By: Erin Patrick
Entering Hi-Lo Press -- the studio + business that artist Dianna Settles both runs and works out of -- one is struck by the controlled chaos that seems to rule the space. It's calm, relaxing even, and the walls showcase some of Dianna's work and her current inspirations.
Dianna has a similarly calming disposition, although she is mid-painting and you can see it on her hands. A lithograph and a letterpress are the two largest fixtures in the room, aside from shelves lined with supplies.
Dianna started as a printmaker, studying stone lithography primarily. She still works in this way, but was forced out of her comfort zone when taking a painting class in college. It was then that she discovered the benefits of a less structured compositional method.
Although Dianna grew up not far from Atlanta in the mountains of Blue Ridge, Georgia, she is Vietnamese-American. Her identity and upbringing in a homogeneously white community has had a great deal of influence on her body of work.
"One of the most important things in my upbringing was the idea of assimilation," she says.
"Kids just don't want to stand out. I remember praying at night, 'I wish that I had blue eyes.'"
Speaking to me about her childhood and its bearing on her art, she recalls kids teasing her for her "weird foods" at elementary school lunchtime, and says that the only time she really felt able to celebrate the Vietnamese part of her was in the privacy of her home.
Now, those "weird foods", among other cultural symbols, make their way into her paintings.
Almost all of her paintings feature portrayals of Asian women or other people of color, and this is in the hope that by putting art out into the world that shows these figures, her work will be helpful in some way to other people who often do not feel represented.
This mission is one that began not only with her own battle with "standing out", but also with a visit to a museum in Vietnam where she saw countless paintings of people that looked like her. Seeing these works led to a realization that it is rare to see such figures in Western art, especially lining museum walls, and she felt compelled to help change that.
When asked whether the figures are based on real people or are made up, she says:
"Part of the reason I like making figures that are so similar and with very simplified facial structures is because so much of my adolescence and early adult life has been people trying to guess what nationality I am and saying 'all Asian people look the same.' So it's kind of a wink and a f*ck you."
The various Asian women or other people of color in her paintings become, then, a character used to tell a story and distribute a message -- sometimes based on real people, and other times less so.
Being Vietnamese-American carries a significant weight when it comes to Dianna's life and art, but coupled with that is also what comes with being a person of color and a woman.
"There are some pretty shameful statistics out there from large institutions that tell us that something like 80% of art in some large museums is done by men, and most of the female figures represented are nudes," she recalls.
Women are most often a passive subject in art, and women of color are often seen only in small roles, especially within art in Western museums.
Speaking specifically about Asian women, Dianna recalls a few years ago when it was common to see such figures represented in "Tumblr art." She remembers her own work getting more attention at this time, too, and expresses her fear at the time that the popularity was simply because of a commodified trend.
"I'm always a little skeptical and critical of certain types of attention, but I was like, 'are people reacting to this work because they actually feel something, or is it just because it's on-trend right now'?"
She goes on to say that that question isn't one you often hear a male artist asking about the popularity surrounding his own work -- it's simply popular without the caveats and "what ifs" that many women artists find themselves facing.
"Often the characters in my works are staring unapologetically at the viewer, to where it's very obvious that that is the main character and that what they're doing -- even if it's just watching TV -- is the important thing. They're just existing."
The unapologetic nature of her works is subtle and powerful, making her paintings accessible to a wide range of viewers who each take away from the piece their own tailored message, with the underlying directive of acceptance.
While Dianna has always been an artist, starting Hi-Lo Press was a part of her journey that she never envisioned.
When he purchased her own lithopress (and road tripped to Jersey City to pick it up, no less) and, on a whim, a large letterpress, she suddenly needed more space. She only ever imagined finding some corner of studio space somewhere, but when she attended the last opening at Beep Beep Gallery -- which previously inhabited the Hi-Lo Press space -- and serendipitously found that no one had dibs on the suite after the gallery's departure, she jumped on it.
"I think had the person who gave us the press not given us so much stuff, our transition would have been much more piecemeal," Dianna says of the move to Hi-Lo.
"We wanted to retain the presence of this address as a place to share art, since it had been Beep Beep for ten years and before that it was another gallery and so on, so it seemed like the most moral choice."
Now, Hi-Lo Press has art openings every month and a half or so, and carries out commercial jobs such as business cards and invitations on their letterpress.
"We sometimes do workshops, too. It's really whatever. Having this space means having to be flexible in a lot of different ways."
Hi-Lo is a fixture in the art community now, and serves as a gathering space for artists as much as it does as a studio and print shop.
Atlanta's art community is emerging and strong, and by starting and working out of Hi-Lo Dianna says she's been able to meet and familiarize herself with more artists than ever.
"One thing that I put a lot of emphasis on with the genesis of the space was that if we were going to have art shows, I wanted to make sure it wasn't always like... a bunch of white men making art. I always want a diverse group of artists: lots of POC, women, queer and non-binary artists."
Dianna is gaining notoriety in the community, and for good reason. She completed her first mural in Atlanta this past fall and recently participated in a show at Collect on Sunday. This June, her work will be on display at the Zuckerman Museum of Art in Kennesaw, alongside other printmakers.
She continues to host and participate in events and exhibitions that help expand the creative community in Atlanta and the surrounding areas, always with an emphasis on diversity, and in pursuit of acceptance and representation for artists and viewers alike.
P.S. -- Dianna is also a musician and plays bass in the Atlanta band Art School Jocks. Catch them opening for Japanese Breakfast and Snail Mail in Athens this month!