Explore The Photo Story Tying Together Past & Present
Diving into the world of budding actors and actresses in Los Angeles and beyond, “If I Were A Canvas” is the product of Indonesian-born, LA-based photographer and artist Kanya Iwana. Today, we’re delving into her own experience as an actress in Los Angeles to get a better idea of what inspired the project, which “explores the range of versatility an actor may have through the aesthetics of the timeless Renaissance era.”
Iwana explains further; “Actors are expected to embody a blank canvas, yet we encourage coming as you are with your brilliant colors and vibrant personality, blurring the lines of femininity and masculinity as these actors did in early Shakespearean years.” By tapping into the history of the art itself, Iwana worked with her subject, AJ Knight, to challenge the roles they’re constantly being asked to embody. We spoke with the creative director/photographer about fleshing out her ideas and concepts into a final shoot, and what it means to involves one’s identity in your creative process; read our full interview below.
Tell us about your artist statement for the “If I Were A Canvas” project.
“Actors are expected to embody a blank canvas, yet we encourage coming as you are with your brilliant colors and vibrant personality.“
When I say blank canvas, I literally mean “delete everything.” That “empty yourself and be a vessel” mindset. I don’t believe that. I’m not an expert in acting in any way. The only thing I know to be is to be human and how important that element is when you’re approaching a character.
To me, I find it difficult to tell a story without tapping into my own personal experiences and emotions. I’ve also witnessed people losing themselves through a character and not knowing how to 100% come back because they’ve never grounded themselves. I remember thinking I had to lose my Indonesian accent in theater school so that I’m cast-able, but that’s a huge part of who I am. And then it’s the hair, the clothes, the way I carry myself. If you don’t approach it correctly it’s like a rabbit hole.
In this series, I spent some time with AJ Knight (the model) who is also an actor and writer. We talked about how in such a tough industry you have to mold into these stereotypes they’ve set out in order to “fit in” there. We wanted to do a shoot where we just really go balls-to-the-walls with creativity and fun. We wanted to do these awesome makeup looks (by Francesca Martin!) and have Savanna (Chonis) dress him up in Renaissance-inspired gender-bending looks. Back in Shakespearean days, they used to have men dress up as women for the female roles. That was so fucked up but interesting. We wanted to go off of that.
Before you pursued photography, you studied performing arts—what were the most valuable things you learned in school?
I mainly learned two things. I learned about myself – that I am a creative artist first and always will be. I learned that at the time there were no roles in theater for me, and I had to create my own opportunities.
Through all semesters I’ve written my own materials and performed them myself. I’d cast a show of 10-15 people who shared the same “issues”—their belt wasn’t strong enough, they don’t look the role, they dance differently than others, et cetera. I wouldn’t say we were the underdogs but we were certainly different. I was very proud of us.
Another thing I learned is discipline. I am an artist with the discipline of a musical theater performer. This was drilled in our heads: If you’re early, you’re on time. If you’re on time, you’re late. If you’re late, you’re fired. I wish this was engraved in many people’s heads in LA, because geez we’d wasted so much time not getting shit done and blame traffic for it.
Once you graduated and got your degree, what was next?
I had this 1-year plan and 5-year plan. My 1-year was pretty direct and I was able to achieve them: get an agent, get a co-star, get a lead role in a short film, all this industry stuff. All that kind of went south when I realized the average audition: booking ratio was kind of insane. I then had my child, and she made me realize that I wanted to leave a more personal legacy. For me, that was to create and take control of my own narrative.
Did you feel that the transition from school to work was easy?
Absolutely not. As artists or performers, we don’t have the traditional route of getting an internship and then climbing the corporate ladder. We often have to start from zero.
Through auditioning and putting on so many different faces/characters – how did you hold onto your identity? How didn’t you?
I did not. I certainly molded to what that industry thought of me. It wasn’t until I had my kid and spent 9 months not auditioning and realizing who the fuck I really was. I wasn’t any of that. It was a tough limbo. I really do believe you gotta come back to yourself before any of that. Yes, of course, honor the role that is created, but use you.
How does one involve their identity in their creative process?
It’s almost a subconscious thing.
What are the most important lessons you’ve learned about storytelling?
You gotta create what you know, period. Otherwise, there’s no truth in it. There’s gotta be a piece of you in the work, otherwise, how can it be authentic?
You are the perfect encapsulation of someone who hasn’t chosen one art form. There is often a negative narrative pushed on artists that they have to choose one medium and stick to it. Why hasn’t this phased you?
Because I know what it means to have to survive. I read from this book, You Are A Badass at Making Money by Jen Sincero, that if you keep underselling yourself, then you’re actually being selfish. When you truly know your worth and demand for it, you’re then thinking about taking care of others: your family, your kid, your partner, on top of yourself. That really stuck with me. So, in a place as expensive as LA, I’ve learned to shut down the noise and do what I want so I can take care of my people and myself. If I don’t set up that standard or tone for myself, then I would be so paralyzed and end up doing absolutely nothing.
Photographer and Creative Director: Kanya Iwana
Stylist: Savanna Chonis
Makeup Artist: Francesca Martin
Model: AJ Knight
Stay tuned to Milk for more art stuff.