D.C. is a small town. So small, in fact, that mixed-media artist Emon Surakitkoson and I have run into each other at least three times at rock shows and cocktail bars around the city in the past year. In all cases, we exchanged glances and considered saying, “Hey,” vaguely recognizing each other from social media but unable to pinpoint why. Several months ago, our paths crossed when one of her vast and monochromatic works of abstract art was featured in our magazine, and I finally had an opening to reach out.
On a recent Zoom interview, we covered a lot of ground. Surakitkoson moved to the DMV from Thailand at 19 and spent more than a decade working in the food and drink industry, building her chosen family, and forging a very driven, very focused path to becoming a self-taught artist. Now, the 35-year-old resides in Park View with her English bulldog Noodle, making art full-time and picking up shifts at The Midlands Beer Garden to stay connected to her friends in the bar and restaurant scene. In just a few short years, she’s nabbed a spot at 52 O Street Studios with her best friend, run Silent Auction Industry Nights for artists in the food and service industry and sold many commissioned works of art.
Now, she’s gearing up for her first solo exhibit at Strathmore in Bethesda, Maryland this September, a welcome distraction from our current reality. The more she shared with me, the more apparent it became that Surakitkoson is extremely comfortable in her own skin. While staying connected to her family in Thailand and her friends in D.C. is of paramount importance, so is creating art that speaks to her – with no pretension and no illusions about being something she is not. She has mastered the art of nuance, embracing the subtleties that lie within her craft and the emotions evoked when creating them.
Read on to learn about her vision for the future, her methods for staying sane in the present – including designing Buttercream Bakeshop cakes, sewing masks with recycled materials, and taking Noodle on nature walks – and the ways she’s carved out her own identity while still maintaining strong ties to her native soil.
District Fray: Why did you decide to move to D.C. at 19?
Emon Surakitkoson: When you finish college [in Thailand], you’re [expected to] get married and become a mom. I told my dad when I was younger, “Hey, I want to do advertising. I want to make commercials.” My dad said, “No, no, no. You have to be a nurse or a teacher, and then you can do art part-time.” Going to art school back then wasn’t an opportunity for me with Asian parents. I feel like I didn’t really have the opportunity when I was younger to find out who I am.
When did you start teaching yourself how to make art?
Almost three years ago. When I first started, I was managing two bars and my relationship wasn’t great. I was like, “Okay, I think I have depression.” But I didn’t know what depression was because in my culture, nobody had depression. You get up and go to work. My friends said, “Well, start doing it more.” I did it more and now, it’s my job. I wake up and paint every day.
A significant portion of your work is monochromatic. How would you describe your style as an artist?
I work with white, black, gray, and sometimes gold and silver, but I change the tone of them a lot. Working with colors sometimes stresses me out, and I don’t really like doing stuff that stresses me out. I’d rather use black, white and gray, and then I make it interesting using dots and lines.
What inspired your Silent Auction Industry Art Nights?
I run them to show people, “If you love something and work on it hard enough, it could become a thing.” When I moved here, I started working in bars and restaurants. Then I started painting and a bunch of people who supported me [were like], “Em! Keep it going. You’re doing great.” If I didn’t have those people, I don’t think I would have become who I am.
What’s next for you as an artist?
Hopefully, my dad can come to see my solo show [at Strathmore]. I’m also trying to apply for a grant where you can go to a different country and learn about art. Then at the end of that period of time, they will have a show for [your art].
Would you go back to Thailand?
Yeah, I want to go back. My uncle is an artist in Thailand, and he’s done a lot of props for movies. I want to learn how to do sculptures out of foam. Maybe if I can get the grant and I do the show, I’ll get to spend time [with my family] and then maybe my dad won’t worry. I’m the youngest, so he’s always worried about me.
What do you want to accomplish in the meantime?
Next year, or maybe after the [Strathmore] show ends, I’d like a bigger studio and maybe to do more classes for people.
Do you teach at 52 O Street now?
I have a bunch of people [in their] early 20s who come to the studio all the time. I teach them what I know: You have to be happy when you [make art], because if not, why are you doing it at all? I tell them, “Don’t do it because it’s cool. Do it because you love it. One day, it’ll become uncool, and then you’re not going to want to do it anymore.” I’m a bit old-school. Remind yourself why you make art.
Art aside, how are you handling the social distancing milieu?
When [Covid] first started, I sent out a letter in my neighborhood to see if anyone needed groceries or anything like that. Midlands gave me a bunch of T-shirts, and I [made] them into masks. I’m going to drop them off to So Others Might Eat. You have to do little things that make you feel good and a part of the community. We’re all here going through this together. It must be hard for all the people who have less.
Do you have any other projects in the works?
I [recently] designed and painted a cake with [Amilye Saunders of Buttercream Bakeshop]. I make clothes [with] recycled [materials]. These sweatshirts, I give them to a lot of friends. If you ever see these with the crooked sewing and recycled materials on them, that’s me. People just need a little project, you know?
You and me both. What about self-care?
I read a lot. I FaceTime a lot with my friends to check on them. I clean and rearrange from time to time. Luckily enough, I have a backyard, so I garden. I smoke sometimes and it’s kind of like, “Ahhh. Everything will be okay.” I miss going out to the bars and reading a lot. That will be the first thing I do: Go read at a bar and get drunk.
Don’t miss Surakitkoson’s solo exhibit at Strathmore from September 8 to October 31.
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