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Interview by Jenna Elizabeth all artwork courtesy of Mechelle Bounpraseuth

“While each curator had a piece or an artist they felt strongly about, no single artists’ story and art captured our mutual attention in the way that Mechelle’s did. The use of material, the execution and explanation of the motivation really moved us. This submission had it all.” - ILYSM4Artists Judges, The Art Hoe Collective

♡: Hi Mechelle, genuinely thrilled we could find time to connect. For those tuning in, I am in Los Angeles, and Mechelle is in Australia!

Where exactly are you in Australia?

MB: Hey Jenna 👋🏼 thank you for working around my babies nap time so we could chat!

I’m just located in Sydney

And as I’ve typed that my baby has just woken up haha ❤️

♡: Off the bat - I was so taken with your artist statement “My work seeks to reclaim what was taken from me, I do this by creating everyday objects and scenes from life, depicting memories and moments from my childhood.” I love how forthright you are in declaring that. Can you elaborate on what that means?

Oh no, Murphy’s law! Haha

MB: That makes me happy to hear that what I said resonated with people. The statement "My work seeks to reclaim what was taken from me" speaks of my childhood and part of my adulthood where I grew up as a Jehovahs Witness. My parents converted to being a Witnesses when they came as refugees to Australia from Laos. Organisations like that often prey on the vulnerable and they exploited the fact that they were in a new country, alone and so said they would teach them English and keep them safe. They had no idea what they were getting into and how it would isolate them from their community, as well as the ramifications for my sister and I.

I grew up in a very controlled environment, we were told how to dress, how to talk, who we could be friends with and if you questioned things it meant you lacked faith. So since I've left as a way of healing and empowering myself I'm looking back at what I had lost but looking at what I did/do have.

♡: That’s such a relatable story, immigrants are often forced to assimilate to the extent of washing out their history or language, something I can connect to with my own family history. I feel like a lot of people from our generation are really seeking to repair that, and return back to their roots in their practice. It is so heartbreaking because when I talk about it with family there’s a level of just basics needs family’s need to to survive, all things aside of cultural pressure to become part of society whether that be in Australia or the USA - and what ends up getting compromised as a result is just horrendous.

I think for so long there was unspoken shame

So I appreciate your work - and how direct it engages with its audience. It’s using inviting elements that others can relate to instead of creating niche pieces that leave a more alienating feeling

MB: Exactly, there is a lot of guilt that surrounds this issue. And guilt is a powerful tool used to control people. It is so layered and trauma filled and I don't always know how to navigate it but making work helps because I don't always have the words to describe how I feel. When my work resonates with other people it makes it so wholesome because you don't feel so alone.

♡: I love that

There are a lot of elements of nostalgia in your work - like recreating VHS tapes of childhood classics.

Sometimes I find myself clinging to outdated elements as a keepsake or cultural touchstone - the meaning is defined by my own value I project onto it. Your work takes it a step further and memorializes it in a way, finding beauty in the in between spaces of the things we discard but simultaneously hold so dearly.

Can you talk a little bit about your choices in objects recreated?

MB: What you said about "the meaning is defined by my own value I project onto it" is so true. The object is a symbolic of a specific time and place. So I choose objects based on the memory it sparks in me. For example a can of soda references a memory I have of collecting cans with my mother, I would help her collect cans from the bin to sell by the kilo. It takes this memory that could have held so much shame and embarrassment, (rummaging through rubbish), and instead I see it as my mother being industrious and doing whatever she need to do to provide for her family.

♡: Thank you for sharing that personal detail

MB: and for me there is such immense strength and love in that, and I love that you mention that objects serve as a keepsake and cultural touchstone. As a mother my child doesn't have to experience the same things I did to appreciate her cultural history. I have my work and the stories they carry to share with her.

♡: That’s one thing that makes art continuously interesting, artists create their own value system of what to devote our attention to

What was the first piece you created and what is the most recent?

How have you found your practice evolving?

MB: The very first thing I made from clay was a pinch pot, a round shaped vessel. It's one of the first things everyone learns to make when you learn how to hand build with clay. It looks very simple but actually requires patience and technique or else it ends up flattening out into a plate. I remember when I made it, the sense of accomplishment I felt, I finally found a medium that I understood intuitively and saw so much potential in. Because from one simple technique you can make anything!

The most recent thing I made was a series of house hold objects. I made a life size hot water dispenser, a rice cooker and a laundry basket. They're all objects from the domestic sphere and reference my mother and labor within the home and the value it has. Since becoming a mother I'm always trying to find that balance between my career and home life. My mother instilled a certain work ethic into me and taught me how to take care of myself and the people I love by being able to cook and clean. Every generation builds upon the previous generation so I take those skills and translate them into my work, they're no limited to the home. I made the laundry basket when my daughter was just 3 months old, she slept near by or I would rock her in her basket while coiling with one hand. For me this laundry basket doesn't represent this household chore, but instead it about valuing labor in all forms particularly maternal labor

♡: Im curious if there were any memories that surfaced in your work in the act of creating that were initially unintentional - a trigger if you will - reclaiming a memory, by being drawn to the object and then uncovering a feeling or a deeper meaning as you constructed the shape to life?

That’s great that you can challenge the meaning of identity roles, and honor your family and maternity in the laundry basket piece you described

MB: My practise has evolved a lot over the years. It's not always obvious that my work is about processing intergenerational trauma, grief and identity. They're really heavy topics to unpack and talking about it in a public sphere is even more daunting. But over the years I find that the stories behind each work is just as important because the voice and experiences of POC are often silenced and stifled. I know my voice was by fear that my parents instilled into me, they saw it as a way to protect me, to not bring attention to myself and possible harm. But the more people I meet who are children of migrant parents who share common stories with me, the more compelled I am to share mine. I guess I'm seeing the value in myself?

The question mark at the end was because I'm still so doubtful of myself lol, I feel like most people are navigating those feelings, I guess its just about trying pushing past them 😅😅

There was one particular work where I uncovered a deeper meaning after I constructed it.

♡: That description is so powerful. It also reminds me of an epiphany in the film Blow Up by Antonioni when David Hemmings goes to The Birds concert and the crowd is recklessly fighting over a piece of broken guitar. And DH snatches a piece and leaves the show and then after he leaves, he takes a moment outside and realizes he doesn’t even want it and tosses it away. What you’re describing is a different feeling, but learning or recognizing that feeling of attachment, and longing is interesting. That moment we can walk away from the face value and seek the deeper connection of what brought us to that moment of promised joy - and being disappointed or recognizing “despair” as you phrased - is so powerful. Childhood is made up of so many of these complex feelings that take decades to unravel...

MB: I made it when we found out my mother was terminally ill and I had just found out I was pregnant. I remember making it and thinking of my mum and then it wasn't just about recapturing this childhood toy but trying to hold on to every precious memory and moment I could of my beautiful mother.

♡: Yes it’s the memory, the association of, so intensely dynamic. Makes me want to cry

I feel like you captured the nuance really beautifully

It’s interesting, the journal-like stories in relation to your work is equally profound

I like having both as a companion to the piece

MB: Thank you lovely, I'm kind of crying right now. But its a mixture of grief but also gratitude for what I had. I was actually able to share that work and story with my mother, I'm so thankful that I was able to verbalise to my mother how much I loved and appreciated her.

♡: Loss is very difficult to describe, and such a private experience - and I can relate to wanting to prolong or capture an essence in a symbolized work - my mom’s breast cancer spread to her skull, and this really hits home for me

MB: I'm going to have to watch that movie now!

♡: She is still alive but I find myself wanting to crystallize these memories now even more so

MB: I think there is something powerful and healing about reclaiming your experience. Discarding the parts that don't serve you and taking what you need.

♡: It’s a must watch!

*Editor’s note: The following section deals with sensitive subject matter dealing with eating disorders and may be triggering for some readers.

♡: Shifting gears a little, I feel like your incorporation of food in your work is really interesting - as food relates to happiness and rewarding positive or negative feelings. There’s an interesting psychology to it - nourishment versus pleasure, passing of cultural tradition, escapism, trash. Growing up we are often rewarded with sweets and also gravitate to rich foods for comfort.

Some of the scenes you’ve created have an element of taboo temptation, like a beautiful cake with a cigarette butt - contradictory feelings that feel forbidden or disgusting while being playfully inviting, and realistic to the eye. Another example is the incorporation of a seagull picking at left overs, teasing in a way.

I’m curious what your take on the food is?

MB: My relationship with food is very layered. I use it to connect to my culture, Lao food is quite distinct. I remember we had a "multicultural" food day at school and I brought the most Lao thing possible. It was a container of sticky rice and dried jerky my mum made by drying it out the back on our washing line. It was really eye opening to my 8 year old self because rice and dry meat was so normal to me. But when I saw how the other children reacted to it and our teach made everyone vote for their favourite and pancakes won (lol) I felt like such an outsider.

But when I make Lao food now, not just in ceramic form I'm honouring that difference and that what makes it special.

♡: I’m glad you have a sense of humor about it - I feel like that translates in your work as well

Humor as a coping mechanism is a powerful tool

MB: Food is also how I convey love. I love making food to share with people I love, again it references my mother and how hospitable she was. Certain foods trigger beautiful memories like being sick and having warm congee in bed, it was like ingesting love.

The way you speak about the complexities of food is very true. My relationship with food has been difficult too. I developed an eating disorder as a teenager. So if you see any contradictory messages of love and disgust it may unconsciously referencing that. But I am in a very good place and am learning to heal and accept myself. When I was pregnant and my body changed a lot I actually learnt to love and appreciate my body, I don't think I ever felt as beautiful as I did when my belly swelled ❤️

♡: I haven’t had a child but I can imagine that giving birth can quell negative feelings about body image bc to me it is one of the most miraculous things a body is capable of (not that that should be a defining end all be all) but is such a testament to strength. Strength is so beautiful.

One of the things I really like to champion in these profiles are the multiple channels in which people can support artists. I read online that you also have a zine? What was the origin story behind it, and is it still available to purchase? We’re quite keen on zines here in the ILYSM family!

MB: That is so wonderful. Before I applied for the grant I read about ILYSM and its wholesome approach to helping other creatives. It can be so competitive and cliquey so reading about how ILYSM is purely based on the premise of showing love and support to other creatives is so beautiful

♡: Happy to hear that, we make a concerted effort and I’ve really enjoyed getting to purchase objects from other artists, it’s like a little club

MB: Zines were my first love! The last zine I made a few years ago was called "The Joy of Public Transport". Anyone who take public transport on a regular basis knows theres no joy lol. I started making them as a way to kind of process the experiences I had while riding them. I often encounter really confronting things like feeling threatened by men or being verbally or racially abused so I drew these encounters to process them but I did it in a kind of dry humours way. Like you mentioned before "Humor as a coping mechanism is a powerful tool".

♡: Loving the angle

MB: I do have a few left if anyone is interested but I'm not set up with a shop or anything. Just dm's via instagram for now.

♡: Noted and logged, are the pieces on your site also available for purchase by private DM [@mechelleb_]

MB: Some are, but the site is more like a catalogue of my old work, most of them have sold. But I'm working on some new work and a way to make purchasing work easier (tbh have no idea how to do that, but I'm working on it!) but for now DMs is best and commissions are always welcome too.

♡: Wonderful, final question what are three things (could be activities, shows, books, articles, recipes) you would recommend to those quarantined at home?

MB: Being in isolation can be really hard so whenever I have anxiety about anything I always turn to the 3 C’s, cleaning, carbs and chillaxing. As I get older I find cleaning to be one of the most enjoyable and calming things I can do when my mind is cluttered with thoughts, it helps bring calm and order to my chaotic mind and makes me feel like I’m doing something tangible to combat intangible thoughts and feelings. My recommendation is to clean with your favourite essential oil. Put a cupful of eucalyptus, tea tree or lavender in with a mixture of hot water and vinegar, it's a natural and an effective cleaning agent.

♡: And don’t say pancakes ;)

MB: lol look at me talking about cleaning. My mum would be so proud!

♡: Into the cleaning advice - two for one deal

MB: Now for carbs- my favourite comfort and budget friendly recipes is corn soup! You take a bag of frozen corn and blitz it in the blender with some water. Put that in a pot over stove, add a stock cube and simmer. You can add silken tofu, finely chopped vegetables like zucchini, carrots or potato (whatever you have in the fridge) or you can just leave it as is and it be purely corn. Once it start boiling you add watered down cornflour and mix that in to thicken the soup. Make sure you water down the cornflower with cold water in a seperate bowl or else it will go clumpy and grosso. Then add chopped up spring onions (scallions) and coriander (cilantro) and then add some sesame seed oil, soy sauce and chilli on top. If you want to be hella fancy you can fry up some garlic in oil and drizzle that on top.

♡: Sounds delish

MB: Lastly chillaxing- we're conditioned to think that our output is connected to ourself worth. I often feel like I should be doing more, taking on more and making more but taking the time to slow down and practise self care is just as important, if not more so. My best friend sent me this link to a meditative track by Tricia Hersey of the Nap Ministry.

♡: These are such thoughtful suggestions, appreciate the detail you provided

MB: I'm always grateful for free resources that promote self care, kindness and healing

♡: It’s been ever so special getting to know you today. Grateful to not only connect with your work but you!

MB: You're very welcome! Thank you for taking the time to talk to me, I really appreciate the thoughtfulness of all your questions and the insights you had to share.

♡: Connection is so essential right now, so equally appreciative of your ability to be so open in the process

Mechelle Bounpraseuth (b - 1985) is a Sydney based artist whose practice includes drawing, photography, video, zines and ceramics. She graduated from the National Art School in 2016. She has since been the recipient of the Fishers Ghost Prize for Sculpture, Macquarie Group Emerging Art Prize and the Trudie Alfred Bequest Scholarship. Her artworks have been published in Art Almanac, Art and Australia, The Journal of Australian Ceramics and Art Collector. Her work has also been collected by Art Bank, National Gallery of Australia and National Library of Australia.