Friday, November 4, 2016

Finding Your Voice as an Artist

A year ago, during the exhibition Salon Style at the Studio Museum in Harlem, I was facilitating a tour and I stopped to talk about artist Chakaia Booker and her work, Repugnant Repunzel, 1995, made from rubber tires, metal, and wood.

Chakaia Booker, Repugnant Rapunzel (Let down your hair), 1995. Collection The Studio Museum in Harlem
Although made from various materials, the first thing you notice about this work, is the black rubbery substance. The kids didn’t realize, though, that this black tar material was actually reconstructed tires. When I revealed this information, they were like, “wait WHAT?” Yup! Chakaia Booker found her medium!

Booker, who grew up in New Jersey,  started out creating wearable art. She came from a family of sewers;  her grandmother,  aunt, and sister sewed for themselves and for other people. After graduating with a degree in sociology, Booker became a ceramist, securing various internships in New York City. This then lead to large-scale textile sculptures. 

Soon after, Booker began to work with discarded materials found at construction sites guiding her towards the use of car tires in the early 1990s upon moving to New York. During this time, car fires were rampant in the city allowing her access to the left over tires. She says of her process, 
"When I began to understand how to utilize this material [tires] then I began to think of it as a surface treatment for the work, the tire itself was like an icon, in terms of upward mobility, expansion, and also play, because there were always tires in the playground and everywhere we go.  A lot of times, most people, when they come up to the sculptures and see the material, don't really understand what they're looking at. They like the flow, they like the energy that comes from the pieces themselves."
Chakaia Booker is a great example of someone who explored various media finally landing on one that gave her a  strong, powerful artistic voice. This is how it happens with many artists, it takes time and it’s about process.

Sometimes you think you found your medium, and then this changes. Mediums can be for a time and ultimately lead you to your next great work. I thought I finally found my medium in oil painting.  Before then, I mostly drew, constructed collages, and painted with acrylic paint in Junior High School art class. 

It was in LaGuardia HS of Music and Art, however, that I discovered oil painting! I loved it; the smoothness of the medium, the richness of the colors, the texture and smell of the paint itself. I even loved that we had to use turpentine in order to soften and re-work this thick pasty substance. That chemical smell from the turpentine made me feel like an alchemist mixing elements in her lab that absolutely needed to be ventilated. It added a seriousness to my art. I felt like a worker operating on very important projects, projects that just happened to be paintings.

But when the kids came along, this all changed. Oil paint was too toxic to use around them, especially with the turpentine, so I gave it up for sewing. I then combined this with screen printing which also has the potential to be toxic until I discovered a safer way to print.

Sometimes finding your medium, takes you trying different media. As I mentioned before, I tried various media (just like Chakaia Booker) and continue to dabble in collage art, but I find my most joy in sewing.  Jack Canfield, author of the Chicken Soup for the Soul book series, says, 
“pay attention to how you are feeling and keep your compass set for joy.”
Where do you find your joy? Sewing is something I do consistently, without striving, it just happens and guess what, it gives me so much joy! I find myself thinking about constructions and patterns even while away from my sewing machine. Yeah, I know, it’s not as sexy as painting, on the high/low art chart it probably is pretty low, but it’s mine and sewing comes with something that painting does not, a legacy. Sewing connects me to my mom and generations of seamstresses before her.

Sewing also allows me to call myself an Artist, a fabric artist.  I used to struggle with that term. I have now come to realize that part of feeling worthy of the artist title lies in the consistent use of one's medium. I have made this sewing art a practice because I love it so much and do it consistently. Artists say something through their materials and they say it constantly. In the years I have been sewing, I have nurtured a passion for reconstruction/refashioning, that gives me a voice and makes me come alive! 

Some of you might say, "okay, that’s nice for you but I am not creative." I hear this all the time, “you are so creative, I wasn’t blessed that way”. I venture to see hog wash!  You just haven't found your medium! That material which allows you to express what you want to say. I fell in love with reconstruction and for me fabric was the only way to share this idea of reuse and redemption. It's my lens. Now you need to find yours.

Maybe you’re struggling to find your medium. So how does one go about finding one’s medium? Here are some suggestions:

1) You dabble, you explore various materials like I did, like Booker did, until one strikes a chord. You continuously ask yourself, what draws me?

2) You go to workshops. If something does strike a chord, attend a workshop to get better at your medium, this builds consistency in your art practice.

3) You go to museums and galleries. I work in museums and this consistently fuels my curiosity about new media to try or new avenues to explore concerning my own fabric medium.

4) You ask your artist friends, other creatives who have struggled with this very question. The artist community is invaluable.

5) You research your own art legacy. How do other family members express themselves? You might not know that your ancestors, were painters, weavers, or sculptors. That might give you a clue. I didn’t tap into my sewing legacy until I went to college. That’s when I started asking my mom questions about sewing and she revealed this legacy in my life. I guess I was bound to eventually sew! 

Have you found your voice as an artist through your medium? Are you at the exploring stage? I look forward to hearing your process! 

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