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Interweaving Nature and Art

At the intersection of art and nature, Hong Hong ’11 has mastered her craft.

The SUNY Potsdam alumna, who graduated with a BFA in studio art, has carved out a niche within the arts community as an interdisciplinary artist, painter, and papermaker. The successful alumna recently received a $50,000 grant through the United States Artists Fellowship, selected as one of 43 artists from a pool of over 500 nominated artists from around the country.

Considered one of the most prestigious awards an artist can receive, along with the Guggenheim and the MacArthur ‘Genius’ Grants, the United States Artists Fellowship will allow Hong to build a permanent studio, and support her work on a multi-year, interdisciplinary project titled “An Earth at the Edge of My Sun.”

“I’m honored to be a part of this community of exceptional artists, who are operating at the highest of professional and creative calibers. I work hard. I make lots of mistakes. Ultimately, I'm still figuring it out. Everything in my life is a work-in-process. Receiving this award doesn't change that. Regardless of how much attention or energy an artist devotes to their craft, success is usually the exception. Being an artist is tumultuous because there isn't a clear sense of a linear progression. Sometimes it feels like walking in circles. We hope that someone will remember us. We hope that what we do can one day matter to the world. In fact, we spend a lot of time hoping. I think hope is very beautiful and very sad at the same time,” Hong said.

Hong has remained grounded over the years. She moved from China to the U.S. with her parents when she was nine years old, and then at 16, moved to Northern New York when her father landed a job as a professor at SUNY Canton. “Due to difficulties and complications during my family's naturalization process, I'm still not an American citizen. When I was twenty years old, I had to figure out how to deal with immigration and the USCIS. This is something I had to navigate before I could become an artist. That time was incredibly tough. But it also showed me that I wanted to be an artist more than anything else. I also realized that I am resilient and determined, that I'm able to find my own path,” she said.

Her path led her to SUNY Potsdam. Although she had been living in the St. Lawrence Country for several years, she was unable to unlock the benefits of in-state tuition based on her citizenship. With limited financial aid available for international students, and the additional challenge of needing an American citizen to co-sign any loans, she wasn’t sure what the future had in store. That’s when she lined up a full scholarship at SUNY Potsdam, alleviating any financial obligations as she started her degree.

 “My family would not have been able to afford to send me to college without that award, and I would not have been able to attend college. The application was open to all incoming first-year students, regardless of the student's national status and/or visa status. If I weren't immediately enrolled in an academic program, I would have been deported from this country or I would've had to become an undocumented resident. Receiving this award changed my life. I have not met the donors of this scholarship, but I'm forever grateful for their generosity and commitment to equal opportunity,” she said.

Hong pursued a BFA in Visual Arts at SUNY Potsdam, taking classes with Associate Professor Michael Yeomans, one of her mentors over the next four years. “He gifted me with support and self-belief. I was an inconsistent, rebellious, argumentative student and during my sophomore year, I had a habit of skipping morning classes. I'm forever grateful that (Professor Emerita) Virginia Layne gave me a B in Photography, a grade that I did not deserve. Her decision allowed me to maintain my full scholarship. Without it, I would've never been able to finish school,” she said.

Hong still remembers her first ceramics class, when Professor Marc Leuthold discussed the intersection of nature and art. “Professor Leuthold held up some clay and said to us, 'Remember that in this class we are making art from dust.' That impacted me. It helped me to realize that the materials around us have their own histories and sentience,” she said.

Her foundation at SUNY Potsdam helped pave the way for a successful career as an artist. She went on to get her MFA in Art from the University of Georgia, and she has attended invaluable residencies at MacDowell, Yaddo, Vermont Studio Center, McColl Center, Houston Center for Contemporary Craft, and I-Park. Her work has been exhibited all over the country at galleries ranging from the Sarasota Art Museum (Sarasota, Fla.) and Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art (Bentonville, Ark.) to the McClain Gallery (Houston, Texas) and Tiger Strikes Asteroid (Los Angeles, Calif.).

“Her mixed media artwork is perhaps a reflection of the studio art program in Potsdam that emphasizes exploration in at least four studios,” said Leuthold. “At Potsdam, Hong Hong was an outstanding student, and one can't help wonder if she developed her nascent sense of color in the College's Foundations and Painting classes and her patience with process (papermaking is intensely process-oriented) in her Ceramics and Printmaking classes.  Given the quality of her work and her intense dedication, it is no surprise that this young artist has created extraordinary art that has been honored at the highest levels in the field.”

Examining the relationship between nature to art, as she did in Leuthold’s ceramics class years earlier, has continued in her work today. Waking up before the sun rises, Hong begins her artwork in the absence of light. Like a gardener tilling a plot of land, she meticulously blends elements from the earth with vibrant colored paint on the large-scale handmade paper at her feet. “I continuously walk around a rectangular frame in a clockwise direction, pouring a mixture of hand-beaten bark, pigment, dyes, repurposed paper and water into the frame,” Hong explained. “For me, this rotational process is rooted in circumambulation, which is the Buddhist practice of encircling a shrine or sacred object. It also references the orbit of the earth around the sun as well as the movements of other celestial objects in this universe,” she said.

Her abstract artwork, created through an internal dialogue with the earth, examines themes related to the human body. “I’m interested in the kinds of labor that a body can engage in as well as the hierarchies of that labor. For example, what is the relationship between physical labor and metaphysical labor? I want to know more about the perceived value of objects created by distinct bodies,” she said.

In addition to her journey as an artist, Hong is now an assistant art professor at Endicott College, mentoring her students in the same way as her professors at SUNY Potsdam. “I always give my students the benefit of doubt. They are all amazing individuals, and I don't believe students can be or even should be taught. Who they will become already lives inside of them,” Hong said. “It's a matter of figuring out where the door is and learning how to open it. No one else can do this for them. It takes time, determination, and self-acceptance.”

Article by Jason Hunter

If you would like to make an impact and help students like Hong, you can contribute by visiting and direct your gifts to the Fund for Scholarships at SUNY Potsdam.