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Sonya Clark on Collaboration, Labor, and the False Hierarchy of Art and Craft

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I was nervous as I rarely am to speak with Sonya Clark, who in my mind can only be referred to as the Sonya Clark, a visionary artist who I first learned about in my feminist art history class as an undergraduate at Parsons. In her 25-year career, Clark has received numerous honors and grants including a Pollock-Krasner and a Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship, and most recently, she was the 2020 recipient of the $35,000 Rappaport Prize from the deCordova Museum and Sculpture Park. 

Clark is currently a Professor of Art at Amherst College, and previously she held the title of Distinguished Research Fellow in the School of the Arts and Commonwealth Professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. Clark’s work has been included in more than 400 exhibitions all over the world and collected by museums such as the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Art Museum, and the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Her pieces position and contrast artifacts and symbols of the Black experience in America through her chosen materials of human hair, glass beads, combs, cotton, sugar, currency, cloth, and thread, among others, to channel her ideas about unrecognized Black makers throughout history who utilized the same sorts of craft practices that she herself employs. Often read through a political lens, the work is timely, important, and as Clark herself summed up for me, “also authentic, also formal, also historical, also cultural, also beautiful, also ugly.” 

On a Zoom call, we discussed Clark’s survey show, Tatter, Bristle, and Mend, currently on view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) in Washington, DC, through June 27th. Taking over an entire floor of the museum, the show is a massive undertaking that showcases 100 works in a survey spanning Clark’s career, divided into rooms roughly by different bodies of work. The exhibition makes the viewer feel as if they are in conversation with Clark, an experience I was lucky to have myself.

 

Sonya Clark. Photo by Nicholas Calcott
I think about people who are poets and how they're able to put words next to each other and there's so much space between the words—so few words, but so much space between the words. I hope that I am able to do that with my artwork.
Sonya Clark

Suzy Kopf: The title of your current exhibition at the NMWA is Tatter, Bristle, and Mend. Can you tell me about what each of those words mean to you and how you see them embodied in the work that is in the show?

Sonya Clark: The museum had come up with a couple of titles that were very sweet, but actually [felt] like they were like someone else saying, “Yay, your work is so amazing!” I said I can’t have a title that says that, let me just work on it. Instead of it being a pun, let’s just use words that have to do with the ideas and contexts in the work. So “tatter” immediately makes you think of cloth. So much of my use of cloth specifically around some pieces that are well known, like Unraveled, have to do with cloth being rended and being pulled apart. 

“Bristle” refers to both the bristles on a brush, and also the visceral idea of the hair standing up on the back of your neck, so it makes reference to hair, no matter what: hair being used in a hairbrush or this idea of bristling because something emotional is happening. And then “mend,” because mending is something that feels like the hopeful next step of those two, but also because our nation is in a place that requires so much mending. It just seemed like those three words would be right. 

Would it be fair to say that you’re somebody that appreciates language, as you’re very precise with your language in your work?

I love writers and my world is better because of all the authors and those people who are really workers with words. I’m not a writer. I don’t publish anything. Writing artist statements is not the same as being a writer. Maybe it’s aspirational, but if I were precise with language, [I would be more concise]. Sometimes when I hear art critics or art writers, art historians, I think, wow, I just gave a whole artist talk and that person just said it in two sentences. And I love that economy of words, but I tend to not have that.

I think about people who are poets and how they’re able to put words next to each other and there’s so much space between the words—so few words, but so much space between the words. I hope that I am able to do that with my artwork. Actually, it’s a joke in my studio with the studio manager and me that everything’s called “hair-something” or “comb-something.” 

In a recent interview with the BBC, you said, “My work is political, but it is not only political. If someone only sees it as political, then that flattens something about the work. My work also celebrates culture. It calls out injustice. It celebrates humanity. It is personal. It is collective. There are lots of things hopefully in the work.” Do you think that some viewers call art political as a way of rejecting or dismissing it? Have you seen this shift at all in the wake of the pandemic and the BLM protests of 2020? Are people more willing to engage with so-called political art?

What I’m saying is there’s a way in which the work is political and it is other things as well. Because I am a Black woman in the United States of America and we live in this racialized country, just my very presence is political. But I am so much more than just my political presence. I’m a human being. I use the language that it “flattens” it because it doesn’t allow the work to be also authentic, also formal, also historical, also cultural, also beautiful, also ugly. It doesn’t allow it to be all these other things that it also is. In that sense, I’m not sure if I would use the word “dismiss,” but it makes the work two-dimensional and it’s not. It’s not that I don’t think work is political. It’s that I think it’s political and. Maybe it isn’t leading with the political.

Thank you. That makes a lot of sense to me. I imagine that it would be very frustrating to have your work reduced to one word when you know that it is so many other things.

I think the other thing that happens is that—and maybe this is what you meant about it being dismissed—there’s a way in which just using that word puts it in a category, as opposed to saying, what I’m actually trying to do is get people to see things that they might not already see. If it gets put in a category that people are like, “Oh, that work is political” [as a pejorative]. That’s the thing about language and speaking, when we say “that work is political,” I’m using a gesture and the tone to convey that is a dismissive thing, but someone else could say, “Oh, that work is political!” [excited tone], and that could mean a completely different thing. 

I have a good friend who hipped me to this, when teaching students to think about critiquing work from a stance of “Oh, really?!” [interested tone], as opposed to, “Oh, really?” [challenging tone]. The same phrase, but a completely different sentiment. 

 

Sonya Clark, Palm Masks, 2003, glass beads, each 4 x 3 inches. On loan from the artist © Sonya Clark. Photo by Taylor Dabney
Sonya Clark, For Colored Girls, A Rainbow (Green), 2019, Afro wig, plastic combs, and thread, 12 x 12 x 5 inches. On loan from the artist. © Sonya Clark. Photo by Lee Stalsworth
Sonya Clark, Monumental Fragment (detail), 2019, linen, 50 x 34 inches. On loan from the artist. © Sonya Clark. Photo by Taylor Dabney
Sonya Clark, Octoroon, 2018, canvas and thread, 85 3/8 x 38 ¼ x 2 inches. Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, VA. © Sonya Clark; image courtesy of the artist and Lisa Sette Gallery

Your work often involves other people, hairdressers doing their craft, or members of the public that you invite to make the work with you. How do you negotiate these working relationships? Do you view the resulting works as collaborative or is it still your artwork? In what ways is that authorship important or unimportant to you?

I would say all of my work is collaborative. Even when I make a static object that is sitting in space, that material didn’t come to me without someone else’s hands or someone else’s interaction. I might not know that person. I have studio assistants and a studio manager who helped me fabricate things. So much is done with the helping hands of Meg Arsenovic, my studio manager, and several other people. Sometimes I’m asking someone with very specific skills to help fabricate things.

Maybe you’re asking, why wouldn’t all those people’s names [be listed with the work]? With The Hair Craft Project, all of their names were part of the project, and that’s because the point of that project was actually to take the space that I have around being an artist, the privilege that I have about the nomenclature of being an artist, and saying, these women are artists. Here are their names. Here is their work. What I did was provide an opportunity to frame their work. In the case of that project, everybody did my hair. They were paid. They weren’t friends, they’re friends now, [but] they were paid, and paid well. Then they were of course paid for doing the canvases as well. And when the project won prizes, then they were paid again. And when it was sold to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, they were paid again. With that project, that makes perfect sense. 

In the case of someone like my studio manager, she gets paid hourly and that’s a different kind of thing. Yes, it is a collaboration, small C, but it’s not my intent or the intent of the work to center her. It’s the intent of the studio for us to be working together to make the work the best that it can be, which means that actually the work is centered. And because it’s my work, my name becomes centered. 

There’ve been other times that I’ve done collaborations where the person whose skills I’m bringing in really matters, that they are who they are in terms of the skills that they’re bringing to the table. [For a piece not in the show at NMWA, titled Lingua Franca] I really wanted to indicate ancient Rome. The best material to use to do that was Carrara marble. So I went to a stone carver who is a MacArthur fellow. [I decided,] I need the best stone carver. Nick Benson is one of the best and this is what he does in his work, he studies ancient Roman inscriptions, he has it down. He really understood and championed this work. But he also gets a lot of work where his name isn’t front and center. So he asked me about this, and I said, I will always mention your name with this piece because he chose the Carrara marble. He carved the words, he picked a very specific font using all of his research, and then he saved the marble dust for me so that I could write the word ciao on the floor in the same font. And so in that way, it’s a collaboration, but for that piece it’s important to me that Nick was the person that I collaborated with on the piece. And also, he requested that as well and I was happy to oblige.

There’ve been other times when someone has fabricated a piece for me, but they weren’t really part of the thinking around the piece. They’ve said, can I put this on my website as a piece that I made? And I said, that’s really confusing unless you have a section on your website that says, these are things that I fabricated. You made it and you were paid, but it’s actually my artwork. I never mind when a fabricator has that distinction at all. I’d love for people who are helping me fabricate work to get more attention for the skills that they’re bringing to the table. But then where does the idea reside? If the idea wasn’t yours, then that gets into really tricky territory. But the point is, all of it is collaborative. It’s just different facets of collaborations.

I hadn’t thought about the fact that you have studio assistants, but that makes a lot of sense. The negotiation of making the work with them is definitely part of the work that’s invisible to a viewer seeing it in a gallery. So that’s really interesting to consider.

I’ll say a little bit more about that. When I was at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), chairing the craft department for twelve years, I was concerned that it was an administrative position that would be very demanding. And it was. I immediately thought, I’m going to need studio assistants, at least one, to help me to make sure that the work and my output of the work [doesn’t lag]. The way that I define myself as an artist is that I show work. It’s important to me that the work is out in the world; that’s not the case for every artist, but it is part of my definition of being an artist. I wanted to make sure that the work was in play and out in the world. And I was concerned. That year, I also got a Pollock-Krasner grant for about $25,000. I said this is great because, with about half that money, I could pay someone decently to work part-time with me in my studio. But then I had a better idea, which was to say to VCU, instead of me paying someone $10,000 for working with me hourly, I’m going to pay the institution $10,000 and I want to use it as a graduate stipend and match it with tuition remission. So $10,000 became the equivalent of, in the cases of out-of-state students, more than $30,000. And those were the students who ended up helping me every year.

I sometimes had people for two years, but mostly I had people for one year. That felt better because those—it was almost always women—those women who worked with me were kept out of debt for a year, they were paid a really decent wage, and they were helping me in my studio. It was this mutual benefit.

Wow, that’s brilliant.

Yes. I think it might be the only really smart thing I ever did.

 

Installation view of Sonya Clark: Tatter, Bristle, and Mend. Photograph by Kevin Allen, courtesy of NMWA
I've been told that my work would be more valued if I didn't use the word craft, but to me that would be like denying my own grandmother, the person who taught me how to sew.
Sonya Clark

I always say artists are good business people but we don’t get credit.

I’m not sure if it’s business. I think artists are creative and I think artists tend to be really generous people. I’m not sure how generous I am, but it just seemed like the best way to capitalize on those dollars. The thing that I will tell you that happened after that is I didn’t get a Pollock-Krasner grant every year.

If only! So how did you support this for twelve years? 

Sometimes I was lucky to get grants, but other times what I would do is I would give artist lectures, and I would make sure I was giving enough artist lectures that my honorarium was at a place that, no matter what, I knew that I had that funding to set aside the graduate student stipend that would then be matched with tuition. So when I was giving lectures, I was actually working for those students.

It goes around the other way too, [because] as I’m giving lectures, I’m also meeting other audiences and they’re asking new questions and that’s helping me think about the work and would get me out of my own headspace. All of that was a way of me going out and sort of cross-pollinating—but doing that necessarily to make sure that I had the funding available for those to support my assistants.

 

Sonya Clark, Hair Craft Project Hairstyles (Ife), 2014, from series of 11 color photographs, each 28 x 28 inches. On loan from the artist © Sonya Clark. Photo by Naoko Wowsugi

 

This came up organically, but I had planned to ask you about the relationship of your work existing between fine art and craft. In addition to your time at VCU, you served on the American Craft Council board for six years and have received grants and residency support from various foundational craft institutions. Which works do you most associate with craft concepts and concerns? Do you think about yourself as a fiber artist or a weaver? 

I’m going to pitch this question back at you and ask you what your definition is of craft.

Oh, man. Well, BmoreArt actually did a whole issue on Craft that I suggested, so I’ve thought about this a lot! Basically, there’s the traditional definition of craft defined by the five main materials of wood, fiber, clay, metal, and glass. But for me personally, I’m not really that concerned about separating fine art and craft. It’s just more about understanding how people like to identify and have their work read. I’m interested in how the parameters around which the two worlds feel like they’re disappearing, with people like Erin M. Riley now showing her traditional weaving pieces in fine art spaces and being accepted. She’s just one example; there are so many people who’ve been using craft methods for a long time. 

There’s a hierarchy that exists, but it’s a false hierarchy and it’s a very Eurocentric hierarchy. One of the things that I love about craft-based media is that everywhere that I go in the world—and I haven’t been to all the places that I would like to [yet], but I’ve been to about 35 countries and everywhere that I go, I always encounter what one would call “craft.” I don’t always encounter what one might call “art.” I know that there’s a fluency that can really disrupt the hierarchy of fine arts versus craft. I also think that the mediums get gendered. This idea of someone being accepted in the fine arts world, I actually find it quite tiresome. Frankly, it feels to me a little bit like when people are talking about Black people who pass [as white], like, aren’t you lucky that you’re not subjected to some kind of subjugation? 

I got interested in textiles because of taking African art history classes here at Amherst College as a student. I wasn’t an art student here and I wasn’t even an art history student, but I took a couple of art history classes. I realized the ubiquity of textiles meant that they were presented as a language in which people could be fluent and speak across cultures, and that’s a kind of power. And the subjugation of that power is not at all interesting to me. In fact, the word craft means power. The etymology of the word craft actually means power. 

The European guilds that separated themselves into what is fine art and what is craft—that’s some European business. I don’t need to be subjected to that, but then of course I am. I’ve been told that my work would be more valued if I didn’t use the word craft, but to me that would be like denying my own grandmother, the person who taught me how to sew—just don’t mention that your grandmother is your grandmother and everything will be okay. I’m not gonna deny my family. I’m trained through craft-based media. Most of the world makes things that fall into the category that someone else would call craft. I don’t want to be disconnected from all of that. 

The sort of hegemony around so-called fine art versus craft is further problematized when you realize that the people of African descent who were forcibly migrated here through the transatlantic slave trade were brilliant in terms of the technologies of the time, and the technologies of the time were craft technologies. I think about human beings who were dehumanized, for chattel slavery and for the global economy that required people to dehumanize others for economic gain, but they wanted those others to still have skills, so that people would be more valued for their weaving skills, their pottery skills, their basketry skills, all of their ironworking skills. They weren’t valued as human beings. 

The other thing that is also tiresome, though, is someone who is deemed a painter or sculptor, when they start doing textiles, people [react as if it is] amazing they’ve discovered something. That feels like colonization—the parallels, they just keep coming. And I’m not blaming the artist, I’m blaming the framing around that. I think that artists should explore and use different media. That’s fine. But it’s the way that it becomes so amazing. Like, Oh my gosh, Columbus discovered America as if ceramics haven’t been around forever. It’s feeding in that hierarchy of fine art versus low art or fine art versus craft; [I suggest you] find something new to work in, then somehow that’s interesting. It happens with gender too; materials get gendered and someone else decides to use a gendered material, then that becomes interesting. I will say this: One of the things that I love about textiles is that a lot of people who are non-binary find space in textiles. I find that really a beautiful thing. 

 

Sonya Clark, Blued, 1998, glass beads, 9 x 14 x 9 inches. Private collection. © Sonya Clark. Photo by Tom McInvaille
Sonya Clark, Chromosomes, 2004, glass beads, 9 x 6 x 55 inches. © Sonya Clark, Photo by Lee Stalsworth
Sonya Clark, Straight Ways, 2017, plastic combs, dyed blonde human hair, synthetic hair, 20 x 10 inches. Image courtesy of Myra Block Kaiser © Sonya Clark

I really appreciate your perspective on it. I’ve heard your work described as craft before I’ve heard it described as fine art

Just to be clear, I am definitely of the family of craft, but I would say all of art is. I would argue that craft came first, and then it got divided up in this way in the Western canon. I’ll use another metaphor: Everybody was human, and then races got formed and then things got put into a hierarchical system. So I’m actually reclaiming everything is craft. There’s no reason to deny that, that’s like denying my grandmother, denying my humanity. But then this narrow place that becomes fine art is still run by white men. The racial connections, it’s just so clear. The reason my studio assistants were mainly women is because it’s mainly women who are in MFA programs, but it’s still the majority men who are getting the top dollars when it comes to the fine art world.

I’m curious about the role of drawing in your practice. I’m thinking of the comb works that are in the show at NMWA, I see them as wall and floor drawings. Do you think about drawing at all when you’re making work?

I draw all the time, I am an artist. I’m doodling as we’re speaking, this hand is holding the mic, this hand is doodling. A way of understanding space is to draw. I think interpreting some of those pieces, if drawing is about the manipulation of line or a fiber, then actually textile is a drawing or a drawing is a textile. And as much as it’s manipulating a line, I think most of my pieces are coming from the language of textiles. So there certainly is this connection between the line and the fiber. I’m trying to think what pieces you’re thinking about in particular and I’m thinking it’s probably Split Ends. It may or may not be useful to frame the work that way. I can certainly see that, especially when it comes to the idea of line.

Another feeling I had walking through the show at NMWA was the contrast between the white and then the black of the works; overall the show is really almost monochromatic. There were a few pieces that had color, but for the most part overwhelmingly you work in black and white, which for me takes it back to charcoal drawing.

I think the black and white is happening because the combs are black. There’s a lot of comb work in there. Because the media means so much to me, black fine-tooth combs, I want to use the most ubiquitous pocket combs possible. As soon as I started entering color, then something else enters into the space. People always say, Oh, are those ACE combs? And they’re not. Drawings aren’t just black and white. There is something about the work that a lot of it is monochromatic except in those spaces like the Hair Craft Project or the flags, but they are determining their own color.

My hair is black. So when I’m using hair, it happens to be black, or when I’m using my mother’s hair, it’s white. Probably the space where there is the most color is with the beaded works, but there are very few beaded works in the exhibition. Speaking of black and white, I use beads to color code the amino acids, the Cs, Gs, As, and Ts that trigger melanin production. Melanin, [you might think the work should be] black or brown or something like that. But in fact, that piece is red and yellow and blue and black.

Sometimes I’m using black to signify color theory. There’s a piece called Chromosomes, which was made around the 2000s when everyone was trying to map the genome. I made two pieces; one called Chromosome that’s entirely made of black beads, and then I made another one called Chromasomes with an “a” in it to play off the word chroma. There I was playing with color theory that, of course, if you pull all the colors together, then you land at black. And of course, all of the colors, that is to say all of the races, came out of the continent of Africa. So that’s a very intentional use of black as opposed to black pocket combs. 

 

Sonya Clark, Afro Abe Progression, 2008, five-dollar bills and thread, 36 ½ x 12 ½ inches (framed). Private collection. © Sonya Clark. Image courtesy of the artist and Lisa Sette Gallery
Sonya Clark, Obama and Lincoln (Penny Portrait), 2011, inkjet print, 67 x 42 inches. On loan from the artist. © Sonya Clark. Image courtesy of the artist and Lisa Sette Gallery

In the show, you depict two presidents many times, Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama. Could you talk about what the likenesses of each of these men mean in the work?

Lincoln, obviously, because he’s the “Great Emancipator,” as complicated as that was in the Civil War and as complicated as he was. [The work is] making that connection between Obama and Lincoln, the 16th president and the 44th president, both from Illinois. I had done a lot of work around pennies earlier in my career because—oh, speaking of color—I am penny-colored. Associating pennies with skin tone, I am a child of the ‘70s, so copper tones and “suntan-colored” pantyhose, which were really the color of me, that far less-melanated women would wear. I remember as a teenager standing in a department store and watching white women put on the “skin” to test which color they wanted—that [material] was my color—and thinking, Whoa.

There are conspiracy theories about Lincoln being on the lowest denomination [of currency] and that he’s facing the other direction; all the other presidents are facing one direction, he’s facing the other direction. It goes on and on and on, but that’s useful sometimes for the artwork.

Are you hoping that the viewer will draw some of these connections? You’re saying there’s so much that the two men have in common, but obviously there’s a lot of significant difference between them as well. 

I made a portrait of Obama out of pennies of Lincoln. I’m hoping people understand that connection. And the Abraham Lincoln that has the Afro on it, I made that in 2007, right before Obama was elected. I made it as a sort of “hair as prayer,” this idea of whether the nation was ready to have its first African-American president and what it meant to put an Afro on Abraham Lincoln.

I also realize that piece is humorous, so it makes me think about why that’s funny. I often will talk about who gets to wear whose hair and [how] we understand racial constructs and who is at the top of these constructs in this hierarchy by and how that’s indicated in hair. Someone like Beyoncé when she has her hair straight and blonde, nobody thinks that’s funny, nobody sees Beyoncé’s straight blonde hair and laughs. But if you put an Afro on Abraham Lincoln, it’s funny. Clown wigs are made in lots of different colors, but they are very often hair akin to my natural hair texture. Why is that funny? It’s coming from minstrelsy and the way African Americans were depicted and dehumanized. There is slippage around that humor.

I made that piece also to collapse [the time between] 1864 and 1964. Five-dollar bills are the way that people see Lincoln the most. But I made 44 of them for Obama; none of them sold for $5. So I always say the thing that makes the piece valuable is the Afro. And of course, that was his economic concern, what do we do? African-Americans contributions have been invaluable to this nation. But we were also commodities, so turning the Emancipator into a commodity. It is illegal to sell currency, but I changed it through art, but selling the Emancipator is turning that back on itself.

One of my students at VCU had seen a postcard of Afro Abe. I was in the studios and I saw that someone had drawn an Afro or started to draw an Afro on a $5 bill. I knew that it was in reference to my work, so I said, who’s doing this? And this student got really [nervous] and I said, I just want to know who’s doing it. I considered it an honorific, someone had seen my work and they weren’t copying it to try and get away with anything. They were just copying it. But what I realized in this conversation is that the student didn’t realize what the source was, and so they actually thought this Afro was so funny and to make an Afro funny is perhaps a racist thing to do. Because I was asking the question and the student didn’t realize that the artwork had originated from me, it brought in this whole issue of authorship. Not because they were imitating the work, but because of how the work has a different meaning depending on who the artist is and how my race helps people read or not read the work.

 

Sonya Clark, Toothless (detail), 2014, plastic combs and zip ties, 75 x 65 x 8 inches. Collection of Pamela K. and William A. Royall, Jr. © Sonya Clark. Photo by Taylor Dabney
Sonya Clark, Octoroon (detail), 2018, canvas and thread, 85 3/8 x 38 ¼ x 2 inches. Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, VA. © Sonya Clark; image courtesy of the artist and Lisa Sette Gallery
Sonya Clark, Monumental Fragment (detail), 2019, linen, 50 x 34 inches. On loan from the artist. © Sonya Clark. Photo by Taylor Dabney

You grew up in the Mid-Atlantic, specifically Washington, DC, and have been having gallery shows here (and everywhere else!) since the 1990s. What shifts in the art scenes of Washington, DC, and Baltimore have you noticed over the last thirty years? 

I don’t have an answer to that honestly because I got my art degrees in Illinois at the Art Institute of Chicago and in Michigan at Cranbrook Academy of Art. So I was not in the Mid-Atlantic. The first places I showed were in locations closer to where I was in art school, so I don’t really have a finger on the pulse of the Mid-Atlantic. You would think I would have a better sense of the Richmond art scene! When you’re a recent graduate of an art school, you show where you are, and then as your career gets more established, the thing you want to do is show exactly not where you are. When I was at the University of Wisconsin–Madison as an assistant professor, they didn’t want me showing down the street, they wanted me to show everywhere else. It’s that idea the pebble drops here, but the ripples are farther and farther away. So unfortunately I don’t have a pulse on that and that is why.

I kind of guessed that because I know you teach at Amherst. However, people from DC and from Baltimore like to say Sonya Clark is from here!

Of course, because that’s my hometown, that’s where I grew up. I was born and raised in Washington, DC. And when I lived in Madison, Wisconsin, as a young professor, my husband was working in Baltimore, so we had a home in Baltimore. So that’s why Baltimore people claim me and they should! I’m happy to be claimed by everybody that way. That is not incorrect.

You’ve been an educator for a very long time and I imagine that as an educator, you’re used to putting contemporary art into context for students. Do you ever think about your own legacy and how it will be put into context for future generations?

Of course. I think about this sort of notion that the artwork can live on well beyond the artist. Certainly those black plastic comb pieces—which one of my graduate students at VCU was shaking his head at me, [saying] how can you be making work out of plastic? And I was like, well, I do want this to actually last forever. This is one way of ensuring a kind of immortality; not so much immortality for me, but immortality for the ideas. 

Sometimes people will ask what artists influence you. That’s a difficult question for me because I don’t categorize it that way, but I remember which artworks changed me and I might not remember who made them. Then that idea lives on in my brain and tickles something and generates something else. You hope that is something that the work can do; I hope that’s something that my work can do. If people don’t know who Sonya Clark is, that’s fine with me. I don’t have any heirs, but I do have a niece. Maybe she’d appreciate it. But how exciting if an idea that resides in the work gets passed to the next and next generation. To me, that’s a beautiful way of thinking about a legacy, and that’s important to me. 

Sometimes I get credited with doing things that are, frankly, incorrect. People will say, Oh, you are “the” hair artist. And I will say, that can’t possibly be true because I was looking at Lorna Simpson’s work. Lots of people, and lots of Black people make work around hair. Using hair as a medium has been something that’s been happening around the world for as long as human beings have been. So there are things like that that don’t seem quite right as legacies. You’ve got some blinders on if that’s how you’re labeling me, because I belong to a much longer lineage of people working that way. I’m part of a broader lineage.

 

Installation view of Sonya Clark: Tatter, Bristle, and Mend. Photograph by Kevin Allen, courtesy of NMWA
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“More is More” is the theme for BmoreArt's Issue 12, where maximalism, inclusivity, exuberance, and accumulation become the modus operandi for a post-pandemic world.

Soft Water Hard Stone is curated by Margot Norton and Jamillah James

The 2021 New Museum Triennial, Soft Water Hard Stone, the museum's fifth, exhibits works by 40 artists and collectives from around the world including Baltimore's Cynthia Daignault and Kahlil Robert Irving.

Courtney Richeson's series presents varied ecological regions and built environments

The Views from the Train series mimics the contemplative act of looking out the window and speculating on the various ways of living in the world

The larger-than-life bronze statue of McCardell, sculpted by Sarah Hempel Irani, is located in Carroll Creek Park

There are so many more stories to tell about female-identifying people throughout history, and so many histories neglected and erased, but it is exciting to see the beginnings of new figures celebrated on this kind of stage.