New Interview with Jene Watson
THE SPIRIT THAT DREAMS: CONVERSATIONS WITH WOMEN ARTISTS OF COLOR
EDITED BY JENÉ WATSON
The following e-mail exchange began in summer of 2013 and concluded in winter 2013.
Jené Watson: What were you like when you were younger? Did you dream of pursing art as a career?
Laura James: I didn’t talk much. I read a lot, and the Brooklyn Public Library was one of the few places my parents would let my sister and me go alone. So we went there a lot! I love to read, I’ve learned so much from books, they are really my teachers. I liked to read books by black authors. I remember reading Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Plum Bun by Jessie Redmon Fauset and Ann Petry’s The Street. I borrowed books like Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room and If Beale Street Could Talk as well as Mary Helen Washington’s Black Eyed Susans . I also remember reading Adrienne Rich and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. My mother taught me to sew and crotchet, so I liked to do that. I also taught myself to play the piano, and I liked to sing.
My first idea of what I would do as a job was working with computers. This was probably around the seventh grade. At this time, computer science was suddenly “a thing,” and I was really interested in them because they were so new and a lot of people didn’t know how to use them. We used them in school, and my cousin was sort of a computer nerd and had one at home. When the time came, I applied to a lot of different high schools, including one named Murray Bertram, which was supposed to have a good computer program at the time. But I also applied to La Guardia, the school from the movie Fame, and was accepted for a few of the programs. After that, I basically gave up on computers!
In high school, I started a magazine with a group of friends called The Black House where we focused on poetry and social issues as well as art and photography. Through the years, I was also occasionally involved with different groups of artists to organize exhibits.
J: I came across your work by chance on the internet when doing a Google image search for Ethiopian sacred art. Even though your work is beautifully bound to that tradition, it also seems to pay tribute to the visual traditions of Haiti. For you, was this more of a subconscious or intentional fusion? When you were teaching yourself technique, did you study the self-taught artists of Haiti, too?
L: I’ve always liked looking at a lot of different kinds of art. For visual art, my first loves were Leonor Fini, Natalia Nesterova, William Johnson, Modigliani, Frieda and Diego, Max Beckmann, Roy DeCarava, Josef Koudelka, Helen Levitt and dozens of other artists. I definitely saw Haitian art, and one of my favorites was Fritzner Alphonse, but it was just a part of everything else.
I basically developed my technique by painting all the time, continuing to practice. As I mentioned earlier, I did a few semesters of art classes in high school and college, but nothing major. I did the two semesters of the art major at La Guardia High and took a sculpture class at Cooper Union’s Saturday program, which was really interesting and fun. After high school, I did maybe two or three sessions at the Arts Students League, some workshops at the International Center of Photography and a one-semester art class at Medgar Evers College.
To me painting was just [fun], not very technical. On the other hand, I recently took a printmaking workshop at the Bob Blackburn Studio, and there I obviously needed someone to show me how to use the materials. I like to start with an idea inspired by something that I see around me or that I’ve read or heard about. Then, I imagine what elements the piece should contain and create a [sketched study]. Sometimes, I’ll sketch from life, other times I look in a print or electronic version of a book. For human figures I’ll take a photo of a model, or look for interesting poses in images I see around me. So, it’s a combination of using my imagination and things [in the real world] to make a piece.
I think what people see when they identify my work with Haitian art is the African Diaspora connection, which is most definitely there!
J: Growing up, my mother told my brother and me that she wasn’t as concerned with what line of work we pursued so long as we were committed and that it fulfilled us in some way. Did your parents set any professional goals that you felt you had to attain, or did you feel that it was open for you to decide?
L: I don’t remember my parents being very explicit about what I should do as a career. My parents always worked from home, so I think I saw that they didn’t go out to work, and that was an option too. They were generally busy people who didn’t really sit me down to talk about anything. I think they [believed I was smart enough to] figure stuff out on my own. In retrospect, I think my parents were probably pretty typical of a lot of Caribbean people of their generation. Both of them were born in Antigua in the early 30s– which makes me remember that they both have birthdays this month (November). My mother will be 81 and my father 83.
I think my father had more advice when I became an adult and was doing my own thing. [He’s told me that he] was pretty much on his own after his mother died when he was 7. He had a rough childhood in Antigua, which as far as I’m concerned was run like a plantation well into the 20th century. He recently told me he was a sugarcane cutter from age 13 to 18. This was among other odd jobs. He told me that he was very happy that he had work because, unlike his friends, he was able to buy a boat ticket to England before he was 20**. [After coming to the States,] my father worked as a laborer at Mt. Sinai hospital in Harlem, and then eventually got enough money to start buying houses in Brooklyn, places he says where dirt cheap and that nobody wanted. Since then, he’s always worked in real estate. All of his properties are now in Antigua where he and my mother both live. He admitted for the first time a few days ago that he is getting old.
My mother came from a large, close-knit family. Here in New York, she did domestic work for a few families, and then worked as a nanny for many of our school teachers. Their kids came to our house which was across the street from the school. She also took care of my father, who didn’t want her to go school or do any kind of office-type job because he insisted that she be home. I’ve never seen my mother in a pair of pants and really think she handed my father her life on a silver platter. She wasn’t a depressed person though, by any means, and always has a lot of people around her– her sisters and brothers, her children, and a lot of friends. She made wedding dresses and other kinds of clothes, baked and made a lot of crafts.
My parents were always doing something. Both worked extremely hard here in America doing all kinds of jobs that may have required more common sense and drive than they did book knowledge. They are also very devout Christians and rigidly so. My father was terribly strict with his seven girl children and my mother. They were not love-dovey parents by any means, but I did always feel safe at home. We always had what we needed, if not what we wanted.
J: In one of your YouTube interviews, you attribute at least part of your feeling of having freedom to choose your line of work to the fact that just as you were coming into adulthood, your parents moved back to Antigua and left a property for you there in New York. I’m sure that this freed you up in terms of “making the rent,” but what were some of the other pieces of the puzzle that helped you feel comfortable enough to paint full time?
L: Well, since my parents worked from home, I saw how they ran their operations, so to speak. I never felt [obligated] to get an [outside] job, although I’m sure my parents must have said stuff about that, it wasn’t impressed upon me in any real way.
I was the youngest of many children, and by the time I was 18 my parents were a bit older than most parents of people my age. I felt they were a bit “over” taking care of children in a hands-on on way. However, I did feel that I had people to help me and to rely on, even if not my parents but my older siblings. So, [as the youngest perhaps] I felt that I could go out on a limb, because someone would be there if I got into trouble.
[From the business standpoint,] I was lucky to sell my paintings from the start so that was encouraging and I was also able to make money. Instead of waiting for someone to give me a show, I did it myself. When it came to organizing exhibits and showing my work, as well as others’ work, the first show I curated was called Njia Kuumba: Passages Through Creativity in 1993 at the Ifetayo Cultural Arts Facility when it was on Flatbush Ave in Brooklyn (they are still around). I was 20 at the time. There were some pretty good artists in the show, a lot of them still making art.
I was also asked to participate in shows. The first show I was asked to participate in was at a place called Creative Concerns, which was run by Jacqui Woods who is now the director at the Skylight Gallery in Brooklyn, where I also participated in at least two exhibits. My first real solo exhibition was at The American Bible Society in 1996, and that same year I had another solo show at the Wright Gallery where they sold African art, both places in NYC. I also exhibited at Danny Simmons’ Rush Arts Gallery a couple of times, and from that association I was asked to donate a piece to the Schomburg Collection where I was part of their Black New York: Artists of the 20th Century in 1999. So, there was always something going on.
J: All of your video interviews on Youtube express how much storytelling plays into your work. Since so much of the African Diaspora story has been preserved in music, which ones (young or old) inspire you? Beyond musicians, who are some other painters, writers, etc. whose work feeds you? And what are you reading these days?
L: I love good music of all kinds. I have two “theme songs,” both by Miriam Makeba, by far my favorite singer. The first one is “Uyadela,” and the second one is “Umquokozo.” I just love her voice! It’s full of energy and life and emotion. I don’t know what she’s saying, but I just love the feeling it gives me. Even after hearing these songs a million times, I still get chills. It’s like she’s singing directly to me and telling me a story that I’m supposed to know. Also, as someone who likes to sing, it’s just amazing what she can do with her voice. I also love Billie Holiday and Joni Mitchell, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Bob Marley of course, Fela and John and Alice Coltrane, Don Cherry. My playlist these days has Dennis Brown and Gregory Isaacs, the Smiths, Soul Brothers, Jorge Ben, Billie and Miriam of course. All of this music is music I’ve been listening to for the past 30 years!
I like to read non-fiction. Right now I’m reading The History of White People by Nell Painter and Sugar in the Blood by Andrea Stuart. Not exactly cheerful themes, but I learn something on every page; it’s truly incredible how much information is at our finger tips.
J: Were your parents or other influential family members music lovers?
L: My big music influence was my older sister Sonia, who kept her record player on top of our piano and played it all the time. She was a fan of Joni Mitchell, Elton John, James Taylor, Janis Ian and Sweet Honey in the Rock. This was back in the 70’s and 80’s. Sonia also took me to hear jazz at Lincoln Center, which made a huge impression. It was odd, because my father seemed to let her get away with a lot. I think he realized she was very smart and was maybe a little intimidated by her.
My father only listened to church music or classical music, and my mother listened to whatever my father listened to. I don’t think I ever heard them play anything else. I was in Antigua a few years ago, and I tried to play some music on my laptop and my father made me turn it off. Thank God for iPods!
J: When thinking about your family line—what you’ve observed directly or stories that have been handed down to you—do you see your work ethic, your dreams, your creativity as being an extension of work begun in some previous generation?
L: I draw on my experiences and stories people tell me, in my secular work especially; whether from family and personal history, or from something that I learn about externally. With the sacred work, of course the themes in these images are derivative of age-old traditions, of which I do feel a part.
I feel a part of something larger, a continuum I guess you could say. I am connected to my personal family history, but even more so to the family of enlightened people everywhere.
My work ethic comes from my parents. My parents did so many different things. I guess they were “typical” Caribbean people who [juggled many] different jobs. But I never got the impression that they hated their work, even though it was mostly hard work. Most of all, even as a child, I knew they were reaping the benefit, as opposed to working for someone who ultimately got the best of their labor.
In terms of work ethic I also admire Marcus Garvey and Booker T. Washington. “MAKE WORK” is posted over my desk and is something I strive to do every day not just for me but for others too. I’ve recently initiated two projects to promote Bronx artists that will launch next year.
J: How do your kids and your husband feel about what you do? Do they see your work as legitimate, and do you see your children following in your footsteps?
L: My family is completely supportive of what I do. I think that’s mostly because they don’t have a choice! It’s what I’ve been doing since I was 18, so they’ve all met me working as an artist. Yes, they do see the work as legitimate, because it works for me.
However, I think my children also understand there is a lot of hard work involved [in making art], and also many ups and downs. They are all already creative people, and I’m sure will be successful with whatever they do. My oldest is still trying to figure out what he wants to do with himself, but he’s in college, so it’s okay. He’s begun designing and painting on clothing and is quite good. It’s interesting that he’s doing that now after years of me trying to steer them away from artistic careers! But I know that they have to do what they want, and so I try to be supportive. My middle child is also in college. She’s interested in publishing and writing of all kinds. I wish I could be like her when I grow up! She’s a very thoughtful, brilliant young woman. My youngest is planning to study filmmaking in South Korea, teach English there, and live there forever! She’s in the eleventh grade now and speaks Korean. I’m not really sure why she is in love with all things Asian, but I have no doubt that she will succeed in whatever she goes for! I encourage them to enjoy their work, because whatever it is, it’s better if you actually like doing it.
J: When you decided that you were going to earnestly pursue a living as an artist, did the notion of “folk” versus “fine” art ever concern you? Restated: how, if at all, did the fact that you are self-taught ever weigh in to where you felt you could go or achieve as a painter? When you first started painting, what was greatest aspiration for it?
L: Honestly, I just sort of went with the flow. Of course, I worked hard to make sure wherever the flow took me I would bring about the best outcome, but I didn’t think too much about the art world or where I would be accepted.
Early on, three well-respected Black artists gave me advice. One said, “Don’t do the Ethiopian art because it’s derivative.” Another one said, “Don’t do secular work because everybody is doing that.” The final one said, “Don’t [waver between] both styles. Choose one, because otherwise people will be confused.” So, from that I learned everyone has an opinion, and I should do what feels good to me.
There was another artist whose work I admire who was part of a panel at the American Folk Art Museum. He and two others were talking about self-taught artists. None of these people were actually self-taught, and I remember him saying “Self-taught artists don’t agonize over ‘the line’.” This made me think about how I agonize over “the line” all the time, so what does that make me? Everyone is put into a category, and it’s like a caste system. The best position for a Black artist is to have a degree from Yale or Harvard. However, that obviously wasn’t my path, so I just do what I do. Some people like it and some people don’t.
In the past five years or so, with the [unstable] economy, new technology, etc, people are stepping out of the box more concerning the way to do things. Now, artists seem to be of the attitude that they will go with whatever works. I wouldn’t say that I don’t have aspirations for my work, but I don’t sit around thinking, “Oh, I want to be in the collection at the MET or MOMA,” especially because I know that curators associated with these museums don’t just randomly choose who’s shown there.
I always say if I waited around for certain people to notice my work I would have been working at the post office a long time ago. I respect postal workers, but my point is that [if I’d been too rigid in my expectations] I would have given up on art a long time ago.
J: What kind of environment do you create for yourself when you paint—windows open to the world or no distractions, music or silence? And do you work steadily throughout the year or save the bulk of it for some set period?
L: Music, or some kind of [white noise] is a must. I listened to over 40 audio books while painting Anna, and it was glorious. Also, I like to listen to nature sounds like birds or rainstorms. This is another reason to love the internet. I visit YouTube, Netflix and Hulu a lot.
I paint best on a deadline and am good at tuning everything else out when I paint. I use little tiny brushes and it’s mostly tedious and slow going. I Deadlines are a good thing for me to have to make sure the work gets finished! like to work on several pieces at once so if I’m not feeling one of them I can move on to the next.
J: What message do you want your entire body of work to convey?
L: This is a hard question, because I work with a few different themes: sacred art, [the day-to-day struggles] of nannies and other domestic workers, race and slavery as well as mundane subjects. Ultimately, I want people to see something beautiful, even if it’s a [tough] subject.
Beyond that, I love when a viewer personally identifies with something they see in my work; human beings share so many of the same experiences, no matter the long list of differences we’re supposed to have.
Jené Watson is a mother, writer, educator and librarian born on the Texas Gulf Coast and who lives in Georgia. An avid scholar of world arts and spirituality—especially of the African Diaspora– she has traveled to Canada, Jamaica and Brazil. Her creative work has appeared in domestic and international publications and the text of this interview with Laura James is included in a forthcoming collection titled The Spirit that Dreams: Conversations with Women Artists of Color. She is the author of the blog My Sunlit Path.