“What a Powerful Thing It Is for Someone to Be Seen”—an Interview With Artist Nekisha Durrett

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Nekisha Durrett’s work demands to be seen—and seen it is. Often large-scale and heralding subject matter and message in halftone, the D.C. native’s art and design have appeared everywhere from Times Square and the National Portrait Gallery to all manner of venues around the country in between. In the process, her powerful creations have earned her such accolades as Washingtonian magazine’s 40 Under 40 list, alongside grants and an artist-in-residence tenure at the Vermont Studio Center.

Here, as PRINT’s Artist of the Month—our new endeavor to offer a comprehensive look at the creative journey that underpins a creative’s output—Durrett discusses a medley of her projects, the merits of a fluid approach to her craft, and the vital nature of seeing and being seen.

Photo by Farrah Skeiky

You grew up in Upper Marlboro, near D.C. What was your childhood like?

I guess the word would be, it was encouraged. My parents kind of realized early on that I had this interest in art-making, and I would just kind of draw whatever I saw around me. When I was growing up in Upper Marlboro, it was very rural at the time. It was before it kind of got all developed with a lot of large weird houses and developments, and things like that. There was a lot of farmland around, so I would draw a lot of stereotypical, kind of cliché images of farms and fields, and trees being chopped down, things like that.

But yeah, it was just a very encouraged upbringing where this kind of ability that I had early on was celebrated, and my parents would get me into art classes, and make sure I was in the art club in school. And then we had a family friend who was a science teacher at Duke Ellington School of the Arts in D.C., and he saw some of my drawings and encouraged me to apply for the visual arts department there. So I got some drawings together and tried to assemble a portfolio with some still-life drawings and things like that, and I got accepted, and that kind of changed everything. It made me realize that I actually could kind of have a career as an artist. It wasn’t just something that I would do as a hobby.

What sort of art and design did you most gravitate toward when you were younger, in your formative years?

I was really drawn to the aesthetics of cartoons, which I think a lot of kids are. And so my classmates would be very impressed that I could draw Garfield or I could draw Bugs Bunny. So it gave me kind of a lot of social clout at school because I was the artist in the class and I could draw these cartoon characters.

There was a real shift, I think, toward the more serious art, oddly, when my parents bought me this huge Disney animation art book. Inside of the book there were these images of Renaissance drawings—it was from this book that I realized that these cartoonists could draw so well because they had done all this foundational work in learning how to draw the figure and the human anatomy and all of this. So I was like, oh man, I need to do that too in order to get my work up to the next level, so that was where my kind of leisurely interest in drawing turned into this more serious activity of study, really. More than just play.

Tell us about the painting that hung in the rec room of your home as a kid.

OK, it’s funny you know that. This is actually before we even moved to Upper Marlboro, so this was really, really young, when I was maybe about 5 or 6 or something like that. There was—I think it was the only art that actually hung in the house—a painting of a Black woman in silhouette, and it was actually a velvet painting.

She’s in silhouette, and you know, it’s black velvet and basically her silhouette is just formed by these highlights. So it’s this very sort of cheesy kind of sfumato where the image is emerging from darkness. And again, that was the one bit of art that was in the house, and to me, it was just the best thing ever. I thought it was kind of magical how with just a few brush strokes, you could make this whole image appear on the canvas, where your brain kind of fills in the blanks. At the time I obviously didn’t have that kind of vocabulary to describe it in that way, but looking back on it, I think that was my fascination with it.

I got a sense of message early on that, along with books that my parents would buy like Black is Beautiful, and things like that, that the way that I looked, and the way that we all looked as a family, was something that was beautiful. I didn’t really realize that I really needed those images until later on in life.

“Then I wished That I Could Come Back as a Flower.” Photograph by Luke Walter Photography
“Then I wished That I Could Come Back as a Flower” (detail). Photograph by Luke Walter Photography
“Then I wished That I Could Come Back as a Flower” (detail). Photograph by Luke Walter Photography

Right, and it seems like film is something that your parents really exposed you to that had an impact, as well.

Yeah, yeah. It was always a big deal, and my parents, even today—if there’s a film coming out that has a Black lead, or an all-Black cast or something like that, they’re there. It doesn’t even matter what it is. So it was the same way when I was growing up.

When The Color Purple came out, we all, I want to say even maybe my grandparents, went. It was a huge family outing to go see this film. And at the time I was really young, so some of what I saw were not things that were intended for young people perhaps to see. One of the really formative images that I saw was the scene in the film where Shug Avery and Miss Celie kiss—and that was the first time that I had seen two women sharing a kiss. So it was hugely … it was the first time where I was watching a film and I actually saw a part of myself that I couldn’t even put words to, articulate, but I saw it on the screen and it was just … even though there was still a lot of shame, there was something that was very affirming about seeing that.

No doubt. You’ve said it changed your life.

Yeah. I think it did. I mean, I was 8 or 9 years old, so it wasn’t like I was going to come out or anything like that. I now could put some kind of language, even though it was maybe visual language, around what I was seeing. But I also noticed how people didn’t talk about that scene. They would talk about everything else that happened in the scene but that thing that was so huge to me, no one … it was also just the lack of conversation around that that made me feel like this is definitely something that I can’t talk about. I can’t share this with anyone.

To circle back to Duke Ellington Sch
ool of the Arts, what were some of your big takeaways from your time there? Did it solidify the direction that you knew you wanted to head in for your future?

I think the huge thing was to be around kids who were my age, who took art-making as seriously as I did. That was something that I didn’t have when I was attending the regular traditional schools. Again, it was another affirming experience—like, wow, I’m not the weird kid that just wants to draw all the time. These kids were doing the same things, and they had the same intensity around art-making.

No one in my household was an artist. The one artist who was in the family, who was practicing art, he lived in New York and actually he was dead by the time I came around. So I didn’t have anyone to talk to, to say, “these are the schools that you need to go to,” “this is what you need to do,” and “this is what it’s like to be an artist in the world.” So my art instructors kind of became that for me. They were like, “These are schools. You need to apply to Cooper Union. I think it’s very competitive, but I think that you have a good shot at getting in,” and they helped me shape my portfolio. These are all the things that I know that I would not have been able to do had I not been at that school. I just would have been cobbling together these old Disney drawings or something.

“And the Ancestors Say…” (mounted at Duke Ellington School of the Arts). Photograph by Luke Walter Photography
“And the Ancestors Say…” (detail; mounted at Duke Ellington School of the Arts). Photograph by Luke Walter Photography

One thing that struck me was how strategic you were in your approach. I found a Washington Post article from 1994 that said, “Although she’s won several local awards for her drawings and has participated in a mural project at the Hirshhorn, Durrett is concentrating on creating a portfolio rather than selling her work. She is currently being courted by several national art colleges.” I’m curious, what mural did you help create?

I can’t believe you found that article. That’s in the paper? What? That’s crazy. … What was really great was that we did have these opportunities to work with professional artists, and one of the artists that we worked with was Tim Rollins. And I don’t know if you remember Tim Rollins, but he was an artist who was based in New York, and he has this group that was called Tim Rollins and the K.O.S., Kids of Survival.

And so he had this group of at-risk youth who had now grown up (they were kind of like young men and women), and they were helping him to make artwork. And then they would expand the practice by going around to different schools in the U.S. and building these huge murals. And one of the things that we did was he had prepped all of these large canvases, these linen canvases where I think it was rabbit skin glued with pages from the book Animal Farm. And on the surfaces of these canvases, we were painting these caricatures of political figures’ heads on animals. So I painted the centerpiece for this large mural that was at the Hirshhorn Museum, and it was George Bush as a fox.

I love it.

It’s so interesting that I eventually would start doing these large-scale works and everything. … Which is why these conversations like we’re having right now are so great—because there’s all this stuff that’s in your DNA as an artist, and you don’t really realize it until you kind of start talking about it, or writing about it, or someone dies. Tim Rollins passed away, and so I started looking at these images and looking back at the work that I made, and looking back at the brochure from the exhibition, and just thinking about, wow, that is in my DNA as an artist, and I didn’t even really realize that.

[You would later serve as an educator at the school]—are you still teaching at Duke Ellington?

I am still teaching there, albeit virtually. Yes, I am still teaching there, and everyone thinks I teach in the visual arts department, but I actually teach in the museum studies department. And it’s the only museum studies program at a high school in the country, comprehensive museum studies.

That’s amazing. After graduating, you attended Cooper [Union] and got your BFA in fine and studio arts. What did you envision for your future? What was sort of your ultimate aspiration and hope?

One of the cool things about being there was that we didn’t have to choose a major. We had our foundation year, which was pretty much mapped out for us, but after that foundational year, if you wanted to study painting for a year, you could do that. If you wanted to study filmmaking for a semester, you could do that. If you wanted to study photography, you could do that.

I never saw myself as a photographer. My parents were very much—and I noticed that this was kind of a throughline amongst a lot of the artists of color who were at Cooper Union—it was that our parents were very concerned about how we were going to support ourselves as artists, because it’s not something that you see. At the time you didn’t really know what a successful Black artist looked like, or a successful Latino artist. You just didn’t see that.

And so our parents were just very concerned, and they were like, “OK, you need to go into graphic design, or photography, or something where you can earn a living. You can shoot weddings, you can design pamphlets,” or whatever. It was something that they could kind of get their heads around in terms of us being secure, independent human beings out in the world.

I think I had some friends who were taking photography, so I was like, “I’ll take photography and see what happens.” But it wasn’t something that really took; I didn’t see photography as a serious artform—I didn’t recognize that at the time. And so I started studying photography, and before I knew it, I had more photography in my portfolio than I had graphic design, more than I had painting or illustration. I think at one point I wanted to be a children’s book illustrator. So I had this really substantial photography portfolio that was really strong, and I started applying for graduate schools with that. That’s how I ended up going to University of Michigan and majoring in photography for the MFA program.

I’m curious, how do you regard photography today in terms of your craft?

Oh my God, I feel like photography is still so much a part of what I do. Actually, I think I also was getting kind of bored with drawing. … [Back then] I thought that photography was just taking a picture of what you see, just capturing this thing, and now you have this permanent record of it. I think that I didn’t realize the complexity of that—that by me taking a photograph of something, removing it from that context, putting it somewhere else in front of someone. … By taking a photograph of something, you’re changing that thing and you’re changing the way that people can see it. It isn’t just this literal document.

I don’t know if that makes any sense, but I think that’s kind of now a part of my practice. As artists, I think that we have this responsibility to kind of
look at the world, take in everything, and then process it, and then put it back out into the world—but as this completely different thing.

I’m curious if, in any sense, when you were focusing on photography, did that lead you back to sort of a love of drawing and a love of creating other visual art?

So it did, it did. It showed me how I can use all of the things together. I think that we’re kind of fed this very narrow view of what all an artist can be capable of. And so it was just seeming to me like, oh, this is all. I draw and I paint, I draw and I paint. And then it was like, no, there’s all these other different things—I mean, even doing something that really isn’t art-making can influence your art-making.

I don’t know if in your research you saw this, but I also worked in museums for 10 years. And at the time, I sort of felt like I was kind of wasting my life away because my friends were in New York and in California and they were kind of blowing up, and I was working in a museum and I was printing out photo murals and mounting panels and doing that sort of thing, drawing exhibit cases and stuff like that. And it just felt like it was so separate from anything that would be connected to a serious art practice. But now I’m seeing how all of that, that whole decade, is now kind of embodied in my art practice in a way.

One thing that’s prominent in your work is your use of scale. What do you feel drives it?

I think that it’s kind of like when I saw The Color Purple, and seeing myself on the big screen. I think that that’s something that I always was doing as a kid, was looking for myself out in the world. And also, not seeing myself and feeling small and insignificant because I didn’t see myself, or feeling like I didn’t have a voice. So I think that once I realized that I can make these really large-scale works, that I could actually take up space in the world, and take up space for people who also felt like they didn’t have a voice … and also just big stuff is really cool.

“Go-Go Belongs Here.” Photograph by Luke Walter Photography
“Go-Go Belongs Here.” Photograph by Luke Walter Photography

It is. And it’s really interesting too how you sort of came full circle with your younger self and The Color Purple when you did that 48 by 30 piece on the window of the Martin Luther King Jr Memorial Library. Tell us a little bit about that project.

So that was for the D.C. Public Library’s Banned Books week. It happens every year, and they select artists to choose books that have been banned. I was one of the artists who was selected, and I didn’t realize at the time how many books have been banned for the most ridiculous reasons. I was looking to see which books resonated with me. And the book that most resonated with me was, of course, The Color Purple. And I remember, before I saw the film The Color Purple, I actually read the book because my sister had a copy of it. I think maybe she was reading it for school, or my parents probably bought it for her because it was by a Black author.

We used to always go in my sister’s closet because she just had all the cool stuff. She had the best stylish clothes, and boots, and things like that, so I would go into her closet all the time and try on her stuff or whatever. One day I saw that she had The Color Purple, so I started reading it a little bit, just kind of thumbing through it. And I came across the pages where it’s clear that there is this romantic love between Shug Avery and Miss Celie, and that it was real love. They really loved each other. It wasn’t that Miss Celie was just into Shug Avery, but Shug Avery loved her back in the same way. I was excited about seeing this film because I wanted to see these scenes played out on the big screen.

And [in the film] when it finally gets to the scene where Shug and Miss Celie are about to kiss, I think their lips barely touch and then it fades to black. And so that was the other thing—that was like, oh God, it was erased. And the film made it seem like it was just all Miss Celie infatuated with Shug Avery, that it was unrequited. And so that billboard was about me giving Shug Avery the opportunity that she didn’t have in the film, to say, “I love you, Miss Celie.”

I love it. If you’re up for it, let’s dive into some of your specific projects. Tell us about Magnolia—how the concept developed, and how you created it, because it’s so striking.

Yeah, thank you. That’s my favorite project right now; it’s always a project I’m working on right now that’s my favorite, but that one is so much more. I just feel like that work is operating in all the ways that I want my work to operate in. Art just has this power of taking an object, like an everyday object in the world that you see all the time—this leaf from a tree—and I can do something to that leaf and create this whole narrative around it, and that leaf is now about something completely different.

So that leaf, the Magnolia project, was developed during the time of George Floyd’s murder. And at the time I was actually working—I was in quarantine—and I was working on a show that had now moved to a virtual format. I was planning on doing something really large, but because I was now going to be working from home because I didn’t feel safe going to my studio, I had to work at my dining room table, so I needed to work on something small.

I had remembered that I had collected a magnolia leaf years ago, and I had the thought that I could do something with this leaf. And I had a tool that I was using to make a template for another project, and it was a paper hole punch. And I thought, wow, this is really cool because it comes with all these different-sized nibs, and I was really interested in halftone patterns at the time. And I was like, wow, I could emblazon an image into the surface of a leaf, but what would that image be?

I was taking walks in the cemetery near my house, just because that was one place that felt safe, and George Floyd was murdered, and then there was all the racial, social unrest. And I started thinking about the “Say Her Name” movement, as I do oftentimes when Black people are murdered. … I always think about the absence of women in the conversation around police brutality. So I started actually looking beyond Breonna Taylor, and Atatiana Jefferson, because those were the two, and Sandra Bland, those were the three women whose stories I was most familiar with.

I did this kind of deep dive into the African American Policy Forum’s websites, which
is Kimberlé Crenshaw’s organization (who created the word intersectionality). I did a deep dive into the “Say Her Name” page on that website, and started researching some of the names of these women. And I was like, wow, people have to know these stories. It’s not just these few names. Black women are being murdered by police.

And so I started thinking their names, these women’s names, is what should be on these leaves. Because one thing I noticed about these leaves is as they age, as they fall from the tree, they become my exact skin color almost, kind of reddish brown. And I also have a friend who had a magnolia tree in her front yard, and we would say, “Oh, this tree is so beautiful.” And they would say, “Yeah, but the leaves, we just can’t get rid of the leaves. They’re always falling, and the lawnmower can’t chew them up, and you can’t compost them, and we’re always raking them. And what do you do with them? And they tear the bag.” I just remembered thinking about these fallen leaves as something that people would rather do away with. So I thought about that in terms of Black women, how we’d rather not consider them, and that they can just be murdered and just sort of forgotten about.

That’s how it all kind of came together, and I just sat at my table, day after day, punching these holes in the leaves and researching these stories, and finally I stopped at 34 because it just … emotionally, it was really, really difficult. I’m going to pick it up again later, but I just needed to … I had to step away from it.

“Magnolia” photographs by Luke Walter Photography

It’s so powerful, and now knowing the backstory, too, it’s just so striking.

Thank you. And there were things that I realized later about how they need to be on a light box, and people have made the connection to Amanda Gorman’s poem about being the light. There were all these things that at the time I wasn’t really considering—it was just about practicality. The way to see these leaves is to backlight them.

And then it was the night before the installation was going to start, and I was like, oh my God, I’m asking people to stare into this light. That’s going to be uncomfortable. But then I thought about what happens when you stare into light and you look away. Staring into the light actually changes your body because that image gets etched, just for a short while, onto your retina.

Luke Walter Photography
Luke Walter Photography
Luke Walter Photography

Yeah, just the layers and layers. Up ‘til Now was another brilliant project that you put together using reclaimed hemlock, tree roots, dried plants, solar panels, and I also love the addition of the antique weather vane. It was mounted in Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C. Tell us about that one, and the significance of what viewers saw when they would look through the peephole in the installation.

That was a lot of fun. I hadn’t thought of a way to activate the inside yet when I wrote the proposal. It was just going to be this sort of structure that was made out of barn wood, and it was going to kind of glow at night. There were going to be these little spaces in between the wooden slats, and then you’d be able to see this light kind of glowing from within.

And then I wanted to push that a little further because one of the things that I like to do with public art—I don’t think every piece does it—but there’s an opportunity with public art to really talk about what came before the built environment. … When you look through the peephole you’re kind of transported. Someone called it like a time machine.

You look through the portal and you’re transported to pre-colonial times. You’re looking at an indigenous landscape. There’s a winding creek; creeks and bodies of water used to run all through D.C., creeks and swamps and thickets. And so in the spot where the sculpture is, there was a creek called Slash Run that cut across Connecticut Avenue. When you look through the portal, that’s what you’re looking at, and there are all little trees, and there are clouds. Over time, actually, rats started to eat it, so the clouds disappeared because the rats were using the clouds—it was just cotton—and they were using the clouds to make nests.

Luke Walter Photography
Luke Walter Photography
Luke Walter Photography

There’s a certain beauty to that.

Yeah, it went back to nature.

With Out of the Blue Black, my mind was blown by the assemblage of those 20,000 clay clovers. That has origins in your grandmother’s suitcase, right?

Yes it does. When my grandmother passed away we inherited this suitcase that I had never seen before. I didn’t know it existed, and we opened it up and it was just this treasure trove of love letters between she and my grandfather. And there was an old dress that she had as a little girl, and Valentine’s Day cards, and weird newspaper clippings, and her notes from when she was in secretarial school and she was learning shorthand. And one of the really cool things that was pressed in a book, and it may have been a Bible, but there were multiple books in there, and she had these pressed four-leaf clovers.

And I remembered that, so my mom said, “Oh yes, she used to be able to just look down at the ground and find a four-leaf clover, no matter where they were.” And I was like, “Oh my God, I used to do that when I was a kid.” We used to go out in the field during recess and we’d look for four-leaf clovers. And I was the one who at the end of recess would always have the most, every day.

This was also the moment when I learned more details about how my grandmother ended up in upstate New York, how they—it was a family of 14—all ended up in upstate New York. And they all had to move, along with other Black folks who were migrating from the South to the N
orth, they migrated from southern Virginia, Orange County, and their realtor told them that they had to move in the dark. They had to move at night because they were moving into an all-white community in upstate New York. And also just traveling for Black people during that time was really difficult, so they said you have to do this at night.

This is the kind of history that isn’t oftentimes shared with young people, because it’s out of wanting to kind of protect them from these harsh realities of racism and the legacy of it. I didn’t know these things so I had to … use my imagination and just kind of envision what that was like. So that piece was actually created out of a lack of information. I just imagined that they probably would have prayed when they reached this house, when they finally got there. Maybe they all held hands in a circle and prayed for their safety.

And I imagined, when did they even think that it was safe to be outside, to reveal themselves—how did that all happen? And I’ve seen pictures of my grandmother as a teenager in high school, the class picture, and she’s the only Black kid, so I wonder what was that like. I never had that conversation with her. You kind of grow up learning in school that the South was bad, the North was good—and you don’t learn about all the atrocities that happened to Black people in the North. So yeah, I just wonder what that was like for her.

Luke Walter Photography
Luke Walter Photography
Luke Walter Photography

“Yes, Lawd” is a phrase by James Baldwin that echoes throughout your work. Tell us about its significance.

I first used that phrase for the piece at Walter Reed. And I was doing some research on James Baldwin for another piece, and I came across a video of him talking about identity. And he was describing this moment of coming to terms with who you are, and that being Black, it’s sort of like having this discovery—it’s sort of like being in a dark tunnel where there are these two trains on either side of you, and one of these trains is who you think you are, and who the world thinks you are based on the color of your skin. And that it’s sort of like this moment of awakening standing in the middle of these trains and having no place to go, and you just watch these trains come closer to you and collide, and all you can do is just kind of give yourself over to the moment and say, “Yes, Lawd.”

That kind of came from him telling his mom that he wanted to be a writer, or he wanted to do this, or do that. And his mom was like, “Look, here is the harsh reality. You may want to do all these things, and you may see yourself as that, but this is how the world sees you. This is how white America sees you.”

And also, I see his queer identity caught up in that too, wanting to be all these things but then being stifled. Or not being stifled and just kind of giving yourself over to it and ascending beyond it.

Why Walter Reed, and how did you end up with the notion of grass-cutting?

There was an art festival in D.C. called By The People, and this was, I think, the first year that By The People happened. There were all these satellite locations. … And one of the spots that they wanted to activate was Walter Reed hospital, because it had been closed for a really long time and it was in the process of being redeveloped.

There was this huge green lawn that had all these meandering pathways. … And I just really gravitated toward that lawn, and I think I’m always looking at green grass, the kind that doesn’t have any weeds and every blade is cut at the same height, because my dad was always obsessive about the lawn. No one could ever mow the lawn but him, which was fine by me.

So my dad had served in the military. My mom was pregnant with my sister and they had to go to Walter Reed to deliver my sister. And at the time, there was a general or something whose wife was also in labor. And so they told my mom, “Well, you might have to wait because this general, his wife, she’s in labor.” And she’s like, “Oh no, you’re going to get this baby out of me when it’s time.” So that’s where my sister was born, and I always loved that story.

When I was trying to figure out what I was going to put on this lawn, I was doing research for this other project at Duke Ellington with James Baldwin’s portrait, and I knew I wanted text to accompany the piece. And I just happened to come across this phrase, and I was like, that’s it, that’s the phrase. And what stuck out to me about that phrase was that it wasn’t like that was the first time I had ever heard that. That was something I had grown up hearing from matriarchs in my family—“Oh, it’s a beautiful day today. Yes, Lawd.” “Oh, this meal is great. Yes, Lawd.” That was just like punctuation, it was affirmation that just made you kind of feel good. It was the kind of phrase that would wash over you and just felt like you were at home, and you felt safe and nurtured.

Luke Walter Photography
Luke Walter Photography
Luke Walter Photography

How difficult was it to execute the work in the grass?

It was really difficult because I was insisting on using hand shears. With a friend I made these cardboard cutouts that were the stencils. … They’re like a story tall, each letter. So I made these cardboard stencils that could easily be folded up and thrown in the moving truck, and set them all down. And then I spray painted white paint around the edges so that I would know the parts that needed to be cut away when I moved the cardboard.

I purchased these little battery-operated clippers and some hand shears, and I had a couple of my friends up there, and my wife was up there. And I was like, “OK, this is how we’re going to do this.” And they were like, “What? You want us to use what?” And my wife is the type, she wants to get everything done really fast, and I’m like, “No, this is about labor. This is about patience. This is about the hand.” And so I walked away to tend to the pathways, and they kept telling me, “There’s a guy over there with a weed whacker. Why don’t we get him to do it?” And I said, “No, we’re not going to get him to do it. He’s not going to be as careful as I need to be. And this is about labor.”

So I walk away and I look over up at the hill, because I’m checking on what they’re doing, and there’s this guy with a weed whacker, whacking out the letters. So it took him maybe an hour to do it, and we had spent days up there with these hand clippers. The grass would have grown back by the time we had gotten over to the other side.

Speaking of the James Baldwin connection, what was it like to have your portrait of him shown at the D.C. Portrait Gallery?

Oh man, that was really incredible. I used to work at the Portrait Gallery, and I would spend a lot of time walking through those galleries imagining what it would be like to be in the portrait competition, or to have my work exhibited at the Portrait Gallery. So it was incredible just for a lot of different reasons. I kind of set this intention earlier in that year [that] I wanted to have work in a museum. And for that to happen, it’s just … and then with the caliber of artists …

Photograph Courtesy of Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery
Photograph Courtesy of Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery

It was close to Kehinde Wiley’s Obama portrait, too, wasn’t it?

Yes. If you’re looking out at the gallery as though you’re Barack Obama, there is another exhibition beyond the hall of presidents that’s called the Struggle for Justice. And beyond the Struggle for Justice is James Baldwin. So there’s this pylon, this wall, partial wall that separates the two exhibitions. If you were to remove that pylon, Baldwin and Obama would be eye to eye. Pretty cool.

Your Times Square project was so striking in its simplicity. It was one of those things that said exactly what needed to be said in such a powerful way. How did you arrive at that concept?

That project came along at just the right time because I was struggling to figure out what I was going to do about the show that I was supposed to be in in New York, where I started doing the magnolia leaf, but that was before that. I just kind of felt like, oh my God, what is it even going to be like to be an artist during this time?

Like everyone, I was just feeling really off center and very insecure, just very unstable. I was reading a lot about what was happening and how communities of color were being hardest hit, and how we still had to get up and go to work, and the world was realizing what I already knew: that people of color, Black and Brown people and women, are doing all of the essential jobs that keep everything running, that keep the economy running, that keep everything going. And because of that and many other reasons, we were being the hardest hit. And that these workers are the ones who are often invisible. We don’t think about the work that they do to make our lives easier.

So I wanted to create a piece that just plainly said, “We see you.” I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the ways in which I spent my money before the pandemic. I like collecting sneakers, and I’m a consumerist just like everyone else. And in that moment, those things were just stupid. Having these big billboards up in Times Square advertising Coca-Cola or whatever, was just dumb. So I wanted my piece to look like it was a handwritten note that had been taped over a Coca-Cola ad.

Photograph by Maria Baranova
Photograph by Maria Baranova
Photograph by Maria Baranova

Looking at your work overall, really no one medium tends to define it. Is that by design?

I don’t know if it’s by design, but it kind of goes back to me falling into photography and then realizing, hey, this isn’t the only way to make art. It’s sort of like that. I just feel like every project kind of demands a different touch. And I think that my work in working in museums, working in a production shop, informed a lot of that. I was able to see all the different skills that went into making an exhibition. I would watch taxidermists work, I would watch model makers work, graphic designers, cabinet makers, metal workers. I was just always just impressed by that diversity of material under one roof and one space, and there’s just so many different ways to do things. I developed a respect for the mastery that people had around these different skills.

If I don’t know how to do something myself but I feel like this is the only way to communicate this idea, I have no problem having someone who knows how to weld or who … right now I’m working on a project where I want to work with potters. I don’t know how to throw pot, but I know people that do, but I also take pride in using my own hands to do things. It was very important for me that I was the one who made all of those little clovers. But at the same time, I also had my students helping me with that; they were kneading the clay and … rolling the clay into little tubes that I could cut down and make these little clovers.

I just think that every project deserves a different touch, a different treatment, and that there’s more than one way to do things. I don’t like feeling boxed in and doing the same thing over and over again.

And what do you think is the throughline, the element that connects all of your work?

I think that there’s an element of the need for visibility in all the work, especially in the work I’m making right now with the Magnolia project. I think that that is the throughline. The media and everything is always different, but in the end, it’s all just kind of about being seen. And what a powerful thing that is for someone to be seen, just to be seen as human.

This interview was lightly edited for clarity and condensed.