Conversations On Everything: Interviews Winter 2021
As part of an assignment, my classmate Rebecca Copper mailed me a letter last winter. I gasped when I pulled it from my mailbox because on the back of the plain business envelope were outlines of her hands traced in blue ballpoint pen ink. The gesture seemed so obvious and yet I’d never encountered it nor thought of it on my own. Its intent was potent and stayed on my mind. Seeing those interlaced fingers made me feel as if her hands were passing me the note directly from her desk in Ohio to my own in Oregon.
While designing the cover for this issue, Rebecca’s envelope popped into my head. I thought of the intertwined fingers representing the exchange of ideas and wisdom that happens during a dialogue. These “conversations on everything” are not dependent on face to face interactions. Rather, they happen across media⸺email, video, phone⸺and hold the promise of connection with each other and now, the readers of SoFA Journal.
Cover design by Laura Glazer
Artwork by Rebecca Copper
Letter from the editor
In this second issue of Conversations on Everything, art & social practice graduate students continue their artistic inquiries by spending time in dialogue with artists, curators, boxers, undergraduate students, a livestock apprentice, a third-grade student photographer and their mum, as well as a Times Square security guard.
Editing my way through all the conversations feels like I’m traversing wildly different landscapes with a common value—the desire to build connection and an equitable world in the face of today’s violence. Lisa Jarrett, a professor in the art & social practice program, has a practice that is deeply rooted in the formulating of questions. Questions do not need answers. They can be poetic mysteries that open more doors. Seeing work through the questions they ask, or rather, that I formulate for myself on the behalf of its creators, helps me imaginatively frame inquiry and makes the work more expansive.
Here are my questions about the conversations in this issue, in the order published. Many concern privilege, power, self-knowledge and identity. I hope you find your own questions and in so doing, learn something new about yourself.
How do the members of a radically inclusive art project within a legacy sport practice view themselves and their community?
What did the strangers say?
How does caring for livestock expand an art practice?
What do I have to do to know me?
What is the impact of whiteness on Black creatives?
How can I convince everyone they are qualified?
How can we give children more power?
What makes an interview?
What is the profound vernacular conduit that can help invite someone into a shared space?
What art school would you create?
What is still truly obscured and how much of it is by choice?
How can people of color take up more space in museums in ways that are visceral, embodied and ritualistic?
As the trickster looks in the mirror they hear someone call their name; what is it?
Salty Xi Jie Ng is an artist co-creating semi-fictional paradigms for the real and imagined lives of humans within the poetics of the intimate vernacular. She is from the tropical island metropolis of Singapore and is an alumni of the Art & Social Practice MFA program. Salty receives letters to the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Talking About Trans Boxing
In the fall of 2013, when I was an undergraduate student at the University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee (UWM), I took a course with Dr. Shelleen Greene called Multicultural America. As part of the class, we worked with the Pan African Community Association (PACA) – a non-profit organization on Milwaukee’s north side which offers after-school programs and assistance to African immigrants and refugees. Throughout the semester, each UWM student paired up with a PACA student to create a collaborative digital storytelling project that shared their stories about migration and learning new cultures.
The collaboration facilitated an engagement with members of the community that I wouldn’t otherwise have had—and it also supported a deeper understanding of the ethnic studies concepts and theoretical frameworks I’d been introduced to in the class. The student I worked with was named Juma, and the experience of working with him had a lasting and profound impact on my life as an artist.
This term, I designed and taught my own class at Portland State University (PSU), an opportunity offered to me by Harrell Fletcher, the director of the Art and Social Practice program where I am completing my MFA, and made available through the advocacy and work of Ellen Wack, an Administrative Coordinator in the department of Art and Design.
The seminar class, called Relational Art and Civic Practice, is designed to support students with conceptual development as well as in-practice application of the strategies involved in socially engaged art projects. In addition to lectures, readings, and discussions, I wanted to give the students hands-on experience with a project.
Ellen asked me if I wanted to add a community-based learning component to the curriculum, and it seemed like an obvious decision to partner with my project, Trans Boxing. Conversation has been central to my artistic practice and education, and so I wanted to create a context in which PSU students and Trans Boxing members could be in dialogue with one another. To do this, I created an interview assignment.
After doing some initial research on Trans Boxing, the students were asked to generate a set of questions they’d like to ask participants. I went through and selected the questions I found most interesting, which would be used to guide our group interviews with Trans Boxing participants. I thought a group interview would be beneficial for multiple reasons. In addition to generating content for written interviews and posters– the format provided a framework for dialogic learning. The context that was created allowed two otherwise unaffiliated groups to come together and discuss trans identity, belonging, athletics, and a whole host of other related topics.
The excerpted conversation is from two group conversations I guided between Trans Boxing members and students from my art seminar course at PSU, which took place on Zoom on Tuesday, February 16th and Thursday February 18th, 2021.
Bri Graw (Portland State University): You’ve all been talking about representation, and what it means to be an openly trans athlete in terms of how important that is for younger generations to look to. Where have you sought inspiration for your own representation?
Maggie Walsh (Trans Boxing): That’s a great question. I mean, I definitely didn’t have it growing up at all. I remember joining the softball team and learning that being successful at softball meant that in addition to the skill, you also had to make sure that you weren’t labeled like, the “dyke player.” So, I had to create representation on my own. Like even if it was something that I could intellectually understand in an academic way or something, applying it in terms of like a sport hadn’t been something that I had consciously done until I felt like I was welcomed into a space that was doing it just naturally.
Eleadah Clack (TB): Yeah, just from my experience as a queer masculine Black lesbian, you do have to look for representation in things that don’t necessarily look like you sometimes. You have to create it. If you look at the Trans Boxing class, that’s a powerful image just to look at it in a grid view. Like I don’t do it frequently because I’m usually watching myself while I do the drills, but like when I do, and I’m sitting there like, Yo, this is really deep. It’s really dope. Everybody’s so focused on themselves, but at the same time we’re coming together. And I think that’s a way of actually creating that representation within our group that we’re looking for outside. We all experienced similar marginalization. It’s not even like we have to really speak on it, because we know that. But then also seeing each other strengthen and grow… it is creating the representation that we want to see for real.
Eniko Banyasz (PSU): I actually went to one of the recorded Trans Boxing classes. I was too shy to go to a live one because I haven’t worked out with other people in so long. After warming up and then hearing the instructor be really supportive, like, “Yeah little bit more, just 10 more seconds!” I was like, “Yes, yes!” And then I did it. I felt like I accomplished something so great. My experience in high school PE education was so bad because you constantly have to compare yourself to national averages. And, you know, you’re put into these boxes. And I feel your success in physical education should be so personalized.
Baer Karrington (TB): Yeah, high school is traumatizing in a lot of ways, especially if you’re not out and especially around sports, which are so gendered. I work in pediatrics and I do a lot of work with gender expansive children or young people, and so it’s been really powerful for me to out myself as a trans athlete, so I can potentially be a gateway for young people who really struggle with finding a space that feels safe for them. I want to show them that there are spaces that are safe and that validate our identities.
Bri (PSU): Yeah, Baer, going off of that, I wanted to ask, how has this experience affected other parts of your lives?
Maggie (TB): I think that it’s given me the ability to take different parts of my life and start blending them together. I think it’s easy to kind of let certain facets of your identity just be parts of your identity and exist in different spaces. And I think that’s true of everyone. I don’t think that’s just a genderqueer thing. But, as I developed a new identity as a boxer, and as an athlete, I saw how that could be blended in with both my personal life and social life.
For example, my boss is a huge boxing fan. And like, we ended up going into a boxing match together. It became like a tool for us to talk about other issues and other things at work. So in a way, I think it’s given me a new language and a new confidence to sort of blend all these different things together that maybe previously were easier to keep compartmentalized.
Eleadah (TB): Boxing is such a technical sport, and it helps me move through a lot of other spaces where there’s not a lot of nuance or technicality. Because I have this knowledge, if I’m in a space it’s like, Oh but there is nuance, because I’m here and I know how to do this on the ropes, I know how to turn my body this way…
Dane Kelley (PSU): How do you feel about other members of the group, and what kind of connections have you made through participating in Trans Boxing?
Brionne Davis (TB): I like that it’s like, we’re all the same, but we are different, you know? And it’s not just that like one, you know, that one type of transgender individual, because when speaking to my family or friends about it, they have that one view of what a trans person is supposed to look like. In Trans Boxing there are all different kinds of people—just like you see varieties of cisgender individuals in other spaces. It just feels more like a community of, you know, all shades of colors, which is the kind of community I prefer to be in.
Camden Zyler (TB): What I’ve noticed about myself is that I’d rather bond with people doing activities that I like. So I feel like Trans Boxing encompasses that because I’m hanging out with people that I can relate to, and also we’re bonding over an activity that we all enjoy.
Nolan Hanson: I’ve never felt great in spaces where the only thing bringing people together was an identifier, and like, thinking that is enough to create community.
Camden (TB): Yeah, I feel like the way that systematic oppression affects gender non-conforming people or transgender people could be similar, but within these categories there are experiences that interact with our transness or our gender non-conforming-ness. So to have this one unifying thing, like, okay, we’re all equal because we’re all like trans or gender non-conforming… I personally find that like, that’s not true; there are just so many different factors. And maybe there’s a collective joy and sorrow and all these different things that we may or may not share, being trans and gender non-conforming, but we also have different interests.
Eleadah (TB): I think it’s cool to think about what we do in Trans Boxing within the wider context of boxing. Because while it is like, you know, heavily masculinized, and patriarchal or whatever, there’s a connection that’s also existing outside of that, because it is skill-based, legacy based. It’s a two-way interaction and educational kind of thing. So even if you’re the manliest of men, you have to submit at a certain point to learn everything that you need to learn. And then at some point you’re going to be tapped to give that back. To you know, be a nurturer in a way to someone else’s skill.
Maggie (TB): You’re like, you’re blowing my mind every time you speak; I’d never thought of it like that. It’s a very intimate sport in a lot of ways that I like—in the sense of like, it’s one-on-one, but then also the emotional aspect is so super interesting.
Belen Murray (PSU): I just want to say that I find it really interesting that you guys are boxers. And I’m thinking of boxing as like, you know, rough and tough, like smashing faces and stuff like that. Anyway, like, all of you are like, “Oh, it’s so healing. And it’s such a great community.” And I’m, like, “Wow, that’s cool. That’s interesting.” I need that. You know, I want to work on my self esteem and build a community. It’s wonderful [the project] it’s doing that.
Nolan: I’m glad that we can kind of complicate that stereotype for you, Belen.
Belen (PSU): Yeah among everything else!
Nolan Hanson (they/he) is an artist based in New York City. Their practice includes independent work as well as collaborative socially engaged projects. Their work has been shown in New York, Chicago, Portland, and San Francisco. Nolan is the founder of Trans Boxing, an art project in the form of a boxing club that centers trans and gender variant people.
Eniko Banyasz (they/them, she/her) is an illustrator, character designer, hobby comic artist and plush craft/toy design enthusiast based in Portland, Oregon. Eniko is the owner of Pangokin Creations, and is currently pursuing their BA in Art Practice at Portland State University.
Orion Rodriguez (he/they) is an author and editor of educational nonfiction and fiction with a social justice bent. His writing has been published in Salon, Prism Reports, Lightspeed Magazine, and other publications. Their visual art has appeared in group exhibitions in Chicago, Denver, and Portland.
Belen Murray (she/her) is a graphic designer and humanities and sociology student from the California Bay Area. Belen is passionate about working with Native American communities. She currently resides in Portland, Oregon, and attends Portland State University.
Dane Kelley (they/them) is a painter and illustrator based in Portland, Oregon. They are in their final year at Portland State University and will be graduating with a BS in Art Practice. Their work focuses on blurring the lines of gender and sexuality representation by using a queer lens.
Mai Ide (she/her) is a Japanese American, Portland-based female artist, mother, wife, and full-time BFA student. Her work has been grounded in the textile realm for a long time and she tries to discover new materials as her medium. For her, an assemblage sculpture is a unique collision, an opportunity to provoke radical social change.
Ivan Vincent Santos Diaz (he/him) is an artist and designer based in Portland, Oregon. He is a full-time dog caretaker with a passion as a hobby to become a professional pitbull, boxer, and Brazilian Dogo breeder, as well as someone who has the power to reach out to queer couples and queer community, as he likes to help out with any problems.
Brianna Graw (she/her) is based in Portland, Oregon. She will be graduating with her degree in art and literature in spring 2021. She prefers to spend her time surfing, wandering, or reading a good story.
Eleadah Clack (she/her/boss) is a writer and fundraiser living in Washington, DC. She is author of The World Without Racism, a self-help guide for white culture. Find out more at www.theworldwithoutracism.com and follow at @theworldwithoutracism.
Maggie Walsh (she/they) is a genderqueer marketing strategist living in Brooklyn. They have been boxing with Trans Boxing for 2 years. Their other interests include photography, ice cream, and hanging out with their chihuahua, Puck.
Baer Karrington (they/them/their, elle/le in Spansh) is a genderqueer-transfemme 4th year medical student going into pediatrics. Their main research interest is in transgender and gender expansive health equity and empowerment, with a focus on community participatory and community-led projects.
Brionne Davis (he/him) is a Queens native trans guy who has been a member of the Trans Boxing Collective around 3 years. An aspiring entrepreneur who enjoys all things tech, tech repairs and health/fitness.
Camden Zyler (they/he) is a non-binary transmasculine bookworm and writer living in New York City. They are a proud Trans Boxing member. His hobbies include reading, boxing, learning American Sign Language, and being in nature.
A City of Newcomers
As I grappled to understand Portland, Oregon, the city in which I was new (I moved from my hometown for the first time to attend an MFA program) and everything else seemed fresh but firmly rooted, I read, on assignment, a chapter from Tom Finkelpearl’s What We Made. In this chapter, artist and educator Harrell Fletcher and Ethan Seltzer, an expert in land use planning and urban development, discuss Portland in a way that made it familiar and exciting. I was struck by the tenderness with which Seltzer described the culture and history of the city. Wanting to hear more, I asked Fletcher, whom I luckily already knew, to introduce me to Seltzer. After a brief back and forth on email to set a time to talk, we met over Zoom and had the conversation you are about to read.
Caryn Aasness: I moved here recently so some of my questions are going to be more about moving to a new city and getting to know Portland, but I’m interested in your specific point of view on that, based on the work that you’ve done.
Ethan Seltzer: Yeah, you know, Portland has been and continues to be a city of newcomers. You’re not alone.
Caryn: If you moved to a new city, how would you go about getting to know that place?
Ethan: Really good question. If I wanted to get to know a place I guess I would do a couple of things. First of all, I’d find things in the community that I cared about. And I’d volunteer. I would get involved without any expectation of profit or position. Just to meet people, and meet people who care about the same things that I care about. Because I think so much about getting to know a place is done through the people that you get to know. It’s a profoundly social kind of experience, so I guess I’d start by thinking about the things that I care about the most, and then look for places where I could volunteer, where I could get engaged, where something could happen.
Second thing I would do is, I would learn as much as I could about the history of the place. I would figure out who the local historians are. There are local historians in every community. Some of them are more formally oriented and trained and anointed as historians; they self-identify as historians. Some people are just simply the people in the community who know about the community. And I’d seek out the stuff that those people, the formal historians, had written. I basically find ways to get to know other people who are kind of local historic experts. And you can call up anybody, and the worst thing they’ll say is they’re too busy, No one’s ever died from trying to make an appointment with somebody, so it’s like I would do a little ethnography, right, and use that as a way of learning as much history about a place as I could.
And then for me, I guess the third thing that I would care about a lot would be nature. What’s the natural history of the place, what’s the ecology in the place? And then I guess the last thing I would look for over time is— I think it’s really helpful to kind of develop your own rituals in place. Like here in Portland in October, people go out to Oxbow Park and watch the salmon spawn. Or find a group of people to have Thanksgiving with and have Thanksgiving with them every year, or choose some other holiday, Solstice if you like. Find something to celebrate with other people. And do it again and again.
Caryn: If someone moved to this city, how would you recommend that they get to know Portland specifically?
Ethan: It’s really interesting. [I would want to know] what brought that person to Portland. I would poke around a little bit first with that person to figure out why they are here, what do they care about, what about this place can reward the things that they are most interested in or feel most passionate about? Because I think there are a lot of different aspects to Portland, some of which I don’t pay much attention to and other people value very highly, and other things which I pay a lot of attention to, but I’m not sure many other people care about, so it’s hard to say.
But I guess what I would start with is I would say, Read some books by Carl Abbott— he’s an historian. I would say, Get on your bike and go find some local parks. I would say, Figure out how the TriMet system works, and use it as much as you can. I would say, Make a point of going to farmers’ markets and seeing what gets grown and talk to the people who are selling, ask what’s for sale and ask them where they’re from and get acquainted with what’s coming in and out of the community. And I would say, Pay attention to local community scale festivals and exhibitions and attend, show up. I think the hardest thing in going to a new place is that you’re constantly putting yourself out there, you know, and it can feel a little relentless or a little unending or something like that, but you’ve just got to get out the front door and see who’s out there. There’s no other substitute.
Caryn: What’s like maybe one thing about the history of Portland that is compelling to you?
Ethan: One thing about the history of Portland that is compelling— well I think one of the things that’s important to keep in mind about Portland aside from the fact that we are and have been a city of newcomers— I’d add two other things to that. So it’s not one but it’s like two other things. The first is that this is one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in North America. It’s been a really good place for people to live for over 12,000 years. And, as a consequence, there’s two aspects that are really important. Number one is, our personal presence here is just a blip in the timescale of people living in this place. The second is, this is a very, very abundant landscape. This has been a place that’s provided people with a good home for a long time. Pay attention to why that’s true.
But the second thing I would add to that is that Portland is a land of small things, which is to say that we do things in little tiny bits and pieces. Property here is divided up into very small units. In Arizona, or Texas, you know suburban subdivisions might have 5000 units. In Portland, a big subdivision might have 50 units. We don’t have many enormous employers, and the biggest employer in the state of Oregon, I think, is still Intel, which has less than 20,000 employees. But you know, Boeing up in Seattle has 75,000 employees. So we do things in little tiny bites. Organizations are small, jurisdictions are small. We use the term city really loosely around here. The City of Portland is a city; it has 640,000 people. It’s pretty big actually, but Johnson City is a city and Johnson City, which is out by Clackamas Town Center, has about 450 people in a trailer park. Both of those are regarded as cities in the context of things. So we’re a land of small things, we’re a time deep land, and we’re a land of newcomers. And I think those three things are important to keep in mind.
Caryn: Where in the city are you most aware of city planning or land use planning?
Ethan: Well, I spend a lot of time trying to understand land use planning at a pretty granular level, so it’s kind of like, when I look out at the city and I look out the window of my house here. I mean I see a lot of different stuff, right. So planning to me is kind of evident everywhere and if not planning, certainly the decisions people have made at various points in time. There’s a book by John Stilgoe called Outside Lies Magic, which is just kind of a story about what he thinks about as he walks around outside. And Stilgoe is a landscape historian. And this is kind of a book that was inspired by his work with his students, and ways of getting them to think about what they were seeing when they saw it. But there are a couple of things that I really think are kind of essential parts of Portland’s planning history.
Every structure, every neighborhood, every part of the city, whether you’re talking about Northeast Portland and redlining or Chinatown, or the east side versus the west side, there’s all kinds of history embodied in the structure of the city. But from a planning point of view, I think, two of the plans that have been most important to me have been the 1972 Downtown Plan, which is the reason why a lot of what you see in central Portland in particular is what you see in central Portland, I mean it really happened. And in a profound way, in a way that set Portland apart from other cities, which is really really interesting. And then the other one that is really important to me is the Urban Growth Boundary, which is a way of recognizing the kind of profound and irreversible impact of urban development and urbanization and urban land markets on rural and natural land resources. The Urban Growth Boundary is proven to be maybe the only effective tool at really enabling places like Portland to manage growth.
Caryn: One big old question. Do you think about utopias?
Ethan: Oh, fun question. So utopias are pretty interesting because in every utopia, there’s an element of dystopia. Right. And so, I don’t think a lot about utopias. To be honest, I’m less interested in what the perfect arrangement among people is than I am with what we can learn from the relationships between people and each other and people in the places they’re in. So to me, you know again back to the notion that we’re in this place, but this place got a 12,000 year headstart on us, basically. So what we’re doing now is really part of a long, ongoing experiment. Our legacy is not streets and roads and buildings, it’s how those streets and roads and buildings intervened in this place we found, and that will be found by others after us. So I look at it more as, you know, we’re participants in a big experiment of our own devising simply by living here, much more than we are engaged somehow in creating utopian communities or ideals. Yeah, have you ever read the book Ecotopia?
Ethan: Okay, Ernest Callenbach, nineteen seventy…I don’t know, six or something like that. It was kind of a description of Northern California, Oregon and Washington, breaking free from the United States and creating Ecotopia. Yeah. Check it out.
Caryn: Is there a book or movie or TV show that gets Portland right?
Ethan: Well, there was a movie back in the ‘70s called Property by Penny Allen, it was about hippies and gentrification. I think that’s pretty interesting. That was kind of fun. Let’s see, what else has been a good book…I don’t know, I’m trying to think. Yeah, I think certain parts of Ecotopia kind of get some things right, or did once upon a time, anyway. But I think if you are interested in writing a book, there’s room for a better book.
Caryn: Do you have any final thoughts?
Ethan: Well, tell me a little bit about the work you want to do.
Caryn: There’s a lot of things I guess, but I’m interested in getting to know this place in as many ways as I can because I’ve only ever lived in one other place and so it’s a brand new experience not only to be here but just to be somewhere new. And especially moving during quarantine. I feel like the way that I’ve been getting to know this place is through Craigslist ads, or just looking at the maps. It’s interesting to try to grab as many little pieces of the culture and the history and all of that from mostly being inside and on the internet.
Ethan: Yeah. Right, exactly. Because I mean so much of what we’re talking about is so tactile, isn’t it? Smelling things; it’s the sensual experience of a place really. One of my favorite definitions of urban design is the management of the sensual experience of the city. So it’s the breeze on your skin, what you smell, what you see, what you hear. It’s kind of the engagement of the senses, and in many ways it’s about creating environments that are much more successful at engaging the senses than we often find in the most urban places— it’s very much part of getting to know a place. Absolutely. I mean, I hope you get a chance to try swimming in different places to see how they’re different— you know, swimming in the Columbia and the Willamette and swimming in lakes, on mountains and other rivers and seeing what that’s all about. Hagg Lake, for example, out by Forest Grove, is this largely rain-fed lake. The water is incredibly soft. It’s amazing. Yeah, it’s really great. So when it gets hot and you’re looking for swimming, go try Hagg Lake sometime.
Ethan Seltzer (he/him) moved to Portland in 1980. He is now retired and has worked in the city in a number of capacities including as a land use supervisor. His roles at Portland State University included being the Founding Director of the Institute of Portland Metropolitan Studies, the Director of the School of Urban Planning and the Director of the School of Art and Design. He has held jobs in the nonprofit sector and has volunteered widely.
Caryn Aasness (they/them) moved to Portland in 2020. They are a graduate student in the Art and Social Practice MFA program at Portland State University and are still trying to figure out the city.
On the Other Side of the Fence
Three years ago, I moved to a rented home close to Boiling Springs, Pennsylvania. There are many histories that shaped this land, but in the context of this interview, I focus on the more recent agricultural practices that now dominate the surrounding landscape. The Dickinson College Farm is my next door neighbor.
In what started as serendipity, I have been on lamb-watch and sometimes bottle-feeding duty on the farm for the past two spring seasons. A vastly under-skilled but convenient choice for this role, I jumped into it. A portion of my artwork involves fibers, textiles, and textile-related processes, so this was a new link in the fiber supply chain to explore. Following this initial interest, the lambs became part of a ritual I perform while air warms and soil thaws. I jump over the fence to check on members of the flock, look for new or struggling lambs, and bottle-feed with warm milk formula. The process offers clarity through repeated tasks meant to sustain a life—efforts that aren’t always successful. Later, during this ongoing period of global mourning, working with the lambs remains a way to navigate survival, loss, and care. Having never spent much time with livestock before this, my concern has expanded from a personal realm into something more communal: specifically, I wonder how this experience resonates among members of my community for whom agriculture is a way of life. Symbiosis is a spectrum, and exploring agricultural relationships can make the complexity of interconnection more visible.
Originally, I got to know Danielle, a livestock apprentice, artist and aspiring veterinarian, by name and not by face—she was another person caring for the sheep. Time with other people in the pastures is limited, especially now during the pandemic. Even so, the act of caring for these animals feels like social dialogue. Lamb feeding instructions come in the form of text messages, notes left on kitchen counters, unfamiliar tools, empty soda bottles, and plastic numbers on tiny, floppy ears. The following conversation is an initial survey of ideas that come to mind when I examine this work, along with potential connections to expand upon.
The two of us spoke while walking around Carlisle, PA, where Danielle lives. It’s a fifteen minute drive north of Boiling Springs and the farm.
Mo Geiger: So I was thinking the other day—the lambs are going to kind of book-end COVID, which is a crazy thing.
Danielle Moser: True, right? Hopefully.
Mo: Yeah, and it might continue, obviously, will probably continue. I was wondering if, in caring for animals on the farm, you think about time differently?
Danielle: I think it works almost, at least for me, in the same exact way as it will probably work for Will (the farm’s vegetable manager) and people in vegetable production. When you’re working with animal husbandry and there’s a reproductive cycle to keep track of, that totally influences the concept of a year. Seeing the year in terms of seasonality is so different, the more I’ve worked with animals. Working with the reproductive cycle as a career, definitely, you start thinking of time differently in that way. And with the lambs: the time, really the timing, can be so important, as we’ve seen before: you mis-time [things], then you suffer and your animals suffer.
Danielle: You know, Will might think of July and think of whatever vegetable he’s putting in the ground. I think of July and think, maybe we’ll probably be done calving by then.
Mo: Can you talk a little bit about what brought you to farms or to livestock? How would you trace that in your own life?
Danielle: Sure. Yeah, in my case, my only farming history is that my mom grew up in Lancaster [Pennsylvania]. And so whenever we’d visit my grandparents, we’d always be driving through the farms. My mom was always involved in Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) stuff when we were younger, so I also had that kind of knowledge that such a thing existed. Then, I started volunteering at [animal] shelters and got interested in veterinary medicine. And everyone I talked to was like, oh yeah, sure, small animal vet, but you should really look into being a food animal vet, because that’s what we need right now. Everyone’s always talking about the deficit in food animal expertise. Then, I was studying chemistry, [and] at that point, I was like, I don’t think I’ll probably be a vet. Got interested again, and that was a big reason why I came to Dickinson and then just found that I preferred working with the sheep and cattle.
Mo: You make artworks in addition to farming and raising livestock. Can you describe that connection?
Danielle: I think part of my interest in medicine is because it’s so visual. Farming, for me at least—I definitely see it as a visual thing. And observing these animals, observing their anatomy. For example, one time I did a camp. It was a session of going to University of Penn’s small animal hospital and touring the pathology lab. And the veterinarian showed a slide of a tissue sample. And I was looking at it as a piece of art. I was like, This is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen! Some of the visual anatomy and stuff like that. And even, you know, when you see a butchering done—I mean, the act of butchering I’m not particularly attached to, I’m still a vegetarian—there’s a lot to be explored there.
Mo: And you have kind of a kinship with the sheep, right?
Danielle: Yeah. And chickens. We got chickens when I was in high school, which got me interested in veterinary medicine in that way again too, because well, their anatomy is really cool, but I also just got such a kick out of their personalities and practicality.
Mo: Do you feel like while you were learning how to take care of livestock animals, that you had already done some of that physical learning beforehand? Or did it feel like a new process?
Danielle: I’d say a new process. Because that’s what it is with every animal we work with. It’s just so weird to conceive [of the fact] that these animals eat grass, or hay or something, when you’re so used to kibble, or wet food, or whatever. When it’s time for the animal to eat, and you chuck in a bale of hay—it’s definitely a change.
Danielle: This is a contention that I have with a lot of people who say that cows are just big dogs, or that horses are just big dogs. They’re just so different. And that changes the way you check if there’s a problem. Like—are they behaving normally for that species? If your dog is being more fearful than usual, they might have an injury, right? But if you look at a cow that way, if the cow runs away when there’s a loud noise, it’s because it’s a prey animal—that’s what they do. So, noticing behavioral changes, seeing what’s normal versus what’s not, that’s definitely a totally different thing, too. I’d argue that recognizing those discrepancies in behavior, or overall state, definitely is an everyday part of taking care of them. Checking to see: are they all ok, is anyone sticking out? Because you don’t want that, for sure.
Mo: So there’s an element of looking at the individual and looking at the group at once?
Danielle: It’s a lot of, at least for me, I’ve always enjoyed trying to see… You know, like those pictures where you have to search and find what’s different from the two pictures? Yeah, I always liked that kind of thing. Or doing jigsaw puzzles. And, when you check on the animals, if something pops out at you, you look closer. Because this individual that’s kind of making themselves obvious in a way—there might be something that’s abnormal.
Mo: So, you’re kind of constantly searching for changes. Does that describe the process?
Danielle: Yeah, or just… like almost errors in a pattern, you know?
Mo: Oh, that’s so interesting. Yeah.
Danielle: If something doesn’t quite seem right, your eye will fall on it. So if there’s an animal that is limping, you fall on it pretty quickly. Because it’s a pattern that’s totally different from the pattern you expect to see.
Mo: Has taking care of animals and looking for patterns in that way changed the way you interact with people? Or does it change your observation in worlds where animals aren’t around?
Danielle: It’s definitely influenced my own understanding of my ability to do that. And recognizing that as kind of like a skill, or something like that. It’s hard to say. I think a lot of people get into taking care of animals because maybe they don’t read humans well, or, as well. Taking that knowledge and applying it to humans isn’t something that I’ve done, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it can’t be done.
Mo: Sure, sure. And I wonder too, because I do work with textiles, there’s this preconception that the concept of care is playing a role, and there’s this feminine exploration happening. And sometimes I think care is [seen as being] limited to that scope: a delicate, care-ful sort of thing. I wonder if you, in your experience, have had to deal with that idea.
Danielle: Like the femininity attached to the nurturing aspect of animals?
Danielle: Yeah, I’d say I definitely relate to the nurturing. I don’t always relate to the female aspects. But that’s just me as an individual. When I was trying to visit a farm to come out and do some work for them, the one person who I knew had worked with them before was like, Oh, yeah, she only likes women to come by, because men go about livestock in a different way. So in some ways, the women in livestock may be stronger [workers] because of that attachment and nurturing things. Or if such a relationship exists, it might exist in some people, and their female identity has influenced their nurturing interest.
Mo: So that comes up? The gender difference?
Danielle: Yeah, and the whole gender difference thing can really mess you up if you’re trying to find opportunities with some more conservative, male livestock people. And that goes back to stereotypes of you know, women getting overinvested or physical strength being a barrier. I was warned by a veterinarian on both being a woman and being young: “You’re going to encounter difficulties.”
Mo: And then wanting to work with large animals. Yes, right.
Danielle: But it’s funny because you think, [in] livestock animal husbandry, so much of the emphasis—or basically all of it—is on the female animals.
Danielle: That sexuality is so inherent to it. And yet, it’s dominated by men who, you know…
Mo: Who actively exclude women for these preconceived reasons.
Danielle: Yeah. So I wonder if [the bias] has an aspect of preserving your, you know…
Mo: [Laughs] Vessel-like nature?
Danielle: Exactly. And if they view animals solely through their reproductive capacity, I wonder if that influences how they’re going to view a woman. Just on that basis.
Mo: So, this pandemic is happening, and we’re surrounded by an awareness of life cycles and death in a way that I don’t think, um, the vast majority of people expected…
Danielle: [People] who are outside of farms?
Mo: Yeah! and that’s a huge part of raising anything on a farm, right? This constant awareness of death and life cycles? And now, more people feel that in a way that’s not always been so obvious.
Danielle: So going back to some of the really conservative people and livestock… [They] will put a lot of work into saving an animal, and when the animal doesn’t make it, they’ll say, “The Lord decides when it’s their time to go. He takes them.” And I’ve heard some of this used by people in regards to anti-masking. In the really conservative spheres that don’t want to wear masks, they will be like, “Oh, if the Lord wants us to get COVID, we’ll get COVID. And if it’s our time to go, we’ll go.” [I am] seeing that kind of selective attachment—or dis-attachment—to life and value in that way. Or, chalking it up to fate, or a higher power. I’ve given some thought to the way that conservatives view life and death in that way, how they’ve applied it to COVID, and losing animals.
Mo: I wonder too, if there are things that can be dug up from the knowledge of raising livestock. Are there things to take away from this experience that we’ve all had over the last year, and what are the connections?
Danielle: Unfortunately, I think in some ways, there’s a connection that can be made absolutely with the divide in the country.
Mo: Right. Because this kind of care is becoming so distant from people—it’s not so much in front of our faces— it’s happening behind the scenes to a certain extent. Has the idea of care changed as a result?
Danielle: As a result of COVID?
Mo: Well, and also everything that led up to it. You know, economies pushing our awareness of raising animals further and further to the edges.
Danielle: Right. I mean, it’s funny, because I feel like a lot of small farms: smaller, sustainable ag farms… Business-wise, they might have done a little bit better than usual. I think that was solely because of the interruption of supply chains. Which is entirely a result of economic stuff.
When you interrupt the status quo [and] shake it up a bit, what tumbles out? You definitely look at it differently. What’s left behind? What survives?
Mo: Being a vegetarian and participating in this kind of relationship building—does pursuing a relationship [with food animals] feel ancient? Like: this is the only way to have that kind of relationship today?
Danielle: You said, does it feel ancient?
Danielle: It’s super interesting that you said that. The one time where I felt like I kind of understood, a little bit more, the connection that you can have with an animal and yet still do this thing, too, was when Hamid came to the farm. He lives in Lancaster; he’s an Arab Israeli who came to the U.S. His family—they have a shawarma stand. He does a lot of meat stuff, particularly with lamb and mutton. First of all, the method: they exsanguinate, [but] they don’t stun or anything. And I’m the most secular person I know, but in some ways, I think religion is the perfect way to bridge that gap. There’s so much imagery around harvesting animals, and lambs. Sheep are so common in the Bible and the Qur’an. So many ancient texts describe the relationship between humans and sheep.
Danielle: He opened up the actual process with, first of all, he was insistent that no one take pictures. Because it was a sacred thing. Which Matt (the farm’s livestock manager) requested as well, the one time I saw a sheep harvest before this.
Mo: Yeah, you’re watching a death.
Danielle: Right. And it’s like… to document that with pictures… I don’t know. I’ve gotten into debates about it with other people who are like, if you can’t take a picture, should it exist? But he also prefaced it with: “This animal is a gift from God, and we are telling God that we accept his gift.” Maybe it was his sincerity that was palpable, but I thought that was a really cool perspective to have.
Danielle: And it’s clear that there’s an attachment between [human and animal] as well, right? A “care.” But ultimately, consumption. In some ways, I’m jealous that I can’t quite practice religion in that way. I kind of severed my ties a long time ago.
Mo: I have a similar relationship with religion: [being] somewhat in awe of its power to be able to do that kind of thing. But having shed it many years ago, it’s kind of interesting to be able to have that separation, where maybe you can observe how it can be practiced that way.
Danielle: Right. To have it without any sort of lens. But then again, a secular perspective can be seen as a lens, too.
Mo: I guess it’s all lenses.
Danielle: Yeah. Gotta have bifocals, I guess.
Mo Geiger (she/her) is an interdisciplinary artist and graduate student in Art+Social Practice at Portland State University. See more of her work at mogeiger.com.
Danielle Moser (she/her) is a second-year Livestock Apprentice at the Dickinson College Farm in Boiling Springs, PA. She is also an artist and aspiring veterinarian in food animal medicine. See more of her work here.
I have been having a series of conversations with Master Artist Michael on the topic of our practices and race for some time now. I decided to interview them for this issue of SoFA journal’s Conversations On Everything to ask more about their personal history of reclaiming their past, and making space in the future for kids to move towards and flourish into a better society. Being a part of the African diaspora myself, I do not know much about my real last name due to generational trauma, and half of my family history has sometimes been difficult to grab a hold of. Talking with Master Artist Michael about their longing to find and reclaim their identity in their history, and pave a way for kids, inspires me deeply. They are making very important work in discussing the power in embodied history and sharing that embodied history. In this interview, I think a lot about time—how we do not have control over time unless we are archiving, documenting, educating, storytelling and sharing, as well as considering our own agency, and giving ourselves permission to take power.
Michael’s work, Afro Contemporary Art Class (ACAC) at KSMoCA (King School Museum of Contemporary Art), as well as the Afro Contemporary Art Archive in Special Collections at the Portland State University (PSU) Library, are spaces for archiving, documenting, and collective storytelling. Michael states, “ACAC (referring to both projects) helps young people of African descent to learn more about the histories and contemporary contexts that shape their lives, culture, and social contexts. These ideas are explored by studying contemporary artists and creatives as a conduit to (and a lens for) thinking through a range of experiences related to the African diaspora.” I hope you enjoy this interview with Michael. I recommend checking out a recent book I am reading called One Drop by Yaba Blay, on the range of experiences and identities in the African diaspora.
Brianna Ortega: So a couple months ago this Instagram account reached out to me and they’re like, Oh, we wanted to reach out to you. They said they were talking about my project and said to themselves, How did Bri know that Black Lives Matter was going to happen? How did she know to have Black Lives Matter in her second issue (of her surf publication)? And she had Black people. How did she know?
And I just was like, What the heck? It was so bad. It was horrible.
Artist Michael Bernard Stevenson Jr.: It’s an interesting time. People haven’t had to even think about this stuff. And yeah, I mean, it’s also weird. I made a post on Instagram recently and people said, Wow, great words. But my words didn’t feel overly profound to me. But, people are just literally like getting started, you know? Um, I mean, do you know about Adrian?
Brianna: I love Adrian Piper.
Michael: Yeah. So, I mean, she, that card was that project. She did the business cards, so it was like, Oh, by the way, I’m Black fucking you.
Brianna: I appreciate always talking to you, Michael.
Michael: Well, I also enjoy the university space with you.
Brianna: I feel like we’re both really, really different and that’s interesting.
Brianna: I know our last conversation we had was like in November and then I was driving up on a surf trip to a remote location. We were kind of just breaking down your identity as a Black man and your journey with that. Through the process of contextualizing your work over time, how do you identify yourself, or how has your identity changed through the making of your work? Like over the last few years, and since you started your work Becoming Black?
Michael: Sure. It was interesting that you specified just the past few years, because I do think a major change has occurred in this short time, though also has it been a longer process. Part of the container of the longer process is like my identity is now Master Artist Michael Bernard Stevenson Jr., which has changed recently. But I have been seen as Artist Michael Bernard Stevenson Jr. for a very long time and I was Michael Bernard Stevenson Jr. before that.
People might ask me, That’s your name? No one identifies as their full name. In fact, some people abbreviated or changed their names. The first stage of identity shifting was talking about objects, my origin as an object maker, and this culture around generating an object and then signing it with your name. “What is the culture of your signature?” is interesting as well because being in a—it was not just an object culture—but specifically was very near to like glass ceramics, and maybe even more influenced by glass culture.
One of my professors said, Yeah, when I was coming up, everyone’s like, Oh, sign your name real big. It was a big kind of ego thing, you know, even as it dates back to Duchamp, and the fact that there’s this expectation that you are signing your work and it may even be in an image taken of it, you know, ruining the image to include your name. My professor said, You guys don’t even sign your work, I don’t get it. So I thought, What’s my artist’s name? And I didn’t really identify with Bernard.
And it’s funny, I got a star chart reading right when I moved to Portland on the first social practice camping trip, and then Renee Sills who did my reading said, Oh, you have problems with identity. I thought, Well, this is working.
I decided to identify as my father’s full name sake. Right? He bestowed that upon me and it goes even further. It is this interesting, subtle cultural piece that has really sharpened in the past couple of years. I remember vividly. I found it on the internet. There’s this audiobook called Gift of the Tortoise. And it was like an African cultural thing. I was a young kid, and my mom got it for me, for whatever reasons she might’ve had for getting it. There was a song. The drawing on the cover was like this anthropomorphized turtle woman. The narrator on this album described the surname family name situation, and how when people would travel and go to like a different village, they would introduce themselves and they would say their entire family. From a very young age I thought about my identity. But, just thinking back now, since choosing to identify as my full whole name, I realized how there is a kind of cultural history that’s lost in the ways you choose to identify or not identify yourself through your name.
Now, I’m changing my name and my pronouns. And I’m shifting everything that was given because I want to reject it. I was always also attracted to indigenous cultures or other cultures where you earn a second name based on who you are. And so me claiming my father’s name is kind of like this version of that version for me.
I’m also an artist and artists are marginalized in ways. And I also want to be able to show up and [have it] be like, Oh, this is the artist. And you know, doctors get like a prefix of notoriety in general, or Mr. President…these things that we’ve decided as a culture to give power to. And Artist is not one of them. You might happen to be able to work your name into a Picasso or Vincent van Gogh. But not Artists as a culture or a group or an identity. And so I was like, I want all this on my name. I want my cultural group. I’m like forcibly marginalizing myself, like whatever. And then it became in pursuit of Master. During the in-between arc of pursuing mastership and post-school, I realized that Michael is an Archangel name. So it’s like Christian. Bernard is a Germanic name—in the distant past, but even prior to World War II, Germanic culture was colonial. They were essentially a war-based nation that would take stuff from other people. Stevenson is a Eurocentric name structure. So it’s essentially linked to the Mayflower coming to the Americas, and then introducing this kind of name structure.
And so here I am, an American citizen born to a Black man and an Italian woman, and all of my names are colonial names.
There’s this kind of pretentiousness projected onto me. And so I’ve started to explain it in more detail because I’m like, this is why I’m doing this. This is my own project. Like, this has nothing to do with you and you could choose to be an Artist as well. And it’s also interesting because with the shift to Master Artist, I am now a part of an even more select group, like not infinitely select, but more select than just Artist. PSU won’t let me use my chosen name, which is also interesting because there’s so much contextualizing I’m doing in my work and have signed my checks with Artist Michael Bernard Stevenson Jr. I started to sign them Master Bernard, you know, and my roommate is also someone who has a fiscal relationship with me and has paid me as Master Bernard.
I have like a paper trail, you know, with this identity. And PSU asks, What about your birth certificate? And I’m like, Okay, so you’re now preventing me from doing this, this is the whole point of it, right? There are these colonial systems that will tell me who I am and what I can do. And this is just another example. I’m going to get a stamp made that says Master Artist and alter my diploma. And now this pertains to other people, like anyone—you will be able to use this Master Artist stamp to identify yourself. And it can be used by anyone, even a child.
All of my names are not any of my ancestral cultures. There are these cultural identities battling to claim certain historical contexts within our species. And Black always remains on the bottom and is actually the foundation for all things in many cases. And so I use conversation around my name and essentially at this point, it doesn’t actually matter where it’s from. I’ve claimed it. And I’m now making it my own. Regarding some of your initial questions, Becoming Black and these other things, choosing what my identity is myself is this form of power that I have that both denies and is within awareness of something’s original place. Claiming it and making it my own, which is, pinging the sentiment of Becoming Black, not forgetting I was born Black. Depending on who you are, or at least in people in our situation, whereby you’re white passing, it’s something you have to own, otherwise it is invisibilized for you or you learn to invisiblize it, which I don’t think is inherently problematic. Maybe there’s a million reasons why someone might want to invisibilize themselves, however the primary reason is ostracization. And because of ostracization, there’s a desire to distance. Born from something that they don’t feel good about, that part of themselves.
But to bring my original identification into my current life—I don’t remember being aware of the process of Becoming Black again. I think it began a little while before I even started authentically investing in it as a project and making decisions based on it. But what is the precursor to all of that was starting the Afro Contemporary Art Class.
Brianna: How did you start the Afro Contemporary Art Class?
Michael: I met someone at the Headlands Center for the Arts who said I should look into the Black School and some other kinds of extracurricular groups that were specifically taking Black culture and Black history and turning it into a lesson that could be inserted into schools. It was that conversation that had me transition my graduate project into Afro Contemporary Art Class from maybe just sculpture class at King School.
An original intention for that class was to teach young kids the entirety of Black history, and then use that lesson, where we look at the history of Black culture, to then look at Black art.
Nyame Brown is an Afrofuturist painter with a robust career that we studied in the class. With the ACAC, I’ve been able to choose the artists whose work I want to contextualize into the lives of young people, and for that reason I was interested in Nyame’s work because it features ideas young people are already thinking through. Like the comic book character, Black Panther, and Nyame’s self imagined Afrofuturist character who I believe he calls Panther 13.
They’re working with all different forms of symbolism. Like in one of his paintings, there’s two characters and the first is writing C.R.E.A.M. on the second one’s back. And that acronym is colloquially “Cash Rules Everything Around Me,” which is the title to a Wu Tang Clan song. And, you know, meanwhile, he’s also inspired by Shakespearian contexts and kind of like a Pan-African Indigeneity. He’s marrying all these things together.
The original intention for the Afro Contemporary Art Class was to have studied every aspect of Black culture and history chronologically. Once we began to look at Nyame Brown’s paintings the project kind of transformed into looking at an artist’s work and then drawing out the history visible in the work before talking through and learning about that.
And so my point for both [Black culture and art] is that in neither circumstance did I actually consider myself to be educated, in a way where I could teach it. So I began to educate myself on all of these different things. And that is what kind of opened the door, because like what you and I have discussed in the past and kind of are discussing now, there’s a specificity around Black culture.
Brianna: Can you share a little bit of your personal history?
Michael: It’s interesting because, you know, I was raised in a Black family, in a Black household, like my grandmother’s house. There’s certain parts of my existence that are foundationally Black. And as I got older, I stopped going to my grandmother’s house. I had my own friends and whatever.
And even though I was living in a multicultural community, like very diverse, there was not any kind of specificity around being Black. You know what I mean? Like in my household or in the version of history I was taught in school.
Meanwhile, in my work, with the intention of benefiting different social systems in certain populations, I was directing my own intentions towards people facing marginalized conditions, which, disproportionately, is Black, young people. I was already working with Elijah, a young person who I connected with at KSMoCA and made art with, even though my content wasn’t specifically looking for a Black audience. And then when I was getting ready for my graduate class, I was like, Oh, African Contemporary Art Class. I want the entire class to be Black students.
I began directing my attention, both what I was studying and who I was working with and for, in a specifically Black direction. And it is that kind of moment where I began to really strongly interrogate my own Blackness. Such as instances where I was in situations that were anti-Black, even though—and you were talking about like being white-passing yourself—I don’t know that I consider myself white-passing. I think I’m white-passing-ish. Which is predicated on just me literally feeling like I have white privilege. At this point I have identified, I am Black and I think I express Black and I think I participate in things in a Black way. Especially now, but always, maybe. And I think also even, there’s ways that people have perceived me or how situations have gone, where even though I actually am feeling forms of white privilege or that I can be in a white space unchallenged, other people are projecting Blackness onto me in that situation.
I’ve learnt about Black art through creating the Afro Contemporary Art Class as well as the varying things that I’ve studied—including a Black film class, working to build the Afro Contemporary Art Archive at the PSU Library as well as researching and consuming different kinds of work. It’s a spectrum of things including UPN [United Paramount Network] show Girlfriends featuring Traci Ellis Ross, daughter of Diana Ross, or, you know, different Black films from the Blaxploitation era, different artists work, or recently deceased MF Doom—which weirdly in a not-so-distant past, I was identifying with his work and his practice, and later learned he had died not long after. When I found out, I went to his web store and I saw all of their albums and other merch was sold out.
And so I think, you know, two years ago, I would have thought, Oh yeah, like another Black creative dies. Okay. Fucked up, like this happens, like when Prince died and Michael Jackson died, it catalyzed the consumption of their life in their work and therefore their lives. Like a commodity.
I just am thinking about all of these things and how they’re juxtaposed with my own identity, whether it’s something I’m choosing or is projected onto me. And I think what I was just saying about MF Doom and the consumption of life—these things are projected onto me—but there’s also things that I’ve now chosen to identify with, and/or seek out.
Becoming Black embodies all of the things that I’ve been slowly describing. It’s a way where the conversation we’re having now is different than the conversation we might’ve been having two years ago. You know, not long ago, I was even skeptical of how much I was being perceived, presenting as, or identified with Blackness or Black culture.
And that has exponentially increased. I really do feel like a part of it in a way, whereas before I felt totally outside of it. And now I don’t. But also as I sit here, I’m wearing Kente cloth pants, essentially an extension of Becoming Black, which is an identity-based project that really has no structure or form worth presenting, but can be discussed. And I have an independent receipts folder of different clothing items purchased from Black businesses that are in some way Black leaning, if not in origin, also aesthetically. I’d had a t-shirt that I purchased from a thing called Artists Untold and they might’ve been mostly POC, but it features an artist and the artist’s work, and the shirt is priced at a designer cost. The t-shirt was like a darker Black-skinned lady and a lighter Black-skinned lady just, they kind of have no nose, maybe just like mouths and lips and a little bit of neck. The lips have orange lipstick on them. I wore that shirt when I went to the Afro Contemporary Art Class.
I usually just wear stuff out of whatever, a recycling bin; a sense of fashion is forsaken even in contemplating my identity. I’m not thinking about my appearance or I’m subverting my appearance. In the very recent past, literally since the uprising, after George Flyd’s murder, I was like, I feel more Black, but I also have some sort of like white-passing power, even if it’s just like, through my lexicon and way of moving through space, people are like, Oh, this Black guy’s okay. But it’s like, I actually wanted to appear more Black. You know what I mean? And so am draping myself in explicitly Black things, not to be like, Hey everyone, look I’m Black. But to be like, I’m taking up space as a Black person.
Brianna: Thank you for sharing the whole story and everything.
Michael: Totally. I mean, this is interesting. I haven’t even really found a place. I’m like, in some ways, vaguely unresolved in my own life around it. But there’s an altercation in my family that too, for me remains, unresolved. Like I was in my grandmother’s kitchen. I think I was ready to leave the state. You know, she lives in North Carolina. I traveled there and it was just like breakfast table-style moments. She was randomly talking about standing next to a female police officer in the line to McDonald’s and that she had like all this gear on and she was really petite. The kind of gear was, you know, more impressive seeming or something. And my uncle was talking to her about it and telling the story and then my grandmother casually says like, Oh, it’s a shame that she really needs that stuff or something. And I was like, What do you mean? And she said, You know, well, she’s hanging out in the ghettos and she’s got to protect herself and whatever. And I was like, Well, what the fuck you talking about? Like, I don’t think this is true at all. And then somehow the conversation evolved. Meanwhile, again, I think this is a very interesting situation because it’s different from all the stories I’ve told so far. I wasn’t super strongly identifying with Blackness, you know what I mean? This was six years ago or something. I hadn’t, uh, militarized my identity or something.
It’s just interesting and terrible in some ways that this is my own blood. And all of these things I have are kind of these precursors to my upbringing or my own awareness. But they are also the building blocks of, you know, why am I finding myself in a K through 5 school that’s expanded to a high school, and interestingly both are the two most Black schools in Portland, right? Are we saying that I wound up there by accident? Or are we saying that I wound up there because there’s these different elements in the world or my life that have shaped this story prior to my even participating?
I vividly remember some events in high school where one of the students said, Don’t say African Americans, say Black, and that was prior to my own thoughts and feelings around it. I don’t use the term African American unless someone is self-identifying. Because otherwise it’s like, Nah, I’m not trying to just be American by accident. And I’m not trying to juxtapose my Blackness with being American either. I’m specifically claiming these certain things that continue to even grow and become enhanced contextualization.
Brianna: Can you share about your new show with Arlene Schnitzer?
Michael: I essentially reproduced the Huey P. Newton photograph, where he’s sitting in the wicker chair. His life included being shot, shooting someone, killing a cop, getting arrested, and getting released from jail.
I don’t remember which of these events was the precursor to the creation of this photograph, but one of them, it was really like a fuck you, you know what I mean? And so I’m channeling some of that similar energy thinking about structural oppression. I’m not interested in giving them Black faces, you know what I mean? And that’s sometimes what people want, like, Oh, it’s so great to see a hundred Black kids smiling and cheering and jumping rope. Like let’s put it on the cover of our magazine. I’m thinking, What the fuck are you doing? I’m doing that work. You don’t get to say I won. You say you’re supporting this. If you were supporting this, I wouldn’t be searching around for crumbs to try to do this work. And essentially the majority of my time and labor is unpaid. So I reproduced this photo with the intention of bringing these narratives closer together, both the narrative of my youth work and the narrative of my community organizing, but to give it a facing or a facade that is in ways militant. But it was interesting because when I showed the photo to my cohort, my classmate Zeph asked, Oh, what does it feel like to be embodied in history?
And said, It’s very empowering. I didn’t just play Huey P. Newton. I am in the schools. I did the Black Panther Breakfast Program. I’ve created pamphlets about anti-Black sentiments. I’m in the community. I’m contributing resources. Like it’s just a juxtaposition. It isn’t an imitation. And then this has cemented my own path for a pursuit of meaningful identity that like, This was before me, this was for me, this is who I am, and this is what I’m going to be. And this is who and how I’m going to teach.
There are these nuanced figures in history, whether it’s musicians or artists or these different activists that you know are not a part of the common narratives of who’s being celebrated. And so it’s like all of this stuff that I’ve been doing and other people have been doing—a lot of my work is even raising up the work that has been done before me. And I haven’t studied it. I didn’t get taught it and I wasn’t identifying with it until the past year and a half, two years. It is even this vivid awareness that Becoming Black as a project exists. I’m finding my own way. This wasn’t taught to me in any school. In fact, I’m creating my own school system and educational materials to be reflecting on this. And so I think Becoming Black is centered on my experience. Like what are the ways that I am having this experience? But also it is the way that I’m cultivating that for others.
Brianna: Yeah, thank you so much for sharing all that. It’s really powerful. And it’s just cool to hear your own journey through it all with your identity. I know I talked about family members being ostracized from our family due to the color of their skin.
Michael: That’s interesting too because that is a part of the colorism discourse, you know what I mean? Like it’s okay to be light-skinned Black and, you know, you get kind of invisibilized if you’re a dark-skinned Black, and you have privilege if you’re light-skinned Black.
My Italian family doesn’t know how to speak Italian specifically because my grandparents’ parents didn’t teach them how to speak Italian. And that was specifically because they were trying to assimilate. And so, kind of a white-centric colonization exists on all sides of my family. And the discourse around colorism exists strongly. You know, there’s a lot there around that. But it’s also interesting because often Black people get seduced by anti-Black sentiments and kind of reject their own identities for other stranger reasons.
I was talking to someone locally a long time ago. We were talking about some of these things and he said that like, you know, I forget exactly his wording, but essentially he was saying that the entire culture of Black people and beyond need to really reckon with the fact that all Black blood in America is mixed blood.
So you know, there’s that, and that remains invisibilized in all kinds of different ways. But yeah, like these things that we don’t know about, right. People in our families are trained to suppress their relationship to these things. And so, I mean, the world’s a different place in some ways.
And so it’s not even inherently as problematic to be examining them. During college I lived in a small town and I was working at a grocery store and I remember one day a customer and I were talking about kind of the loss of culture and he’s like, Well, just so you know, it’s always there for you.
And I remember when he said that I thought, I don’t feel like that’s true. When it’s gone, it’s gone. I didn’t have it when I was growing up and I don’t know how to get it. And it’s just gone and I can just go to Africa and they’d be like, What the fuck are you doing here? But I’ve been thinking about it more recently because of all this stuff, looking back at history, and now I’m starting to see these different parts of history that were otherwise invisible, and see myself in it. And so it is there for me to find. And so my whole point was, what I was thinking when you were talking about your dad and his kind of rejection and stuff, is that the Afro Contemporary Art Class and all my activities, Becoming Black and all these things, are for me in the ways that they’re for me, but they are also for young people. For me, I do what I can to create resources so that young people just have exposure and have access to this information and to celebrate their culture outside of like rapid pop culture, which, you know, they are their own things.
And I’m also using the Rihanna x Lorna Simpson collaboration to share that message. But it’s also interesting because all of these entities and forces are essentially often cultivated for, by, with, through the money of essentially a white gaze, which again, isn’t inherently problematic.
I find myself less excited to even use conceptual ideas that have been nurtured and fostered and created by white people. And for that reason I’m thinking about Rirkrit Tiravanija’s thoughts, who’s a Thai artist. If you look at his work, you might also kind of see it as pandering or engaging with, you know, a Eurocentric perspective. But I learned later, who knew, that a lot of his intentions and work were like—the entirety of aesthetic culture is dominated by a colonial white Euro perception and history. And he’s questioning, What is the version of this that didn’t have that? What is the Thai pinnacle of aesthetic and creative glory? That’s what he’s interested in. And think, Yes, yes. This.
I was on a class trip with my MFA program and we were at an exhibition in Canada. It was actually a white dude who was a real estate dude who owned a lot of Black art. He had an entire exhibit of Kerry James Marshall’s, which I think was like the highest collection of them, which, once you start pulling the string and unravelling this, you’re thinking, Oh, this is messed up. Why is this white land manager owning all this stuff? In the Canadian structure, there are different tiers of galleries. So there’s an upper level, but this was just a personal gallery in his office building. It was open to the public, but you had to make an appointment. And then his trained art director person would come out and give you a tour. And so this young white lady spoke. Oh, look at all these Marshall’s, and so on. So that kinda went off the rails and I just stepped away. And thought, I don’t need this.
It was interesting. Because one of the first pieces we looked at was a Kerry James Marshall sculpture that was like a little bit classic. Kerry James Marshall said, Everyone says painting is dead. And he’s like, What the fuck do you mean painting is dead? Like, it’s literally been a conversation among white makers and different people. Black people have been withheld from accessing even the discourse or the platform or the space to be participating in this conversation. So how could it be dead when it hasn’t even really been a diverse discourse? And so, yeah, that remains. It was maybe decades ago that he made that statement. And here I am at the earlier part of my career and the ideas are just beginning as a discourse in my work, in a way that Kerry’s comments can be seen as having shifted the narrative in my individual life, the same way it can be seen as having shifted the narrative in the larger art world.
It’s interesting too with the uprising after the murder of George Floyd. All the art centers started asking, Oh, what if we had a Black artist? And so that’s happening, but it’s also starting to taper off. When it was first happening, I thought, Oh man, like, I got to take advantage of these opportunities. Now, I am thinking, Oh, I’m exhausted. Like I’m just going to chill out. But, will this all be here tomorrow? Do I need to take advantage of this now, before I don’t have it to take advantage of?
I am working in my own lane and a lot of my concerns are global warming and overpopulation and ethics and all this other stuff. I’m tired of talking to adults who are just worried about politics. I’m interested in talking to young people so they can start being in a position when they’re older and I’m an invalid to be making decisions that are for the betterment of all of society. That is what my work is trying to do today, right now. And it just happens to have bent even more directly close to intercultural context, but it’s interesting because the original inception of the class was like, this class is for Black people, of Black people, by Black people and now people are like, Oh, let’s have this for everyone. And I’m like, Oh, interesting. Like, what does that look like? And so I have begun teaching non-Black people, and it’s interesting too.
Let’s say there is the class of all white people in the college iteration of the Afro Contemporary Art Class. What does it mean to just study Black artists? Why wouldn’t you just study Black artists? Like there’s enough, you know. You can sometimes end up studying only white artists. What happens if you are just leading your own inspirations via Black thought. So now this class that had some specific intentions on its inception is reaching farther and wider and is now just becoming a resource for all people and becoming a platform to support a specific demographic. So far it has done well for me, just creating the platform and supporting the rest of my practice. And I imagine that as I continue to be able to grow my own access, it will exponentially increase its value for others. So, of all cultures and creeds.
Master Artist Michael Bernard Stevenson Jr. (they/them) received their BFA from Alfred University School of Art and Design and received their MFA in Art and Social Practice from Portland State University. After receiving their first degree Stevenson remained in the community, receiving an unofficial education from restaurant owners, shopkeepers, and organic farmers, which impacted their work as an artist. Stevenson has produced a variety of socially engaged, collaborative and interdisciplinary projects since 2009. After moving to Portland, Stevenson has exhibited work at KSMoCA, Tiny Gallery, Show Motel Florida, The Cohen Gallery with Public Annex, Columbia River Correctional Institution, and at PICA. http://www.michaelstevensonjr.com
Brianna Ortega (she/her) is in her third year of the MFA program in Art and Social Practice at Portland State University. Through embedding herself in surf culture, Brianna Ortega uses art as a tool to explore the relationship between identity and place through questioning power in social constructs and physical spaces. She values making art in relationship with others at the global or local site. She engages with topics of gender, race, Otherness, place, and the in-between spaces of identity. Her work is multidisciplinary, spanning across performance, publishing, organizing, video and facilitation. www.briandthesea.com
Illustrations: The Ordered Steps of a Cultural Worker
This interview, conducted through email, is a collaboration between H. “Herukhuti” Sharif Williams, Desire Grover and myself. It is a part of an ongoing dialogue and serves as an entry point into a project we have been developing. Since 2017, Williams, Grover and myself have been working on a collaborative book project titled Chester: Staring Down the White Gaze. At the epicenter of this critical collaboration are two sets of images: the work I completed as a photographer and journalist, covering the city of Chester, Pennsylvania from 2008-2016, and photographs from my childhood archives. Using the latter, we built a visual glossary of white racial tropes to unpack my relationship to whiteness. We use this framework to reconsider my work in Chester, along with other contemporary and historical local media coverage of the city, to elucidate the ways the white gaze reflects its own values when reflected off of the bodies of Black people.
Chester: Staring Down the White Gaze will be published as a collaborative book project of co-authors from the city who tell their own narratives: Desire Grover, illustrator; Wydeen Ringgold, citizen journalist; Leon Paterson, self-taught photographer; and Jonathan King, activist and educator. Throughout the pages of the book, the co-authors are in conversation with Maxon about his images through handwritten text that analyzes, critiques, questions, contextualizes, and interprets the nature of the white gaze that is placed on their community.
Justin Maxon and H. “Herukhuti” Sharif Williams: When did you know you were artistic?
Desire Grover: I realized this when I was very young, maybe as young as five. I loved to color and draw. I consumed paint-by-number kits as a child. Spending hours alone writing and drawing comics was like breathing for me and it still is something I love to do despite all of the responsibilities that try getting in the way.
For a season, life happened and I was doing freelance art that was very sterile and didn’t require much creativity and I was working side jobs. I also stayed busy doing community work for over a decade and it robbed a lot of my time being truly focused on art. It’s only in the past seven or so years that I’ve reclaimed art as what I do and who I am. Not everyone in the community knows me as an artist. Most know me as an independent activist journalist. My art in mural painting was something that came later. I’m continuing to shift into a more personal expression of myself as an artist. I’ve primarily done community art but in the last four years, my focus has gone inward. I’m determined to focus on creating comics and graphic novels. It’s partly why I’ve started attending seminary. I’m working on an MA in Theology and the Arts at United Seminary. My love for Christ is what catapulted me into community service and my art has become a way to help me make sense of those years. I learned so much about others and myself and I’d like to share these experiences more broadly.
Justin + Herukhuti: Do you tell people you’re an artist? How did you come to the point of being able to call yourself an artist?
Desire: There’s a little bit of a yes and no to that. Growing up in the city, in my school life, everyone knew that I was an artist. So that wasn’t really something that I had to tell people. I don’t really like necessarily calling myself an artist. I like to be a little more specific when it comes to what I do. I’m an illustrator and illustrators tell stories. It’s really about the effectiveness of telling a story that helps you stand apart from just being labeled an artist, which is partly why I’ve had some difficulty in finding my single voice. Oftentimes, I’m accommodating to a customer’s needs and what it is that they’re trying to convey in their story. So being myself as an artist is not something I’ve always had the privilege to do. It’s only now I’ve become much more focused as an artist on what my voice is and what my story is. And now I’m actually exploring my past and how it has brought me to the present. My faith in Christ was a big part of my life. I was very zealous in my younger years, which is why I was so heavily involved in activism. My devotion to Christ was really intense.
I don’t even know how I kept any friends during college really, but my college years were probably the most zealous years, and I would hit someone over the head with the Bible, big time. Even in art school of all places, but that’s changed a lot— life hits you, you start to see the consequences of a world in pain. You start to experience trauma from that world in pain, and it changes your perspective. I think it changed my perspective being able to see people’s struggles up close and not just make assumptions about folks who were going through something.
Talking about what I want to talk about and not what a client wants is a new space for me. I figured the story I should start with is really a story that I know well, and that is a story about myself. So, people saw a progressive liberation theology being played out in my life. At the time, I didn’t know that’s what it was called. I just knew that I wanted to be of earthly good.
Sometimes this got me into trouble because people couldn’t pin down what my motivations were. I did get the impression over time that some folks got involved in community work to maybe start a professional career as a social worker, complete a college project, or they were trying to become a minister, and others to start a political career. But my motivations were very naive, like, well this is what Jesus would do. This is where Jesus would be. It was that simple. Some of it had to do with me not having a clear goal beyond solving the problem at hand. I could be pretty callous to how I came across to people because I thought I was working for a higher good. I’m on earth now so that’s changed. Hopefully.
Justin + Herukhuti: Who do you consider to be your primary audience? For whom do you make art? Does that audience change depending upon the subject matter or form of the art?
Desire: I think I’m talking to those who are questioning their purpose on earth. Those thinkers who are concerned about, “Why are we here?” I also think I’m talking to folks who might want to stop for a moment and recalculate why they do what they do, and why they believe what they believe, because I know that’s what I’m drawn to, artwork and writings that pull me into a place of contemplation. There are times I’ve tried to write stories for young adults, but I find that it can be limiting to really be that targeted on an age group or a demographic. I don’t know if I can really accomplish that. I haven’t traveled enough to say that I’m worldly, but I think I do have a tendency to think more broadly about the diversity of an audience and that a lot of different people can appreciate the same thing. You know, you definitely wouldn’t want me on the marketing team.
Justin + Herukhuti: Have you ever felt pressure to protect the status quo in your art?
Desire: When initially breaking into an industry like illustration, to be marketable as an artist on a larger scale, I would say yes. Both the broader audience and art directors tend to want art that has commercial appeal and is non-political. When doing community art, the same pressures may exist despite the noble message that some pieces are tied to. I tend to avoid painting people in general due to the human need to decide on whether an art piece is for Black people or white people etc. It can get heavy pretty fast when it comes to identity politics. If I do paint people, I prefer historic figures that are tied to a very clear message and/or context. It makes it more difficult for people to hijack the meaning of a mural when the figure involved is very specific.
Justin + Herukhuti: What began your relationship to Chester as a cultural worker?
Desire: When we first moved to the city of Chester, I was very much to myself, very insular. I didn’t really engage the community much, beyond a very small circles of friends and my church life. When my father briefly took over leadership at Chester Church of God, that’s when things became more intimate. But I wasn’t necessarily with my peers. I was spending a lot of time with older people in the church. But later, because of the gun violence in our neighborhood, our entire family was pretty much shocked into action. I don’t see what we did as courageous or anything like that. Actually, in a shameful way, we knew that gun violence was happening. In the Highland Gardens more specifically. It’s unfortunate that it took a young man getting shot in front of our home to move us into action. Thankfully we did and that’s how my engagement in a more intimate way with the community started. I understood that if I didn’t care about the community, I didn’t care about myself. I wasn’t out there just to be loving, I was scared of the gun violence and what it was doing to my peers. I went to school with some of the people that died. I knew the conditions that some of them lived in were not ideal. They were very harsh.
It’s really heartbreaking and frustrating when people talk about the city, but they don’t have knowledge about what’s actually happening within the city. It can feel very insulting, but at the same time, I know that they’re ignorant of what’s actually going on. Chester is not a place where gun violence is just happening all the time. There’s a lot going on in the city that’s beautiful. I got a chance to participate, to see and understand what’s really the pulse of the city, the work to make sure that children are safe, to make sure that people have access to education, the fight for meaningful work and a living wage. The women of the city are just phenomenal. You know, I do have some biases as a woman. The women of the city do a lot of the work without fanfare. They’re not as concerned about titles. It’s impressive the level of sacrifice that goes on that no one knows about when it comes to the women of the city. It’s hard not to have a heart for Chester once you engage the people. It impacts you. It stays with you. I had so many great people around me. Reverend Warren was one of the first, along with Jean Arnold, Nicola Jefferson, Dr. Willis and Ieasa Nichols. Their passion and their drive to really work hard, especially for the young people. If I could write a thousand books, I would, but I can’t.
Justin + Herukhuti: As a community artist, tell us about an experience you’ve had that has taught you something about power that you have found really meaningful?
Desire: Wow, where do I start? I learned the importance of thinking ahead about relationships and the importance of being very intentional when it comes to relationship building. This goes beyond being a community artist. I think the road that I traveled was bumpy because I had come into the scene to address the gun violence and to help with that. I was dealing with politicians locally in a more antagonistic way. Actually, my skills as an artist were really in graphic design and web design. I did blog about the things that were going on, and that did cause me some problems with political figures. They were not used to that level of scrutiny up close, especially from someone who lived within the community. I think it can feel very jarring and they can get defensive. I had to learn the hard way that you gotta think about where you leave people mentally and emotionally, no matter what your intentions are. Even if you’re right about what you’re challenging them for, you have to think about how you leave them as a person, because leaders are also human beings. I’m much more aware of that now. I wish I had an understanding of that earlier in the process. I could have saved myself some trouble.
Justin + Herukhuti: From your perspective, is cancel culture a worthwhile discussion to have as an artist? What methods of engaging in a socially responsive context do you see working in the city of Chester?
Desire: I think this is a worthwhile conversation for the artist who wants to use their art as activism. The possibility of being canceled is very real and should not be taken lightly. I wish that I understood this in the beginning as a young artist. Idealism can be a blinder. Before an artist jumps into using their skills to critique or challenge power in a community, large or small, they should assess what the outcome will be regarding relationships with local leaders in the long term. These persons will have sway over the community and other leaders. Art as activism, if done relentlessly, can reap negative consequences, so building positive relationships with influential community members is important.
I think most local artists wisely play it safe because they understand certain relationships and dynamics better than an outsider might. Although I partially grew up in Chester, I was still a bit of an outsider. I did not have family ties or history there that could have better informed me about the dynamics. And in hindsight, there are some things I should have passed over to an artist who had those local ties and history. They could have steered me in an informed direction for sure. I was young and idealistic then, so I forgive myself.
It’s important to take time to listen and observe so that you can understand how the community sees the leadership among them. Unfortunately, there may be times you come across certain characters in leadership that are really toxic to the community and you must make a decision on whether or not it is advantageous to point the toxic behavior out. Sometimes the community is not ready for that level of critique of someone they know intimately, and you may end up doing more harm than good when challenging the leadership. In short, it’s good to learn when to step back and clarify what your role is as an artist for the community before reacting. Now this might sound intense, but it all depends on what you are doing with your art in the community that will determine if the things I describe will ever even be an issue for you. Again the way that I ended up on the scene was not through a happy-go-lucky program but rather the jarring experience of addressing a very disruptive experience with gun violence in our neighborhood.
Justin + Herukhuti: How does Chester’s relationship to the County speak about bigger issues of race and power in America?
Desire: Growing up in the city I got the impression that the County at large treated Chester very much like Judea treated Nazareth (John 1:46). If you know anything about that time and space, Nazareth was looked down on. I think the County makes the mistake of doing the same to Chester. One of the remarkable things about the city is that it produces a lot of great thinkers and athletes and I’m willing to bet this has a lot to do with the negativity that is posted about the city in the local news. The local media does print a lot of the good things going on in the city but unfortunately, people from the surrounding towns do not leave comments on those articles of the Delaware County Daily Times. They respond almost exclusively to articles that have to do with gun violence. The comments are very racist and offensive. Despite all of this, there is a lot of pride in the city in overcoming the odds and working past the negative stigma from the surrounding areas. The community has a term we use to describe this resilient disposition. It’s called C-Pride. There are other sayings and phrases often used by grassroots activists who live there. One of the most popular is “What Chester Makes, Makes Chester.” This particular saying has a lot of depth to it because it not only speaks to the achievements accomplished in the present day by Chester residents, but it reaches back into the past reminding residents of Chester’s historic significance. You may notice that I speak both as someone who lived in Chester and at other times my wording is as if I am an onlooker. One of the reasons for this is because my family moved to Chester when I was in my teens, so I try to be careful not to overspeak my ownership of Chester’s greatness. Being born in the city has a very particular honor to it and I try not to cross that boundary.
Lastly, I believe the grassroots movement around education has been the most powerful force for dynamic change in the city. It helped so many of my peers and myself. The school system has struggled for years with very little resources, yet because of determined residents and community leaders they have been able to provide meaningful access to education despite the insane challenges. Again, Chester’s resilience is remarkable and the ability of young people to strive and move forward is something that should be applauded.
Is there more that MUST be done? Yes! But what has been accomplished despite the odds is astonishing!
Justin + Herukhuti: What roles have race, gender, and class played in your experience as an artist?
Desire: Well, as a Black person, especially in the industry of illustration, I do feel like there is this insistence on making sure that Black artists do Black art. I see great artists who are phenomenal, who I admire, who are tremendously talented, and I’m wondering why they only do Black art? Is it really because that’s their passion or is it because that’s where they’re quarantined to, where they’re forced to be? I felt like early on my break with Scholastic had more to do with the fact that I was a young Black artist, illustrating a four-part book series that addressed the sport of basketball for a retired Black athlete. I think I could have pressed harder, but I also realized by visiting some of these studios that women had a very particular role. Men were oftentimes the art directors, and the women had administrative or assistant roles. That structure kind of hit me. And then, being from a poor class and trying to travel to New York, man, that was difficult. You may have experienced this; the portfolio drops back in the day before we had smartphones and iPads. You really had to go out there, track and kind of tackle some of the art directors while they were going to lunch. You had to do the work, it was hard, and I didn’t have the money for all of that. So that also limited my ability to get out there, where my living wage could be consistent.
My white male counterparts fared much better because some of them already had ties in the industry while they were in college. Connections to people who worked in studios so they could get an in-house job because their uncle was like one of those fill in animators, or their dad used to be a graphic designer. There were those relationships, and it was clear that I was not coming from that stock. I was going to have to claw my way in. My art wasn’t exceptional enough to bypass the obstacles as well. It can be deflating, you know, but thankfully, there were Black studios. The sad truth that I had to just accept was that I was primarily going to be hired by independent magazines run by Black people, which meant my pool of opportunity was a bit limited. It was very clear that it was going to be hard. You know, as a Black artist and not just that, but a Black female artist, and not just that, but a Black female artist who had no interest in heteronormative lifestyles. It’s been a rough road, but I think I’m starting to settle in creatively. I haven’t given up on finding the space that is unique for myself. I’m thankful for that. I’m also very thankful for the Black owned studios that gave me awesome opportunities to do my craft, so I’m in debt to them.
Justin + Herukhuti: From your observation, how have European/European-American artists approached Black people and communities as subjects of their art? And the Black community of Chester in particular?
Desire: There is a meme out there among animators which is absolutely hilarious. It has this Black character on Nickelodeon, which seems to always be the staple design for “the” Black character. The box haircut, you know, the t-shirt, the jeans or the shorts and the high-top sneakers. I even participated in that on one of my first projects. But they showed these four very different cartoons and somehow even though these were four different Black characters, they looked the same. It was the same design. There’s another meme out there of Charlie Brown, the Peanuts character. You have the one Black character sitting by himself while all the other characters are on the other side of the table. Oftentimes, I’ve seen Black characters used as a token to say, okay, we’re just nodding saying that you do exist, and we want to make sure one of you is there. I think that happens to a lot of minorities in America, not only Black people.
I was just talking to a group in seminary and we were discussing the issue of racial dynamics in America. And the thing that kept ringing in my mind is this thing called majority bias. My theory is that majority bias doesn’t really require you to be racist. It just requires you to live a life where you think everything is predictable. Everyone seems similar to you. They dress like you. They want the same types of music and they eat the same kinds of food. So, everything seems the same until some anomaly jumps in there and something different happens. The startled reaction that you have can be characterized as racist or characterized as insensitive. But in fact, it’s really just so out of your norm that you don’t really have an appropriate way to respond to it. At least not a rehearsed way of behaving. I think in my Americanness, I’m used to hearing a certain accent everywhere I go, and most people speak the same language as I do. When someone is not speaking the same language or has an accent, I notice it and I might ask, “Oh, where are you from? Are you, this that and a third?” Is that appropriate all the time? I don’t think so. I would like to believe that I’m not being prejudiced, racist or marginalizing someone, but I must check myself and consider how it feels for the person on the receiving end. I don’t think it’s a lot to ask for those in the majority class to do the same.
Then there’s the bias that transitions into racism, where you know better. You have these experiences, and at this point you need to get over yourself. In America, I think when it comes to the industry of illustration or animation or anything in the arts at this point, we have enough history behind us where we should know better. So why do these things still happen? There is a cultural norm that is deeply anti-Black; you just can’t get around it. American cultural identity is built on a very anti-Black foundation. You can’t get around it. Just a surface study of racial laws in America reveals this but we don’t teach our children this history. I’m thinking of the one-drop laws here. We have to address it. I think the country is struggling because it’s embarrassing, and people get defensive because it requires a restructuring of the dynamics of power and access to resources that feels threatening to the majority class. And even though these changes are not a threat, it becomes a threat regardless because it just feels different; it’s therefore a problem. This is very hard to get out of people. It’s very hard. It just is.
Justin + Herukhuti: What has the impact of white gaze been on the Black community in Chester?
Desire: I don’t think it’s necessarily specifically just about Chester per se, as much as it is about the Black community in any area of the country, dealing with a level of intimidation when it comes to the watchful eye. I’m acutely aware of when I walk or drive into a space, people will question why I’m there simply because I do not look like everyone else. Not that I’ve done anything erratic or inappropriate. It’s just, “Who are you? We don’t usually have your kind.” I’ve had those situations happen to me throughout Delaware County. It’s constant. Police stop you for no clear reason and ask you silly questions; even if they don’t ticket you, they just want you to know, “I’m watching you.” I’ve had that happen to me. My brothers even more than myself because they’re Black men. That can get exhausting. You learn how to kind of ignore that, cause you gotta survive. As a Black person in America you can just quit and decide, I’m never leaving the house. But you gotta live, you gotta make a living. You can’t let what people do in those circles, in those spaces, crush you. We don’t have a choice but to survive. It’s not a choice. It’s not that I’m being courageous. I just don’t have another option but to insist on surviving, not just staying alive but also unapologetically asserting my valid existence.
There’s also this other type of gaze that happens from the outside community looking in. And I don’t want to accuse others. I’ll just use myself as an example. I feel like as a Black person, at times, I feel pressured to make the person who’s doing the looking feel safe. You know, that I shouldn’t smile too fast, talk too assertively, look too confident. I noticed in some circles as a minority, if I’m very confident in my delivery, it could feel like people will actually try to ignore me. I’ve seen it happen before my eyes, like I’m standing in my personhood and literally I see the lights go out for them and they’ve decided they’re going to erase me maybe because they find it offensive that this Black woman would dare. You know, that has happened. I’ve had people who were good friends, white friends, who were trying to introduce me to other white people who refuse to acknowledge me by not looking at me or talking to me. I’ve had that happen. And then I’m embarrassed and they’re embarrassed. The white gaze can insist on making you invisible to invalidate you as well.
So, the white gaze in many ways can be an act of power. “I’ll see you when I feel like seeing you. And if I am looking at you, it’s because I’m watching you. Or if I am looking at you, you need to perform for me. So, I feel safe.” Folks are not always aware they are doing this until you say it to them in the moment. It can be crushing for a person when you bring to light what they just did. It takes guts to not let people get away with erasing you depending on what the power dynamics are, whether it’s your boss who’s doing it to you, or whether it’s your pastor doing it to you, versus just your neighbor, you know?
Justin + Herukhuti: How has your relationship to Chester impacted the development of your craft and practice as a maker?
Desire: So, remember when I complained about how as a Black artist in the industry of illustration, oftentimes people will try to corner you and use you as the February-only artist? My job is to only talk about Black things for Black people, only Black themes. Even Black people sometimes will look at you like you are crazy, if you’re not producing some of that. There is some level of expectation that you will have a Black awareness or consciousness in your art. Younger people, not so much. I find this to be great for them. I’m excited by how many young women are entering into art and how many of them are really good at sharing their stuff. Especially the young Black women on Instagram who are really sharing their work and are just reaping the benefits.
But to speak to your question, even though I was complaining about being pigeon-holed as a Black artist, now that’s kind of where I’m directed. That’s where I’m headed. My experiences in life have caused me to become more sensitive about the plight of Blackness in America. It is becoming a big thing in my art and I’ve actually been working on some pieces that I haven’t shared yet. It features a little girl who’s going through this world that is just absolutely bizarre. It’s kind of like a cross between Alice in Wonderland mixed with The Color Purple, my favorite movie of all time. She’s in this insane world and you don’t know how she got there. I don’t have a story for it. I just want to show her in these different environments that look beautiful if you just take a glance. But when you look much closer, you start to see all the dangers around her. That’s inspired by the work of Kara Walker. She has this beautiful silhouette style that on the surface looks like clip art. Then you look closer and you just see the violence and you see the disturbing acts that are going on. You start realizing that she’s playing on that dissonance.
One of the things that people tend to miss about Chester is the resilience of the children. Especially that they can still find joy and laugh despite all of the challenges that exist. The young adults, too, in the city are real survivors and they work hard. Like they work so hard. This stereotype of people being lazy or any of that, is just absolutely absurd. I have yet to meet one lazy person in Chester. Just the constant working, backbreaking work. Two or three jobs, minimum wage, barely making it at times. But then there’s a lot of people in the city who are doing moderately fine, oftentimes in the medical field. Quite a few Black women end up nursing and really bringing home a living wage for their family. A number of the men do city work and get hooked up with the local union as well as a lot of entrepreneurship. They’re just working and loving their family and their friends. There’s a real tight knit family connection in Chester that is admirable. It is amazing how big some of the families are in the city. That’s how you know when someone is actually from the city. Chester is a big family-focused community. I don’t think people really on the outside understand or often get that.
Justin + Herukhuti: From your perspective, what are things in Chester that art can play a role in addressing, and what are the things that art can’t play a role in addressing?
Desire: The young people have quite a few independent dance groups that play a role in building positive relationships and showcasing talent. Also, there’s quite a few people who like to do church plays that really play out in daily life. It gives people an opportunity to express themselves. There’s an LGBTQ community growing in the city. I’ve witnessed a growing LGBTQ awareness among young people, but there are more and more adults who are coming together around LGBTQ issues within the church, even. And they use things like plays and dance crews to really give positive outlets of expression to people in the city, whether they’re the one observing or the one participating. I dated a woman who was a hairstylist and watching her do that, it was very impressive. Seeing all of the different moving parts of that expression which also provides a type of self-care. Getting the hair and nails did, that’s a service to the community. People want to look good; they want to be beautiful, you know? I feel like art can address anything. So, there’s no such thing, in my mind, as art not being able to play a role in different aspects of Chester life. It will always play a role.
There’s really a lot more performing arts in the city; it’s just very performance-oriented, like theater and music. Visual arts tend to be shared through murals. When it comes to things like painting, it’s such an exclusive genre, because when people think of galleries, they think of money and wealth. But I think it is important to bring visual arts to a space where folks can see this isn’t just about the wealthy collecting art, it is also about us as a community collecting art and really supporting one another. And the truth is that art can turn into something financially beneficial down the road, if you buy it, but of course I’m going to say that as an artist.
Desire Grover (she/her) studied digital illustration & design at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. She’s been an illustrator for 18 years. She illustrated the four-book series called Hey L’il D by Bob Lanier. Over the years she has done art workshops for her community. She published her first children’s book, For the Love of Peanut Butter, and is currently working on a graphic novel called, The Fatherless Messiah.
H. “Herukhuti” Sharif Williams PhD (he/him), is the founder and chief erotics officer of the Center for Culture, Sexuality, and Spirituality. He is a playwright, stage director, documentary filmmaker, and performance artist. Dr. Herukhuti is the award-winning author of the experimental text, Conjuring Black Funk: Notes on Culture, Sexuality, and Spirituality, Volume 1 and co-editor of the Lambda Literary Award nonfiction finalist anthology and Bisexual Book Awards nonfiction and anthology winner, Recognize: The Voices of Bisexual Men. Dr. Herukhuti is a core faculty member in the BFA in socially engaged art, co-founder and core faculty member in the sexuality studies undergraduate concentration at Goddard College, and adjunct associate professor of applied theatre research in the School of Professional studies at the City University of New York.
Justin Maxon (he/him) is an award-winning visual journalist, arts educator, and aspiring social practice artist. His work takes an interdisciplinary approach that acknowledges the socio-historical context from which issues are born and incorporates multiple voices that texture stories. He seeks to understand how positionality plays out in his work as a storyteller. He has received numerous awards for his photography and video projects. He was a teaching artist in an US State Department-sponsored cultural exchange program between the United States and South Africa. He has worked on feature stories for publications such as TIME, Rolling Stone, the New Yorker, Mother Jones, and NPR.
What Qualifies You to Do What You Do?
I invited my friend and classmate Brianna Ortega to have a conversation exploring the connections in the roots of our practices. We gathered to reflect and respond to the questions we are each individually asking within our work, how our work exists in the world, and the links that exist between our work. With Brianna sitting at the beach and me on a swing outside while Zooming, we dialogue on the ways we navigate the boundaries of systemic qualifications, power dynamics, and expectations.
Both of our practices include experience facilitating platforms or creating institutions that invite participation. Brianna created Sea Together, a global art project that celebrates, unites, and explores the women’s surf community through a print magazine, films, events, workshops, retreats, creative clothing, a podcast, and other participatory projects. Sea Together transcends the boundaries placed upon women surfers in the worldwide patriarchal surf culture. Projects of my own that emerge in our conversation are the People’s Plant Museum and Talking Tushies. The People’s Plant Museum works to preserve the history, stories, and relationships alive within the houseplants that people care for daily. The museum presents participatory projects, events, and collections of houseplants that are open for public contribution. Talking Tushies is a global art project that embroiders sexual violence statistics on patches for clothing items and invites survivors around the world to share their experiences with sexual misconduct.
In a society that values and better enables certain criteria or qualifications to manifest history, we are examining the ways that artists can expand barriers and limitations by honoring embodied experiences and lending them agency. In thinking about how grassroots organizations or movements relate to social practice art projects, Sea Together is an excellent representation of this interaction for the way the project was formed out of a void of representation. In this interview, we discuss the ways we have responded to personal experiences in our art practices and how we have formalized these personal discoveries into a wider platform for community connection.
Emma Duehr Mitchell: What do you think it means to be qualified to do something?
Brianna Ortega: The idea of being qualified is really interesting, because society sets up certain constructs for certain qualifications but not for other qualifications, like relationships or anything like that. A lot of things in society have nothing structured to support its knowledge. I was having a conversation with someone recently and we were talking about how to navigate one’s identity as a professor, and how some people will only see you as that one identity and not as a person as well. There’s no class to teach you how to navigate moving in and out of various roles and being a person at the same time.
Emma: I think the idea that one aspect of people’s identities creates a hierarchy over other aspects is based on social expectations of “fitting a mold.” This idea that having the qualification of being a professor or a teacher holds a higher value than other aspects of our identities. How can we switch what holds that value? Like if people in our society placed the same value or focus on qualifications acquired through relations or embodied experiences, then these social constraints wouldn’t feel so limiting and inaccessible.
Brianna: Yeah, I think we can look at other aspects of our identity, like our personal embodied history, and see how that gives us a road to be able to navigate different projects. I grew up moving a lot and I have a mixed race background, so there are all these different aspects that I can usually tap into to connect with people on some level. We can find something in common between us.
I like the idea of challenging what it means to be qualified, because everything I’ve done in the last three years has been self-initiated. Sea Together is an artist-run, self-initiated institution. I’d never had any experience with journalism or any experience interviewing people. I’d never had any experience with researching how to make a magazine. You know, some would say that’s bad, and that I should always research before working on a project to have a leg up or whatever. I think when you eliminate the feeling that you need to be qualified, or prioritize researching something before you do it, it puts a lens over your eyes of how society expects you to do something.
For Sea Together Magazine, everyone said they noticed there was a different feel to it because it didn’t have the same constraints as a magazine. All submissions are based in creative writing and normally you wouldn’t see creative writing in a mainstream surf magazine. People would not normally see amateur surfers or surfers of different life experiences in a surf magazine, either. And here they were seeing really casual interviews, instead of heavily edited, altered, and manipulated conversations. You don’t really need to be qualified by society to do something, and that’s what’s really cool about being an artist. By putting on this role of artist, you can literally enter into a field doing whatever you want and frame it as art.
In my work, I am exploring power and creating space for people to see the agency that they have. I am creating work that makes people think deeper about other things in their life. I am also creating space for myself, feeling like I haven’t belonged anywhere, besides surfing. By creating this platform I also in turn created a community that I could make relationships in. Before Sea Together, I had no woman surf friends. Now I have a bunch. Through the project, I am giving this agency to myself, too.
Emma: You describe Sea Together as a grassroots movement and I’ve kind of been thinking about how social practice and grassroots projects connect. Can you share how you began to describe the project in this way?
Brianna: Mainly because everyone else was calling it a movement and I kind of just accepted it. I was apprehensive to call it that due to it being a small part of a larger narrative of women writing about surfing or creating space to exist in surf culture, but the project has definitely influenced surf culture. People have varying levels of agency to take up space in the world, and in surf culture, that usually means that women aren’t as valid as men. Through Sea Together, people who have been told they don’t get space in surf culture are now a part of this political uprising happening. It’s also making other platforms question the way they are doing things. I am now part of a larger story, as I see how corporate surf magazines or other publications are featuring surfers that have been a part of Sea Together. How do you feel in terms of Talking Tushies? You could call that a movement if you wanted to.
Emma: I pulled up the definition. “A grassroots movement is one that uses the people in a given district, region, or community as the basis for a political or economic movement. Grassroots movements and organizations use collective action from the local level to effect change at the local, regional, national, or international level. Grassroots movements are associated with bottom-up, rather than top-down decision making, and are sometimes considered more natural or spontaneous than more traditional power structures.” I appreciate that you use “grassroots” to describe Sea Together because these projects focus on a very specific aspect of a larger story or history in collaboration with a group of people naturally invested in the issue.
I feel the same way with Talking Tushies. The project is a community that was formed by a group of people looking to address sexual violence. I really connect to describing them as “sometimes considered more natural or spontaneous than more traditional power structures” because I think that really connects to my practice as an artist responding to my experiences. It’s just my natural way of working with what was happening in my life at that point and reaching out to people during times of isolation. Being able to connect with other individuals at the beginning stages of the project really shaped what the project is today. Now I am really invested in creating work that amplifies embodied experiences and creating a space to gather and share people’s experiences with power imbalances.
Brianna: When you have a feeling about something, you can bet that there’s other people that who have gone through the same thing. Sometimes I’ll send out a message or something to see if people have thoughts on things so I can get a feel for where other people are at. Besides the Sea Together project, a lot of my work is just me having conversations with women surfers all the time. I was actually interviewed recently for a sociological research study about women in action sports, and in the moment, I realized that I was just quoting all these conference sessions and conversations I’ve had in the last four years of working on the project. It’s weird how that happens, when having so many conversations with people and it all just adds up. I asked myself, Why would I be the person to interview? There’s got to be other people. Then I realized I have this art project that I’ve been working on for like three years.
Emma: Yeah I love that. I think the relationship between research and the presented projects is really interesting. Sometimes there are many aspects of the idea that don’t have a framing yet and are projects in the works. Sometimes the research for the project turns out to be the project. Sometimes the project is research. I really like that projects can be platforms to facilitate collaborative research and have the flexibility to be changed by what is learned through the project. I think that’s why a lot of my projects are ongoing. What inspired you to create Sea Together?
Brianna: A few years before I started the project, I always thought about how there were no Black women surfers. I was like, There have to be Black woman surfers, but maybe the mainstream surf media just doesn’t cover them. It’s ingrained in white supremacy. Even Hawaiians are less covered by the surf industry, which makes no sense because they are the founders of surfing, and there are so many talented Hawaiian surfers in Hawaii that are on the world surf tour (professional surfing). It was just really strange to me. I’m mixed race, so also being marginalized as a surfer in the Pacific Northwest has been part of my experience. I was paddling out all the time and getting vibes from men expecting me to fail. They didn’t know me or how I surf, and they just expected me to fail.
I also had the experience of people asking where I went two months into winter, thinking that I had gone on vacation somewhere for two months because my skin was “tan” to them. I had not gone anywhere. On the Pacific Northwest coast, you lose your “local privilege” (access to surf spots) if you leave for a large amount of time in the winter, and they were making assumptions about me—that I had left—based on the shade of my skin, when in reality, I hadn’t gone anywhere. Not to mention I am so pale here in the winter, and I don’t even tan in Oregon year round. I had all these experiences of feeling isolated in my identity as a surfer. I wasn’t seeing representation of women in surf magazines and I wasn’t really seeing a place for all these people doing cool projects. There are all these people in our society that I didn’t know about because of what mainstream surf media was leaving out. I really wanted to start a feminist art surfing magazine, and then I just did it.
Emma: I think that is exactly what it’s all about. As artists, we are able to respond like, “Then I just did it.”
Brianna: All of us are human beings and we’re all connected in all these different ways, so if you just move from a place of love and wanting to connect with people, then I feel like you can really do anything that you want to do. I think there’s a culture right now in society, where everyone is kind of hating each other and people are saying, If this person doesn’t believe this or this or this or this, I can’t talk to them and I can’t be around them. It’s such a divisive and sad state, and it’s prevalent in this country.
For me, because of my experience moving so much when I was growing up, I’ve been friends with all different types of people—all different walks of life, all different spiritual beliefs and anti-spiritual beliefs, pro-religious beliefs and anti-religious beliefs. Whoever I’m with, I just try to be with that person, respect them, and honor them. They are a human being and it’s okay if they disagree with me. It’s not about converting them, it’s just about honoring that they have their own story of why they are the way they are, and why they live the way they live.
Emma: I’m thinking about qualifications as something that can honor a person’s existence and the experiences they’ve had in their lives. I grew up viewing qualifications as a socially-structured pre-paved path or checklist to complete for any career or professional inquiry. Those structures create limitations and barriers on what kind of knowledge is considered qualified and are not responsive to the individual. I believe that embodied experiences can be the qualification to do whatever people decide to pursue. In our society, there are these social structures that say you need to do this to be a journalist, and you need to do this to do this. I think we can work to bypass these structures, barriers, or expectations that are set up by creating our own systems by honoring embodied knowledge.
With Talking Tushies, I hold my experiences growing up female in the United States, experiencing sexual assault, and sexual harrassment. I do not need to study psychology or sociology to understand that there are more people like me that are looking for connections, supportive communities, and resources. I responded to this feeling during a time of isolation, where the Kavanagh hearings left me feeling defeated. I believed that there were other people feeling a similar way. I wanted that community connection so badly for myself, so I started a project to support that.
Brianna: You turned your pain basically into this political statement. We all have pain and, yes, the pain is bad, but what I like more is looking at what gives you pain and how you can transform that into something that connects with others and subverts the pain.
Emma: Yeah I love that. I think that’s a great question to think about for anybody starting projects.
Brianna With my project being a public platform or a big institution, I feel like there’s these expectations put upon me. I feel like people are trying to qualify me as something else.
Emma: I think when someone does something familiar yet a little differently, those systemic expectations are questioned or challenged. People can get uncomfortable or confused by that. I think as artists, we really work to push, expand, or challenge these deeply ingrained expectations.
Brianna: Yeah, because we’re using this framing for art projects that borrow from corporate institutions, so people assign those expectations to us and our platforms. But by using the framing of a magazine and what is expected of a magazine, I am playfully challenging the power dynamics embodied and perpetuated by corporate institutions.
Emma: That is something I am thinking a lot about in my work, specifically with the People’s Plant Museum, where I am creating a formal institution and working to adhere to these certain standards while keeping my conceptual twist clear and vivid: I’m formalizing my personal houseplant collection, which is inside my house, into a public museum. So, for Sea Together, you created your own magazine which references this long line of history in publishing and in surfing, etc. The choice to bring something new to this history is what is unconventional about it. Initiating these changes can bring up questions for people, and that’s why we’re doing it in the first place. People are familiar with surf magazines, though they are not familiar with surf magazines that feature women, people of color, and people who do not appear in mainstream publications. That was an artistic choice and with that comes other artistic approaches.
Brianna: Yeah, it’s accepted as a magazine or accepted as a museum, but at the same time we’re doing something just slightly different. They see certain expectations. It can be hard for me because some people think I’m a whole team of people running it or something, but no, it’s just me. I actually just handed off the instagram to someone else. I am in the process of handing over the blog as well for a couple months because I am stepping away from the project for a time.
Emma: Yeah, even in your description of the project, it’s “an artist-run project facilitated by Brianna Ortega.” Do you think being an artist is what qualifies the actions we take, without having institutional power or traditional qualifications?
Brianna: I think it does, but I don’t think society necessarily sees it like that. That’s where I really love our program (the Art & Social Practice MFA program at Portland State University). It’s really trying to push the idea of an artist and what an artist is in society. What do you think?
Emma: Yeah I mean I definitely think so. Being an artist has lended me so much agency to explore multiple subjects that I am interested in. That is why I decided to study art in undergrad, because I couldn’t decide on one subject to commit to for the rest of my life. I wanted to align my life in a field that is always changing, adapting, responding to the world and not stuck in one subject. My projects have been platforms to explore and research subjects I am really passionate about and interested in. I operate a plant museum because I have a really deep emotional relationship with plants; I don’t know nearly anything about the scientific end of it. I don’t feel like I need to be an expert in a field, because I’m an artist, which means my lens is different from these social expectations. A lot of my projects showcase, archive, and distribute the research obtained through my exploration. I am navigating the space between these social expectations and the agency within every individual. I think describing these decisions as an art project opens up a lot of possibilities to expand those expectations.
Brianna: Using the role of artist, I have been able to step into things that I typically wouldn’t have been able to. I just really love the questions: Who is qualified? What information is qualified to be a part of a space, or a global or local history? What are the things in place that prevent people from seeing their story or their voice as not important, or not valid, or not coming to the forefront of their consciousness? How can I create work that asks questions about power in spaces, so that ideas or people can shift in different ways in those spaces?
Emma Duehr Mitchell (she/her) is an artist, educator, and curator living and working in Portland, Oregon. Her work centers collaborative storytelling, care, and exchange while working within domestic practices such as gardening, craft, and mail. Exploring the intersection between public and private spaces, her work challenges social expectations. With an emphasis on accessibility and engagement, public environments such as neighborhoods, metropolitan surroundings, social media, and museums are a few spaces which her work occupies.
Brianna Ortega is an artist, educator, writer, and surfer based on the Pacific Northwest coast. Through embedding herself in surf culture, she uses art as a tool to explore the relationship between identity and place through questioning power in social constructs and physical spaces. She engages with topics of gender, race, Otherness, place, embodied and shared History, and the in-between spaces of identity. Her work is multidisciplinary, spanning performance, publishing, organizing, video and facilitation.
THE MOE SHOW!
The first time I knew that I would probably be moving to Portland, in 2019, I started googling different word combinations, looking for art projects and spaces in the city that would be cool to visit and learn about. KSMoCA was one of the most intriguing results; a museum inside an elementary school sounded like the kind of shift I had been expecting from this form of institution. It presented a unique setting to think about the possibilities of art practices impacting other systems, processes, and communities, particularly school and family.
The Dr. Martin Luther King Jr School Museum of Contemporary Art (KSMoCA) is a contemporary art museum and social practice project inside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. School, a Pre-K through 5th-grade public school in NE Portland, OR. As part of its programming, the museum hosts a series of artist lectures that, like the rest of our social spaces during the pandemic, had to migrate to virtual platforms like Zoom and YouTube.
Moe is a third-grade student who presents part of the lecture series and is also the official photographer of the museum. I interviewed them and Nikki, their mom; the family has been actively involved in the museum’s activities since Moe was in the first grade. We talked about photography, sharing good times with family, the joy of meeting new people, gender identity, and how boring it is to sit and look at screens all day long.
Diana Marcela Cuartas: Thank you for sharing your time with me! I would love to know more about you two, so let’s start with your names.
Moe Ali Hassan: I’ll tell you about myself. My name is Moe. I love photography. I like designing stuff. I’m nine, close to ten and about. I also love looking at nice clothes and seeing if I can make my own version of them. I’m also transgender. Lots of the time, I’d do this: I can find female and male outfits to make some type of cool outfit. Like, say there is an outfit that has something like a ponytail that comes with it, I can sketch it and find something cool about it.
Diana: And what’s your full name, because I know you’re Moe, but…
Moe: Muhaimine Shammil Ali Hassan. I think I may change my name soon. I’m not sure if I’m going to change my last name or my middle name. I’m still deciding on if I’m going to change it or if I’m just going to keep it straight on where it is.
I also just enjoy listening to music. My dad is a music artist, so in my family we do lots of music. Something that I do for my reading teacher—not my librarian but the person who has helped me learn how to read since I was little—is sing to her every week for about four days. I choose a random song I like to sing and tah-dah!
Diana: And what about you, Nikki?
Nicolette Hall: I go by Nikki, but my full name is Nicolette Hall. I’m an artist too, I do paintings and photography. I used to do social work and social services but I got really burned out. It was starting to affect my health. And about a year before COVID started, the grant that I was working under ended, and the position I had ended too. So my partner—Moe’s dad—and I discussed it, and I was able to stop working.
Then, a year later, COVID hit! So I’ve been working on my art, having that as a focus. Which is challenging for me because I don’t have a lot of confidence in my art.
Moe: That’s something that I keep working on with her.
Diana: Because you have a lot of confidence! That’s something that I’m jealous of.
Nikki: Yes, he does have a lot of confidence. So yeah, right now, I’m focused on, basically, making sure that he is doing well in school. Doing that as best we can because it’s definitely a challenge with virtual learning.
Moe really had a hard time with the school in terms of distance learning. He’s not someone who learns well online. So we’ve been trying to do other things. We just found out from his teacher that she will be doing limited in-person learning starting next week, two days a week. We’re excited about that because she’s gonna be focusing on arts and social-emotional learning versus academics. So Moe is looking forward to that.
Moe: And then something else about this is, early in the school year, I was sometimes not completing work. It’s hard for me because I’m someone who likes in-person learning, because I actually have social contact. And most of the time, I like doing it that way instead of like this, just sitting. Because all we do is just- I actually made a joke about this. All we do is sit down and do this [miming typing frantically].
I definitely just did a fake typing, like I was typing on a computer because that’s ALL we do.
Diana: Can you tell me a little more about your relationship with KSMoCA? What’s your first memory of it?
Moe: Well, my first memory was meeting Anke. She is a great photographer.
Nikki: Anke was his first mentor. We worked with her through the end of his first-grade year and through the summer towards the second. She actually met with him once a week during the summer, but she had to move back. She is from Germany, and she had to move back because her visa was up.
Moe: What’s a visa?
Nikki: Her permission to live here, even though she’s not a citizen.
Moe: I hate that.
Nikki: We still are in touch with her via email, and Moe talks with her on Facetime or Zoom sometimes. So your first memory of KSMoCA was with Anke?
Moe: Yeah, and learning how to use the camera.
Diana: How did you meet with Anke? Someone told you, “Hey Moe, we are doing this. Would you like to join?” How did that happen?
Moe: I actually was interested in using a camera at that time. I asked. I went there like, “You know, is there any way that I can learn how to use the camera?”, and they were like, “On the second floor is KSMoCA”.
Nikki: He used to speak with Miss Michelle Peak a lot. He’d go and talk to her. He’s very social at school, everybody knows him.
Diana: I know!
Nikki: So, through conversations, Miss Peak contacted me and asked if I would be okay if he participated in the Mentor Program, and then it kind of developed. We got to meet Anke, and then she was suggesting that we continue through the summer, and we were able to do that.
Diana: And how did that sound to you?
Nikki: As I said, I’m an artist too, so I was really excited, and Anke is a super cool woman. So it was really neat once I got to know her and her interest in Moe. She had also worked with Moe before to set up a display— I think it’s still up in the school. He had his first art installation through the KSMoCA program as the photographer, with pieces that he took. Was that with Anke, or was that with Roz?
Moe: It was with Roz. Let me explain. Technically, it was my art exhibit. My grandma, my dad, and my mom were there. I can’t remember if my cousins were there. So, I took a picture of Dr. Martin Luther King and a bunch of very cool things.
Nikki: He gave a talk, an artist talk for his classmates and the couple of us who were able to come. It was right before the school closed.
Moe: Yeah, I had a microphone, and that was my first art exhibit. I think once I get back into the school, I may be able to do another one.
“I was bullied, so I want people to know that just because of your gender or skin color, it doesn’t mean you’re different, or not the same, or you can’t play with them just because of those things. That isn’t fair. Why not let other people play with you just because they’re white or Black or a boy or a girl or both?” Excerpt from Moe’s text for The Imagine exhibition at the King School Museum of Contemporary Art 2020. Image by Elija Hasan.
Diana: So you got involved with KSMoCA because you were interested in photography, and I know you are the Head Photographer for KSMoCA. What does that mean?
Moe: So, technically what my job as a Head Photographer is, say they are taking pictures of very fragile pieces of art somewhere, they would bring the photo to me and say, “Hey, is this okay?” and I would look at the photo and…
Nikki: Being KSMoCA Head Photographer started when Anke left. She was the photographer for all of the KSMoCA events and even went on field trips, photographing the involvement of the students at King School and the art that they bring in for the museum aspect of the program. Part of her working with Moe was to help him with his photography. So he would take the photographs of the artists’ talks and all the things that usually were documented before COVID started.
Moe: Now I think I may do another art exhibit sort of thing but online, like an Instagram thing.
Diana: Do you have an Instagram account?
Moe: My mom does. I was also working on something right when COVID hit and was like, “I cannot finish this in time!” I was going to take a picture of all the students and all the staff, and I would put pictures of them on a wall and say, “Thank you, staff, for helping all the students here learn and help with their emotional state.”
Diana: So you have been the Head Photographer for around one year?
Moe: Coming up to two years.
Diana: What do you like to photograph? What’s your style?
Moe: Sometimes, when I’m walking around or hiking, I will bring my camera, and as we’re hiking, I’ll see something beautiful. I once saw this skeleton of a leaf, and I thought that was cool. I was planning on picking it,and then was like, “Look, maybe you can just take a picture of it.” I also like taking pictures of my family.
Nikki: Moe really likes taking pictures and videos of people. When we would go hiking, I was like, “Oh, let’s go and take our cameras and take pictures of nature and scenery.” But Moe is much more interested in taking pictures of people than the landscape, I’ve noticed.
Moe: When I get a laptop, and I’m able to edit my videos and other stuff, I’m planning on making a project that I’m going to present to KSMoCA, but I haven’t told them! [laughs] I’m working on a project, but technically it’s going to be like a secret.
Diana: And do you have a favorite photographer?
Moe: I would say my favorite photographer, that I know, would be my mom. My mom, Anke, and Roz are all good photographers. So these three people in my life have been the people who represented my whole state of mind for photography.
Diana: Moe, I have seen you presenting the KSMoCA lecture series. How do you feel in that role?
Moe: Being a presenter is technically something that I would do. I like doing it. I would do it anytime except on Fridays. And I also like that I get to know different artists.
Nikki: Moe has also talked for years about doing his own YouTube channel. We are actually working on getting that going. As a parent, I’m super cautious about that kind of thing, and I get really nervous about it, but his dad is more open to it, so we’re working on it. So he is practicing and presenting. That’s one thing about KSMoCA—it has been a practice for him too, to see how KSMoCA has it all planned out for a YouTube show.
Moe: And Tiktok! It shall be named The Moe Show!
Diana: It seems like you feel pretty comfortable in the spotlight. What’s your favorite part of being a presenter?
Moe: I would say meeting new people.
Diana: Do you share the videos with your friends or family?
Moe: I share them with my family a lot.
Diana: And who has been your favorite artist at KSMoCA?
Moe: I would say all of them are pretty cool. But… I can’t remember his name; he did one talk about the Black Jesus. That was like..! [Surprised face] And then I was like, “THANK YOU, JESUS!”
Diana: And how about online school. How do you like that?
Moe: I feel BORED! I sometimes say to my mom, “I am going to die of boredom!”
Nikki: He has been pretty stressed with it. We’ve been working on making sure Moe talks to us about how he’s feeling. There’s been a few times that we’ve taken mental health days because, before this, we weren’t super big on screens. We didn’t do a lot of screen time at all. Screens were more of a rewarding sort of thing, like “Oh, yeah, you can get on your screen for 30 minutes.” Now he is on screens all day, so we try not to do too much else on the screen. But at the same time, he still really likes it as his reward for working hard. So it’s been interesting.
Diana: And how has that impacted or changed your relationship?
Nikki: I would say that’s probably the positive for me anyway, the fact that we get a whole lot of family time.
Moe: Yes! And we get to actually gather together. And we watch MacGyver.
Diana: And is there something you will miss from online learning once it’s safe to go to school again?
Moe: I don’t know what I would say. I think nothing.
Nikki: I like the amount of time we get to spend together.
Moe: That’s the ONLY thing I’d miss.
Nikki: I think I would miss that. Simultaneously, I still miss having time when I’m not acting as a parent-teacher, making sure that he’s focused and doing what we have to do for his learning.
Moe: I’m tired.
Diana: Don’t worry, we’re almost done. But tell me, what was the thing you miss the most about being in person?
Diana: One last question, what would you say has been the impact of KSMoCA in your lives?
Moe: The best part is that I know so many people who are kind. And lots of people in KSMoCA are transgender. They’re more open about that.
Diana: Okay, so I lied. I said that will be the last question, but I have another question: What does transgender mean to you?
Moe: It means that I don’t feel comfortable with people calling me boy or girl—having to be any of them.
Nikki: I think you’re more gender-neutral than transgender.
Moe: Like people who are theys. When you say they, it can be just one person who doesn’t feel comfortable just as a boy or a girl.
Nikki: Moe is at that point in his life where he is understanding gender and gender identity. He is not super happy with the binary aspects of it and is very vocal—which I think is awesome—about how important it is to be open to that. As artists, we tend to think of things from a little bit broader perspective in general, and at KSMoCA, I think that’s one of the big aspects of that. He’s gotten a lot of support.
Moe: All the artists in KSMoCA appreciate the people’s decision on that. Some people don’t feel comfortable in a boy’s body or a girl’s body, or they don’t feel comfortable in either, so they consider themselves a they. I knew plenty of people there—actually, all of the people there appreciated this decision and were supportive. Some people were supportive because they are transgender. So I do know some people who actually feel that way.
Diana: Well, thank you, guys. I was very curious, wanting to know a little more about you. I see you, Moe, at the lectures every week, and I was like, “Who is this person with all that energy?” Thank you for helping me with my homework!
Moe: Your homework is interviewing me?!
Nikki: Thank you so much too. This was really cool.
Diana Marcela Cuartas (she/her) is a Colombian artist and current student in the Art and Social Practice program at Portland State University. In 2019, she moved to Portland, Oregon, where she has been working independently for the promotion and exchange between Pacific Northwest and Latin American artists. Currently, she works as a family liaison for Latino Network, serving immigrant families through school-based programs at the Reynolds School District in the East Multnomah County area.
Moe Ali Hassan (he/they) is a third-grade student at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr School and the KSMoCA Head Photographer. Currently, they are the presenter for the KSMoCA Lecture Series, a virtual artist lecture series designed for elementary school students and their families. Moe’s first exhibition, The Imagine, was on view in March 2020 until the pandemic, and was curated by The Student Curatorial Committee.
Nikki Hall (she/her) is a mom and a lifelong artist/advocate from Portland, Oregon, who has been working in the social justice field for years. In the past two years, she has taken time to refocus on her art as a central part of her life. Nikki works with photography, watercolor, acrylic, and mixed media, and loves collaborating with other artists and volunteering with the KSMoCa mentor program. Nikki finds that her art and social justice work are closely intertwined, and because of this connection, both are stronger for it.
Have a Nice Day
I’m obsessed with Times Square. Some might say it’s controversial for a New Yorker to care so much about a place that wasn’t really built for them, but what can I say, the mythology seduces me. I check in regularly, whether in person, or by way of the public web cameras planted in the area and showcased 24/7 for all the world to see on Earthcam.com. I’m curious about how it functions and whose labor and attention sustains it. During a time when the pandemic has cut off resources to a place that relies on tourism to fulfill its purpose, who does Times Square serve? Who’s holding down the fort? What’s it all for?
On a Saturday afternoon in the middle of February, 2021, I embarked on a new experiment in a familiar stomping ground. I created an anonymous telephone number, printed it on a large sign, and showed up in front of the Times Square Earthcam in the hopes that someone out there, tuning in wistfully from their web browser to the Big Apple, would call. The sign read:
CAN’T VISIT? CALL (FREE!)
SOCIAL SOUVENIR HOTLINE
DIAL 929-274-4029 NOW
I would give whoever called a guided audio tour of my surroundings: an on-the-ground, play by play broadcast of the city’s goings-on from smack dab in the center of it all. I carried my sign up Broadway like an Olympic torch, ready to take my post and let the calls come flooding in.
Leave it to Times Square to thoroughly warp one’s perception of scale. The sign, despite feeling huge and show-stopping on the subway ride uptown (and eliciting a fair amount of inquiries along the way), was far too small to be legible on screen. The scaffolding in front of the Earthcam’s mount made it infeasible to get closer to the camera, and so it read as a blurry, pixelated streak, impossible to make out.
Feeling lost, I walked the sign half-heartedly around the perimeter of the square, racking my brain for how to turn this project around. My advertisement attracted furtive, quizzical glances from passersby; I accidentally locked step with another man carrying his own sign, about Jesus and Armageddon. I felt like an outcast in a way I hadn’t quite prepared for—I had envisioned the switchboard of my social life with strangers lighting up upon arrival!
I grew cold, and scanned the landscape for shelter. Grand Slam New York, I saw in front of me. A massive souvenir shop, bordering on department store-sized. Seemed like the perfect place to defrost and regroup.
The man sitting on a stool to the right of the door greeted me warmly as I entered, and we exchanged hellos. “What’s your sign say?” he asked, cocking his head to try and make out the text, as the sign was upside down. I flipped it upright.
“Social Souvenir Hotline…” he read aloud. “It’s an art experiment,” I explained. “But it didn’t go quite as planned.” I told him all about Earthcam, the public webcam system embedded in Times Square, and, because he was curious, helped him pull up the live feed on his phone. The Earthcam happened to picture the precise blindspot from his post—while he faced inwards toward the store with his back to the Square, the Earthcam faced outwards towards the Square with its back to the store. It was like a second pair of eyes. Which is a pretty good accessory for a security guard protecting the largest souvenir shop in town.
“This is great,” he exclaimed, “Thank you for showing me this! Now I can see what’s going on out there, while I’m in here.”
“Say,” I wondered aloud, “would you be willing to call the Hotline?”
Pre-recorded Operator: This call is now being recorded.
James Blount: Hello?
Becca Kauffman: Times Square Social Souvenir Hotline. Who am I speaking with today?
James: Hi, this is James, the one you left at the store?
Becca: James, nice to hear from you! Thanks for calling.
James: Anytime. I told you I was gonna call you. I was talking to Times Square Security, that’s why I didn’t call you right away.
Becca: So, you’re the security guard at Grand Slam New York.
James: That’s correct.
Becca: Right in the middle of Times Square.
James: Yep, right in the middle.
Becca: How long have you been a security guard at Grand Slam?
James: Twenty years.
Becca: How has the store changed in that time?
James: It changed a whole lot. You know, they remodeled the whole store and everything, it’s very nice.
Becca: Do you like it better now than you did before, or?
James: I liked it before because we had more customers. Since the Corona, we slowed down a lot. It ain’t like it used to be. This is the new Times Square now, it’s not the old. The old was good. You had everybody coming out, you know.
Becca: When you say the old Times Square, you mean before Coronavirus?
James: Right. We had more customers and all that. Now it’s slow, ’cause of Corona.
Becca: How does that affect your job?
James: Well, it really don’t affect my job. It affects the store, not me. I’m good as long as I got a job. I get paid at the end of the day, so I’m good.
Becca: What do you enjoy about your job?
James: Catching crooks [laughs]. That’s my job. [To a customer] Oh, no- excuse me! Come on, you gotta put your mask on, partner, please. I told you before. [To me] He’s trying to give me a hard time. [To customer] Put your mask on, partner, please. That’s all I ask you, nicely. I’m trying to have a good day. [Customer responds. James laughs.] It’s part of the policy. Yeah. [Laughs] You ain’t lying. [Laughs] Take care, have a good one. [To me] Every now and then I get a little ball buster, he wants to break the rules, I have to tell him what’s up.
Becca: You’re good at telling people what they need to do without escalating.
James: Exactly. I’m a people person. I try to have a good day. I don’t try to have no bad day. I come in [with] a good day, I want to go home with a good day. I have a bad day, guess what, my whole day’ll be bad. Ignore them. That’s about it. They try to play with people’s minds. […] One guy, looked like he was about to light a cigarette in the store! I told him, Come on. And he’s got his mask off. Do it outside! I’m like this: I try to look out for everybody’s safety. Just wear your mask, what’s the problem? We got the sign here. It’s the rule. If you don’t wear it, guess what? You can get a $50 fine. From the police! But they could buy something in the store with that fifty, instead of giving it to the city. ’Cause the city’s gonna make their money.
Every now and then I get a ballbuster, wants to play with my intelligence. I’m a little sharp. They think I’m slow or something. I’m past slow. I’m past go. I don’t play that. Let me do my job, they do their job. They want to play games, go out there and play games. ’Cause tricks are for kids, silly rabbit. I didn’t make it all the way to 60 from being no dummy, neither. I learned a lot over the sixty years.
Becca: Hey, James, I’m gonna come in now, can we continue this interview in person? It’s a little hard to hear you.
James: Okay, yeah, cause I’m in the store. I can’t leave.
Becca: I’ll come in in just a second.
James: Okay, I’ll see you in a little bit.
Becca: [Enters store. The rest of the conversation is recorded as a voice memo]
How do you not let people rile you up when they give you a hard time?
James: I’m very sensible. I just do what I gotta do and that’s it. I try to be calm, cool. I know what I do, as far as my job is concerned. It’s not putting hands on people, or cuss[ing] them out. Talk to them with a little diplomacy, you know? If they can’t accept it, Bye, have a nice day. Let’s go. Throw ’em out the store. That’s the title of my job, throw you out. Instead of beating and arguing with you. I don’t do that. It’s unprofessional when you do that. Let’s get them out, let them get some air. See, the air might clear their minds and wake them up.
Becca: You’re taking care of them in a way.
James: Right! They don’t see that part. And in the end, as they’re leaving, This guy is right. Then they tell me, Thank you. I had an argument with a lady in here one time—little short story: she was drinking coffee and you can’t drink coffee, the sign’s up there. I told her, You got to put your coffee down, or you have to go outside and drink. You know what she told me? N—- leave me alone, you harassing me. She said that word. And you know, I’m back in that time and era. So that was very unprofessional what she said to me. That’s a slavery name. I don’t use that against people. I don’t discriminate. So why would you say n—–? I got really upset, so I threw her out of the store.
Then she came back. The air cleared her up. She came back with an apology. You know what I told her, since she said that to me? I said, I don’t accept your apology. Bye, have a nice day and get the hell out of here. That was it. I never saw that lady after that. Because she knew she was wrong. She wanted to apologize, but the apology wasn’t accepted because she already said it. You see what I’m saying? We’re not slaves no more, slavery’s over with. My forefathers and mothers and brothers and sisters went through the slavery. We don’t use that.
Becca: Way to go telling her like it is. What are the rules that it’s your job to enforce?
James: If we catch them, sometimes we let them go. Depends if they want to be harassing and act like they don’t want to give it up. You can call PP, that’s the police, and they come in and arrest them. I could make a citizen’s arrest. That’s part of my job as security. They say, Don’t try to handle it too much because it can get out of hand. Just give us a call, we right here. I got the Times Square sargeant’s number. He was just in here talking to me. They all check on me. I got them on my side and I got Times Square Security on my side. I’m not really looking for them, but if things get out of hand, they should give us a call. Because they know it can get hectic sometimes.
Becca: And what are the other rules?
James: No food or drinks. And wear your mask at all times in the store. It’s mandated by Cuomo. We gotta respect that. A lot of people don’t like wearing masks in here. I had a guy come in one day, he said, You can’t force me to wear a mask. I say, You’re right, I can’t. But I can do this: you can’t come in this store. That’s my job. So you got your rule, I got my rule. So whose rules gonna be right, mine or yours? If you don’t want to come in, that’s on you. Have a nice day. I’m making sure I’m brief, I ain’t gotta be beating around the bush talking to him all day about if it’s mandatory or not. He knows it’s mandatory, if he could read. If he couldn’t read it, I’d read it for him.
Becca: Is your home chock full of New York City souvenirs from the last 20 years?
James: Oh yeah. My house is full of all of that. I’ve got so many hats and masks, you name it.
Becca: Key chains, magnets, shot glasses, snow globes?
James: I’ve got all of that. Trust me. You don’t see it accumulating, but it accumulates. You start off with one. One seems like, it might be forty or fifty or sixty. Then you end up doing more, and then it seems like a hundred or two hundred.
Becca: You have two hundred souvenirs at home?
James: Yeah! Did you go downstairs?
Becca: The 99 cent bins?
James: You go down there, you see everything you need. From kids’ cars, and all that. When the kids were younger, and the grandkids, I used to buy them stuff from down there.
Becca: So you have a whole set of family heirlooms from this store.
James: Right. They got everything here. It’s convenient for me. And I pay discount.
Becca: Are you from New York?
James: Yeah, I’m from New York. I was born through the five boroughs. But I was born in Brooklyn. When I was like 17, 18, I graduated, got out and just moved on and went into the service. I was in the Marine Corps. That’s why I’m set in my ways. I don’t take no junk. I’ve played in mud, crawled in mud. You name it, I did it all.
Becca: Did you like that kind of discipline?
James: I didn’t like it, but it was an adventure and something I’d wanted to experience. And I liked the uniform for some reason. It made me feel spiffy. And you know, a lot of girls were checking me out. I felt good. I did five years and got out. I can kill you with my bare hands.
Becca: Do you practice to keep in shape?
James: Yes. I do it on my terrace. I lift weights. I do 500 push ups a day. And sometimes I get out and I run about five miles. My heart’s still going strong at my age. I’m 60 but I still feel like I’m in my forties. I take a lot of vitamins. Fish oil, D3, Vitamin C. You need that Vitamin C. Sometimes I feel too active with the vitamins. Makes me feel real active. Hyped up.
Becca: The people who have been coming in here lately, are they actual tourists?
James: No, not really. You might get a few tourists, but tourists come from out of state, like flying. Most of these people that come here are from the five boroughs. Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens and Staten Island. That’s the five boroughs.
Becca: So they’re all New Yorkers. But they come in and buy souvenirs?
James: They buy mad souvenirs. Some people just go crazy. And they buy a lot of clothes too.
Becca: What do you think that is, a New York City patriotism or something?
James: ’Cause they love the store. They’ve been buying here for years.
Becca: So you have regulars that come in? Tell me about the regulars.
James: The regulars, there’s a guy, he goes upstairs, he always gets a jersey every year. He likes buying jerseys. And then downstairs, the gift shop, they come and get one of the big buckets, and they come up with a whole bucket full of souvenirs.
Becca: The regulars do?
Becca: What are they gonna do with them?
James: They take them home. They’re probably giving it to their families and loved ones, whatever. They show the love, they spread it. I don’t think they’re keeping all that stuff at home. It’s too much. If you’ve got a basket full of souvenirs, they have to be giving some of the other family members some.
Becca: This store is one of the only independent retail stores around, at this point.
James: It is.
Becca: How do the owners manage to hang on to it?
James: I don’t know. They’re not going anywhere, though, I’ll tell you that. I think I got a job. To keep me busy. I hate staying home, even though I’m retired. I still have my [security] license, so I use it. I didn’t tell you that part—I haven’t had that grand slam yet. Like I had to really slam someone, I haven’t done that.
Becca: Is that why you’re still here, you haven’t gotten the grand slam in yet?
James: That’s why I’m here.
Becca: So you’re looking for trouble.
James: No! Not looking. Trouble comes to you. You don’t have to look for anything. It comes to you. You never know what’s going to happen at the end of the day. So I gotta be on point at all times. Cause this is a big store! You got three levels here. Old women steal, young women steal, old men steal, young men steal. You don’t know what’s in people’s hearts and what’s in their mind. We deal with all different types of people. You could be white, Black, Chinese—all nationalities steal. You got a lot of honest people in the world, but for some reason, all the crooks are dishonest. It’s always been like that in America. Even overseas it’s the same way. Even the guys in uniform, in the marines. Some are honest, some are dishonest. You don’t know until you really find out. That’s the crazy part… Some people don’t like to be told what to do. But that’s my job. I’ll tell you in a minute what to do if you don’t know.
Becca: If you were to write a job description for your position as security guard, up to your standards, how would you describe it? What’s your philosophy?
James: It’s beautiful. Just sit back, watch people. At the end of the day I go home with money, get paid. I don’t argue with customers. I’m happy that I had a peaceful day, that I didn’t have to beat anybody up.
You could be here today, and gone tomorrow. That’s how short life is. So you have to make the best of it. And that’s what I do, I try to make the best of it every day. Every day is like an open fruit to me. And the world expands. Just live life.
I always ask people, Are you enjoying your life?
Are you enjoying your life?
Becca: You’re asking me?
Becca: I do.
James: Me too, I enjoy life. Age is nothing but a number, and it’s the beauty and understanding and communication that’s one of the best policies that we have. And we have to utilize it.
As a token of appreciation for his participation, James was gifted a one of a kind Social Souvenir T-Shirt of his choosing. Tag made in collaboration with Kim Mullis. Photos courtesy of Becca Kauffman.
The definition of “Social Souvenir” is constantly changing, but the hotline number stays the same.
Call today: 929-274-4029.
Becca Kauffman (she/they) is a first year student in the Art and Social Practice program at Portland State University powered by their inexhaustible fascination with Times Square.
James Blount (he/him) has been a security guard at Grand Slam New York in Times Square for twenty years. He is a veteran, a father of four, and a happy person.