Art21 was founded in 1997 with the mission to increase knowledge of contemporary art, ignite discussion, and inspire creative thinking by using diverse media to present contemporary artists at work and in their own words.
As a choice-based elementary educator, I believe that my students learn by making artistic decisions. I encourage them to explore the things and ideas that excite their curiosity, and I invite them to bring the objects of their interests—rocks, toys, stickers, anything—into our art studio. They are usually more than eager to do so. I also fill the studio with interesting materials and beloved collections of mine that the students can arrange and rearrange to make ephemeral works. Looking at collections with students, and making new collections together, opens unique avenues for enriching conversations about art. We closely examine the objects we collect, looking at them through the lenses of art-making and of being artists. Young kids are natural collectors, but they don’t always realize that, with clear intention, a collection can become a work of art. I talk about collections with my students because I want them to understand that artists can use a collection of objects as a way to make art, but artists can also create a collection of objects as a way to make art. Discussing contemporary artists who do both of these things can help to illustrate these ideas and start discussions about collections and art.
When I share works by Lucy Sparrow and Allan McCollum with my students, they are always amazed by the sheer magnitude of the collections these artists are able to create. They respond with audible excitement to the artists’ work—to Allan’s collection of dinosaur-bone replicas and to Lucy’s entire convenience store filled with soft sculptures, made from the same felt that we have in our art studio. Small works can feel incomplete if seen on their own, but once a student considers making multiples, the project becomes more exciting, and the student develops a sense of direction and care for their work. When I encourage students to think of ways that they can create and/or use collections in the art studio, I refer to the work of McCollum or Sparrow.
Student creating Finger Necklace in the classroom. Image provided by the author.
Creating a collection takes time and persistence, but it also allows a young artist an opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of a material or process. Kayla, a fourth-grade student, made one small plaster cast of her finger, but after she decided to make multiples, she ended up with fifteen little finger casts to work with. Eventually, a new idea began to emerge, leading to her Finger Necklace. Another student, Juan, created a few small origami pockets. Once he discovered that they fit neatly together, he decided to make a large collection that he used to create his paper sculpture, Time Portal.
“When students begin to collect, they also begin to curate.”
When discussing his work during the Art21 Extended Play segment, “Collecting,” Theaster Gates speaks about how collections are like “this little time capsule of things that were important to someone” and how he is “looking for the personality of people within their collections.” Even though the interests and aesthetics of my young students are often vastly different from my own, placing value on and honoring those interests are important ways to show respect to their developing creative personalities. When I share the work of contemporary artists with my students, I hope that they will be engaged and inspired and will recognize some of the artistic behaviors that we practice in our studio, all the while broadening their understanding of what art can be.
“Having collections activates the imaginations of young artists.”
Some of the ordinary objects that Gates had collected and arranged—archiving the contents of a hardware store and binding issues of Jet and Essence magazines—took my students by surprise, which got us thinking: Why do people collect things? Do we have multiple objects in our studio that we can arrange in creative ways? What objects can we collect from home and bring into our studio? What makes some objects more interesting than others? When students begin to collect, they also begin to curate. We decided to create some studio collections; we began collecting things like plastic lids, buttons, sticks, rocks, and paint-chip samples from the hardware store. Having collections of small objects that are readily available for students to use in the art studio activates the imaginations of young artists. When students arrange these objects, they almost always have a detailed narrative that accompanies their work. They also learn the importance of documentation since the ephemeral sculptures must be photographed before the objects are returned to the collection bins at the end of class.
Image provided by the author.
One afternoon, a few students excitedly called me into the hallway, saying, “Ms. Hergott! Ms. Hergott! Come out and LOOK AT OUR ART!” I walked out of the art studio to see that the students had carefully arranged a pile of freshly sharpened pencils into a visually pleasing row. It was a proud moment because they recognized not only their arranged pencils as art, but also themselves as artists. Incorporating the work of contemporary artists into my lessons and having conversations about that work has definitely broadened my students’ understanding of what art can be.
Once again it’s time to introduce a new cohort of Art21 Educators who will be attending this summer’s institute and working with the Art21 learning community during the 2019-2020 school year. We are very excited to have this wonderful group joining us in New York City from July 8-13 as our ninth new cohort! To receive updates about our education initiatives, please subscribe to the monthly Art21 Educators newsletter, and watch this film for a look into the Summer Institute energy.
Let’s introduce the new Art21 Educators:
Lisa Becker teaches Studio Art and Media Arts at John Marshall High School in Rochester, Minnesota, a diverse community where students speak over eighty known languages. The wide range of artists featured by Art21 has inspired her students to create art about who they are. Lisa has also collaborated with teachers and students in Nigeria, Turkey, and Australia, learning through meaningful art making, exchanging student work, and comparing methods of creating.
Jennifer Bockerman has taught across grade levels, including college, in Nebraska, New York, and Missouri. She uses interdisciplinary themes as students explore relative topics, media, and visual communication through scaffolded metacognitive thinking strategies. One of her goals is to create a theme-based curriculum in her school.
tobacco brown is a social impact artist based in New York City. A digital storyteller, writer and environmental advocate, brown has created storytelling murals, installations, gardens for sculpture and public art, and international community engagement projects that focus on reciprocity, creating healthy and resilient communities.
Sarah Ceurvorst is an artist and educator who teaches at an all-girls school in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania called The Ellis School. In her classroom, contemporary artists act as role models for her young students and their exhibitions and portfolios serve as textbooks. She firmly believes that contemporary art can be used as a tool for addressing issues of difference and inequity with young children.
Elizabeth Denneau is a 2D Visual Arts teacher at Marana High School in Tucson, AZ. Her focus as an educator is utilizing contemporary art making methods to foster critical thinking and social justice in her classroom, as well as connecting her students with opportunities for artistic success in their rural communities and beyond.
Kayleigh Gillies is a New Orleans-based artist and educator. She teaches elementary-level studio art at Isidore Newman School and collaborates with teachers to develop projects that are interdisciplinary, connecting art-making and academics through creative problem solving practices. She often invites visiting artists into the art classroom to provide an opportunity for students to engage in current methods, concepts, and themes being explored in the New Orleans art community.
Mary Goldthwaite-Gagne is an artist, educator, and community organizer who lives in Peterborough, New Hampshire. She is the Visual and Performing Arts Department Leader at ConVal High School where she has taught since 2007. In 2008, Goldthwaite-Gagne and her husband, Eric, founded The Glass Museum, a nonprofit art and music event space.
Kate Jellinghaus is an artist and educator who teaches ceramics and sculpture at Westwood High School in Boston. Jellinghaus also serves on the board of Artistic Noise, a visual arts and entrepreneurship program that serves incarcerated and court-involved youth. As a teacher, she is interested in helping young people envision themselves as artists.
Sarah Kolker is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College and Moore College of Art. She was born and raised in Philadelphia and has studied health and wellness practices in Philadelphia, Jamaica, the San Francisco Bay Area and in New York City. Sarah currently teaches with Mural Arts in Philadelphia, the nation’s largest public art program that engages the community to ignite change through mural-making.
Andrea Mancuso is an artist, curator, and educator living in Buffalo, New York. She’s been teaching high-school for twenty years at Nichols School, and serves as their Department Chair. Andrea is also a part of the multimedia art collective, virocode.
Jennie Maydew is an artist and educator in Queens, New York. In 2016, she was awarded the Windgate Fellowship as an emerging craft artist and is currently a youth educator at Achievement First Bushwick Middle School, BRIC, and the Textile Arts Center.
Birra-li Ward is an arts educator teaching at Woodleigh School, Victoria, Australia. Working with students aged 12-18 years of age in Visual Arts and Studio Arts, Ward has been the recipient of two separate scholarships to study at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. She uses her arts practice to engage with advocacy groups and uplift voices from marginalized communities.
There you have it, folks, our ninth cohort of Art21 Educators! Please join us in welcoming them and wishing everyone all the best in their program year.
Jes Fan’s recent work explores the material bases of identity by working with isolated natural chemicals such as melanin, estrogen, and testosterone. Fan suspends these liquids in blown glass, and the contrast between their innocuous, whimsical appearance and the ideologies of racial and gendered power that they buttress is absurd, almost incomprehensible. Systems III (2018) is emblematic of this series: a fleshy lattice reminiscent of circuitry, scaffolding, or plumbing that evokes the body, with its sags and folds. Fan’s work is often couched in discourses of identity and their co-optation within biopolitical capitalism. Here, instead, I offer a personal take on one work, Systems III, by comparing it to three creative forms—a poem, essay, and song—which have stimulated my thinking and helped me to understand Fan’s work, toward reshaping the boundaries between what we know and what we fear about ourselves.
This poem by Monica Youn considers two mythical figures: Pasiphaë, a princess of Crete who was cursed by Poseidon to climb into a wooden cow in order to have sex with a bull, eventually birthing the Minotaur; and Sado, a Korean prince who is sentenced to death in a rice container. For Youn, the physical containers holding these protagonists pale in comparison to the linguistic containers of identity (female, Asian) that lead them to their fates.
“Both works ask us to reconsider what containers hold us into ourselves.”
Youn, like Fan, considers the arbitrariness of these containers—nationalism, race, gender—as they have come to restrain and fix certain life trajectories: “Revealing a racial marker in a poem is like revealing a gun in a story or like revealing a nipple in a dance.”¹ Both understand that the body is not a container for the ingredients of one’s identity; identity exists within the body and extends beyond it. In Fan’s Systems III, glass globules contain droplets of testosterone, melanin, and estrogen. However, as these chemicals appear as suspended, whimsical speckles in glass, their significance is not manifested on the surface of their container, as they are when they are contained within a human being. Rather, they persist in a frozen state of interiority, as if replicating the restricting logic of racial and gendered containers: to be no more than the sum of the chemicals that are suspended within. Fan’s work visualizes the intractability of this identity model, as Youn’s poem does in its relentless logic of entrapment. Both works ask us to reconsider what containers hold us into ourselves.
With its fleshy scaffolds and the drooping, translucent weight of the glass, Systems III resembles an octopus. The mottled, pale pinks of its surfaces make me think of glossy, wet skin; the blue pipes are like arms extending inside and outside of itself, in alien repose.
Like humans, they [octopi] have centralised nervous systems, but in their case there is no clear distinction between brain and body. An octopus’s neurons are dispersed throughout its body, and two-thirds of them are in its arms: each arm can act intelligently on its own, grasping, manipulating and hunting.²
“What might it be like to think through your body, to communicate to your arms—to all parts of yourself—the way an octopus does?”
The octopus has more neural matter in its arms than in its head. These networks are separate, but they correspond with one another. In a way, an octopus can have conversations with itself. Systems III is a schematic for this sort of self-Othering and mind-body melding. The tubing resembles arms and is like the system of neural pathways encased in dermis. The surfaces ripple as if electric with thoughts and emotions. Systems III encounters a viewer as a proposition: Can you think like this, with your body?
This melding of the mental and the physical is a soothing rejoinder to the insistent division of mind and body in Cartesian logic, so beloved by the cerebral space of the gallery. What might it be like to think through your body, to communicate to your arms—to all parts of yourself—the way an octopus does? If the nature of an octopus reveals that, in some ways, we are always an Other to ourselves, it also implies that this othering is not necessarily a cause for despair, but a site of potential, even celebration.
Holly Herndon makes music by teaching an artificial neural network (lovingly named Spawn) how to sing. She inputs pop and dance music as well as vocal samples from YouTube, Skype, and other audio sources from the digital landscape, like beeps and dings for email and other notifications. The result of this collaboration between Herndon and her AI network is a slippery, ethereal soundscape.
“It’s a remix of the body”
Herndon and Fan share an outlook toward technology that is measured, a desire to see it as neither the best nor the worst thing ever. Herndon’s manipulated voice throbs and whirrs in a way that is both pleasurable and unsettling. Familiar sounds like email alerts and keyboard clatter are loosed from their normal usage, made harmonic. Similarly, Fan collaborates with laboratories to explore the lives of natural chemicals outside of their pharmaceutical administration; Systems III is a body or several bodies, with two flesh-like panels facing away from each other. Flesh, bone, and hormones appear separated, in pink panels, blue tubes, and glass globules. It’s a remix of the body, and of the self, with its psychic and physical barriers rearranged.
As our bodies and creativities are peppered with adjustments by emerging technologies, Fan, as well as Herndon and Youn (and octopi) are not that interested in shoring up the borders of any single body. Rather, they hope to open those borders toward an increased porousness: the understanding that technology—in the form of nervous systems, animals, consciousness, AI, or natural chemicals—has always been with us and within us, both foreign and familiar.
¹Monica Youn, “Study of Two Figures (Pasiphaë/Sado),” Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/148962/study-of-two-figures-pasipha-sado.
²Amia Srinivasan, “The Sucker, the Sucker!” London Review of Books 39, no. 17 (September 7, 2017): 23–25. Accessed at:
Elle Pérez. Hobbes, 2015/2018. Archival Pigment Print; 44 3⁄8 × 31 × 2 inches (112.71 × 78.74 × 5.08 cm). Image courtesy of the artist and 47 Canal, New York.
“I always forget that I can use my actual life in my work,” Elle Pérez says to me, in the kitchen of their live-work studio space in Brooklyn. Pérez is putting together lunch—a salad, sauteed broccoli, and a rosy slab of perfectly seared salmon—while their cat bats a paw over my tape recorder. In Pérez’s earlier practice, making art was often about being in the right place at the right time: a queer sanctuary in Tennessee; backstage at nightclubs and the ballroom scene; ringside at entertainment-wrestling matches in the Bronx. “But it’s about looking at what’s closest to you,” Pérez continues. “Look under your nose! Just look down!” Their most recent body of work, in contrast to the site-specific shoots they’ve worked with before, considers how the themes and formal qualities that interest them are embedded in the fabric of ordinary life.
Elle Pérez. Water body, 2016/2018. Archival Pigment print; 44 3⁄8 × 31 inches (112.71 × 78.74 cm). Image courtesy of the artist and 47 Canal, New York.
“Pérez is motivated by more than representation.”
Pérez’s words might surprise viewers first encountering the young Puerto-Rican American photographer’s work. Their images—intimately wrought slices of life and portraits of the artist’s friends and community—can appear effortless and naturalistic, akin to documentary photography. Yet Pérez is motivated by more than representation. Carefully staged, and often the result of collaboration between photographer and subject, their work depicts the undercurrents of language, expression, and performance that transform us into who we constantly seek to become. In an open conversation, centered on the subject, Pérez creates portraits that illuminate both character and agency.
Elle Pérez. Tattoo Elizabeth, 2016/2018Digital Silver Gelatin print; 44 3⁄8 × 31 inches (112.71 × 78.74 cm). Image courtesy of the artist and 47 Canal, New York.
In one black-and-white photograph, a person lies on a couch, their face turned away from the camera. Outside of the frame, someone straddles their back, knees bent. The focal point of the image is the first person’s hand, which curls protectively around the edge of a pillow. It’s a snapshot of intimate, unknowable grace: the subject’s face turned away, fingers clenched in anticipation of pleasure or pain. It’s also a moment, Pérez reveals to me, of physical transformation. Barely visible on one freckled shoulder is a fresh stick-and-poke tattoo: a pair of initials. Easily unnoticed by a casual observer, the tattoo is the entire point of the photograph. It moves the image from a depiction of physical closeness to an invitation to a conversation about body modification, marking, and community.
Elle Pérez. Binder, 2015/2018. Archival Pigment print; 44 3⁄8 × 31 inches (112.71 × 78.74 cm). Image courtesy of the artist and 47 Canal, New York.
In this moment—altering, pushing, and manipulating the body—the idea of self-expression enters the work. The theme of expression through performance, especially in conjunction with the body and its modification, runs through Pérez’s work. In one of Pérez’s best-known photographs, Binder, the eponymous garment hangs on a white wire hanger against the backdrop of an empty shower stall. Thinned with age and darkened by wear, the binder takes on a presence of its own. Weighted with the aura of the body, it becomes a stand-in for not only the body but also its effect on the body: constriction, transformation, presentation. Paradoxically, it’s through this restrictive binding that gender fluidity can be performed. As viewers, we sense the body’s desire in this image, hovering like a ghost.
Elle Pérez. Ian, 2017/18. Archival Pigment print; 44 3⁄8 × 31 inches (112.71 × 78.74 cm). Image courtesy of the artist and 47 Canal, New York.
“A constant current within Pérez’s work is an exploration of physical intensity.”
“I’m always drawn to intensity. I channel my own desire for intensity that comes out in the work,” Pérez tells me. This intensity takes many forms, including strong emotions: some of Pérez’s portraits, especially those that originate from their relationship to the sitter, can feel almost unbearably close, as though viewers are eavesdropping on a private conversation between lovers or friends. Yet a constant current within Pérez’s work is an exploration of physical intensity—specifically, the idea of pushing the body to its limits to find a kind of self-expression.
Elle Pérez. untitled (junior), 2014/2018. Digital Silver Gelatin print; 34 × 28 inches (86.36 × 71.12 cm). Image courtesy of the artist and 47 Canal, New York.
“The image’s character changes once more, suggesting a collaboration within a performance. . .”
Pérez’s photographs of entertainment wrestlers in the Bronx exemplify this theme. In this sport, each bout is meticulously choreographed, each move rehearsed. Out of these practices, a fight scene emerges. Pérez’s images of these wrestlers convey an exquisite balance of tenderness and violence. In Untitled (Junior) (2014/2018), a wrestler on his back has his eyes closed and his hands crossed over the foot that steps on his neck. If one ignores the foot (and the figure to which it belongs), the subject seems nearly angelic—long eyelashes and tight curls standing out sharply in the photograph’s wide focus—and in peaceful repose. Yet the foot turns the composition toward violence and asks the viewer to consider the uses of pain.
Looking closer, one can see that the wrestler’s hand is holding the foot that steps upon his neck; his fingers are fanned across it, as in a gesture of support. Now the image’s character changes once more, suggesting a collaboration within a performance, a gesture shared between two actors. One wonders what dialogue they had, to get to this place.
Elle Pérez. t, 2018. Digital Silver Gelatin print; 20 × 14 inches (50.80 × 35.56 cm). Image courtesy of the artist and 47 Canal, New York.
My lunchtime conversation with Pérez turns to how one deals with the fact of a body, not just in art but also in life. When I mention that I’ve recently rediscovered running, Pérez immediately relates to this, describing a newfound Muay Thai practice. “It’s been really nice to push my body through something as intense as Muay Thai,” they tell me. “It’s not about aggression, which I really appreciate.” Rather, Pérez explains, it’s about that same desire for intensity being channeled into a productive, healing place.
Elle Pérez. Soft Stone, 2015/2018. Digital Silver Gelatin print; 44 3⁄8 × 31 inches (112.71 × 78.74 cm). Image courtesy of the artist and 47 Canal, New York.
As in Binder (2015/2018) sometimes the body takes other forms. In the photograph titled Soft Stone (2015/2018), two rocks, nestled together, jut out of water, appearing like phalluses; it’s an image that’s twinned in another photograph, a self-portrait for you (2016/2018). Sometimes, artifacts of lived experience are written on the body, like surgery scars, piercings, and tattoos. These marks are evidence of the agency of the body.
Elle Pérez. a self portrait for you, 2016/2018. Archival Pigment Print; 44 3⁄8 × 31 × 2 inches (112.71 × 78.74 × 5.08 cm). Image courtesy of the artist and 47 Canal, New York.
As Pérez prepares a series of work for inclusion in the 2019 Whitney Biennial, they describe a group of photographs that display a quiet, subtle intensity. The new work includes images that thoroughly engage with the body—including a homage to Catherine Opie’s depictions of sadomasochism—and several portraits, composed with the care and collaboration with their subjects that’s a hallmark of Pérez’s practice. Says Pérez, “This is a process of following.” It is a process of allowing the subject to guide the work, without the work speaking in place of the subject. It is a process of intensely looking at the people, places, and objects that surround us and the choices that we all make, to move ever closer to who we wish to become.
“It’s my own way of writing South African LGBTI history. So I don’t want to be limited by anything. I don’t want to be in any studio. I want to be unplugged.”
In a new film from our Extended Play series, visual activist Zanele Muholi explains the impetus behind creating what they call “mobile studios” to photograph members of the LGBTI community in South Africa. Freed from the limitations of a single studio space, Muholi travels to the homes and community spaces shared by the people depicted in their photographs. As a way to create work in which the participants feel most comfortable, these mobile studios allow Muholi to empower those around them.
Art21 is proud to announce the twelve educators that will join the incoming ninth cohort of Art21 Educators. These individuals come from rural and urban communities, teach a variety of grades, and, with our first-ever participant to reside in Australia, represent regions from across the globe.
As a year-long intensive experience, the Art21 Educators program encourages teachers to consider new ways that contemporary art can support teaching and learning both in the arts and other disciplines.
We are excited to welcome this group of educators into the Art21 Educator community!
2019–20 Art21 Educators Cohort
John Marshall High School, Saint Charles, MN
Moore Middle School, Lincoln, NE
ArtUp, Memphis, TN
The Ellis School, Lower School, Pittsburgh, PA
Marana High School, Tucson, AZ
Isidore Newman School, New Orleans, LA
Contoocook Valley Regional High School, Peterborough, NH
Westwood High School, Roslindale, MA
Mural Arts, Philadelphia, Philadelphia, PA
Nichols School, Buffalo, NY
Achievement First Bushwick Middle School, Brooklyn, NY
Woodleigh School, Victoria, Australia
Caitlin Cherry. Ultraviolet Ultimatum Leviathan, 2019. Installation view of Caitlin Cherry: Threadripper, January 12, 2019 – February 9, 2019, Luis De Jesus Los Angeles. Oil on canvas with pencil, 57×101 inches (144.8×256.5cm). Photo: Michael Underwood.
First published in 1985, the essay by Donna Haraway known as the “Cyborg Manifesto” made waves by criticizing the gender essentialism and identity politics of feminism and encouraging people to unite with others based on affinity. It proposes the symbol of the cyborg as a rejection of boundaries “unfaithful to their origins” and that this symbol can help to free people from racist, male-dominated capitalism.¹ The essay also purports that the “boundary between science fiction and social reality is an optical illusion.”²
In the past year, the essay’s post-human politics have heavily influenced my artistic practice, particularly as I build the narratives of the Black female tri-brid figures (merging human, animal, and machine) that I call leviathans, after the mythological sea monsters of Jewish folklore. These painted leviathans are filtered through the backlit glow and glare of current technology, media, and modes of representation—three decades after Haraway created “Manifesto”—but they attempt to illustrate her proposed world of transgressed boundaries and potent fusions.
Caitlin Cherry. Wraith Stealth Leviathan (The Fibonaughti Sequence), 2018. Installation view of Caitlin Cherry: Dirtypower, Providence College Galleries (PC–G). Oil on canvas, 182.8 x 182.8 cm. Image courtesy of PC–G. Photo: Scott Alario.
“Our Best Machines Are Made of Sunshine”
Haraway breaks down the boundaries between human and animal, organism and machine, and the nonphysical and the physical. “Our best machines are made of sunshine; they are all light and clean because they are nothing but signals—electromagnetic waves, a section of spectrum. And these machines are eminently portable—a matter of immense human paint in Detroit and Singapore.”3 Now, in the 2010s, the era of the handheld smart device, our relationship to liquid crystal display (LCD) screens is intimate and fetishistic. For my paintings, I developed a color palette to convey the unpredictable viral behavior of iridescence in a malfunctioning screen: the overexposed inversion of color when a viewer is not positioned optimally in relation to the screen to view its content. My leviathans are married to the technology that my reference material is sourced from (the camera), combined with the medium where I see the reference (smartphone, laptop screen) and who they are as contemporary Black American women, before I transform their images by my style. They are cyborgs of all three of Haraway’s boundary analyses. The “Cyborg Manifesto” charts paradigmatic shifts, from modern to postmodern epistemology. My work exists between two relationships described in the chart: Integrity/Surface and Representation/Simulation.
Caitlin Cherry. Chaos Compressorhead Leviathan, 2018. Installation view of Caitlin Cherry: Dirtypower, Providence College Galleries (PC–G). Oil on canvas, 176.5×218.4cm. Image courtesy of PC–G. Photo: Scott Alario.
An LCD screen is visually immaculate. However, one can break its simulation and reveal its inner world by using a digital camera to take a photo of the screen; the product reveals a representation of a representation. The image degrades into a pattern of streaks that interrupts the image like a digital water ripple. This moiré pattern occurs when the scanning pattern recognition in the camera is misaligned by the pattern of liquid crystals on the screen; liquid crystals are hybrids between solid and fluid states of matter. With oil paint, I render this digital misunderstanding as dark and light bands that veil the primary composition of the painting and create an overlaid secondary composition. The paintings are made of two palettes, of simultaneous over- and underexposure: the metaphor of the plight of Black women in mass media. I affectionately refer to this overlay with the term pictorial spaceX, to evoke the paradigmatic shift of the picture plane of a painting as a screen. The light and dark banding system does not represent the sun streaking through some architecture but rather a backlit determinant.
Caitlin Cherry. Sapiosexual Leviathan, 2018. Installation view of Caitlin Cherry: Dirtypower, December 5, 2018 – March 2, 2019, Providence College Galleries (PC–G). Oil on canvas, 72 ½ x 72 ½ inches (184.2 x 184.2 cm) Installation view image courtesy PC–G. Photo: Scott Alario.
My painted leviathans originate from images of Black American women who participate on some level in the sex industry: porn stars, Instagram models, C-list rappers, and A-list celebrities with histories as exotic dancers. Their livelihoods are least dependent on the whims of white popular culture and as a result they have crafted identities or brands that are extreme and unapologetically Black. These women decorate themselves with multicolor wigs and visible tattoos once deemed too “ratchet” for professional contexts but have now been appropriated by young white urbanites working in creative industries. The women have enhanced their bodies through plastic surgery and have become, in a way, more than human. These women buy into a liberated, sexualized image that takes the stereotype of the hyper-sexualized Black woman to its limits. Nevertheless, they are successful and—like Blac Chyna and Cardi B, whose net values are in the millions—capitalize on a lineage that recalls the aggressive, hardcore style of Lil Kim, the popular rapper of the late 1990s and 2000s. Together these Black women have fundamentally changed beauty trends, reaching outside the Black community to become global cultural exports. Within the Black community, their rise to stardom is a vice for their potential to influence young Black girls away from supposedly more dignified and respectable paths. I refer to and paint these women to elevate them to the highest levels of grace and grandeur that can be achieved through the revered medium of oil paint. Though the careers of these women may be short explosions, oil paintings have long lifespans.
“When my identity is mistaken for that of my subjects, our personal histories are flattened.”
At my art openings, I have been mistakenly identified as the women in my paintings by gallery-goers, curators, and critics, which risks turning my investigative practice into a series of self-portraits. Since painters tend to leave bits of themselves in their works, this is not an unfounded observation, but it is inaccurate. Yet it furthers the tension between representation and simulation that I tackle in the work. As a curvaceous Black woman with mint-green hair and visible tattoos, I share aesthetic characteristics with these women, and I take observations of these affinities as compliments. But I have never been a dancer, rapper, or model; I am a visual artist and a professor. When my identity is mistaken for that of my subjects, our personal histories are flattened. I am interested in the mythmaking, insofar as it helps to break simple stereotypes and to complicate who Black women are or might become.
Caitlin Cherry. Innversion, 2019. Installation view of Caitlin Cherry: The Armory Show (Focus Section), March 6, 2019 – March 10, 2019, Luce Gallery, Turin, Italy. Oil on canvas, 69 ½ x 86 inches (176.5 x 218.4cm)
In the “Manifesto,” Haraway defers to the professor and postcolonial feminist theorist, Chela Sandoval, who describes the condition of being a Black woman as being at the “bottom of a cascade of negative identities, left out of the privileged oppressed authorial categories called women and blacks.”6 We who are Black women essentially transgress femininity and Blackness. Black women end up fused to an entirely new identity. Black womanhood is an unsolvable equation that reminds me of the “three-body problem” of physics.5 In this problem, three celestial bodies in trajectory with one another will forever have unpredictable paths. If two of these bodies find balance, the third will unexpectedly yank the first two out of sync, and their orbit becomes chaotic once again. The three bodies can easily be seen as metaphors for the identities of Blackness, womanhood, and class—identities that can never merge nor fully be oppositional or unified forces. This metaphor could be helpful to animate the socioeconomic tension of the buzzword intersectionality, particularly when applied to the identity and the culture of Black women. This metaphor proposes post-intersectionality, assuming that the three identifiers have positions that are expected to cross each other. But in contrast, and in reality, they are in a constant, chaotic recalibration between each other, perpetually reshaping the definition of each identifier.
Donna Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto” has a persistent influence on us humans/aliens who are fans of futurism, left accelerationism, and cyberfeminism. But it also has a deep effect on anyone frustrated with the snail’s pace of feminist progress in America. Since the essay’s publication in the 1980s, the text remains quite relevant despite technological advancements in society. It has also ignited interest among a younger generation of scholars and thinkers.6 Although my artistic practice has a plethora of influences and an encyclopedia of content, I feel that none are as nourishing as the “Cyborg Manifesto.”7
 Donna Haraway, “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s,” Monoskop, page 68.
 Haraway, pg66.
 Haraway, pg70.
 Haraway, pg73.
 The three-body problem also inspired the title and plot of a science-fiction novel by Cixin Liu.
 Notably, the feminist collective Laboria Cuboniks published Xenofeminism: A Politics for Alienation, which draws influence from Haraway’s essay, and a subsequent Xenofeminism book by Cuboniks member Helen Hester was available in early 2018.
 I am indebted to the Black writers, curators, and cultural producers Aria Dean, Legacy Russell, and Jennifer C. Nash.
Fifth grade new media artist. Image provided by the author.
As a choice-based educator, I expect my students to generate artistic ideas on their own. Understandably, this can be a very challenging task for many of them. My lesson about the body is intended to inspire my students to begin an artistic investigation that engages and excites them. I teach this unit to my elementary students who are between the ages of six and eleven, but this theme can be modified to suit students of any age.
The body is a great starting point for teaching art to young students because they still have the profound desire to make-believe, to tell stories, to adorn, to dress up, and to play. I think that if a group of students is left alone in an art studio with an assortment of colorful papers, scissors, and tape, the papers will inevitably be transformed into costumes taped onto their little bodies. This unit harnesses the penchant for play that my students naturally have in the art studio. Sharing videos and images of more established artists who use similar techniques helps to validate the students’ direction, confirming that what they are making is indeed art.
I start the unit with a short discussion about art in relation to the body, prompted by the following questions:
What can we create that can be worn on the body?
What can we create that can be made with the body?
What can we create that can be about the body?
Second grade artists. Image provided by the author.
I consider these questions to be invitations to artmaking. I tell my students that they don’t have to use the body in their ideas. I ask them to consider ways in which the body might lead to an interesting idea, and I hope that they will stumble upon ideas either during our discussion or during their time experimenting with materials in the studio.
We look at and discuss the works of various artists. One example is Cyrus Kabiru and how he uses recycled objects to make wearable sculptures. Since we also have recycled objects in our studio, how can we create something with those materials that we can wear? We analyze the work of Nick Cave: what materials are utilized in his soundsuits, and why do those materials work well for his artistic ideas? Like Cindy Sherman, who transforms her body into a wide cast of different characters, how can we become transformed by our art? As we discuss these artists and images of their works, the students generate two lists in their sketchbooks. The first lists are of possible materials for this artmaking investigation, prompted by asking: what materials in our studio can be used to make something that can be worn on the body? These lists contain items like painted papers, feathers, beads, yarn, and cardboard. The second lists are composed of artistic ideas that the students have already begun to envision, like ideas for jewelry, hats, capes, and masks. We are always discussing the fact that artists generate ideas and that they must choose the materials that work best for their ideas.
“With younger students, ideas are often driven by interaction with materials that are laid out before them.”
My students are allowed time to experiment with materials and techniques as they seek an idea that excites them. Giving them this time encourages organic inspiration. In our open studio, there is always a variety of two- and three-dimensional materials available to choose from. Especially with younger students, ideas are often driven by interaction with materials that are laid out before them; the materials become the inspiration for the idea. Each section of the room is designated for a different group of materials, and the students know how to access those materials. For example, if a student needs yarn, fabric, and beads for their idea, they know that they would find those materials in our fiber studio. After students have had a chance to experiment with materials, they can work alone or with a team of collaborators, often with little guidance from me.
Fifth grader working with plaster. Image provided by the author.
For students who struggle to generate ideas, simple creative prompts about the body can guide our ideation conversation while providing the opportunity for very divergent outcomes. (Two examples: What are we interested in creating that is related to the body? What materials can we use in order to create something that is related to the body?) The students should also be able to communicate how they think their idea connects to the prompt.
The students are allowed a few weeks to give and get feedback while they work on and refine their artistic ideas relating to the body. As they are working, I often tell my students that art takes time. During each of these working classes, we pause to discuss the work of contemporary artists who are making art that has a connection to the body. In the Art21 clip of Creative Growth Art Center’s annual fashion show, we learn that many of the artists are making the clothes they are going to wear for up to two years. From that clip, my students get a chance to see the happiness and joy that comes from celebrating artistic achievements; I want my students to feel equally excited about the work that they create in our art class. This teaching unit shows that art that is about the body or that can be worn on the body has a special way of activating young artists and getting them excited about creating art.
Being an artist and an educator is easy, but making meaningful connections between the two vocations isn’t always simple. For many years, I separately practiced both: each day, when I arrived at school, I left my artist identity in the car and walked into class, determined to be a great art teacher but wary of the connections between being an artist and an educator.
One day, a colleague, Donna, asked me why I didn’t share my own drawings and paintings with the students. “I don’t want them to think that’s what I want to see,” I replied, reluctant to overly influence their techniques or styles. But Donna helped me to see that I could place my work alongside other art examples that I was sharing; I didn’t have to say it was my work.
“It gives street cred to the things we discuss and share in the classroom.”
I followed her suggestion. In doing so, I found that showing students that their teacher is an educator and a working artist had an unexpected outcome. While showing one’s art to students is a gamble and humbling experience, it gives street cred to the things we discuss and share in the classroom. For example, when students ask specific questions about technique and medium, I can offer first hand advice. When students inquire about exhibiting and working with galleries and institutions to show their work, I can share ideas about how to price work fairly. Sharing my experience helps students to overcome the fear of submitting work for the first time to a group of strangers. Over the years I have occasionally hosted studio visits for students, and I discuss the schedule I set for working on my art and strategies for juggling different projects and commitments. Sharing my creative practice and process may provide inspiration to students, in the same way that I’ve learned from the stories and strategies of artists like Laylah Ali, Mark Dion, and Kara Walker.
Laylah Ali joined our Art21 Educators Summer Institute in 2016 and shared with the cohort how she balanced teaching at Williams College in Massachusetts with her continued work as an internationally known practicing artist. Her recent project,John Brown Song!, brings together research and collaboration in a way that teaches through art.
Mark Dion, as a visual arts mentor at Columbia University School of the Arts, utilizes his work as a model for research and moving beyond the studio. For example, Dion’s Neukom Vivarium—which I have employed as part of my teaching in the classroom many times—serves as a reminder to all artists and educators that a primary goal of teachers is to provoke dialogue and discourse.
In an Art21 Extended Play segment, Kara Walker discusses her ambivalence about being a young educator and having the responsibility to tell students how to be a successful artist. But she eventually admits to herself that she, like many artist-educators, must have something of value to offer young students interested in becoming artists. Walker reminds us that “there is no diploma that declares someone an artist” but rather a process of becoming an artist, after making the decision to be one.
My artwork is often fueled by what goes on in the art classroom. Scrap paper from a printmaking unit, sandpaper from the floor of the ceramics studio, and even discarded photo experiments have served as launch pads for entire works, such as Prayer Book. Because these scraps are the products of labor and process, they inspire connections for me outside the classroom. Conversations with colleagues and even sudden movements or gestures of someone I’m working with sometimes are recalled later in the evening, at the studio.
While I work on my art, I often have my students in mind. Many pages of my sketchbooks include lists of artists, media, and other things I want to share with the people I teach. Like all teachers, I know that my students follow me around, even into my studio.
Tiona Nekkia McClodden. Be Alarmed Lobby Card, 2014. Courtesy of the artist.
The sense of place achieves its clearest articulation through narrative, providing the thematic drive and focus of the stories that people tell about the places in their lives.
—Kent C. Ryden, Mapping the Invisible Landscape.
Archival image of postcard, artist unknown.
I was born in 1981 on an Air Force base in Blytheville, Arkansas, a small rural town where my mother Deborah Ann was born and raised, as were her mother Marvis and her grandmother Signora. Cotton fields are clear in my memory—they often appear as a white haze in the distance—and visits back to Blytheville happened near harvest season in late August. In my mother’s family, no one spoke of the fields until I was older and began to hear stories of my mother chopping cotton for spending money, to buy a pair of white pants to wear to school, in the 1970s. It was a difficult image to picture; I know her as an “ain’t working outside in the heat” kind of woman, but perhaps her experience of working in the fields is the reason.
“How do our families react to artwork that references their lives, their ancestors, and to the circumstances that have resulted?”
One exhibition that triggered in me a sense of nostalgia and of family was “Beverly Buchanan—Ruins and Rituals” show at the Brooklyn Museum in 2017. Her sculptures echoed the shacks and wooded landscape of Blytheville. I felt my family in Buchanan’s works; I felt placed directly on the streets of the city, in some of the poorer Black-populated areas that were once lined with homes and now stand bare. Buchanan’s exhibition made a memory and a legacy tangible.
I had a similar experience when I visited Kevin Beasley‘s solo exhibition, “A view of a landscape”, at the Whitney Museum in December 2018. Seeing the show’s restored cotton-gin motor brought to mind a flood of images of my mother working in a field although I had never seen her do this work. I had been unable to share my experience of Buchanan’s exhibition with my mother, so I was determined to bring her to Beasley’s exhibition.
Social media screenshot, features A view of a landscape (2019), by Kevin Beasley. Image courtesy of the author.
“My curatorial and art work is sourced from my mother’s relationship to her surroundings.”
On January 13, 2018, we visited the Whitney Museum, a first for her. We made it up to the top floor, to the motor. It was silenced by a glass vitrine, and the room was oddly empty; both aspects allowed my mother to spend some time in silence and in solitude. I shared a few images of her viewing the motor on my private Instagram account, captioned with our brief spoken exchange in the galleries. My friends and I often think about how our families will react to artwork that makes reference to their lives, to those of their ancestors, and to the circumstances that have resulted. Within a few hours, my Instagram post was flooded with likes and comments. This proved to me that artworks like Beasley’s illuminate a shared history, one that is not so rare, and that there is a desire for more.
My mother’s first job, as a sixteen-year-old, was chopping the weeds surrounding the cotton plants—a task known simply as “chopping cotton.” It was a time she rarely discussed. Her work in the cotton fields came more than one hundred eighty years after the invention of the cotton gin in 1793, one hundred ten years after the abolishment of slavery in 1863, and only thirty-one years after the mechanical cotton picker was formalized and used in Arkansas, in 1944. The picker was the machine that my mother heard most during harvest; it stood at the end of the rows in the field. The entire cotton gin was housed by a much larger structure, and she was familiar only with its exterior.
After we visited Beasley’s show, I learned that one of the largest cotton gins in the United States was located on the western edge of my hometown. Finally, I was presented with an opportunity to ask my mother about her time in the fields, and she related some of her experience:
Chopping cotton was one of the first big jobs I had. Everybody knew: if you wanted to make some money, you chop cotton. I started out at age fifteen or sixteen, at fifteen dollars a day. You had to go down and ask Mr. Charlie Whirl if you could ride with him on the bus, or truck, or whatever [vehicle] he was taking. [He was] one of the many men in the area who took people to work in the fields. If he didn’t know you, you couldn’t go with him, but he knew our grandma.
Your day started at 4 a.m. You’d ride forever, it seems like, and arrive at the field around 6, at sun up. It would be so hot you’d have to take a straw hat and layers of clothes, a t-shirt and a long-sleeve shirt, or the sun would burn you.
You were given a hoe and instructions on how to chop the weeds from around the cotton so it could grow, because it was really low to the earth. We stopped at 5 o’clock, when the white man would bring the money. I would give grandma some even though it wasn’t a lot, but we didn’t have a lot. If [someone] yelled, “Snake!”—because there were snakes in the fields—I was done and would sit on the bus all day. I don’t do snakes.
Marvis, Grandmother in Blytheville, AR, Date Unknown. Archival photograph courtesy of the author.
Much of my curatorial and art work is sourced from my mother’s relationship to her surroundings, her memories of my ancestors—primarily of my grandmother Marvis, who died when she was only thirteen years old—and my family’s history in the American South.
My practice considers three interrelated aspects of culture: artifacts, sociofacts, and mentifacts. They are foundational to my investment in Black mentifacts (shared ideas, values, or beliefs). No matter how deeply I research document-based archives, I always make reference to a grouping of people or a singular person, to seek out memories. I then try to create a form of material culture from the space between truth and fact, a space of conjecture that I dwell in conceptually. Everything I’ve ever produced must be rooted in a sense of feeling sourced from a Black mentifact, as opposed to just a happening or occurrence in the past or present.
In 2018, I pivoted my work’s focus to Black social and architectural spaces as sites for cultural innovation, relief, and pleasure. In March and April 2018, while in residence at Recess, as a part of the Session series, I transformed the exhibition space into a juke joint, built by hand, called “Shug Avery’s Kiss”, a reference to the character Shug Avery in Alice Walker’s book, The Color Purple. I curated a program of events that included: letter-writing workshops with fellow Black women; an intimate discussion about love with the artist Chloe Bass; and workshops on religion and spirituality with my friend Ash Tai, on sisterhood with my youngest sister, and on friendship with my friend, Keondra. In addition, I hosted three live jukes, rooted in presentation and collaboration: in one, I made a pair of pants with the artist Diamond Stingily, and the other provided me the opportunity to collaborate with my mother, by inviting her to conduct a wig-making workshop, using me as the hair model. In recreating this community space, a conversation was started and a conversation was preserved.
Tiona Nekkia McClodden and her mother as a part of Shug Avery’s Kiss (2018), at Recess. Courtesy of the author.
The abstraction, or rather extension, of that installation also paid homage to not only the juke joint as a historical site of Black artistic creation and social engagement but also to my grandmother Marvis, who frequented jukes after working in a shoe factory in Blytheville. Photos of her were placed on the walls of the juke, the only images of her that I have seen in full clarity. Before I built the installation, I went to Greenville, South Carolina, to speak with my mother and her sisters about the juke joints they had visited or heard of. They shared their memories of the smell of the wood, the alcohol, the porch lights, and the music, which informed how I sculpted the Recess space. My grandmother’s images served as references for color, and Shug Avery was the muse.
Vernacular architecture—and specifically Black vernacular interiors—is often left in an impermanent state, only existing within memory, as most of the buildings, homes, and jukes are no longer standing. They have passed away, just like their owners, who are primarily elders with no heirs interested in taking over such a complex space in a modern society.
For my mother, just the sight of an object that she had never seen—the cotton-gin motor is the interior of a machine, heard but meant to be hidden—reminded her of a time, of a place, of a labor. In the Whitney exhibition, the motor was encased to stifle a sound that would cause one to leave before experiencing the whirling cavity, a condition that also enshrined its power. The sound separated (much like the cotton from the seed) the slab sculptures presenting a contemporary fossilized history of Blackness and its relation to cotton—from flower to t-shirt, to my mother’s white pants—and made transparent our proximity to this flower and our participation in this labor. To me, this is the success of Beasley’s installation: it is accessible to those in direct proximity to the landscape surrounding it, to the exterior of it all.
After my mother and I spend some time with Beasley’s cotton-gin motor, we walk to the museum café. She is clearly overwhelmed, and we spend much of our time in silence, watching people brave the winter cold to take pictures on the balcony. After taking a sip of her overpriced tea, she looks at me and says, “It’s really cool that this is in this museum. I remember being right there in the field.”
Me: What years were you in the fields again? Mother: Oh it was ‘75, ’76, I reckon.. Me: Wait, so only 6 years before I was born? Mother: Yep, I suppose that’s right.