Women Breaking Ground: Meet Bay Area Photographer & Bomb Mom Been Milky
Written by Natalie Cassidy
A flash of bright pink hair appears in my periphery as Kate Dash enters the small restaurant where we arranged to meet. She’s spending her Saturday making the rounds to her creative community in Oakland. Both her artistic influence and her community ties extend beyond the San Francisco Peninsula that she currently calls home.
Photographer, mother figure, actual mother, and all-around creative rolled up into one, Kate (a.k.a. Been Milky) has carved a path for herself both professionally as an artist and personally as a mother, showing us all that it’s possible to get all the things you want out of life and still look fly as hell while doing it. She is the first to be featured in the our series titled “Women Breaking Ground”, highlighting influential womxn in the Bay Area and beyond who are working to push boundaries and pave a way for others in their communities and industries.
Q: Give us a little background about you. A brief history of Been Milky.
A: My government name is Kate Buenconsejo, but I go by many different aliases. I was born in the Philippines but grew up in the Bay Area. South Bay to be specific. When I started getting older I grew tired of The Great Mall and doing the same thing over and over again, day in and day out. So, eventually I went out to San Francisco and met a really cool group of people. I quickly found my little scenes and then seeing people actually do what they want to do creatively showed me that I don’t necessarily need to be following the traditional path of higher education, nine to five job, etcetera. Once I was surrounding myself with a bunch of artists and creatives, I was able to truly ask myself: what can I do and what do I want to do?
Q: How did you start exploring photography as your creative medium?
A: Before, I wouldn’t call myself a photographer. I would just say, “oh, I like taking pictures. Oh, this is my camera. Whatever. Act natural.” But film photography has always been around for me. My dad had always done it to document our family life. He never considered himself to be a photographer, but he was definitely the one who really sparked that interest in me.
When figuring out what kind of photographer I wanted to be, I realized that I disliked digital. It’s just not the quality that I like. With digital I felt there were too many things I had to do in order for me to get to the quality that I like, so I just stuck with film. When I look at a film photo that I took, I can say, “that’s the photo that I imagined.” I started taking it seriously when I saw a photo that I took of my older daughter when she was in the tub. That was the moment I realized that I had seen the photo in my head before I even took it. That was the moment I realized I’m starting to get somewhere with my craft. That was in 2012 or 2013.
It takes a lot of practice for you to call yourself something, and for me, I felt like I hadn’t put enough hours into being a photographer, so I didn’t want to claim that. Even now I’m going back to school to learn about technical photography because I feel like I’m such an artist with photography. Right now it’s just something where I see the vision and I find a way make it happen, but I don’t really know what the fuck aperture is [laughs]. I don’t know the balance and how to manipulate the settings on a camera to capture the photo I want. So that’s what I’m learning now.
Q: What’s it like going back to schooL?
A: It’s funny being back in school.
There was a moment when I hated school, thought it was dumb, had the whole “fuck the institution” mindset. Before, I was super anxious about school. I didn’t even know what credits were. I didn’t get the game of school. It was just really intimidating. I was like, “what the fuck? We have to choose our career paths right now? I just want to hang out with my friends and smoke weed.” [laughs]
That started to shed when I got older. I started to realize that I didn’t dislike school, it just wasn’t what I wanted in that moment in time. School is always going to be there. I didn’t want to put myself in a position of attending school just because I felt obligated to or spend money on an education and not even know what I’m doing there. Now, having learned the disciplines of life, I’m able to see the value in going back to school and I have more direction. I can practice something that applies to my life. It just makes more sense now.
Q: How have all the different aspects of your identity- mother, artist, partner- factored into your art and how you go about your daily life?
A: I’ve been a mom for six and a half years, and in that time I’ve really made myself practice being organized. I’m constantly practicing things like scheduling, communicating with my partner, and being on time for things like my daughters’ school. I’m still not there yet. But I’m always practicing and being mindful about it.
How do I balance it? I just keep trying. Once I was able to accept that I’m not perfect, I just know that I have to keep trying, and I don’t allow myself to think I can’t do it. When I start to feel doubt about my ability to do something, I acknowledge that feeling, I figure out a solution, and then I let that feeling go. And I don’t make excuses. I don’t allow myself to say, “oh, you know what, I’m a mom now so I don’t have the time.” When I became a mom, I told myself, “I’m going to be that mom that doesn’t make excuses. I’m going to make my art and I’m going to be a parent and I’m going to find the balance.” And mind you, both my daughters and my partner are Libras. And they all have the same birthday. It just fits the story [laughs]. And I’m a Leo so I’m like, “hey guys! I’m here! I can do it!”
Q: Your family is obviously a huge part of your life. Tell us a little more about that dynamic and how that plays into both your art and your identity.
A: I have two daughters. One is six and the other is five. I can’t believe I have a six-year-old. I feel like I’ve known who they were going to be since they were in the womb. Maybe I called on it, but it was pretty spot-on those feelings. Even from the womb they haven’t changed much. They’ve only developed more and more as individuals.
They have their art stand every first Thursday during the Art Walk in the Tenderloin. You get lemonade if you purchase artwork and donate. Every Thursday they go through their art at home and decide what they want to sell and we’ll set up right in front of the shop, tape the art pieces up, and then they’ll have their lemonade stand. People love it.
They already shoot photos and they already sew like their dad, but I don’t know what they’ll end up taking to creatively. I want to see what they come up with. I’m trying not to push them in any one direction, just really seeing where they go with what they’re doing. I’m going to practice not being that pushy parent.
People are always like, “oh my god, you’re a mom?” and I say YEAH! I feel like when I had kids I aged backwards. I look younger than I did when I was 21. And I also feel childish as fuck. I have my children to remind me to loosen up. And I’m down. We go on adventures wherever we go. When I’m tapping into that childlike creativity, I feel like I have more fun doing what I’m doing.
Q: You mentioned that you were able to find a creative community in the city shortly after moving here from South Bay. What did that community look like at the time and what impact do you think it had on your development as an artist?
A: Within that friend group there have been a lot of people who grew to be super successful and it’s been amazing to see their growth. Usually we’d end up meeting on Thursdays. I basically started out as an assistant to one of my homies at the time who was a film photographer. I would follow him and just see how he does it and eventually started taking my own photographs. Mostly behind the scenes stuff. After shadowing him we would go to a party that one of our homies threw and then after that it would be like the warehouse party at the spot that everybody lived in. It was a very raw energy. Everyone was super young, super optimistic, and people were just doing it. They weren't afraid, or at least It felt like they weren’t afraid. It was just like “this is what it is, we’re gonna have a show, we’re gonna throw this, we’re gonna put this out there,” and that’s what I was missing from the South Bay. The South Bay felt like it was still very restricted. I felt like I was being judged by my peers as if I wasn’t doing it well enough. When I came to the city it was clear to me that everyone was just starting and they’re all out here just doing it and creating all the time. Then I realized, “wow, I can come up with my shit. I can make my art.” The only person that was stopping me was myself.
Even today, that same group of homies is still out here going for it, and they are the ones who inspire me. I’m lucky to have a bunch of friends and people around me who are down to do what they love to do. And that’s always been my thing. When I was in high school my dad would say, “do what you love and the money will follow.” That always stuck with me. I want to do what I love, which is taking photos and just seeing myself grow in that. That shit is so fun. It’s not work. When I’m actually doing it, I feel like a little girl again.
Q: Tell us about the show you were in earlier this year, Exotify Elsewhere at Swim Gallery.
A: Exotify Elsewhere Pt. II was a group exhibition by 12 femme artists of color. It was essentially a commentary of the fetishization of femme bodies and cultures not rooted in whiteness. I actually had several ideas for my piece in the show. I was going to try to shoot something new. I was like, “oh my god it’s a show and it should be a new piece.” But it was getting too close to the date of the opening and I was like, “what do I have already?” So I looked in my archives and found a piece that I had already shot that I knew would fit perfectly into this whole idea for the show, and I just went for it.
Through that process I learned that I often get caught up in making something new when in reality I’ve already put a lot of work into my existing body of art, so why don’t I look at what I have? It was raining that season and ideas for shoots just weren’t flowing, and I had to ask myself how I could do this without being stressed out. I looked for the files and then looked for the film and then it was just about choosing the print size. I feel like I’ve wanted to print bigger for every show I’ve been in, and this piece was the biggest I’ve ever printed a photo. It was 24”x33” and I fucking loved it.
The piece is of two of my homegirls. The whole series of photographs was put into a book called My Love And My Friend, and the piece I chose from that series is titled “Just For Us.” When I was shooting them, I could tell by their relationship that it was an intimate friendship and it was just fun. I know these girls. So it was us just hanging out and me capturing their essence. And it really translated in the photo. So then the question of the night that everybody kept asking was “Are they together or are they just friends?” I’m like, “don’t y’all read? The title says, “My love and my friend.” But yeah, it was just really nice to see it all come together and the opening was so exciting. It was really fun. It was nice to have my daughters there. One of them knocked out. She was selling merch and she just put her head down and she fell asleep. That space and group of people are like family to us. We’re so comfortable in that gallery.
Q: What were some of your wins this past year?
A: Damn. I’ve got to look at the calendar. What the fuck. I haven’t really thought about this. Like let me take some time to appreciate what the fuck I did!
The biggest thing I learned or that I accomplished in the past year was really figuring out what love and respect looks like to me and just going towards that. Also knowing when and how to communicate when I don’t fuck with something. Or knowing when to ask why something is the way it is. Just being able to really take care of myself and my art in a way where I’m super gentle and super honest with myself and knowing my boundaries. That was the biggest thing that I got from last year… just my mental health and being able to say, “hey that’s a boundary Kate, you don’t fuck with that.” Mental health is so trendy now, but I’m glad it’s trendy. I’m glad that people are talking about it and figuring out what they like and don’t like and it’s just really cool to see people grow into themselves.
Q: What’s next for you?
A: I’m working on a really big project that’s something I’ve always really wanted to do since I was pregnant. And I’m gonna start planning it this year. It’s my big mom project. That’s the biggest thing I can say. It’s just me appreciating mom life and how people do it. As far as an artist, I feel like I’ve done my practice as far as my medium or my tool, and now it’s time for my message. I want to communicate why I’m here and I want to spread that message to the world. I feel like I’m doing that with this project and I’m going to have a lot of fun doing it.
And more books! I’m going to make more books. I’m having so much fun making books. Last year the beginning of the year I put a book together. My first book. And I was like, “oh my god bitch, you did it!” I printed it and I got it put together in Berkeley. I did pay a lot for it, but it was worth every penny because now I know the process. It was so cool to see my photos in a book. I want to make smaller books that contain the photos you see on Instagram, but the whole series. Not just one photo from the series. I’m so tired of the little fucking Instagram. I don’t want to post my entire body of work on there. I want to see it in real life and be able to show the intention behind my body of work. So people can appreciate it as a real thing and not just a post. I want to put the series that I already have into something tangible.
I’m just excited because I feel like I’m getting into this really good workflow of thinking of an idea and then making it happen and making it happen more quickly. It’s really important to appreciate those times when you’re frustrated because you have all these ideas but you’re not executing, because when you finally do it, it’s like “oh my gosh… I finally took the step and I’m finally not scared of carrying out my ideas. They’re valid.”
Q: Any final words or advice for the WSO community?
A: Just go for it. You only have one life. If you’re not going to do what you want to do, why the fuck are you even doing what you’re doing? If there’s no “why” behind what you do, if there’s no purpose, if you’re just going about your day-to-day like some kind of robot, that’s where you have to say, “no, I’m going to do things with intention.” Do everything with intention. That’s how I approach my work too. When someone comes to me wanting photos, I ask them “what is your intention for the shoot?” I need to know so I can deliver the image. If someone tells me they want their titties to look huge, I’m going to make your titties look huuuuuge! If you want to find confidence in yourself, then I’ll do what I can to ground myself in order to give you that energy to be confident. But definitely just go for it. That’s my biggest piece of advice. Stop scaring yourself into thinking you can’t do it. You can. You definitely can. The only things that stop you are the things you say you can’t do.