Artist's Statement: Travis Somerville on How Art Can Tackle Racism
It was Renoir who said that a work of art "must seize upon you, wrap you up in itself, and carry you away." Interviews with artists should have a similar effect. With "Artist's Statement," our weekly interview series with prominent and upcoming visual artists in San Francisco, SF Weekly speaks to the people behind the art you see in the galleries, in the museums, and in the streets.
Travis Somerville's art is a product of his upbringing in the rural American south, where he encountered racism directed at African-Americans. Somerville is white. Even relatives espoused racist views. Now 50, Somerville makes art that is both whimsical and poignant -- a combination that's appealing to many galleries and museums. Somerville has exhibited at such institutions as the Smithsonian, the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts in Montgomery, Alabama, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. This year may be Somerville's best year yet -- besides "A Great Cloud of Witnesses" at Catharine Clark Gallery (150 Minna), on display until April 20, he has a solo exhibit at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, "Rebirth of a Nation," through May 5. Somerville talked to SF Weekly about his need to make art, how he came to terms with drawing George Bush on canvas, and why he continues to make art that tackles such serious subjects as racism and global inequities.
Q: You have strong feelings about the United States that you put into your artwork, but those sentiments are only hinted at, like in your work called W.F., which features a West African rebel with the saying, "My mother is a fish." What's this work about?
Courtesy of Catharine Clark Gallery W.F.
A: The saying is a reference to William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, and it's a quote as well as a chapter in the book. The novel is about a family having to bury their mother. The quote is from the youngest character, who's about six years old, and he's relating the death of his mother to a fish he caught earlier, because he doesn't really understand death, and there's this disconnect there. Not only is that one of my favorite books, in juxtaposing that phrase with that image, it speaks to the idea that these people in these war-torn countries have this disconnection with death and violence. We as Americans have this disconnect, too, but in a completely different way. We see it but we don't understand it or experience it. And they experience it but they've almost become numb to it because it's a daily experience for them.
Q: Your work called Hamma Pahtada has a U.S. flag that's stained, connected to a cotton sack that features a drawing of a young girl. This work also begs explanation.
Courtesy of Catharine Clark Gallery Hamma Pahtada
A:The flag is juxtaposed with a cotton-picking sack that's taken from a human rights campaign website. In Uzbekistan, they handpick cotton, and for three months -- I think it's October, November and December -- they close all the schools and the force all the children 5 years and older to go into the fields and pick cotton. They pay them 50 cents a day or something. They beat the children. They threaten the children's family if they don't work fast enough. It's basically modern-day slavery. They force everyone to do it -- even doctors, but they're not as strict with them because they have to keep the hospitals running. But Hamma Pahtada loosely translated means, "Everybody's gone cotton-picking." Uzbekistan is the world's third-largest exporter of cotton. The U.S. -- up until the past year -- was one of the largest importers of it. There's been a huge campaign to stop it because H&M and other companies were importing the cotton because it's hand-picked, so it's the best cotton you can get. Cotton-picking is an issue I've been dealing with.
Q: The flags in "A Great Cloud of Witnesses" are all in negligible shape -- stained and worn, though very much intact. Why?
A: I buy them like that. I look for flags that are torn and and worn. Especially with the American flag, I want them to be embroidered with stars -- I don't like the new nylon ones. And that's adding a kind of nostalgic historical element to the piece as well. Before I buy the flag, there's this whole other history to it. At sometime, the flags meant something to somebody. Mostly I buy them at state fairs and garage sales and estate sales. Sometimes I find things in antique stores. Sometimes I find them on eBay.
Q: One of the most wrenching works at "A Great Cloud of Witnesses" is called Ballad of George Stinney, and it uses rope and two chairs to basically reenact the hanging of a 14-year-old boy in South Carolina in 1944. Stinney's images are on the chairs.
Courtesy of Catharine Clark Gallery The Ballad of George Stinney
A: There are backstories to all my pieces that are not as self-explanatory as I think they might be. With that one, I use school chairs that I got from the California Department of Education, from an elementary or middle school. Stinney was accused of killing a white girl. It was proven later that he didn't. He was the youngest person executed in the United States. He was put in the electric chair. He was so small that he had to sit on his Bible as a booster seat. And the images that are on the chair are taken from his original mug shot.
Q: You grew up in rural Georgia and Tennessee. Your dad wan Episcopalian minister, and your mother was a school teacher. You went with them to civil-rights protests on weekends. Did your parents want you and your siblings to be civil-rights activists?
A: I don't think they wanted us to. They just brought us up that way. And I didn't realize how important that was until I got older. I just thought that was normal, even though I knew we weren't the "normal family" in the south where I was. When we were in Georgia and Tennessee, we were living on this little island of integrity in this sea of hostility. I lived in a household that was extremely tolerant. We were taught never to use the N-word, and I never did. But you left the house, and all your friends who were white did. (This is in Clarksville, Georgia.) And back then, they meant it. It wasn't like it's used today. It was almost a tug of war between the way you were brought up in the house and the way you proceeded outside of the house. My relatives also used the N-word. My parents grew up in West Virginia -- they've know each other since second grade -- and they were the first generation to break away from the rest of the family in terms of political views and things like that.
Q: In 2000, you made an art piece called Boy in the Hood, where Malcolm X is wearing a Ku Klux Klan hood. Have you ever had complaints from people about your artwork, even if they know your art is well-intentioned?
Courtesy of Catharine Clark Gallery Choir Robe 2
A: The few experiences I've had where it's been a negative response has always been from white people. I expect it more from African-Americans, and I think that speaks more to my inner feelings of these issues. When I did Boy in the Hood, I thought, "I don't even want to show that to people." I thought, "That's going to stir up too much trouble." But I thought I needed to do it, for personal reasons or for creative reasons, and some collector immediately bought it. It was never in a show, but it was in the back room during an opening of a show at Catharine Clark Gallery, and I was there, and this young African-American guy -- maybe 19 or 20 -- comes in and he's standing in front of it for a long time. And I'm thinking, "Should I say something?" And he finally turns to me and says, "Do you know who did this?" And I thought, "Oh, shit." And I said, "I did it." And he goes, "That's probably the best Malcolm X painting that I've ever seen." And I was really relieved. And I realized that you can't project your feelings on how everyone else is going to feel. Or else you probably won't create anything. Because everyone has a different interpretation.
Q: The Crocker Art Museum exhibit revolves around your work called 1963, which is a cabin that people can enter -- and when they do, they find themselves in a place where violence in the offing.
A: The Crocker Art Museum bought 1963 a year and a half ago. It's an interactive cabin structure -- you can go inside, and there are all these objects, and there's a video. The cabin is very small -- it has an 8-by-10-foot footprint. It looks big on the outside, but when you're inside it's very cramped. The idea is, once you're in there, you can't just turn around and walk out. You're forced, in some ways, to experience the objects and the images that are there within the cabin. There's a false window in the back of the cabin, and there's a video behind the window of a burning cross in the distance and you hear burning wood from that cross that comes out of a vintage radio. So you're looking out this window and it's this experience of, "Are you a participant in what's going on? Are you the victim looking at what's happening on your lawn?" It brings up these inner feelings within people about these issues. Because everybody has issues dealing with racism in their lives, no matter what. No matter how liberal you say you are. As Americans, and even globally as well, we have all these issues of racism. And it's become much more global now than it has been in the past. When I was growing up, racism was strictly a black and white issue. Now, you notice it in so many different cultures.
Q: You moved to San Francisco in 1984, to attend the San Francisco Art Institute, and for many years lived in the city, where you still has his art studio. Now you live in Berkeley. In the liberal Bay Area, do reactions to your art differ from non-liberal areas?
Courtesy of Catharine Clark Gallery Lincoln Log
A: The thing here is that my art brings up feelings that people had suppressed. A lot of older people come and they're like, "Oh my God -- I experienced that as a kid." And, "I hadn't really thought about that for years." And then you get young people who come in and say, "Well, they talk about this a little bit in school but I had no idea these things were going on." And then they get more interested in it. And they want to know more about it. In the art world, you're basically preaching to the choir.
Q: Do you really think that art can change people's opinions?
A: I think so. My best experience has been when people not from the art world, like when education groups, come in. Or when it's appeared in museums and a more general public will come in than someone seeking it out. Like this show at the Crocker. It's a pretty conservative place up there. Organizers of the show -- they wanted it but they were really concerned about their audience and how they'd react to it. The curator called me yesterday because somebody complained about one of the pieces -- there's an image of Abraham Lincoln in it, and they felt that that the museum shouldn't be showing images of Lincoln portrayed in a negative way dealing with civil rights. But that painting has nothing to do with civil rights. And it doesn't portray Lincoln in a negative way. So it's different interpretations. A person uneducated with what's going on the art world sees it completely differently. They're going to take it for face value.
Q; How would you describe your art by itself -- not the messages it's designed to stir up, but the art itself.
Courtesy of Catharine Clark Gallery H.L
A: One thing I get a lot is people saying, "The work is really amazing and beautiful, but I couldn't live with it." My response is, "How can you not live with it?" But I see it completely differently. I did a series of art that dealt with George W. Bush when he was in office. It took me a little while to do those, and to actually be able to look at a portrait of him and work from that, just from my personal feelings and my personal political views. I got past it. And I'd quit looking at it for who he was. I'd just start looking at it as a face that I was drawing or painting. In many ways, I become removed from the subject matter while I'm making the piece. And I don't know if that's something conscious or subconscious or is even necessary for me to do. Because I enjoy making the work. And sometimes I feel almost guilty that I'm enjoying myself working on art about a 14-year-old kid who's been executed. But making that is something that's really positive for me, when the story behind it is such a downer in many ways.
Q: Are you religious?
A: I don't know, honestly. It was never forced on us. We had to go to church, but that was more because of my mom. Because the preacher's wife is under way more scrutiny than the preacher. And the preacher's kids are in the same boat. So we always had to go to church. But my dad was like, "It's your choice, if you want to go to church or practice religion." I don't practice; I don't go to church. But in a lot of ways, I consider myself Christian. But it's a personal struggle with me. And it's also -- in some way or another -- also in the work.
Q; You've written that your art "explores the complexities of racism and serves as a point of departure for discussion about US oppression and colonial attitudes abroad." Why do art? Why not become an activist who works, say, in politics?
A: My parents said I always did art. They said my first art project was when I was three and I glued rocks and sticks all over the bumper of our Volkswagen Bug. Ever since then, they kind of knew that was the route I was going to take. We lived in a family where lot of people would come and live with us for a time. And a lot of those were young artists, so I was always exposed to it. And when I finally decided I was going to art school, there was no argument -- they were just happy I was going to go to college at all. I credit my parents for who I am. They never, ever said, "You should do this or that." It's been a struggle, but it's one I wouldn't trade for anything.