Saturday, February 17, 2007

February 17 Salon Sit Down - Discussion

Today we featured two writers, Denea Stewart-Shaheed and Erika Gonzalez.

What we focused on in the discussion were questions of artistic ancestry, the ways in which the artists' works interact with landscape and time. Excerpts from the two artists will be available shortly.

As the organizer of the event, and this being the introductory meeting, I was most struck by the balance between organic and formal interaction. I've structured the process so that the artist has time to present their work in any way they so chose. Following their presentation, I ask specifically pointed questions in an attempt to unearth the context of the work. In this sense, the folks in the Salon space act as witnesses to the artist's thought process, presentation and vocabulary.

For Denea, I asked her to speak about her artistic ancestors. She responded by citing: James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, John Coltrane and Bill Withers. What was interesting to me in this is that in addition to those artists, I also saw Toni Cade Bambara, Sharon Bridgforth. Another guest made connections between Denea's work and Tananarive Due's work. I asked Denea how she perceives the underlying dialogue of her work, and she responded that in addition to it being a story of migration, it also serves as a story about relationships between women over generations, as well as an exploration of gender and sexuality. There's sharecropping in her work, migration between Louisiana and Texas, magic, the blurring of boundaries between masculinity and femininity. When the conversation opened up to the guests, their questions and incites focused on the questions of accurate representations, a sense of time and timelessness, boundaries between present and past.

For Erika, I asked her to speak about the border, and the ways in which border tropes impact her writing process. What was immediately apparent in both her work and the reading of it are the repeated images of the border, water, assembly lines - the boundaries between machinery and human bodies - and the multiple references of landscape, mythical ancestry and blood kin. The guests asked her to consider the connections between blood-water-food, the embodiment of Coatlicue within the work itself, and to continue to explore the notion of borders and liminal spaces. Erika identified Gloria Anzaldua and Louise Erdrich as artistic predecessors, specifically. She also discussed how her work is deeply embedded in personal connections to both words and concepts. An artist that was cited in reference to her work was Wangechi Mutu.

Overall, this was a very inciteful discussion and themes of displacement, crossings, borders and water emerged from both of these artists' works. What I can't help but think about is Jonathan Lethem's article "The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism" (Harpers - February 2007) on the nature of artistic practice. He writes: "Most artists are brought to their vocation when their own nascent gifts are awakened by the work of a master. That is to say, most artists are converted to art by art itself. Finding one's voice isn't just an emptying and purifying oneself of the words of others but an adopting and embracing of filiations, communities, and discourses. Inspiration could be called inhaling the memory of an act never experienced. Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void but out of chaos. Any artist knows these truths, no matter how deeply he or she submerges that knowing." Whether or not I agree with the notion of a `master' artist is dubious, but the notion that the work of an artist is inherently intertextual (thanks T.B. for this one!) seems quite sensible. I have to say that I also appreciate being pushed to consider the notion that the creative process begins not in the moment of putting pen to paper, tool to matter, but rather, in the moment of inspiration. Very nice.

Can't wait until next month!

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