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Art AND: McKinley Wallace III

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McKinley Wallace III isn’t a practicing Jehovah’s Witness, but he has played one in a simulation. He has also played a person whose mental health is in danger, a possibly negligent father, and a trauma survivor, among other roles. The mixed-media artist and educator loves having difficult conversations, so working part-time for Johns Hopkins in their Standardized Patient care program has been a chance to try on different life stories in the name of helping doctors improve their bedside manner. Wallace took the job four years ago to have an outlet to practice his acting, a passion he discovered as an undergraduate at MICA.

As strange as it might sound, it has also become a way for Wallace to help, and helping others is an obvious core value of his. In this job, he is giving life to scenarios in which medical professionals can improve their ability “to interject, but not in a forceful way,” he explains, and instead practice imparting important medical information plainly and without judgment. “I like those moments and I’ve gotten used to tension in that way,” Wallace says, “whether it’s being improvised or you can expect it.”

Wallace doesn’t avoid difficult topics in his artwork either, making large-scale drawings and smaller collages that may challenge his viewer’s ideas about race and Baltimore neighborhoods both familiar and less so. His large-scale drawings are mostly black, white, and blue pieces that contrast highly rendered drawn elements of architecture and people with large swaths of pure blue color, which typically read as skies. Combining archival reference photos with his own contemporary photography, Wallace is able to flatten time in his work about Baltimore City.

About the influence that Abstract Expressionists and Washington Color School painters have had on this body of work, Wallace says, “I am thinking about the emotional connection you get in a subconscious way [based on the specific color] I’m using… I think there’s discipline in hard-edge work and in color fields where I really do think of the blue as something I don’t really want to interrupt too much.” Wallace hopes his viewer will be taken in by the scale of the works so they will be “hit with the work all at the same time,” which requires him to plan out how he wants to selectively simplify his source photographs and then install the pieces high so they overwhelm the viewer, who must look up at them.

 

Sandtown mural details

In addition to his studio work, Wallace has worked on seven mural projects. This summer he wrapped up his fourth mural with students in Baltimore, which prompts him to describe himself as a “painter who makes mixed-media work that often involves community.” This mural was completed in conjunction with Jubilee Arts’ five-week Art@Work program, with which Wallace has worked before. The whole point of making these murals, he says, is to “engage with community, with youth, with the owner of the building or business of the building and then to also have your own aesthetic” remain evident in the completed project.

To meet the unique challenges presented by COVID restrictions on group gatherings this summer, Wallace had to redesign the mural five times. “I got into my teacher’s mind, thinking, okay, I gotta make sure it’s youth-focused,” he says, explaining his struggle. “So I made something that had nothing to do with my work initially, I made a template.” Eventually though, Wallace and his eight student collaborators arrived at the final design, a hybrid of his work and theirs, featuring the graphic blue, black, and white palette of Wallace’s work and elements the students painted on boards at home that were installed on site to function as the frame. They completed the project in August at 1814 Division Street.

For his full-time employment, Wallace has made the rounds teaching art in Baltimore, working for a time as an intern-docent at the Walters Art Museum, with Access Art through AmeriCorps and, currently, with Jubilee Arts in Sandtown-Winchester while he finishes up his Masters of Art in Teaching from MICA. It’s a priority for him to spend time with elementary through high school students of all ages, especially Black youth to whom he feels a great responsibility to expose to art as a form of expression they might not be getting elsewhere in their lives. Wallace points out that for many, “art can be a great source for healing.” As an educator, it’s important for him to help his students “explore their own voice, because I wouldn’t be surprised that a lot of the youth that I’ve taught will stay in [West Baltimore]. And at least they’ll have an understanding of material, to do something else with [art]—or just to think critically about abstract things, making them more concrete, using metaphor.”

Over Zoom, Wallace and I talked about why he’s not comparing himself to others, the importance of place in his work, and if anything good could possibly come out of this difficult time for educators.

SUBJECT: McKinley Wallace III, 27
WEARING: Black collarless short-sleeved button-down shirt and black Adidas track pants. Shoes: Triple black Ozweegos
PLACE: Zoom

"A Promising Future" mural at 1814 Division Street, Baltimore. Lead artist: McKinley Wallace III. Artist intern: Dominique Butler. Youth artists: Anthony Bessick Jr., Niya Carroll, Aija Garner, Sanaa Jackson, Ranisha Muhammad, Kennedy Thomas, Jania Woods.

Suzy Kopf: What is the most important book (or books) you’ve read? 

McKinley Wallace III: Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire, Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland, Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X Kendi, Themes of Contemporary Art: Visual Art After 1980 by Craig McDaniel and Jean Robertson, Integrating the Visual Arts Across the Curriculum: An Elementary and Middle School Guide by Ann Ledo-Lane, Elizabeth McAvoy, and Julia Marshall.

What was the worst career or life advice you’ve ever received? What is the best? 

Worst advice from an art college professor: Find a day job that does not require too much mental or physical effort so you can be ready, mentally and physically, to work on your art during your free time. I understand where he was coming from, and I’m not sure if my millennial thought process is kicking in, but everyone desires to find something that sustains them at all times, in and out of art-making. 

Career advice from my mother: Money isn’t everything. Do what makes you happy. Life is too short to dwell in the past. Always try your best. If something doesn’t work out, that means that something in the future is better suited for you, your time, and your energy. Have faith in yourself. Most importantly, even though it’s very difficult most of the time, try your best not to compare yourself to others.

If you couldn’t live in Baltimore, where in the world would you want to live and why? 

Philadelphia, Chicago, New York, etc. Perhaps one day, I might find myself in one of these places. I am open to any place that pays teachers well and supports and respects art—giving artists opportunities and the funds to show work, produce work, and participate in critically relevant dialogue.

How would you describe your relationship with failure? Is there any advice you give to young people about dealing with the disappointment that is a natural part of a creative career?

As a person who sometimes falls into the bottomless pit that we call failure, I often think of these facts to pull myself out:

  • Mistakes are unavoidable. Try to avoid them whenever possible to advance yourself and others, but remember that what you’re feeling now will pass, maybe not completely, but perhaps that’s a good thing to build resilience and hindsight.
  • Understand that failures come with meaningful lessons, even if that is hard to understand or accept at the moment. 
  • Many people believe that life is a race when it is not.
  • Even if you are not religious, knowing the meaning of the serenity prayer may provide insight in real-time.
  • Trust the opinions of those you love, even if their words are not what you want to hear because most of the time, they say those things to strengthen your resolve and willingness to challenge what you think you know.

Teaching in the time of COVID has been especially challenging for educators who are expected to put in extra time and effort to make the transition to remote learning as smooth as possible for students. How are you coping and do you think anything positive or lasting could come out of this “unprecedented time” for education?

When we switched to online in March I started doing all these tutorials and I got really into it. But it was very time-consuming just thinking about all the things you need to explain that you can figure out intuitively if you’re in person. I think it improved my awareness of making sure everyone is engaged, figuring out how to take advantage of being virtual. It’s nice to have the chat tool [on Zoom] for everyone to put their ideas. For people who don’t want to say anything out loud, it’s too chaotic to do questionnaires in the middle of a class, but you can just ask them questions and they can give you answers in real-time.

I think the heightened awareness [is something] I can definitely take into the real classroom. But I’m also thinking about who knows how long this is going to last. I want to take advantage of being virtual where I can share my screen and show videos when everyone can see what I’m working on. And there’s no one in front of another person having a hard time seeing something. Everyone can see, so it helps with accessibility. But accessibility as a thing, trying to make sure there are breaks in the day, time for us to reflect some. 

An advantage I have in the classroom is I can be very animated, but when I’m sitting down—even in acting—it lowers your energy level naturally. The juices are not flowing. As a teacher, it’s forcing me to keep that energy up, even if it’s not natural. Of course I would like to be in the classroom because I’m sure most of my life from teaching will eventually be in the classroom. But for now, everybody’s trying to figure this out.

Have you always been an artist? How did you know? Was there ever another career path you considered or were encouraged to pursue?

Yes, I have always been an artist. Growing up as an only child of a single mother, I felt lonely when I had a lot of time to myself with no one else around. Art kept me company out of necessity and was a source of entertainment from a young age. I was fortunate enough to strengthen my art-making abilities in a middle school and high school art magnet school that centered the visual and performing arts. My primary education prepared me for an art practice in higher education at MICA.

I’m currently in graduate school to be an art teacher, but before graduating high school, I did consider being a dentist briefly. When I was in high school, questioning if I should go to art school and pursue art as a career, I found myself talking to my dentist while she worked on my teeth, and she told me about how she went to art school for graphic design, didn’t like it, and pursued dentistry. She talked about how dentists need to have a particular visual sensitivity and work well with their hands. Dental hygiene is essential to me, so I considered dentistry for a short while. In fact, after choosing MICA for undergrad, I received an acceptance letter from Florida A&M University, an HBCU, for pre-dentistry.

During and directly after receiving my Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from MICA in 2015, I spent fifteen months spreading myself thin. I worked multiple jobs, trying to find something that suited my strengths. Nothing felt quite right until I accepted an offer to teach middle school youth at Access Art in Morrell Park, a community-based out-of-school program in southwest Baltimore. I became a 2016-17 Community Arts Collaborative Fellow through AmeriCorps. Despite the pay being low, the chance to dedicate a full year to teaching what I love to a consistent group of youth attracted me and was worth the sacrifice. This fellowship helped me realize how fulfilling it is to educate and how rewarding it feels to facilitate projects and learn with youth. After the program ended, I was fortunate enough to continue working with Access Art as a lead teacher for two years. Watching some of my students mature over three years, from sixth to eighth grade, was a priceless human experience for me.

What material do you use so much you should buy stock in it?

Golden Matte Medium.

What’s a favorite local restaurant and what is your go-to order? 

I find myself at Poblano Mexican Grill for their burritos, iBar for fried comfort foods, and Kippo Ramen for, well, you know, ramen. Since COVID, I make most of my meals. On occasion, if I order ahead of time, I treat myself to Blacksauce Kitchen’s delicious shortlist of tasty biscuit sandwiches.

Could you tell me a little bit more about your selection process when you pick certain buildings to include in your work? Are you attracted to the architecture or are you attracted to the story behind them? Is it a combination of both? 

It’s a combination of both. I feel like every piece that I do has some sort of relevance to me, whether it is about Black neighborhoods, places that I’ve been in a lot. I work at Jubilee Arts as a teaching artist where I teach drawing portfolio and I’ve also done their Art@Work program for two years. So I’m constantly in West Baltimore—Uptown, Sandtown-Winchester area. So when I found out that Augusta T. Chissell and Margaret Briggs Gregory Hawkins had lived in Druid Hill, which is just right around the corner from Jubilee, I felt eager to visit their homes and draw them potentially. Ms. Chissell and Ms. Hawkins were two Black suffragettes and grassroots organizers who fought for the intersectional and comprehensive passage of the 19th Amendment at a time when “women’s rights” often meant only white women’s rights. They advocated for Black women to gain the right to vote, know the power and responsibility of a vote, and increase voter registration among Black communities, hosting gatherings in their homes, nearby churches, and other facilities. Since I knew that they would be great people to know more about, I wanted to create an artwork that memorializes their unsung impact on Black culture. 

So that’s one thing, but also it had to be the building that felt like a challenge to me [artistically]. Every time I draw a new building I’m looking for another thing to overcome or figure out how I can test myself. For this one, I’m thinking of how to combine my sort of black space/white space structure with blue over top with a really detailed environment. Thinking out how I can create that sort of hybrid of my own making.

 

The blue sky that comes up in your work a lot, what does that mean to you?

It has different meanings based on the narrative underneath sometimes and there’s a strong difference between the two uses of the blue, and I like when people see it different ways. The blue could either mean law enforcement or it can also mean peace and unity, which I feel like is the concept of what blue is used for both as color and propaganda. But propaganda for what person and for what usage—it’s a perspective change on whether that’s an oppressive force or something that it feels like it’s welcoming. I think it depends. 

In this piece, “Hall of Fame: Homes of Augusta T. Chissell and Margaret Briggs Gregory Hawkins,” it is weird because I have all this content here and you’re looking at the culture of Baltimore City with a lot of abandoned buildings and that is just heavy and that has a history. But you also see a person here with a baby, so you’re thinking, like, “Oh, well, there’s a family. There’s generational upbringing.” So you could be thinking, Oh, maybe it’s about peace. Maybe it’s saying there’s hope, having a tree grow in an abandoned building that wasn’t abandoned when Augusta lived here. That’s talking about something now, but this is definitely talking about the past. But in having that surveillance plane, there is definitely a law enforcement strategy to see what’s happening and to have footage of what people are doing in neighborhoods that have a higher level of violence and crime. And when I hang this work, I hang it high so people have to look up. You have to kind of submit to this, and think, “What is that?”

I went through the same motion of something hovering over you and you feeling like, “Oh, I’m being watched.” I definitely like to play with the question, What is the message of the blue? This one is about hope. Baltimore is the abandoned buildings and the questionable wiring cascading all over everything, but then the blue behind it, it does mean peace to me. It’s something that’s on the horizon. 

If you had unlimited funding and time, describe the project you’d make or the show you would curate.

I’m not sure about unlimited funding and time, but there is a project that I would like to propose soon for funding. A lot of people don’t know that lynchings happened in northern states, and if they do, they probably don’t know where or the stories of the people who were brutalized. So I would capture the stories of the Black people who were lynched in Maryland through an immersive installation. The installation would combine a drawn and painted rendering of the site, a description of both the person’s life and the story of their lynching, and the lynching site’s sounds as it exists today. I think this would force people to confront the violent history of the spaces they occupy while also immortalizing and humanizing the people whose lives were stolen.

Hall of Fame: Homes of Augusta T. Chissell and Margaret Briggs Gregory Hawkins in the show Rights and Wrongs: Citizenship, Belonging, and the Vote. Photo by Joseph Hyde

What advice do you have for someone who wants to get involved in the Baltimore art scene?

My advice would be to apply to as many relevant things as possible to gain more exposure and do not be discouraged from reapplying if you were not accepted the first time. In most cases, rejection is not personal. Be patient and consistent in the process of building a community for yourself. Try your best to be memorable in conversation with people that understand your vision and be willing to listen to any advice that comes your way. Everyone is free to take or leave suggestions presented to them. Make an impression on others that causes them to want to know more about you and see you more often. My strengths are professionalism and humor. Be willing to say no to things so that you have the freedom to select opportunities that value and invest in your talents, both monetarily and through ongoing engagement.

Does your astrological sign match your personality? Is astrology just silly?

I’m a Scorpio. I think my sign matches me somehow, but when people ask about my sign, and I tell them, they are often surprised or skeptical. Traits of a Scorpio, like other signs, are seen as good or bad depending on who asks. I don’t take signs too seriously because if I did, personally, I might make inaccurate judgments of new people I meet. However, I respect how people use it to find stability, meaning, and purpose with others. Maybe I’m processing right now like a Scorpio would—”The world may never know!” [laughs]

What are the last three emojis you used?

😅 🤯 ❤️

Who are your art heroes and what do you look to them for? Do you have anyone whose work you’ve always admired or whose career you’d like to emulate or just someone you think would be a cool person to have coffee with? Why are they the coolest?

There are historical and contemporary artists I’ve admired over the years through inspiration, research, and inquiry. My inspiration is rooted primarily in their work. However, I find it insightful to learn more about Black artists from the past and those currently working; I often find connections in how they choose to address life’s complex spectrum of Black joy and struggle through memory and fantasy. Knowing their context is essential. To me, trying to emulate someone else’s success or talents would stress me out. I’ve tried. Artists I often refer to in my work are Gordon Parks, Kara Walker, Hank Willis Thomas, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Kerry James Marshall, Benny Andrews, and Faith Ringgold, among others.

What would your teenage self think of you today?

I think he would be relieved about how disciplined I am with making and showcasing my artwork and engaging in dialogue about it. I’m sure that he would be proud that I’ve found joy in teaching art in schools and the community. He would also be critical of what I would define as success, which is a question that I’m still trying to figure out.

Did you have a formative and/or terrible first job? What was it?

My very first job was at K-Mart unloading trucks and stocking shelves. Enough said.

What have you learned recently that kind of blew your mind?

My mind is often blown after listening to almost any episode of NPR’s podcast Throughline. I’m an avid listener. My mind blew recently after hearing about different processes to create paints and dyes from natural materials. One of my graduate professors, Erin Lehrmann, in Visual Thinking and Tinkering, talked about natural inkmaking. We explored material and process in artmaking, considering what is accessible to learners during COVID. She referenced studies about ink making in a book called Make Ink: A Forager’s Guide to Natural Inkmaking.

***

You can see McKinley Wallace III’s piece “Hall of Fame: Homes of Augusta T. Chissell and Margaret Briggs Gregory Hawkins” in Rights and Wrongs: Citizenship, Belonging, and the Vote through December 6, 2020. Location: The Peale at Carroll Mansion, 800 E. Lombard Street, Baltimore, MD. Open Saturdays and Sundays, noon–4 p.m., masks required, free.

Photos by Justin Tsucalas except where otherwise noted.

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