Waking Ghosts: Sam Vernon on Memory, Race and Creative Process Wednesday 14 September, 2011

Vernon_Sam_ThinkOnIt

What does déjà vu mean to you? Is it all in your head, or have you actually felt that, been there or knew him before? Sam Vernon‘s work gives voice to those mystical experiences that are so difficult to put in words that the only language to express them is visual. Using various artistic mediums […]

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Sam Vernon

What does déjà vu mean to you? Is it all in your head, or have you actually felt that, been there or knew him before? Sam Vernon‘s work gives voice to those mystical experiences that are so difficult to put in words that the only language to express them is visual. Using various artistic mediums such as large scale installations, drawing, collage and photography, Sam’s work reminds us that the past is not over, but always a part of us–Like an unsettled ghost, haunting, challenging and longing for us to remember.

Discussing topics of slavery, misogyny and other oppressions, Sam explains that her work “comes from a place of pain.” Her skilful and creative way of communicating such gruesome events reminds us that there is beauty to be found in truth. Here we discuss her creative process, artistic and spiritual influences and vision for her work.

I’ve never seen work like yours before. It’s playful, but sophisticated; antique and modern at the same time. Can you tell us about your creative process?  How did you arrive at this style? When did you know it worked?

Thank you! I started making small black and white pen and ink drawings in 2008. I was experimenting with ways to refine my lines and accomplish a high level of contrast. Lithography, silkscreen and black and white photography classes influenced these drawings. I was excited about methodologies around printing and I still am.

"Hi" by Sam Vernon

One day I put my drawings through the Xerox copier and discovered that the machine provided the contrast I was looking for and more importantly, it gave me the capacity to think of my process as an endless stream of images. I posses all of the control until I send my drawing through the machine, knowing 9 times out of 10 what I will get—but surprises are also possible and welcomed. The machine gives me results that I expect, sometimes distorts my drawings completely, or provides happy nuances in the image plane and many times, I go along with it.

I make a drawing, put it through the Xerox copier, draw on the copy, copy that, and repeat and build complex characters and patterns. In this way, my drawings are never really “complete.” The drawings change over time and become fuller in each new stage.

The spirituality in your artist statement really resonated with me. You write: “Then, I had a dream. A dark throng, a cave-like mass, made out of the drawings: paper architecture. How Ghosts Sleep, the installation materialized. Fear, anxiety and memory translated on flapping sheets. Ghosts congeal and bodies form in dark corners and hang about whispering until the inflection of their voices can be heard among the living.” This is beautifully stated.  What does this reflection reveal about you as an artist?

I think it speaks to the fact that both prose and poetry impact my work. The content of my first Xerox drawings was completely derived from scenes in novels I was reading at the time and in many cases, the titles of the drawings are phrases taken from the same text that inspired me to create the imagery. Reading historical fiction is a huge component of my practice and motivation.

I’ve chosen three of your prints. Can you tell us more about the thought process and meaning behind them? What do you want them to communicate?

From Top to Bottom: “New Friends,” “Playing Spades,” “Swimming Pool”

My photo collages are meant to create statements about racism and classism using family photos that I “appropriated.” I think an autobiographical lens allows me to use myself and my family as subjects of a larger discussion about a middle class black experience that is free but still haunted by ghosts of unknown ancestry and a history of oppression whether it be on a vacation to the Bahamas, while playing spades at a picnic table, or splashing around in pool in Florida. History doesn’t let us forget, and we shouldn’t.

I am a big fan of your installations. They are clearly labor intensive! What do you like about creating installation pieces? Are there things about this format that lends itself well to different concepts and emotions than single prints or collages?

"Think On It" Installation by Sam Vernon

I started having dreams and creating archetypal characters to explain my blackness and my subconscious in a 2-dimensional world, I started building a universe. The installations allow me to create a space for my drawings to exist in and then for the drawings to have a physical impact on the viewer, play with their perception, and make them question whether or not the work is the result of trauma or invention. The spatial relationship of my work to the viewer is very important to me because it makes concepts and emotion overwhelming and larger than life. But ultimately it’s a fragile creation— Xerox drawings, collages, paper.

Anything else you want to share?

I reference African art a lot. Gods, spirits, ancestors, and living people as connected beings and a female-centered beginning of time makes me feel connected to something ancient and real. My existence makes sense within a time-line that could swallow me up. Still, history and the unknown are huge influences.

Finally, what does living unchained mean to you?

Defining what kind of world I want people to see.

 

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