Oil on wood panel
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?
I’ve recently become a consistent visitor of the Art Prof’s social media spaces. This month she posted an “art dare” to her followers to create a drawing, without human faces, based off of the phrase “your future self.” Since I’m in a period where I’ve slowed down production and am focusing more on restructuring, I decided to join in on the art dare. Inspired by some feedback from a recent art critique and reading several of the Art Prof’s blog posts, I’ve been trying to readjust my approach by organizing my thoughts and ideas before beginning a new piece by starting off with a mind map. Here is a mind map of my future self for the art dare:
From there, I took a few points from the map to think of an image for the final drawing. Although I thought that all of the points in the map were authentic to me, what stuck out to me were the points about being old, sick and alone. When I think about whatever my future self might be, I don’t tend to dwell on overly fantasizing or romanticizing about it. Doing so seems like I’d be setting myself up for disappointment. Instead I tend to think more about what’s inevitable or most likely to happen. Death and deterioration, though a macabre train of thought, is what seems more real to me. Those are the only things that I know will happen as I get older, one or both of those things. I don’t know if I’ll be alone or singular when that happens, but it seems like a likely scenario because that’s where I stand right now in my life. That’s what’s real to me at the moment, so it’s not hard for me to imagine that in my future and I do not fear it. The examples of older people in my current immediate circle would have to be my parents. Though my mom and dad are in completely different circumstances, I think that I may be slightly more influenced by the hardships that my mom faces with her ailing body. I’ve seen what she goes through firsthand and I hear about details sometimes when we chat on the phone. Although she does have family members that live nearby to help her when she needs it, she mostly deals with it alone. She lives alone, and fiercely clings to her independence as her body slowly fails everyday at the hands of a debilitating disease. I bet most people assume that such a fate would never be placed on them, or at least they don’t think about it much. However I have an acute awareness of the fact that none of us are too special to be spared any unfortunate occurrence, so I’ve become quite comfortable with the thought of my body eventually breaking down in some way, even if it’s relatively mild. It’s hard to break myself away from that thought when I envision my “future self.”
This art dare was a challenge for me for two reasons: 1) I’m not always comfortable/confident with drawing, and 2) I couldn’t use any human faces. The second point was extremely difficult because the human figure is my favorite subject, portraits too. I feel a little bit crippled if I can’t incorporate it in some way. Well, I took it a step further and challenged myself to not use a human figure at all. What I came up with was this drawing:
“My Future Self”
White charcoal and Prismacolor pencils on black paper
by Traci L. Turner
I don’t know what it’s like for anyone else who lives alone, but for me I spend a lot of time in the bathroom. Besides the obvious functions and reasons, we associate the bathroom as being a very private space. Even though I live alone and have x amount of square footage to deal with myself, the bathroom is still where I go to be alone and internalize. I experience the most moments of self-examination in there. Perhaps it’s the mirror that does it, or the meditativeness of standing in the shower. With a bathroom as the scene to this piece, which in my mind depicts a certain solitude, what made the most sense to me as a way to show a living body in deterioration was to use blood. Hey, I’m only too happy to be able to find a way to incorporate blood into any of my pieces. It felt natural so I just went with it. Then of course I showed an abundance of medication which seems to be synonymous with getting old and sick. I really tried to consider composition with this drawing to set off a sort of eeriness to it. I wish that I was much better at drawing from my imagination, but either way I thought what I ended up with was still compelling enough. Considering that this is the first time I hopped onto an Instagram “art challenge,” I thought the experience was great. I enjoyed the task of being given an objective and a deadline and then be able to make something out of it that is meaningful to me. I also appreciated that I got to try out a new approach to creating a piece by starting off with the mind map. I think that I’m going to keep that up. Or try to.
Do you have an image in your mind of your “future self?” Where would you want to be? What do you fear about the near or far future in your lifetime? Please feel free to chime in in the comments.
Me with my artist mentee, Jeanette
My latest project found me paired up with an AP Art student from Hug High School here in Reno. We were submitting a piece for The Holland Project’s annual Stranger Show. This year’s theme was “Identity and Place.” The idea behind the work was all on my partner, Jeanette, I just helped pull it out of her! We started with a little bit of word association to come up with imagery that fit her interests and her sense of identity. To be so young, Jeanette has a very open mind and contemplates a lot about the ways of the world and what she thinks it should be. We also thought it’d be great to add zodiac elements to the painting since she feels a strong connection to astrology. Afterwards we came up with a few sketches then worked together painting parts of the piece. I was so happy with the way that our collaboration turned out, and I was in awe of her dedication to the work. For this project I had to push myself to work with materials that are vastly different than what I normally use. I even put together the canvas we painted on, something that I haven’t done in years. Because of this project, I was thinking that I might go back to making my own stretched canvases again…but we’ll see. Overall it was a satisfying experience for me.
Our painting titled, “The Eye’s Demise”
Hopefully my mentee felt like she learned something from me and was challenged by the project. I enjoyed working with her so much! I felt very lucky to have been paired with her. There were several other artist groups that worked alongside us week by week who produced outstanding work! Last week was the show opening and it was amazing. It was obvious that everyone worked hard. I didn’t save many pictures, but there were professional photographers at the event that captured everything. I’ll share a few on here when they are posted.
The show is up through Oct. 28th, so if you’re in Reno be sure to visit The Holland Project’s gallery and check it out!
I’ve finally gotten around to adding selected works from my show, “ever-present,” from this past June. The work won’t be new to those who follow me online or have seen it in-person, but to anyone that’s been waiting for a more in-depth post about the show – I thank you for your patience. I have so much gratitude and appreciation towards everyone that took the time to visit Reno Art Works during the show’s run, as it was a presentation that I took very much to heart. I think this was probably the first time in my burgeoning art career where I felt very emotionally attached to how people were going to respond to the work. Up until this show, I think that I’ve been able to maintain a healthy level of detachment: invested enough to care about my work and to share it, but not so much that my ego would be bruised if someone didn’t like it. I think that I was so nervous and affected this time because of the subject matter. With ever-present, I directly addressed some intense emotions from points in my romantic life. I’ve certainly touched on it before in my work but to be honest, I didn’t delve that deep within. I deliberately kept the topic close to the chest because for so long I wasn’t sure that I wanted to have that level of transparency with the world. Perhaps I was ashamed of those feelings. Showing vulnerability is one thing, and it is a major key to the work that I do, but I don’t want to appear weak. It’s all fun and games until someone breaks your heart and you’re told that you have to “just move on.” Then what?
There’s something about growing up as a black woman that makes one feel like you can’t, or shouldn’t, express sorrow or anguish over losing a romantic partner – especially if it’s a man. “Niggas ain’t shit,” “Dick comes a dime a dozen,” “I can do bad all by myself,”…you know the drill. There’s a sort of pressure to always appear like you have it together and that you’re impenetrable. And if you’re stuck on a man, then well…you a weak bitch. Plain and simple. I don’t think that I’m weak, I just have an extremely hard time letting go of special people. And I don’t want to be judged negatively for that. Suffice it to say, I don’t have an easy time admitting or working through heartache. I have very supportive friends and family that I can talk to, but shit, there’s a deep seeded sadness over some of these experiences I’ve had that I would never express to them even. It made sense to me to keep a lot of my struggles with matters of the heart to myself. However, over the years I’ve learned that sometimes no amount of pulling it together and shoving on can change how you feel about someone. In a case like that the best you can hope for, is to make different decisions moving forward. Because if you were able to reach that level of openness with a person, where any action they take can affect you that deeply, you can’t take that back. There’s no casually glossing over an experience like that. They’re a part of you now, bruh, whether you get over the person or not.
As with a lot of people, I find myself confused yet fascinated by romance and the part it plays (or doesn’t play) in my life. Since moving 3000 miles away from my hometown almost 4 years ago, I’ve hit the six year mark of being without any committed romantic relationship and I entered my 30s. I say that in order to provide some context to where I am in life, not to pity myself, for the record. Though I don’t consider myself to have a particularly strong desire to couple-up (but I’m mostly open to it), I do find myself constantly making observations about couples and singles, and my place within the ever-changing dating landscape. I write about it in my journals A LOT. There are many years-worth of journal entries where I’ve written a plethora of positive, forlorn and complicated passages about my romantic life and what I’ve picked up from observing things around me. I mean, it’s probably obsessive at this point. Those journal entries provided the backdrop for the work in ever-present. I think the combination of the isolation I struggle with in my (fairly) new home, navigating through the end of a romantic involvement that was a game-changing experience for me and falling into heavy self-reflection through old journal entries brought me to a tipping point. Just writing it all out or talking about it wasn’t good enough anymore. I decided that it was finally time to start addressing some of these things through color.
Oil on canvas
by Traci L. Turner
So did being more intentional about expressing these private thoughts and emotions through my art help me get over some kind of emotional hump? Did I learn anything? Yes and no. I did learn to be less afraid to be this open in my work. Extending myself in this way allowed me to connect with others on a deeper and fulfilling level. The outpouring of compassion and tenderness I received in response to the work was staggering. I suppose I knew that no one would be outwardly rude about it, but I didn’t expect as much positivity either. Opening up and sharing myself, made strangers feel safe to open up to me in a way that probably would’ve never happened any other way. To be able to connect with people through my artwork, and to have those moments to offer comfort to one another about very personal and sensitive topics regarding matters of the heart was a life-affirming experience. I think I must have needed that as much as they did. I am thankful to all of the visitors for being so understanding and kind to me, they made it easier for me to get through it and to feel encouraged about what I’m doing as an artist. It’s an incredible feeling to know that I can offer a perspective that people find refreshing, authentic and relatable. I definitely have a little more relief knowing that the personal experiences I touched on were not uncommon. The only detractor is that I wish all of this helped me improve my current outlook about my personal dealings with romance/dating. I still struggle a lot, and although I discovered that art-making can be a good outlet for me, just having a release isn’t enough. But I suppose that’s a completely separate issue that I won’t talk about here. At any rate, please visit the gallery page for ever-present to view some of the stand-out pieces with accompanying captions where noted. The captions are either direct quotes from my personal journals (in the same vein as my short “Slump” series), quotes from personal conversations or were found.
As always, I would love to hear what you have to say about the work, this blog post or if you have something on your heart that you need to bare. Leave your thoughts in the comments section.
As I’ve started to turtle back into my artlife and art-related work inside and outside of the studio, I’m excited and probably a little bit intimidated. A lot of positive things have happened so far this year in my artlife which have been very encouraging and motivating. However, building and maintaining some kind of momentum is an undertaking in which success is varied and elusive. I’m not really looking forward to diving back into that pool.
Thinking back on the two last years, my busiest and most productive years so far, I learned that it’s not all about just making what you want then hanging out with your friends and attendees at art openings. I learned a lot about time-management and process, marketing, and burn-out. On top of all that, it was something that I had to walk through alone most of the time. The solitude of being an artist and making art definitely hit me hard in the face. I found that I had to make several adjustments in order to counter-balance it and to ensure that I was fulfilling a certain level of social interaction and physical activity to preserve my sanity. I suppose I could paint with a friend or with a group, but I know that I’m most productive and comfortable working alone so I just deal with whatever comes along with it. This year I think I was able to juggle everything so much better than last year, especially mentally. So that’s something.
Oil on gessoed board, 2016
by Traci L. Turner
During my summer break, I found myself in a deep stew of contemplation about my artlife, my personal life and the next steps with everything. With the imminent change of season, I’m seeing a concurrent shift in my attitude and focus. My hope for the rest of the year is to continue to educate myself on the various aspects of pursuing an art career in this era, to make more work and continue to put myself out there. I think the work that I’ve done over the last couple of years has been a good start, but I’ve been thinking lot about what it means to make a series and how to expand upon the ideas that I’ve touched on thus far. With each show I’ve done, looking back I think it only touched the tip of the iceberg of what I’m interested in expressing with my work. In order to take things to the next level I think I’ll have to grind into those themes to get to the heart of it all for me. Then, perhaps I’ll be able to have a more defined identity as an artist, which is something that I’m continuously seeking to mold and put into words.
Speaking of putting shit to words, among the first tasks I’ve given myself was to update a few things on this site. My bio and artist statement needed to be cleaned up. I swear I tweak my artist statement at least twice a year, which is probably normal (I hope). For me, the core of the message is about the same I guess, I just keep finding better, more concise ways of saying it as I go along. Check out the current iteration of it…while it lasts. It’s constantly evolving.
Another task that’s on deck is cleaning up my gallery. Damn son, I can’t tell you how long I’ve been thinking about that! I think I just have to categorize it better. I hadn’t really figured that out until…this morning? Literally this morning before finishing this blog post. So, now that I have a better idea of how to update my gallery I’ll have to show that some love over the next few days. I also have been trying to figure out how to reintroduce my shop for those interested in buying originals. Still not solidified, but I think I almost have it. Finally, I will be adding selected works from my ever-present show, with the original captions that I used from the exhibit along with a full blog post about the inspiration for it. Be sure to follow me online (Facebook, Instagram), subscribe to my monthly newsletter, or just check back here at your convenience if you want to learn more about that.
All the other shit that I have in the works is mainly projects for other people, and possibly my own podcast or art vlog on YouTube. Probably just more videos in general, because why not? It can’t hurt. Oh, and probably more blog posts. Because I like writing and talking to y’all.
That’s it for now I think. If there’s anything you want to see on the site, or want me to talk about or share in my blog, or if there’s something I’m already doing well that you like please let me know in the comments! I certainly want to hear it.