On the Record with Agnes Ma

DeKALB – Agnes Ma didn’t always want to be an artist.

During her senior year of her undergraduate studies, while majoring in molecular and cellular biology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Ma took a few art classes.

She learned more about contemporary art and decided to become an artist herself. She describes her work as combining “traditional craft and modern methods of fabrication to examine the relationship between humans and their surrounding environment.”

Ma is one of nine visual artists and five poets whose work will be on display for the “Arts in Action” exhibit at the Ellwood House Museum, 420 Linden Place in DeKalb. Her work is an abstract sculpture, titled “The Ellfield Addition.”

The opening reception for the exhibit will be held from 6 to 9 p.m. Saturday, May 21, in the Patience Ellwood Towle Visitor Center. The exhibit will run through July 2.

“Arts in Action” is a project developed by the DeKalb County History Center and Ellwood House Museum to investigate the history of race relations in DeKalb County through historical research and a collaboration with contemporary artists. The artists’ work has themes of fear, exclusion, community and hope. Community members have participated by telling their stories or by assisting with research.

For more information about the “Arts in Action” exhibit, visit www.ellwoodhouse.org/exhibits or www.dchcexhibits.org/arts-in-action.

Ma now lives in Colorado and is an assistant professor and 3-D studios coordinator at the Rocky Mountain College of Art + Design.

In addition to receiving a bachelor’s degree from U of I, Ma earned a Master of Fine Arts in metalwork, jewelry design and digital fabrication as well as a graduate certificate in museum studies from Northern Illinois University.

Ma was the artist in residence for metalwork and glass at Lillstreet Art Center in Chicago in 2015 and 2016, and she also took part in a four-week artist residency at Yellowstone National Park in 2018. Her work has exhibited nationally, including at the Metal Museum in Memphis, Tennessee. Her museum and curatorial endeavors have extended as far as Sicily, Italy.

For more information about Agnes Ma and her work, visit www.agnesma.com.

Milton: Have you always been interested in being an artist?

Ma: I have not, actually. I was always interested in crafts, but I never really thought of art as a career path until the end of undergrad. My senior year, I took art classes, and I really enjoyed it. I’m traditionally trained in metalwork, jewelry design and digital fabrication. I dabble in anything from jewelry to large-scale installations. I work in a variety of mediums.

Milton: What do you like best about art?

Ma: I think it allows for a different kind of problem-solving. I didn’t know anything about contemporary or modern art at all. Through studying, I’ve learned that it is a mode of communication that extends how people normally think about things or communicate. You can relay a lot of concepts that are much more layered and are understood in a different way that writing, speaking or verbal language.

Milton: Do you normally use a lot of color?

Ma: I don’t usually use color. I tend to be drawn to monochromatics. I did use color in this display because I wanted to create contrast. My work plays on how we as humans interact with the environment. I’ve been using more greens and blues because of that, to represent the earth and the environment.

Milton: Tell me about your artwork for the “Arts in Action” exhibit.

Ma: It’s a large sculpture made with a 3-D pen and bioplastic. It is a landscape, about 6 inches tall, 6 feet wide and 8 feet long, that discusses the Ellwoods and a racial covenant they signed, stating that anyone who was not white could not build or buy property in that area of DeKalb. It meant that diverse people ended up moving to Sycamore. So this large piece showcases the Ellwood neighborhood, where they lacked diversity, and an area that loosely represents the other areas, which would be Sycamore. I used small folded paper objects that are loosely representative of architecture. I depict grandiose abstract homes of the Ellwood neighborhood, as well as the small homes of Sycamore. It’s a huge difference, yet there’s beauty in all of it. It’s also very abstract.

Milton: Do you have a piece statement?

Ma: Yes. “This is the year 2021. In the summer of 2020, Black Lives Matter riots exploded around the nation during a global pandemic. In 1992, LA rioted over the acquittal of police officers who brutally beat Rodney King. It took until 1954 for the Court to declare that schools could no longer separate blacks and whites in Brown vs. Board of Education. In 1942, Japanese Internment Camps were established as a reaction to the bombing of Pearl Harbor in World War II. And in 1925, the Ellwood family signed a racial covenant to keep the neighborhoods surrounding their property filled with only the ‘pure white race,’ keeping ‘negro, mulatto, Chinese, Japanese, or person of any race, or mixture of races, other than a person of pure white race’ out of the area.

The United States is a country made of immigrants, yet as a nation we never seem able to accept this fact. The Ellwoods have had a large impact on the development of DeKalb, but we must keep in mind that not all of their efforts were a positive move forward. This piece is an abstraction of the plat of the Ellfield Addition, part of the racial covenant signed by members of the Ellwood family in 1925. One portion signifies the purity desired in the Ellfield Addition, contrasting the other portion that represents the surrounding areas where undesired races settled. This racial covenant is not a proud moment for the city, but it is important to remember past transgressions in order to avoid repeating these wrongdoings.”

Milton: What are you looking forward to about the exhibit?

Ma: What’s interesting is that DeKalb is small, yet it has these really interesting parts of history that have now become inherent to its existence. I used to work and live at the Nehring House, so I had a hand in installing some of the exhibitions. I learned more deeply about the site and about the Ellwoods. The Ellwoods were just players in the big boom of barbed wire. Isaac Ellwood didn’t really invent barbed wire, he bought the patent for it. It’s all a part of the layered history of DeKalb. We often neglected to talk about other topics: social justice, diversity and race. Now, in modern times, it is important to talk about those topics. We can’t change it, but we can bring awareness to it. I think that this exhibit will allow [the Ellwood House] to become more transparent about its existence. I think it’s going to be really interesting.

Katrina Milton

Katrina J.E. Milton

Award-winning reporter and photographer for Shaw Media publications, including The Daily Chronicle and The MidWeek newspapers in DeKalb County, Illinois, since 2012.