Conversations about race can be messy and exhausting. That’s not stopping these artists.
Fourteen artists are putting their conversations about systemic racism front and center in their work. The “Truth Be Told” exhibit in Hopkinton is inspired by what these artists call The Gathering, a group of Black and white women artists from across the country who regularly meet over Zoom to discuss racial injustice.
Artists Debbie Jackson of Ohio and Joey Barnes of Texas joined NHPR Morning Edition host Rick Ganley to discuss their work in the exhibit.
Rick Ganley: The Gathering is a group of artists whose medium is specifically polymer clay. Why did you both want to join a group of fellow clay artists to have these conversations?
Joey Barnes: Well, I'm in the knitting world also. And the knitting world has made a lot of statements and comments about being inclusive to BIPOC, no racism, et cetera. And the polymer clay world doesn't have any of those kinds of statements.
Then, Debbie, I think you had the great idea to get together a group of artists, and so you invited the group to come together. And, Rick, that started back in June of last year. So we're a year and a half almost into this meeting every two weeks on Zoom, a group of women, most of whom did not know each other from across the United States.
Rick Ganley: And this is a group of seven white artists and seven black artists?
Debbie Jackson: Correct. Yeah, we all work with polymer clay, which brought us together.
Rick Ganley: So what's that? What is that experience like? Can you take me through a meeting?
Debbie Jackson: Well, we started out introducing each other to ourselves, just kind of getting to know each other. Initially, we ended up pairing up eventually one-on-one, a Black and a white artist, pairing up and having a phone call to learn about their background and their childhood and any kind of racial experiences they had throughout their life.
And the art again brings us together. So some of the topics we've discussed is, what is Black art? Is Black art the artist that makes the art? Or is it the event, the picture or whatever we're looking at? Was that Black art? Then we talked about cultural appropriation. Are we stealing someone else's culture using it in our work? So that was how we kind of gingerly started discussion, coming along to where we are now.
Rick Ganley: So the art becomes a conduit to much deeper and wider conversations.
Joey Barnes: That's right. That's exactly right, because art is a wonderful method for teaching, and this gives us the opportunity through a visual medium to bring a message along without being preachy or lecturing. And it allows people to then look at it and synthesize it in their own brain and start to think about it and think about how they're racist and they didn't know it. Or how can they do a better job in their own community of having conversations that are hard?
Because some of the conversations we've had are very difficult. We've had tears, we've had yelling, we've had people hang up. We've had a lot of that. And it's all part of not only getting to know each other, but also confronting our own demons in our lives.
Rick Ganley: I know after the murder of George Floyd, there was a lot of momentum for people and organizations to do some self-examination regarding systemic racism, but that momentum seems to have waned. It's slowed for many people, I think, at this point. What is your motivation to keep these meetings going?
Debbie Jackson: Well, personally, at this point, I have quit this group several times, honestly. Truth be told.
Rick Ganley: Could you tell us why?
Debbie Jackson: Because do I really have to keep talking about race all the time? I'm an artist. I wake up Black, and I wake up and go to my studio and make jewelry. I hear the news, a lot of what's going on out there in the world.
But being in this group is eye-opening to me, Rick. I'm learning about white fragility and people living in their white bubble and waking up white where they don't have to worry about going into a restaurant being served last. Nor do they have to go into a department store and be followed around. They don't have to do that. There's a lot of discussions they don't have to have and deal with daily.
We're learning from each other our skills, we're sharing our skills with each other. There's so many books out, and there's actually a couple of people that were in book clubs reading the latest books, which was very impressive to me. So they're actually learning on their own about what I lived through daily and learning these terms that I live. And now their actual terms for it. So it's really interesting on both sides.
Rick Ganley: Joey, I want to ask you, how have the conversations over the past year affected your art and creative process?
Joey Barnes: Well, so my background is that I'm a lifelong Texan, my family came here just after Stephen F. Austin. They brought slaves. They had slaves for a long time. My grandmother was the receptionist at the Alamo, so I thought we owned it. So I always was very proud of my heritage until I realized that we actually own slaves. And the dichotomy of that [is], of course, because that's part of what drew people to come to Texas.
One of the pieces of art that I've got in there is a wall hanging of an essay my mother wrote when she had a memory of when she was six years old and the Ku Klux Klan marched in Waco, Texas, and there were about 2000 of them. And her comment was [that] she was very afraid. And her mother said to her, "You don't need to be afraid, they're not coming for you. They'll never harm you." And 75 years later, when she wrote this essay, she said, "Oh Mama, you were so mistaken. They harm us all. They are not gone. They harm us still."
Now, she wrote that in 1995, and this is a long time after that. And so I have an obligation to my mother, if no one else, to stay and to fight for this and to have these hard conversations. And yes, I have wanted to quit. We do have strife in the group, but I also have an obligation to stay because it's a message that it's important and it needs to be heard. And through our art, we can bring that message forward.