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← Can beauty open our hearts to difficult conversations?

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Showing Revision 10 created 07/08/2020 by Erin Gregory.

  1. I believe there is beauty
  2. in hearing the voices of people
    who haven't been heard.
  3. ["Drawing the Blinds," 2014]

  4. ["The Jerome Project
    (Asphalt and Chalk) III," 2014]

  5. [Beneath an Unforgiving Sun
    (From A Tropical Space)," 2020]

  6. That's a complex idea,

  7. because the things that must be said
    are not always lovely.
  8. But somehow,
  9. if they're reflective of truth,
  10. I think, fundamentally,
    that makes them beautiful.
  11. (Music)

  12. There's the aesthetic beauty of the work

  13. that in some cases functions
    as more of a Trojan horse.
  14. It allows one to open their hearts
    to difficult conversations.
  15. Maybe you feel attracted to the beauty,
  16. and while compelled by the technique,
  17. the color,
  18. the form or composition,
  19. maybe the difficult
    conversation sneaks up.
  20. ["Billy Lee and Ona Judge
    Portraits in Tar," 2016]

  21. I really taught myself how to paint

  22. by spending time at museums
  23. and looking at the people that --
  24. the artists, rather --
    that I was told were the masters.
  25. Looking at the Rembrandts
    ["The Night Watch"],

  26. Renoir ["Luncheon of the Boating Party"],

  27. Manet ["Luncheon on the Grass"],

  28. it becomes quite obvious

  29. that if I'm going to learn
    how to paint a self-portrait
  30. by studying those people,
  31. I'm going to be challenged
  32. when it comes to mixing my skin
  33. or mixing the skin
    of those people in my family.
  34. There's literally formulas
    written down historically
  35. to tell me how to paint white skin --
  36. what colors I should use
    for the underpainting,
  37. what colors I should use
    for the impasto highlights --
  38. that doesn't really exist for dark skin.
  39. It's not a thing.
  40. It's not a thing

  41. because the reality is,
    our skin wasn't considered beautiful.
  42. The picture, the world that is represented
    in the history of paintings
  43. doesn't reflect me.
  44. It doesn't reflect the things
    that I value in that way,
  45. and that's the conflict
    that I struggle with so frequently,
  46. is, I love the technique
    of these paintings,
  47. I have learned from the technique
    of these paintings,
  48. and yet I know that they have
    no concern for me.
  49. And so there are so many of us
    who are amending this history

  50. in order to simply say we were there.
  51. Because you couldn't see
    doesn't mean we weren't there.
  52. We have been there.
  53. We have been here.
  54. We've continued to be seen
    as not beautiful,
  55. but we are,
  56. and we are here.
  57. So many of the things that I make
  58. end up as maybe futile attempts
    to reinforce that idea.
  59. ["Drawing the Blinds," 2014]

  60. ["Seeing Through Time," 2018]

  61. Even though I've had the Western training,

  62. my eye is still drawn
    to the folks who look like me.
  63. And so sometimes in my work,
  64. I have used strategies like whiting out
    the rest of the composition
  65. in order to focus on the character
    who may go unseen otherwise.
  66. I have cut out other figures
    from the painting,
  67. one, to either emphasize their absence,
  68. or two, to get you to focus
    on the other folks in the composition.
  69. ["Intravenous (From
    a Tropical Space)," 2020]

  70. So "The Jerome Project," aesthetically,
    draws on hundreds of years

  71. of religious icon painting,
  72. ["The Jerome Project
    (My Loss)," 2014]

  73. a kind of aesthetic structure
    that was reserved for the church,

  74. reserved for saints.
  75. ["Madonna and Child"]

  76. ["Leaf from a Greek Psalter
    and New Testament"]

  77. ["Christ Pantocrator"]

  78. It's a project that is an exploration
    of the criminal justice system,

  79. not asking the question
    "Are these people innocent or guilty?",
  80. but more, "Is this the way
    that we should deal with our citizens?"
  81. I started a body of work,
  82. because after being
    separated from my father
  83. for almost 15 years,
  84. I reconnected with my father, and ...
  85. I really didn't know how
    to make a place for him in my life.
  86. As with most things I don't understand,
  87. I work them out in the studio.
  88. And so I just started making
    these portraits of mug shots,
  89. starting because I did
    a Google search for my father,
  90. just wondering what had happened
    over this 15-year period.
  91. Where had he gone?
  92. And I found his mug shot,
    which of course was of no surprise.
  93. But I found in that first search
    97 other Black men
  94. with exactly the same first and last name,
  95. and I found their mug shots,
    and that -- that was a surprise.
  96. And not knowing what to do,
  97. I just started painting them.
  98. Initially, the tar was a formula
    that allowed me to figure out

  99. how much of these men's life
    had been lost to incarceration.
  100. But I gave up that,
  101. and the tar became far more symbolic
  102. as I continued,
  103. because what I realized is
  104. the amount of time that you spend
    incarcerated is just the beginning
  105. of how long it's going to impact
    the rest of your life.
  106. So in terms of beauty within that context,

  107. I know from my friend's family
  108. who have been incarcerated,
  109. who are currently incarcerated,
  110. folks want to be remembered.
  111. Folks want to be seen.
  112. We put people away for a long time,
  113. in some cases,
  114. for that one worst thing
    that they've done.
  115. So to a degree,
  116. it's a way of just saying,
  117. "I see you.
  118. We see you."
  119. And I think that, as a gesture,
  120. is beautiful.
  121. In the painting "Behind
    the Myth of Benevolence,"

  122. there's almost this curtain
    of Thomas Jefferson
  123. painted and pulled back
    to reveal a Black woman who's hidden.
  124. This Black woman is at once
    Sally Hemings,
  125. but she's also every other Black woman
  126. who was on that plantation Monticello
  127. and all the rest of them.
  128. The one thing we do know
    about Thomas Jefferson
  129. is that he believed in liberty,
  130. maybe more strongly than anyone
    who's ever written about it.
  131. And if we know that to be true,
    if we believe that to be true,
  132. then the only benevolent thing
    to do in that context
  133. would be to extend that liberty.
  134. And so in this body of work,
  135. I use two separate paintings
  136. that are forced together
    on top of one another
  137. to emphasize this tumultuous
    relationship between Black and white
  138. in these compositions.
  139. And so, that --
  140. that contradiction,
  141. that devastating reality
    that's always behind the curtain,
  142. what is happening
    in race relations in this country --
  143. that's what this painting is about.
  144. The painting is called
    "Another Fight for Remembrance."

  145. The title speaks to repetition.
  146. The title speaks to the kind of violence
    against Black people
  147. by the police
  148. that has happened
    and continues to happen,
  149. and we are now seeing it happen again.
  150. The painting is sort of editorialized
    as a painting about Ferguson.
  151. It's not not about Ferguson,
  152. but it's also not not about Detroit,
  153. it's also not not about Minneapolis.
  154. The painting was started because

  155. on a trip to New York
  156. to see some of my own art
    with my brother,
  157. as we spent hours walking
    in and out of galleries,
  158. we ended the day by being stopped
    by an undercover police car
  159. in the middle of the street.
  160. These two police officers
    with their hands on their gun
  161. told us to stop.
  162. They put us up against the wall.
  163. They accused me of stealing art
  164. out of a gallery space
    where I was actually exhibiting art.
  165. And as they stood there
    with their hands on their weapons,
  166. I asked the police officer
    what was different about my citizenship
  167. than that of all of the other people
  168. who were not being disturbed
    in that moment.
  169. He informed me that they had been
    following us for two hours
  170. and that they had been getting
    complaints about Black men,
  171. two Black men walking
    in and out of galleries.
  172. That painting is about the reality,
  173. that it's not a question
  174. of if this is going to happen again,
  175. it's a question of when.
  176. This most recent body of work
    is called "From a Tropical Space."

  177. This series of paintings
    is about Black mothers.
  178. The series of paintings takes place
    in a supersaturated,
  179. maybe surrealist world,
  180. not that far from the one we live in.
  181. But in this world,
  182. the children of these Black women
  183. are disappearing.
  184. What this work is really about
    is the trauma,
  185. the things that Black women
    and women of color in particular
  186. in our community
  187. have to struggle through
    in order to set their kids out
  188. on the path of life.
  189. What's encouraging for me

  190. is that this practice of mine
  191. has given me the opportunity
  192. to work with young people in my community.
  193. I'm quite certain
    the answers are not in me,
  194. but if I'm hopeful at all,
  195. it's that they may be in them.
  196. "NXTHVN" is a project that started
    about five years ago.

  197. NXTHVN is a 40,000-square-foot
    arts incubator
  198. in the heart of the Dixwell neighborhood
  199. in New Haven, Connecticut.
  200. This is a predominantly
    Black and Brown neighborhood.
  201. It is a neighborhood that has
    the history of jazz at every corner.
  202. Our neighborhood, in many ways,
    has been disinvested in.
  203. Schools are struggling to really
    prepare our population
  204. for the futures ahead of them.
  205. I know that creativity
    is an essential asset.
  206. It takes creativity
  207. to be able to imagine a future
  208. that is so different than the one
    that is before you.
  209. And so every artist in our program
    has a high school studio assistant:
  210. there's a high school student
    that comes from the city of New Haven
  211. who works with them
    and learns their craft,
  212. learns their practice.
  213. And so we've seen the ways
  214. in which pointing folks
    at the power of creativity
  215. can change them.
  216. Beauty is complicated,

  217. because of how we define it.
  218. I think that beauty and truth
  219. are intertwined somehow.
  220. There is something
  221. beautiful
  222. in truth-telling.
  223. That is:
  224. that as an act, truth-telling
  225. and the myriad ways it manifests --
  226. there's beauty in that.