A few months ago I was invited by the local Photo Forum to come do an "Artist Talk" about my work. Thanks to alot of help from FrenchBoy (and the makers of Xanax) I lived to tell about it.
About 50 people showed up to hear me talk and I was able to get all of my ideas across without too much trouble. Grammatical mistakes aside, I can honestly say, I rocked the house! The audience was very engaged and had some really interesting questions. I was worried about how the work would be perceived by a French audience given the obvious cultural and historical differences----which are key to this new body of work, but I think they really enjoyed what I had to say. And I met some really nice folks!
So, I spent weeks writing and organizing this presentation, and I’m trying to get as much mileage out of this baby as I can, so I figured I might as well share it with you here.
So here it is:
(Re) Calling and (Re) Telling.
So to begin I guess I should introduce myself and start off by telling you a bit about my background and how I began working & making art. I have always enjoyed the arts and studied a bit in high-school and then decided to study Art in university. I studied art at the University of Iowa which had a very good art program that offered an impressive array of art courses. One of the requirements was of course to take a photography class. And I admit I was really resistant at first because I was mainly interested in drawing and painting. In fact I had no interest in photography at all, but
Eventually I really enjoyed taking the class, but I also found it really frustrating because I was really only interested in the images. I didn’t care so much about the technique or the science. I like the immediacy that comes with drawing and painting. In retrospect, what I have always been most interested in is storytelling. When I look at an image I immediately want to know what happened just before and what happened just after the image was taken. I want to know who are the people or the objects in the image. I want to know everything about them. Basically the way my mind works is that for whatever image I see I immediately try to form a narrative. And I think that’s a natural thing that to do—it’s a way to relate to a photo, which is actually just a two-dimensional piece of paper, and to somehow incorporate it into our reality and our understanding of the world.
So to better illustrate what I do in photography, I think its necessary to start out by showing you a few of my paintings and explaining how I go about making them and then maybe it will be easier for you to see how I take those same ideas and working methods and make the transition into photography.
This is my Artist Statement:
My work combines painting and photography to explore memory, history, and mythological tales. Each of my works lies at the cross roads of Black American folklore, childlike sentimentality, and magical-spiritual belief. The narrative elements originate from a religious upbringing that combined southern Baptist tradition with both African and Native American belief systems.
This imagery stems from my life-long fascination with folktales, superstition, and storytelling. The protagonists in my work exist in a world constructed of old Negro spirituals, jump-rope chants, rhymes, riddles, and hand-clapping games.
So this first painting is from a series I started in 2006. I generally work in series on several canvases at a time. So as you’ll see as look at the other paintings in this series. Certain images re-appear over and over again and certain methods of mark making are re-used differently within the same series. This painting combined several images of houses. It’s an image that comes up frequently in my work. For me this image not only means literally the place where we live, but it is also a symbol of family, and personal history. The home we live in also is the basis for much of our lives and childhood memories. In many ways it is the foundation of each of our identities.
This is My Father’s house.
Another thing that you will notice is that I like to use patterns and textures. This specific mark-making technique I use because it’s a common stitching pattern used in quiltmaking. And I reference quiltmaking many times in my work for many reasons: one reason being that quiltmaking is traditionally “women’s work”. And the other thing that makes the idea of quiltmaking so important to me is that in the United States there is a history of quiltmaking that is very specific to Black American history. In this tradition, passed down from one generation of women to the next, there is a certain religious/spiritual symbolism that I have always related to.
Bible quilt made by Harriet Powers in 1886.
Quilt made by Martha Jane Pettway from Gee’s Bend in 1945.
The women quilters of Gee's Bend.
Painting's Relationship to Photography.
At this point I’m sure you’re asking “How does all of this relate to photography?” But for me, there is always a clear connection. Painting is never separate from photography. When I work, first I have an idea and then later I choose what materials I can use to best express the idea. For this particular set of ideas, I chose to explore the possibilities of photography.
The true beginning of my most recent photo project that I want to show you came from in fact my grandfather.
When my grandfather was young, was a bit of an amateur photographer. From what I can tell, he seemed to have picked up the hobby during the period from 1950-1955 while he was a soldier during the Korean war. And he never told me about his hobby until I was a student in college and I was taking photography classes. Then, one day, he just gave me all of his old negatives. I had them for many years and never really knew what to do with them. But whenever I looked through them I was always absolutely fascinated by the people and places in his photos and I became curious about the stories behind the images. That is how I came to begin this project.
This set of work uses photography in a way that is much closer to ideas used in collage. I am re-combining images and photographs to make new photographs with new narratives. Technically they are extremely simple. They are shapes and forms cut from photographs and then repositioned and re-photographed to make a new narrative. I literally use one hand to shoot the photos and the other to move the paper or the light-- Forming the light with a stencil. It’s a bit of a cross between playing with paper dolls and building a theatrical maquette.
This first image here is called Begotten. And I got the idea for this image from an old archive photo of slave children on a plantation. And for some reason this photo made me think of the bible. Specifically, it made me think of the first chapter of the book of Mathew which traces the genealogy of Christ. The chapter begins: “Abraham begot Isaac, and Isaac begot Jacob, and Jacob begot Judah and his brothers…” and continues on for 16 more verses in this same manner until we reach Jesus Christ. I took the words from that text and used it as a foreground to reframe the original image.
It may or may not be rather obvious at this point that I have a very strong religious background and much of my religious education and belief makes its way into my work. They just do. Whether I want them to or not. Spirituality is not the subject of my work, but it definitely remains a part of my work.
Nobody Knows Her People.
This image is based off of something I once heard someone say about my great-grandmother. I never heard the full version of the story, but apparently she was orphaned as a child and so she was raised by another family and took their name. The other image that I’ve incorporated is an old abolitionist propaganda drawing that was widely circulated in many different versions and printed in many different publications. One man who has been enslaved is kneeling, and behind him a group of slaves are chained together. I was always struck by the power of this image and it immediately came to mind once I’d decided I wanted to make some sort of narrative about her story.
I’ll Fly Away.
The title of this photo comes from an old gospel song. And flight is actually used in the song to talk about death. That when you die in fact you fly away like a bird. This is a very common idea and image in religious songs, but perhaps even more so in the Black American religious tradition because the image of the bird is used to refer to freedom and transcendence. I personally have always enjoyed the myth of “The Flying Africans,” which is based on a Yoruba folktale that originated among African storytellers. In short, the story is about a witch doctor who gives enslaved Africans the power to escape slavery by flying back to Africa. It was a popular folktale told by slaves, and was most likely started by slaves who were kept on the isolated islands off the coasts of South Carolina and Georgia.
We Have But Faith.
My grandfather took this photo of a group of 5-6 women sitting outside the church. I was drawn to how close they were physically and how they huddled together almost as if they were in an embrace. And so I made the image thinking about how their faith and their religion bound them together, and the strength that comes from believing in something.
Ok, so that it for the sneak preview. You’ll have to fly to see the show in New York in May to see the other 17 photos! Those of you in the NYC area and aren't psycho stalkers or "playa hatas" are welcome to come to the opening. The gallery keeps switching the date, but I’ll give you details as they become available.