In Gratitude: The Artist as Researcher
June 24, 2020
In this entry of our Gratitude Journal, Power Plant Gallery director Caitlin Margaret Kelly looks back on “The Artist As Researcher,” an FSP@PPG lunchtime discussion from 2017.
By Caitlin Margaret Kelly
I recently reread a poem sent to me by a colleague from graduate school called, "The Problem of Describing Trees," by Robert Hass.
It begins: "The aspen glitters in the wind," and it ends several lines later with this: "Aspens doing something in the wind."
That is often how my work curating and programming the Power Plant Gallery feels to me. While I may start with an idea of how something should go, who might be involved, and what we might discuss, the "something in the wind" is always a bit of alchemy, and I am eternally grateful for that.
The conversation was, as the title demonstrates, an exploration of the research that artists engage in while making work — and more importantly, for the gallery, an acknowledgement that many artists are scholars.
But let me give an example of what I'm talking about. I rarely am able to measure with exactitude the impact of an exhibition or program on others, but I can pinpoint one early event the Power Plant Gallery hosted with the Forum for Scholars and Publics that gave my professional voice its edge.
It was a panel discussion called The Artist As Researcher, featuring sculptor Julia Gartrell, playwright Howard Craft, musician M.C. Taylor of Hiss Golden Messenger, and performance artist Aya Shabu: a mix of local artists engaged in a variety of mediums, and of differing ages and experiences. The conversation was, as the title demonstrates, an exploration of the research that artists engage in while making work — and more importantly, for the gallery, an acknowledgement that many artists are scholars.
In a recent article on Artnet, Deborah Fisher writes: "We could learn to embrace nuance instead of crave spectacle." And in this sentence, I find common ground with the Artist as Researcher panel discussion.
Maybe one tends to think of scholarship as resulting in a paper, book, or presentation, the results logged in citations and measured in relation to tenure. Perhaps what we lack in the arts is an agreed-upon system of measurement (although I am not advocating for one). As the speakers that Thursday lunch demonstrated, scholarship happens in a multitude of ways that we cannot measure, and creative output is filled will nuance.
The labor of artistic practice may appear absent from the final product that we consume as art, but to be absent is to be reflectively present. If I may, I will end this entry in the collective gratitude journal by returning to the poem by Hass:
"No. There are limits to saying,
In language, what the tree did."
Transcript of the Event
The excerpt below of the FSP@PPG: The Artist As Researcher lunchtime conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Moderator Lou Brown: How do you take social justice stories or important historical stories and make them art, or at least an enjoyable experience? Or maybe that's not your goal? I'm curious how you take someone’s personal story, or a piece of history, and turn it into something new and fresh.
Howard Craft: Early in my career, I wrote eight or so pieces for North Carolina Central based on health disparities between the African American community and everybody else. I would get documents and materials, let's say on diabetes, and then in six weeks I’d have a play. Nobody wants to come and sit for two hours and listen to statistics about diabetes. So I learned in the process that the research is a container, but that's not what the play is about. You know, if you're drinking a glass of Hennessey, you don't care about the container; it's what's inside of it. And so what's inside, from my perspective as a playwright, is character. I don't write about diabetes. I write about people living their day-to-day lives, and this is just something that they have to deal with.
For example, one of my mentors, Phillip Shabazz, wrote a book of poetry as a novel called When the Grass is Blue. The book is about the Civil Rights movement, but it's through the eyes of a 12-year-old boy growing up in Louisville, Kentucky, dealing with sibling rivalry, an alcoholic father — things that are going on in his day to day, like peer pressure. And in the midst of all that, the Civil Rights movement happens. So I guess my approach is that I always write about the character trying to figure out what it is to be human, but under a certain set of conditions.
Julia Gartrell: As a visual artist, the type of work I do is often based on very specific personal stories, and on very specific traditional crafts — things that people may be able to relate to on a human level. What you have to figure out, and what I figured out in grad school, is how to take a personal narrative and transform that into an object, and still let there be room for the viewer. It’s about finding the balance between something accessible and something with a message that, as the maker, you're personally expressing.
For me, that transition came in grad school, where I was taking huge themes, like revolution, and trying to make art about them. And it doesn't work like that. You’re not going to represent an entire movement in one piece that everyone will get. It was this crazy light bulb moment (which you're supposed to have in grad school, and luckily I had). I realized I can tell a story about my great uncle who made kudzu baskets in rural Georgia, creating his own cottage industry after working in the mines and for this big industrial complex. Post-retirement, he made baskets that actually tell more about his identity.
I employ research in this way, taking something that's maybe not transparent for the audience but is potentially relatable because it's handmade or because it's familiar. I used to feel the need to say, "Here are all the sweeping things that I'm including in this piece." And now, I can say, "Okay, I have this internal narrative, I'm going to represent it, and people will feel it through my dedication to the story."
Aya Shabu: I have it easy because the work that I do — walking tours — is performance but also didactic. If the performance doesn’t cover it, I can read off a list of facts. I have the best of both worlds, in a sense. By the end of my six weeks as an artist in residence here, I could do a 75-minute performance. I was relying primarily on performance, but the performance was the performance of a walking tour. And I recognized that the neighborhoods are the stage and the residents who live in the neighborhoods are the main characters.
One of the greatest stories for me is when neighbors participate. A lot are underemployed, standing on street corners, sitting on path walks, interrupting the performance with, "Yeah, that's right! That’s right." I love to invite the audience to focus on an individual, but often my audiences are a little afraid. I have to figure out my new role as kind of a conduit, like I'm your guide; I'm going to make sure you remain safe. I'm gratuitously self-indulgent, and my family knows that about me quite well, and so I'm only telling the stories that interest me. But they usually interest other people as well.
I like the bochinche. I don't know if any of you speak Spanish, but bochinche means gossip. In the Hayti neighborhood, a lot of people don't know the history, or they have this imagined idea of its history. And so you can't tear down the heroes of that neighborhood. You can't slander C.C. Spaulding and John Merrick. You can't tell all their dirty laundry. But there are characters that I get to fictionalize and bring to life who can. And what I like is the opportunity for audience members to question history. They get to inject themselves, to question, "Am I representing history correctly? Am I representing history accurately?" I play a man. I play a tobacco factory. I play the Spanish food. So it's imaginative, what I'm asking the audiences to interpret for themselves, and my real goal is for folks to want to know more.
M.C. Taylor: Yeah. I definitely feel that you can't get on a stage and talk to people for two hours about diabetes. It doesn't work that way. It would be easier to put the pieces together for a performance. I felt that about Heart Like a Levee, which I made by pulling photographs from the archives. I put them up on the walls of my office and I started to try to write narrative. It was a mess. I wasn't good at all. But then I switched the process up a bit and went back to the way I’m comfortable working, which is searching for the emotional essence of the thing. Then it got easy. Then a record got written in two weeks, or something like that, instead of four months of trying to write the stories of these people that I knew about but didn't know. The minute that I found the shared emotion in the pictures, things got easy. And that's what people, I think, in an audience are looking for. I think all of us have shared experiences with the audience. Certainly my crowd is generally coming to see me at night, as a party, for the most part. So if I'm going to give them something deep, I have to make it fun and rhythmic, you know? And I want to do that.
My relationship to research has always been kind of like finding the essence. Before I played music full time, I worked for the Center for Documentary Studies, I taught at UNC occasionally, I was a folklorist for the state, but I was never a researcher who could rattle off a fiddle tune from Pender County. That's just not how my brain works. There are other people who can do that in a really gifted way. I think I'm always looking through the emotional essence, the thing that I recognize that crosses race, class, gender lines, all that stuff. That exists all over the place. It's something that we see every day. It's what brings us all together.
Moderator Lou Brown: I’m hearing that you all push yourselves away from telling your own story so that we see the bigger, broader story, or another story. How do you do that? How do you help your audiences both see themselves in your work and get that broader view? How do you work with the power of empathy but also against its constraining elements?
Julia Gartrell: For me, it's the conversations with other folks. I can dig deeply into family histories, which lead me to more city and regional histories, and think I'm really onto something, but then someone will come in my studio and say, “Oh, well, did you know this part of the history?” And it will be a part that I have never, ever thought about, that’s not represented in books or by the people I've been talking to.
My practice is the folkloric side, so I really enjoy talking to one person who tells me that history went this way, and another person who has a completely different take on the same story. So to not end up with my own boring version, or bubble history, I try to invite people in. I try to talk to people about what's going on in the work. It's hard when you're really close to it. It's hard to recognize the larger narrative or the accidental context clues that you added. So it's great when people come in and make the connections for you.
Howard Craft: As a playwright, I spend a lot of time with character development. You can never pull yourself completely out of what you're writing because you're in the writing. Once you decide to write on whatever subject, there's a part of you in it. But through character development — by creating a character, a bio, and then by interviewing people, not making assumptions based on what I think, and letting it all marinate — you approach it all from how the character would react. I try to choose characters who are very different from myself. And then I ask myself, why? I really like to take characters who are, for lack of a better word, villains, and try to understand things from their perspective.
Aya Shabu: I really believe in the power of storytelling, and that the most important person in the storytelling is the listener. I actually don't burden myself wondering if I'm being self-indulgent. The history is there, and I honor what draws me to the history. But there’s so much room for other people to interpret it and the characters that I present. I feel in movement. I'm a transplant from Cambridge, Massachusetts, so my experience with this history is completely different. I'm not presenting your history. I'm presenting the way I've interpreted this history for me.
There are two themes that keep coming up, and they're oppositional. One is race and one is depression, and they make my stories universal for all of us. But we're also interested in the actual story, and that's what I'm doing. I'm getting specific stories and putting them out there. We all live in the same world. I rely on the context of our shared history and then lift these stories within that.
Moderator Lou Brown: My final question has to do with the power of place, and how important it is to each of you to capture a sense of place in and through your work.
Julia Gartrell: A way that I can literally use place in my work is to bring materials with me from a specific place. I went to grad school in New England and, at some point over the summer, I was looking for materials when I was back here. I was still scrabbling at what I was trying to do, and I ended up bringing a cumbersome amount of clay from Durham that I had dug up. I just targeted some places that were meaningful to me, and I also asked around if anybody knew where there was a great resource for native clays. It turns out North Carolina has many different types of clay, and so even in my tiny relative sample, I had a nice brown clay, a nice red clay, a really bright yellow clay, and kind of everything in between. I took it back up to school and started using it as a material — I was smearing it on things, throwing it at the wall, just experimenting. It was the craziest moment, because people suddenly were like, "What is that material? Where did you get those colors? How did you possibly create this substance?”
A lot of people at school were buying $300 tubs of epoxy resin, and I was like, "I can't do that." I wasn't interested in it because to me it has no place. That material is like a place holder. It's something that's meant to represent a smooth surface or is meant to represent a manufactured object, and I wanted the opposite. I wanted something that represented the research I was doing here. It completely changed my practice. Suddenly I had this really personal yet universal material that I was using and that was representing so much. People from this area immediately recognized the colors, immediately recognized the feel of the object through the material.
So that's how place gets centered in my work. Another thing I do is reuse old material from work that I've already made. I'll take all the stuff in this exhibit, but I could, in theory, source from up in New England. But for me it's interesting when you're physically burdened with your place. That's how it kind of comes through in my work.
Aya Shabu: You know, we've all heard about what happened in Katrina. If you've been to the Ninth Ward to see the slabs, you know those slabs mean that homes used to be there. And if homes used to be here, then you know that people lived here. It bothered me a lot that there's this rich history in Hayti, but there's very little physical representation of that history. But then that opens up a whole conversation about gentrification and the history of redlining in this community.
I have to create place with my body as a dancer. My job is to make you feel the emotion of the story that I'm telling you. I want you to get a sense of what it was like working at North Carolina Mutual as an African American woman. And so I'm going to use tight, short, crisp language to describe how women had to wear a certain color dress, of a certain length. I’ll use body and voice and sound to create space. I've never been in North Carolina Mutual. I've seen pictures. I’ve gathered what the emotional space was, and I’ll create that space using a character to lift that story. But I feel really responsible to place because I'm in the place where these ancestors walked. I try to be a vessel, to do my craft as well as I can so that I disappear and these stories and these characters come forward. For me, it’s about bringing to life these buildings and these markers and these monuments that don't exist. And where they don't exist, we erect stories because the stories do exist.
M.C. Taylor: I think, because of the way people are connected around the world — which brings a lot of benefit, obviously — that there's been a flattening of place, arguably since people started putting radios in their houses, right? Regional markers have become something different. In the world that I exist in, it seems like a lot of artists are working from a position of placelessness, and that's something that's actually celebrated. People might say, "I'm from Manchester, England. Yeah, there’s probably something in my music that sounds like what you would think of as music from Manchester." I’m a so-called student of the South, and I think American culture from the South is what created me. It’s my favorite type of food. It's my favorite type of literature. And there are a lot different types within — there are a lot of American Souths. Mississippi is a very different place than where we're sitting right now, or Alabama, but these are places that I'm in all the time.
Most of the year, I travel from the Gulf Coast to Birmingham up to D.C., and that's the South, too. Sense of place has always been something that I celebrate in my music and that I’m really open about.
Final question from the audience: What keeps you going as artists? What drives you to keep trying to interpret other people's stories as your own through your work?
M.C. Taylor: That's a good question. I've been doing this for a long time. I've been making records and touring for maybe 25 years. A lot of my peers in music have fallen away. They left a long time ago. They were like, "I'm out." For me, as someone who is sort of introverted — not shy, just that I keep a small group of people around me — as someone who sometimes has a hard time articulating what I want to say and how to say it, there is a deliberateness in music that's helpful for me as a human just to get through. There's a way for me to sing things in songs that I couldn’t say in such a straightforward way without the melody, you know? I think that's probably the easiest way for me to say it. I do it because — and this is the sort of thing that artists say all the time — I have to. I probably would be dead if I weren’t able to make music. And I do it for myself. There were 20 years with absolutely no validation from anybody, so you either quit or you figure out how to get that validation from yourself. You do it because it's a need.
Aya Shabu: As far as the tours go, people keep asking for them, which means that they want to know. I feel that I have a responsibility to share the stories. I would also just like to say that, as an African American woman, for me and for my community, the past is where it's at, you know? We have this imagined idea of who we were prior to slavery and colonialism, and that history is our beacon for our future. So, for me, to go into the past is not at all limiting. It's actually where I find liberation.
Julia Gartrell: There are a few reasons I keep going. One is that I'm really not a very fun person to be around if I'm not making things. I get really fidgety, kind of grumpy. The other is that I think it's probably the best way I communicate at this point. As I move into education, I think that teaching art is incredibly important. It’s a way to allow others into areas — research areas, production areas — that they might not be able to access in a traditional academic way.
Howard Craft: I've always loved stories, since I was old enough to hear one, but I never would have imagined that that's how I would try to feed my family. I’ve been in it for a long time, thinking I'm going to do this, which will afford me time to write later, and I'm going to go to law school, and I'm going to get a PhD, and then I can write. Eventually, you realize you have to be who you are, and so you take that night job working security so you can write a little bit of poetry, and you eat ramen noodles because it's who you are.
A lot of times, when African American stories are told, they're not told right, you know? So I know I'm going to bring my perspective, my life experience, to these stories, and there’s a sense of responsibility to do that. The greatest compliment I ever got as a writer came from a poet I met who told me I was cursed. She said, "Brother, you're cursed. You got it? You're cursed." And it’s a cursed blessing, you know? You go to school, you see your friends, they're making all this money, they have all these things, and you think, "This dude isn’t doing shit. How is he making six figures and I can't pay my rent? I could do that and I could do it better." But then who you are won't allow you to do that, because you have to be true to the artist that's in you. It’s how you live in the world. It's how you experience the world. It's how you deal, how you keep from going mad, especially in the situation the country's in right now. If I didn't have the ability to create art, I’d probably be dead. I wouldn't have anywhere to go with all of it.