Imagining the Future: Public Art Confronts the Past Transcript
Malinda Maynor Lowery: [00:00:00] Good evening, everybody. My name is Malinda Mainer Lowry. I’m the director of UNC’s Center for the Study of the American South. And we’re so happy to have everyone here with us this evening. Welcome to the first in our series of conversations to discuss and virtually share art that confronts publicly displayed symbols of white supremacy in our communities.
Tonight’s event began in the fall of 2018. As we gathered our first group of prospective applicants for imagining UNCs future with art. For the first time in almost a century, we were able to gather that fall without a monument to the Confederacy in our midst. We wanted to know how public art could be a vehicle for reckoning and change, a way to imagine healing, establish a common vision and build community.
We wanted to think with Angela Davis who wrote that progressive art can propel people towards social emancipation. Art creates freedom. UNC students, alumni, faculty, and staff rose to the occasion and generated five collaborative artistic works, which can be seen at imaginingfuture.Unc.edu. One more time, imagining future.unc.edu, to see all of the artists who participated in our initiative. Over the next 18 months, since fall of 2018, our campus community witnessed a policing strategy that seemed to defy common sense.
The police protected freedom of speech by appeasing members of hate groups and pepper spraying crowds of protesters, many of them students. These students did not threaten the police in any way. Since last week, police have killed four people, including two children. None of them posed a threat to individual police officers.
One of them, Adam Toledo was a 13 year old boy killed when he raised his hands. 20 year old Daunte Wright was killed after getting back in his car. A police officer shot and killed 16 year old Ma’Khia Bryant, who herself had called the police for help. Yesterday, police killed 40 year old father, Andrew Brown, Jr. in Elizabeth city, North Carolina. Like George Floyd or Breonna Taylor, none of these individuals posed a threat to police. Their deaths only serve to instill fear in the public the police are sworn to protect. Breonna Taylor, George Floyd. Daunte Wright, Ma’Khia Bryant, Andrew Brown, and Adam Toledo are ancestors now. Their lives bear witness to our inhumanity and also to our humanity.
The verdict in the trial of Mr. Floyd’s murderer offers a long overdue validation. Justice reinforces the courage we need to combat fear. Justice also allows us to take a breath, when Mr. Floyd no longer can. But what does freedom look like? How will we know when we are free? The art we are here to discuss tonight, bears witness to every quality of freedom. The artist who draws together and transform us, show us the way. We look forward tonight to a lively discussion on the future of history and public spaces and how art can emancipate us.
Public art is a vehicle for reckoning and change, a way to imagine healing, establish a common vision, and build community. As we go, please feel free to share your questions and thoughts in the chat- or rather in the Q and A -at any time. The first thing we’re going to do is watch a short video, a way to get a glimpse of one of the artists that we’re featuring tonight.
The Center selected five projects for funding, and all of that art as I said, is available at imaginingfuture dot unc dot edu. One of the artists, Lauren Francis Adams created fire screen and wallpaper art, reflecting on the words and ideas of Cornelia Phillips Spencer, a 19th century resident of the Love House, which is now home to the Center of the Study of the American South.
Here’s a short video of the installation day last summer at Love House captured by videographer and producer, Denver Dan.
Lauren Frances Adams: [00:04:40] I can present back to people that have used this word a more full understanding of who she was. So if we don’t tell the truth about who these people were in the past, then we have no potential for repair in the future. Artwork can be a platform for conversation. It’s an opportunity for us to have a dialogue, a spark, or a jump to create that conversation that’s necessary to develop or enact change or new ways of thinking.
I believe that if we are going to have a more just future, that artists also need to be part of this effort.
Malinda Maynor Lowery: [00:05:29] It’s a joy, an absolute joy for me to walk into my workspace and see Lauren’s work there. Our moderator tonight, Jacquelyn Lawton, will explore Lauren’s work further as well as the work of fellow artists, Jason Patterson, in a discussion with our panel, including folklorist and filmmaker, Michelle Lanier.
Again, we encourage our audience to share your questions in the Q and A. I’m going to make brief introductions of our panelists, and I encourage you to read about their impressive work on our website, south.unc.edu. Tonight’s moderator, Jacquelyn Lawton is an associate professor in the UNC Department of Dramatic Art.
She’s a dramaturg producer and playwright who centers, marginalized communities in her creative works. Jacquelyn collaborated with our Imagining artists, and she will introduce our panelists. Thank you for being here, Jacqueline and for all of your insightful work on this initiative.
Jacqueline Lawton: [00:06:31] Hello, thank you so much for having me, Malinda, it’s been extraordinary to work with you. So I’m going to introduce the artists and and our panelists, if you all can pop on the screens, as I say, your name. That way folks will be able to, to see you. So first up in our order, we have artists, Lauren Frances Adams, a North Carolina native, graduated with a bachelor of fine arts from UNC chapel Hill with a master’s of fine arts at Carnegie Mellon University.
She has exhibited at North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, Contemporary Applied Arts in London, and CUE art foundation in New York, among others. Lauren attended the- I may mispronounce this Skowhegan school of painting and sculpture and held residencies at the Joan Mitchell Center in New Orleans, and the la Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris.
She currently holds a position as a full-time faculty in the painting department at Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. And as you’ve already seen Lauren’s art peels away the layers of the past. Jason Patterson is an artist who shakes things up by literally and figuratively reframing history and the way it is often told. Jason is the fellow at the Star Center for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College, where he also teaches drawing. His work focuses on African-American history and highlights the role the past has in cultivating our current political and social conditions in the United States.
Jason’s practice is heavily research-based and is based on archived images modeled after daguerrotypes, films, newspaper clippings, digital images. Jason investigates the different ways images structure, and how we visually comprehend our history and define our past. All right. So I’m going to introduce Michelle, but to do that, I actually have to get the updated bio, which I did not update on my script.
I’m reading from a script y’all because I did not actually know I was doing the panelists introductions.
Malinda Maynor Lowery: [00:08:47] Why don’t I pinch hit for that piece of it, ’cause I have it! Okay, here we go. Hi, Michelle. So glad to have all three of you with us. And Michelle Lanier is an Afro Carolina, folklorist, a filmmaker, and keeper of memory.
She’s a seasoned public humanities professional . And is the first African-American director of the state’s 25 historic sites. She was the founding executive director of the North Carolina African-American Heritage Commission. She’s an executive producer of the film Mossville, which chronicles environmental justice issues in South Louisiana.
Michelle has served on the faculty of the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University since 2000. And she unpacks the complex ways, cultural and historic spaces tell stories, which stories they tell, and why.
Jacqueline Lawton: [00:09:42] Awesome. Thank you, Melinda. See, this is how we lift each other up and we support each other.
I am just so impressed and amazed by all of you, and I feel really honored to be here in conversation with you today. Like what a gift, what an extraordinary gift. So thank you for being here. Thank you for your time, your talent, your artistry, your expertise. Thank you for opening up such honest, urgent, powerful, provocative dialogue about public spaces, about truth, and about history.
Lauren, I I’d like to start with your work, the fire screens and the wallpaper. And I know you have some slides to show us.
Lauren Frances Adams: [00:10:27] I do, thank you, Jacqueline. Should I should I share them now?
Jacqueline Lawton: [00:10:30] Yeah. Yeah, you can share your screen.
Lauren Frances Adams: [00:10:32] Okay, great. Thanks. So I want to thank the entire staff at the Center for the Study of the American South, and I want to especially thank Malinda for your visionary work, which has brought us here today, and also so much gratitude to the panelist here for being in conversation at this important time. I’m just really grateful to be here with you all. So I normally share my work and often it’ll take me about 30 minutes to talk about this project in particular even though it’s less than a year old, technically. So I wrote a script and I’m going to be looking occasionally at my script to help guide me and keep me on track while I share this work for a few minutes. So I’m here in Baltimore City. I graduated from UNC, class of 2002. I’m from Eastern North Carolina, from Snow Hill to be exact.
And there is my website, if you would like to check out pictures of my work and other projects that I’ve done. So this is the artwork I’m going to be talking about in Faithful Remembrance of Cornelia Phillips Spencer, and to the Truth Loving People of North Carolina. And you can see one of those fire screens that Melinda mentioned as well as the wallpaper in this parlor view.
And I’ll also be sharing the other four fire screens, which are displayed around the, the former home of Cornelia Phillips Spencer, and by the fireplaces that are still extant today. So my project is a re-presentation of Cornelia Phillip Spencer’s writing in order to highlight her troubling legacy on UNC’s campus.
The installation that you see here also is arranged around the portrait of Spencer. And those are reproductions of her water colors that are hanging there. And so that fact is why I made this project. My questions instigating this project, where, why was her portrait hanging there? Why is a dorm named after her on campus?
Who was she and why is she held in honorific memory at UNC? So I want to kind of ground us in the physical location of the Love House and where the offices for the Center for the Study of the American South are. And I’m going to be calling it CSAS. Just so you understand the acronym, cSAS there’s the portrait and you also see the plaque that says that Cornelia Phillips Spencer lived there in the late 1800’s she was a author a writer.
She was an advocate and activist. I’m an historian who lived in Chapel Hill in the late 1800’s. And if you’re not as familiar with campus or don’t know this building, it’s right on Franklin street. I actually didn’t know much about Cornelia Phillips Spencer before I started reading her books and articles.
I, her inter her influence on the university was intertwined with her political activism, that advanced loss cause Confederate mythology in the post Civil War era. Her racist, segregationist beliefs initially helped close the university for a period, which I think is a poorly understood aspect of her history.
As Yonni Chapman wrote in 2004 about Spencer, quote “In 1888, when she wrote her history of North Carolina for school children, she distorted the reconstruction story so that white supremacy, the Klan and all that was done to suppress Black freedom and biracial politics seemed necessary and justified.” End quote. And so this is a vintage postcard of the Spencer dorm that’s also on Franklin street, about a block from the Love House, named after Cornelia Phillips Spencer, of course. And then just three blocks away from where you know, the Love Houses is, is where silent Sam stood. And so I want to ground also my project in that fact, that commemorative landscapes are part of my artistic research, and my work is asking questions about what we choose to remember and how do we visualize and materialize history in the present. My project at the Center engages the cultural amnesia of our country and is in opposition to ahistorical Confederate memory and the lost cause indoctrination that Cornelia advanced.
It’s also a reminder of the citation of the many forms of activism that bring us to today. So Jason convinced me to foreground some of the, my research and how I arrived at the artistic work, so I’m going to share some of the books that Cornelia wrote and that some of them I read and how I arrived at my merging my visual work with an understanding of how her project, about how- and beliefs about the project of the reconstruction nationally within North Carolina and on UNC campus persist to this day.
So if you go to the Southern historical collection in Wilson Library on campus, you can access scrapbooks from Cornelia Phillips Spencer from her many decades she was living in Chapel Hill. I also discovered when I was reading that there were several eulogies and obituaries that were published that were included by, I think her family in her scrapbooks.
This is a quote I want to highlight that was cut out from a newspaper after her death in 1908. It says, “She was a woman. Take her for all in all. We shall not look upon her like again. If any woman should have a statue in the Capitol at Washington, that honor belongs to Cornelia Phillips Spencer.” So Cornelia Phillips Spencer does not have a statue in the Capitol, but I believe she’s still a monument to be removed.
There are other aspects of her collection in the Wilson library, like her many, many watercolors, which I used as a kind of subtext in my fire screen paintings. They form the background around her texts, and that for me is part of my larger relationship as an artist to the historical decorative arts.
So it’s more than just background noise for me, a pattern and decoration. And you can also see the watercolor reproductions hanging in the Love House. A nod to Cornelia Phillips Spencer’s presence there over a hundred years ago. And just a little bit about fire screens. I’ve learned not a lot of folks know of them.
I have came to know them because I go to a lot of historic house museums where they’re often found fire screens were domestic objects, typically made of wood or metal to assist in regulating the warmth of a parlor fire. Often they featured precious paintings and embroidery often done by young middle-class or elite white women, particularly in the early to mid 18 hundreds.
And it’s conceivable that Cornelia, especially with a Dutch mother and being from the North before moving to Chapel Hill could have made a fire screen painting or embroidery in her youth. And so that is the pretext for why the fire screens take the form that they do in the Love House. And I took these photos of fire screens as a maker creator fellow in the Winter Term Museum in Delaware.
And so this would be an example of my first fire screen. There are five of them and I’m going to, I just started to include the actual texts that I’m pulling from. So I’m going to read the text that I included and then show you the archival example from Cornelia’s own writing of where that comes from.
So because there are five, let’s start with the first one particularly I guess I could say one of the things that’s important to know is that of all her many thousands of pages of writing both in journals, books letters I’ve primarily focused on her attacks on reconstruction policies, and her attacks on racial equality in North Carolina in the 1870s and eighties.
So this text here says, “It was an influence of the worst kind.” And you can see the bouquet of flowers and the it is painted. I’ve had people confused and think that it’s embroidery, but it is a painting. And so this would be an example of where that text comes from, from her book that she wrote, the one that Yonni Chapman said was a textbook used for young children in North Carolina, First Steps in North Carolina History, published in 1889. And I’m pulling from, I think you can see the arrow on the right where she here, she’s talking about the Northern carpetbaggers and local scallywags that were corrupting ignorant black freedmen and the unscrupulous class of whites in the South after the civil war.
So it’s her racist, revisionist history of the biracial coalition building done during reconstruction a political movement that she sought to demolish. This is the second screen. It’s the screen here, that’s in the front parlor and the text reads, “Such things will be when people are goaded beyond their patience.”
This again is from, First Steps in North Carolina History. This is about Spencer’s apologistic stance on the Klu Klux Klan’s white supremacist terror. And she says here, “It was a well-organized body of horsemen who rode at night and in disguise, punishing criminals whom the law had failed to punish, taking on themselves to decide upon the guilty, the sort of mystery they preserved, their striking disguise, their silent and swift night marches, and their certain vengeance struck terror among the guilty.”
The third fire screen, reads, “If this visitor demanded her seat here as a right due her as my equal, would I have allowed it? Of course not. And so I suppose it would be all over the South.” And the context for this one is a column that she wrote in 1875 attacking the Federal Civil Rights Bill of that year and her insistence on defending white supremacist paternalism.
So her language is setting up of white people’s Jim Crow attitudes about segregation. And you can see the arrow where I take that quote from, but I’ll highlight another passage that says, “The Civil rights bill, you know about it. You know what it proposes. To place the colored people on a social equality with the whites, and you know what its effect will be if it is ever a law and it is enforced- to obliterate distinctions of color and race. I cannot write of it coolly or without a shudder. And this is just one of the many quotes that I considered painting. There’s so many illustrating her her ideas and the ways in which she was cultivating public opinion from the Redeemer Party about the Republicans during the Reconstruction Era in North Carolina.
I would like to include a detail just so you can see the relationship of the painting to the text. And also there, yes, there is a fly included on each one. It’s a kind of small marker or symbol for me of the odious content that I was painting as I relayed each and every one of her words.
I think this is the fourth fire screen. And these last two are both about UNC in particular, you can see the Old Well here in this one. So this says, “North Carolina never at any time makes pretentions, but she can always protect her own dignity.” And this passage is about the closure of the college during the Reconstruction Era and her particular disdain for what she called “Governor Holden’s University” during this period.
And you can note that she often uses this language of honor and dignity, which is very typical of lost cause revisionist history writing. And then the fifth one, which reads, “The women of the South owe much to the men of the South, and no women have ever been able to boast of truer or more gallant defenders than the women of North Carolina.”
And this quote is from a circular that she wrote in the mid 1870s after the university had closed during the reconstruction period and then reopened and then closed again or, yep- and then closed again and then reopened for the intentional inclusion of only the former slave-holding elite and for the gentry of North Carolina.
And so here she is in a circular to the ladies, which looks like this from one of the books I have where she’s calling on women of North Carolina to give to the newly reopened university that had been recommitted for young white men only. Oops, that’s my timer that says I gotta hurry. Good thing I’m almost done.
And so what she hears using the language about the Civil War and, let’s see, connecting with a, those sacrifices that women had made for men during the civil War and that men had made for women. And the pious duty of Confederate women laying wreaths on the graves of the young heroes. So you can see that text here.
So again, she’s on the wrong side here advocating for white women to reestablish the university as a symbolic monument in alliance with white men, who in turn protect white women. And then the last aspect of the work I’ll share with you as the wallpaper project, which I didn’t intentionally- I did not intend to do originally, but in conversations with Melinda and Jacquelyn, I kind of arrived at the idea to particularly focus on the sight of her portrait and watercolors in the parlor.
And I wanted to kind of create something that would illusionistically excavate and reveal the foundational white supremacy within UNC from its founding. And so what we have here are three references to historic wallpapers that are from sites of forced enslavement in North Carolina, those sites of the Keenan families, Liberty Hall Property in Kenansville, where I visited and discovered the historic wallpaper.
And of course, if you know UNC, you probably know Kenan Stadium and the major impact that the family has had on philanthropy in North Carolina. The other wallpaper patterns are from the Rosedale property in Charlotte and the Rose Hill property in Yanceyville. So each of these estates is not only directly tied to UNC due to a key family member’s attendance as a student, but also in a symbolic capacity as a representation of sites of power that Spencer, despite living on the margins of plantation society called on to defend and uphold the plantation order of the gentry and the former slave holding elites.
So this illusory excavation emblematizes those political, social, economic, and racial terms that define Spencer’s values, and I believe renders visible the relation ship between foundational UNC history, the erasure of the white supremacist overthrow of reconstructions biracial reform, and relates to our present day struggles, struggles for reckoning and truth-telling.
And that is the end of my presentation. Thank you so much.
Jacqueline Lawton: [00:24:55] Excellent. Thank you so much. Jason, you have your hand raised? Did you have a question? No. Okay. Thank you, Lauren, so much. It’s really quite extraordinary to see where you were at the very beginning of your, of this work, of these questions you were asking to where you are now.
And I remember the moment you decided to do the wallpaper and it was just, it was such a powerful moment because if you only know the Love House as CSAS, right, then you don’t have this, you don’t have this very complex, complicated, and challenging history. And you really brought that forward in a way that’s undeniable.
And I, I, I’m just so proud of you and really proud I’ve been a part of just, you know, bearing witness to the experience of this art coming to, to fruition. So Jason, Lauren is using the words from someone in the past, someone connected to the site- your work draws on specific historical references, your Chesapeake Heartland exhibit on the Black history of Kent County and Washington College reveals some of the unknown histories of white supremacy.
Can you tell us about your work and the impact or conversations you might hope to evoke and maybe even just your process of coming together with the ideas. Just whatever you’d like to share with us!
Jason Patterson: [00:26:15] Well, I have some slides to share as well. I’m really happy to be here and I love this project that Lauren did, and it’s exciting to me because the work that I did here in Washington college is- it’s related in a lot of ways.
So let me share my screen here real quick. Okay. So I’m going to walk us through kind of the work that I do, try to do it quickly. And I will do it quickly. So if there’s, if I speed through some images and you have any audience members, if you have any questions or something and you want to reference them back, please put it in the Q and A, I’m going to be glad or message me on Instagram or email me or anything, but I’m going to move through this pretty quickly so we can get to that, that Q and A.
The image that I’m here starting with is actually work that really doesn’t look anything like the rest of the artwork I do, but it’s a project that I did that kind of encompasses the goal of the artwork that I do normally. So what this sort of like installation is, is three tapestries that represent sort of the three conditions that African-Americans have experienced in the American colonies and then into the United States. So we have about 400 years of of time represented here. How they’re represented is through these each sort of stages. We have enslavement, Jim Crow apartheid, and then the time since those civil rights acts. So the end of at least legal apartheid in the United States. So I made this project in 2016, so that last section is from 1968 with the last Civil Rights Act to 2016. Each year is represented by one inch with these tapestries.
So we have almost 250 years of slavery, just over a hundred years of Jim Crow, and then just under 50 years of post Jim Crow legal apartheid represented in the last tapestry. So the idea of this is to really visualize, have a visual representation of this history, to where the overwhelming existence of African-Americans in this country has been slavery and apartheid.
And that the idea is for that to help us understand that history. So in the work that I do, normally, outside of a project like this centers around mostly portraiture, but there’s three aspects of the work of how I create work. It’s portraiture, a sort of stylized frame building, and then the recreation of historical documents or the re-imagining of historical texts.
All of it, of course, is centered around Black history, whether it’s specifically regional or a specific person, or if it’s just a general history, it is the kind of work that I do. And it goes, I mean, I’ve done work that goes back to the 1600s or, gosh, I think I’ve done- yes, the early 16 hundreds to the present.
Speaking of the present, like this piece here is my portrait of Philando Castile who was killed in St. Paul, and the text on the side of the frame is actually the motto of the city of St. Paul, which in a dark irony sort of fits the horrible way he was killed by the police. So the way I’ve done portraiture- now, I’ve done portraits since like five years old, so we’re over 30 years I’ve been doing drawings of people, but specifically how I do this, the process now I use soft pastel, sort of like chalk pastels, lots of spray fixative and and then a clear coat to go over them. So they essentially looked like paintings or look like the photograph or film stills that they’re supposed to be, and I’ve been doing that for about 16 years. So, this is an example of, of the color palette I use. The palette chart that I make because when I spray fix it, the colors tend to get very dark. So this reminds me of what it will eventually look like. And in this image, you can kind of see this, this portrait, you can see this sort of blueish glow on her hands. It was because of the clear acrylic that I put over it wasn’t- it wasn’t dry just yet, but I seal them with a clear acrylic. Here’s some other examples of the way I draw. Now, the second thing I mentioned was the portraiture that I do- or excuse me, the frame building that I do.
The goal with that sort of, sort of is to design these frames to fit the aesthetic of the time period that the subject is. So I’m thinking about architecture, industrial design, the design of our interior design, and those kinds of things to create a frame. Because what I want to do is create a frame that represents that time period, but isn’t something that would have existed in that time period.
So I want to make an original piece of art, but that fits to a time period in the past. So here’s an example of sort of the process of some of this building. It’s a lot of crown molding or wood molding that you would see in interiors that I turn into, into these frames. And that even when it’s- so when I get into like, so these pieces are in 1950s, 1960s, and then I’m thinking some more minimalism.
So I’m creating these basic shadow boxes with hardwoods. So we have walnut on the left, cherry on the right, and the walnut has a copperleaf inlay, and then the cherry on the right has a goldleaf inlay. So the final sort of, part to the kind of artwork that I make and how I represent these histories that I’m trying to tell is the recreation, or sometimes just original creation, of historical texts and historical documents.
So in 2019, I was a visiting artist at at Temple University and I used their Blacks and African-American archives to find things to, to potentially make work on. And I found this first edition of William Still’s Underground Railroad. For my recent project, I remade, I verbatim like did a perfect recreation, a direct recreation of the cover page, and then these two pages, which tell the story of Harriet Jacobs or excuse me, Harriet Shepherd, who was enslaved here, here in Chestertown, Maryland. And this is one of the few stories in that book that actually has an illustration. And then this is it in the frame that I designed and built for it. What I did do at Temple for that during that residency, there was, I found the first edition of, or they presented, they showed me the first edition of the Philadelphia Negro, W.E.B. Dubois’s sociological study of the Seventh Ward in Philadelphia in that Black neighborhood.
So what I did with this project was I took a section of the book that talks about that neighborhood specifically, and then the beautiful map that that’s in, that’s a foldout into the book and I turned it into a poster. But what specifically what I did with this piece was I took the formatting of the original cover page, recreated it, but change the text to explain what my project was.
So if you see in the text it sort of explains what I’m doing there, it talks about Temple, instead of the University of Pennsylvania as, as publishing it. And this is that cover page on the poster with the text and the map, and then that’s a full view of that. So, that’s sort of the final aspect to the structure of the work or my art practice, I guess.
So recently, the project that I, that I just finished several months ago was on the Black history of Kent County and Washington College. Washington College being the oldest American college, which means of course, Yale and Harvard and other schools are older, but this was the first college to be established after the Revolution.
And after America became a country. So this was a 1782. What I was happy to do with this project was I got to use some sort of art that are artifacts in the college, specifically, this, the centerpiece here, this large mural that was painted in- so the rest of the work is mine, but the, but this one here was painted in 1939, and it’s the laying of the cornerstone of the college at its founding. But the center- what’s the focal point of the piece is an enslaved man. And this was painted in 1939. So this is a very confusing painting, because is it, are they reiterating white supremacy in this, which was in the library, this painting that went in the library or was it this sort of failed attempt at like 1930s progressivism?
I think it was the former or at least closer to that, but it’s still something that we should be aware about, and there should be a discussion in it, especially at the college. Another example of that would be the pieces to the far right here, which was was painted in the 1790s. And up on that hill is actually Washington College.
This is only like just over 10 years after it was founded. And it was commissioned by Simon Woolmark whose land this is, and you can’t really see it in the image, but the field, the field on his land is covered with the people he enslaved. And this is a part of the college’s collection and it’s a very important painting.
And because of a lot of the activism that the Black Student Union and the student government at Washington college had done, it was removed from being just hung in the president’s office, and is now treated as an artifact. Because it is a learning tool, but it should not be up in reverence and presented in the way it used to be presented.
And then this is another installation shot to the left are the first three African-American students to graduate from Washington college. To the right are two images I found from the fifties and sixties of white students in blackface performing at Washington college. And again, going back to these Black students Thomas Morris, the first Black graduate, graduated in 1962. That means it took 180 years for the Washington College to have a Black student graduate.
So lastly, and I’m going to talk about these two men, which are a part of this project, and are very similar to sort of the, the idea that Lauren was working with in her project. So on the left, we have George Vickers, who is the United States Senator from Maryland who’s, who is in- right after the Civil War he became a Senator. He was a Unionist and had a sort of administrative role, in the Union army, but was an adamant white supremacist. He was born and raised and died, here in Chestertown. His commemorative marker is around the corner from my studio, I can see his old office from my studio window.
And then on the right is William Rivers, who is native from Charleston, South Carolina, but became the president of Washington college in 1873. So I found Vicar’s quote in this book where he is debating the the 15th amendment, the right to give, to give black men the vote and In the Senate with Charles Sumner, who’s the abolitionist, the radical Republican Senator from Massachusetts.
And it Vickers is just reiterating that Black men are inferior, this will degrade our country if we allow them to have equal rights, essentially. So I finished this portrait or created this drawing of him that’s after a Brady photograph and created this historical document. That is, the formatting is original that the text at the very top titling is mine, but where it starts with like no legislation of Congress can elevate or improve the physical, moral, and intellectual condition, of the Negro. That, that text down is Vicar’s texts from the speech, but I just formatted in a way to sort of just show what he said. Like none of the markers here that talk about him acknowledge that he was an adamant white supremacist. And so that’s the purpose of this work. The next person is William Rivers, who is the 13th president of Washington College.
This portrait of him is still up at the college. Honestly, to, to not to make too many excuses for Washington College, I think this is still up because people don’t know who he is. When I did this research and found out who he was, nobody I spoke to had ever heard of him. And I don’t think people really pay attention to these, these kinds of things.
But so he was, like I said, from South Carolina, from Charleston and one of the founders of the, of the South Carolina Historical Society. In 1873, in reconstruction South Carolina, they had a multiracial educational board.
They allowed one black student into the college. And when they did that, three professors resigned, including Rivers. And he came to Washington College to be- at that time, they called him the principal, but he with, was now referred to as the president of the college. So in, three years after he became president of Washington College, went back to South Carolina and he became- or he did a speech at the Historical Society.
It was their first meeting after the Civil war. So it was over 10 years later. And in it, he made this like adamant, direct, and overt statement of white supremacy where he said that “the rights of self-government is our heirloom, the heirloom of the Anglo-Saxon race and no other.” And he goes on to make more misogynistic and racist things.
But then specifically when we’re talking about that in recent news, if you’ve heard like the far right house members in Congress want to start the America First Congress and they use Anglo-Saxon in the same context, like over a hundred years later. We still, you still see these, see the, see this context and see this stuff being essentially brought back.
And it’s important that we focus on those kinds of things. So for both of these pieces, I, you know, found this work, did these portraits built these frames and presented them as they were. I put, I just showed the words of these men. I don’t have to explain to you why it’s bad, or explain to the audience why it’s bad.
We can, you can tell yourself. And I think that’s the best and most important way, where we just need to see the history. People can decide on their own. And they think these decisions are easy on how we want to remember these people and who we are and what we want to do in the future and keep these kind of things in mind of how the past was.
And that’s what I try to do with my artwork.
Jacqueline Lawton: [00:39:51] Wow, thank you so much. With both of these, first of all, I cannot wait until post COVID and I can be at a museum again, like that’s, that’s reminding me of just being able to, like, I haven’t seen Lauren your work up and Oh my gosh, Jason, to be able to walk through the exhibit to experience all of your art and it’s, you know, this idea of public art, what is visible is, is so powerful, when you think about what we make visible, what is made unvisible what is written and what is hidden histories. And you know, an act of white supremacy is just the mere presence of whiteness and no one else, because then you’re able to say, well, these folks were never there and that’s why white supremacy exists.
And I love that with, when you’re making that which is present, you’re telling the full truth of it. You’re bringing to bear the full statements of what it is they’re saying, what it is they meant, what they believe, so boldly and strongly. I think about how in the history of slavery women, the role of white women in the history of slavery is one that is rarely spoken about, very rarely spoken about.
So Lauren, for you to be able to give us this text so clearly written, I’m just, I’m just so impressed. So attendees, I want you to know, I have this brilliant script written for us by our amazing colleague Melody, and I just went completely off script because I just was so I’m just so moved by what I’m, by what we’re able to experience here.
We’re about to now get into our panel discussion. I’m going to ask some questions. I believe that Melinda shared in the chat a reminder, please ask questions. This is the chance we’ll get to hear from Michelle, the extraordinary wisdom that is Michelle.
Our first question though, is, is to Jason and Lauren. Both of you, your works speak to the tensions created in Southern spaces where truth and paradoxes intersect. These messages are so entrenched. How does your art address these, the spatial collisions? Does that, does that question sort of make sense?
Particularly when it comes to public art. Yeah. Who would like to go Lauren? Oh, Jason you’re muted. Would you like to pop in?
Jason Patterson: [00:42:08] So you mean like, you mean like how did they relate to sites, kind of like making the words work site specific?
Jacqueline Lawton: [00:42:15] Yeah, I think that’s an interesting, that’s an interesting way to take that, yeah.
Jason Patterson: [00:42:19] So- and I think both of our works are like that- to me, you know, as an artist, who’s trying to make a living sometimes that’s scary because it means like, well, who’s going to buy this work. But, but, but to me, the work is too important. And I think if it’s good, it’s good. And it, it, to me, especially with the project that I just did about this community, when I got here, the history that I found was like eye opening, like with finding about William Rivers, which I found, which I found, because I was reading a book about South Carolina and they mentioned him briefly.
And I was like, what? But the history here is so important. It is so close to like any time, if you go through the broader American history. This region of Maryland has significance throughout- like the Eastern shore of Maryland. And, but people don’t know, outside of Douglas and Tubman, people don’t really know about that history.
So for me, it’s, it’s, it’s a dream to have a place that I can work on that is informing people. So I, I enjoy it. And it’s, it’s something that is really, I’m really happy to be able to do, and I’m happy I’m here and I can do it.
Jacqueline Lawton: [00:43:27] Awesome. Thank you, Jason, what about you, Lauren?
Lauren Frances Adams: [00:43:30] Yeah, I struggle to answer this question a little bit.
But I think one of the things that I try to do with my work is create something that illusionistically looks like it may belong. And Jason, I think you do that as well with the way you literally frame history through this very careful kind of woodworking with a kind of eye and attentions towards, towards authenticity of material.
And so with, for this specific project, the fire screens attempt to do that. And I had wanted to do a fire screen project for a long time. Cause they’re just portable paintings, which seemed like a fantastic way to insert art into a space that otherwise, maybe you couldn’t just hang a painting on the wall and have it be noticeable. You know, and so I think typically decorative arts connoisseurs know about fire screens. I’ve had to do a lot of teaching. When I, you know, talk about this work to say, well, you know, and some people do recognize them and they do have a utilitarian function, but in this case, it’s a blend of utilitarian, the decorative, and in my case, a political message embedded in that. And I know that my work is anachronistic and what I mean by that is like, it’s trying to pull something from the past, into the present and to literally force an encounter. So it’s a confrontation with the now and the past, and that’s probably the best way I can answer that question, Jacqueline, thank you.
Jacqueline Lawton: [00:44:54] I think that’s great. This conflict between now and the past. And I think about the work of our historians, which are going to, and you know, our folklore is who we’re telling the stories of our past. We were telling the stories of our people and we can see so clearly that there’s an editor involved.
There’s someone specifically including and not including certain moments in our history. And it becomes a shock when it’s like, wait, this was here all the time. And now it’s shifted my understanding of the world view. And so Michelle, you amazing human being. So you are no stranger to the challenges of public spaces across the South, which some people hold as an, almost as almost sacred in some cases, but where the entire historical narratives has, has not been incorporated that whole history has not been told.
So I’m, I’m curious to hear from you and the work that you do. What forms do these discrepancies take? And then how do we, whether that we is scholars, the we are playwrights, storytellers, artists, how do we lead public audiences through the awareness of truth and also that, that paradox, does this make sense?
Michelle Lanier: [00:46:08] Yes. Thank you so much for that. And Jacqueline and I want to thank Melinda for her leadership at the Center for the Study of the American South, and thank you, Melody and Julia, jason, and Lauren. Thank you for your extraordinary work, illuminating, amplifying, unearthing, rendering visible and audible, and legible, narratives that have become so much a part of the air that we breathe that it has been invisible, a kind of invisible matrix. And I appreciate the kind of smoke work that you’re doing to show the laser beams of the hegemonies that we walk through every day in these really compelling, and magnetic and, and I would say restorative and healing ways. So thank you, thank you for that alchemy. I appreciate your work so much.
So, I first of all, have to honor the fact that I come to you as MichelleLanier, an Afro-Carolina folklorist, but I’m the daughter of two ancestors. My parents are both ancestors now. So Margaret and James, and they are people who have deep roots in all, all over the Eastern coastal plain and Northern Piedmont of what I call the Northern realm of Afro-Carolina.
And I have to honor some ancestors in Baltimore and Mississippi and, and the Atlantic world. And for me, part of what is important is to create a larger portal of entrance and accessibility to these stories, particularly stories that have been weaponized against groups of people, whether you’d be w women, poor people, American Indian folks, Black folks people who are English as second language children, you know, I think that history can absolutely be a weapon, and, and, and the tool for inscribing and re-inscribing kind of, kind of our status quo and our order of hierarchy in society- who is most important, who is most powerful, who is most relevant, who has had the largest impact? Who are the, why is this people, who are the most beautiful people who make the most beautiful things?
All of these kinds of determinations of value of, of some human beings being seen as more important and more precious and more human than others gets entrenched in our historic narratives and our aesthetic environments. In our vernacular, you know architecture. And so the it’s it’s it’s like, it’s almost like a toxic mantra that gets sung over us, over and over and over again.
And so when we walk into spaces if you’re walking into a historic home, and the wallpaper looks nothing like, you know, the loud flowers that you’ve had access to, or the pictures that are on your walls, and the docent doesn’t look anything like anyone from your community, and in fact, looks uncomfortable in your presence, and the furnishings and the dishes, and the bed linens and the names of the people who are being- none of it rings as familiar, but yet this space is being treated as precious and sacred and somehow extraordinarily important for you to have the privilege of breath and life.
Then the result is an experience of shrinking. The result is an experience that even lives in our bodies, that says I am not worthy of being seen and known and loved and valued. And so part of the kind of work that I try to do around the public humanities as a folklorist, whether I’m making a film, or teaching a class, or curating an exhibit, or working to be in solidarity with other keepers of memory with our historic sites, is to think about how we can ask the questions of who’s not in the room, whose story is not here, who hasn’t been invited in, who hasn’t been welcomed, and who doesn’t feel that they belong in this place, and how can we create a choreography of liberation to to have a radical welcome, a radical inclusion, or what I call true inclusion. And, and for me that means being autoethnographic, so I, I, you know, I think about my own ancestors, I’ve inherited this, you know, image of the Yurigan family and, and my Papa Yurigan, J.W. Yurigan, went by his initials, J.W. Yurigan, because he said, “I will not have any white man calling me by my first name.” And he was a descendant of enslaved blacksmiths from Franklin County, North Carolina, and then went onto to, to create the oldest, the first Black owned foundry in the country.
And then was selling North Carolina Mutual life insurance, you know, and it was very much tied up into, to all of these movements. He, his daughter became best friends with Ella Baker and was part of the, you know, the reason why SNCC was founded at Shaw, his children went to Shaw. He helped to make sure a carousel- he has fought for over a decade to make sure a carousel was installed in the segregated Black park here in Raleigh.
And so part of my work is two is to unearth my own narratives as a Black woman in this field and then, and to not stop there, but then to look around and say, okay, my family, this part of my family was also a part of the talented 10th. So there’s privilege there that I, I need to recognize, and then to say, “Well, what about the people who didn’t have access to the records that I have, who don’t have a, a framed image of their great-grandfather, who don’t have these kinds of stories? And how can I create a sense of welcome and belonging in solidarity with, not for, but with folk and, and really important to me, as a Black woman, as an Afro Carolinian, is working with the eight state recognized tribes here in North Carolina.
I, it is a sacred, you know, we talk about these issues, you know, love your work, Jason and Lauren, love my work talking about Blackness, but when we do not create spaces for our American Indian folks in, in the Southern narrative, we are, that is another kind of genocide of memory. So, I know I gave you a really long answer Jacqueline, but I think that the work that Jason and Lauren are doing, you know, what they’re doing as artists is they are creating new tools, new strategies, new technologies, new portals for a liberatory experience of, of memory and history. And I would say even futures.
Jacqueline Lawton: [00:53:46] That’s fantastic. I want to lift up a few things from what you’ve shared with us. “The choreography of liberation.” I want to lift that up because I’m that that’s really singing in my heart right now. And I think about within that choreography of liberation, how are we focusing on our intersectional identities?
How are we focusing on the narratives of erasure, like we just talked about with our indigenous communities? I want to lift up- so I think about introductions, how we, how we come into a room. And so I lead racial equity, facilitation trainings, and I do land acknowledgements, I do my pronouns, I describe myself visually for anyone who may be listening and who’s never met me before.
And I have never, I’ve never invited my ancestors into the space. I would not be here were it not for those who came before me, literally, those who came before me, not just those in the academic path or the theater path, but those who brought me forth into the world. And I just want to lift up that in your entire way of being the folklorist in you, the naming of those who were here so that we can not be erased or stories are told, I really deeply appreciate you modeling that. So I just wanted, I wanted to lift that up so, so beautifully. And then I also wanted to lift up this idea of, how do we tell our own stories? And, and, you know, how do we, particularly those of us who are marginalized, how do we tell our own stories in a way that is unique and authentic to us and does not need to fit in a frame, in a white supremacist frame or structure?
How do we tell our unique story? So that’s, what’s coming from from what you’ve shared Michelle. Oh my gosh, what a gift to be in this space. So a question that we had, because this work that each of you does. It navigates public spaces. It navigates public spaces, whether that’s a museum, whether that’s a presentation and talking, delivering stories, whether that’s, you know, the transformation of a, of a house, the location here on campus, I’m curious about how can public spaces support artists and their expressions of activism through art?
And I wonder if the answer to this is what the support that you’ve all had previously or even just give us some ideas of what we should be doing to support you. So how can public spaces support artists and their activism, their vision for how they want to enter the world? Should I ask for specific people to talk first?
So let’s go, Lauren, Michelle, then Jason.
Lauren Frances Adams: [00:56:36] Well, I can just offer that working with the Center on this project was a great example of what places and institutions and groups of people can do to bring art in, and to have art be part of the conversation, and the methods of transformation that are required and desired.
So the amount of conversation we all had getting this project together, Jacqueline, and Malinda, and Melody, and so many folks on staff at CSAS and the other artists who were part of the project that come from, like students, faculty, you know, staff on campus, alumni like me, you know, just saying, we’re going to talk and we’re gonna work through it, and we’re going to share, and we’re going to ask tough questions. And the other aspect of that was time, right? Like this project, it was already built along the slower timeline because of the need for really just coming together and engaging. And that reckoning work takes time. It is not- it is both incredibly urgent work and it also needs to be done with deliberacy. Or is that a word? With deliberation.
Yeah. And so that’s, those are two things that I really would like to hold up about this project and being part of this series of projects with the Center that I think are really key if artists are to be invited in and to do this work alongside experts like historians and dramaturgs and you know folks who are more broadly informed about the state of North Carolina in this case.
And just to have the time to sit down and talk and say, we’re going to do this together. And that was even before the pandemic somewhat has slowed us down. Right. But yeah, that would is what I would say.
Jacqueline Lawton: [00:58:16] That’s wonderful Lauren. And for those who don’t know that you know, this amazing initiative that Malinda dreamed up, it was about bringing different artists and collectives together to talk about work they might want to do, to learn from each other, to ask questions. And that, that was the focus. There was funding to support people, well, dreaming, and then being in conversation, we had food together. We were on the, you know, the balcony together. Breathing in the same air together. The product came only as a by-product of, Oh yeah, I would like to share this thing that I actually did make, really, the focus was us coming together in dialogue and space.
Michelle, what are your thoughts? What, what, what, how could public spaces, public art institutions, support artists and folklorist and people like you?
Michelle Lanier: [00:59:05] Thank you. I want to first acknowledge that part of what I was sharing a moment ago about using the word liberatory comes from an artist and thinker named Courtney, Courtney Reid-Eaton R E I D hyphen Eaton.
Who’s based at the center for Documentary Studies, and she talks about a liberatory praxis. She, she uses that word rather than talking about decolonizing. If you think about telling someone or even yourself what to do, speaking in opposites is often kind of a bit of a hard, psychological yoga routine to do.
So, what does it mean to do the opposite of colonizing? So instead of talking about it an opposite, it’s like, no, we want a liberatory praxis, a liberatory way of doing documentary work. So I’m wanting to acknowledge- cite black women- so I wanted to acknowledge Courtney Reid-Eaton. So in terms of supporting artists, first of all, I feel like we have not even scratched the surface in the ways in which we can work with artists in public memory spaces.
Oh my goodness. From performance pieces, creating ephemera, what I would call, you know counter cartographies, remapping spaces with, with human movement, sound, sonic landscapes. We’ve done singing on the land in North Carolina, where we invited vocalists and instrumentalists to come and activate and reenergize and catalyze spaces and, and create a kind of a sonic healing experience with their musicianship.
I can see, you know, the work of people like Brett Cook, who did the Face Up project, the murals for the Pauli Murray Center, that were very much about bringing communities together. I love how Jason and Lauren use archives and really connect with primary sources. So to me, there’s an opportunity to connect with those of us who have museum spaces and historic sites and historic landscapes with archives and libraries and educators, to say, “artists help us to understand, but even more importantly, to connect with these narratives that are complicated.”
A lot of times, you know, when we’re trying to tell complicated stories, there aren’t as many useful tools or successful tools. When, when you, when you think of particularly K through 12 education, or even public history, the traditions that we have inherited from the Department of Interior, from the National Park Service, not a lot of innovation in, in the roots of, of these systems, but when you bring artists in and all of a sudden you start to go a Unionist who was a white supremacist?
Yes. Let’s complicate the narrative. You know, a woman who’s considered to be very self-possessed and feminists might be attracted to some of these women of the same era that Lauren is talking about as these strong women, but who were also working in ways that were extremely oppressive. So artists help us to see complicated realities.
And so yes, I would think, I would say more, most importantly, pay Artists pay them appropriately. Give artists time. If artists have already created a body of work, rather than, you know, having them do the long arduous labor of commissioning something new, see if they already have something that can be re-purposed.
Artists are critical to our quality of life as people on this globe. And so we need to make sure that we are investing in their gifts and their skills. And if you don’t have the funds, then find some other people doing it, and pull and pull the funds together.
Lauren Frances Adams: [01:03:08] Thank you.
Jacqueline Lawton: [01:03:09] That’s right. Thank you so much. Jason.
Jason Patterson: [01:03:13] That was the first thing I was going to say, pay artists. I mean, I think, and that’s the, that is the biggest issue that I’ve experienced as an artist is, is the monetary side. And you know, one of the other things why I’m so happy I’m here in Maryland, is because Maryland is a state that really puts tons of money into funding arts.
I think it allocates the third largest amount of money that goes to the arts out of all 50 States. And it’s been amazing support that I’ve gotten here and it’s so much easier to do the work you’re trying to do when you don’t have to worry about a financial side. And it makes better work and you will get more out of your investment with these institutions.
If you pay artists the right amount of money, the money that it, they deserve, you’ll get that work. And just, and especially like, I, what I try to do with my work is, is I go to like, like, I go to archives, I go to history departments and try to get, try to put myself in those sort of radars.
So I think with institutions that don’t think that they’re an art institution, or that they, that- you are! You’ll find artists who are making work about your field. And what all, and like, and like Michelle was saying like, what that will do is it will make it easier for people to understand, because that’s a basic way to describe the work that I’m trying to do.
It’s an, it’s making it easier for people to understand, but at, at, at its basis, it’s an introduction. So when you read about George Vickers and how he was a Unionist, and he wouldn’t leave Lincoln alone with his letters and he, he, you know, worked to, to mobilize Union soldiers. He was an absolute white supremacist.
And then you can, I mean, and I’ve done work about this. You can talk about how Lincoln was a white supremacist, because that is, that is the amazing learning tool like that, that there’s nuance in white supremacy, white supremacy. And you know, this is a great way to the work that I did is a great way for people to start learning about that stuff.
So giving artists access, thinking about artists, when you may have, when you’re an institution, you may have not thought about them and of course paying them the money they deserve. And I think that that will really help help us all.
Jacqueline Lawton: [01:05:28] I think that’s really great. And I think about you know, the nuances of white supremacy, if we really truly excavate this, explore the nuances of white supremacy, we start to understand better what Dr. Martin Luther King said when he warned us about well-intentioned white folks like we start to understand what’s really underneath that, that the, the upholding of white supremacy is more than the worst of the worst that you can name out loud.
They’re the small institutional moments that happen that passed you by even, because there’s so slight there’s. So in, you know, there’s so embedded in our everyday way of living. So we have a question from an audience member, but I think built upon a question that Melody was really wanting us to ask.
And so the question from the audience member is a question that comes up, it’s a question that’s, that’s debated, you know, as, as Confederate statues are removed from places of prominence, sacred places, and either put in exhibits or hidden away, for instance, like Silent Sam, does anyone know what happened to him?
There is a question of, so what, what are your thoughts on the removal? Change the statues, removing them from these sacred places? And then I’m also curious about how your work- has it made a difference in the kind of conversations we’re having or thinking about the South? And so I’m curious, both Jason and Lauren, when people interact with you and your work, do you, do you feel the conversations are moving beyond removal of Confederate statues, to let’s actually truly investigate what’s here.
And I’m also curious, Michelle, are you finding that in your work, whether it’s through the folklorist work, that you’re telling- the historic work that you do, are the audiences that you interact with, are they having different types of conversations? So it’s a two-part, it’s a two-part in here.
So let me let you think about it. Let’s take some breathing to just, to just process the questions.
Lauren Frances Adams: [01:07:32] Yeah. I was really thinking about that one, that two-parter got me Jacqueline, but I remember the first part. And I just want to say, as, as you were speaking to that, I was like, you know, monumental, figurative sculptures are such a blot on the landscape.
They’re a terrible way to learn about history. And, besides when you take them down it doesn’t mean that whomever is in charge of that statute, like at UNC, we saw in the impetus for me creating that wallpaper, is that they were about to put the darn thing up in a new $5 million building.
So they were going to redirect to the Confederate monuments, spend a ton of money to do so. And you know, that’s the visual commemorative landscape, which does not necessarily intersect with or effect or change the policies, and the ways in which those things that you were talking about, Jacqueline that sometimes fly right by you. Right? So I just want to say that I feel like sometimes the conversation gets locked in on removing history, but in fact, that’s not even how they operate as Confederate monuments, or any monuments. And I think we had a good conversation when we all met a few weeks ago about how useless monumental figurative sculpture is anyways. So but we don’t have to go there.
Jacqueline Lawton: [01:08:47] Well, and with that Lauren, like, do you feel, and I know you haven’t really had much audience interaction because the world’s shut down, but I’m curious, are people talking to you differently about, about this work? Or have you not really had a chance to be in conversation because we haven’t been able to experience your work in person?
Lauren Frances Adams: [01:09:06] It definitely is influenced because it’s not open to the public really right now. But I have given a lot of talks, particularly to UNC students, like at least five, I think since the fall. And a few also to like colleges here in Maryland. So I have been able to converse with people in that way.
But I’m not sure what you mean by different, like it, like, what do you mean by different?
Jacqueline Lawton: [01:09:29] Well, I’m curious, like, are people actually more interested in the complex truth, or is it like, are they having, are they having those types of conversations with you or does it feel just surface informational?
It’s all, it’s all still brand new thinking. Maybe we’re not there yet, but we may not be at the transformative place yet. We might still be at the the beginnings of this. So you, you keep thinking and I’ll, I’ll pass it over to, to Jason.
Jason Patterson: [01:09:59] Well, yeah. So I think the idea of removing a specifically, a Confederate statue as erasing history is either just a really sad understanding of what history is, or showing how effective the lost cause has been since the Civil War, or it’s just in complete bad faith.
And they don’t, they know that that’s not what it is because when you have a monument to Confederates- the people who tried to destroy the country who fought for slavery, and this monument is celebrating them, that’s what erased history. That’s when history was erased. So removing them doesn’t really- I mean, you’re not erasing anything because it was already erased.
What you’re doing is, is removing that ahistorical notion. And as, as we were saying, like, using statues of people- I love statues of people. I love that art form. I want to make them. But it is bad for public art because you can’t, you can’t tell that story. All those stories are complex, especially as time moves on.
And in retrospect, and it’s always going to get more and more difficult to contextualize things and people don’t- like your average American, isn’t going to walk up to a statue and try to think about it critically. They’re going to assume a statue means it’s good. And so that’s that’s as far as most people are going to go. I think it’s it’s- as much as I love the aesthetic of them personally, I think we really need to move on from them and find other ways to make public monuments. And and maybe not think about individuals, maybe think about things that are more complex, but are easy to figure out a way to make it easily understand- understood by people. Now for people asking me about like my work and things. I mean, again, I, I do think the pandemic has made it harder to eerily interact with people.
But I haven’t really- I don’t think I’ve seen- yeah, I guess that’s really my answer is- I haven’t had enough real deep conversations and I haven’t had a pushback or people sort of thinking about things differently unless I’m having a conversation with like a colleague or something.
Jacqueline Lawton: [01:12:05] Right. Right. That makes sense, that makes sense. Michelle, do you have any, any thoughts here?
Michelle Lanier: [01:12:12] Sure. I think the idea of hagiography or putting someone on a pedestal and- it’s dehumanizing. And then, and for, depending on your proclivity and your politics, the erasure of, of that well, let me put it this way. I think that there’s a way, you know, to riff on what Jason just said, that if we see someone as you know, rendered as a statue we assume, “Oh, good, good person. Person
I’m supposed to crane my neck up to, to look at.” And then the dismantling of that person, you know, we equivalent, we equate to, “Oh, bad, bad person.” And what, what I think we’re, we haven’t yet leaned into is, “Oh, human.”
Jacqueline Lawton: [01:13:04] Yeah.
Michelle Lanier: [01:13:05] You know, and so what I’m interested in, we talked about the word nuance has come up in this exchange. What I’m interested in is new tools, new strategies, new possibilities that I think artists are extraordinary at dreaming up for us in, in terms of confronting. So having a convergence of humanity to be witnessed collectively to the the spectrums of humanity. The horrific, you know, I call it the horrors and the hallelujahs.
And so the horrific violence that we are capable of as human beings and the, and the extraordinary generosities and, and to make sure that we are not ignoring the stitches of race and class and geography and, and, you know, our matrices of identity that, that make those complicated human stories puzzling.
I think that when we tried to tell a simple story, that binary, that is the binary, that is a false decision, that we are looking for a way to, to tie these historic narratives up with neat little bows and then say, “Oh, yes, it is settled. I know what this means. And I know what it means to me, and I can walk away and leave it be.” It is when we fully confront the complexities of these narratives,
and then they get under our skin-
Jacqueline Lawton: [01:14:28] yeah.
Michelle Lanier: [01:14:29] -live inside of us that we can’t put the stories down. And, and to me, that’s good. I want to tell a story. The film that I’m executive producer of, Mossville, is it is a horror story of Global South environmental racism. And we were intentional that we didn’t want people to be able to put it down.
We’d want it, the people of Mossville to be under our skin. And so I don’t think that we have had the luxury of being able to think about what life looks like after the dismantling of these structures, because of the violence that we continue to be confronted with on a daily basis, which Malinda started us out, calling the names of just a few of the people who have been felled to racial terror violence.
Jacqueline Lawton: [01:15:16] That’s right. That’s right. And I’m thinking about this notion of good and bad and going back to, you know, well-intentioned, well-intentioned white folks and people who do advocacy to feel good to pump themselves up to be thought of as- I don’t, I don’t really know.
Because for me, this advocacy is about survival, you know? And I think about when I do trainings, I let people know that white supremacy is neither good or bad. It’s just wrong. It’s just wrong. And we built a whole structure around this idea. That’s just, that’s actually not true. It’s just not true.
And then what do we do? How do we work to dismantle something that’s not true, but what people have believed and built institutions on? And I just want to go back cause I know I said the things, you know, the white supremacist acts that just bypass us, I think about how it shows up and, you know, the red lining that took place in housing and how people say I want to live in a good neighborhood and that’s code for all white neighborhoods, or I want to go to a good school and that becomes code for- and so those are those, those are the structures we have to really pay attention to and, and be alive to.
And I’m curious now about- well, I’m curious about your, your activism. So I’m a theater artist, I’m a playwright and I teach a class called theater for social change. What I tell my students at the very beginning- and I believe this to be true, is I don’t believe theater can be used for social change and that big writ large idea.
What I believe that theater does is that it taps into the hearts of individuals, and that individuals- empathy is created in that individuals go out and they make different choices that then starts to change the way they’re interacting with people, who they’re supporting. So what theater does is impact the individual who goes out and makes change.
And so that’s how I believe about- that’s my practice. That’s what I do as a playwright. And I’m curious about from each of you, how does activism sit inside of your work and do you feel it and impact? And I saw Jason smile, so you’re ready. Okay.
Jason Patterson: [01:17:19] Well, what you said is exactly what I think about my work. That I don’t, I mean, I don’t at all think of myself as an activist, but I think of it as informing people and hopefully it’s inspiring them to- whether it is go do like specific activist work, or start thinking differently. Changing their personal- like how they personally move about the world and interact with other people and think about the past and the present. That’s what I’m trying to do with my work. Like I don’t I don’t think my work is- It’s not aggressive, but it’s not, it’s, it’s not- I don’t hold back anything.
And I don’t want to, I don’t mean to sort of associate activism with being aggressive in a negative way. I don’t mean it in that sense, but to me, the work is like, here’s this information, all it is, is a dramatic way of showing information. Like you can take it however you want. But what gets me is that we don’t know about this stuff and it’s not in that normal narrative and it’s true, and it really happened and we, it will help us better understand what’s going on now. And that that’s what I’m trying to do.
Jacqueline Lawton: [01:18:27] That’s awesome. Thank you. You did that so beautifully, like in, under a minute. So Michelle and Lauren in under a minute, let us know! Lauren, you go.
Lauren Frances Adams: [01:18:36] Sure. Yeah. I want to say that one of the, just going back to Cornelia, Phillips, Spencer, she was an activist.
She was a propaganda machine. She was an expert at indoctrination and she used every bit of her might in her time and place to influence as much as she could well beyond I think what any of us can understand given the connections she had with politicians at the time. So, education and consciousness raising is a kind of activism.
And that is what I hope I can do through my work. I mean, to me, that’s very personal. It’s both personal because of my family history, it’s personal because of my identity as a white woman, especially from Eastern North Carolina, it’s personal to me because I’m an artist and that’s an internal transformation when I can do this work.
And it’s also, to me, like a, you know, there’s a fragility and vulnerability to put that out there with the public and to say, “well, we’re all here today together talking about this. And therefore, I hope we can have some change with us all here together.” And I think about what Yonni Chapman, who had been doing a lot of work as an activist on campus in 2000- early 2000s before he passed away.
And I’ll make it brief, but also say that he was one of the people I cite and, you know, he said, “We must build a movement for historical truth.” And you know, if that’s activism, then that’s what I’m part of. Because as an artist, I feel it’s really important to be part of that movement for historical truth, and I would like for my work to do that.
Jacqueline Lawton: [01:20:08] Awesome, thank you. Michelle.
Michelle Lanier: [01:20:12] Yes, I consider myself to be a change agent. I’m someone who makes damn well sure I go into rooms I’m not supposed to be. Rooms that did not have me envisioned. I was trained to do that in my home and at my grandmother’s kitchen table and taught to do that at Spelman College.
I was there when Stacy Abrams was there. So we, you know, we’re taught to go out into the world and change it. And I believe in spirit and I believe in the ancestral realm and I believe that spirit and the ancestors call me to live a more liberated life. And to make sure that I open doors and tear down walls for others.
And, and ultimately, I would say if, if, if you were to call me an activist then I’m an activist for healing and wholeness.
Jacqueline Lawton: [01:21:05] That is beautiful. Oh, an activist for healing and wholeness, and I’m about to hand it off to Malinda who I think embodies that- both of those things so beautifully in bringing us here together today to talk about our art, to talk about the center of our activism, to talk about this call for bringing forward the truth.
And I just- I’m really feeling that so much, Michelle, thank you for that gift. Thank you for- thank you all so much. Malinda has the proper, thank you, but I’m just filling just such extraordinary privilege to have been able to be in conversation with the three of you. So thank you, thank you and blessings.
Malinda Maynor Lowery: [01:21:45] Thank you all so much. This is sort of like a dream come true. Not everybody gets all the insights into what my dreams are, but when we started this, as you said, Lauren, it was sort of like lightning struck in terms of what we had to do to respond to the dismantling of our public dialogue around something that we all share.
And I think what each of you does with your work is to bring history itself, the stuff of history, the sources, the timelines, the dates, the places that, you know, the things that we must connect with to know who we are. You bring that into the public sphere so that we can all not just own it, but share in it.
You know, we can all kind of revel in it in a sense, you know, the pain, the most painful parts of it are the parts that need the most care. And so to be able to sit with these painful, painful aspects of our history and knowing, especially that some of the words of Cornelia Phillip Spencer, or Jason, the enormous variety of documents that you found that, you know, really sort of bring it- make it very, very clear what our public sphere’s values have been.
You know, being able to say that we need to confront that dark history is also a way of saying that we can decide how it affects us. And that sense of agency- we don’t often feel agency when we’re dealing with the past. We often feel changed and manipulated and moved by it in one way or another.
That’s not of our own making, but each of you offers work that provides us with an ability to, to take more control over how we engage with it and what we do with it. So fortunately for all of our audience members, this isn’t the last time we can talk about the work that’s come out of Imagining UNC’s Future With Art.
And it’s not the last time we can engage with Lauren, and Michelle, and Jason. Jacqueline, you have done an amazing job leading tonight’s conversation. I am so grateful and we were able to touch a little bit on Jacqueline’s incredible talent that she brought to our collaboration, but what you saw tonight was a lot of what Jacquelyn did with us for a year and a half.
It was the ability to hold space for something that was deep and give us permission to speak in rough draft to some of my colleagues like to say, to speak in rough draft rather than show up to a performance of knowledge. Jacqueline is, was a creator in that space and you have mirrored that for us tonight, and we’re so grateful.
These conversations and our interactions are going to continue this fall with more of our initiative artists. And of course, when it’s safe to return to the wonderful space at Love House, we will enjoy these exhibits and discussions in person. In the meantime, you can see more of Lauren’s work, as well as the work of our other initiative partners, at imaginingfuture dot unc dot edu.
As you saw in the video at the beginning of our talk, her work is still up at Love House, and will be there for the foreseeable future. So when you can make it back to campus, please do drop by and see it in person. Please also check out Jason’s On the Black History exhibit at chesapeake heartland dot org.
All of you, thank you so much for this thought provoking work. Thank you to Jacqueline again, to Carolina Public Humanities, to our Associate Director, Melody Hunter Pillion, Julia Pulawski, and everybody that has made this event tonight possible. Thank you and our audience for your questions and comments as part of the conversation.
Thank you again and good night.