Set on a Life in the Arts
Recent graduate Renee Yu Jin 18 SC reflects on the “lovable” problems of sculpture and the insight she has gained about privilege and art-making.
Senior Renee Yu Jin 18 SC in front of The Sea of Flowers, a photo installation on view in the recent Sculpture Senior Show at Woods-Gerry Gallery.
On the cusp of graduation, Renee Yu Jin 18 SC reflects on her path to RISD, the “lovable” problems that keep her intrigued by sculpture and the insight she has gained about privilege and art-making.
Where are you from in China?
I’m originally from Jinan, the capital of Shandong Province. But now my family lives in Beijing.
How did you hear about RISD?
When I was in high school, I got really into fashion design and started researching fashion programs. That’s how I first learned about RISD—by finding the Apparel Design department online. I have an uncle who lives in Boston so we visited him and RISD on the same trip. Unfortunately, when we got to campus it was July and there weren't any students around! Eventually I enrolled in Pre-College and that experience made me want to study here.
What were your early impressions of RISD?
At the beginning of Foundation year I felt overwhelmed by information—not just building new skills, but information about art in general. I was really happy to be around people who wanted to talk about art all the time. The school I went to in China was more focused on mathematics and science and the people around me didn’t really share my passion. I definitely think there’s less of a conversation around the arts in China compared to here. There are so many contemporary Chinese artists I’d never heard of until I came to RISD.
What did you think you’d major in? How did you choose your major?
I applied as a Painting major. I also did Summer Studies between high school and starting RISD and my teacher tried to convince me to go into Textiles, so I was curious about that, too. But after going to presentations in those department I wasn’t totally sure. I asked my friend Will Samosir 18 SC if I could go with him to the meeting in Sculpture. That sounded mysterious to me.
At the presentation, I just fell in love with the department. I liked that it was a very small group and everyone was so friendly. I remember thinking [Professor of Sculpture] Dean Snyder’s expressions looked a lot like my dad’s.... Thinking back now on my “young passion for fashion,” I see how I ended up there: I wanted to make things in space—in three dimensions.
What do you like most about Sculpture as a major?
As a discipline, sculpture has so many problems! You have to make a sculpture stand, you have to make it as rich as painting or other art media, you have to consider it from every point of view. It’s painful, but it's also exciting. I really love solving those problems.
What was your favorite non-major class?
[Professor] Sheri Will's Intro to Cinema Production in Film/Animation/Video. I went to Rome for the European Honors Program (EHP) during the second semester of my junior year. There aren’t many tools for sculpture over there so I was thinking about how to shift my work. I started using my phone and a Bolex camera to make videos and built a film set in my studio. My friends in EHP were my actors and actresses. When I got back, I felt like I needed to develop my filmmaking skills more so I took Sheri’s class. Now I want to keep making videos. EHP got me to start thinking about life after graduation and how I’ll make art when I have limited access to facilities.
What has been your biggest challenge in the past few years?
I think it was the cultural difference...not like the difference in cultures between America and China, but more the difference between me when I was younger and the atmosphere of art school. I can get self-conscious in a new environment and when I first got here it was hard to merge into this world. Everyone probably struggles with this feeling, but some are really good at pretending it doesn’t bother them. I think it helps to remember to just be yourself.
How has your approach to work changed?
During the first semester of my junior year I started doing small, quick sculptures to explore new ideas. I call them “sculpture sketches.” Sculpture can be really time- and labor-intensive and you often lose small details during the process of thinking and making. I think these details are sometimes more interesting than the end result. Maybe a lack of confidence causes us to throw early experiments away? I don’t know... I still end up throwing most of them away, but I did show a few this year along with my other work.
Can you talk a bit about the work you had in the senior show?
That work is about individuality and collective identity. Each photo in the wallpaper was taken by my dad. He got a new camera, so I asked him to take pictures of people posing for pictures around Tiananmen Square.
Tiananmen is such a stage and everyone has different feelings about it. If you’re older maybe you’re sadder—you remember certain things that happened in the past. Maybe if a visitor is younger, they’re very happy to visit because they associate the place with songs and writings they’ve learned at school. On a stage so large, everyone feels important but everyone also sort of becomes the same. I chose a specific kind of flower sticker to put over the faces. In China, elementary school teachers give them to students who perform well in class.
For the bronze sculpture [Renee], each part of the flower is cast from my body. The stem was made by the squeeze of my hands and the petals are two cast butt [cheeks]. I wanted to explore my individuality, but I also really wanted to make something that would be a “sculpture” in the historical sense. Large and metal.
Which faculty member has had the biggest impact on you?
[Sculpture tech] Doug Borkman. He’s a really good teacher. He would always let me follow my instincts first, let me do things incorrectly, and then he’d come over and say, “Hmmm, why didn’t you do it like this?” His solutions showed me how to cut two steps out of the process just by thinking it through.
What’s next for you?
I’m going to Wisconsin for two weeks for the ACRE residency and traveling with my parents to the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone. Then I’m going back to Beijing. I don’t exactly know what I’ll do there, but I’m starting to make plans. I might apply to study at the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA). Or I might keep doing smaller jobs for now. Part of me thinks I should wait a couple years before I apply to grad school.
What do you appreciate most about what you’ve learned at RISD?
The opportunities for interdisciplinary study are very good. I’ve heard some people outside of RISD say that it’s a very traditional and skills-based education... That’s true to some extent, but I also think it’s important and it’s only one aspect of how you learn here. As an artist, you can have a concept and have other people execute it, but I do think you need to understand the materials and be able to do it yourself first.
What will you miss?
Where do you think you’ll be in five years?
I’ll still be an artist. But I think making art has made me realize how important it is to live life too. It’s such a privilege to be able to look at people and consider what’s beneath the surface... what’s happening to them, their experiences of happiness and sadness. So whether or not I pursue an arts-related career, I’ll continue to make art because it allows me to think about these things.
—interview by Lauren Maas / photos by Renee Yu Jin 18 SC and Adrienne Hu 18 IL
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