This personal essay was originally published in the Fall 2019 print issue, but heavily reduced in word content due to an overestimation of print space. Here is the final, full length version. Photos by Ayana Davis.
I always envied those who could create, because I never thought that my hands could produce anything worth sharing.
Standing at only 40 inches tall, I peeked over the edge of the table as my older sister doodled away in her sketchbook. Every movement, every stroke, every line was so intentional. My 4-year-old brain couldn’t grasp where her beautiful creations originated. When she broke from her work, I desperately tried to replicate her visual stories, snagging her light board, a piece of paper and a pen. Furiously, I traced every line I could see, only to be wildly confused as to how my duplicate didn’t resemble her original in the slightest. Realizing that my talents did not lie in the arts, I quickly gave up on my dream to be a visual artist.
Yet, 16 years later, I found myself in an introductory art, theory and practice (ATP) class feeling more fulfilled than ever before.
As a sophomore, ripe with senioritis and exhausted by 200-page nightly readings, I wasted no time scouring CAESAR for anything that could relieve me of my winter quarter depression. Somehow, I stumbled into the ATP courses and set my heart on taking Introduction to Photography—until that tiny blue square told me to get lost. I knew I couldn’t paint, and I definitely couldn’t draw, so, with a curious and cautious eye, I dragged Introduction to Sculpture into my shopping cart.
“Who even does sculpture?” I asked myself. “Nobody, right?” Obviously, I was nervous. Before I even stepped into the class, I felt inadequate. To even conceptualize the process of sculpting seemed daunting. I couldn’t think of the first or last original thing I had created. Luckily, I had six hours a week to figure it out.
To my relief, our instructor gave us clear directions for what he wanted us to do for the first two assignments. The assignments’ guidelines curtailed our creative freedom, but I could see that the others in my course took those parameters as an opportunity to think unconventionally. But for the life of me, I couldn’t put down a single mark on the page.
My professor must have seen me struggling, because he told the class that the only way that we could excel in sculpture, was if we deepened the way we saw the world around us—by creating literal depth. Visualizing a sculpture had to begin with switching you from two-dimensional lenses on the paper, to three-dimensional and 360 degree lenses that included shadows and depth. I had to think about how I wanted my viewer to interact with my work from every possible angle. Each aspect of my design had to be intentional to elicit sensations.
Eureka. So, the ideas began to flow from my fingertips onto the paper like branches of melting rivers activated by the sun’s warmth.
As I spent more and more time in the studio, I came to know a new source of peace. During those three hours, I plugged my ears with a playlist that I had thoughtfully put together to stimulate my imagination. As the lyrics orbited my head, I sunk into my mind and my spirit, letting my hands produce what I felt inside.
We neared the halfway point of the course, and with two pieces under my belt, I felt confident in my abilities. Our professor instructed us to take a trip to the contemporary wing of the Art Institute of Chicago with a list of sculptures to inspire the work for our next project. We were to take recycled slabs of wood and large thin sheets of styrofoam and simply create anything of our choosing.
I took my mother and my youngest brother. Eagerly, I weaved through the three levels, checking off each sculpture as I read every line of its plaque. My inspiration came to me through the work of Donald Judd, a photo of Queen Nefertiti’s bust, and the masterpiece, “Africa Restored (Cheryl as Cleopatra)” by Kerry James Marshall.
I had grown up around the works of many Black and African artists, but my mother loved no one more than Kerry James Marshall. She bought me kits to imitate and learn about his work. Marshall, who was born and raised in Birmingham and Los Angeles and now lives in Chicago, is famous for his massive acrylic paintings produced on rolled canvas. His experiences growing up around the Black Panthers and during the Civil Rights era as well as his studies of art produced by slaves influence much of his art. Through his paintings and sculptures, he explores various aspects of modern Black existence, life and history, such as the Black middle class, domestic life and popular culture.
Standing in front of his work titled “Africa Restored (Cheryl as Cleopatra),” I was transported into the vision that would guide my work for the rest of the quarter. I found myself circling every inch of this marvelous cubist, Africa-shaped sculpture without setting off the perimeter alarms. The colors, the dangling chains, the grand medallions all intertwined our African roots and our Black glamour.
Instantly, I knew this would inspire my masterpiece. I knew that from that moment on, there was no way that all my future work could not highlight the Black experience that I have lived through. I could feel the fire of my Black spirit growing and begging to be displayed.
In the class that followed, I scribbled furiously in my sketchbook, ultimately creating my America restored. I looked at my sketchbook, then to the materials provided. The realism hitーI was out of my league. How was I to carve my vision into reality?
A reassuring conversation with my professor reminded me to take it step by step: from paper, cardboard, to the final materials. With a deep breath, I dove into the sea of this seemingly impossible task. I photographed, I carved, I sanded and I owned the Kresge woodshop. I had landed in my element. I felt alive as each cut brought me closer to my vision.
My piece was late, but I had never felt so proud as I presented “We Are Born of Kings and Queens (America Restored).” Finally, I was a creator.