Tell me about your background and how you becameinterested in art. Why did you choose sculpture?
I was born in New York city . My mother wasfrom Brooklyn and my dad was from
the Bronx. We moved to Alaska when I was four because he was working for the
government and rather than go to be a medic in the
Korean war, he opted to go to Alaska. There he worked for the bureau of Indian affairs as a tuberculosis specialist. At that time I was strongly influenced by the sculpture in Alaska and everything that we saw on the way there: Mount Rushmore and the stone sculpture done by the native Americans in Alaska. The totem poles just floored me! I loved them! At the same time my mother was an art teacher, a potter and a painter. I frequently went with her to the hospital to teach art classes. Everything she did was art related, so my whole upbringing was geared towards the life I live now. My father was as great an art lover as she was and we traveled a lot. We drove from Alaska to New York and back four times in four years, to visit the family. But for my parents, traveling anywhere was only to go to the museums. You come to a city, you find the museums, you go through all of them, which was fascinating for me. Of course as a little girl it was also exhausting, that's a lot of walking. But as I grew up, everything was art. Christmas was the opportunity to make everything that went on the tree. We started making our paper mache masks for Halloween by August and they were a great production. Of course Easter eggs were another big production. Life was art for us.
So by the time I was in fifth grade, I had apparently, my mother tells me, announced that I was going to be an art teacher and by the time I was in tenth grade I remember clearly having made the decision to be a sculptor. When I announced that to my parents. They were thrilled because for them, to have one of their daughters actually decide to pursue art as a career was just the most wonderful thing in the world. That was very great for me because that meant that they were committed to do anything and everything to get me from point A to point B. So they sent me to France, I studied art in Fontainebleau right out of high school for the summer. I studied sculpture there and then I moved on to BU where I majored in sculpture, so everything else has come from that.
What influenced you during your formative years?
By the time I came to BU, I was really entranced by Henry Moore. Everything he did just amazed me. I loved the feel of his work and the thought of touching his work. I didn't see a lot of Moore sculptures but I saw enough to know that I loved them and I always had a dream to work in his studio you know and just kind of scrape up the plaster off the floor because he was my idol. But I never did do that. And then as I learned more and more about art, and about Black art in particular, the sixties were a pretty volatile time and lot of people were doing art work that was highly politically charged Black art. So I became involved in that sort of effort. I was very headstrong about what I would create in art school because I was so political and it was so important to me to express myself as a black woman. At BU everyone who is a junior sculpture major is supposed to do a life size sculpture and the model was white and the pose that they chose was to me a very insipid pose. It was one of these hands on the hip, arm extended for no particular reason, you know a kind of classical pose but for me it just didn't work and I felt you know if I spend a year on a life size sculpture it's going to A: be a black woman and B: she's going to be in some
pose that I relate to. So my teacher was Lloyd Lilly at the time and he was fabulous. He knew how I was and he allowed me to get my own model and to have people model for me at different times, after school. He said just go for it you know, do it. So I ended up doing a model with a big fro and she's kind of this very sassy attitude, hip thrust out and arms above her head like this and that worked for me, I loved it. And that sculpture is in my parents den at this point. I was also encouraged and supported by John Wilson during my years at Boston University. He is a brilliant sculptor and his work has been very inspiring to me.
Were there specific people from art history that influenced your work?
Elizabeth Catlett was one of the main people that inspired me as a black female artist. She's just so amazing and her work is so, so beautiful to me. At one point actually, I was supposed to go to Mexico and study with her after I had graduated from BU and everything had been arranged but my biological clock was ticking and I just wanted to get married and have children at that time, so I did that instead. I took a different path and I often wonder what would have happened if I had gone to study
with her. I would have had to know Spanish which I didn't and that was one of the things that discouraged me. Metta Warrick Fuller's work and the work of other Black female sculptors became important to me. I certainly didn't learn anything about people such as Augusta Savage at BU. They were not in the art history curriculum. I learned about them from my parents because they never stopped taking me to museums and they lost no time in finding any exhibition anywhere that had to do with black art, particularly black sculpture . They would take me, whether it was to Philadelphia or Washington D.C., it was time for the family to go on an excursion to see this fabulous exhibit. And so I was introduced to the Harmon exhibition in D.C. and a lot of other shows that let me understand the work of black artists who came long before me. And my mother, because she was an artist, and had studied at Howard under Lois Mailou Jones knew a lot of people in the art world. She also was such an
activist. She created an organization in Schenectady, where my parents live now, called Black Dimensions in Art and that organization is devoted to bringing black artists to Schenectady and having them exhibit in the museum there. She founded another organization, The Hamilton Hill Arts Center and that's just a very thriving institution which my sister runs at this point. So there was no way I could escape knowing about black artists, relating to them and frequently meeting them.
Did you focus mainly on Black artists for influence?
No, I was always very interested in classical art and that's why I went to BU. I wanted to be able to create art in the Michelangelo tradition, in the Rodin tradition. I fell in love with Rodin when I went to France and studied sculpture and of his work, my absolute favorite was The Berghers of Calais. The hands, the strength in those hands and in the faces of the men, the positioning of the characters, of the figures together, the feet, everything about his work just carried such emotion and such strength. I was enthralled with the famous Greek sculpture, “Nike” or “The Winged Samothrace” and Michaelangelo's “Pieta.” I wanted to work like that, only I wanted to do it from a black cultural standpoint. So my work and my understanding of my expression has always been a mixture of cultures. I guess that's natural, because I am a mixture of cultures, but I consider myself to be , first and foremost, a black woman and I seek to create from that point of view.
I see myself as an educator through my sculpture and I am always trying to bring forth what is missing in American sculpture and to pay homage to the people who have not been acknowledged. If you talk to most black students or kids who are in maybe high school and ask them what they think of public sculpture, most of them have never even noticed any. They say, "What is that? What are you talking about?" And there's a reason for that. Because they don't see themselves. So if you see a billion different bronzes of white people or white men on horseback in a uniform because they killed someone in some war, and you do not relate to that at all, this is not of your experience, you don't even see it. So for these kids, my goal is to say “look, there you are!” and this is why it's important for me to work figuratively, because I want them to be able to see themselves and say "Oh aren't we beautiful!" and take it from there! And that's not to say that I don't have abstract thoughts or desires to do abstract work because I do. It's another form of expression. But I also find abstract expression within the figure, design, creation, form, content. All of that happens within the figure. It can happen, it doesn't always happen.
Maybe you could talk about your commissioned work and your personal work? Do you work differently when doing one or the other?
I remember watching a video on Henry Moore and one thing he said was that he
never in his life took a commission. And I thought wow, how could he do that
and become this famous sculptor and have all these huge monuments all over the
world. Well he just worked a lot very small and had his work in his studio and
he developed a name for himself so people would come to his studio and he'd
say "pick one." And they'd choose a sculpture that he had already
come up with on his own and have him enlarge it which he would happily todo
and that was the closest to a commission that he would get. I thought “How
perfect!” Unfortunately, I've never been in the position to work in that
way because there are a lot of commissions to be had, but people are very tight.
Often, not always but often they have an exact idea of what they want. A committee
will get together and say, and this is one thing that happened to me, they'll
say: "Let's have a sculpture done of Dr. King. We want a standing figure
of Dr. King, life sized, standing figure." So they put out a call to artists
and the artists receive this concept within a very narrow framework, a standing
figure of Dr. King, realistic. Well you really can't go very far with that.
You know you're just stuck in that. So I tried to come up with something that
involved relief sculptures that were surrounding the base you know I
took it as far afield from the standing figure as I could, although I did give them a standing figure too, and all they wanted was the figure. Well ultimately, this group of people didn't ever choose a sculpture. They had three finalists but they really didn't like any of our work. So all of us were like "Well OK, what can I say?" So that was an unfortunate experience. But I think for me it would have been far more unfortunate to have gotten that commission and had to work within those narrow frameworks. So I try to keep away from that sort of commission.
The piece behind me here is a commission from the Franklin Field Golf Club and this is in a sense a similar commission but I had a lot of freedom of what I did with the golfer. They told me that they wanted a black golfer and they wanted the logo of the Franklin Field which is the bridge there and a little bit of the trees. So from there they were pretty free about letting me decide what kind of format I was going to take. They knew they wanted a relief sculpture so I was able to design that pretty freely and I've enjoyed working on this piece because for me, I love to create faces. The emotion carried in a human face is my favorite language. Any opportunity to do large heads or faces is one I enjoy, So I was able to enjoy this piece.
The Harriet Tubman piece, Step On Board, was another example of the dream commission,
that is when a group of people gather together and they've raised all their
money and they decide upon an artist. You're not even competing with anyone.
I received a phone call and was asked me to create a monument to Harriet Tubman.
The committee wanted it to be a companion sculpture to Metta Warrick Fuller's
Sculpture “Emancipation” as they were putting the two pieces in
the park. They wanted me to do this piece and they said "you're free to
design whatever you choose" and they had all of the money
they needed to cover pretty much whatever I came up with. This was delightful! It was also frightening, because sometimes too much freedom is very scary, but I was able to work and work and work with small models, until I came up with something that I really liked. I also worked around a lot of other sculptors and got a lot of input from people, "what do you think of this one?, What do you think of that one,", "let's put these five together, which one do you like best?" and then we would talk about why, and which one do you think goes best with “Emancipation” and why? And you know it helped me a lot to be with people I respected, and to get their opinions. Friends such as Robert Shure, Jonathan Fairbanks and Paul Cavanaugh, were invaluable to me throughout the production of this work.
I came up with a piece that was pretty solid, in the way that her piece Meta
Warrick Fuller’s piece, “ Emancipation” is solid, it's not
separate people doing separate things which, actually, my initial idea was.
Originally, I had Harriet Tubman in a seated position and as I am so often focused
on children and their needs , I had her talking to children. Many of the photographs
Harriet were taken when she was old and she was sitting, but the more I read about her( and I read everything I could get my hands on about the woman) I realized it would be ridiculous to have her sitting! This woman never sat down, she never did! Unless she had fallen asleep from her narcolepsy. “So,” I said “she's got to be standing and she's got to be in motion and she
has to have the people with her because that's what she was all about: The people, and moving them from one place to another.” And so that's when I came up with the group and then the wall. I had wanted a wall, because I was thinking about symbolizing something that had to do with cities, having to do with what's going on now. But the wall became different. It became something that these people were emerging from, as if it's the wall of bondage. And as I worked on that piece, everything just came together for me. I loved that freedom of being able to express myself. And when I finished it. . . I look at that piece now and I feel that it's intensely personal and that every character in that piece is really me, a reflection of me. But it’s also definitely, Harriet Ross Tubman, doing what she was put on this earth to do. And I feel that it does the job
that I was given to do.
Did you use models for Step On Board?
Yes, Yes. I used photographs of course for Harriet'sface but I used a model for her body. A couple of the faces, I used photographs for. My dad is the elderly man in the background. I used a photograph for him and for the younger man. The two women I didn't use models for. I used models for their hands but their faces just came to me and the baby also.
Did you feel pressure in representing such a great historical figure?
Very great pressure. Oh it was a huge undertaking. Especially because every photograph I found, and I had people going to the Schomberg institute in New York. I hired my cousin in New York to go to the Schaumburg for me and find every photograph she could on Harriet Tubman, enlarge them and send them to me which she did and what I found was that every photograph of Harriet Tubman was intensely different. Her face seemed to change radically from photograph to photograph. I
don't know, she'd be heavier in one, thin, kind of gaunt in another, very elderly in another, middle aged in one. I did see one of her as a very young woman that was at her home in Auburn New York. So with all of these different representations of her and then with the drawings, you know there are a million drawings of her, and they're all different too. So my task became: How can I give the feeling of her and blend all these images of her into one, so that people will look at her and feel that's Harriet, not
necessarily feel "Oh yeah, that's the photograph of her when she's standing in front of the building" or "that's her when she's old and she's 95 and sitting in a rocking chair," you know? I didn't want it to be that. So there are people who have questioned the likeness and I know that they're questioning it because I blended the likenesses and they're thinking of one photograph, saying "she doesn't look quite like that photograph." You know? So I tried to make her youthful, very few photographs of her as a youthful woman, but when she did most of her work she was in her youth. And she was a very short woman so it was a challenge to give her, to make her monumental but also let it be known that she was a small woman.
A lot of people ask me why I didn't have her holding a gun, that's a very frequent question because I think a lot of black people feel a certain amount of pride in the fact that she. . . this was a tough woman, she carried a gun. But my dilemma, especially at the time with all the inner city violence and the fascination with weapons that a lot of kids seemed to have, as a teacher and as a mother, I didn't want to glorify the gun. And I felt that Harriet's power was not in any gun. She had narcolepsy. She fell asleep often enough for anyone to take the gun and turn things around. Her power was from the bible. She was an intensely religious woman, member of the AME church. She gave all her money to the AME church when she died and she believed in God so strongly that everything she did was directed from God. So the gun, yeah she had it, and it was important. If she had needed it she would have used it. She never did use it, she didn't kill anybody. So that's why I put the bible in her hand instead of the gun. People followed her because they loved her and they trusted her, not because they were afraid of her.
Tell me about your interest in Africa and your works depicting African types
Well my background is kind of interesting because I come from a very mixed
heritage. Many of my ancestors were, well my great grandparents, my great grandfathers
were sons of slave-slave master unions and there were several Indian women who
were married to these men or they lived their lives together. So basically my
ancestry is African, Native American and
European. My upbringing was very political and my parents were committed to the civil rights movement. They were committed to a knowledge of Africa and all things African. We traveled to Africa. My sister lived there for eight years so we traveled to Kenya to visit her when I was in college. And I was very moved by everything I saw there. It was a strange experience for us because we're light skinned. I'm more brown skinned than my mother and my sister who are pretty white skinned actually but with black features. But we were kind of greeted with "what are you?" And this happens to me all the time people will ask " are you Ethiopian, are you Puerto Rican?" and I know that I have a look that's similar to Ethiopians that I've
seen. Puerto Ricans, it's the very same blood line because part of our Native American ancestry is Taino, and that's the same tribe that's in Puerto Rico and most Puerto Ricans are white, black and Indian. So I'm never surprised when people think that that's what I am and I had a wonderful time in Puerto Rico. I felt right at home. But the African connection has always been important to me and in finding out about my heritage, I'm always listening to the story and I'm asking, "OK where's the African? Who was the African in this line,and how did that play out? What did they do? How did they survive?" So, these feelings are all present when I do a sculpture that's African in nature, like the small woman over here, the Mauritanian woman. She came from a photograph that just struck me. Frequently I'll see photographs that just have to become sculptures and I relate to them in a certain way. I relate to her as if that's a self portrait and she doesn't look anything like me. But her spirit, her presence, feels like what I feel and it feels as if she has experienced the things that I've experienced and I've experienced some very difficult times in my life. I talk about all the good stuff but there was some really rough stuff also and I feel as if the kind of calm resignation that she sits there and just observes the world. I call her The Sentinel because she's the watcher. She watches kind of without a lot of involvement, a lot of judgment but observing. Now, The large echo of this sculpture, cast in bronze , sits forever in the Forest Hills Cemetery where she belongs. Her presence spreads out through the trees and over to the pond and brings peace.
I did this piece of the Masai Warrior. It wasn't a commission. Neither of
these pieces were commissioned works. I'd always wanted to do a Masai warrior,
because in Kenya we saw them dance and they were frequently just hanging around
the streets in Nairobi, always garbed in their red robes with their fabulous
jewelry and their spears. I always felt that these people are so sure of themselves,
so confident that where they standin the world is right for them and they are
not having any of this western "Change me, make me better, take away what
I believe, what I am and turn me into some reflection of you." That is
not happening for the Masai. I love that, I love that. And the men are so expressive
in their ornamentation of themselves. So I
did this sculpture of a Masai warrior as he puts on his makeup and prepares for the dance or whatever.
As a sculptor there must be financial constraints that you face due to the expenses associated with the materials. How has this affected your work?
Originally I would just do small sculptures in clay, cast them in plaster and that's as far as I could go. I'd do that for myself. When I started working at the Park School, it opened up a whole new world for me because suddenly people came to me and wanted sculptures of their children and they wanted bronze. So,suddenly I was able to caste in bronze and I love doing portraits of children. That's one of my specialties, so the more the merrier . I was able to make a little bit of money doing those and also amass a nice portfolio of bronzes which I had never had before. Also I keep my day job, because I have four children and I've had to struggle a bit taking care of them, so money has always been an issue for me as an adult. I've needed to keep my job and do all of my sculpture around the job. At the same time, I love teaching art so much that I don't see myself stopping no matter how many commissions I have. I feel that the two are entwined, that being around kids keeps me young, keeps me thinking, it keeps me on my toes, it keeps me up to date with what's happening in the world and there's a great deal of creative energy to be had just from being around young people and I thrive on that. I'm also a highly social being. I have trouble staying in the studio alone for too long. I talk a lot, obviously, so I love to be around the kids and that's why I keep teaching. Now I teach a course at Pine Manor College also, a figurative sculpture course.
So financially I’ve been able to stay afloat whether in lean years or
in full years. When I finished Harriet, there was nothing happening and I was
very depressed. For three years I had been working on that and it was like a
postpartum depression. You know "Why am I still here?" I finished
Harriet. Obviously that was the only reason I was born! And so now I couldn't
understand what I was supposed to do next. Luckily I was asked to do a one-woman
show at Pine Manor and that gave me the impetus to do a lot of sculptures just
for myself and that's what you see around the studio. Unfortunately I cast all
these pieces in bronze which cost a lot of money and that show, while it was
very rewarding on a lot of levels, I did not sell. So I had a year there where
I put out an incredible amount of money and did not have money coming in. It
took a while for me to
recover from that. So now that I'm getting more commissions, I've got the Mattapan Square going, and finally signed contracts with that and I'm able tobring in the financial benefits of that sculpture, I'm beginning to feel more secure and not so frantic. There were times during that lean year that anyone who came in the studio, I'd be like "look at this, do you like it? Do you want it? It's only $1500, please buy it!" But I don't feel so desperate now for sculpture commissions.
This studio alone costs a great deal to rent. So I need to make at least that amount on sculpture every month because my teaching salary is able to deal with the rest of my life: My rent, my car, my electricity, things that have to do with my personal life but this studio needs to maintain itself. So I have to make the money through sculpture. It's pressure. It's difficult but passion does that. I always say the gift is the obsession. It means that you can't stop doing this thing. So those of us who have the obsession, we never know just how rational it is. All we know is we have to keep doing it and we have to do whatever it takes to maintain our ability to do it.
Tell me about this piece of the teenage boy?
This is a piece called Target. I would like to talk about it because for many,
many years I was horrified at the amount violence that was taking place in the
inner city where I live. I live in Dorchester. And it seemed, well it didn't
just seem as if, it was true
that young black males were killing one another at an alarming rate, almost daily murders. Back in 1990, 91, 92 I would say things were probably at the worst state. And this, having two sons, had me in a terrible state of apprehension and anxiety about their every move. Where are they? I'd scan The Globe every day to find out who was killed today and on what street. How often am I on that street? How often are my kids on that street? Don't go on that street! As if the street was the cause of the violence or as if they would be safe if only they didn't go on that particular street. But every day there's a new street and then it was around the corner from me. I'm hearing gunshots at midnight and of course read the paper the next day and find out who was killed around the corner from me. But I couldn't do this sculpture. I just couldn't. Something about it was too painful and I kept thinking I've got to do this piece. I wanted it to be a memorial to the boys, not only the boys who have been
shot and killed but to the boys who shot them and destroyed their lives, because either way it's death. The boys who are doing, the shooters, are committing suicide and those who are shot are dead. So either way it's just overwhelmingly tragic. Probably for that reason, I could not address it as long as I was in the midst of it.
I had the good fortune to go to Thailand last summer and I was sent by my school.
I was able to get a Horizon grant which is a travel grant for faculty members
and I went to Thailand to visit a foundry that I thought might be able to cast
one of my sculptures, a large piece, more economically than here. Well while
I was there, I started doing this sculpture and it just came. I didn't really
intend to do this, I just started playing around with some clay in the foundry
and this sculpture started coming and I realized it was the sculpture. It was
my memorial to the boys. So it developed and I call it Target because the black
male population, especially the young population, is targeted. They're targets all the time whether it's from police or from each other. They're targets, they're walking targets. And it has a very rough impression of a woman's form that he's leaning against. And this is the mother image with kind of arms outstretched but not there, but the upraised feeling of them. All of the mothers crying, it all brings back Marvin Gaye's What's Going On. "Mother, Mother there's too many of you crying. Brother, brother there's far too many of you dying." So it's that and there are wings, kind of angel wings from behind the arms. I love this piece. It's very important to me and ideally I would love to see it enlarged and put as a monument to these boys because I don't think any city has memorialized these kids, partly because they don't consider them to be heroes, they're villains, but these are great tragedies both for the kids who were doing something bad and killed as a result and for the many, many innocent kids who had nothing at all to do with the violence and just were in the wrong place at the wrong time and caught the bullet.