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Studio Magazine

I Don’t Do Pickle Juice: Studio Check In With EJ Hill

Studio Museum

Studio Check-In was born out of a desire to tell the stories of the people who work behind the scenes at different arts and cultural institutions. Institutions are defined by the people who work within them and the objects they steward, but they are also defined by the community members, artists, and audiences that intersect with and support the work and mission—different audiences and participants help make the story more full, more human, and more alive.  

In this Studio Check-In, Ilk Yasha speaks with artist EJ Hill. Hill was a 2015–16 artist in residence at the Studio Museum.  

EJ, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us. I always begin with a simple question to introduce our interviewee to our readers. Can you tell the readers a little about yourself?   

I'm EJ Hill. I was born and raised in Los Angeles, California, and I was a 2015 to 2016 artist in residence at the Studio Museum. I make stuff, sometimes it's painting, sometimes it's sculpture, sometimes it's performance, other times it's music. I write. I draw. It's just whatever the mood calls for. I feel pulled to make it, if the spirit compels me, then I'll go for it. Some would call that an artist. 

I think David Hammons would agree with that! We originally met at Prospect.5 in New Orleans, when you presented a piece, Rises in the East, that referenced Six Flags in New Orleans, which was shuttered as a result of Hurricane Katrina. What was that experience of sourcing the carriage and producing that sculpture like?  

At that point, that piece was probably my most ambitious one. I feel like every time I'm outdoing myself, because every time I talk about a work I'm like, yeah, that was the most ambitious thing I've ever done! And then the next thing after that is even wilder.  

I had been thinking about amusement parks for years, ever since Katrina hit in 2005 and I saw images of the amusement park underwater. It was an image I had in my mind for many years. 

When I had the opportunity to work with Diana Nawi and Naima J. Keith on the show, that was the first thing I pitched. I was like, I don't know what I wanna do but there's a site I've had in my mind and heart for many years so let's do something. The original proposal and plan were to take the existing Ferris wheel at the park and relocate it to the city. To have it be a functional, operational Ferris wheel because all of the electrical components still worked—the wheel could still move and it could still light up since the electrical hub was at the center of the wheel and was never underwater. It just needed major repairs. 

Part of the reworking of that project was: what if we do  a phase one of the dream project? That became: let's extract an original gondola from the Big Easy Ferris Wheel from out of the park and put her back in the sky where she belongs.   

When did you realize roller coasters were going to be a subject for your art?  

I've been obsessed with roller coasters since I was a little, little kid, but it wasn't until my Studio Museum residency where I had the time, space, and financial support to just work on my art. The Museum encouraged us to focus, or rather discouraged us, from participating in outside exhibitions or other residencies. I really took that seriously and committed myself fully to the residency; it was the first time I got to see how having that much space and time benefits a practice, or my practice at least. I did this deep dive for the first few months into something I loved without any hang-ups or anxieties around how it fit within an art historical context or material considerations. I just went for it. I started making these rollercoaster drawings and watching roller coaster POV videos on YouTube all day in this empty studio. 

People would be like, are you gonna get to work soon? And I'd be like, I am working, I promise! That was my first time making a sculpture on that scale. I had to construct that piece, A Monumental Offering of Potential Energy in five-foot sections in the studio over the course of six months, so I never saw it fully put together until we started installing for our show [Tenses]. That was the first time I showed any other coaster-related work on that scale. Studio Museum is where all of this started, at least in the professional sense.  

Your piece for the Studio Museum was called A Monumental Offering of Potential Energy, which you performed alongside your sculpture. Potential is about having or showing the capacity to develop into something in the future. What was an idea you had that you felt had potential but didn’t develop as you’d hoped?  

One of my hurdles has always been having a big dream and not knowing or not seeing all the practical steps needed in order to realize the big dream. 

For instance, my Prospect New Orleans project: I knew there was this abandoned amusement park that had been sitting there since 2005 that nothing was being done with. I was like, there are Ferris wheels popping up all over the world as these new innovative observation wheels, like the London Eye, Singapore Flyer—Ferris wheels in city centers that change the landscape of the city. I thought, wouldn't that be dope if this wheel that's already in New Orleans could be revived and [generate] income for the city? As a civic gesture of possibilities? That's where I saw the project. In order to get there, of course, there are so many things, civic, financial, and other legal or bureaucratic things, that need to happen to pull something like that off. 

I'm just one artist making drawings in his living room. To jump from making watercolor drawings of roller coasters and amusement park rides to trying to pull off this big civic-scale, monumental project … I wouldn't say it was a failure because I’m proud of how it ended up and where we ended up. The vision was always so clear to me, and right now I'm trying to figure out how to translate my vision to others, to get them on board and ask them for help when realizing feats that I will never be able to do on my own. 

I’m trying to develop the skills and know-how to see the larger vision and then execute it as it's imagined. Honestly, that's adaptation; it's taking the concept and adapting it to the physical space. Maybe I'm shooting too high. I don't know. Dreaming too big. Shoot for the stars and land on the moon kind of thing, you know? 

Do you have a favorite roller coaster or memorable roller coaster moment? And why do you think humans are drawn to suspense and excitement?  

My favorite roller coaster, hands down, a hundred percent, through and through, every time, is X2 at Six Flags Magic Mountain. There's nothing else that compares. It’s this 4D coaster. The seats spin on different axes. While the train's going through the course of the track, the seats rotate forward and backward at different times. It's amazing.  

I think humans have an innate need and curiosity to scratch at the edges of our own mortality. 

Whether it's skydiving or Formula One racing—people get their kicks any way they can. For me, that happens to be plummeting fifty stories at eighty miles an hour on a rollercoaster. But whether we're talking about space travel or the tallest building in the world, we've always been trying to reach the sky. There's something very human about, and I know this might sound corny, trying to touch God, whatever that may mean for whoever, as close as you can get to something divine.  

I never thought of the divine or celestial. It's making me see your work in a different way. Thank you for sharing. You’re invested in performance and definitely included it in your residency at Studio Museum. Would you share your thoughts on sculpture, performance, and the body?  

Dang, had I known we were going to get this deep, I probably would've been like, nah, I don’t wanna do this, but I love this. This is good. It's exercising a muscle I haven't worked out in a while. Thinking back to Monumental Offering of Potential Energy, I love the dual play on stillness and movement, because the sculpture had these undulating forms and was lyrical, almost like those movements. But my body was at rest, motionless.  

Okay, now I'm going to get into roller coaster physics here for a second, just nerd out. So, the coaster train or car has the highest amount of potential energy right at the top of the first lift hill. That's where it's storing all of the potential energy it'll need to complete the course. As it falls off there, it transfers from potential to kinetic energy, and the kinetic energy will run out based on friction, wind, and other factors to make it to the end of the course. I've been thinking of the term “potential” in that work as a play on what's to come, but also in this energetic way where the car, my body, wasn't moving. It was storing the potential energy it needed to continue throughout whatever life was gonna throw at me next. So, I took three months to store as much potential energy so I could stunt on y'all kinetically. 

You recently said you didn’t want to do any interviews. I’m grateful to be granted this one. How did it feel to practice refusal? What advice do you give artists that are hoping to do the same but fear being called “unprofessional” or “difficult”? 

I'm taking cues, in many ways, from a lot of different artists throughout history who have worked to preserve and protect, whether it be themselves, the work, their peace, or their health. 

In terms of being perceived as difficult or unprofessional, I would go as far as to say that's something I think is an anxiety held largely by Black artists, other artists of color, queer artists, femme artists, trans nonbinary folks. Anyone who lives and works in a body relegated to the sides and to the margins are the ones who hold this anxiety about being difficult. Because what that often suggests is that your perceived difficulty might get in the way of you being able to sustain a livelihood. So all that is wrapped up in being punished for not falling in line. 

I come back all the time to this video clip of Nicki Minaj going off on this tangent about pickle juice. It's a five-minute clip of her talking about how once she showed up to a photo shoot and there were sliced pickles on a board and she was like, Yeah, you know what? If I show up to something and you got sliced pickles on a board, I am going to leave because I deliver quality in what I do, and is it wrong for me to expect better for myself? She said something like, Had I accepted the pickle juice, then I’d be drinking pickle juice right now, as she gestures to this beautiful green room and she's doing her makeup. At a certain point, you have to be your own advocate. Me refusing interviews and taking time to enjoy my solitude and to scale back visually and professionally within the rigamarole that is the contemporary art industry is me taking time for my own health. And if taking time for my own health is perceived as difficult, then, yeah, I'm going to be difficult.  

This is something I try to impart in my teachings—marginalized folks are not given agency, thereby they are made objects rather than a person. We deserve agency, freedom, and the right to be as we want to be.  

Yes, exactly! I literally watched the clip a few days ago. I've watched that clip so many times over the years and I watched it again to share with a friend and I was like, this is it. It's just being your own advocate. There's this book I reference a lot titled Tell Them I Said No by Martin Herbert. I think it’s ten different chapters on different artists who have refused parts of the art world or its mechanisms. 

I'm taking cues, in many ways, from a lot of different artists throughout history who have worked to preserve and protect, whether it be themselves, the work, their peace, or their health. 

You recently had a series of paintings that were titled joy studies. I’m curious about the things that bring you joy and would love to hear your thoughts on joy as a part of your practice.  

Watching roller coaster videos on YouTube, listening to music, playing my guitar, hanging with friends, taking naps, playing with my puppy. You know, all the normal, cute shit. It's also about solitude. Solitude and quiet—I find so much joy and restoration in being able to take time for myself. 

When was the last time you were amused at a museum? 

Is it weird to say “at my own show at MASS MoCA?” I mean, we put an actual rideable roller coaster inside the museum! 

Who would you like to collaborate with that you haven’t had a chance to yet? 

I think there's something so beautiful happening in music right now. I don't even know if I can call it pop. I can't classify it.  

I want to work with young guitarists, learn from them, collaborate with people like H.E.R., or Daniel Caesar, or Omar Apollo. People who hanging out, playing guitar, and writing some of the most beautiful songs of our time right now. They're young women and people of color and queers making music, unabashedly themselves. I want to hang out with them. I want to work with H.E.R. I want to learn from H.E.R. Shout out H.E.R.—I'm available for collabs. 

Do you have a favorite song that you’re listening to right now?  

So many favorites and they change almost weekly! But one that I’ve been coming back to a lot recently is “Eternal Sunshine” by Lou Val. Velvety smooth vocals and unfussy, lush production. It’s so beautiful. 

EJ, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us.  

Thank you! 

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