As editors, we’re continually fascinated by both the process and physical space in which creativity is allowed to thrive. In our new Artist in Residence series, we’ll be touring the residences and studios that our top-ranked tastemakers call home. Each month, we’ll select a singular and distinctive guide to take us down the rabbit hole of the American art scene. Our first tour took us inside the east L.A. studio of visual artist and musician Matt Maust. This week we're sitting down with another West Coast muse at the top of our ones-to-watch list.
Cheryl Humphreys exudes relaxed California cool. So much so, that one might not immediately guess that the East Coast native originally hails from Baltimore. At the helm of Los Angeles–based design studio Arms, Humphreys divides her time between art direction for a roster of stylish clients and the production of her own finer works. Drawing upon a background in printmaking and graphic design, her signature style often blends disparate themes into a polished and exacting standard. Humphreys’s subtle, embossed work on paper possess a quiet elegance and peering curiosity. Modern technology mixes with retro nostalgia. Feminist ideals blithely brush against self-aware, tongue-in-cheek wit. There’s also the impressive mastery of a white-on-white aesthetic.
I met up with Humphreys at her in-home studio to talk about muses, L.A.’s burgeoning art scene, and why sometimes pressure makes the best play. You should see what she can do with just a single sheet of paper.
JILLIAN KNOX FINLEY: You went to school for graphic design, right?
CHERYL HUMPHREYS: Yes, I went to Savannah College of Art and Design for a year, and then I transferred to Otis College of Art and Design out here in Los Angeles. I really enjoyed Otis. I still love school. If I have an opportunity at some point to get my MFA, I will.
JFK: In design?
CH: I think it would be in printmaking. I’m not sure how much more I can learn about design from a school setting. The experience that I’ve had has taken me on such a specific path. I feel I learn most from my clients and the collaboration process that happens within those relationships.
I majored in graphic design. For all my electives, I made sure I was down in the studio taking a letterpress class or a screenprinting class. I was doing whatever I could to spend as much time off the computer as possible. As a graphic designer, you’re in front of a screen all the time. I need to use my hands. For an artist, one’s hand mark is invaluable. Anyone can learn a software program. What you make with your hands is yours.
JFK: Your art is so subtle and tactile. My favorite part about your designs is that they manage to feel exacting and precise yet also handwrought. What is your process like?
CH: I always begin with a drawing by hand. Later I bring it into the computer to make a more precise line that will be laser-cut into a stencil. The laser-cutting process requires a computer file. Then I go to press. Depending on the paper and if I’m inking it or not, I might soak the paper or run it through dry. It’s done with a lot of pressure. There’s a lot of experimentation, a lot of trial and error.
JFK: Did you start designing straight out of art school?
CH: I avoided the real world for a while. I was waitressing, just having fun, and ended up working for two of my professors who had design studios. What’s cool about Otis is every teacher on staff is a working professional. They’re in the real world. What they’re passing on to the student body is valid, real-time job experience, which I think is really important.
I took a job at a small studio in West Hollywood called Eyerus and from there went to Pop Studio in Culver City. My partner in both life and work, Mike, and I met at Eyerus, and we worked together at Pop as well. We worked together for five years before we started our own studio, Arms, two years ago.
JFK: Your design work for Arms is rad and pretty diverse. What do you specialize in?
CH: We primarily do branding, identity work, and art direction. I hand-draw and design patterns for different clothing lines. We specialize in print, lookbooks, and product books for clients. We love something that is a final product. When work never leaves the computer, it boggles my mind. If we’re designing a website or something, it almost never feels finished.
Designing a book or a postcard, even a woven label for the inside of a shirt, it’s printed and finalized. Someone can hold it in their hand. Our process is about helping brands articulate who they are and how they want to look to the rest of the world. A lot of our job is being inventive on their behalf!
JFK: I’ve read there’s a link between producing a tangible product and job satisfaction. Apparently, carpentry is said to be quite fulfilling work.
CH: That makes sense to me!
JFK: Without that tangibility, you can lose hold of that anchor of accomplishment.
JFK: How did you come up with your embossing technique?
CH: I used to collect architectural stencils. Those green ones you’d use to make a floor plan or draw a perfect circle; I would collect. At Otis, I was down in the print lab all the time. I’d ink my found stencils and run them through the press. I thought it was interesting to take something found—something already designed by someone else for someone else to design something else with—and use it for a completely different purpose. One day I ran one through without ink and thought it was really beautiful. I recall specifically asking my professor at the time, Nancy Haselbacher (a leader in today’s printmaking community) about the blind embossed print I had just made: “But will people know what this is?” And her response was “Do they have to?” There was a sense of freedom that came with that response from her that has stayed with me.
With blind embossing, you’re depending on light to create shadow and highlights in order to see the image. After I exhausted printing all the stencils I had, I realized I could just make my own stencils and started playing with the reactions of different papers. Recently I had someone who specializes in traditional handmade paper make some custom handmade paper for me. It’s incredibly thick. It’s so cool. I’m interested in seeing how far I can go with just a piece of paper; how sculptural I can get with it.
JFK: The first time I saw your work, it immediately had this nostalgic quality. It reminds me of discovering hotel notepads as a kid—that discovery that you could color lightly on top of the next page to make out the previous handwriting, like a carbon copy.
CH: Yes! Or when you’d trace over a penny with a piece of paper and a pencil.
JFK: Your female silhouettes are quiet yet provocative. How do you choose your themes?
CH: I think a lot of times, I’ll make one specific illustration or concept and get really excited about it … often leading to a series. It then becomes this wildfire that inspires whatever comes next. The first piece I made for my last show was a power symbol filled with a bunch of little flowers, called “Flower Power.” From there, I thought, What other shapes can I fill that would make a fun pun? I came up with “Love Struck” via hearts in a lightning bolt and “Burn Your Bra” with flames in the shape of a bra.
JFK: Do you title all of your pieces?
CH: I do. I think the naming is really important. It’s a special little moment for the viewer.
JFK: The titles are very charming. I finally made it to the Cindy Sherman show at The Broad. The fact that all her work is untitled adds something special to the dialogue.
CH: I understand her take of not titling anything. You don’t want to put an idea in the viewer’s head. It leaves a blank slate for them to interpret it any way. As soon as you title something, you are affecting the experience, especially with photographs.
JFK: A lack of title almost highlights the fact that her work speaks for itself. It’s defiant in a way. As a writer, of course, I love titles.
CH: Me too! I love language. Mike is a wizard with words and has really pushed me to be more thoughtful when it comes to naming my pieces. I think it’s super important, especially in that my work is so simple. That extra push helps the mind go in a direction maybe it wouldn’t have if you had just seen it and walked away, you know? I really love making work that makes people get up close and see it in person. My work isn’t easily photographed. It has to be experienced.
JFK: I was about to ask you about that. It is quite tough to photograph your work.
CH: It is. I like that it’s difficult. You can’t easily experience it via Instagram. You have to be there in person. It calls upon you to be there.
JFK: I think Agnes Martin is the same way. To see the subtlety and restraint in her use of color is arresting in person. For me at least, it’s far more emotional. I think I’m pretty drawn to art that doesn’t translate via media. Maybe it’s my love/hate relationship with technology at large. What was your process like getting connected with Paul Loya Gallery?
CH: Getting connected with Paul was really funny. About four years ago, I had this vision of having a gallery show and being represented by a gallery in L.A. I was determined. I had never even had my own solo show before. For some reason, I got it into my head that was what was going to happen. A mutual friend initially connected Paul and I via email, and I had followed up. He hadn’t gotten back to me after weeks, maybe even months. I emailed him. Still nothing. Finally, one day, after a little push from Mike, I just went in there. I was like, “Hey, Paul! I’m Cheryl! I’ve emailed you a couple times now. I really appreciate the work in your gallery. I love the artists that you represent. I just wanted to know if you’d take a look at my work.”
He was really taken off-guard. Then he said, “I was seriously about to email you!” I still to this day do not know if that is true. He puts on a summer group show to showcase new artists. He had me do the group show. It went really well, and then he said, “I’d love to have you on board.” I had my first solo show with him there in November. It was the most fun. That experience was really special to me. I had had a really difficult year leading up to the show. The work had a lot of emotion. It felt like the best way to heal.
JFK: Do you find that what’s going on with you personally comes out in your work in pronounced ways?
CH: Absolutely. One of my favorite series from my last show is inspired by real text message conversations. I went back through my phone and screenshot coming-of-age conversations with friends or loved ones who were dear to my heart. One of them was from 2012. That’s how far back you can go on your phone! Essentially, what I did was create a stencil from the text thread that contained no words, only the shape of the text box—you can see the dialogue without the words. I made these long pieces, all titled with a sentence from within the conversation. One of my favorites is the one where my best friend is telling me for the first time that she might be a lesbian. It’s titled “I May Have Had a Sort of Kinda Maybe Lesbian Experience.” They’re all documented with the date and time of the conversation. I love the idea we’re all connected by these text threads.
JFK: How did you come up with your plexiglass framing technique?
CH: It took me years to figure out how to best frame my work. If you go with a really deep frame, you’re blocking light from coming in from all angles. If you go with something that is clear on the edges, the light comes in, and you can see the embossing so much more. It really illuminates the work. I came up with the idea after seeing a ’60s and ’70s drawing show at LACMA. One of Larry Bell’s works was framed like this. It wasn’t embossed or anything, but it was just genius for letting light in.
JFK: The small ones are in blocks of Lucite right?
CH: Yeah, that came from exploring how else I could play with plexi. I am really inspired by the ’70s, this time before we were so distracted by technology. The way we communicate now interests me. We have all these habits from our different devices. How much meaning these little tech symbols have for us is so interesting, and the transition is happening so fast.
JFK: I still remember the pride of telling people I didn’t have a text plan in the early 2000s.
CH: Or you had texting but you weren’t really using it. It was so new and difficult! I remember not having Instagram. It wasn’t that long ago. Now it’s changing the way we buy things, the way we look at the world, the way we connect/disconnect.
JFK: What do you think about the way it’s affecting the art world?
CH: You know, in August of last year, Mike and I attended an artist talk with Gordon Holden at Paul’s gallery about art and technology. That same day, we read a poignant article by Bobby Kim, aka Bobby Hundreds, called “Heading Home: Getting Onboard With Going Offline.” The article is about going offline and the importance of at least acknowledging how being so connected and seeing everyone’s process is taking a bit of the magic away in a sense. Social media is media. That day, we got offline, literally. I have a consciousness around the short life of something that’s posted on Instagram. We spend all this time thinking about what we’re going to post and curating. Then it’s almost already forgotten as soon as it’s posted.
JFK: It’s adrift in the river…
CH: Exactly. This article poses the question: If you’re an artist, would you put your work on a gallery wall next to a photo your aunt’s sandwich? No, you wouldn’t do that. What I took away from it is so much time is being spent on this machine, scrolling through other people’s memories. What about our own? What about what we could have been doing in the last 10 minutes? Even the last two minutes? What else could we do with that energy that we just spent?
I’m a really emotional person. I felt social media was disrupting my creative process. I went off in August of last year, and I haven’t really been back. If I post it’s about a show that I really want to reach people. After that, I will immediately delete the app off my phone and not look at the response. That shit affects you! Even if you are someone who doesn’t think that it does—it seeps in. I truly believe if you are passionate about something, if you light a fire, it will be seen by people. It will get out there.
JFK: I mostly follow artists. I have but a handful of personal lives that take up my feed.
CH: I think that’s awesome! You’re curating your feed to inspire you.
JFK: I enjoy seeing early drafts and layers of the creative process on Instagram. Matt Maust posts a lot of work that feels in progress in his feed. I think that immediacy is always exciting, to see the different iterations of things.
CH: Yeah, that’s cool. You see its different lives.
JFK: I wrote an essay about going off social media. I do follow my friends who travel a lot. Even then, the idea of that I’ve “connected” with them because I liked a photo of their whereabouts is pretty off-putting. It’s the illusion of connection. It’s not a proper surrogate.
CH: I know. It’s not reality! It’s really bizarre. They’re something magical about having a friend tell you about a road trip they were on and being able to imagine their experience. Seeing photos that they specifically share with you and not the rest of the world is going to be entirely different.
JFK: I like the idea of having an experience and holding onto it for a while. There’s a sanctity to digesting something before it gets offered back into the world. My first addiction to a device was my digital camera. As soon as I wasn’t on film, I binged on all the memory cards I wanted. I’m so introverted that if I was traveling, especially abroad, I’d often find myself more comfortable in groups of people if I was behind a lens. It became a way to participate in life without having to feel vulnerable. The realization of that, the idea that it wasn’t entirely healthy, sparked a tacit loathing for my social accounts.
CH: Isn’t it weird that that is something you even have to think about nowadays? People talk about the worry of if they get off social media, how are they going to get jobs? My view is that if you’re acquiring work through something as transient and fickle as Instagram, it’s probably not going to be a long-lasting relationship.
JFK: I’ve had some respectable people tell me I would have trouble getting writing gigs without my Twitter account.
CH: Really? That’s crazy! The pressure of keeping up, staying relevant, and having something consistently to say is a lot. So many people have this weird back-and-forth love/hate relationship with social media.
JFK: Well, when the realization that perception is reality sinks in, that’s when the anxiety arrives for me. Total control isn’t possible. You’re posting these fragments of life that over time get knitted into this quilt of an image that maybe isn’t even a proper big picture. I can appreciate that, for brands, a following provides a tangible metric for reach.
CH: It’s been nice to be away from it all. I feel like I have space in my head and I’m not constantly trying to stimulate myself. That’s the other thing. I felt like I was always stimulating myself. I need space to be bored. I need time for my mind to wander. We’re so used to that stimulation now.
JFK: What are your favorite themes to explore when your mind wanders?
CH: I really like what we’ve been talking about because I think that there is a need for not being blasted with so much at once. There is a need for some quiet time. That is a lot of what goes into my work, even if it’s subconscious. It’s thoughtful. It needs to be quiet because we have so much going on around us. Calling on people to get close—even the simple act of having to read the title to make the connection in their head. We all need more of that maybe.
JFK: I wonder if our generation is more sensitive to the social media boom because we had a childhood without it. All my nostalgia rests in a world absent that technology.
CH: Mine too.
JFK: Maybe it’s different for kids that grew up with it.
CH: Mike and I always talk about that. We hope our kids tell us to put our devices down!
JFK: What’s most pronounced for me is that the youth of today seem to possess this real sense of self-image. As a teenager, I don’t remember having much of a feel for that. Maybe at best, you knew if you were “popular” in high school, even that seemed a pretty nebulous concept to me. Kids today have a vise-grip on media as identity. I don’t know that that’s a negative thing. It’s definitely an awareness I didn’t grow up with. I’ve met 10-year-olds with branded aesthetics.
CH: Isn’t that crazy?
JFK: Our generation maybe has more shame around selfies, I feel.
JFK: Do you ever get blocked?
CH: I don’t think blocked. The problem for me is having too many ideas and not having enough time to explore them. Mike and I run our own studio; client work gets in the way of fine art and the time we want to ideally devote to our own work. There’s always inspiration. It becomes about finding the time to create. I love design and collaborating with clients because it allows me to consistently make something I would not be able to make on my own. When I produce something with a client, it’s teamwork. There’s a back-and-forth. I wind up with art I never would have imagined on my own. You can’t imagine the end result, because you have to let the other person influence and shape what that will be.
JFK: How do you find the balance?
CH: I don’t! It’s really hard. I wish I had more time to create, but maybe that’s why I still love it so much. I don’t have to rely on fine art to make money. I think that’s a really good place to be. The business can’t change my dynamic of it. I rent a studio by day in Santa Monica. It’s so cool because it’s a shared space. It’s called Josephine Press. It’s owned by John Greco. He’s a master printmaker and has been a part of the printmaking community in Los Angeles since the ’70s. He attracts a very interesting group of people. It’s fun to go in there and see what everyone’s up to. Although I work best by myself. I like having my quiet time when experimenting.
JFK: Do you find that your environment influences your work?
CH: Absolutely. When I go to the studio, I have a plan. Since I rent it out, I go there with something I’ve been thinking about for a while that I want to test out. I have a concept already, and I’m applying that concept to materials. I ideate more freely at home. I’m more likely to be at dinner talking about an idea. Wherever that part happens is usually in the comfort of my own space. It is separate in that I have to be productive when I get in the studio. Of course you have more productive days or days where what you thought was going to happen didn’t work out. That’s part of it. It’s hard in L.A. It’s a luxury to have a space separate from your home that you can afford as a workspace. We run our business out of our master bedroom.
JFK: Tell me about how you go about collecting your art for your house.
CH: Mike and I moved into our place three years ago. We have a Parra piece in the hall. I’d say seven years ago we went to a Parra show and Mike wanted to buy one of his multicolored screenprints. We were both pretty broke at the time. I said, “Is that really in your best interest?” and I didn’t let him buy it. Four years after that, we went to another show. Of course they were so much more expensive! I ended up buying him a print from another show just to say, I’m sorry for not letting you buy that one seven years ago.
The neon sign in my office is a piece I made to accompany a show. I have some of my photography in the house. I did a series of documentary bus photos in school. I thought it was fascinating what a bus looks like at rush hour versus the middle of the night. I made a book. I was living in Minneapolis, and I didn’t have a car; it was negative 20 degrees most days. I loved that people were waiting outside getting on and off the bus no matter what. It’s the same in New York. No matter how much money you make, you have to get from one side of the city to another. It’s this common denominator. It levels the playing field.
JFK: There’s something really romantic about people on their way to a destination. Do you still shoot?
CH: Yeah, I always have a roll of film in the camera, whether it’s for a lookbook or travel. We work with a brand called Réalisation, which is a clothing line that two of my girlfriends started. I’m the art director, so I shoot a bunch for that.
JFK: You have such a recognizable style. How important was it for you to develop a distinctive stamp as an artist? Was that conscious?
CH: It’s not conscious. I think it comes from my design background. I have a really graphic aesthetic. It was very much this is what I know. This is how I know to make art. It’s completely subconscious.
JFK: Did you always want to be an artist?
CH: My mom said as a kid I wasn’t happy unless I had a piece of paper and a pencil in my hand. Then I would just do my own thing.
JFK: Who are your biggest influences?
CH: I love Ed Moses, Helen Frankenthaler. It’s funny. I’m attracted to artists who are so not like me—artists who are so expressive and emotional. When you look at my work, it’s very tidy. It’s all orderly and specific and geometric. I’m attracted to the exact opposite. I’m more curious about it because I know less about it. There is a preciseness when it comes to embossing because it’s a very meticulous process. I like to get messy with the dyeing. At the end, it doesn’t look messy, but my hands are purple for days. I like to feel less restricted, even if when it comes together it still looks quite graphic.
JFK: Everything feels contained, and then there’s this tiny flourish of chaos at the edge. Are all the edges in your work torn by hand?
CH: Yes, the edges are all hand-torn. Paper that is handmade is considered disrespectful to cut, so it’s all hand-torn.
JFK: Really! Where does that come from?
CH: I’m not sure. John taught me that. He’s a master printer. I take anything he says as law. I love rules. I need rules.
JFK: What do you think about what’s happening with the downtown L.A. art scene?
CH: I think it’s so exciting. It’s an interesting time. Anything goes right now.
JFK: Whereas in New York there’s such tradition.
CH: Things are changing. With Tappan Collective, for example, they have this platform that is completely different. They don’t have an outright space they are showing work in. They’ll have pop-up galleries here and there that we’ll participate in as artists, but everything is available online. They are doing it in such an original way that isn’t watering down anything. I sell all original art on the site. People in New York or Texas or internationally have access to my work.
JFK: The collection of artists on that site is among my favorite anywhere.
CH: I think so too. It’s fun when we get to do shows together because not all of us know each other. They come up with cool ways to get our work out there.
JFK: The art scene can be a bit of a boys’ club. Back in 1989, anonymous group Guerrilla Girls famously had that campaign, “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met Museum?” I think the statistics back then were less than 5% of the modern artists represented were women, with 85% of the nudes being female.
CH: On my Tumblr right now, I have something from Guerrilla Girls speaking about this very thing. It’s really interesting. My gallery represents probably 20 artists, and two of them are women. Tappan has a great ratio! I was just talking to a female artist friend about this last night. She and her partner are both artists. When she has an art show, she is always really nervous, thinking, Are people going to come? When he has an art show, he’s like, Fuck yeah! This is my favorite. It’s the opening!
She’ll say, “Aren’t you worried?” His response is always “Worried about what?” She thought, Well of course you’re not worried. You’re a white male. What have you ever had to worry about? No one is going to be telling you can’t do something. Not that it’s so literal. That might not be consciously there all the time, but as a demographic, they have led a path of least resistance, perhaps. There’s an absence of fear. That confidence takes them even further. I always wonder if my art speaks to men. Does it speak more to women? I’m interested in that. I’m genuinely not sure.
JFK: The business of art is a fascinating animal.
CH: I don’t like thinking about that side. I’m so emotional. I care so much. I love the exchange of when someone comes over to the studio to purchase a piece. When someone gives me the opportunity to have an exchange, to hear why they are interested in a piece, I love that. If I’m not a part of the business transaction; it makes me feel I have no idea where it’s going or why it resonated.
JFK: I have only sold one piece of art at a gallery to someone I didn’t meet. I often wonder if it is lying in a garbage bin somewhere. I don’t know its fate! Are there pieces that you create that you refuse to sell?
CH: Yes. Sometimes time goes by, and I’ll say, “Okay, I’m ready,” or time goes by and I say, “No way! Still not ready.”
JFK: My favorite thing about writing is it is a medium that you can give away and still keep. Music is the same in the sense that you can create something personal and send it out without losing it entirely. Fine art is so precious. I imagine it’s harder to let go. Putting all your effort into a rendition and losing the original version.
CH: Absolutely. Last year, John had taken me to the home of a member of the L.A. printmaking community that had passed away. Her name was Ruth Leaf. She was in her 90s, and she was a printmaker until the day she died. She kept a studio in her garage. He took me there a few days after she had passed and asked if I had wanted anything. There were these stacks of beautiful, weathered-around-the-edges handmade paper. When I had them in my possession, I felt they still had her energy. They might have been 50 years old or five years old. We didn’t know anything about them, really. I decided I wasn’t going to ink or dye them. They could only be embossed. They needed very special attention. As I was working with them or transporting them to the press, they felt so precious. I was very nervous around these beautiful pieces of paper. I thought that was so cool. I had a hard time selling those pieces. The story of where that paper came from was special. I have one left. I don’t know if it’s going anywhere.