Sunday, October 6, 2019

Richmond, Virginia

Hello all who have come to read about my experience as a Warren MacKenzie Advancement Award recipient for the 2019-2020 leg. I am Aaron Caldwell. I am currently a MS in Art Education student at Illinois State University, and work independently in ceramics with Tyler Lotz. I got my BA in General Studio Art at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, but spent 99% of my time in ceramics getting countless help from my peers and my treasured mentors Pattie Chalmers and Mike Stumbras.

For my WMAA, I pitched two ideas. The first idea was to travel to various African American cultural, historical and art museums. As someone who is only 3 years strong in the art world, I wanted to get a better sense of what "African American art" was and continues to be. I wanted to see how and where my work falls into the historical and contemporary artistic practice of other AA artists. Most importantly, I wanted to study art made by my people and continue any trends/styles that seem to be evident in many AA works. Also, because my work is so heavily invested in my own cultural awareness; I wanted to learn more about my culture and those who lived before me. That way I can dig deeper into myself and find various ways to tell my stories and the stories of my people historically and currently. My second idea pitched was to travel to historical all black US towns, but that will be touched upon later in these blogs when it is time.

Richmond, Virginia was my first city stop. I chose to visit Richmond because of its historical ties to the slave trade and the advancement and settlement of African Americans. While there I got to visit the African American museum, VCU, Viriginia Museum of Fine Arts, and took a walk and ran into a national park at the home of an African American woman named Maggie L. Walker. Below I will share pictures of various moments that resonated with me the most during my time in Richmond.

My first stop was intended to be the black history museum, but on my walk there I ran into a national park/historical site for an African American woman I never heard of. Her name is Maggie L. Walker.

When I went inside, I asked about the site, and was told that the place was actually where she lived and owned the house. She was the first American woman who owned a bank. Hearing this really shocked me because I not once heard of her, but she was clearly a very prominent figure in the US to the community of Richmond and even the president of the United States at the time. I was lucky enough to get in on a tour that was just about to start. However, while I waited in the lobby I saw a few things that caught my eye below:

Once, the tour started, we got to go into her house and see how she lived aesthetically. 

Above is a picture of her living room. I thought it was interesting to see such ornate ceramics in the living room. I was thinking about how my whole dream in terms of ceramics is for Black households to have ceramic art by Black artists in their households. Ultimately, to combat aesthetics like pictured above. I couldnt help but think what would it look like if the ceramic vessels breathed Black life and identity instead of the traditional European/White gaze. Would her living room still feel as "regal" and "wealthy" as the tourist described it? I'm imagining this same picture in households today, but with contemporary artists like David MacDonald and Roberto Lugo.

Right after the living room, we got to see her dining room and her commissioned chinaware that was pearl white and rose her favorite colors. Again, I couldnt help but think what would be the receiving reaction to this space if it had work like Sharon Norwood's Hair Matters works or any of Kevin Snipes or Malcolm Mobutu Smith's work displayed instead. These two spaces felt very eurocentric idealistic. Ultimately, not what I was expecting her house to look like, but then again becoming rich and uplifiting the idea of what it means to be rich would make her living room and dining room make a lot more sense.

This kitchen, along with various other rooms after this began to feel more like home. This is obviously not exclusive to blackness, but also I consciously expected her house to look like this and hoped for it to have Black art paraded all over. Though, I can't hold that against her. That was me putting my expectations and ideal household onto her just because she was an important African American woman. In terms of the room, I found the color scheme very pleasing, so I took a picture to keep it in mind. There are so many color scheme options that my mind tends to get overwhelmed and spend countless hours deciding what colors I want to use in my work, so it is nice to look at the real world and choose based off of that. Especially color schemes that relate to someone who is Black.

This pattern was also all over the house in variation. The wallpaper was absolutely beautiful and this was my favorite one. It was so elaborate.

After that I headed over to the Black history museum, unfortunately, there was an event and video recording happening there so I could not get a good experience there and did not take any worthwhile pictures. I did however go to the museum of fine arts and absolutely loved what I got to see there since they had a Black Southern Art exhibition up while I visited unexpectedly. Below are pictures of some work that resonated with me.

A piece by Kehinde Wiley

This caught my eye because I had never seen anything like this before in the Greek and Mediterranean art section of  any museum. Reminds me of Sambo, the black racial caricature.

A portrait of a named slave, Violet. Very rare to see in comparison to all the nameless enslaved black folk that inspired my first body of work.

Top picture is by Aaron Douglas. Bottom is by Jacob Lawrence. Two artists that greatly influence the way I decide to depict black folk in my work. This was my first time seeing their work in person, so I was able to stand there and study the figures better than through picture. Ever since this visit, my figures have started to feel less stiff and more dynamic. Though, I am still not yet satisfied with my style of drawing figures, but I am a lot closer to the dynamics and energy that I want my figures to breathe thanks to being able to study works like these in person for as long as I wanted. When I am drawing my figures, I am drawing them as quickly and dynamically as I can in the initial step while thinking of both Aaron Douglas and Jacob Lawrence. 

In the museum, there were also quilts by the women of Gee's Bend. This was the greatest surprise I could have received. I spent all year studying their works that I could find online trying to derive and create my own patterns with inspiration from their quilts. My patterns on my work are directly inspired by quilt patterns made by the hands of African Americans. And being able to see the works that I claim to be my biggest influence for the patterns in person was very exciting. Not only because I got to add more quilts to my repertoire, but also because there was something I noticed about them in person that pictures never show me. Namely, decaying, stains, tears and holes. All year, I have been internally challenging this idea of complete pristine perfection because it took the joy out of art making for me, which is why figure wise I gravitated towards artists like Aaron Douglas, Jacob Lawrence or Horace Pippin because in a lot of ways their figures are generalized or done up just enough to still come across as figures depicting certain actions. Their work was not about realism which in many ways, in my opinion, is a way to strive for pristine perfection. Seeing the stains and holes and tears mixed in with the patterns of the quilts was sort of warming and welcoming for me. The works felt more authentic because not only were some quilts made with unevenly cut shapes, but they also were made with worn down, stain filled fabric sometimes, and that was okay because it isn't about the material, but about the end product: the quilt and its pattern. I took this as a step towards me finding comfort in my desire and wish to just make ceramic forms regardless of pristine perfection because it isn't about the clay material, but about the message I want to deliver with my work, and if it being perfectly smooth adds nothing to the message I want to deliver then there is no reason for me to waste time making forms perfect because that is what the art community as taught me to deem as important. Though, I am still in my early days of art making, so I still have room to trial and error with this idea, but the women of Gee's Bend have sparked something in me once again.

Last on the trip, was to the VCU museum. I had a roommate at Penland who lived in Richmond, so I went up to Richmond with him, and on our last day in Richmond, he took me to the museum. There was not much there at the time because they were in the middle of installation, but there was an installation piece by a black guy named, Rashid Johnson. I wanted to share this work with you all as it involved many ceramic pots that he made himself. I never thought about installation projects, but whenever I see this work I begin to think that maybe one day I could try it out.

In the end, Richmond was a great start to my travel. I gained a lot from this stop. More than I had anticipated, and the learning did not end in Richmond either. My next blog will be about my time in Washington DC where I visited the Smithsonian Museum of African American History & Culture, African Art, American History and Portraits.

Monday, May 27, 2019


The MN NICE group finished up the classroom portion of the year this week. We had recent group critiques Linda Christianson and Heather Nameth Bren. Both of them brought new eyes and thoughtful comments to our ongoing conversation.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Adobe in the Southwest

This is my final check in on the NCC Blog from what is now called Santa Fe, New Mexico. Santa Fe is on occupied Tewa (Pueblo) land and sits where a Pueblo village, called Oga Pogeh Owingeh (White Shell Water Place), was before European colonization. I am here working with Cornerstones Community Partnerships, an organization that restores historic adobe buildings around the greater Southwest. Gearing up for projects in summer, we have been hosting community adobe brick-making events. We are inviting the public to make bricks with us to be a part of the restorations in Northern New Mexico. 

Setting up for the event. 

Here are some images of San Rafael Church in La Cueva, NM that Cornerstones restored years ago.

I also recently had the opportunity to travel to some important adobe structures around the Southwest, including SiwaƱ Wa’a Ki: (O’odham for name for Casa Grande) in Arizona. This Hokoham site was a huge center for trade in the region for over a thousand years before 1450 AD. Macaws from now-called Southern Mexico and Belize were traded through here for turquoise from now-called Arizona and New Mexico. 

Images of Casa Grande in Arizona.

In addition to visiting Arcosanti in Arizona and working with Cornerstones in both California and New Mexico, I have been working on a body of artwork of my own and a publication of my writing. This body of work is in progress, but has included working with earthen materials and researching extractive industries in the US West. Thank you, Issac

Saturday, March 9, 2019

"Ideal Made Real" Exhibition!

The exhibition Ideal Made Real: MN NICE is up in the Vine Arts Gallery through April 8, 2019. The show features the work of program Alumni and Affiliate Artists and celebrates MN NICE’s fifth anniversary. The exhibition is on display during Claytopia, the 2019 National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts (NCECA) Conference held in Minneapolis. 

Tuesday, March 5, 2019


MN NICE alumni worked hard this week to install their stunning exhibition at the Vine Arts Center Gallery. They transformed the space! The exhibition highlights work from program graduates as well the work of Affiliate Artists who mentor students throughout the year.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

MN NICE in-class

The MN NICE group has had some great Monday seminars lately, looking at glaze tests and the profile of bowls.

Friday, January 11, 2019

MN NICE Trip to Samuel Johnson's Studio

The MN NICE group spent a fascinating day in St. Joseph, visiting Sam Johnson's studio and the wood kiln at St. John's University. We stopped by Richard Bresnahan's pottery and had a lovely discussion with his current apprentices.