I’m so thrilled to announce the launch of a new project, The Rokeby Distance Drawing Course! At once a digital exposition and an interactive piece, the project plays with rather than fights against the limitations of interactive artistic creation in the age of COVID-19.
As Artist and Residence at the Rokeby Museum, I am developing a new series of work that explores, activates, and shares the letters from a 19th century drawing course and the artistic journey of its student – a young woman who went on to become a pioneering female illustrator. The work is a meditation on knowledge and sharing as driving forces for connectivity and overcoming isolation.
In September, 2019, I was invited to the Rokeby Museum to engage with their archive as part of a four day artist lab. From 1793 to 1961, Rokeby was home to four generations of the Robinson Family.
In the museum’s archive of the family’s letters and artifacts I discovered the original letters (dated 1891-93) from a correspondence drawing course that one of the daughters, Rachael Robsinson Elmer, took as an adolescent.
In March and April of 2020, I ran a series of instructional drawing demos from my Instagram Live as a way to test and think through different ways of using technology to present this historic material to a contemporary audience.
As part of the research phase, the Rokeby Museum is supporting my work through digital access residency that is taking place over the summer.
Following COVID-19 guidelines, the residence takes place remotely. Collaborating with their Education Fellow, Allison Gregory (who lives on the property) I have access to the archives (art and letters of my main subject, Elmer). Gregory and I have a weekly meeting to ensure my access to the archive. In a lot of ways our collaboration mimics the form of the historic correspondence course that inspired the project.
Sharing my research:
Catherine Brooks, the Rokeby Director, and I agreed that making this drawing course available now, during the COVID-19 crisis, will serve a real community need. We intend to share this archival drawing course freely on the museum’s website.
From July 27 to October 5, 2020, we will post a new lesson on the website every two weeks.
To make the material more accessible to a contemporary audience, I will supplement the historic material with images. As a Quebec artist, I am conscious of issues of language and accessibility. Adding visual guides to this material is also a way to make the material more accessible to a non-anglophone audience and expand the reach of this project.
How to participate:
The course is meant for self directed learning. Students can join at any time and they can work through the exercises at their own speed. Starting July 27th until October 5th we will publish a new lesson every other week. For students looking for a little extra incentive we encourage them to treat it like a 12 week drawing challenge!
Each lesson includes a little history on the life of Rachael Robinson Elmer. We hope students will take inspiration from her artistic journey. To help students work through the exercise there are step by step drawing examples and a written explanation.
To participate you will need a basic drawing kit.
6B, 2B and HB pencil. Recommended brand Mars Lumograph
Pencil sharpener or exacto knife
A pad of 18” x 24” drawing paper. Recommended brand Strathmore
The course is open to anyone curious about learning to draw but is ideal for kids 15 to 17 interested in getting into an animation, illustration or game art program. I have experience working as an admissions advisor for a video game art program and have designed the exercises in a way that these drawings could be used for an art school portfolio.
The online satirical newspaper The Beaverton had a great headline a couple years back. The tag line read “Artist takes time out of their busy grant writing schedule to actually make art.” For any artists this can feel all too familiar. Over the last couple years I have written dozens of applications for grants, residencies and shows. When you’re lucky it works out but so much of that work never gets seen.
For this months blog I’ve decided to share a project proposal I wrote for the Banff Centre‘s Digital Promises residency. The inspiration for this project comes from a series of photos taken by my long term partner.
I mean when you are sitting on a conceptual gold-mind you just have to create!
Selfie Painting Series
#SleepingBeauty is part of my ongoing #Selfie series. The series is made up of self-portrait drawings and paintings. The final product will be a quadriptyque painting based on a series of voyeuristic digital images taken of me sleeping.
Throughout my #Selfie series my aim is to interrogate this relationship between image production and reception. Social media apps like instagram stress the importance of authenticity through their design: Instagram users can only upload photos through their personal phone. Despite this pretense of authentic reality, the selfie is criticized for depicting a ‘filtered’ or idealized version of the self.
A Look at Image Sharing Online
In #SleepingBeauty I will explore how this conversation around truth is further complicated when the image is shared without the authorization of its subject. So prevalent is the sharing of non-consensual images that it has now entered the criminal code. What makes these crimes so painful is that with digital technologies, private images circulate rapidly and widely from one Internet user to another.
The source images for this piece were taken by my long-term partner over a four year period. These images have become an inside joke and I consider them a sign of affection. When I look at these images I don’t see a representation of myself, I see my partners gaze. I can imagine my partner watching me sleep and I feel loved.
I’m interested in how easily these intimate tokens could be weaponized through non-consensual sharing online. What makes these images permissible is an underwritten understanding that they are not intended to be seen by anyone outside our couple.
In my painting, I will use repetition to visualise this shift from personal to public. The final work will be a quadriptyque painting made up of four equally sized square canvases each depicting one of the images of me sleeping. This echoing of subject suggests the general dissemination of such images.
The central focus of this work is this shift from private to public and how it changes the perceived meaning of the image. Once the consumption of this images expands to a wider audience its meaning changes. A larger audience, who doesn’t know the photos context, can’t know who is behind the camera. The focus of the image’s meaning shifts from its creator to its subject. All meaning and judgement is now placed on me, the subject.
My sleeping state highlights the power imbalance between subject and creator. In these images the subject has no control over their depiction. In contrast, the creator has what feels like total access to the subject.
The intimacy and access afforded to the viewer gives the images a sense of authenticity. To challenge this assumption of objective truth and to stress the manufactured nature of these images, I will give the work a grainy or pixelated quality – playing off the realist work of Gerhard Richter.
Knowing the work is unauthorised raises questions around the representation of self. If the subject is not an engaged participant in the image do they not become a mere object? While we are presented with the physical form of the subject, it is the implicit voice of the person behind the camera that narrates the scene. In this way the image carries as much bias as the idealized selfie.
“I regret very much that I have painted a picture that requires any description – The subject of this picture is comprised in its title and I will refer these inquisitive School ma’ams to Lieut. Maury [author of the Physical Geography of the Sea] – I have crossed the Gulf Stream ten times and I should know something about it. The boat and sharks are outside matters; matters of very little consequence – they have been blown out to sea by a hurricane. You can tell they ladies that the unfortunate hero who is now so dazed and parboiled will be rescued and returned to his friends and home and ever after live happily-” Winslow Homer in response to a request from his dealer, Knoedler, for an explanation of The Gulf Stream.
Refusing to give any explanation, Winslow Homer forces the viewer to come up with his own interpretation of this painting.
In his new show In search of the Miraculous at the Stephen Friedman Gallery, the artist Kehinde Wiley offers his own interpretation of the work of Homer and invites the viewer to revisit a seminal moment in history.
In this show, Wiley also takes inspiration from the work of JWM Turner and Hieronymus Bosch, but I was particularly intrigued by his reference to the fellow American painter.
In 1988, curator Peter H. Wood, Karen C. C. Dalton and Richard J. Powell mounted a traveling exhibition of Homer’s work entitled “Winslow Homer’s Images of Blacks: The Civil War and Reconstruction Years.”
According to Christopher Kent Wilson’s review of the show “Through the perceptive eyes of the artist, we see how Homer perceived many of the critical issues facing Afro-Americans, including emancipation, discrimination, military service, and education.”
Building on the show’s thesis, Wiley seizes this opportunity and uses this narrative to contextualize his discussion of contemporary politics surrounding uprooted cultures.
Art on Life after Slavery
Homer left a prominent illustration career to pursue painting in the 1860s. He first came to fame as a war artist capturing scenes from the front during the Civil War. Hailing from the North, Homer was a Unionist and supported the project to abolish slavery and build a more democratic America.
In his early work he seems to celebrate the modern democratic values of post war American life through happy paintings of country children going to school, women’s participation in the public sphere and the life and culture of African Americans.
In the 1870s he took a trip to Petersburg, Virginia, and produced a series of paintings that portray the lives of an African American community after the Civil War. This series was produced around the same time that Reconstruction was effectively ended. Some scholars have suggested that embedded in this work is a social critique of the Union’s failure to see through the Reconstruction process and “the slow but insidious renewal of black servitude” (Wilson).
Like Wiley, Homer uses costume to express the complexity of African American identity. According to Nicolai Cikovsky, in his painting Dressing for the Carnival, “these figures dressed for a carnival – the older man as Harlequin in the European comedia dell’arte tradition, but, like the taller boy, with torn strips of cloth that derive from the African ceremonial dress – and the two boys who hold American flags, all describe the complexity of its uprooted culture” (Cikovsky, Winslow Homer)
Wilson takes this interpretation a step further writing, “The artist may have been raising questions about black independence after Reconstruction: In the future, will blacks celebrate and truly participate in national independence as symbolized by the American flags, or will they have to revert to their former celebrations of temporary independence as embodied in the Jonkonnu costume” (Wilson, The Journal of American History)
There is a very obvious shift in mood over the course Homer’s life. As if retreating from society, he moves into a cabin in the woods and his main focus becomes landscape. The figures that do make it into his later work are fisherman and hunters (also living outside of modern society).
In 1884 he takes his first trip to the Caribbean, visiting the Bahamas, Cuba and Florida. Over the next 15 years he makes several trips to paint Caribbean fisherman at work. This project culminates in his painting The Gulf Stream.
Like the United States, the Caribbean islands abolished slavery during the 19th century but the region was also facing challenges in their campaign to build a new democratic society. Weather or not it was the artist’s intention, the painting The Gulf Stream evoques the uncertainty that was facing this newly freed population in the Americas.
It is this analogy of the sea as limbo that Wiley transports a century later into his latest body of work In search of the Miraculous.
Kehinde Wiley’s New Series
Wiley is best know as “a man on mission to make blackness visible in a history of art that has ignored people of colour for centuries” (Spence, FT). In his portrait art he replaces the nobility of old Europe with young urban men (and more recently, women).
But this new series is about a lot more than visibility. In this series Wiley gives his subjects a specific geographic location and asks the viewer to build a relationship between person and place.
In an interview with the Financial Times Wiley says, “I am asking the question: is the sea friend or foe?”
For this series, Wiley used a group of Haitian men as his subject. In nine paintings Wiley shows various scenes of his sitters on the shore looking out to rough waters or navigating their boats through a storm.
These images easily evoke hurricanes and issues of migration in the Trump and Brexit era. But by connecting his work to that of Homer, Wiley asks the viewer to step back and consider the whole history of the African diaspora.
“Others might see maritime painting as a really wonderful way of looking at gentlemen’s leisure, or a certain aspect of Western ingenuity and know-how,” Mr. Wiley explained to the New York Times. Yet to him, “the genre evokes an age of exploration that gave rise to sugar-cane fields in Jamaica, cotton fields in South Carolina and rice fields in Georgia,” he said.
In this series Wiley is asking a question about the nature of progress. Weather it be the French Revolution, Haitian Revolution or American Civil War the nineteenth century was defined by civil movements fighting for social equality. Wiley’s new show reminds us that the image portrayed in Homer’s The Gulf Stream can so easily evoque contemporary issues – calling us to question our progress on issues of social equality.
“My work is a contemporary call to arms. It is time to get our mojo back. To rediscover our true north” (Spence, FT).
Kehinde Wiley and Beauty
Wiley is taking on some weighty issues. Yet, in spite of the gravity of his subject he remains positive.
“I stand on the shoulders of those who survived slavery and colonialism. Of those who created jazz, the blues and hip-hop from the most perilous situations” (Nayer, NYT).
Wiley’s work has always been defined by a belief in beauty. His work is sometimes criticized for his idealistic portrayal of his subjects. This series is no exception. Despite the disastrous conditions surrounding the figures in this latest series they maintain their idealised beauty.
In a Guardian review Sky Sherwin comments “Instead of the mad outsiders evoked by Foucault and Fanon, Wiley’s sitters are a sanctioned physical ideal. They seem to have fast-forwarded over any trauma implied by their isolation and those dangerous waters, offering instead the aspirational vision of luminous young black skin that has always obsessed the artist” (Sherwin, The Gaurdian)
But consider how the artist discusses his own upbringing:
” [I had] an amazing childhood, despite what you might think about black struggle and poor neighbourhoods and the ghetto. My mother was an educated budding linguist who really inspired us” (Nayer, NYT).
With this biographical insight we can understand physical beauty as a metaphor for inner strength and the nobility of his subject. Adding yet another level by which to understand these paintings.
One key difference in the painting of Wiley and that of Homer is the subjects response to his situation. In Homer’s work the sitter is portrayed as victim. He is portrayed motionless, presumably awaiting his fate. In Wiley’s In search of the Miraculous series his subject are seen battling the storm. Homer is guilty of a paternalistic view of his subject. Wiley corrects this and shows his subject ready to fight the elements.
In this new series Wiley offers us not only an image of the hardship of a people trying to overcome a colonial past, he does something revolutionary for painting. He breaks the voyeuristic gaze that has defined western painting and asks us to view his subject as they wish to be seen.
Sherwin, Skye. “Kehinde Wiley review – black souls sail between empowerment and exploitation.” The Guardian, Friday 24 November 2017.
Spence, Rachel. “Kehinde Wiley’s contemporary call to arms.” The Financial Times, December 1, 2017.
Nayeri, Farah. “Kehinde Wiley on Painting the Powerless. And a President.” The New York Times, November 27, 2017.
Wilson, Christopher Kent. “Winslow Homer’s Images of Blacks: The Civil War and Reconstruction Years.” The Journal of American History 77, no. 1 (1990): 246-53. doi:10.2307/2078659.
Cikovsky, N., Kelly, F. and Homer, W. (1995). Winslow Homer. Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art.