Full disclosure: I ain’t been right for a while now. Shit has been so “off” for me. Admitting that isn’t a cry for help though. I’m just saying.
It’s not something that I think is specific to me, because we ALL go through shit ALL the time, but in the spirit of being semi-transparent I thought that it was appropriate to admit that I’ve been going through a particularly tough time lately. Internally it has been such a struggle to deal with my circumstances and personal relationships. So much so, that I couldn’t even be creative and work for the last month. I suppose that it’s been an on-going thing, but I’ve been able to manage it for the most part. Some days are easier than others but it was still relatively easy to remain optimistic either way. However during about the last 6 months, it has become increasingly difficult. Probably the best way that I can describe it is to call it an existential crisis. Sure, not that big of deal…
The reasons and the triggers for such a period for me are plentiful and taxing, so I won’t go too far into that, but I will say that a large part of what I’ve been feeling is frustration, confusion, annoyance and perhaps even displacement at this point. I think it’s directed towards everything: people, the country and the world at large, my immediate surroundings and circles of influence, myself, and my experiences in Reno, NV for the last 4 years or so. You name it, the list goes on. I really just want things to chill the fuck out for a damn minute. Moving across the country and getting acclimated to a completely new environment and people was change enough for a while. I know that that transition was important and necessary so I don’t have much to gripe about in that area, but just when I thought I was conquering that, it seemed like I was immediately dumped into a totally new and even more difficult transition. This time instead of a geographical change, it’s been an internal one. One that seems to have been lasting for a few years now. Perhaps all of this is a part of some drawn out process of becoming a new version of myself, and as the older aspects of me die out they conflict with who I’m becoming now. It’s a thought. I don’t really know, which could be part of the problem too. Or maybe none of this means anything at all and it’s just stupid made up bullshit that I’m overthinking because of empty, self-serving ideals or who the hell knows why. Either way, I’m just paying attention, taking notes and riding it out. I also turned another year older last week (I’m 33!), which is an event that always sends me into a period of intense self-reflection anyway. Though I have to say that this year I’m finding myself in the deepest and most scathing evaluation of just about every aspect of my life and who I am as a person. Everything is on the table for me to scrutinize and sort out. I have these check-ins with myself pretty regularly, because above all I want to make sure that I’m square with myself, fuck everything else. But this current self-evaluation has been really hard to get through because of what I’m discovering. So many shifts, for better or worse. I’m still deciding on where I land with it all.
Ever since I’ve been in this new city, it seems like I have absolutely no barrier. If nothing else, it’s made me realize what a bubble DC is and other places like it. Out here I feel so…exposed? I also feel equally visible and invisible, which is probably related to being a black female in a relatively small, mostly non-black space. Fuck, that’s a topic that opens up a whole other can of worms, but I digress… I have been observing, absorbing and feeling almost everything around me very deeply and intensely – which at times can also make it hard to figure out what to filter or ignore. That feeling was the root of where my Hemorrhage series started and it’s a feeling that has persisted throughout my time here in Reno. I’m sure it’s a subject that permeates through all of my art in some way, if one were to sit down and connect it all. For the last few years I’ve felt like I’ve been flailing, trying to find some kind of anchor or consistency amongst everything that’s swirling around me and within me. Maybe that concept doesn’t really exist, because everything is liable to change at any moment and none of us “belong” anywhere. Maybe this whole time I’ve been chasing shadows, searching for answers that lead to nothing anyway. Well at any rate, the world keeps on spinning, right? I still have to get up everyday and be a person. I’m still some kind of a working artist, and work needs to be created and released into the world. So in the midst of all this anguish, I’ve been trying my best to keep up with Life. Unfortunately there was one painting that got caught in the mess and I can’t view it in a positive light. I just really hate it so much:
“Caca” by Traci L. Turner
It can only be described as the physical manifestation of my discontent. I was stuck on this piece for months, having no idea of what was wrong with it or how to fix it. It had all started out so well, I thought. I don’t know where I went wrong. This painting went through many color changes over the months. I even had to scrape out some color to start over completely in some areas:
Third or fourth attempt
At one point I was so confused and pissed about it that I just stopped working on it altogether. I usually never set aside an unfinished project like that. It bothers me too much. But this time, trying to force a solution was what ate at me the most so I left it alone. Coincidentally I spiraled even further into a pit of despair soon after. So perhaps taking a break from all kinds of work was for the best anyway.
Reading some of that back, I can certainly see some parallels between the progression of that painting and whatever I’m currently experiencing in my life. Which I’m sure is exactly why I hate that fuckin painting so much. I can accept and admit that I’m probably projecting and/or being too sensitive or dramatic, and that there’s probably nothing inherently wrong with the painting. At the same time though, fuck that piece.
Well, at least now I can say that it’s finished and I can feel free to work on other projects. It’s not in the corner of my workspace side-eyeing me and burning a hole in my brain at the thought of knowing that I haven’t figured it out. So that’s something, I guess.
I’ve reached a point in my creative life where things seem very wide open. I don’t have any immediate shows coming up and no other urgent obligations, I have the freedom to do whatever I want. I think if this was a few years ago I would’ve panicked or made myself feel bad about it, but currently I feel just the opposite. I’m excited. I wouldn’t necessarily call this a break either, because I’m still working, thinking, reading, and seeking. Ideas that I couldn’t fit into previous shows will now be able to be put to colors and shapes. I can now experiment with different materials and scale. Obtaining commissions and connecting with people online and offline can now take more of a priority. Already I’ve been able to implement a semi-consistent painting schedule and I even look forward to it! At the same time it’s also nice to know that I can completely change the game plan at any point if I desire. Art life is good.
Since moving from DC 4 years ago, I pretty much hit the ground running once I arrived to Reno. I did multiple shows a year, and almost everything that I showed was brand new work. I also addressed different themes almost every time. As great as the momentum was, eventually it felt like something was off and I couldn’t wait for things to slow down. I wanted to focus my efforts and focus my subject matter a bit. After my last solo show in June 2016, I took a long break from painting. I spent a few months just chillin’ out, meeting new people, connecting with friends, and I kept any art-related tasks reduced to administrative work and research/learning. There are some sources out there that may discourage taking a break, but personally it was great for me. I think it’s important to take a step away from creating when you need it, and not to feel guilty about it. You have to recharge, get open again, and have a fresh mind full of energy and inspiration when it’s time to create again. The time away did just that for me, and it was really good.
Now that I’ve returned to a semi-regular art life schedule, there’s been a lot of movement. I’ve casted my net wide this year by applying to artist calls, focusing more on my online presence and trying out new materials in my work. I haven’t yet seen it pay off in a huge way, but the progress that I have been noticing has been great. If nothing else, I think that I’ve come to a stronger sense of who I am and what I may provide to the world as an artist. The internal and external aspects of my pursuits are challenging and exhausting, but I enjoy it all very much. I am very happy to be able to say that this is something that I still enjoy and that even though I have no idea to what end it’s all for, I’m excited to find out what’s next. For now I’m going to make the most out of the freedom and openness that this time is providing for me, and I invite anyone who wants to follow the journey! If you’re on Instagram I started using the hashtag #paintingwithoutdeadlines to help chronicle and single out the work I’m creating during this period. Follow me at @tracilturner to check me out, and let me know what you think!
One of my goals this year was to continue to build and refine my online presence. So I finally got around to creating a new YouTube channel that is specifically for videos about my art and other art-related topics. Yes, I now have an official art vlog (that word will always sound funny to me). There’s a lot that I still need to learn about this realm, so please be patient – especially when it comes to quality and on-screen presence. For now I’m just trying it out to see how it goes, but I won’t know how well I’m doing unless you chime in! Be sure to subscribe, share, and/or drop me any questions in the comments section. If it’s really thought-provoking, I’ll definitely make a video about it for you in response. The above video is just an intro, but you can find some of the other videos that I’m in by checking out my whole channel.
The plan is to do weekly, if not bi-weekly, entries. I don’t know if that’s too aggressive or not, but at this stage at least I can still adjust things as needed. I’m already working on my next video about a painting that I’m stuck on, so that should be ready to go up really soon. Stay tuned…
“What Dat Mouf Do #5” Diptych, oil on wood by Traci L. Turner
Lately I’ve been revisiting a lot of the work that I’ve done in the last two years. Taking some feedback I received about my body of work, I started thinking more about what it means to work in a series. I’m still not totally sure what it means, to be honest, but consistency seems to be a necessary factor when creating them. Up until recently I had only been making work for art shows, which has been great, but looking back at the work from those exhibitions I did start to wonder what strung them together as a whole. Or did it really matter to me? Luckily I don’t think that everything is completely disjointed, however I realized that what I had was a lot of “great starts” to concepts that I would like to continue to work with. The single item paintings that I like to create, such as the lips or human heart paintings, are really fun for me to do yet have a significance to me that goes deeper than being just a painting of a heart or a mouth. Having a personal or emotional meaning to the artwork is important to me. What I also like about those type of pieces is that they are accessible to people without sacrificing quality (in my not-very-humble opinion), which is a huge thing to me because of the reach that I hope to have with my work. I think a reason why I’m concerned with that is because one of the main pillars of why I create is to connect with other people. But I suppose that is the bottom-line for most artists.
So in the spirit of wanting to flesh out my work and truly develop series that can align with my artist statement, I went back to the What Dat Mouf Do series. It’s called that because I’m a ridiculous person and I amuse myself. Also, internet memes. Anyway, I revisited that idea and decided that I wanted to keep going with it. It’s an emotionally low-maintenance project, plus people have seemed to respond well to it so far – it’s a win win. When it comes to painting human figures, the lips are probably at the top of my favorite things to paint. I especially love full, sensual, plushy mouths – a physical trait that is commonly found in black people. I’m sure there’s a part of me that prefers the look for that very reason. When I search deeper about why I like to focus on just the mouth, I think it’s because it’s a piece that is integral in communicating and connecting with people. Be it with words, with a kiss, a frown or a smile. Even with closed lips, a person can still say something. We all hold a certain responsibility with our mouths. In the same breath we can inflict pleasure, pain or confusion in our dealings with each other. That point becomes emphasized when I zero in on just a mouth in a painting. Plus, it’s just an attractive feature in a face to me, period. It’s definitely one of the first things that I examine in other people and continue to pay attention to as I get to know them.
Left: When I first started painting just the lips (2014). Right: A practice piece which renewed my interest in the idea (2016)
With the What Dat Mouf Do series, I’ve officially finished five pieces so far. The fifth one is featured at the top of this post. It’s a diptych, which is my first attempt at something like that (that I can remember). Trying to stay within the scope of my current statement as an artist, #5 highlights a sort of carnal, unrepressed affection between two individuals. It’s something that I think a lot of us desire deep down. I often find my own mind bending towards thoughts of this, more than I’d like to admit. I’ve already created a piece in this series that has put two figures together, except they occupied the same space:
“What Dat Mouf Do #4: Besos” 6″x6″, oil on wood By Traci L. Turner
With #5 I wanted the fact that the figures were separate but go together to have a specific importance. I think separating them is visually a more accurate depiction of how I view an “ideal” romantic relationship. Where you have two individuals who may have a lot of different qualities, but they are alike where it counts and come together by choice. I think it’s more realistic to choose a partner who complements you, instead of seeking someone to fill in the blanks to “make you whole,” or someone who is practically the same person as you. But hey, it’s a nice thought. I can’t officially say that I know what works. Please do not listen to me, kids. I just like the idea of two people who can stand alone and be fine, but can also come together and take on a whole new meaning through their bond. It’s that thought that was behind my intention with this 5th piece in the series.
I look forward to adding more work to this series of paintings. As I get deeper into it, hopefully it will all start to take on a look and meaning that will translate into a more cohesive and attractive body of work. I have a few other series that I would like to add on to and a couple of newer ideas that I want to start. That’s one thing that I’ve learned to see as an advantage to working in a series: it’s an opportunity to make a bunch of new work which may also inspire new thought trails to other projects.
“Stripes” Oil on wood panel 2015 by Traci L. Turner
Are black Creatives obligated to make “black art?” What is black art? Has the definition of this been able to expand and evolve just as we have?
I find myself pondering these questions at various points in my life and art career. Lately it has been on my mind pretty heavily as I step back and evaluate the steps I’ve taken so far as an artist, and figure out my path moving forward. It seemed appropriate to share some of my thoughts here and invite readers to chime in. I’m always open to hear new perspectives and connect to achieve a deeper understanding on this topic. I definitely don’t label myself as being hashtag “woke” at all, but I’m going to try my best to express some of the things I think about when it comes to being a black Creative and producing “black art.” Hopefully it will make sense…
Back in my early 20s, when I first began to consider making art seriously and putting myself out into the world in such a way, I often thought about whether my blackness should play a part in my work. I don’t know if this is a common dilemma that most black Creatives face, because I haven’t had the chance to discuss this topic with many people outside of a few of my friends, but I distinctly recall struggling with it. I felt some sort of internal pressure or obligation to make “black art.” It seemed like all of the black artists that I knew about, famous or not, incorporated that part of their identity or history in their work. So I thought that if I didn’t make an intentional, intelligent statement on blackness, black history, or my identity as a black woman then there’d be a part of me that would feel like I would be doing a disservice in some way – a way that I didn’t truly understand or could explain at the time. All I knew was that I wanted to express myself and share it with the world, but I didn’t want to lean on my blackness in order for my work to be considered relevant. In my creative life, I was more attracted to expressing something about the human experience in general, not just any particular black experience. There seemed to be more than enough black artists in the world who were addressing that subject, and doing it extremely well. I didn’t think that I fit into that group at all, and I was ok with that for the most part. In my mind, I wanted to break that mold a little bit and just look at myself as an artist. An artist who happens to be black, not a black artist who makes black art. Perhaps it was naïve of me to think that it could or should be separate. I can’t deny that something felt “off” by being so deliberate about dividing that part from my work. There were definitely times when I felt some deep guilt for not wanting to use my work to tap into black identity as much as maybe I think is expected of me. Luckily, I’ve managed to make artwork that was still meaningful to me despite having an underdeveloped statement about my connection to the black experience.
In recent years, there has been an increased acknowledgement of different black identities and issues that exist in the world. It has permeated all of our accessible media, especially entertainment. Current front runners in this movement (people like Issa Rae, Solange Knowles and Donald Glover), have addressed many different topics and subtleties about the black experience in their own intelligent and engaging ways. It’s encouraging to see black Creatives rise up and be celebrated because on one hand it means that people want to share and hear our stories. The phrase “representation matters” is something that I’ve come to understand more intimately as I’ve matured over the years. It’s extremely validating to see that more of our images, words and sounds are considered art, and not just a vehicle to achieve “cool points,” by people across various races and social standings on such a large scale. Looking at things through that lens has allowed me to see why it’s important for me, as a black artist, to add my own points to the conversation. It was that realization that inspired me to start the Flyy and Kinky series that focuses on black natural hair. One thing that I enjoyed about starting to incorporate characters into my art that had highly textured hair or who were meant to be read as black, was that I never felt like I was jumping on a trend or that I was doing it in an empty attempt to attract a certain demographic. Though it was new for me to be intentional with that subject matter, it still felt personal, it felt significant and I was able to have a subject I enjoyed painting that contrasted the darker emotions that I usually tend to express. Considering the cultural or racial aspect of my identity when approaching some of my work now feels like less of an “obligation” and more like a natural part of expressing myself and providing a commentary on what I notice in society during my time in this world. Nowadays I think I have a better understanding of the scope of the uniqueness of being a black American, as well as the weight that comes with it, than I ever did before. I’m not yet sure if it’s because of the racially charged atrocities that have been brought to the attention of the world at large, or the fact that I now live in a town with a mostly non-black population (after spending the vast majority of my life in the huge, culturally diverse DC metropolitan area), but I find myself clinging to and trying to preserve my identity as a black American woman more than I ever have in my entire life. I also don’t feel any of the guilt I once felt because I no longer hold expectations of myself to fit into any one perception of blackness, or as a black Creative. I now see that by living my own life on my own terms, and making whatever art that I want to make, that is in itself a valid part of the narrative of being black. So freeing!
I know that I’ve only scratched the surface of this topic, and I may not have even written about it well, but as always I would love to know what you think! What have you noticed about the surge of black excellence in various creative fields? Who are some creative people of color that you’re following now? Do you think that we’re heading closer to an era where content and stories by people of color or other marginalized groups will be more universally accepted and enticing to the majority?