We had the good fortune of connecting with Aragna Ker and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Aragna, we’d love to hear about how you approach risk and risk-taking
Risk taking is a lot like art, it’s about understanding the fundamentals and making an intuitive decision. There is no certainty that anything will work out, yet we must ultimately surrender to that decision. Risk is about trusting the process and allowing the journey to unfold in front of you, which will eventually dictate the next steps to take. As I reflect on the various stages of my life, I can totally see how 2 stages of risk taking has played a pivotal role both in my life and career. At age 5, during the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, my mother and father had to make a choice: either to stay and endure the brutality of the concentration camps or escape and risk their families lives. They decided to flee in the middle of the night, into the unknown, walking miles across the treacherous terrain, persevering through the thick jungles and finding refuge in the borders of Thailand. Ultimately our family found a church to sponsor and in 1981 and we immigrated to America, landing in the suburbs of Southern California. It wasn’t until years after grad school and struggling as an artist was where my life started to change. After bouncing around from various jobs, I knew I had to make a choice toward finding some financial stability that include health benefits. Besides being an artist, I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. Just following my intuition, I eventually landed a job as an Art Instructor for adults with disabilities at First Street Gallery Art Center in Claremont. I taught there for 7.5 years. I think of these times as my doctorial years. Even though I didn’t receive a degree, it was there that I found the blueprint for my life’s purpose. In the field of disabilities, especially in the arts, I found there were no professional art making tools that fit into their unique physicality. Being an artist myself I knew that artists really needed the proper tools, so I worked collaboratively with artists at FSGAC as they provided me with their valuable input toward developing more dignified tools. This passion to create adaptive tools took me on a six-year journey starting with trips to Home Depot and working out of my grandma’s garage, to now utilizing a 3D design program and 3D printer. Today, 13 years later after taking a risk to work with artists with disabilities, I am currently working as the Curatorial and Adaptive Design Manager for United Cerebral Palsy of Los Angeles.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
I guess you could say that my work career and art career run parallel, as both require the same creative mindset. They both require the fundamentals of drawing in order to get the idea across. At this moment my work career has taken most of my creative energy as I have been working collaboratively with United Cerebral Palsy of Los Angeles, which has so far culminated into a six-year project, producing art tools for the entire organization. I started with 24 artists and have now equipped over 90 artists with their own adaptive tool, tailored to their unique physicality. Every individual served by UCPLA can now express themselves independently without anyone inhabiting their creative space. This has been my mission, to continue to develop innovative strategies for a more ergonomic art environment so that artists with disabilities can freely express themselves as individuals who have something to contribute to society. It is my hope that anyone in need locally or internationally will be equipped with their own adaptive tools. This is something UCPLA and I will be working on in the next phase of our collaboration. As an artist working full time, I am learning how to manage my time better. I call this “the Peter Parker complex”. During the day I am working to fulfill my life’s purpose as an adaptive tool designer and at night I am an artist, as I get to figuratively put on my Spider Man costume. After 5, I find myself swinging through my thoughts, working through concepts that have been bottled up inside. Although it has been difficult at times, somehow, I am still able to make art. I have been mostly working in collage and watercolors constructing multiple narratives based in personal and cultural reflection. I like to utilize tropes derived from history, as the characters are pulled from American popular culture, cartoons, comic book and films. These figures are juxtaposed to create a new narrative. I haven’t really shown my artwork much in the last 6 years, although I have done some group shows. If anything, I have been utilizing social media to share my creative process and what I am currently working on. Showing artwork in and of itself, is hard work. First and foremost, what I love about art and the art process is simple: the relief of getting out a concept that has been in my head, and actualizing it onto a working surface. Just like designing adaptive tools to perfectly fit into a new artist’s unique physicality.
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
If my best friend was visiting, I would say welcome to the city that I love: The City of Angels! (Btw, this is a Covid-free scenario). Buckle up and let’s go on a week-long art adventure: Monday: We would start the week off slow in Pasadena (near where I live) and head to the Norton Simon Museum for a morning look at some Rodin sculptures. After a good cup of coffee mid visit, we could take in their amazing collection of Asian artifacts from Cambodia and India, along with modern art. We would then head over to the Huntington Library for lunch, because they have a great cafeteria. We would take a scenic stroll through the beautiful garden and in to view the Library’s various collections. They have a great contemporary residency program that I enjoy seeing, along with some great classical works by artists like Turner and Whistler. We would end the night back in South Pasadena, at Gus Barbeque, for food and drinks. Tuesday: We take the metro link toward downtown LA to see the Broad collection (where I still have not been, so this would be a great excuse). We would then have lunch and drinks at Hauser and Writh, before and taken in their amazing collection of contemporary art greats. Then we would head over to one of my favorite art stomping grounds, Los Angeles’ Chinatown, to see galleries on Chungking Road. Two galleries that I love are the Tierra Del Sol Gallery and the Charlies James Gallery. Both, notably showcase some of the most diverse, and contemporary, art in LA. Then, dinner and drinks at Yang Chow for their famous Slippery Shrimp! Then we’d call it a day and take the metro back home. Wednesday: At this point, our eyes and minds would need some rest and relaxation, so off to a day at Laguna Beach. We would take in the sun, stroll through the shops and of course find a bit to eat. We would end up in back in South Pasadena in time for dinner at Charlie’s Trio where they have some great fried Chicken. Of course, some drinks to cap off the night. Thursday: Time to hop back on the metro link into LA, and this time we would stop in Olvera Street to immerse ourselves in the Latin culture. There is this little taquito stand their sauce is butter. Then we would walk up to MOCA and see what all the fuss is about in the contemporary art world (they really do have a tremendous collection). We would then take an Uber or Lift into little Tokyo, and see the art collection at the Annex MOCA building (they have a great retrospective). Lastly, time for dinner and drinks at Daikokuya, though the line might be long, it will be totally worth it because they have the best Ramen in town. Friday: We will make a long drive to go to the Getty Museum. Lots to see and do there, as it is on a hill overlooking the city of LA. After a bit to eat there, we would head to my most favorite museum: The Hammer Museum (love their programming and artist line up). After feasting our eyes on all the great national, and international, contemporary artists they have showcased, we would end up at The Grove in the farmers market for some delicious Cajun/Creole food. After we a couple of shrimp there, we will toast to a great visit.
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
My journey has not been alone, as I have gotten support from many places, from so many people through the years. Although I can’t thank them all, I do want to acknowledge that I really value their continued support. I’d like to give credit to the Upland Art Studios, formerly First Street Gallery Art Center (Claremont), in Upland. They gave me the freedom to teach organically, allowing me to implement my artistic philosophy to the artists and ultimately helped me to find my life’s purpose. The United Cerebral Palsy of Los Angeles’ partnership has been imperative with the development of my adaptive tools. Their partnership helped propel the growth of the artists served, as I now see individuals who have found their artistic voices. UCPLA, as an organization, has gave me a blank canvas to work with, providing me with the space and freedom for adaptive exploration and innovation. I have to thank my mother and father for always believing in me, even when they didn’t understand “the art thing”. As an immigrant family they instilled in me the value of never giving up and to always continue the pursuit, even if life seems impossible. You know behind a great man there is a great woman. If it wasn’t for my lovely wife Janine Ker, who is an amazing artist in her own right, I would not be the man that I am today. I thank her for pushing and challenging me to always reach for my best in whatever I put out into this world. Lastly, and most importantly, I thank my little sister “Toni”. Her real name Vuthona Ker, my little sister was born with Cerebral Palsy. She passed away in her 30s, a little over 11 years ago. It wasn’t until I started working at First Street Art Gallery Center, that I realized her deep impact on my life as I immediately had an intuitive connection with the artists that I was working with. The adaptive tools mission which I named “Toni’s Touch” is about keeping her legacy alive by developing art tools for her community, so that they can voice what is bottle up inside them.
Other: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/s01e10-finding-your-purpose-with-aragna-ker/id1478015863?i=1000476850100 https://losangeleno.com/places/washington-reid-gallery-artists/ https://hackaday.com/2020/06/03/hackaday-prize-and-ucpla-are-driving-assistive-technology-forward/