Teaching with Contemporary Art

The Power of Saying Yes

Carrie Mae Weems, "A Class Ponders the Future", 2008 Courtesy Jack Shainman Gallery

Below is a continuation from last week’s column, “Nourishment”, where I began to share excerpts from Carrie Mae Weems’ dialogue with five Baltimore high school students at the most recent National Art Education Association annual conference. The students included Alex Marion, Mihija Cox, Laila Phillips, Thomas Jones and Ken Greller, who created questions for Carrie Mae after watching her Art21 segment and getting together with us for a little conference call discussion prior to the big event. The students were especially interested in Carrie Mae’s appropriated images from Harvard as well as her series, “Constructing History”. Enjoy!

Laila Phillips: Could you tell us more about how you pair quotes with the images for the Harvard photos? Specifically, where do you get them from and what do they mean to you?

Carrie Mae Weems: When I was a younger artist, I started as a documentary photographer… I think of myself now as a hybrid between many things, but primarily a conceptualist. When I started I didn’t use text at all.  I remember one of my professors… he wanted me to use text. He kept asking me, “What do these photos mean?” And he thought that using text would be an important addition to my work. At that moment I disagreed and said that photographs are important in and of themselves, and that a photograph expresses a thousand words. He said, “That’s absolutely true. But which thousand are you talking about, specifically?” It was a real battle…

Then at a certain point I started using text because I wanted to know something about voice. I wanted to know something about my own voice. I wanted to know something about the way I use words. Like you, Thomas, you’re a spoken word person. How do you use words? You use words and you bend them differently than others. So what is this relationship between my voice and my opinion, my critical take, and this image? How do I layer them and slice them in such a way that something happens? Even though I use words there is something very open about the possibilities. You became a scientific profile. Hmm. What does that mean?…

The text comes from my own writing. I write lots and lots and lots. I don’t think of myself as a writer, I’m not a very good writer. But the writing has a relationship to my work. For me it adds a level of nuance, a level of sounding that is both specific and broad. It allows for another level of imagination and play when you engage with the work.

LP: When Alex asked about how the pieces work you said that you like to think of them all together. Do you think of the words in that way, too? Do you think of it as sort of a monologue?

CMW: Yes, yes, yes! I do, I do.

Thomas Jones: Why did you choose such devastating events for people to portray in your photos?

CMW: You’re talking about, specifically, Constructing History?

TJ: Yes.

CMW: That’s such a great question… Primarily… the history of the world is the history of struggle. That’s the history of the world. There’s not a single group that you can point to, whether you point to them a thousand years ago or you point to them this morning at ten, who are not struggling for their humanity. There’s something about that struggle for humanity that I am interested in. It’s the only thing I’m interested in…

Charles Moore was the photographer who photographed all that stuff in Birmingham. Right? All that. The dogs biting and snarling. The beating of the kids. The hosing down.  All that stuff. That moment in history was incredible. All of that, of course, led to the assassination of Martin Luther King. And so this incredible moment, this incredible movement of people, you know, of young people, basically your age, said, This shit has got to change. We don’t like this. And we’re willing to throw down ourselves…

That history of forty years ago, which consisted of a series of brutal assassinations, made it possible for all of us to be sitting at this table talking like this. It would have been disallowed forty years ago. Disallowed. Maybe you wouldn’t be onstage at all. I certainly wouldn’t be. As a person, I knew I had to deal with the history of assassination, primarily in American politics, in order for me to move on in my own life and think about other aspects of my own humanity.

As the conversation continued, the group then began to talk about how artists get inspiration….

Ken Greller: How do you suggest art students nourish themselves?

CMW: For the vast majority of us, no matter where we come from, we’re listening to music. We are moved by music. Music locates us in a very specific way…

And I think the most important thing, the most important thing, is to follow your passion. To really, truly follow your heart and not to worry about the money, not to worry about fame, not to worry about a “career”, but to really think about the depth of the work that’s in front of you, the charge of that, the opportunity to live a life involved in imagining…

The thing that has been really useful to me is figuring out what it really is that you’re committed to. What it is that you care about. Paint is simply the medium. Theater and directing is the medium. Spoken word is the medium. Even genetics is the medium. What is it that you’re actually committed to?…

Lots of artists find it hard to move forward. They find it hard to move forward because they lack subjects. They never really figured out what they were committed to. So they are great technicians, they are wonderful painters or beautiful pianists, but they have no concepts, they have no vision. I would encourage you all to think about what that is… What is your vision? What do you want to see? How do you want to shape the world? Because that’s what you do, right? Through poetry, through words, through dance, you shape the world. It’s amazing.

CMW: Now what about you, Thomas, you’re the wordsmith in the group, but you’re also a painter?

Thomas Jones: Well, when I draw, it’s not just for show. It’s what I think. It’s what I dream. And I do the same thing with my poetry. I don’t do it for show. It’s to show people what I’m going through. It’s for them to connect to life itself. Or whatever they have been through. So it’s all about life.

CMW: What’s endlessly fascinating to me…. is that as students you don’t really know about the power of saying yes- opening yourself up to possibilities. We are so influenced by one another. I used to think that my students needed me. Now I know that I really need my students.