Wednesday, November 27, 2019

WMAA 2019-2020 Pre-Travel, Post-Graduation Reflections

Howdy! This is Elliot Corbett (they/them), your favorite non binary human and one of the recipients of the Warren Mackenzie Advancement Award for 2019-2020! I graduated from the University of Wisconsin River Falls in May 2019 with my BFA in Ceramics and Drawing. I have currently been fighting off the void of post-graduation life with varying degrees of success, as well as preparing for my WMAA travels in the Spring of 2020.

In the six months since I have been out of school, I have moved from River Falls, WI to Saint Paul, MN, and then to Saint Paul to Minneapolis. I was working three jobs, started seeing a therapist for the first time, and adopted out my cat to a friend. Leaving my strong group of school studio friends and being plopped into a big city with a bustling queer community I have yet to fully connect to has been intimidating and alienating. Student loan repayment is looming on the horizon. Prioritizing art making has been a struggle, especially when it feels like your entire life is in flames and that you don’t “deserve” to have time to make art and enjoy what you’re doing (thanks, Capitalism!!). So, in conclusion, real life has been knocking hard, and I am sure a lot of recent graduates can relate.

However, life is definitely not all bad! In terms of my art life and practice, things have been going better than I could have ever dreamed. In June, I was one of many incredible emerging artists in “New to the Scene”, one of NCC’s monthly featured artist shows. This October, I was able to take an incredible anagama woodfire workshop back in River Falls led by Randy Jonston, Doug Casebeer, and Chris Gustin. And this spring I’ll be traveling extensively around the Southwest United States as per my WMAA proposal. As a recent graduate, these opportunities have been extremely encouraging, validating, and helped me realize how I can prioritize my art making, which has been a needed reminder over and over again as I am getting settled in my current residence in Minneapolis, MN.

The anagama style wood kiln at Mckeachie Johnston Studios in River Falls, WI
At Northern Clay Center in their Sales Gallery

If there’s one thing I have been reminded of over this recent wood firing workshop, building the life you want is a long game. I have recently been empowered to prioritize my life to include a larger emphasis on not just my art practice, but to have space and time to foster a community, family, and group of friends that will healthy, enriching, and long lasting.

You’ll see further posts and updates from me on the NCC blog coming Spring of 2020!
Thank you, and safe travels everyone,

Monday, November 18, 2019

WMAA 2019 Recipient: Washington DC (National Museum of African-American Culture & History)

Hello, again. I hope you gained a lot from my previous post about my time and thoughts in regards to Richmond. This post will be about my time and thoughts while in Washington DC. I primarily wanted to go to DC just to see the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture. That was my main goal, however, I thankfully found time to do a lot more while there. I saw A LOT, so I will do my best to talk about the moments and information that struck me the most, and anything else can be brought up in later blogs when I am done talking about my initial reactions to my trips and begin talking about the work I am making as a response to my trips. This specific post will also just be about the national museum of african american history and culture while the following blog post will be about the african art museum., and the last DC post will be about other various stops I made. Let's begin!

National Museum of African American History & Culture:

There is A LOT in this museum, and would take a century to digest as an individual who is interested in my ethnic group's historic and contemporary role in the world. Especially when it comes to the work I strive to make. Going through the museum was an inspiring and overwhelming experience, so I will be sharing a lengthy amount here, but this is only a small fraction of what I saw and internalized.

I decided to start on the top floor and work my way downward. The very top floor was about Black culture. It was all about how we expressed ourselves artistically, visually and verbally. What made African-American culture unique and how it was crafted and maintained through the years locally, regionally and nationally. Pictured below are images from the fourth floor:

Quilts were a very important part of my creating process because I looked to them to inspire my own patterns for my ceramic work. Seeing one use various browns like this quilt made me very excited because I have become interested in during mono color themes for patterns.

I did not expect to see a piece made entirely of combs and picks, but it was absolutely beautiful and inspired me to consider using picks as a symbol and reoccurring theme in my work. Despite using a pick my entire life, I never thought of using it. Situations like this are a perfect example of why I believe it is important to see what other Black artists are doing and have done because sometimes the obvious does not become obvious till you see it.

This portion of the floor was very interesting to me. There were plenty o gestural examples, but I decided to just share gesture of play because the last piece I made in undergrad was of little Black girls playing double dutch. I also find it interesting that these activities (double dutch, jump rope, basketball) are not exclusively Black, but as a people they have become symbols of Blackness for us.

Vernacular!!! I loved to see this segment and watch the videos that were on display here. I used to code switch growing up where I would change the way I spoke dependent on who I was speaking to. However, I no longer do that. Everyone gets the speech patterns from me regardless of who they are, and the way I speak is rooted in AAVE (African-American Vernacular English). The only time I still code switch is when I am writing academically (or in this case for the blog posts as well), but if I was casually speaking or writing this to friends it would be written totally different with AAVE and Black queer slang and speech patterns. Seeing AAVE being proudly demonstrated in the museum made me think about ways I could include cultural language into my work.

A jewelry piece by Art Smith, a Black gay man. I did not know about him until I saw this piece. I do not know many Black metalsmiths because that information is hard to get in my experience, but I have been trying and learning what I can. Our ancestors did so much metal work, along with ceramic work, that I find it strange and interesting that those are the two art forms that it is hard to find access to Black artists in those fields (though within the past 2 years I have seen the access to Black ceramic artists become easier today compared to when I first gained an interest in ceramics)

Sweet grass basketry by Mary Jackson. I also bought a book at this museum on sweet grass because I find the forms visually pleasing. For the past year, I have thought about taking inspiration from the forms, but the steps towards that have not happened yet, but I do keep it at the back of my head and think that it is a great way to connect my forms directly to African-Americans instead of centering my forms around Africans or Europeans as I have previously done.

Paintings by Kermit Oliver. Another artist I was unaware of. This pieces felt unbelievable. The color, composition and detail blew my mind away. 
After that area I went into the art gallery space where there was a wide variety of sculpture, paintings, abstract and non-abstract works. Below are just a few that I decided to speak about.

Organic, dynamic and an abstraction of human forms. All things I was interested in achieving, but my limited skill set was preventing me from doing. This ceramic piece lit a fire inside of me. One that is still burning bright. This was my inspiration and push for trying sculptural forms for my work instead of vessels.

Alma's use of color strokes to create imagery is visually pleasing.

Ironically, Aaron Douglas is my favorite artist of all time. Not because of his name, but because of his genius and creative way of color blocking. Each shape has its own color, and to make the colors more visually engaging, Aaron changed the hue of the base color to be darker or lighter creating a sense of light and energy that is breathing through the works. Another one of his works is the wallpaper to my phone, and I am always impressed by his use of color relationships. Being able to see one in person blew my mind away, and I got to clearly study his way of making his foreground and background distinctively separate by using color. With my urns I always felt my figures were hard to make out and thought if I studied his works I could get a better sense of how to use color so my figures stood out and had a nice relationship with the background patterns. 

Wanted to share his work because I find it fascinating that he was painting Blackness through landscape. Not something I plan on ever doing through my work, but I do find it interesting that this painting is centered around Blackness without any visible Black folk.

Probably the most shocking moment for me during the entire trip. I studied a lot of Aaron Douglas's paintings, but they have always been like the ones above, so to see he was also painting works like this (though it seemed to not be received well) had me interested in the idea of artists pursuing works that are opposite of one another. Both of his paintings are centered around Blackness, but the painting approach are polar opposites. Both are equally great, and I am glad I got to witness an example of artists exploring other techniques dependent on what kind of message they wanted to share and how. He wasnt afraid or concerned about how people would react to the shift in style, but more concerned about how he wanted to express himself. Something I have to keep in mind moving forward, and it is recognized through my favorite artist. How fitting!

Clementine's work never fails to amaze me because of the looseness of the drawing while still fully capturing the narrative. I know those are people, I know that is a church, I know there is a girl being baptized. I know these things despite there not being and overwhelming amount of detail, but instead just enough to drive the narrative home. That is what I am after.

After that, I then went downward all the way to the bottom floor. Pictured below are the tiniest fraction of things I saw and felt compelled to speak about or simply show.

I thought the sign Look Mom! Dogs Have TV Shows, Negroes Don't!! was interesting because even today, Black folk will make comments that white people care more about dogs (and animals) than Black folk. I always thought that was something started during my generation, but it seems that it has always been the case.

The earth, deep and natural color tones are very engaging for me. Patterns mixed with solid color blocks to give the eye a rest and to allow the patterns to pop more.

Cotton on a quilt.

Hair is very important to Black folk. "Don't touch my hair. Don't touch my pride." is a common sentiment.

Cowrie shells are also a very important symbol for us. A sign of wealth and value because many tribes that were greatly impacted by the slave trade were using cowrie shells as one form of their currency.

I always knew about rice, tobacco and cotton farms during slavery, but I was ignorant on sugar farms especially to the point that it had its own section not only about the sugar farms and the life expectancy of the slaves on these farms, but also information on the ornate sugar pots. Like mentioned above, I would like my pottery forms to be more directly linked to African-American history, art and experiences like sweet grass basketry, so sugar pots may also be another way of doing that.

African and African-American pottery. The shards from the Carolinas.

Drums were banned on plantations because they were used as a form of communication for acts of rebellion. This is an example of those drums. Looks like it would be a nice pedestal as well.

One version of many shackles present in the space.

Thomas Commeraw: A named Black potter that isn't Dave the potter. This is one of his pots.

Seeing this made me think about the rocks I would make as many pedestals for my urns that represent Black lives, and this idea of me selling that work as well. I was not referencing this, but it made me question if I am indirectly implying this narrative especially since the work was so heavily rooted in slavery. And even though, no one may possibly think of it that way. I am moving forward and that makes me uncomfortable. (This is one of many eventual influences for my journey to rediscover myself and my work)

A sack with a little of her family history sewed into the sack.

My professor Najjar Abdul-Musawwir in undergrad at SIUC taught us about banjo history in African-American art history because his work is about banjo history. Without taking that class with him, I would have not known its true lineage until seeing this in the museum.

Face vessels are commonly spoken about when discussing the very few known facts about African-American's history with ceramics.

Again, this museum was extremely big and there was an unbelievable amount of information, and what I showed was the tiniest fraction of what I saw. There was so much history about Black folk culturally and socially. Every major event in the U.S. and Black folk's perspective in and on that major event. Blacks in education, art, literature, food, fashion, radio, film, politics, gangs, music, church, war. You name it; they had it. The museum was absolutely amazing and I would recommend everyone to go to it.

However, one of my biggest take aways was Black queer erasure. I mentally noted known Black queer leaders and innovators that were shown and celebrated in the museum like Art Smith, Kehinde Wiley and James Baldwin, but I did not see any mentions of their queer identities. The top floor had a 5-10 second video clip playing in a reel of videos of queer men snapping, but there was no indication of what it was, and it was easy to tune out as it was amongst a sea of noise and visually above everything else, so it could go entirely unnoticed. As amazing as the museum was, I couldn't help but think: does my whole truth not matter? I think the museum could benefit from mentioning queerness when discussing black leaders, creators and innovators who were queer. Black queer folk have had their own battles against white heteronormative dominant society, as well as, within the Black community as well (ie: church). These experiences could have been mentioned in the church segment, in the art movement segment, in the top floor's cultural identity segment, in the slang segment, in the performance art segment, in the musical artist segment and so many more portions of the museum. Just like this museum was built to give representation to Black folk; it is important to give recognition to Black queer folk within the museum. We deserve to be seen and recognized. Yes, we are Black, but we are queer also.

NOTE: I would also like to add that between these first two posts you can already tell that I learned a lot, and saw a lot. Many of these things had me consider doing all sorts of things with my own ceramic work. Some even being polar opposites. Once I am done writing about the stops, and begin writing about my art practice sense the trip, I will specifically write about how I manage all the information and ideas that came to mind. I wanted to clarify why I consistently say things inspired me to do something to the point that it makes you wonder how can I combine all the inspiration I seemingly gained. Thank you for reading! Next stop: African Art in DC