Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Almost Famous.

In the middle of the summer, out of the clear blue sky I got an e-mail from Danielle Scruggs, a photographer who is also a free-lance writer. I was thrilled to find out that she wanted to interview me for a magazine. Being that she is also an artist, she had thought up all kinds of interesting and really thoughtful questions about my work. It was a great experience. Apart from getting a little bit of press, (every little bit of ink helps!) the process of answering the questions actually helped me to clarify some issues for myself. It felt really good to try and explain what I do in English! Also I feel extra cool for being in such a hipster magazine when I am in fact so incredibly far from being a hipster myself. (I'm secretly hoping that some of the coolness will rub off on me. *crossing fingers*)

Luckily they had room for the interview in the September/October 2008 issue which is likely on news-stands at the moment. (So if you run out and buy a copy you get the extra added binus of finding out my real name.) I haven't gotten my print copy yet, so I'm not sure how much of what we talked about made it in, but without further ado here is the unedited version:

(How funny is this cover image?)

DS: Looking through your website, it was really fascinating to see how your work has evolved by looking at the different series you have made available. It was easy to see you've been working with a lot of the same ideas and yet every series l feels different from each other. (I'm thinking of the similarities and differences between Under the Mango Tree and (Re)calling/(Re)telling, how they both address issues of fragmented memories, personal narrative and history.) How do you decide which ideas to pursue and explore? And what influenced or inspired you to start incorporating photography into you work?

Me: Well, I think the main thread that connects all of my work is the love of storytelling. I love a good story! I am fascinated by the telling and retelling of things and how a story can be transformed each time it's retold. Under the Mango Tree is based off of a fairly popular African fable that I just really loved the first time I read it. There was something so simple and beautiful about the idea of a farmer going to God to ask for rain. It just stuck with me. I don't know exactly how I decide to explore an idea. I usually just hear something or read something and it sticks with me because it somehow resonates with one of my own stories or memories. And for me, all stories immediately form visuals in my head, so from there it's really just a small leap to begin thinking about how to turn ideas into images on paper or canvas.

As far as photography goes, I've actually always used it in my work. Although I primarily studied painting, I also studied photography and printmaking at The University of Iowa. I think eventually the two just merged. It was pretty seamless. I can't even remember when I actually started combining the two mediums. I think in my mind, they were never really all that separate.

DS: When I first saw the (Re)calling/(Re)telling series, it instantly reminded me of going to thrift stores and finding old photos and postcards, and creating my own stories for the people in the photos. It also made me think of the website Square America's collection of photos of African American life from the 1880s through the 1970s. What struck me about those photos and your series is that they instantly remind me of stories my father told me about growing up in Peoria. And what struck me about that is, it's still rare to see images of Black people as people living their lives, as opposed to being stereotyped or exoticized. Did you consciously set out to address the dearth of these kinds of images or did it happen the more you worked? And how long did it take you to complete the series?

Me: Aah! That's what I've enjoyed most about exhibiting this body of work. Every time I show this series of photos, people eventually end up telling me one of their own stories, which I adore! I'm a keeper of stories, so nothing could please me more! I never get tired of hearing how one of my images brought back a memory, reminded them of someone, or even reminded them of story that had been told to them as a child. It's really, really thrilling for me to hear these stories. And I think part of that is just the power of photography. In many ways it functions as a visual trigger. But the other part is that seeing or hearing someone else tell their story makes you more conscious of your own. There's a certain connection that takes place with storytelling.

Most of the images in the (Re)calling/(Re)telling series were given to me by my grandfather. Before he passed away, he gave me an old collection of large format negatives he had taken while he was a soldier in the Korean War. In addition to the photographs of young Black soldiers going about their daily routines, there were also quite a few snapshots of family and friends that he'd taken during that same time period. I was so fascinated by these people and places. My mother and I were able to piece together bits and pieces of information based on obvious physical resemblances, descriptions from other relatives, and her own childhood memories, but most of the stories I've recreated are invented. I basically used his photos to make my own stories. After looking at these images for so long, I developed a kind of intimate visual relationship with the people in the photographs. I had already started creating stories in my mind long before I had ever decided to tell their stories in my work. I like to think the narratives I constructed in (Re)calling and (Re)telling are part fiction, part history, part homage.

It's hard to say exactly how long the entire project took. I started playing with the images in 2006 I think, and then stopped and didn't really touch them again for quite a long time. Then about a year later I suddenly picked them up again and completed the whole first half of the project in just a few hours at my kitchen table one afternoon. It just works like that sometimes.

D.S. How did completing a BFA and MFA program influence your work, as opposed to being a self-taught artist? I ask because I always seem to get two responses when I tell people I went to school to study photography: "it's a great learning experience and it was a good decision" or, "you don't need school to create art". Both points are valid to a certain extent so I was wondering what your perspective is.

Me: Yeah, I totally understand both perspectives, but I obviously I can only speak from one. Personally I'm glad I went the BFA/MFA route. I had so many great experiences and met so many great people that really influenced my work. But if you can somehow manage to gain access to those things without acquiring a mountain of student loan debt, hey even better!

I was having a conversation with one of my old professors not too long ago and he was telling me that five years out, most of his past BFA students aren't even making art anymore. So, I think it's safe to say that getting a degree doesn't guarantee you'll end up as a working artist. Clearly, whether or not you have any sort of degree has very little to do with your career path in this particular field.

DS: What else influences or inspires you? (Music, other artists, literature, etc.?)

Me: Well like I said before, I'm a collector of stories. They're constantly floating around in my head, so I use them constantly in my work. Lately I've been reading a lot of African-American folktales so that's influencing a lot of my painting ideas.

I think much earlier in my career I used to look at a lot of other artists' work for inspiration, and I do still spend quite a bit of my free time looking at contemporary art, in fact I base entire vacations around which galleries and museums I want to see in certain cities, but more often than not, I go, I look, and then I just empty it from my brain. I can't think about all that stuff when I'm working in my studio. I have enough of my own painting issues to work out, let alone deciphering somebody else's! My head is already a very, very busy and crowded place.

DS: How did you find your voice as an artist; deciding on what you wanted to focus and explore? Or was it more trial and error?

Me: I think I'm constantly finding and re-finding my voice in every painting. And I'm always discovering a new area of focus and a new path to go down. It's an on-going ever-changing process. I think the absolute hardest part of making work, for me, has been learning to trust myself, my own instincts, and my own hand. There was a period of years just after I finished my MFA where I just couldn't bring myself to make anything. I couldn't even begin. Nothing inspires "painter's block" more than self-censoring. And constantly second guessing yourself.

I had to find a way to learn to trust my own decisions again, and it was a hard lesson to learn. But like you said, there is a quite a bit of trial and error. But the errors are really, really important. I think the things that fail miserably are just as important as the things that you label successes. I re-learn how to paint all the time. I mess up a lot. I mean a lot! Sometimes I make miserable cringe-worthy paintings that I never let see the light of day beyond my studio door. That's OK too. I accept that. It's all part of the process.

DS: Reading your blog, I noticed that a big part of your studio practice is dealing with the decidedly un-sexy tasks of keeping your workspace organized and taking care of the business aspect of being a full-time artist. How do you balance the business side of art with the creation of it? By extension, did you have to support yourself with a day job before becoming a full-time artist? If so, how were you able to balance outside work needs and the need to create?

Me: You know, unlike many other artists I really enjoy the business aspects of my art business. And yes, it's a business like any other. I get up every morning and I have hours of "business stuff" to do. But honestly I like it. I'm a very organized person by nature so that makes it easier for me. Going to the office supply store is one of my favorite things to do. I spend about half of my working time on the making of art and the other half making sure that the art gets out into the world beyond my studio. Maybe a lot of people would think that's too much time spent on business, but it's a balance that works for me.

But before all that, I probably had about 20 different "day jobs". I always had a job that was flexible enough to allow me to work, or to go school, or to just have medical benefits, and then if it didn't suit me anymore or interfered with my work, I'd find another. I worked odd hours or did freelance jobs. I think it's pretty common for artists to do that. It's really, really tough to find a balance. We juggle a lot. Or maybe it's more like walking a tight-rope in the circus.

DS: What made you decide to start a blog? How has it helped (or hurt) you as an artist?

Me: Well, I started my art blog after taking one of Alyson Stanfield's on-line business courses geared towards artists. I had had a personal blog for years, but it wasn't until I took the class that I realized how important it would be to join the blogging community. I've benefited so much from reading what other working artists have to say on their blogs and I've met some great people who've given me priceless advice about how to not only improve my work, but how to improve my business skills. So, part of my decision to blog has to do with wanting to put my own experiences as a working artist out there and contribute to the conversation. Ultimately I think blogging is just another tool that I can use to get my work in front of an audience and explain what I do. I think of it as a kind of "behind the scenes" look into what I do everyday, my process, and my work in general.

DS: I am really interested in getting your perspective on the connection between the arts and politics. One of our writers recently posted an essay on the blog about the current disconnection, in his opinion, between art and politics, saying that artists need to have a larger role in community activism and advocacy. Should there be a connection at all? Should all artists strive to be political in their art?

Me: I think many artists do have a strong connection to politics and work hard within their local communities, at least the ones I know anyway. But that activism doesn't always make it into their work.

And actually I think a lot of artists are making work that addresses political issues, especially in the current charged political environment, but political art can take so many forms and function on many levels. Frankly, I'm not sure I even know what "political art" means anymore. Ultimately, the choice about what type of art to make has to be left up to each artist.

DS: How has living in the US and France, and shuttling between two different cities and cultures impacted you, your work and how you and your work are received? And what made you decide to settle in France?

Me: Well, I decided to move to France when I got married. My husband is French, and although we thought about him relocating to New York, living in France was just easier. If we had moved to Brooklyn, I would definitely have had to take another day job to support my art-making, which I desperately didn't want to do. Here in France there is a level of social security that is really conducive to me living and working as a full-time artist.

On the other hand, making the cultural jump was a really difficult adjustment. I didn't realize how American I was until I was no longer in America. I had this very naive idea that as soon as I learned French everything would be just swell. Instead I spent about two years stumbling over the language and just learning how to do simple things like deposit money at the bank or make simple telephone calls. It took a toll on me and on my work. My work at that time was very frustrated because I was frustrated, but I got through it.

Most of all I was worried about how my work, which deals with ideas that are firmly grounded in African-American history and culture would translate to a French or International audience. But as usual, it turns out I was all worked up over nothing. French audiences have been really supportive and interested in my work. They want to hear my stories and they're really curious about American history in general, but especially my own history and my personal perspective as a Black woman artist.

In a way, moving to France really did help my work in many ways because it helped me redefine myself in new ways. Now that I'm farther away from "home" I feel an even stronger connection to it. I think my work has a certain level of nostalgia for what I left behind, informed by where I am now. So, in the end I suppose the whole experience has helped me better tell my story.


Beverly said...

Hi Madame K,

I love this interview! I'm a writer and just started a blog http://mycrazycoollife.blogspot.com/. My friend Nicole told me about your blog about a month ago and I've been following it every since. I'm moving to Paris on the 6th of November and would love to come check out your blog in Metz. I'm looking forward to reading more of your blog entries.


Anonymous said...

Congrats on your interview! A very insightful read.

From a fellow artist, I definitely feel you!

Nicole J. Butler said...

AWESOME!! Keep doing your thing. I totally understand the balance between the art and the business side. It's necessary, and it's easier if you don't view the business part as "evil".

Also, I had many "survival" jobs that I would (and did) quit in a heartbeat. Too much drama? BYE! NEXT...

I didn't know you went to the University of Iowa! Me too. studied Spanish/ Theatre. When were you there?

Nicole J. Butler said...

I just wrote a post, but it disappeared somehow. Sigh.

Great interview. I can relate to a number of things you said.

Also, I didn't know you went to UI for college. Me too! Spanish & Theatre Arts Major. When were you there?