Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Why I Make Art?

 Joyce Owens
For anyone to spend a lifetime pursuing art takes fortitude; for a black woman to persist in making art it continues to take even  more. 

My Blackness, negritude, Afro-Afri-African American, and the other nouns that are applied to me that I will not touch, signal the existence of a precarious road that one is born to, as the royals are, but from which one cannot resign. 


We are born into what we call "race" (same as gender). Race is genetic. It is permanent. It is a matter of Anthropology, and survival. Yes, survival! People who survived in a particular climate lived to produce offspring. Our ancestors could survive the conditions in the place where civilization started, Africa, and flourished. The dark skin, curly hair, broad nostrils, etc. matched the environment. As Africans migrated survival depended on  evolving traits that allowed people to survive in other climates and conditions. (think of the Sherpas who have the lungs to climb Mt. Everest because they have adapted to the conditions; they lead the "adventurers" to the summit)!

Unfortunately, "race" has been twisted to mean something other than the anthropological definition. And it is a continuing trial for black people within racist societies. Born out of ignorance and expediency, some of the racist tendencies that started hundreds of years ago hang on.
"Visions of Our 44th President", Joyce Owens

"Visions of Our 44th President", Joyce Owens

But I think that most Americans of African descent would not exchange our selves to be some other self for the world. 

Besides, that might make a softer cushion than I need. I could address women's issues in my work. I could deal with no issues, just mark making, color theory, etc. on their own are compelling challenges. I choose that which touches me every day.

I do not interpret my history as a dark past (no pun intended). I believe that stressing an understanding of what we have overcome and accomplished, rather than what we have suffered, will help us build on that legacy and not one of victimization. In my portraits, as well as my more conceptual work, I look to the survivors who lived long lives, meeting obstacles as all humans do and overcoming them, persisting despite them. I choose work over complaints, action over excuses, risk over security, and study over ignorance.

 

I paint the stories I care about and have done so since I was an undergraduate years ago. I do pay attention to current fashion and trends in contemporary art practice, but my vision doesn't depend on trends. I have been attracted to using found materials since I was a graduate student in New Haven, Connecticut; Louise Nevelson was an influence and later Betty Saar, Art Deco, and Joseph Cornell. While at Yale University I traveled around with a classmate looking for “stuff” in alleys. I delight in facilitating the transformation from a mechanical component to an art object.

Assemblages from found materials, Joyce Owens
 

I tend to use color intensely or not at all, working in black and white sometimes to not distract from the force of the character. Kathe Kollwitz and Charles White were early and persistent influences. 




"Because I Am Free", Joyce Owens (Preston Jackson collection)
I have traced my unusual color sense to my mother and her decorations in our home. It was pointed out to me as a very young artist, when I had no idea what it meant, that I was a “natural colorist.”

No matter the media, the size, the content, at the end of the day I simply choose to be an artist.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Valuable Teachers Motivate Creative Minds

Well, I will never forget this scene when I was still a teenaged girl. 
Me graduating from high school, Jack T. Franklin photo 


 Walking along Chelten Avenue near Germantown Avenue in Philadelphia, not too far from my school, Germantown High, I ran into Walter Lubar, who had briefly been my art teacher in public school until he was promoted out of teaching, a great loss for me. We chatted about what I was up to, as teachers do with students they like. We talked about me pursuing art in college. 

 A Proud Continuum exhibition in 2005 produced the Howard University catalog above (that features my work in the cover montage and inside, and on the website). Elizabeth Catlett, Alma Thomas,  David Driskell, Lou Stovall, Winnie Owens-Hart, Starmanda Bullock, Lois Mailou Jones and others also were in the exhibition.

Then he told me this: "you see well." I quickly responded, "Oh, no! I have been wearing glasses since I was very young".  He chuckled but explained that he meant I saw things in a special way, that I had insight, that I was able to translate visual images to paper or canvas in a meaningful way. Mr. Lubar said I see the way an artist sees things, that my observation skills were different from other people! 


That was a life-changing moment for me. He gave me an explanation for what I had been experiencing all my life. He explained why I often reacted to situations that others didn't notice, or care about, often seeing minutiae that others overlooked. My ideas were just next to the majority....but not in the center. I was not average. And when you are a student in high school that's really all you sort of want to be. 


But I was used to not fitting in. I was strange to my family too, who always said "Joyce is SO sensitive!". Or "Joyce and Mom are just alike!" So we were both sensitive? I didn't necessarily want to be like my mother!


Not every strange kid is an artist. But some are. Even if they are not going to be some kind of artist it is important to validate and develop creative tendencies in everyone. That strange, different kid who may live inside his or her head and doesn't march in lock-step with the others will respond and so will the straight and narrow who will grow up to become more creative no matter what careers they pursue.

Every person should be encouraged to find and explore a creative side. If one visual artist, actor, musician, writer, dancer, filmmaker, or designer  emerges we will all benefit as they show us our world in new and unexpected ways - as they see it!  Creativity is essential for scientists and engineers, too!

My son Kyle F. Anderson is a visual artist and has created a political-social commentary comic book called Cat-for-a-Dick Man.
He recently illustrated a children's book called Toos Goes Uptown

My other son Scott Anderson is a computer Game Developer, more scientist/engineer but also creative. 

Friday, July 22, 2011

Memories: Real and Imagined

Memories change as each year passes. I have forgotten more than I remember, but I know more than I ever have. Things I experienced as negative or scary or painful, or even lots of fun, are now positive, not at all frightening or emotionally painful, and not quite as much fun my memory tells me from when I was 10 years old . Alot of those things I imagine I remember are situations I am glad I survived and sometimes escaped from, especially boyfriends who didn't turn out so great.... I treasure those things I used to abhor like going to sleep at a decent time or having NOTHING to do! (I imagine there was a time when that was a complaint I dared make. Oh, if only I could get the time back!) . And , of course, the memories are exclusively personal. When I reminisce with my friends and family I find that my version is a little different than what they remember. The general situation is the same, but the nuances are fairly wide-ranging depending on how many are involved in the particular memory session. My brother and sister blame it on my relative youth compared to them. I am the youngest of three.

Lately I have also been thinking of candidates for my new series started in 2010 called Friends I Dream of and Friends I Know; I think this is also a product of nostagia. I have been thinking about the ofrenda I will create in honor of Dr. Margaret Burroughs with several artists from Sapphire and Crystals collective for the National Mexican Museum this fall.  So I have been thinking of memories, of Dr. Burroughs and of my life.

When I was 20
I knew everything
I knew nothing
I was old.
I was too young
I was not ready for marriage and children
I should have had a child
I wondered if I could be an artist
I was so beautiful
I wished I was good looking
I didn't know what I had.


"My Friend Followed Her Dreams: Margaret Burroughs"

I realize that I don't regret what I have done. I only regret what I did not do.




Saturday, December 11, 2010

Finding the artist in you.


Childhood was scary in many ways. In retrospect I think that was because there was an artist inside me, and I had no idea what that meant. Being small, quiet, nearly silent, and very sensitive to sound and turmoil, I saw many things that delighted me and many that frightened me when I was a little girl. 

Patterns on my linoleum floor transformed to wiggly caterpillars at night when, hearing voices, I awakened. The bright lamp light  was downstairs, where the voices came from, and absent near my bed. With no illumination I couldn't bring myself to lower my feet to the floor. The squirmy apparitions seemed real. I was awake, so I thought, but the swirling creatures were still there. 


Self portrait, Joyce Owens


I had other visions and insights. I saw candy vending machines in the basement. When I was awake and not dreaming I found a furnace instead.  I was sensitive to  pain, not my own, but other people's. I would chastise my sister when I thought she was mean to someone. She said I didn't understand. But I saw things that bothered me; my mother believed me and honored my ideas. She was the saving grace that allowed me to step into an area I knew nothing about. And knew no one who did!
Eloise Owens, opera singer, my mother

What remains from my childhood memories includes moving to the house around the corner, far away from the house I had lived in from the time I was born. I was told NEVER to go around that corner to the house we had hurried out of in the dead of winter because it was on fire. That burned out house, I was told, might swallow me up! The floors were gaping holes. Stay away!! 

After the fire. After the divorce. After my childhood changed forever. 

I realized I had lost my childhood photos in that fire, except for about three when I quizzed my mother about the lack of photos of me! She reminded me of the fire. How does one remember a life with no images to prove what happened? I remember some things. I recall walking to kindergarten, and kissing Henry or Harry, a boy in my class when my brother pushed us to try. (It was not so great! I still recall the sloppy attempt. I did not want seconds.) I remember my best friend Phyllis who lived next door on a block that had 2 houses facing a lot across the street. We lived on Glenwood Avenue. Without photos/images to reinforce those memories mine are weak, at best.

Everyone who knew me later thought my father, who I was never photographed with, as far as I can remember, had died. He hadn't. Not then. I have mostly hidden my childhood stories. I really didn't think they were anything to dwell on. "That's life! Deal with it."

My mother, big sister and brother became my mother and father. They loved me, the youngest of three, and cared for me; I was different, not really like them they told me once in a while. And we had different fathers. Theirs was my mother's first husband. She married my father because he was nice to her when she was ill. She felt obligated. She always said she was glad she married him because I resulted from that union, but she really couldn't stand him after a while.

My mother insisted I understand I had to be able to take care of myself. I had to always be able to stand on my own and make my own decisions. My mother reinforced this, even as she supported me. I figured out what to do to become an artist. It was desire, and it was encouragement from teachers who saw something in me in high school, college and grad school.

Among some befuddling situations, one thing was very clear to me in my childhood; I said it in 3rd grade. So I am an artist, and plan to continue to be an artist and learn more each day about this fairly mysterious job choice.
I do worry about the aspiring artists. Art classes in public schools are often limited. Serious approaches to contemporary art practice is usually overlooked because the people who are teaching have not experienced it in many cases. Our culture depends on artists of all kinds but doesn't usually treat artists as the precious commodities they are.
Asian Girl by Kyle F. Anderson, my son, an aspiring artist
The scariest thing is that artists still don't get the respect, the money, the emotional support and the thanks that many deserve, sometimes until they are dead. I think that is changing...at least, I hope so.






Monday, June 14, 2010

Understanding Myself: Growing up artist

So what to do when you are born to be an artist, if there is such a thing as a born artist?

I'm the itty-bittiest in this photo. My brother Reggie is tall on right. Herbie, our tall friend, at his party, on left.
Not sure I was an artist then, but my mom said people could not believe I did the drawings she showed them when I was 5 years old. According to her, her friends said I needed to go to art school IF I did the pictures! OK cool...I was a 10 year old who was always a little out of sync with the "normal" people. (I really don't remember much before 10.).  I didn't care if I looked like everyone else or dressed like everyone else or thought like everyone else! What does it mean when a child is  "in her head" so much, dreaming of things, imagining things...at home with fairy tales and other books I was lucky to have. If you have a kid like this be gentle, he or she is probably an artist!

Strange that people liked me, anyway. Even though I was really on another planet. When I noticed they liked me I wondered what there was to like? I moved as through a mental fog. Physically I moved quickly, always anxious to reach my destination.  At a young age I found dance class. I really loved dancing and still do. I took ballet, tap and later African (that practically killed me!). I took myself to dance classes when still in elementary school. I took myself to art classes and even won a blue ribbon for my work. Lucky again, the neighborhood playground offered these classes and I could go on my own since it was about two blocks away from my house in Philadelphia.

My mother said most creative types have multiple talents, except her! She could only sing, she said, but she said I could do a lot of things! Among my gifts was my ability to figure out what to do with my hands, she told me. She  watched me, trying to figure out how to hold her hands when she sang, admitting she never knew what to do with them, but I always seemed to know exactly what to do with mine!

 Here is a rare photo of my mother and father with my grandmother. My mother was performing in a movie theater! That's her poster in the windows!

So, how lucky was it to be born a natural artist, the youngest in a family of three children who were spread apart enough that we were almost only children and almost no one paying much attention to what I did. Our mother was divorced and traveled to sing, but always made sure we were protected. And she understood the urge for creativity. And I had plenty of time to dream! I felt alone, though, because no one else drew or painted but me. It certainly wasn't the same as singing or taking photos or playing piano. We had all of that among my uncles and mom!

She thought I was strange (yes, my Mother!). She even told me my grandmother thought I was strange. Let me tell you, once you hear your grandmother thinks you are weird, there is nothing that can harm you! But most importantly my mother honored my creativity.  When I asked for piano lessons she found a teacher. When I asked for art classes she allowed me to go. When I said I was going to be an artist she said OK. She indulged my attempts to sing, encouraging me even though I was insecure next to her powerhouse of a voice. She really hoped I would sing because she could pave the way for me. But I had pictures in my head that needed to come out. So with no idea except I wanted to make art I decided to pursue it! My mom did stipulate that I had to be an art teacher because everyone knows artists don't make enough money to support themselves!!

Tune in for more tales of growing up artist!

Monday, May 31, 2010

Sometimes people say things that move me

Always a slow reader, I eventually wondered why, as I observed other people skimming a page, seemingly satisfied that they knew what was there.


Do other people do this? 
Thinking it over, I realized that I make pictures from the words I read, a slow process. Reading   is similar to making a painting or drawing for me. Rarely, is either a quick process. When I see my friends speeding through a novel or even a newspaper I envy them. I, instead, visit each word, one-at-a-time. I turn it over weighing it, deciding if it works, or if the writer meant to use a better word, or if I would have used a different word and what the word means in relation to the rest of the words that surround it, maybe saying it out loud. 

Seeing an organized grouping of curves and angles, that could form a portrait, but instead form some meaning in another way and hearing the sound of the word spoken aloud is like seeing a rose and smelling its fragrance. Can you imagine words acting out their own meaning?

If a writer turns a phrase that sounds new to me, I get love-stuck (no, not lovestruck), this time savoring the flavor, getting accustomed to the new taste, unwilling to bite into anything else so I can hold on to the delicious experience. Taking a spoon of sherbet by reading a mildly sweet and bland paragraph to cleanse the palate, is the only solution. 

So, I heard something that stopped me this weekend and I wrote it down. That happens, too. I hear a sequence of words that convey an idea in a way that just says it all. These seem to be rare occurrences, but I think we know one when we hear one. This Rhythm and Blues singer, in an interview on NPR, was describing her many years performing and her experiences and said:


"I've done things that people have dreamed of with people they have dreamed about." Bettye Lavette.

In this life how often does anyone get to say that? Forget about saying it so glibly, so masterfully organized and on pitch! The bonus is having the privilege to say it because you have lived that life.  

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Artist as Writer

I have spent my life transforming my thoughts to visual images.

Personal emotions that I might never articulate because of shyness, or because I just don't know how to, have shown up in my art work. My lifelong search to be an artist has been realized through my paintings that are often populated with imaginary people who express my joy, my pain, my longing, my curiosity and more. I can be other characters through art. I can be young or old, male or female, even a bird or tree...My paintings inhabit who I am. I articulate my concerns for my community around racism, sexism, and fairness by painting my responses to these issues. I tell the story about the lives of slaves from my perspective and tout their resilience in a series I call
Survivor Spirits. I honor my family ancestors through another series I call Pillars

My need to be educated about my history and the world has inspired me to educate others. Art allows me that. People see in my paintings pages and chapters summed up in one visual image. 
Now, I am also embracing my love of words. I have been writing an art blog for a couple of years. Text has crept onto my visual images and the images have grown to include multiple pages. I have had my writing published at the Museum of the African Diaspora's "I've Known Rivers" project, for the Chicago Now blog run by an unnamed major Chicago newspaper, The Studio Project  the Department of Cultural Affairs operates this year and more...to my surprise!

This blog will present my art but mostly my words and some of the things I have learned and would like to share with you. For example, I discovered some time ago that I believe in play and taking chances. Art allows me to indulge that tendency. I have always had it. My friends were shocked when I pierced my own ears, or straightened my own hair or dyed my shoes pink, just because I wanted to. But I was foiled each step of the way when I went too far, and finally tried to conform. I never really have, but I lived a safer life than I really wish I had...I want my own sons to believe in that sense of play and adventure. Safety is over-rated. If we don't take intelligent chances, we don't get anywhere! My curiosity was often squelched when I was young, traded for safety. But I don't advise it and so here I am...an artist who had hoped and believed my work could speak for me, now recognizing I have always been a writer and always immensely interested in expressing myself through words, too.