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Art AND: Mama Sallah Jenkins

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Mama Sallah Jenkins is ready for her turn. Born and raised in Baltimore’s Barclay neighborhood, Jenkins describes an idyllic childhood spent playing inside and outdoors with other children, celebrating holidays as a community, and enjoying the slower pace of life pre-internet. Close with her family and raised by her maternal grandparents, she’s always been creative and motivated to excel, so she went to college, but got pregnant her freshman year. It was 1976, and there weren’t even the tepid accommodations for breastfeeding mothers that we have now. The lack of institutional support and stigma felt like too much, so she left school to care for her child.

Being a good mother has become the guiding element of Jenkins’ life. After her first child, she went on to have seven more. “I didn’t do anything for about 30 years of my life because I had children in three decades—seventies, eighties, and nineties,” she says with a laugh. “I was a very particular mother about who’s around my children, their education, everything.” 

A single mother, Jenkins raised her children on her own by selling her artwork and teaching art at schools and community centers. She worked any creative temporary job she could find to make money. “I never knew what a starving artist was,” she says. “I never stopped with my art. It paid rent, it bought children’s clothes and paid for gas and [electricity]. And then I did other things: tie-dye, hair braids, I cooked—I’m a very good cook. So if I didn’t sell any jewelry, I always knew my food was going to sell.” If there was a kid-focused event, face painting was a good source of income. “Art was what sustained me and my family.” 

Jenkins’ artistic practice is expansive and has been interdisciplinary before that was a go-to art buzzword. Clay is her primary medium, but she also works with found materials and collage. There isn’t much that she hasn’t taught at one point or another in her long career as an arts educator, teaching children and adults in schools, art centers, and community spaces. In addition to her work making and selling arts and crafts, Jenkins taught a lot of dance classes in the 1980s and art school workshops in the 1990s.

Jenkins remembers when teaching used to pay better. “Baltimore City paid artists back then nice amounts of money. I would teach for an hour and a half and come out with $300,” she explains about teaching lessons during Black History Month in the 1990s. “I did three schools a week or maybe six schools a month back then. Another thing too, they would give you your checks that day,” unlike today when state and government institutions need a month or six weeks to process payment. 

 

“I have pretty much taught all my life. That’s a part of me,” she says. “I believe that’s one of my callings. And most of my students say I’m a great teacher, but I tell my students, I’m a great teacher because I’m a great student. They teach me how to teach them.”

Possessing a typical artist’s temperament, Jenkins is fiercely independent and prefers to create her own schedule where she does not need to report to anyone else. She briefly tried working a 9-to-5 in the late ‘90s, but it exhausted her and bummed her out. So she quickly returned to contract teaching work and public commissions, which is how she still supports herself today.

“I love what I do,” she says. “That’s the thing. I love children. I love people. I love children first because they still are groomable. Some adults are not. You can still groom children.” In her early 60s, Jenkins has spent much of her life supporting and facilitating the dreams of young people, including her children, her students, and even others she might not directly interact with through her past work with AmeriCorps. 

This work has meant everything to her, but she’s ready to do something for herself. This fall, Jenkins begins her MFA studies at MICA’s Rhinehart School of Sculpture, where she’s excited to learn within the institution instead of outside of it for the first time. About starting her graduate studies, Jenkins says, “My dream is so much inside of me. MICA doesn’t even know what they are going to see. And I don’t know what I want to see. I’m excited to know just what is inside of me. All my dreams, what do they look like? I mean, how do I begin to create them?” Like everything else so far, Jenkins is sure to find her own way, with joy.

SUBJECT: Mama Sallah Jenkins, 62
WEARING: “Very colorful and adorned with African face painting. Because I have no set place to work that is spirit-driven. I photograph beautifully amongst flowers, trees, and water. If in a park I can bring some materials, clay, water, and tools.”
PLACE: Zoom

 

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

Mama Sallah Jenkins: Celia: My Life, the autobiography of Celia Cruz! Although she was banned by Castro from returning to her own country, she never forgot her culture or tradition and sang her songs in her native language. I respect people from other countries who don’t become Americanized after living in America. I love this book. 

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

The worst career advice was, “Don’t apply for a fellowship at Vermont Studio Center because it’s too competitive and hardly no one gets chosen on the first try.” The best career advice was to just do it. It won’t be the end of the world if you are not chosen. You won’t be missing out, they will be missing out on a great experience with you. My mother always told me I was a great experience. She said, “Once you enter a room you light it up!” I’ve witnessed it lots of times and formed some great relationships because of it. I love people and always want to bring joy.

What makes Baltimore a great and unique place to be an artist? 

It’s my hometown, and there are people in this town that truly love and appreciate the work that I create that honors and pays homage to our ancestors, culture, tradition orators, family, and social justice. I’ve also had some of the greatest professors alive who saw my potential and squeezed all that they could out of me and eventually accepted my style. They never settled for the minimum from me, only the maximum! They allowed me to create, taught me that constructive criticism would make me a better artist. 

You’ve been an educator for so long and you’ve taught so many different kinds of art. If you had to choose one thing that you try to teach all of your students, what would you try to impart to them? Is there any advice you give to young people about dealing with disappointment?

I will always say that they have to be the best that they can be. Not for me, not for no one else, but for themselves first. I like telling them that they should never use the word “can’t,” [that they can do] whatever they want to do. Even if it’s something they attempt to do and it doesn’t work out, they should keep doing it, maybe it won’t be the same way, but keep doing it. I’ve done so many things that didn’t work out. Never put the word failure, “I failed.” You didn’t fail. You just didn’t do it that time.

You might have to try another attempt. That’s why they have 26 letters in the alphabet—it’s 26 ways we try when the first one doesn’t work. You don’t always start out getting something perfect. A lot of my students look at my work and they’ll say, “Oh, mine don’t look like yours.” I say, “Well, when I first started mine, it didn’t look like this either.” So I just encourage them to keep at it, keep at it, and keep at it—whatever will make you proud first, instead of somebody else. A lot of people do stuff to make other people proud. But you feel good about it first before anybody. 

I like to encourage them that this is yours; own it, own its greatness. I say there’s always a blessing in the lesson. 

 

You’ve lived your whole life in Baltimore. What was it like in the 1960s and 1970s growing up in Barclay?

I lived in a wonderful residential area with marble steps, clean sidewalks, children riding bikes, eating meals sitting down as a whole family. [I remember] beautiful Christmases and Easters dressing up and parading through neighborhoods. It was a wonderful place to grow up on. I grew up on the 2400 block of Barclay Street. Nobody really had to ask where their children were [because] when I was growing up, we had Greenmount Recreation Center and we had everything there—ping-pong, pool, art, swings, and a basketball court. So you didn’t have to do anything. Everybody would say, “Where’s so-and-so?” They would say, “‘Round the center.” The boys taught us things in my neighborhood. They taught us how to skate, hand dance, Fred Astaire [style dancing], and play skully. We called it “skillet” in my neighborhood and had the game painted right under the light post where we played until we had to go in the house.

I grew up in a wonderful atmosphere, except for 1968 during the riots, I was very frightened in my neighborhood. That was the first time I’d ever seen tanks. The National Guard came down our street with tanks. I guess you see it often now, but in 1968 to see something like that—well, it left an impression. That was not a good moment for me, but everything else was. I grew up with lots of friends, my first job, I was a babysitter at 13. So I had my own money, [I was] going to school . . . I also made money washing plenty of marble steps. I was good at it. That’s what I loved about the neighborhood, it was so clean and we cared about the neighborhood. Beautiful around Christmas time, everybody would light up their homes. 

Is there a material you use so much you should buy stock in it? 

Gold paint. There’s something about gold paint that drives me wild. I can never have enough of it. I love accenting my work with it. I love the way I’ve learned to use it to fool people with it on clay. [When people see my work, they] always ask me, “Is all of this clay or metal?” Most of the time it’s clay.

Do you have a favorite local restaurant or a go-to order? What is it? 

I love going to Belvedere Square with my sister. We love eating [at Atwaters] and getting the soup and bread with great sandwiches while chatting amongst people we don’t know. We go there to get away from the world and sip soup, maybe hot tea and lemon water like two old ladies. It’s such a relaxed atmosphere for me.

You’re an accomplished chef; what’s your favorite meal to make for friends and family?

Crab cakes, fried croakers, fried whole chicken wings, homemade fries, fresh corn on the cob, tossed salad, and collard greens with fresh brewed iced tea and lemons on the side.

 

You’re a very busy person who only recently has had more time for herself. What do you do just for you?

What I do for myself is I write erotic poetry. Now, have I had the guts to read it yet? No, I haven’t. Only to certain friends I’ve shared it with, but some of it gets to be a little sexy, but some of it you’re just describing a love that maybe I would have wanted in my lifetime, describing the beauty of a relationship that works, what I would consider a real partnership. So I write some poems that are based on that. But then I write some poems where my girlfriends say, “Girl, you are on to something!”

When it’s just me, I just lay back and let different thoughts roll through me. Before my mother passed, she did get a hold of [the poems I had written], but she enjoyed it. She said, “I don’t know, some of this stuff could be a little raunchy,” but then we had one glass of wine together, and we had a read-off where we just read my book and we laughed, it was so enjoyable. That’s what I miss about my mother—me and my mother, our partnership.  

That’s so wonderful you had that relationship with your mom. I’m a big believer that people need to have at least one thing in their life that is just for them.

I do dance for myself too. I do dance a lot. Most of the time when I don’t want to be bothered with people, that’s what I do. I go into my ‘70s world where the music was beautiful and had meaning. I put on my R&B and funk. I’ll just sing song after song, after song, after song, and just dance.

Do you have a daily “uniform” or specific favorite piece of clothing? What is it? 

No, I dress according to my spirit and the occasion. I do wear a lot of blue clothing at times. I attribute that to my love for the Orisha Yemaya. She is the mother of all living things, the queen of heaven, earth, and all waters. She resides in the ocean and is the mother of many of the other Orishas. In addition to being a loving mother she is a fierce protectress and has all characteristics of motherhood: nurturing, caring, and love. That’s the spirit that embodies me.

If you had unlimited funding and time, describe the project you’d make in your studio or in the community. 

A sacred garden in the community where there would be places to sit and pray, a place for lots of flowers, three large fountains, a large wall to write on and draw on, spaces to plant individual plants for loved ones, a community shrine, and a large mailbox to insert written feelings or spiritual letters to loved ones. A special part of the garden will be dedicated to parents who lost their children. 

In my studio, I’d create all the large statues, totems, and abstract pieces that have been lying dormant in my mind, heart, and spirit. Then I would turn it into a traveling exhibit.

 

What are you hoping to learn in graduate school in the fall? 

How to take my art to the next level, to exchange ideas, learn lots of different skills, become a narrative writer about my art. I want to learn more to serve my students, to encourage them to the next level of their art. The more I learn, the more I can give my students. I want to live forever through my students. Their success will be mine. In graduate school, I want the freedom to express my joy and pain of creating and have fun doing that.

Inspiration comes from everywhere but in a career it is likely that you’ll be put into context with other people. Who do you see as your contemporaries? Whose art is yours in conversation with, or if there aren’t any other artists whose work you see your own in, are there structures, places, or other notable influences on you? 

My clay artist sister Liz LaRue inspires me and she is one of my best critics. We both share a love for texture and surface treatments. She’s given me some of the greatest tips to enhance my art and loves watching my growth and experimentation. The work that I see in my own is ancient African art. My style comes from a spiritual place and is guided by my ancestors. I would love to mention my contemporaries in art, but Baltimore’s art scene I’m really not a part of. To me, it’s segregated. I have attended artists’ shows that have never attended one of mine and have been invited. Most of the people that admire my art don’t reside in this city. Being an exhibitor in Artscape six times influenced me to try out for large shows, but I learned large shows don’t always pay off—it’s lots of work and very competitive, but I was blessed to be a part of the learning experience.

You’re a spiritual person; are you a believer in astrology? What kind of insight can astrology give our readers about you? 

I used to have my chart read for about 30 years. One of my friends suggested that I have my chart read in reference to buying a house. Another friend recommended I have it done to start my new beginning in life. Personally, my spirituality I attribute to my belief in the Creator.

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?

My art heroes are Vinnie Bagwell, Xenobia Bailey, Bisa Butler, Simmie Knox-Painter, Liz LaRue. I admire all of these artists because of how excellently they execute their craft. Each one has inspired me to keep pushing the art,and the art will push into places that are unimaginable. We are all Facebook friends, I would love to have coffee or tea with any or all of them. I would love to hear their life experiences in art and share mine. I know it’s so much I could learn from all of them. Together we are a wealth of art, life and knowledge. These are my favorite living artists of color for now. Xenobia Bailey was my mentor at Vermont Studio Center 2014. She is a fiber artist working in crochet who designed the entrance of NYC’s newest subway station at 34th Street on Manhattan’s Westside. I still talk to her to this day. 

What would your teenage self think of you today?

My teenage self would say, wow, I didn’t know your life would have so many twists and turns. But in spite of it all you are tougher than you ever imagined and have weathered many storms. You’ve always been creative in all sorts of art. I always thought you would be a singer, songwriter, or a dancer on large stages. You were such a great entertainer when you were growing up and you are still so passionate about art.

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

My first 9-5 supervisor job. Although I built a great team, doing the same thing every day, too many long senseless meetings and lots of paperwork—it didn’t agree with my spirit. I felt overworked and too tired to care for my children when I got home. That kind of life just didn’t agree with me. I’m a creative spirit that has to experience lots of new and exciting things.

What have you learned the hard way?

To trust my own instincts at times. I made lots of mistakes not trusting my gut feeling. To not give away all my ideas too soon—a lot of my opportunities were snatched because I always wanted to give. When they would disappear, my mom would say, “I told you, you can’t give them everything because now they don’t need you. They have what they need.”

 

*****

Mama Sallah Jenkins is currently working on two public art commissions. She’s also going back to school this fall to earn her MFA at Maryland Institute College of Art’s Rinehart School of Sculpture.

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