Milliner, Chapeau Echo; Owner, Fou Gallery
Conducted by Coco Zhou on November 9th, 2019 at Brooklyn, New York
In this interview, which took place in Fou Gallery’s kitchen, He discusses her cultural and educational background in relation to her passion for art, as well as the thinking behind the decision to start her own gallery. She speaks extensively about her own hat-making practice, including her process and techniques, and her perspective on their display in an exhibition context. Other topics addressed include differences between the categories of art, craft, and design; labor and compensation in art institutions; and the psychology of collecting.
Echo He (EH): Thank you for taking the time to visit.
CZ: Yes, of course. I figured we'd start with some background questions. Maybe we could start with education or training?
EH: I went to business school in Peking University for undergraduate in Business Administration. Then I entered graduate school there [to] continue business. At that point I got a scholarship in Amsterdam, so I went to University of Amsterdam. But instead of taking regular business classes, I just decided to take the year—to take a half a year—to explore my real interest, which is art. I painted on the street and I traveled to ten different countries just to visit museums, galleries and take classes in cultural studies. When I came back to Beijing. I just found that I couldn't continue with the journey in business. I found an internship at Pace Gallery Beijing and I started my career in art there. And after one year I came to New York to study at NYU [New York University] Visual Arts Administration. In that time, I started to curate events and lectures about Asian art in New York, and after one year I started Fou Gallery. At the same time, I work at Pace Gallery, New York.
CZ: When you say that you started at Pace Gallery, was that your first job in like a gallery slash museum?
EH: Yeah, my first job.
CZ: What was the nature of that job? Can I ask?
EH: It's gallery assistant. I would sit in the front desk and receive people and work at the same time. Because the Beijing team is very small, so we do everything. I think I did artist bios for all the Chinese art, and also proofread catalogs and press releases. I also acted as PR assistant to help with the exhibitions, exposure, and traveled to artists' studios to help with special events. It was really like all the projects. And you get to have hands-on experiences, figure out a way out.
CZ: That's really cool. I want to ask more about your experience at NYU. That was the Master’s in Visual Arts Administration, right?
CZ: What made you decide to go into that program, versus maybe a history program, like an art history program, for example?
EH: At that time, I applied for both art history and arts administration. In US most of the art history programs require a background in art history in undergraduate, which I don't have.
EH: I got an offer from Toronto University in art history. But I still want to come to New York. I ended up choosing arts administration in NYU. But I took some classes in art history and art theory at IFA [Institute of Fine Arts].
CZ: Oh cool! Did you think that these classes were informative for you?
EH: It's very good. I took classes with Jonathan Hay. He's an expert in Chinese painting.
CZ: Big name.
EH: Yeah. His class was basically mostly PhD students. I actually took his class and had to have an interview with him. He accepted me and approved my final thesis. Actually, he gave me an A, I think. [laughs.] So that's really a very beneficial experience. I love Chinese painting. And at that time, I wrote a lot about Ming and Qing dynasty painters. So that definitely affected my aesthetic decisions later when curating shows and working with contemporary artists.
CZ: That's really cool. You said that you were painting in Amsterdam also. Was painting your first–were you always a painter? Did you paint in your childhood? What drew you to painting as a medium versus other types of art or craft?
EH: Oh, yeah. I started painting while I was six years old. I used brush—the Chinese traditional brush painting and mineral paint—that way. I got that training like for seven years. I got very busy in middle school and high school, so I kind of stopped this journey until in college, I picked it up again. It’s part of my blood to use this medium. So that's why later I got interested in art history in Chinese painting as well.
CZ: That's really cool. […] You said that you were interested in traditional Chinese painting, and that you're also a painter yourself. Were you also painting in the Chinese style, or were you–
EH: Yeah. When I grew up, the training was limited to very traditional Chinese landscape or floral studies. The students just copy the style and paint, so there is not much room for innovation. But the half a year I spent in Europe exposed me to the way of just going to a street to paint. I kind of improvised. I want to show you my painting at that time.
CZ: Do you still have those paintings?
EH: No. I have maybe one or two.
CZ: Wow, oh, that's a fan?
EH: Yeah, I paint on fans. From the beginning, I have this idea of—I'm always interested in things that you can use in daily life. Because I need to travel, I can only carry a painting board with me. A fan for me it's like something you can use in daily life. You can also carry and travel with it very easily. I found this form very interesting.
CZ: And did you use these as fans?
EH: Yeah! So, you know, like in the old time, this is some a more traditional style. In the old time, the male painters, they would paint on the folded fans. And I'm always thinking of female painters. They used these court fans in summertime. I chose this medium to paint. When I graduated from Peking University, I did this series of six paintings about life in Peking University. They actually printed them out as postcards.
CZ: Oh, wow. These look so nice!
EH: Thank you for liking them. [laughs.] Later on when I began to make hats, I still use Chinese painting. I treat them as watercolor. I use my hands to kind of put the—I use brushes, and also use my hand, just to kind of color the head base. Like this one. [shows a hat.] I use my hand to directly put the color–
CZ: Oh, wow, so you're using you're using your fingers as the brush.
EH: Yeah, yeah. I sometimes use brush, but I also use–
CZ: To make the staining effect.
CZ: I wonder about your interest in traditional painting and how that transformed into or became an interest in contemporary art, and how that transformation happened.
EH: When I got the internship at Pace Beijing—that was my first time to visit 798, which is the art district in Beijing.
CZ: Yeah, it's very nice.
EH: It totally opened my eye. In China, we don't have a lot of art education, not to compared to here. I grew up with really like that's traditional aesthetic and background. So that totally opened my eye. I feel, "oh, so nowadays artists work in this kind of way." And I saw Zhang Huan's exhibition with ash paintings and he collected the ash from different temples which carried peoples' prayers and blessings and made them into the ash paintings and read a press release written by Leng Lin, curator and the president of Pace Gallery in Asia now. It's about environmental concern, this big topic. I felt very, very shocked and moved by how artists work nowadays. From that time, I think it's—it's fun to work with contemporary artists. A lot of people would say, you know, contemporary artists don't stand for the proof of time. Maybe after one hundred years, a lot of artists would not be remembered. All the works are gone. Only a very small fraction would stay. But the experience living and working with them, that's something so unique. I decide to follow a career in contemporary art rather than go into a track to work with antiques.
CZ: It's really interesting. I was looking at Fou Gallery's website—in the "about" section you also mentioned its communal aspect. I'm quoting from the description—"Fou is a denial of the mainstream commercial gallery model and an active contributor to a new organic art community." I wonder if you could elaborate more on this.
EH: Traditionally galleries operate like—you see, most of the galleries are white cube galleries, right. They create this commercial feeling and make you feel, yeah, you come to see the works but only selected group of collectors become patrons of the gallery and support the artists. Most people just see the art and don't feel very engaged. So that I see becoming a problem nowadays—the art market is so, um, "liangjifenhua."
EH: Polarized, yeah. The big galleries would take more take all, and small galleries would shut down. You see a lot of those galleries can't survive. I work for the top gallery—one polarizing extreme. When I started my own gallery, I started to think, "what should I do?" I don't want to [have] another career, like climbing this narrow ladder, in the art world—galleries should grow and attend art fairs and try to collaborate with and pursue the big-name museums, this kind of thing. I was too familiar with it already. I decided to take another [direction] on how a gallery can be or how it should be. Fou Gallery operates very differently from the traditional gallery model. We do have exhibitions and sale artworks to collectors and that's still a very important source of income. But at the same time, we have different events to support to the gallery and also the shop which kind of target an audience with more affordable artworks. And we try to attract traffic to the gallery by various events and an atmosphere like home, not [having to] spend a lot of money to [attend] art fairs. We operate in a very organic way to attract people to visit here to feel and to support to the artists, including the events. We may be very transparent, like the concerts: okay, half of the proceedings go to the musicians, and half of the proceedings go to the gallery to support the operations. It's exactly like what we do with exhibitions—artists get half. Everything here is kind of working in a very clear way. And I don't block the collectors from the artists. A lot of times I want to introduce the artists directly to the collectors. So even the artists, maybe their own collectors, like the collectors they know, they still prefer to go through the gallery to make the introduction. I want everyone’s efforts can be credited and rewarded.
CZ: That's really interesting. What would you say Fou Gallery's community is? Is it, for example, Brooklyn or larger New York? Where do you see your audience come from?
EH: We do have international audience, I have to say. Like this morning, we got an artist from Fujian, Jingdezhen. He makes ceramics in Jingdezhen, and he brought his friend who is a monk in New York. [laughs.] We had tea in the gallery and talked about doing meditation in the gallery in the future. In fact, we do have Buddhism readings every week. [laughs.]
CZ: Oh, that's really cool!
EH: We also had sutra writing on Chinese New Year. We do think there should be broader practice to bring creative things which can enrich people’s mind and spiritual life. We really care about the mindfulness of people.
CZ: The events are sort of culturally related too—the Buddhist talks, and then you have the Japanese flower arrangement. Is that on purpose?
EH: I think everything is connected. The Ikebana workshop today is arranged together with Michael Eade's exhibition. Because Michael's exhibition theme is about the circle of life and nature. The show includes Michael’s recent tempera paintings and ceramic sculptures. So, when Ye Zi came to the gallery, we made the decision to collaborate and Ye Zi designed an Ikebana arrangement [Japanese flower arrangement] based on Michael's ceramics at the opening. Then we came up with this idea during the exhibition—we should do some events with Ye Zi. We did an Ikebana performance with tea. Then we found a lot of people want to learn Ikebana. We started to launch Ikebana classes with Ye Zi. Ye Zi designed the class based on the exhibition. Next exhibition we have glass artist Du Meng, so we will have a musical in the theme of her exhibition.
CZ: Everything's very intentional.
EH: Yeah. We want our audience who participate in the events to feel that it's a whole experience in this visual environment and do some activities that are connected. So you have the feeling of, "this is a way of life."
CZ: That's really beautiful. I think that in big museums, galleries, usually these types of programs are the first ones to receive funding cuts and educational initiatives. It is really wonderful.
EH: Normally in the big galleries, those kind of [programs] might be free. But we also want to educate our audience, knowing that people who spend the effort should get paid. The musicians—they spend their time—so they should get paid. It's not like you pay the money to the business. It really goes to the artists. […] Artists, in order to get a show in a gallery or museum, they kind of—in exchange for the exposure—they do all the work and then do not get paid. And then to get to this name and fame and the other people get paid. People like us, the normal people, we don't know how to support the artist. We just feel like, "yeah, we enjoy this, but we don't know how it works." It's so mysterious why the price can be so high for those works. And who are those people who spend all their money to support museums? It's so polarized. Fou Gallery aims to make [the process] very transparent.
CZ: I think your unique perspective probably also has to do with the fact that you're also a maker.
Chapeau Echo studio, on the first level of Fou Gallery, 2017. Photo by Siyu Tang. Courtesy of Chapeau Echo.
CZ: Speaking of being an artist, as a general question, I wonder how you describe your hat-making practice—in terms of art, craft or design or something else. How would you describe your practice?
EH: I prefer to call myself a maker, a hat maker. I do make every hat by myself, by hand, from selecting the material to putting them together to communicating with people who commissioned me to make a hat. I make their stories into a hat. Every hat has a story. And I write down the stories together with a hat, and I have a website, which is like a container of all of the hats and their owners' stories. In this sense, I think people can call me an artist, but I don't want the "capital-A Artist" because that is a very heavy word for me. I prefer to just say that I'm a hat maker, but I do make things with some concept behind it. And everything is unique. I don't repeat.
CZ: Do you only work by commission?
EH: Now I work mostly by commission because I don't have a lot of time, but I do make things out of my own creation. I have a series called "Waste Not," all using leftover materials from daily life: broken glass, or a broken umbrella, or ceramics. So that's a series. For commissions, I make most of the hats under request by lovers, before they get married. I interview them for their love stories and make cards based on that. For example, Ms. Yang asked me to make a hat [for her] twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. I used part of her wedding dress and fascinators from twenty-five years ago, and talked to her and her husband to make the hat.
CZ: Oh, that's really great. How did you get into hat-making? I mean, you were a painter. That feels like you're working on a surface, which is different from making a sculptural thing.
EH: Yeah. I actually found that I'm better at spatial design and sculpture than two-dimensional things, after I started making hats.
CZ: It's really interesting.
EH: When I came to the US, I found those vintage hats very beautiful. I went to the vintage stores and collected those hats. All of them were broken. I always wanted to get a really nice vintage hat. One day I went to East Village and found a hat shop there. That hat store, they had a winter sale. And I look at the hats, but at that time. I just started to work, so they were still too expensive for me. Actually, I thought the price was okay, but the designer was a little bit arrogant. She was this kind of like, "don't touch it, I spend a lot of time on it"—this kind of fashion people, you know? After I looked at it, I thought it didn't look very difficult; maybe I could make my own. I went to another store and bought up a beret. That store was very nice—a family-owned store. When I got there, I saw this old lady talking philosophy with an old man. Basically, they were kind of like, "oh it's fine, we can do business or not," this kind of feeling. I got a beret from them, and that I watched online videos to make my first bird cage. I posted the image on Weibo [Chinese Twitter], and a girl from Philadelphia wanted to buy this hat from me for her graduation thesis show. I mailed the hat to her and then she came to New York to visit Fou Gallery. We became very good friends. She'd become an early collector of Fou Gallery. And we still are good friends nowadays. When I go to Shanghai, I would stay at her place. I've found hat-making to be a great way to connect with people.
CZ: I imagine hearing their stories is a good way to get to know them.
EH: Yeah, and also from the hats, I realized why people collect. When you collect things, it's different from buying anything. It's collecting experience, a story you shared with different people. You collect something because you think this represents some part of your journey in this world. You'll remember a part of your life from this object, so you would really cherish it for a long time. It's not something you would get rid of after a certain time.
CZ: Do you have your own collection of objects?
EH: Yeah, I have some Japanese woodcut prints, antique furniture, and jade, but now I collect mostly contemporary artists' works. Because I curate shows for them and I want to collect works to memorize this journey. I have works by a lot of artists.
CZ: Are their certain types of objects that you lean toward?
EH: I just take everything. [laughs.] Furniture is a little bit difficult because I like vintage furniture. We normally buy from auction houses. Our furniture are heavy and difficult to move. I like small things. Yeah, I have a lot of paintings and drawings. This year, a newer acquisition for me would be a work by Lin Yan. Lin Yan is an artist who works with Xuan paper and ink and do very large installations. I curated her show in 2014, which is the second show at Fou Gallery. I decided to collect a work from that time after five years.
CZ: That's really cool. You say that you were inspired by vintage hats, and your hats have a particular style. Are you inspired by certain periods or eras?
EH: I think I'm interested in French fascinators and salon-style [hats] in the 1920s and 30s, like the small, fancy fascinators that you wear during parties. But I don't really refer to any fashion styles. For me, it's really like making some small sculptures and putting pieces together. You can think of them as a dessert plate. I just want to make something beautiful.
CZ: I'm wondering about the process of exhibiting your hats. You said you had a show in Beijing–
Chapeau Echo: Girl with a Hat installation view, 2016. Photo by Echo He; Courtesy of MIA Space Beijing.
CZ: It's really intricate. That sounds like a really cool installation. Were you worried at all about conservation issues?
EH: I wanted people to wear them. The whole reason they were hanging there me was that people didn't even need to take them out of anything. They can just put them directly on their heads and try.
CZ: That's really different from your original idea.
EH: Yeah, because it would feel very fake if I put an artist's studio in a white cube gallery. […] One time a girl from Hunan, she works in a factory. She ordered a hat from me. It was a white hat with a lot of white roses. I got them in a vintage store in Baltimore. Later when I started to make the hat, I changed it to a white hat with veiling. When she got the hat—she was so careful—she asked me how to preserve it. I have a box for every hat, with a card and a story on it. I said, "I'll mail the hat in a customized box to you but you really don't need to worry too much about it. You should just have a nail on your wall and hang it there, and wear it." She said, "I'll save the hat for when I get married." When she got the hat, she took a photo wearing the hat in her factory uniform. And it was so cool! [laughs.]
CZ: What do you think it is about hats that attracts you to them, versus other types of accessories?
EH: I think not a lot of people make hats, so that's why I'm attracted to that. [chuckles.] I like beautiful hats. But most of the hats I see are manufactured or designer hats that don't look very interesting. Jewelry I find very beautiful—jewelry pieces by different artists, I just collect, I don't need to make them. [laughs.] Shoes I can't make, and for clothes I don't have the talent. The hat for me is an interesting way to add highlights to your outfit.
CZ: I think hats are also a really interesting item in fashion history, because they sort of drop out after a certain moment. People stop wearing them as a daily item. But you wear your hats out often, do you?
EH: Yeah, we had a staff show at Pace Gallery in New York. I submitted my hats and the curators decided to accept my proposal. I did a little corner. You know group shows–artists all want the best spot. I want the weirdest spot in an exhibition. I said, "whatever's left, just give it to me." My ideal space is a corner space because I can hang the hat from the ceiling, with some little mirrors I collected from vintage stores, and have a letter on the corner that people can open and read. […]
CZ: What are you inspired by when you make hats—besides the narratives—visually and aesthetically?
O'Keefe's Dog 奥基弗的狗, 2016. Grey sinamay fascinator base from London; pink silk ribbon from New York; hand painted silk ribbon from New York; vintage poodle from East Village, New York. Photo by Echo He; Courtesy of Chapeau Echo.
CZ: For my class, actually, we just did a unit on Judy Chicago. We were talking about the plates and how she was making them based on different women, which I think speaks to your practice a little bit too.
EH: Yeah. I like her work. I think it would be good if they had a dinner party using those plates.
CZ: You also host dinner parties. Would you say that food is an important part of your practice?
EH: Yeah, I like making food. I like cooking a lot. And I was talking to someone the other day—I never repeat my recipes. I just never cook the same dish twice. Every time it's based on what's there and improvised.
CZ: And when you're making hats, you said you start with a concept. Do you make a design on paper, and then you make the hat based on the design, or do you do everything as you go?
EH: I don't make drawings in advance. I like the hands-on experience. I have cabinets full of materials. I would open every drawer and then lay them on the floor. And I would think what should go together. It's really about making. […] Between fine art and design objects, it's very hard to draw the line, to say what is design and what is art. I do think art involves more conceptual thinking. When artists do—no matter what media—ceramics, painting, everything—it does have a deeper level of understanding in the work. I think there's still a difference. But in daily life, [works] can also be functional. The most important thing is that you see the time and effort behind every object.
CZ: But I think for some objects of design, for instance, if we think about high design, like minimalism, and that type of very high modernism that appears very simple and effortless.
EH: But this effortless counts as effort. You see that very simple line, it actually takes a lot of time to make that simple line.
CZ: But do you think that's the perception that everyone has? Or maybe you yourself, as a maker or curator is able to see things that perhaps–
EH: I think that everyone can see if you use your heart, if you spend your time. It's kind of like the idea that everyone can be Buddha.
CZ: That's really interesting. Does the term craft mean anything to you at all?
EH: Yeah. Craft. I think normally artists don't want [their work] to be categorized as craft since in this traditional art terminology [craft] means something like lower-level practice, but it actually shouldn't be differentiated in this way. I like the term “maker” because it is more democratic, and everyone can be a maker. […]
CZ: I'm interested in hearing your thoughts on the idea of taste and artistic standard. Does a democratic notion of craft or making mean the dissolution of good taste? Is professional or aesthetic standard something you are concerned with as a curator and gallery owner?
EH: I think whether a taste is “good" or "bad" is subjective. "Bad" taste at one period can be considered as "good" taste in later eras. For instance, street art and hip-hop culture was considered as subculture in the 1970s and 1980s, though artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring would gain mainstream recognition in our time. I do [have] concern of a professional standard in the art world when running the gallery. I respect people who spend time to research and advance in their own profession. Meanwhile, I try to keep a distance from the "institutionalized" view of how art should be, or how artists should be.
CZ: I noticed that the labels for your hats are very specific; each component, for instance, is noted to come from a particular place. How important is this recording and documentation of materials for your practice?
EH: Thank you for noticing that! Yes, I keep track of every material and where are they from. I'm interested in the history of the objects, and I think that they make the story more complete. People may draw connections from a location where they have been to, or recognize a person who used to own the objects. In the future, if I have an opportunity to do another exhibition with Chapeau Echo, I want to create a map with materials, and allow people to take and contribute their own.
[End of interview]