Church of Film and Future Prairie recently hosted a beautiful evening of light and sound. We called it "Channel One", and the whole thing was directed by Higher Feeling. We enjoyed music by Jonathon Mooney, Casey Marx, Onry, Dashenka, Amenta Abioto, visuals by Church Of Film, projections by sarah sarah turner turner, installations by Talia Gordon and Clamber, poetry by Joni Renee Whitworth, and a tea ceremony by Brianna Sas. Our show was sponsored by the Regional Arts and Culture Council. Thank you to our supporters!
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.
Joni Whitworth: Welcome to 2020! I hope you're easing into the New Year. The artists of Future Prairie have just returned from a snowy residency at the Suttle Lodge in Sisters, Oregon. We had a great time hiking in the forest, making and sharing new work and planning for upcoming shows. Thank you to the Suttle Lodge for hosting us and making our stay so memorable.
We're also celebrating this week because we just got the news that we've received a grant from the Multnomah County Cultural Coalition to continue our programming. This funding is going to help a lot to offset the rising cost of production and transcription and publishing our podcasts. We’re very grateful to the grant committee there for recognizing our hard work.
Today we're going to hear from Kyra Rickards. She's a model poet and actress exploring art and expression through gesture. In this episode, she reads some beautiful poems from her new book, Crescent Moon, and talks about making art as a woman of color.
Kyra Rickards: Hi, my name is Kyra. I'm a poet and a freelance model here in Portland. I just self-published my very first book of poetry. It's called Crescent Moon.
I'm a mixed race woman of color. I'm Filipino and half white, born in Hawaii, and then I moved here when I was a kid. Everyone I grew up with was like, mixed race or they’re people of color, except for my dad and my brother. And then I moved here and all of a sudden I was a minority. It took a long time to sort of renegotiate my identity. It's a strange thing where people know you're different because they can see the color of your skin so they automatically other you, but then they don't want to talk about it, but then they really want to talk about it.
People define Asian-ness as what they are familiar with. How do I take that and articulate the pain of otherness and , create art from it? And also, how do I create for myself a source of strength from it? , while growing up, I always loved reading and writingI'd always thought of myself as , “Oh, you know, , I do poetry as a hobby.” And then I discovered modelling. , this is such a different and interesting way to interpret art and to use my body in a new way that I had never really experimented with before because I was , there's no way that anyone's going to cast a short brown skinned Asian girl , you have to look a particular way if you're an Asian model.
Poem: After the Cold Moon
I think of myself in parts. Remove teeth, line them together along the cell. Small white stones, I sow to call me home after I have forgotten the hour.
Poem: After July
My silhouette in the afternoon fill space between gaps and conversation, the arch of you leaning back, but I am distracted. Come closer. Let me kiss the tips of your fingers. Let me remember movement, the warmth of midsummer on your mouth.
I did a project with my friend Salimatu this summer about mixed race identity. We did a short video and photo set on film. And we were talking about the tension that you feel as a multi ethnic person growing up and how people always want to figure out what you are and make you choose. And that's the thing; people always want to make you choose. Andthe project that we did was about occupying and owning that middle space of identity.that was really wonderful and beautiful to do. And it was a great way to intersect all these things that I've been thinking about for a long time with also modeling. It's also a great source of empowerment to be , okay, here I am. I’m a woman of color. I’m a brown Asian woman of color, and I'm finally being able to make a mark visually in a way that I want to, and to create art in a way that I want to.
There's pressure people of color who write, to write only about that experience. But being a person of color isn't always about pain. And just because I'm not writing about my identity doesn't mean that it's not steeped into my work. How I think about love and how I think about touch and how I think about connection has everything to do with my identity as a person of color.
Poem: After Making Small Talk
I keep this silence, this mouthful of desire, a low chorus repeating. Maybe it’s the scent of you. Maybe it is the weight that makes me soft beneath your teeth, making love a slow sigh exhaled singing. What always come back to this moment. I want to be lost. I want to lose track of my breathe.
I always find myself coming back to this idea. The idea is to make everything different and make everything matter differently and to feel unique and being , okay, how can we make something new different and unique and cool every single time and really innovate and bring forth voices and uplift voices that haven't been heard before, or show experiences that haven't been depicted before?
Poem: After Leaving My Window Open Overnight While it Rained
Tender hearted lost sigh of summer, come here. I had something to tell you but I swallowed it and let it simmer deep in my belly where it grows sweet white tooth and gentle. There is nothing to fear, is there? It is only the kind of dark that is velvet and billowing, a quiet welcome curling and pooling over the cell.
Recently we interviewed artist Samantha Nye for our podcast, and we are excited to share highlights from that conversation here with you today.
Samantha Nye is a painter and video maker from Florida. Her work explores re-enactment, performance, and identity. Through her creative and funny paintings and videos, she highlights aging bodies, celebrates queer kinship, and facilitates an intergenerational dialogue between queer women and their mothers and grandmothers. In juxtaposition to our cultural preoccupation with youth and white bikini-clad women, Samantha's poolside paintings feature elderly women, including her mother, grandmother, their lifelong friends, and elders from her queer community. Her pictures and videos are designed as love letters to queer spaces past, present, and future. Her work imagines the future while also referencing lesbian legacies and failures. She mashes up incongruent references, such as Slim Aaron's photographs of the 1960s, lesbian separatists spaces of the 1970s, Bar Mitzvah parties from the 90s, and the Miami club scene of the early 2000s.
From Samantha: "I make paintings and videos. Both aspects of my work approach utopia through the remaking of pop culture from the 60s. They do that by filling up the spaces of those pop cultural images with a paradise full of queer women and trans-inclusive lesbian spaces. I'm a queer Jewish woman but not a religious Jewish woman, but can't take that cultural Judaism out of a gal. I feel that people that I was raised the closest to were the elders in my family and not so much the parental units. That influences the work. I'm trying to make this ideal future because I would like this queer women's pool party to go on when I'm 60, 70 and 80, and hopefully 90. I'm trying to make that happen and at least image it.
When I was in undergrad, there were like three different classes throughout my four years that were like, "Is Painting Dead? Maybe Painting's Dead: Part Two." So you thought painting was dead, you know, number three, but I have for a long time felt like it wouldn't have mattered at all what I made because figuration wasn't valued. For what I do and what I'm the most invested in, we're having a moment with figuration and figurative painting, so I'm feeling pretty good about it right now.
We've been working with aging bodies for probably 10 years, starting off making work in undergrad with my grandmother and my mother. Through that, ended up making work with my grandmother's like, buddies, my mom's buddies, and I thought of that work as queer, creating sort of a queer relationship with these women and their sexuality and seeing what it was like for them to perform their sexuality for me. And then from there, I was working within a framework of Playboy, then I started thinking about pool parties, because naturally Playboy loves a pool party. And then I started thinking, well, these women may not identify as queer, and I'm trying to queer them through this work. What about working with people who identify as queer?
Simultaneously, the video work was doing the same thing: focusing on the women that were kinship to me and not in a family way, and then it's spreading out to be more of like queer kin. Looking for lineage isn't the straight relationship of like, what I learned from women before me, like what I would learn from queer women, rather than what I would learn from familial ties.
In the beginning, I was thinking a lot about inheriting trauma and inheriting quite literally like a gender expression from my mother and grandmother. I was fascinated by this, like, thing that we would all do or the thing that they were upset I wasn't doing. And then I started working with both of their bodies. And I included myself in it, which I've tried doing throughout the years. I stopped caring about my body or painting my body or bringing in like my peers. Anytime I decided to bring in someone of my generation or my age, I wasn't as interested. And I think that led me to realizing the space that I wanted these women to occupy. And there's, of course, this empowerment idea. I'm into that, but I'm also not trying to make like a Dove Beauty campaign. So I'm trying to walk the line of understanding that this can be empowering for them, but I'm more interested in honestly what leisure would think like if women 60 and up were allowed like a truly like, sexual or a leisure experience and were unbothered by the weights of the worlds.
In the paintings, they're coming from all different sources. So sometimes they are women that I know. And then I'm finding a lot of women online through maybe reaching out to like an online kink page, you know, can I use some of your images? Can you send me pictures? But everyone's around 60 and up so that there's this like, beautiful utopian space that they get to be genuinely queer or genuinely empowered.
When I first was making this sort of like, remaking of the Playboy where somebody approached me—I was living in Miami—and they were like, "You know, we could get the Miami housewives on here, and this could be this marketable thing for you." It didn't feel right. That's not my interest either. Leisure isn't afforded to women as much, especially aging women, and I think like we see… I think a lot about like Instagram now being a way that people give like an image of full leisure. What is it like if we take the capitalist part out of it? What if these women were creating the capital to have a life of fucking or drinking or reading or lying by the pool? What if that was also important? What does time and presence afford you in terms of like deepening your relationships and your friendships? We think of this like queer opulence from a white male monied perspective. I'm using a lot of Slim Aaron's photographs to make the spaces that I'm placing these women into. Slim Aaron's photos have become a white gay male aesthetic in its opulence. One of my intentions is flipping that. Not so much to say, "All the queer women: you get a mansion, and you get a mansion," but more like, what happens if this was also valuable, or created value? I'm working with a visual language, so to indicate that I'm using opulent places, but I'm trying to queer them as I go. I'm changing some of the sculptures and obviously, the people and the things that they're doing. Sometimes hard to communicate that and make it clear that I'm not like, talking about fantastic capitalist wealth.
Any time a painting ends, or I have to switch studios, or I have a moment where there's a blank canvas, I have a weird paralyzed fear as if I've never made a painting before. I've talked to several artists of all different—like, anyone who makes anything. So many of us have all described the same feeling of being like, why have I made paintings or written poems or whatever for 15 years, and I like, can't deal with this blank page or this blank canvas and…Now I'm a professor, so I'm talking a lot to painting students. I'm thinking a lot about how to talk them through that moment. Talking them through that moment is reminding me that that is actually something we do in life, get lost in the question or the fear of the beginning of something, and then near two feet into it, and it's totally fine. You're questioning why you're ever worried about it.
My recommendation for other artists is: go to some paint, look at books that have painters, look at different work. Look at the colors Hockney used for one painting. Remember to think about color and not think about the burden of the beginning of the painting. He had all those burdens, but I'm looking at these two colors too. I'm using him in this example because he paints pools — but he could be anyone. Because you don't know how to do something does not mean you shouldn't do it. What you should be doing is presenting yourself with all the problems to learn how to get through them. Many people will say, "Well, I don't know how to do that, so I'm going to wait till you learn how to do it." But I think if you make yourself have all of the problems, you can't get better at solving them unless you continuously have them. Be okay — completely okay — with the fact that you don't know what you're doing. You don't have to pretend to know. It's better to learn to actually admit to yourself that you're learning. You don't have to pretend to the world that you already know how to make it."
You can watch Samantha's videos and see her incredible paintings at www.samanthanye.com or on Instagram @samantha_nye_studio.
Portland Lounge Singer ALLEGRA BEHAVE! for Future Prairie
Future Prairie Poet Nastashia Minto, author of "Naked"
Today we're going to hear from artist, musician, composer, and producer EW, who's known for her varied use of classical and modern instrumentation. Her work reaches pop and chamber music and explores concepts around human relation to the natural world rooted in a love for both. Her short films and projections weave imagery of contemporary dense, extreme weather and effects of climate crisis, alongside protest footage from the AIDS coalition to unleash power, an international grassroots political group working to end the AIDS pandemic.
Emily's latest album, This World is Too___ For You, was released last March and has been hailed by NPR as breathtaking, mind-blowing, and visionary. I sat down with Emily before one of her performances for a conversation about art and the future.
EW: Hi, my name is EW, and this is always the hardest thing to do, but I'll try to describe my work a little, which is grows, I hope, always growing but always with the center around music and moving interdisciplinary into video art and always influenced by literature and poetry and critique and history.
JW: That's perfect.
JW: And what are some of your favorite instruments to play or musical endeavors?
EW: so I am a violinist by training and have been playing violin my whole life so I kind of often enter music through that lens, but you know, I'm a producer so I'm always trying to find ways to encounter sounds, and whether that's by finding the right people to play the thing really well, or by me kind of trying to find a way into different instruments or, you know, I'm interested in synthesizers and drum machines and…But I love acoustic instruments as well. So I kind of like to blend those.
JW: Nice. Tell us what are some of your intentions for the future, both for yourself and then maybe as an artist and a community member.
EW: A personal intention for myself and my work is to remain curious, and not to be cynical. And I guess that kind of bleeds out a bit into my intentions around how I want to approach being a member of a community and an activist, you know, to educate myself and…but to be a force for curiosity and, you know, wanting to be...Well, you know, we were talking about something last night, which is the ability to experience wonder, and I think my way into wonder is often through experiencing other people's art but it can also be of course, through the natural world. That's like the best starting place, I think.
JW: And what are you working on these days? Any fun projects going on?
EW: well, I put out a record that took a lot of time to make, to conceive of and to create and took like two years so it came out in March. And so it's almost like you cut...You have to really come down from something like that, especially after taking it on the road. And so my way of coming down from that was to gently hold each of the songs in hand by making these really minimalistic recordings of them, so shrinking them from this much more grand arrangement into either an acoustic guitar or an electric guitar and a voice, no other instrumentation.
So I spent my summer doing that, and perhaps also to avoid the, project that I'm staring at now, which is ambitious in a different way. Though, I think it will also involve collaborators. The initial concepts are around creating songs and essays, which are in conversation with one another. And some of the concepts are quite daunting. And there's like some darkness to them because they're examining how climate change crisis is related to AIDS crisis and the movements that came up around AIDS crisis , and just like looking at how we can learn one from the other. And so those ideas are of course, they're hard ideas to think about on a daily basis, but…So that's what I'm looking at now.
JW: Wow. And so you imagine there will be maybe something like an album with a book?
EW: I think so, I think so.
JW: Nice. That's really exciting.
EW: And also daunting, just from a practical standpoint of having to be a writer...
JW: Outside of writing lyrics.
EW: Privately, I've always written but, you know, privately, so...
JW: an essay feels more formal, for sure.
EW: Sure. Absolutely. But it kind of started because I…There was an event that happened where an activist took his own life in protest of environmental injustice, and I was so struck by the act itself, but also by the lack of response to it. And so I had never written an essay before in like a formal way, but it was almost like I had to do it, not for anything other than just the act of sitting down and organizing my thoughts. So that's kind of how the whole thing began.
JW: Wow, so that was kind of the genesis of the project?
JW: Amazing. And what were some of the themes of your previous album, the one that came out in March?
EW: well, so that album is a lot about human beings relationship to the natural world. It's about facing your own apathy around the world in which you inhabit and take from and trying to reverse that. And and also a willingness to have to look around instead of to isolate, and kind of this idea of community and needing one another. It's the only way out of this problem, you know, of climate crisis and a lot of other problems frankly, as well, soo…
JW: definitely. Do you find yourself thinking about the future when you're making your work?
EW: absolutely. I mean, particularly this album, like, again, it's a scary thing to live inside for a while. I have a song called Eulogy For The Lucky, which is kind of this idea of the earth shaking us off of herself, and what will be lost in that and just sort of sorrow around that. But I think there's a lot of songs that are about looking at one’s self and really seeing your place in the problem, you know, especially as an American consumer.
EW: And how all the systems you know, that benefit us also are cutting us as well.
JW: Is there anything you'd like to share with our listeners about your identity that might have informed your perspective on the future? So sometimes people are thinking of things like class or race, disability, size, sexuality, religion, things like that.
EW: I mean, I can't help but come through a queer lens, much of my work and much the way I see the world, but also a queer lens of a person who was raised in a Christian household, who has a queer father who didn't come out until much later in life. Those things really inform my perspective, my worldview, of course, and can't get away from them.
JW: Definitely, for better or for worse.
EW: For better or worse,
JW: Could you tell us about some ideal futures, some best outcomes?
EW: I mean, it's sometimes hard for me to picture frankly, but I think it is a world in which we have a much more symbiotic relation to the natural world. And you know, I think that does involve a willingness to live more closely, which sometimes is at odds with my desires as a kind of loner type person. But I don't know, I think I could get used to it, if it meant survival.
JW: as long as there is like a bullet train into the forest or something, you could go out in nature [Laughter]
EW: I mean, I would just…I would like for us to imitate the thing that knows what to do, which is the natural world, more closely. And I feel like as speaking generally or quite detached from that way of being and obviously, all of the anti-capitalists things that need to happen, I don't need to repeat. You know, you should go to elizabethwarren.com, sort of suss it out.
JW: There, our recommended resource for further reading is www.elizabethwarren.com. Thank you. What role do you think art plays in the creation of that future?
EW: Imagination, I think is a big part of it. Imagination, accountability, I think those are two, for at least the work that I make, I think that's part of it. And the visualization of the past, and then that bleeds over into that imagined future, I think as well.
JW: Tell us about your creative routine or process.
EW: Well, when it's working well, it involves a fair amount of reading. A fair amount of nonfiction, I would say, although, I do love novels, and they're kind of more of an escape rather than a way in, but all of those things are part of the process, if that makes sense.
EW: And so, you know, I…And I like to be in my body so I'll go from a run or a swim. I've recently gotten into rock climbing. And so if I can get into my body and out of my head a little bit, and then it allows me to enter other people's work. I find like, entering other forms of art is always a spark for me, in unexpected ways. It's like there's so much there for us, you know, it's just opening ourselves to it. And getting outside of a habit, not being open to it, you know, I think that's part of the routine is creating a way in.
And then then you kind of just can…Through that, it's a way into the work itself, making the work itself. It's such a strange, you know, walking into the space, wherever it may be of writing the music, there's always a barrier that you have to kind of cross and then when you do you can really, really lose yourself in this way, and also meet yourself, you know, it's quite profound and it's difficult to describe, I don’t think. I only know how to set up the experiment, not how to conduct it, if that makes sense. So the conduction is just being inside of it. And of course, you have to rely on skills you've picked up along the way. You know, whether it be the technique of playing an instrument or software or whatever, and those are just like, there for you. So you've got to nourish those as well so that they will be there for you in the moment of oblivion, you know, but that's how I get in.
JW: I feel the same way completely. I'm primarily a poet. And so I'm finding my way into a poem is like that where you finally you're like, “What am I doing?” And then, at one moment, it's like, “Oh, here we are.”
EW: And then you're just weightless, totally.
JW: Is there anything you've learned about making music that you apply in other areas of your life?
EW: I try to think about that in terms of trusting the preparation in life. Certain things you know work, even if you don't feel like doing them or they're difficult to get into, like, just trusting like, if I open this book or if I enter this talk or whatever, then like, that's the way in. And so I tried to trust certain boundaries that you set. I think in art, it's easier than it is in your personal life.
JW: Unfortunately, I found that to be true.
JW: Do you have any certain audience in mind when you're making your work or, like a certain market that you find really, really connects with your work? Market’s [inaudible 15:28] audience?
EW: I mean, I definitely want thinkers, you know, to like, get in there with me, people who are interested in ideas, you know, that's the audience that I wish to try in the most, I guess,
JW: And do you have any special certain moment from a feedback from experience like that or something that are really connected with your art?
EW: there's this poet named Mary Ruefle, who it's more that I'm connected to her art does. She's written a few books of poetry, but she wrote this book called Madness, Rack and Honey, that's a book of lectures but loosely, I mean, they could be spoken, but the ideas are... It's just so brilliant. And I wrote her a letter to tell her how much that book meant to the record and send her the record and we've begun a small correspondence. And she is just so lovely, her way of communicating. She's like, from another planet or something. But she sent me a book and put a drawing of something from the record cover inside. And another thing that she wrote to me was that, “Musicians are lucky because they get to use the word play and the rest of the artists have to keep it a secret.” So, that kind of interaction, I mean, that's once in a lifetime, I guess.
EW: That's the ultimate, right? Someone you admire, getting to engage with them around work. It's amazing.
JW: That's a beautiful observation, the freedom of play, being able to claim that. This is more of a fun question about the future.
JW: If you could invent any new object or tool or structure or system, what would it be?
EW: Oh, man, I mean, I guess, maybe at I would want to remove a good tool that could remove distractions, particularly those of like a digital nature. So a way to like, close yourself to that itch, you know, and really be inside of something else experiential. That's my invention.
JW: Cool. What advice would you have for emerging artists?
EW: Read, listen, and just stay curious and trust that... I think, at least my experience has been just this, I'm just carving out a world for myself the best I can, you know, and that is the goal is the ability to continue to carve out the world, that there's not some, like reaching a plateau is the end, you know? And that's what keeps you up, that's what keeps the work interesting is the ability to keep growing. So, that's the goal, you know, it's a continual.
JW: And when should we expect your album and essay collection?
m,. Probably 2021.
JW: That's a perfect timeline.
EW: under our President Elizabeth Warren, right?
JW: Oh my goodness. Yes. What a celebratory. Maybe you can play the inaugural.
EW: Right. I was there for the protest, so perfect for the inaugural as well.
JW: Well, thanks for your time.
EW: Thank you for your really thoughtful questions. I've enjoyed chatting with you.
JW: Of course. Have a beautiful rest of your weekend. I can't wait to see you play later.
EW: Thank you. Thank you so much.
If you'd like to see and hear more of Emily's work, go to www.emilywellsmusic.com.
This episode was co-sponsored by the Arcosanti Urban Laboratory. Thank you to our production assistants, Natalie Nelson and Jillian Barthold, and to our sound engineer, Mat Larimer.
Future Prairie Artist Nim Wunnan, Author of #howtopaint