Samantha Wall in her Portland studio

Samantha Wall in her Portland studio

Kelsey Wallace/OPB

Growing up in Seoul, South Korea, Samantha Wall always felt a little different. As someone with a multiracial background she found herself between groups, and she was often ostracized because of it. She moved to the United States with her family at a young age, but she was still treated as an outsider.

“It’s difficult for a child to understand that they’re different,” says Wall. “I didn’t want to believe that it mattered the way that I look. That it shaped my identity as much as it does — and it absolutely does.”  

Starting at a very young age, Wall began to channel her feelings of otherness into art, putting pencil to paper whenever she had the chance.  

“When I was a child, a pencil was always nearby, and it was comfortable,” she says. “It was this tool that I could rely on.”  

Now based in Portland, she uses those comfortable pencils — along with charcoal, crayon and ink — to create striking black-and-white drawings that explore emotions, identity and the inner forces that drive us.  

Using black ink on white paper, Portland-based Samantha Wall makes art out of shared experiences.

Much of Wall’s work involves women of multiracial and multicultural backgrounds. In a recent project called Indivisible, for example, she collaborated with women in New Orleans to create a series of large, expressive portraits.  

“I want there to be a connection that’s forged between the viewer and my work, because that happens for me,” she adds.  

To create that connection, Wall usually starts by bringing a model into her SE Portland studio, where she takes as many as 700 photos. She engages her models in conversation and lets their interactions guide the artistic process.  

“I’ll immediately flag the ones that stand out,” she says of her photos. “Sometimes it’s just a beautiful photograph, and other times it’s that it triggers a certain memory or it reminds me of something very specific about that person.” 

From there, Wall goes straight to work, usually on a very large piece of high-quality paper she hangs from the wall of her studio. She doesn’t do any sketches before she starts a drawing, preferring instead to let her instincts and her photos inspire her. She might spend as many as 100 hours on a large, detailed piece, but when she’s working she doesn’t notice.  

“I could spend six or eight hours in the studio and not realize time has passed,” Wall says. “It’s a strange relationship — it’s like some kind of weird fugue state. Sometimes I feel like I don’t know where I am when I’m working.”  

Wall herself may be unaware while she draws, but the art community is definitely taking notice. Her work is represented by Portland’s Laura Russo Gallery, and she’s one of seven winners of this year’s Contemporary Northwest Art Awards. She’s also a finalist for the Smithsonian Institute’s Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition, and Portland Monthly magazine mentioned her last month as an “artist to watch.”  

Though this critical acclaim might be due to Wall’s compelling style, her strong point of view also makes her work stand out.  

“I’m coming from a place,” she says. “In [Indivisible] I focused on women who have a multiracial or multicultural background because that perspective is — obviously it is one that I know — and it’s one that I think is underrepresented and unique.”  

Much of Wall’s work is more abstract, like her recent series Let Your Eyes Adjust to the Dark, but she’s still looking to forge a connection.  

“The work that I’m making now is about a shared experience,” she says. “It’s about communicating something that I don’t think just belongs to me … And I feel like if I can somehow record it and translate that experience that it could live on. It’s not that I want to kind of create a kind of legacy — I don’t want any of that kind of attention — but it just feels like an experience that should be recorded in some way.”  

Just like she did as a young girl in Seoul, Wall channels these feelings into her art.  

“There’s a quality about it that is so difficult to capture in words,” she says of this shared experience. “It just seems like art and drawing is really the best way to communicate that and record it, so that it can be shared in the future.”

To learn more about Samantha Wall and her work, tune in to Oregon Art Beat April 16 at 8:00 p.m. on OPB TV and listen to this profile on State of Wonder.