SVU and that's an ongoing project because they are still continuing to make episodes. I also worked on a reshoot for the Spider Man movie with Andrew Garfield. Because it was just a reshoot - I guess they had a couple scenes they needed to rework - that project only lasted a few weeks.
K: This is so interesting! Do you also have to have an agent? Or is it more like a freelancer type of job? Or do you work for a company?
M: It's freelance based. And then at a certain point, costume designers are invited to join a union. But I think pretty much everyone is a freelancer up until that point. We were always on call and we would be shooting through the weekends, too. It was a little crazy, but it was a really fun experience.
K: May I ask why you wanted to change your career path from costume design assistant on movie sets and TV shows?
M: That’s a great question. It was fun but the schedule was a little unsustainable. I decided that I didn't want to pursue that career long term because I don't love film enough as a medium to be able to put all my energy towards that crazy lifestyle.
So, I decided to move back to the Bay Area and I wanted to do something in apparel, fashion, or something clothing related. I ended up applying to and getting accepted into Gap’s rotational management program, which is at their headquarters here in San Francisco. It’s a program where you rotate through the different functions of their business, with three months each in inventory management, production, and merchandising. It was really awesome and I learned all about retail and e-commerce business. It was a nine-month program, and when I completed it I became a fashion merchandiser. That was my first real career.
K: Can you tell me more about working as a fashion merchandiser at Gap?
M: Fashion merchandisers analyze trends, look at business sales, and are the voice of the target customer. With that information, we co-created collections with our in-house designers and decided what the next season's line should be.
K: I see. It's not like you purchase something from somebody else but you pick out the design.
M: Yeah, exactly. I would work really closely with the designers and say something like, “To meet my business goals this season, I'm going to need three long sleeve tops and two dresses.” And then the designer would come back with a bunch of options, and together we’d decide which ones to run. It was actually pretty fun. I did that for a couple years, and specifically worked in merchandising for plus sizes. I’ve always been really passionate about access. I wanted anyone coming into a store or looking online to find something that would make them feel beautiful and like their best selves. So, I was passionate about making sure that different sizes were represented. I was the online merchandiser for Old Navy online plus for a while, and then after that I worked as a merchandiser for a small, local independent plus sized label.
After a few years of merchandising, I decided to change careers again. And this is what I do now, which is UX design.
K: Wow! But that's a big jump, from costume design to UX design.
M: Yeah. I went back to school to study design because I had never even opened Photoshop or done any sort of digital design at all. I've worked in a visual/creative type role for my whole career, but my experiences were very, very different from interaction design. So I went to a three month boot camp in San Francisco, and have been working in UX design ever since.
K: May I ask why you wanted to leave merchandising and switch to the UX design field?
M: Merchandising was fun for parts of the year, especially when we were kicking off the season and putting the collection together. That was my favorite part - we were in rooms surrounded by color, fabric swatches, samples, mannequins. But that was maybe two weeks out of the whole year. The rest of the year was a lot of being in spreadsheets, running business meetings, analytics, and those kinds of things. To be honest I wanted to spend less of my life looking at spreadsheets and numbers in Excel. I didn’t want to be the person looking at the results of what happened with a creation - I wanted to be the creator. I felt like with UX design, I could be the producer of creations, I could be the designer. I considered fashion design, but the salary ranges in the Bay Area were way lower than for UX design. I think I also knew that I would be frustrated that I wouldn't be able to design what I want to as a fashion designer, having seen the inside of those retail companies. They’re very merchant driven because they're trying to hit a bottom line, so those designers don't necessarily get to be super creative.
Anyway, I decided to be a UX designer, and it's been great. I've been in this field for seven years now. I’ve worked in-house with a couple of companies, with Sephora, Gap, and QuickBooks. In my last in-house design role with QuickBooks, I was working on their self-employment software and was running lots of interviews with folks who were self-employed and used the product. It inspired me to consider becoming self-employed myself.
K: So when did you start thinking about doing art? Like fine art?
M: I started working more seriously in my art practice about five years ago. I graduated college about 10 years ago in 2011. For the last eight years since then, I've been taking painting classes at CCA (California College of the Arts in San Francisco) in the extension program, which has been great and has had a huge impact on my art practice. In 2015 or 2016, I started painting more seriously, and I got my first studio at Yosemite Place. Then, in 2018 I joined Root Division as a studio artist. Also in 2018, I decided to leave my full time job to devote more time to my art practice. I built my own freelance consulting company to do UX work to pay the bills. I still do UX design work outside of being an artist to support myself, but freelance work is so much more flexible than an in-house design role.
I don't believe in God - but we are going to be deep here for a minute. I do feel like all of us have something that we can offer the world and I feel like our purpose is related to why we're here and why we're alive. And for me, I feel like my purpose is to be an artist.
K: It's really inspiring to see how you navigate your different careers. And from there gradually building up your own path and lifestyle through continuously searching, thinking, and learning. Can I ask why art matters to you so much, to the point, that you want to make time, and more time for it, even though you don't hate your job?
M: I definitely don't hate my job - I don't hate being a freelance UX designer at all. I actually like it. But I don't feel like being a UX designer is my purpose or my soul work. In a way, that’s why it works for me. I don’t really care if I get to be super creative in my UX design work, because it’s not tied to my purpose, so I can be kind of detached and see it as a means to an end that works well for my life. I love that my UX work supports my larger purpose. I don't believe in God - but we are going to be deep here for a minute. I do feel like all of us have something that we can offer the world and I feel like our purpose is related to why we're here and why we're alive. And for me, I feel like my purpose is to be an artist.
Of course I believe that I can help improve other people's lives by being a UX designer, and I enjoy solving design puzzles for my clients. I appreciate all of that, and it makes the job palatable. But for me, I've always seen UX work as simply a job.
I guess I forgot to mention another reason why I switched into design away from merchandising, was because I could see this possibility in the future. I could see that this design skill could be the type of thing I could do on a freelance basis and have it be flexible around whatever else I wanted to do in my life, which has been true. I've always seen being a designer as in service of being an artist. I feel like being an artist is the best way I can contribute to the world, but as you know, it can be really hard to be a full time artist. I think that we all have to figure out a way to make it work for ourselves. I think it takes a long time to set up that system so that your life can be sustainable, and for now the combination of UX work supporting my art practice works well for me.
K: I want to ask more about your art making process here! Do you ever struggle with making art itself? Also, do you consider if your art is more concept driven or you're making decisions more from an aesthetic choice?
M: Yeah, sometimes. Sometimes I feel like I don't know what to make next. Or I feel uninspired. Or sometimes I worry too much about whether people like or don't like my work. Sometimes I question everything that I'm doing or worry that my work is never gonna mean anything or worry that my work holds no value, in all senses of that term.
I think right now, I'm trying for it to be both. But I definitely struggle with this. When I start a painting, the origination of my art is definitely more about process and aesthetics. I started as an abstract painter, kind of straightforward or more formal in that sense. But more recently, when I'm thinking long term about what types of contexts I want my art to be seen in, or what kinds of conversations I want it to be a part of, I think having that conceptual background or backbone to the work is important, because I want it to be part of those conversations. So I'm trying to move more in that direction, while still making work that feels like me.
K: What's the conversation you want to be part of?
M: I think a recurring theme for me is the performance of femininity both in things that show up on our body and the things that are hidden in our body from plain sight. This theme arose from my background growing up as a girl in high-pressure environments and reflecting on those life experiences. I think that that comes up in my work a lot. I don't know if it was my family, it was me, it was society, or whatever - but I always put a lot of pressure on myself growing up. I used to be a perfectionist. I think I'm not as much anymore (you should see my studio, it’s a hot mess and I like it that way). I have played the violin since I was four. There was a lot of performance pressure related to that, like, playing for competitions and needing to win things. That pressure translated into body image issues and when I was a teen, I had an eating disorder. So I think now, reflecting back on the experiences of growing up with a female body, a lot of the work I make is related to that. For example, my 2019 work from the Truth or Consequences series is thinking about things like stretch marks and scars that we might have on our skin and how our life experiences show up on our skin. These things can also be hidden - sometimes you look at a person, but you can’t see where they came from or the life they’ve lived. So, I think I think that's one conversation.
Another one which I've been exploring more this year is consumerism, socio-economic class, and privilege. Especially given the backdrop of 2020, I’m really trying to think deeply about where I stand on these issues. Where does my immediate community stand? How should we be talking about it? And so, I think most of the work I made this year was about these topics, whether it be directly using consumer waste from people's homes and then trying to reflect on what it means to be the type of person who can afford this stuff that gets thrown away? And what kind of home are they living in? What kind of class status do they have? Or like the plexiglass pieces I've been using are thinking about different perspectives or privileges and how my identity or your identity is going to change how we see things. Even if we're all experiencing the same pandemic, depending on where you come from or who you are, you're going to experience it in a different way. That's what the plexiglass pieces are all about-- different lenses into the same experience.
K: I see. That's super interesting. I actually want to ask more about your cultural background. I guess why I brought it up is because I see a lot of my classmates, or artists who identify themselves as Asian American artists, they all seem to be pretty focused on the in-betweenness between Eastern and Western culture or the longing for home, I guess. But because I was born and raised in Taiwan till I finish my college, I still don’t really identify myself as an American or Asian-American but Taiwanese. So even my self-portrait pieces were read as an ethnic statement, but deep in my mind, I don’t read it that way. So I guess I'm just curious if cultural identity is something that interests you?
M: I think what you're saying makes sense, and not all of us are going to make personal identity-based work. I think a lot about female identity and my personal relationship to my body. I feel there are so many different angles. In some ways, I feel like it's very popular right now to be making work about cultural identity, but I think it's okay if that's not necessarily a thing that pulls you.
I've been really curious about this myself. I haven’t made a lot of work that's directly about my cultural identity, but instead about more generalized identity. Like with the plexiglass pieces, our identity around class or family of origin or whatever is going to influence how we see the world. But that's a lot more generalized than my personal cultural identity. My dad is from Ohio - he's Caucasian/white, and my mom is from Japan. We call half Japanese, half white people hapa. I think I'm still grappling with what being “mixed” means for me, so it's hard for me to make work about it. I think recently I’ve been noticing a tension in my abstraction between control/reserve and abandon/expressiveness, and increasingly I feel like that relates to the tension I feel between my white and Japanese identities. But, I’m still figuring it out.
K: May I ask why you didn't choose art or think about pursuing art as a career in the first place? Take myself for example, art is so important to me to the point that I do feel it’s the main purpose for my life. But even so, I’ve never thought about pursuing an art career until I moved from Taiwan to the United States for my PhD in biomedical science. And when I trace back my personal history. I found it’s a result of the influence from my family, my social circle, the social value and the education system that I grew up with. There is a big difference between, I consider being an artist as a career but I know it’s a difficult one so I have never thought about it as a career. And I am very curious about other people’s experiences.
M: I think it was similar for me in a lot of ways. Being an artist wasn't even on my radar as a legitimate career to pursue, even though I’d taken art classes since I was seven or eight and therefore was definitely exposed to art. I just never considered it. I think also there was a lot of energy and encouragement from my family towards me having a music career. I studied violin very seriously for a very long time. I was considering attending music conservatories for college and all of that. There was never really any encouragement of art in the same way, although there wasn’t necessarily discouragement, either. I still love being a musician. I don't play very much right now, but I was in a band for a couple years and I'd love to be in one again. But at the end of the day, I think I'm more of a visual person than I am a music person.
I remember in college, I was thinking about wanting to pursue art more seriously as a career. I still remember my then-boyfriend's best friend had an aunt and uncle who lived in Boston, where we went to college. All of us would go to this aunt & uncle's house for Thanksgiving or for dinner parties or whatever. They had this beautiful house, and the husband was an artist and the wife was an art consultant. I still remember admiring their life so much and admiring their home and their lifestyle. I feel like they really enjoyed the small moments of life. They had art all over their home. The home was very inviting, sweet, and was really beautifully decorated. They would have us over and they would get oysters for us to shuck. There was enjoyment in the small and simple pleasures of good wine, good food, and good company. I remember they had these beautiful up-lights in their dining room and the room was painted bright blue with art all over the walls. It wasn't lavish, it didn't look like a huge super crazy expensive house or something. It was just really lovely.
I remember telling my then-boyfriend, “I kind of want to be an artist, but I don't know if that's valid or I don't know if that's good enough or is it intellectual enough?” Because I studied philosophy, I thought maybe I should get a philosophy PhD and do a lot of writing and research. I think I had something in my mind that said that that would be a valid, valuable, honorable career.
He and I broke up many years ago, but I still remember him using that uncle who was an artist as an example and saying to me: “Do you think that he doesn’t have an intellectually rich life? Do you think he doesn't have a valid, honorable career? You should definitely be an artist!” I still remember that he really encouraged me, and it was a very important early encouragement. I realized that the stuff I was telling myself in my head about the career of being an artist was just not true. They're just stories we tell ourselves.
K: I think my last question, we also covered it here and there. But I still want to ask again, how do you see current capitalism affect your practice?
M: I mean, capitalism is a part of making a living in the Bay Area. My husband and I both work or have worked in tech, and we've clearly benefited from the capitalist structures of both our society and the tech industry, specifically. And to be honest, sometimes I don't know what to do with that information. It’s a little bit emotionally complicated. I think that in some ways, that is good, because that tension is good material for me to explore in my art practice.
K: I think I know what you mean. I don't remember who the artist is that said something like “If it's not because this world is so rude, we don't have the work to work about.” And I think that's pretty much it. Thank you so much!
Website | Makiko Harris
Instagram | @makikoharris.art
The interview with Makiko is part of an ongoing photo-sculputure project "21 Grams, the Weight of Souls - Grocery Bag". Her headshot is converted into a soft sculpture to capture the external and internal struggle of who are battling between having a remunerative career and pursuing their dreams.
21 Grams, the Weight of Souls - Grocery Bag #11 Printable fabric and resin 19'' (H) x 14'' (W) x 8'' (D) 2021