Willie Little discusses his career, themes and issues he's exploring as a queer Black artist from the south, advice for emerging artists, and the Regional Arts and Culture Council grant that helped him publish his newest art book and memoir, "In the Sticks."
I am a multimedia installation artist and storyteller. My work has evolved from trying to make sense out of my life, who I am, and where I come from, to making sense out of how I fit in the world. So the work, the process is very shamanistic with found objects I tend to find. I conjure them up. As a storyteller, some of my work, I would create narratives and become characters, but in this one exhibit called Kinfolks about my family's tobacco farm, there was a piece I wanted to create called Git Me A Switch, and it goes like this...
Aunt Rachel, Oh, Aunt Rachel. Born in 1898.
She raised Cousin Jimmy Lee from a child.
When he had been showing out, she wait till the right moment, bedtime.
As soon as he was butt naked, she take a switch and turn him every which way but loose.
Now in that piece, there was a copper clock that I wanted to be the centerpiece for this clock. So I went to the flea market, walked in, went to the booth, the first booth, there was a clock. I was like, "Oh my god, but it's black. I wanted a copper clock." Went to the next booth, bam! There it was! Copper. Then I want to have wood, reclaimed wood, and in my neighborhood, I'd go the same way every day. But I decided to turn left, there was a stack of wood, just like a gift from the gods. So I usually conjure up work, things for my work, and that makes me know that I'm on the right track.
I have written a book called In the Sticks, it's a memoir and an art book, and it's a coming of age story, a memoir about how I grew up, who I grew up with and what I experienced the first two years of integrated schools and who I became. It's a coming of age story of family dynamics.
It's all about growing up and growing beyond the shame of youth to the pride of an adult.
It's about how art became my destiny as I created my past in this exhibit juke joint. It is an installation about my father's illegal liquor house and the patrons of Little's grocery in the late 60s and early 70s. In that exhibit, I describe snapshots of life, the sights, the sounds, the smells, and the people whose existence is vividly ingrained in my memory. I had 12 mannequins, I had artifacts from the 50s and 60s and a jukebox, and I became the characters. It had a narrative audio track, where I would breathe life into a warm, humorous yet CD depiction of a slice of rural life and that exhibit traveling around the country for several years. It culminated at the Smithsonian in 2003, but now it's in the permanent collection of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. So I'm so proud to have it. That part of something I created in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian.
I created the narrative audio track with professional production. The other thing it is a 320 square foot shotgun shack, that's a replica, a three quarter-scale replica of my father's illegal liquor house. So when you walk in the building, you are walking in a juke joint. It has the walls, they have the four walls, the forefront with all these signs and memorabilia from the 50s and 60s. It has a jukebox inside and the 12 characters and his food, like penny candy and canned goods. It's a grocery store in there too. The thing is, I had written three grants to make this work and when I got the... The second grant was the most extensive, and I talked to the administrator. She said, "Willie, when you apply for this grant, what do you want to get out of it?" I said, "Well, I want, when you walk into my exhibit, you'll know what a juke joint is, if you've never been in." She said, "Well, you should write like that." I said, "Well, I guess I will." I did, and I got the grant, and the work was funded. I found out that the more specific a story is, the more universal it is. It was 15 years, and so many people walked up to me, telling me that I was telling their stories.
I thought it was just creating my story, but they said it was a more universal story, but I had no idea. Because I tell stories with intricate details, and the intricate details lend themselves to people experiencing a similar thing. So when I talk about my first day of school, and my first year of school, most of the things that happened to me are familiar to what everybody experienced, the bullying, or being teased. Because I tell it in such detail, people will say, "Oh my God, that's my story too." I did that when I talked about some of the characters in the Juke Joint too. I described their figure flaws, their foibles. Like I said, the more specific it is, the more people say that I know someone like that, or that's me.
2003 to 2004 was actually the final, that was the last time…It was what I thought was the last time it was going to show, but it was at the Smithsonian. It was selected to be in the Smithsonian, the Arts and Industries Building. While it was there, it was reviewed by the Washington Post. It was a wonderful cover review in the art section. Then after that, because it was in the Smithsonian, I got wind that they were building this new African American Museum. I got in contact with the curators, they said, "Please, update us on every time you do something different to the exhibit."
They called me in 2010 and said, "Willie, we're getting close to purchasing work," and they said, "Can you exhibit? Do you have another exhibit?" So then, in Winston Salem State University, I knew the curator there, and I said, "Oh my god! Belinda, can you help? Yeah, I need a bigger venue!" She made it work. So I have the exhibit there, and I just made it the best it could be.
Then the whole team at the Smithsonian came. They had their little notepads and white-gloved the exhibit. My heart was beating fast.
They said, "Willie?" I said, "Yes."
They said, "We really liked your exhibit. We'd like to invite you to be in the permanent collection." I was like..."Oh my god." I was so happy.
I think I wrote my first story in 1992, and it just kept growing. I knew that as long as I can remember everything, I'm going to write it down. I started jotting down. I had a first full story that came just like butter; it wrote itself. There are few stories that wrote themselves, but then I would take notes, and whenever I see things on television, or in films, or in books, to give me an idea of how I want my story to come together, I would do it.
A woman named Moorisha Bey-Taylor connected me with my publisher, Curator Love. The company's run by a woman named Erika Hirugami, and she helps artists realize their dreams because she is a curator and a publisher. So that came together. It was so serendipitous. I had had an exhibit in San Francisco, and my partner and I were about to leave. Here comes this beautiful chocolate sister, and we started talking, and a year and a half later, I'm getting my book published. I received a Regional Arts and Culture Council grant. That grant helped me realize the book. I was really grateful for that.
I had written the book, and the book had been finished, somewhat pared-down, the story was great. So it was all about getting it published because it paid the cost for the printing and the layout, and the editing because Curator Love did everything to make it a beautiful book. One of the things that made it difficult to get it published through the mainstream was that I wanted it to be an art book and a memoir. I think that the costs involved, and with a mainstream company, I would have to be someone really, really famous for a publisher to want to do that. So that was the best way to make this happen was to self-publish it. The thing is, I felt fortunate about it because another friend of mine who's an artist at the Froelich Gallery, the gallery that I am represented by, had just had a book published, and he did a book launch at the gallery. I said, "Oh, wow. How did you get that book published?" Because I had to ask everyone else and he said, "Oh, it was self-published," and that gave me the idea also. So he did a great job with his book, Stephen O' Donald, and I have followed in his footsteps and created a memoir art book. The book can be purchased at lulu.com, L-U-L-U.com, amazon.com, and curatorlove.com.
I don't mind saying that I am 58, and I'm gay and black, and I'm originally from the rural south. all of it, every bit of who I am, affects how I talk about work. As a gay man, I have an affinity for women. Most of my work is about women because I feel that the woman is an integral part of civilization, and the black woman is the cradle to human civilization. Especially in America, because I believe that she raised America, figuratively and literally, up until the 20th century. Then being so marginalized and teased and bullied, as a very sensitive gay black boy from the south, I carry that with me. As I moved to the west coast over 18 years ago, I feel liberated, and I think that I can say it as I mean it, and mean it as I say it. Because my work is so challenging and I take no prisoners because I tell the truth as I see it. So that's one of the things.
In the book, I tell the exact truth about the people, and people who bullied me, and how my family was so uber-religious, and how I felt so ashamed to be gay, and I would hear the ridicule, and I kept so many secrets, and I revealed that. There's so much pain, and I hope that that work, the stories and the words I tell, inspire young gay black men from the rural south, mainly because there is such a stigma behind that whole thing.
Many stories have been told about the gay experience, especially coming out today, but very few deal with the gay black men in the rural south, and I have many stories. Because this book deals with it from my very early earliest, from a young boy to a young man. There are so many other stories that could not be put in that book because this is a childhood memoir. I hope that I will be able to tell a more layered story about how I grew up in the rural south, so I think this is just the beginning.
I knew that I had a story to tell from a very young age. I know that I have not finished telling the story. I want to reach as many people as I can to tell many more stories about how I grew up with the most honesty, and truth.
My audience ranges because of the subject matters. It all depends on the subject matters, and it varies from personal history to social commentary. So two people were kind enough to—because I've only had the book out for a while—write a review. I'd like to read a little bit of what someone said. She said: "I love this book so much. The writing is so descriptive and beautiful. You feel like you were living it with the author. The artwork is so great, and it really helps tell the story. Willie's life growing up is so different from mine yet, there are so many things that were the same. Playing outside, going to church, getting penny candy and soda being scared at school, playing with Barbies, and think was so different like being bussed as a part of desegregation. The juke joint, growing up being Baptist and working in the fields all summer vacation long and being black and gay in the south." This woman was not black. She was not gay, and she said it was a page-turner for her.
In Dallas, Texas, a woman walked up to me with an African accent. She said, "Oh, Willie, thank you so much. When I walked into your exhibit, it took me back to the shebeen to my native Togo."
A doctor walked up to me, said, "Willie, I was once ashamed of where I came from, but you validated my existence." Then, when I had this exhibit at the Froelich gallery, the exhibition called Not a doll, Living Doll, that was the exhibit where I saw Mo. There was an eight-foot-tall painting of a beautiful black woman with Nubian knots. Her hair was naturally beautiful, and she was wearing a white Victorian-inspired gown. She's so elegant, but there's a chain wrapped around her waist. At the bottom of the end of the chain is a red AK 47. This young white girl from Beaverton was standing there in tears. She said, "Willie, this is so beautiful. This is beautiful. I totally get it. Thank you."
During the same reception, a young white boy, he was really young, came up to me with a big smile on his face. The title of the work is Not a Doll, Living Doll. It has these insulting and degrading pickaninny dolls that I reclaimed. They sit alongside the portraits of beautiful black women in the 21st century. so he said, "Are you the artist?" I said, "Yes." He said, "I get it, the dolls are the women and the women or the doll." I said, "Yes, you get it." He was so happy because he got it without me…He didn't really think about it. But he understood that this work with this defiance describes the trials and tribulations that the black woman has endured and has to endure.
I once had an exhibit at Clark College. The students were talking to me and at the end of the talk, a young black woman. She was a student, she probably was a freshman, and she was so quiet and shy and very meek. She said, "Mr. Little, I want to tell you that I was adopted by white parents, and while they try to fill in the blanks, this work helped me fill in so many blanks. Thank you."
My work has such a broad audience because it has many layers. Some of the layers are laid with humor to disarm. My family and I always had to laugh because it's better to laugh than to cry. When your situation can be bleak, it's not good to wallow in that. See the humor in almost everything. I get my sense of humor from my birth mother, who didn't raise me, but also the woman who raised her, who were not her blood relatives either. She had a wicked tongue. I get it from both people, my sense of humor. My work always has to have some irony or parody in it as well.
I'm affected by everything I see, everything that's going on. For example, when I lived in Oakland, between the years of 2014 to 2016, there were many instances of black people being shot by police. In Oakland, this downtown Oakland, they protest it every week. Almost every week, you'll hear the helicopters, and I would get more and more, more angry about it. I remember, I represented John Lewis, who used to work with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He said in an interview, he said, "When I was a young man and Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior stopped me in the office one day, where we were working." He said, "Son, if you see something, say something or do something."
I decided that I'm going to act because I've seen stuff, and I'm saying things, and I want to do something and I wanted to create that work called Not a Doll, Living Doll, where I talked about the issues of gun violence and race in the 21st century. But the future, the absolute future, I want to be really hopeful, but right now, I have a sense of rage. It's so necessary. I remember when I graduated from high school in 1980, I tried to project to the year 2000 because I thought the year 2000 was so far away. Because I was the first, my class in 1968 was the first class to experiment with desegregation. North Carolina eased the state into desegregation with the first-grade class in 1968. I described that whole first year, my first day of school, and we had made strides there. I was the first class to go with people from grade one to grade 12 in an integrated situation. Then I was about to graduate and go to UNC Chapel Hill, the school of my dreams, and I felt that, I projected that this world would be so different. It would be a post-racial society.
When Obama was elected, that was absolutely great. But when I think about the backlash to that, and where we are now, I have a sense of rage. Then I remembered the quote from James Baldwin. It says, "To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time." the fact that he said that we were called Negro and it's still relevant, it says it all. My desire as an artist is to continue to tell my story and tell that story on a grand scale through film or stage. I always knew I had a story to tell, and I won't stop, and I think I'm still alive because I have much more to say.
Art documents what's going on in our culture. Because we're living in a moral moment, people are really responding to that moral moment through art, and we have an explosion of creation going on right now, self-expression going on right now. So we'll look at other people, you'll look back, and see and examine the work that was created because of what's going on in the culture right now. It fills me because, in my process, I actually spend a lot of time alone thinking about work before I do anything. When I get quiet, the quietest time for I would say is the hours between two and three in the morning. That's when things flow, words flow, ideas flow, and things become crystal clear. That's when I know things are going to be extremely, extremely powerful once I start creating from that point, and then I started going in, as if I'm not even thinking out, I'll put things together I'll draw them and then I will sit on autopilot. Once I'm done, then I can set out the layers, and there are so many layers because nothing is intentional, but then people will tell me, they'll see all these different things in the work.
For example, I created this piece called That Strange Fruit, and it's a portrait of a black woman. She's taking a bite out of a watermelon, and the watermelon has these stars on it. The watermelon is the American flag. I was creating that because we had moved from Oakland to Portland, and I had to work in a storage locker, and I would fly to Oakland and work on my exhibit because it was going to be at the SFMOMA artists gallery. So in this cramped space, I'm painting on stars and stripes on a watermelon, and I wanted them to be perfect. I wanted the stars to be perfect, but in that cramped space, it wasn't, and when I finished, they looked kind of cattywampus! Then when I was finished and looked at them, I said, "Oh, look at the stars, some of the stars look like clan hoods." then the flag was actually backward, the way the flag is usually presented, so I'm like, "How about all that?"
So it spoke to the nature of America, and some of the stars represent the different kinds of people, and some of them are racist bigots and wear clan hoods. So I said all that to say it looks like I intentionally did that, but it just all happened because I'm just working. But then there was…Because there are other layers that I actually intended to kind of create, but these were like gold.
One of the things I can say about my role as an artist in Portland is that it's very white. I think my role in Portland is to broaden that perspective and make some people feel uncomfortable, and it does. It makes some people feel uncomfortable, and it actually educates people. It inspires people. Some of it makes people laugh, it makes people think, and I think that's one of my roles. There are ways of saying things as you mature that aren't necessarily hitting the person on the face because I've gotten…This past work with Not a Doll, Living Doll was actually…I kind of went more into, kind of, in your face defiance. The work is all about seducing the audience with beauty — have the message be layered within.
In 2000, I had a residency in South Africa and I was there for a whole month. I created these prints, these limited edition prints, and it was called God Given Birthright. Then there was one piece that was kind of in your face, it was the second amendment, the three shopping bags; they were upscale shopping bags. Then there was one that was the Second Amendment with little tiny guns in the background of the Second Amendment, which was part of the bag.
I also created one that had little tiny crosses, and then it had passages from the Bible layered on top. There was a little cross burning in the passage because the passages were specific to women in the clergy sexuality, all the things that people use as their crutch to justify bigotry and hatred. But many people who were really religious bought the work because it was so pretty and they had no idea. But it was really talking about those hypocritical passages, but that was the beauty of it. I got across my [inaudible 32:43] with the beauty.
I think this industry is a really difficult one. If I didn't love to make art, I wouldn't do it. My art is my life, my life is my art. One of the things that is really important for artists is to if they want to make it as an artist, is to show up. Show up for many things, just show up every day you can to do work. Show up with people you want to build relationships with so that you can show work. to show up, once you start getting funding…One of the worst things to do is to get rejected and give up; don't give up. If you want funding, apply every year like you're paying your taxes because they will see you and see your growth and get tired of you and give you some money. Just show up. I love to give sage advice to anyone who wants to listen because I haven't had very good advice given to me upon people who really want to see me succeed.
My best friend just got a Guggenheim. He applied every year for several years, and he got a Guggenheim and Creative Capital grant. This is what you do, you continue. For the grant, I got to go to the headlines, that was what brought me to California in 2002. I think I applied seven years in a row, and in the last three years, I was on the waitlist, and then I was an honorable mention. Then in the third year…They invite you to do a personal interview. Then because of that interview, I was an alternate. They're like, "If someone backs out, then you can go." The next year, I was so prepared, I was so ready with all my answers, and I had all the ducks in a row. Then they said, "Willie, you know, you don't need to work so hard, baby. You've already, you know, you got it. You got it." I was so diligent going back, but I'm like, "I'm going to show you how good I am."
Do not take your work into a gallery to say, "Can you exhibit my work?" Build a relationship with a gallery owner, be seen, come and talk to them and get to know them. But never go crazy trying to show them how great you are, just talk. Then the other way is to have someone refer you because I know that if you've never shown before, that's always a catch 22, but you just have to kind of keep showing up again. Just keep showing up and just building relationships. I think that's the best way.