• UO Interviews: Chinwe Okona of PALMSS

    We spent the day with Chinwe Okona - artist, art director, photographer and the woman behind the bi-annual print publication PALMSS. PALMSS showcases the thoughts, feelings, growth, and creative processes of every day, creative people. Here we learn more about Chinwe, her creative process and what keeps her inspired.

    And LA friends, be sure to come by our issue launch party for PALMSS at Space 15 Twenty on Saturday, May 6 from 6-9pm. More info here.

    Tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do! 
    My name is Chinwe Okona; I take photos, do art/creative direction, and have an infinity for editorial layout and design. 

    How long have you lived in LA? 
    This fall I will have lived in Los Angeles for two years. Working backwards before that I was in Oakland, Cleveland, Miami, Dallas, and Atlanta. I call Miami home, but LA is becoming a serious contender. 

    How did you get started with PALMSS? 
    After a year of living in LA, I found myself taking a lot of pictures, but there wasn’t really any directionality or purpose behind the things I was making. I toyed with the idea of doing a photo project featuring creative folks of color, but wasn’t set on the specific story I wanted to tell. In conjunction with a portrait series I did in 2013 I interviewed all my subjects, but I never ended up using the interviews. I figured this time I would use the interviews to turn this project into a magazine, because the possibilities in terms of what a magazine can become are endless. Also I like really convoluted projects that involve a lot of multitasking, and a magazine made perfect sense as a way to work simultaneously with a lot of people, doing a lot of different things, but all housed under one shell. 

    What does your creative process look like when putting together an issue? 
    I have this weird relationship with sticky notes; I’m forever making book lists, grocery lists, lists of whose birthday is coming up in the next week, etc. Creativity is a microcosm of life, so my creative process looks much in the same. I start by brainstorming a list of people that I think would make up an interesting group of interviews. Then I think about what other supplemental pieces would be strong contributions to the issue as a whole, and who make contribute those pieces. And so on and so forth. What’s funny is that there’s no rhyme or reason to where I put these, but somehow I manage to stay organized. I’m constantly finding sticky notes in my pockets and in my backpack. I just looked and there five random ones on the back of my laptop. 

    Tell us more about your photography! What was the first camera you ever owned? 
    Photography is funny to me, because it’s more accessible now than ever. Art should be accessible, but I don’t know if I’m a photographer per se. I hate carrying around my camera and unless I’m doing a dedicated project, I’m mostly shooting on my phone. More so, I think photography aids me in transmitting a larger creative story. It’s a vessel through which I’m able to capture these small moments that convey a certain feeling in an interview I’ve done, or inform the flow of a page in an editorial spread I want to layout. It makes the most sense to me in conjunction with some other creative work. 

    I’m still going strong with the first DSLR I ever owned, a Sony alpha series. I like it because it’s light and doesn’t do a lot of work for me; I like a pretty raw image. Shooting with film isn’t my thing, but I’m on this kick of buying old Kodak Instamatics from eBay and trying to MacGyver them into pinhole cameras with 35mm film. It’s more of an engineering hobby than a photo endeavor. So far all I’ve really figured out is many ways to engineer a pinhole camera that won’t work. 

    How has your style evolved from when you first started? 
    When I first started taking photos, I thought I wanted to do traditional portraiture because I couldn’t fathom taking pictures that didn’t have people in them. I quickly realized that I don’t like taking traditional portraits; I prefer photos where you can’t see people’s faces or their eyes are closed, and I’m able to catch candid movements. More than faces, I love hands. They’re so unique to the individual, both in contour and usage. 

    Traditionally my style has been bright, overexposed images, but I’ve been getting more into playing with shadows and nighttime photography. I’ve also been taking fewer photos of people and more pictures of inanimate objects. I’m in a weird sculpture phase right now; I just went to Europe and only took photos of sculptures, it was wild. I guess they’re a happy medium between people and inanimate objects. 

    What/who are some of your biggest inspirations? 
    Black female writers taught me a lot about storytelling and will always inspire me. Audre Lorde, Alice Walker, Zora Neal Hurston—but Toni Morrison is my number one, forever and always. 

    I also love being alive during this era of entrepreneurship; it’s wild to see how creative people are in terms of finding innovating ways to make money. I don’t often fixate on specific people, but for the last couple years or so I’ve been pretty into Elizabeth De La Piedra. She’s a photographer, but also models/collabs with brands, has impeccable style, is a mom, etc. She’s doing everything I want to do. 

    I think multifaceted creativity is a direct response to this era. I really feel like we’re approaching peak capitalism. In order to make money doing one thing, you have to do that one thing really well (in addition to just getting lucky) because consumerism is at an all-time high. Entrepreneurship is the evolution of the artist; in order to sustain living an artist life, you have to cast a wide net and get creative in terms of how broad your skillset can reach. 

    Do you ever get stuck in a creative rut – if so, how do you get yourself out of it? 
    I tend to get stuck when I try to plan or organize too much. I get to a point where lists can only take me so far before I have to execute. You can make a list of all the things you want to put on a page, but until you physically put them on the page, nothing actually exists and you don’t know what the full spread looks like. That stage between knowing what I want to do and doing it drives me crazy. I can’t sleep at night or think about anything else until I resolve that discord in my brain. Resolution looks like, carving out a block of unscheduled time and editing the first picture, or opening InDesign and putting the first object on a blank page. Once I’ve psyched myself into making that first move, the rest kind of just falls out of my brain on to the page. 

    Dream collab – what would it be? 
    I can only pick one? Oh man. I want to design a shoe for sure. Nike would be a dream, but also maybe a lot of pressure. And they might not let me do my thing without a bunch of ‘supervision,’ so I’d want to work with a more covert brand like PF Flyers. Covert, but still iconic. Honestly with the right budget and ample creative control, I’d be down to work with almost anyone. Even Sketchers. You make the brand; the brand doesn’t make you. You feel me? 

    Lastly, any advice for young creatives? 
    Oh man. I got carded today, so that means I’m still young and have no business giving advice. Okay my word to the children: just do it, whatever ‘it’ is. Not just because I love Nike, but also because you’re truly the only person standing in your way. If you don’t do it, someone else will. 

    Check out more details on the upcoming PALMSS Magazine Launch Event here!