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Her Own Song of Life

Artist Erin Kendrick explores the “dark phrases of womanhood”

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What does it take to resist suicide? What does it take to ignore the siren call of the quiet of death, the release of non-being? And, more important, what does it take to do this if you are a black woman living in America?

Artist Erin Kendrick doesn’t necessarily have the answers, but she is committed to asking the kinds of questions that reveal a way through. A graduate of Georgia State University with a Master of Fine Arts in drawing and painting (bachelor's degree in studio art from Florida State), at the time of our interview, she was also teaching at the University of North Florida and Jacksonville Arts & Music School.

Recently, she has been reading theorist bell hooks in conjunction with Ntozake Shange’s choreopoem, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf. The poem's central themes are the specific experiences—through global misogyny—of women of color. In brief, the book functions thusly: seven women—each designated as a color, i.e., Yellow, Red, Green—relate their stories and experiences through the vehicle of narrative poetry. This is not a joyless experience, dragging the reader or audience through a laundry list of tragedies. The poem remains particularly relevant because it gives literal words to rage, joy and laughter with wit and beauty. In the reading or the viewing, For Colored Girls centers on survival and joy amid pain and outrage. It’s a method that Kendrick also deploys effectively.

***

It’s a hot and soggy evening in June, and Kendrick is at her CoRK Arts District studio, chatting about where she is in the prep phase for her upcoming show, Her Own Things. “My approach to this is pretty much the same as her [Shange’s] approach, ‘How do I have a conversation between black women?’ It’s like going to Grandma’s house, to have that conversation with your friends or family.”

Originally Her Own Things was scheduled for Space 42. “But I shifted it over to Yellow House because I wanted to use a house as a house,” Kendrick explains, adding, “For a long time, everything about us [black women] was bound to the house (and the bedroom). So I wanted use that space to have this conversation.”

Employing For Colored Girls as the structure upon which she hangs the show allows Kendrick to balance composite portraits against a distilled installation. In doing so, she is effectively “taking what are galleries back to their roots as bedrooms, spaces for breaking bread, walls that hold the spirits of previous inhabitants,” says Yellow House director Hope McMath.
The seven paintings that are the heart of exhibition represent the figures from the poem, drawn from reference sources as disparate as Afro Punk and Pinterest, which need not be mutually exclusive. Though her paintings are images steeped in a figurative tradition, Kendrick is clear to call them interpretations. “I’ve always been interested in faces and expressions,” she says, gesturing toward a wall covered in sketches.
The larger paintings that are the root of the show are hung in the dining room, the house’s center, reinforcing Kendrick’s observations on the role/place of black women in American media and imagination. “That idea of serving in both contexts of the word, like serving [in the sense of waitressing] and the newer context of the word, like, you’re serving [means] you’re bad, you’re serving the truth.”

“All of these [paintings] represent one of the women. They change a lot […] I layer and layer and layer color, but they aren’t bound by their color,” she explains. Thus, the portrait of the Lady in Green won’t necessarily be green, because Kendrick is trying to paint her poem and her psychological circumstances. Green’s story notably tackles theft, beginning with “somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff.” This poem, Kendrick’s favorite, is filled with witty lines of bravery. It is audacious and it's worth finding the YouTube video of Alfre Woodard bringing it to life:

somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff!
& didn’t care enuf to send a note home sayin
i was late for my solo conversation
or two sizes too small for my own tacky shirts
what can anybody do wid somethin of no value on
a open market?
did you getta dime for my things?
hey man
where are you goin wid alla my stuff?!
this is a woman’s trip & i need my stuff

***

“I’m painting on this kind of wood for the first time,” Kendrick says as we peer at a panel laid flat to take her washes and stains of color. “And it takes the paint really well. I build the layers and that’s really just shadow and lights and I always redraw it at some point in time, and I always add brown … even if I cover it back up, they always become black girls.”

“I don’t want them to be bound by the play,” says Kendrick, adding that she’s resisting the urge to make this a narrative event that illustrates the text. Instead, it might be more accurate to say that she wants to open the play even wider, to imbue it with symbols of seeming specificity which are also ambiguous.

“I am pulling from the play, different things to build the character. For instance, in the 'Graduation Night' poem, she talks about giving her virginity away versus it being taken.” Little things, like a tassel earring, will stand in for the tassel a character might have on her graduation cap. “I want to keep these as anonymous as possible while having drawn a face.”

As a strategy, ambiguity serves to shift some of the responsibility to find meaning to the audience. This doesn't absolve the artist from providing a cohesive thesis, but it does allow space for viewers to enter, to see themselves in the making and unmaking, to wander through the galleries and see connections only visible through their personal lens. And from that, to take away what is most helpful to them.

Of the installation, McMath says, “To be confronted in such a visceral, challenging and beautiful way with oppression, racism, feminism, pain and triumph, is an opportunity for those who know and those of us who need to acknowledge and understand […] it is a beautiful and dangerous gift.”

***

The path to these works has taken more than a decade to walk. Around 2005, Kendrick says that she stopped making art. “When I left art-making, I was more of an installation artist.” In fact, she says, she thinks installation appeals to her because “I’m very much design-minded, I’ve always been more of a designer, more about composition than I am a painter.”
She notes that she didn't paint a lot, because in college, she struggled with it. In grad school, a new media teacher helped her find her voice. “It saved me,” she says. Since her return to art, portraits have become the medium of the message. Of this, she reflects, “I think, for me, it was maybe the clearest road back into it, and I’ve been there since then.”

In talking about the way that the need to make art manifests, Kendrick acknowledges two things that many artists know to be true. One, sometimes personal truth and art power rest in the “throw-aways” and doodles. Two, sometimes, in order to get to one place-of-making, such as installations, you have to go through seeming unrelated steps, such as portraits.

The history of portraiture is steeped in power and wealth. From ancient history right up to the present day, the trappings of power and prestige are writ into the action—especially of painting. It is impossible to talk about contemporary portraiture without talking about Kehinde Wiley; however, to better understand Kendrick’s works, it's also instructional to look at artists like Wangechi Mutu and Tschabalala Self. Wiley is well-known for works that invert power structures of race and gender; also, often “queering” art history. It's in the case of Mutu, who writer Deborah Willis notes “manages to successfully focus her vision on sexuality, desire and colonialism—while also incorporating girl culture, as well as popular and art historical references,” that the engaged viewer will find a corollary to Kendrick’s work.

Reflection on Self also aids in understanding the compelling nature of Kendrick’s works, as Self’s works are about the diversity of narratives and fantasies that exist around black female bodies. “When people are confronted with the black female figure or any kind of person assumed to be living a marginalized existence, they expect any story being told about that person to be about their pain and suffering. If you try to explain that an image is about self-love or self-appreciation or joy or happiness in occupying their body, it’s difficult for people to wrap their heads around,” said Self, in a 2016 interview with Pelican Bomb magazine.

Self’s observation touches on another aspect of Kendrick’s work, that of existence and self-care as a revolutionary act. “My existence is a revolutionary act,” she says quietly when the conversation takes this turn. “Survival is a revolutionary act” is a phrase on the show's postcard.

***

Though Kendrick (for now) is staying closer to the realm of classical portraiture formatting, her fashion-informed, mash-up sensibility solves the problem of staidness.

“I think I stayed away from the entire body because I do want it to be about this [eye-to-eye, gaze-to-gaze] exchange.” For Kendrick, the gaze is very important. In these works, as in others from the last two years, she’s been thinking a lot about “the oppositional gaze,” an idea theorist bell hooks, née Gloria Jean Watkins, presented in the essay “The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators.” It's the idea that hooks sets within Michel Foucault’s “relations of power,” because, as hooks asserts, “there is power in looking.” Indeed, the original 1992 text cites the historical accounts that “white slave owners (men, women, and children) punished enslaved people for looking.” These ideas are important now, not just because they’re the tools through which one can gain a deeper understanding of Kendrick’s works, but because they're part of the theoretical underpinning of deconstructing the biases in our capitalist and systemically racist society.

Kendrick goes on to note that as an undergrad at FSU, she was “one of 53, the only black student, the only black female” in her art program. “I did have one ‘power to the people’ professor, who from the start, from the day I said, 'I’m interested in this art program,' he was, like, ‘Meet me in my office.’”

She says that professor, Dr. Ed Love, asked her, “Do you want to make a living or do you want to make a life?” She recalls being, like, “I don’t know … .” He then told her that if she got into the Georgia State program, “she’d be the only one [black person]” and she “needed to take it seriously […] so you need to figure out if you really want to be an artist.”

It was also toward the end of her undergrad career that she saw a performance of For Colored Girls. “It just kind of stuck and it helped me figure out that I was struggling so much trying to tell my story to the wrong people. I was working so hard to tell my story and not be a nuisance. And not be, like, ‘Aw, there she goes again … .’ So seeing the play kind of made it all right to tell my own story.”

Later, in grad school, Kendrick said though the college is in Atlanta, with a better mix of people, she still felt kind of “off.” Dr. Love had died, and though she was comfortable with her choice of artistic direction, she felt as if her lighthouse had gone out.

She moved through her first year in a haze, worried that she wouldn’t be able to finish or “make it.” The following year, a single moment changed everything. “I was walking in the building one day, and there’s a gallery when you enter the building. Up on the wall was the Renee Cox Hottentot Venus photo […] this photo of a black woman, me—coming into the building—and there was a black female, an older lady custodian over at the elevator. Something about that moment changed a lot for me. That’s when I realized, I wasn’t struggling with painting, I was struggling with this silent image on the wall that couldn’t speak for itself.”

***

After this epiphany, Kendrick started making video pieces, a process she describes as “putting the [art historically referenced] square up, but it could talk back.”

For Colored Girls started to make its way into her consciousness, she says. By now, she was reading deeply and really engaging in critical theory. Shange was talking specifically to black women, so the artist said to herself, "'I’m going to say this to this woman who looks like me, in the language we both understand.' And that started to shape what I was doing at the time … . I wanted to tell my own story and I was concerned with telling that story to people who look like me.”

After finishing grad school in 2005, Kendrick started teaching at Banneker High, an Atlanta-area high school. In addition to teaching, she coached and mentored her students, often working 12 to 15 hours a day. “I taught in a school that needed me to be there […] I mean, I had students who were working full-time jobs … . That’s just what I did.”

She taught there for four years before returning to Jacksonville. When she came back to this area, she was starting an event-planning business and was no longer focused on making art. Nevertheless, as is the contradictory way of a life wherein jokes tell truths and bad ideas are great: One of the last paintings Kendrick completed in Atlanta marked the first time she used her pour/stain/layer technique. “The first time I did this,” she says, gesturing to a jewel-toned layered painting, “was the last time I painted.”

Seven years later, in 2016, Kendrick finally returned to art. “I went to that talk that Princess [Simpson Rashid], Overstreet [Ducasse] and Dustin [Harewood] had at the Ritz … . It was: ‘What is Black Art?’” After the lecture, she asked Museum Administrator Adonnica Toler, “Hey, I’m an artist, I don’t even have work to show you. I have, like, what I had then … . Can I get in the Through Our Eyes show?”

Toler told her to apply. Kendrick laughs, saying, “I worked my ass off, and made six or seven paintings.” All were steeped in portraiture; the artist now says she started in “stereotype-land.”

Stereotype-land is, for Kendrick, “superficial, it’s easy.” She then returned to reading; in fact, often the bulk of the work she does to prepare for a show involves research and theory. For these 2016 works, which are currently on display at Jacksonville International Airport, she says she felt like she needed to “get this [less-nuanced idea] out” before moving on to the more conceptually complex body of work she’s now tackling.
“I think, for me, once I got through that [Ritz Theatre] show, I returned to that place I was in college … . I didn’t want to sing the same tune the same way.” She explains that she pulled the word stereotype out of her artist's statement. “It was such a surface thing, and I didn’t want people not to listen just because of that word.”

***

In 2017, Kendrick exhibited in the Who is Kesha show curated by Jacksonville Makerspace arts and culture developer Shawana Brooks. Brooks explained that the show was about visibility and invisibility through the lens of names that mean one thing for some people—the loss of opportunities or preconceived notions—and other things for other people, like success in a wild-child party-girl persona.

“I can vividly remember seeing Erin’s work for the first time,” Brooks says. “It was a painting of a young woman with a colorful printed shirt, whose eyes were barely in view because her hair was pulled up like a crown on her head. […] It was clear this woman was not a newcomer though I had never seen her art on view. Her work spoke to me like no other then and after.

“I was finally seeing a woman who looked like me. In this day and time. Not a Negress from the past, but a strong and vulnerable image of contemporary black woman-ness. […] In a community where most artists who are black are intimidated to actually say their work is created from the center of their identity, Ms. Kendrick is a breath of fresh air.”

***

These days, Erin Kendrick is staying busy. Her show at Yellow House, which opens at 6 p.m. on July 14, is followed by an August exhibit at Cathedral Arts Project, and at present, she has works displayed at Jacksonville International Airport. She’s also designing the posters for Phase Eight Theatre Company’s upcoming season.

For the Cathedral Arts Project show, Kendrick is toying with the idea of projection, sketches and the manner in which folks often feel empowered to appropriate aspects of other cultures. Photobooth opens on Thursday, Aug. 9, with a reception at 5:30 p.m.

In thinking about Her Own Things and Photobooth, it's as if Kendrick is taking aspects of private and public life and mining them for their core values and trigger points. Her plans are big, and incorporate compassion with deeply vulnerable honesty. It's easy to imagine that her openings will be received like joyous celebrations. Indeed, a little leaked information suggests the musical accompaniment planned by Zaiche Johnson, creative catalyst at Yellow House, will be a creatively relevant counterpart to the work. He’s tapped the composer, pianist, trumpeter and DJ called the Balance King to craft a soundscape. Of the musician, Johnson says, “He really exudes a deliberate curatorial application, that’s going to be subservient to Erin's thematic context.” Clearly, plans are shaping up to make Her Own Things one of the highlights of the season.

Toward the end of our final chat, I asked her if there was anything important that she wanted people to know. “I am from the Northside of Jacksonville; I went to Raines.”

For Kendrick, it’s not about the trappings of art; it’s about truth and authenticity.

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