"Changing the Narrative"
I had several great conversations this past week that made me consider a few things both personally and artistically. Last Sunday, the Gateway Project Space in Newark, NJ, where my studio is located, hosted an Open Studios event which it does every quarter. Open Studios is a meet and greet of sorts where the 30+ artists in the space open their studio doors to the public who is able to engage them and see what they are working on. I believe this is the third open studios event I've participated in since moving into the space and probably my most confident one yet. In previous instances, I had work in my studio, mainly music-inspired, but there was no story to connect the pieces together. I often found it difficult at times to "frame" my work (as artists would say), meaning how to explain what it is, why I did it, and why it's of significance. This last time, however, I really felt like I was in my element. It was very easy for me to explain the significance of the two series that I'm working, God's Trombones and the series on realities of blackness in America (actual series name TBD - we'll call it Blackness for now), and the inspirations behind them both. The difference this time is I had a story to tell - two very different stories at that, both different but equally meaningful.
God's Trombones is a more cerebral series. When considering my work more deeply, I 'discovered' that historically, my art has been about creating visual interpretations of non-visual forms of art - such as music and poetry. Poetry is just the latest subject in my ongoing dialogue of what non-visual art "looks like". I enjoy the simultaneous freedom and challenge of translating for others a world which they don't see. When they listen to Miles Davis' "On Green Dolphin Street" - they don't see rich green, grey, and light blue hues, with accents of raincoat yellow and cobalt violet. Translating art forms gives me the freedom I need while continually testing my abilities. When starting the God's Trombones series, I approached it with the sub-conscious expectation of keeping it in the same visual style as my previous work - bright, colorful, figurative but abstracted. When I started to sketch, however, I felt a mental block. The language I had become accustom to using to express myself no longer seemed sufficient. It wasn't until I embraced the idea of going totally abstract that I felt inspired and creatively free. It was then, that I got the vision of telling stories primarily through color and texture - like a voice. I wanted to patch together visual elements within the poem that collectively tell an interesting story. I wanted the pieces to be colorful and emotional like sermons of black preachers in the late 1800s/early 1900s, which James Weldon Johnson captured through verse in God's Trombones. When conducting my research for the series, I looked into African-American storytelling traditions and kept running into "story-quilting". Story-quilting is an African-American tradition of telling stories through quilts with vibrant colors and non-conventional patterns and shapes. It draws it's historical influence from African textiles which also use vibrant colors and patterns to communicate meaningful messages. In an effort to acknowledge the traditions of the past while adding my own form expression, I decided to paint the God's Trombones series in a style reminiscent of story quilts - colorful, geometric, textured, and patterned.
My series on the realities of Blackness in America is entirely different. It is not based on music and it is not colorful. It has its cerebral elements but is intensely emotional - if you allow it to be. During open studios, I had both series displayed in different rooms. Throughout the day, people came into the first room with the God's Trombones series. They pondered each painting after I explained the context, and then spent time considering the significance of each visual element - like solving multiple 48"x48" puzzles. Towards the end of the day I also opened up the second room - containing the Blackness series. It was an entirely different experience. I explained my inspiration for each piece - "A Man Was Lynched On Friday", "16 Shots", and "Post-Blackness" - all heavy stuff. In particular, when I explained the "16 Shots" piece (in honor of Laquan McDonald who was fatally shot 16 times by Chicago Police while walking away - see previous blog post "16 Shots") and the significance of the creation process - it was met with a moment of silence...every time. At the end of the event I explained the process one more time:
"I took a very large canvas - 5ft x 6ft into a large loading dock at two in the morning and spray painted it with a special spray paint so it looks and feels like asphalt. I propped the canvas against the wall, walked about 15 feet away, took a yoga ball, dipped it into a bucket of black paint and hurled it at the canvas as hard as I could - 16 times. Once for each time Laquan McDonald was shot by the Chicago Police Department.
The entire loading loading dock echoed with the impact of the ball hitting the canvas.
I got to seven times and was ready to quit.
I felt like I was murdering the canvas.
I had to push myself to 16. It disturbed me. It made me wonder, "If I can only hit this canvas 7 times, what kind of hate do you have to have to shoot a man 16 times?"
I let the canvas dry. It was sitting in that empty dock, propped against the wall and dripping paint. I walked away, removed my gloves, and disposed of the evidence of what had just happened. I had murdered Laquan Mcdonald in that loading dock and left him on the wall to dry.
When you look at the piece, not only do you see the large marks from where the ball hit canvas, but you also see some small paint marks that were created naturally from the impact. Like bullet fragments when you shoot something or someone in real life. Those fragments to me represent the fragments that hit every black person when we see another innocent black life shot and killed by police. We each take a hit every time it happens. And when you go to work the next day, feeling drained, and unable to focus.. it's because you're bleeding and don't even know it. You've been it with a fragment."
So I now have close to 10 black people standing in a 300 square foot studio listening to this explanation. It is met with the usual silence at first, then some reflections, some initial conversation, and then a very passionate conversation ensues. Everyone is sharing their thoughts, frustrations, concerns, philosophies, and experiences. Some people don't agree and they go back and forth challenging each other assertively but not quite arguing (yet). This is what I wanted. This is what you hope for as an artist. To initiate conversations amongst the people viewing your art. Not to impart your own views or ideals necessarily but to cause others to think and re-consider their own or those of the environment around them.
In the midst of the conversation, one person (a close friend of mine) turns to me and asks, "Dan, I have to ask. Do you explain it like that every time? Meaning, are you just as comfortable explaining '16 Shots' in a room full of white people as you are in a room full of black people? Or does the narrative change?" That was quite a question. I thought and reflected for a minute and then gave my honest answer. I'm not as comfortable explaining something so emotionally, politically, and racially charged to someone who doesn't identify with the root. There's always a risk they can interpret my explanation as "militant" or "anti-white", none of which are true. So no, I'm not as comfortable, BUT... even in my discomfort, the narrative doesn't change. Because the narrative cannot change. To change the narrative is to rob the piece of its purpose.
And so it caused me to think. In general, why are we so quick to change the narrative? Not just on matters of race - but matters of the heart, matters of purpose, matters of faith. Why do we feel the need to dilute our deepest beliefs and passions to make others around us somehow feel more comfortable? After this past week, I have explained "16 Shots" to white, black, latino, Indian, South African, French, English, and German people. The reaction was the same - it didn't change. It taught me something important - be confident in initiating important discussions regardless of how it may be interpreted. Don't get me wrong the temptation was definitely there to "lighten the message", but I'm glad I didn't. I now believe there are so many opportunities for critical conversations that we miss because we assume others won't understand or won't be open. But change often begins with a meaningful dialogue. Folks will be moved to take action in their own way and at their own pace, but don't rob them of the opportunity by not initiating the dialogue.
I have a close friend, a very successful professional, who commissioned me last year to paint a piece inspired by a gospel song. I was happy to do it because I welcomed the opportunity to work in elements of faith into my work. After I completed it, I knew it resonated with him deeply because we had discussed the significance of the song in his life and I was very careful to make sure I included those elements into the painting. What disappointed me though, was his unwillingness to explain to other people why he chose a gospel song. It was as if everything in his life was open for discussion except this one thing - why? Why change the narrative? Why hide such an important element of who you are and how you make decisions? His response to me was that in a world where he is constantly on display and open to public scrutiny, he wanted to protect something that was special and sacred to him. But I challenge that. You can't protect who you are by hiding who you are, you protect who you are by being who you are. You cannot please everyone without losing a piece of yourself in the process.
Here most recently, as an artist, I've learned that me and my art are inextricably connected. There is no separation point, nor should I try to create one. My art is an extension of me. My inspiration, process, and thoughts behind my art are just as (if not more) important as the visuals of the painting itself. When I fail to explain a piece with the genuine passion, inspiration, thought, and vulnerability it deserves, not only do I rob myself of the chance to connect (and hopefully make a sale) but I rob the piece of its true value. That is why I cannot afford to change the narrative based on fear of how it will be received. I think this applies outside of art too. Our dreams, passions, and core beliefs deserve to be shared with others with the fullness in which they were created, because to change the narrative is to rob them of their true value - DH