Carrie Mae Weems: [00:00:00] I was thinking the other day about this saying that within seriousness, there's little room for play, but within play there's tremendous room for seriousness. Mm-hmm. . Yeah. That it's really through the act of serious play, that wonderful ideas are actually born.
Helga: May Weems is one of the most influential and generous contemporary American artists.
She's as devoted to her own craft as she is to introducing other artists into the world. Her photography and diverse visual media have won her numerous awards, including the Rome Prize, a MacArthur Genius Grant, and four honorary doctorate. She was even named one of the 100 most influential women of all Time by Ebony Magazine.
I'm Helga Davis and [00:01:00] welcome to my Conversations with Extraordinary People. On this episode, we explore the struggles artists must maintain to find balance and reach an audience, how the field cannot advance without the deep and profound inclusion of black artists. And what the concept of grace means in her family.
And I wanna start by, by telling you what happened on the subway here. I sat down on the bench where there were a few people sitting on the bench and I was waiting for the R train and a train was in the station. Everybody rush, rush, rush, rush, rush. And. The doors closed and I couldn't get on, and so I sat down on the bench because I wanted to see which train was leaving the station.
So I leaned a little bit to the [00:02:00] right, and immediately the woman sitting next to me grabbed her purse and put it in her lap.
And so I saw that it was the in train, which would've been expressed and not the subway, not the train for me. Um, and I just began to laugh in this kind of hysterical, Hmm, uh, this isn't funny, but I don't know what to do with this. I don't know how to balance this. With my joy and my joy is coming here to speak with you.
Carrie Mae Weems: Oh, okay.
Helga: And having to negotiate and to find balance between the events of the, the transitions in life [00:03:00] and. The present moment, and the thing that I love about the subway and that I love about the bus is that it actually gives me time to make those transitions so that when I arrive wherever. I'm headed.
I can actually really be there. I don't know what it is about the subway, but I, I get to do that with that passage of time and in that place where so many other things are happening. And so I want to, I want to start. To speak about balance and like pick any kind of balance you wish to, to begin to speak about.
But let's see where we go.
Carrie Mae Weems: Oh, well first of all, thank you for, for having me. It's really a pleasure to be speaking to you and, uh, and I'm. , [00:04:00] sorry, about what happened on the train today, on your way to the station. You know, it happens to me often and I think that sometimes often times laughter is the best thing that you can do, and it's born out of a certain kind of understanding of tragedy.
Hmm. That's really what it is. It's both, um, understanding the tragedy of, of, of the circumstance, the misunderstanding and the projections onto you. And who you might be and presumptions about who you might be and, um, and a presumption about who they are in relationship to you. Mm-hmm. . So, um, I find that this happens often to me as well, and, uh, at this point it's, uh, it, it rolls off my back because I know that it really has so little to.
with who I [00:05:00] am and everything to do with the assumptions of others about who I might be. the other day I actually went to the theater and um, I had actually a VIP pass, but when I walked in, I told the person that I was there to see the test screening of a film, and she said, oh, okay, well you need to go over there.
So I went over there and I showed that person my v i p pass, and he said, oh, you need to go back over. To the same woman who had actually sent me to the long line, and then she immediately said, oh, okay. Yes, you need to just, you can just go on in. But that with that sense that she didn't ask me. Mm, who I was mm-hmm.
She didn't ask me anything about being a V I P or what line I should perhaps be in. Mm-hmm. . It was simply an assumption that she made. She was actually a woman of color. . [00:06:00] But all throughout my experience in getting into the theater, there was this assumption all along the way by everyone I encountered that I was not a part of the v i p crew.
Mm-hmm. . Mm-hmm. . Right. It was like, okay. Right. You know, I could do an analysis of this, but actually I'm, I'm just here to see the movie
I'm just here to like, weigh it on that . And so, you know, I mean, you know, I, I, I struggle with balance and I think about it often, but I struggle with balance. I think that really time is, has, has accelerated it an extraordinary way. that all of the technology that is available to us at this moment, uh, encourages speed, whether it's through the multiple emails that we receive, or the texts that we receive, or the Instagrams that we receive, or the Facebooks that we receive, and all of it, you know, demanding our attention [00:07:00] now.
And everybody's speaking, um, faster and faster and faster and faster. Mm-hmm. , because nobody really has the time to really assume that the person that's listening has the time to actually listen. Yeah. To what's being said. Yeah. And so a part of my work is trying to figure out, uh, in the deepest possible way, How to find the balance between sharing the ideas that I'd like to share with the larger public and taking the time necessary, not only to develop the work, but then to deliver the work in a way in which it can be.
Absolutely. And hopefully, um, understood with a certain kind of precision mm-hmm. And so I'm looking for that balance between the head and the heart. and the physicality that comes with what happens when you slow down and what happens when you [00:08:00] breathe and what happens when you are allowed to reflect.
All of that takes a certain amount of time. Mm-hmm. . And so that even in the sort of difficulty and the tumultuousness of creating a work which has all of the, you know, many different. Qualities and characteristics to it, right? Mm-hmm. that at the end of the day, you're trying to touch someone and touching someone, including yourself.
Mm-hmm. really takes an enormous amount of time. Mm-hmm. . And so time and balance of. are intricately linked with one another. And so I'm trying to do that. I'm trying to work with that and, uh, giving myself, I think also the, giving myself the, the space. Mm-hmm. , giving myself the space [00:09:00] to know that, uh, one of the most important things that I can do after really working hard and pushing -
uh, is to relax and to take, um, very deep breaths. Mm-hmm. , uh, between things so that I can, so that, so that you can actually get the work done, right? Mm-hmm. . Mm-hmm. , you can't really even get your life done if you're constantly on top of it, right? Mm-hmm. . And that is, I think, you know, uh, for me in part, uh, an important aspect to finding balance in my life and in my.
Helga: Would you say that this has been true all along? Talk a little bit about your early career. What was that experience when you first
Carrie Mae Weems: began? I suppose in a real way, I started my life in my quote, career thinking about and considering what other artists were doing. Hmm. And so [00:10:00] from a very young age, I've spent a great deal of time, almost every morning, almost every morning for the last 50 years has been spent.
Looking at thinking about reading, digesting what other artists are doing. Mm-hmm. And other artists help to ground me. They help, it helps to ground my practice and it takes me out of myself and into the larger world of making. How are other artists, musicians, writers, poets, you name it, how are they responding to the world?
Have they addressed, uh, this in a, in a very particular way. I even look at artists that I don't like - you know, you know, because there's a lesson there too. There's a lesson there too. Yeah. So, being able to spend time with other artists is really important to me, and it also helps [00:11:00] me to understand and to know who some of the artists are that I might want to work alongside of at some point.
Mm-hmm. in my life, I'm often thinking about collaboration as you know, so, you know, so my life is really. Has really been been that, and I really continue that practice even when under pressure, when under great pressure, I usually go back to, um, writings, uh, for perhaps for, for instance, the, the writing of Tony Morrison.
Mm-hmm. , who I've read on my knees. I mean, I've read passages so extraordinary that the only thing I could do was drop down to my knees and say, thank you, my sister. Thank you. Right? Mm-hmm. . Mm-hmm. . So when I'm in crisis mode, it's really, uh, that time that I think I'm able to really step back, not to, not to continue to quote, push at the work mm-hmm.
but rather, uh, gather around me the [00:12:00] echoes. Of wonderful artists, uh, artists in my life, um, who I deeply admire, who are incredibly influential to my way of thinking, and I continue to do that even today. I was up early this morning, uh, looking at, uh, some work by Dawoud Bay, uh, thinking about his practice and the way in which he's made his most, his, his latest body of work and the importance of that.
Mm-hmm. Other artists help me to see myself more clearly. I think of it as a kind of love. Mm-hmm. a love affair.
Helga: Mm-hmm. . And what is it that you, what is it that you were seeing in these early photographs? Uh, what was your eye attuned to? What were you trying to do with your work then?
Carrie Mae Weems: Oh, probably the same that I'm trying to do now.
Mm-hmm. , which is, you know, just, uh, you know, like I'm [00:13:00] just, you know, probably like most artists, um, serious artist who are really in search of a certain kind of truth as they understand it. and uh, uh, I always think about it as sort of, you know, this crawl towards my humanity, trying to really understand, uh, all of my complexities.
And so when I'm going to work, I remember, you know, the first time I saw for instance, um, The Black Photographers Annual, this really beautiful volume that had been developed by this, uh, published by, uh, Joe Crawford. Joe Crawford was, uh, a photographer himself, but also a publisher and, uh, a curator of sorts and, uh, brought together these extraordinary artists.
I was probably about 18 when I first saw the book. 1820. No more than that. [00:14:00] And uh, my boyfriend rushed in one morning, one afternoon, woke me up from a nap and said, look, this, and I remembered that sitting up in bed and we just sat there. For the next hour or so, just, just leafing through this book, a photograph.
Mm-hmm. of images made by people like Roy DeCarava, Sean Walker, Beaufort Smith, Anthony Barboza, Ming Smith. Just, um, work that seemed to get at. The truth of who we were as a people and what we offered as a culture. And I thought that, uh, upon seeing that I thought, this is where I wanna be. This is where I wanna live, and this is the thing that I'm going to go after.
And, uh, it was a great moment. [00:15:00] And so taking that, using that, I started talking about all these other artists. I would do all these lectures and talks about other artists and what they were doing if I, you know, if I was invited to speak at a museum, I was coming with, you know, 200 slides, you know, at that time to show people what this work was, who these people were, and why they were important to the field.
Helga: And that also positioning yourself inside that field as well. Yes or no?
Carrie Mae Weems: Um, that wasn't, um, at the top of my mind. Uhhuh. , but that is actually what happened. Okay. Right. Mm-hmm. , it was really in paying attention to all these other artists. and then people were saying she's kinda onto something here.
Mm-hmm. . Mm-hmm. people started giving me more and more space to, to do that. Mm-hmm. , and then at one point, A curator called me and he asked me if I would mind showing. He said, you're a photographer too, [00:16:00] aren't you? And I said, yes, I am, but that's not why, why I'm here. And he said, well, you know, I think it would be really wonderful to, to share some of your work.
And I said, yes, but I would be rather bold and pretentious that, that I would use this forum to talk about me. But these other artists are clearly so much. Important. And so, but, but eventually he con convinced me to do this thing and I, I showed a few, uh, images at the very end of my presentation and I showed them very quickly and, uh, um, But from that, that, that beginning, um, was a space that, um, that, that was opened for me.
But I've never wanted to be in that space alone. I've always wanted to come into the spaces that I come into. with my friends and my colleagues and people that I believe who deserve a certain kind of recognition, [00:17:00] uh, who haven't received it. Mm-hmm. . And, and I think that it's been my way then of really broadening, uh, what the field is and how the field is understood around, um, black image making.
Because it is complex and deep and vast and very little understood. So for the last 30 years or more, 40 years, I've really been presenting a lot of the work that I think is really, um, critically important for the public to understand, for curators to know about, for museums to embrace, for collectors to.
Anytime I'm working on a project, anytime I'm working with a museum, um, I'm asking, or a gallery, I'm asking a number of questions about what it means. Mm-hmm. , and in part I ask those questions because I wanna understand their motivation. . Um, and sometimes I'm asking those questions because I want them to [00:18:00] understand their motivations because sometimes their motivation may not be absolutely clear.
Mm-hmm. , right? Mm-hmm. , it may not be clear. And so a part of that sort of interrogation. It's like the interrogation of work is that you're asking the same thing. What is the intention here and what is to be gained out of this relationship and, and do we want the same thing or different things? , do you lead me or are you attempting to lead me down a path that dissipates?
Or are you leaving le leading me into the abyss? Or is there something else that is more constructive and productive that can come out of this relationship? Mm-hmm. . And so my sense is that we have the ability to, the extent that we can be honest and bold and bodacious is to interrogate. Those on the other side so that they're clear about their intentions and that they are clear [00:19:00] that we know what their intentions might be, and so, To the extent that a gallery might represent any number of black artists, I'm really trying to understand who's collecting it and why they're collecting it, and then what they plan to do with those collections going forward.
And to the extent that they're interested also in expanding the field. Mm-hmm. is to the extent that I'm interested in working with them. . Mm. So, so it's, so yes, it is transactional, but it's not necessarily nefarious. Yes. And it can be worked with, and I think my job is to sort of crack open these points of contingent so that we might move to higher ground.
Mm-hmm. , you know, one of the things that I've, you know, I, I think about you often and, uh, I'm curious about your practice and your work and what it is that you want now, as a, a mature [00:20:00] woman working in performance in music and theater, what is it that you want for yourself now as you go through this next phase of, of life and work?
More than anything,
Helga: I would like to keep saying yes to things. Whatever they are in, in whatever form they come. So to stay out of the, what do you do, box and do the things that I'm curious about. Do the things that make me leave everything I. Wherever I am. Mm-hmm. . Mm-hmm. , whatever that looks like. Mm-hmm.
Mm-hmm. . So it may be in a song, it may be in a film, it may be in a poem. It may be something I compose. [00:21:00] It could be, it may be in a conversation that I have to, to leave that thing, whatever it is, and be completely. And without having to diminish or put aside or box, I use that word so much. Mm-hmm. . Um, because I, I, I feel that there's, so, there's so much of that.
That whatever you
Carrie Mae Weems: do, or do you think that you're put in a box? I mean, in part, of course it's, it's a fair question, right? Because, you know, what is it that you do and what is it that you care about doing? Is, is I think a really, a valid, a valid question of exploration. I was on, you know, uh, um, a phone call with, uh, Yo-Yo Ma and, uh, we're going to be doing a, a project together.
[00:22:00] And, um, he kept talking about the kitchen table series. Mm-hmm. Well, the kitchen table series was made like, you know, 35, almost 40 years ago. Yeah, a ton
Helga: Talk about a box…
Carrie Mae Weems: Right? Well, you know, because it's the first way that I became known. It's the first way that I became known. And many, many, many, many people know that work first and foremost, and try as I might.
I can't seem to get away from this body of work, and in some ways, nor do I want to, but a part of my dedication and commitment. Own self is to explore the range of possibilities in terms of how to create a work. Mm-hmm. , whether that is, um, a set of photographs or a performance piece, or a video piece or an installation or whatever it is.
But to be really given the space and to take the space and the time that I need to [00:23:00] make. Work. When I wake up in the morning, my question to myself is, how am I going to get this done? How am I going to organize my day so that I can work on this project? How do I say not, you know? Yes, but how do I say no to the onslaught of material that's coming at me so that I can actually reserve that space?
Yeah. For myself. Yeah. Because if I give it all away, I won't have any left for the work that really matters. You know, I've been making these, these little, um, boxes. . Hmm. I have on my, my, my, my projects and I have these, these sketches and sketches for my projects. Mm-hmm. and, and, and everything goes into like a box and then I start making the [00:24:00] lines and the threads.
That then connect, um, each box to the next so that I can actually see, um, graphically for myself where things actually land, what's connected. Mm-hmm. , you know, how this project is connected to this project. What part of this, this, this. Project A is connected to project B that's connected to project C.
That's right. You know? Mm-hmm. , and it's really mm-hmm. , it's, it's, it's this, just this way that, that I have, it's like, you know, constructing these little islands of thought. , you know, where each project is, its own thing. Mm-hmm. . But each project is also deeply connected. Mm-hmm. and, um, and doing it, uh, is just really wonderful.
Sometimes I then, you know, sort of take them all out and then I put them all on separate little pieces of paper, and then I start composing like a kind of collage. Out of them, well, along with, [00:25:00] you know, key phrases and words and, you know, little notations that I think actually make sense that, that I need to play with.
Mm-hmm. I was thinking the other day about the saying that within seriousness there's little room for play, but within play there's tremendous room for seriousness. Yeah, that it's really through the act of serious play, that wonderful ideas are actually born.
Carrie Mae Weems: when you wake up in the morning in the way hours of the morning, right? Tossing and turning, what are you, what are you, what's on your mind? What are you thinking? , what are you trying to, I think
Helga: very much resolve the same thing.
I think very much the same kind of thing. What do I need to do? How do I need to be organized in order to say yes to the things that I really wanna be doing? Mm-hmm. , and part of what I have had to do is to leave. Some projects, [00:27:00] things that I love with people. Mm-hmm. I really, really love because. When I'm done with that work, I have absolutely nothing left to do the things that I'm interested
Carrie Mae Weems: in, but I've seen you perform.
So I , I see you work
but I see you work my sister. It's like, okay, you know, like I can, I can watch your legs. I can watch your legs jiggling. You know, I can just see this adrenaline coursing through your body. You know, you are so intense . You are so intense. It's really kind of a, you know, amazing to, to watch you in such a, you know, phenomenal voice and presence.
Uh, your project that you did actually with, uh, Um, with, um, Claudia Rankine mm-hmm. at the, um, at the Park Avenue Army. A part, as a part of my convening, was just [00:28:00] a knockout. Your reading, your delivery of that work, of her words, uh, was really quite, quite extraordinary. Thank you for that. Thank you
Helga: for that. I mean, I think Claudia's writing is really made for who I am.
It's made for my body. It's made for my spirit, my psychology, for my voice, really. So it was definitely an honor and I didn't know
Carrie Mae Weems: be there and do that. I, I didn't know that you were, you were friends. that you were old friends, that you went to school
Helga: together. Mm-hmm. . So we were at Williams together.
Carrie Mae Weems: See, I didn't know that.
I didn't know that. I'm just finding this out now. This is
Helga: wonderful. Yeah, we were, we were there together and um, you know, we had very different friends and very different, uh, paths there, but, Uh, [00:29:00] I have a friend who says, you don't make friends, you recognize them. And, uh, I recognized Claudia very, very early in my time there.
And so that is a relationship that. Is, is one of my fundamental relationships. Mm-hmm. in the sense that mm-hmm. , when you talk, when you were speaking earlier about, uh, things or people or situations that bring you back to yourself. Yeah. She's definitely one of those people for me.
Carrie Mae Weems: You know, I was wondering, um, something else about you, because of course you've worked so, so many years with Robert Wilson, and I think that you still do occasionally.
Mm-hmm. , um, work with him, but in terms of your own practice. What is it that you most want to work on now? Is there a way that you wanna work now? And I sort of asked this [00:30:00] before, uh, and you responded with, you know, that with, with, with all the possibility of yes. But I think that I'm really sort of asking, maybe I'm asking something different, and that is, how do you see yourself working?
Is there something that you actually want to make now, uh, that you want to have space for and room for, um, that you don't yet have?
Helga: There are two things that I'm, I'm definitely working on. Uhhuh . One of them is a re-imagining of. Of, um, Langston Hughes's Black Nativity.
Carrie Mae Weems: Oh,
Helga: and this piece is called Unto Us and it examines the son of man, and that's the “s u n” of man and his.
Knowing he knows how it ends, . [00:31:00] And so what he's asking of his father in this moment is, is why, and he's, he's saying to his father, I want to do what everybody else is doing. I want what everyone else has. And that is the ability to choose. And so I'm not so sure I wanna die for these people. I'm not so sure I'm interested in, in being their savior or their lord.
Hmm hmm. And so that feels for me like a very powerful question to ask of someone who, in our culture and in our society, right, and, and in societies all over the world. Hold this position of what he did for us. . Mm-hmm. . Mm-hmm. . Wonderful. And what happens on the morning when he [00:32:00] wakes up and he says, I'm, I'm actually not sure I wanna do this.
Carrie Mae Weems: to walk that walk. Father, do I have to? So sure. Um, mm-hmm. .
Helga: And then the other piece is a retelling of the Cassandra myth. That works with her, encounter with the God and
Carrie Mae Weems: the
Helga: the outcome of that assault on her and what her. And she too is asking is, is there a different choice that I can make? Do I have to bear the, the child of a God?
And what does that even mean if, if it, if this child has come to me without my consent,
[00:33:00] So these two things feel like very, very important. Issues for me in the culture because I know the power of choosing. Choosing means you can, you can go in fully. .
Carrie Mae Weems: Oh, how wonderful. How wonderful. You know, I love this idea of, uh, the notion of choice, being able to choose and, uh, sometimes of course, you know, the ability to make a choice, uh, takes years.
Mm-hmm. , because you have to understand at a certain point, uh, in your process, What the choices are. mm-hmm. . Right, right. and, uh, you know, and, and, and the, and the threat of, of, and the threat of making that choice. You know, I made all of these choices as a very young person. I left home when I was 16. Wow. I left home when I was 16.
My father said, yeah, where are you going, ? And I said, well, I think, I think, I [00:34:00] think he said, well, so what are you gonna do? And I said, well, I'm gonna move over here. And he said, and you think you can move over there and you can pay your rent and you can pay your gas bill and your water bill and buy your food and you have money to get back and forth to school?
And I said, yeah, I think, I think so. And he said, well, Carrie, if you feel that you can, you are certainly welcome to try and if you can't make it, you are welcome to come back home. And so I left home when I was 16. And, and of course I come from, uh, an enormous family, a. Tight, uh, knit family in Portland, Oregon, and, uh, I am only one of two or three, the only woman really to leave home.
And, uh, some of my family really held it against me for a long time that I would leave the, the, the fold, the [00:35:00] tribe. Mm-hmm. , the folds and the church and all of that implied, because I come from a very religious family as well, that I would be out here on my own, uh, in a, in a different part of the country, in another state doing what I do.
She, she's, she's some kind of artist. Thanks. I think she's some kinda artist, you know? I don't know what that girl doing. , right?
Carrie Mae Weems: And, uh, and, uh, and I dreamt about it. I dreamt about it over and over. I had a recurring dream. I was always trying to get back home. I was always trying to get back home. And, um, and one afternoon, I think it was, I think it was for my birthday, maybe my, my 23rd, 24th birthday, something like,
My mother called me. It's about 2 2, 3 o'clock in the afternoon and she said, you know, Carrie . [00:36:00] I just wanna say, I just wanna let you know that I wish I had done with my life. Oh, what you're doing with yours? Mm-hmm. and Wow. . I cried. She cried. That was probably the most important phone call I've received.
Yeah. From my family. Yeah. That you, you are doing the right thing. You are now an example for the young people and our family. Mm-hmm. . And we are grateful that you were bold enough to step out. We didn't always know what you were doing and wanted to do. Mm-hmm. , but we get it. , but we get it. So it was a great, it was a great phone call with my mother.
It was, uh, a great encouragement. Yeah. Um, and a foundation on which I could then build the rest of my. Life going forward? Yeah. [00:37:00] Knowing that my mother had my back, that she was proud of the decision that I had made, uh, to do this thing and to live a certain kind of way that, uh, was a very non-traditional, in every conceivable way in relationship to.
Where I come from and my family background.
Helga: I think it's such a beautiful story and I think I shared with you the other day that my mom is just in a very different, uh, moment in her life, in a kind of transition, and my brother and I, as she likes to say, her first and her last are the ones who are around.
And I don't think my mom has ever really understood what I do or you know, she said, she would always say to me that, oh, so-and-so called and said, where is Helga? And I had to tell them,
Carrie Mae Weems: I don't know. I know [00:38:00] she's somewhere
Helga: and . Okay. I was like, but Mom, I called you and I told you where I was going. , and, and so
Carrie Mae Weems: That's, that's her way of messing with you.
That's her way of messing with, it's
Helga: Just, just, just messing with me.
Carrie Mae Weems: Right. That also has something to do with communication too. Oh, indeed. That has something to do with a certain kind of communication. Indeed. I know that that's true. Yeah. I deal with the same thing with my mother too. .
Helga: But one, one gift that she has given me during this period actually came yesterday.
So she's going in and out of a lot of confusion right now. She doesn't always know where she is. Um, and she said to me, can you come tomorrow? And I said, no, mom, I have to. I have some [00:39:00] work I need to do tomorrow. Hmm. And she grabbed my hand. And she said, yes, go and do what you gotta do. Go and do what you gotta do.
And I, I don't, I've never heard that from her before. Hmm mm-hmm. the sense that, that she, she knows that there's something I do that I have to go and do. And she said, I'll be all right. I'll be all right. Um, And in that same way that you are speaking about having then that foundation on which to go out into the world and do your work, I am receiving that now from my mom [00:40:00] at what I understand to be the end of her life.
And it's a very, it's, it is still a very powerful thing.
Carrie Mae Weems: Well, yes it is. Yes, it is. You know, and, and, and, you know, talk about choice, right? Going back to these ideas about choice. and every day we have to make these decisions about, you know, what we are going to do and how we're going to act in the world.
And I can say that there are choices that I've made that I'm not always proud of, and sometimes they were the wrong choice to be made at the time that I made. Mm-hmm. made that choice. Right? And a part of dealing with, um, the complexity of ourselves is in. Knowing when to choose. Knowing when to choose.
And I'm [00:41:00] wondering, Olga, about this idea of choice. And it sounds to me as though that that idea, the idea of choice is almost a central theme in your thinking. Is that,
Helga: is that true? That is true. And I think in part, , it comes from, from my mother's own origin story. She says that she met my father when she was 14 years old.
He was 24, and this is on the tiny island of Nevis in the British West Indies, and that he saw her in the yard. Hanging clothes. And because this, this island is so tiny, it was very easy to figure out who her parents were. And her father was the [00:42:00] sheriff of the town. And so my father went, hilarious. Isn't it hilarious?
And my father went to her father and essentially said, I want her. And that was it. It was done. and you know, a year later she, they had to wait till she was 16. The choice had been made. And I remember hearing this story from my mom, and I kept saying, but didn't anyone ask you what you wanted to do,
Because I'm a, I'm a different child. Right? I said, what? What do you mean? He, he just, he, he went to your father. What? Right. Did it. And I went on my whole tirade. And I said, didn't anyone ever ask you what you
Carrie Mae Weems: wanted? Right. Of course, of course, of
Helga: course. And she said, no. No one [00:43:00] ever asked me. And so I think in part, this is why this thing has come up in part because of where she is in her life, and in part because of the opportunities I now have.
To bring this forward to people and to also let it rise in me and make something that is part of the healing Yes. Of those choices that were taken away.
Carrie Mae Weems: My mother is also aging and uh, for the first time, just recently, I saw her as an aged woman. , you know, and, uh, and I'm thinking about her a lot. I'm thinking about what she means and I'm thinking about what she brings to me.
Mm-hmm. , the gifts that she brings to me, the language that she brings to me. I have these wonderful conversations with my mother. She's [00:44:00] not my, um, she's not my girlfriend, right? Mm-hmm. . But, um, but she is a friend. To me. Mm-hmm. and uh, and I ask her all kinds of questions. Mm-hmm. And she'll say, you know, Karen, may you ask me questions.
Don't nobody else ever ask me
Helga: can just say, you're welcome .
Carrie Mae Weems: You know, I am curious and I wanna know, I'm curious and I wanna know. But the, I, I think, you know, perhaps the, the most important conversation that we had in the last few years, it's been a conversation around grace. I was working on a project called Grace Notes, um, and um, and I was struggling with the meaning of grace.
Mm-hmm. and I called a whole bunch of people. Asking them about Grace and I, the meaning of grace. And, uh, then I read, um, you know, several books about Grace and mm-hmm , none of them seem to answer my [00:45:00] question about, you know, what is grace? What is grace? And finally, uh, one morning I called my mother and I recorded our conversation because I actually wanted to, I wanted to keep it and hold it and, and I actually wound up using it in my performance, uh, on Grace Notes, um, where she talks.
Uh, about grace and, and again, she said, you know, uh, and she's a religious woman. She goes to church mm-hmm. every Sunday and maybe on Friday. And Monday and Wednesday, right. , you know, she's always in church . And she said, you know, nobody has ever asked me that question. Nobody's asked me this question of what is grace.
And in this took us into, uh, maybe a conversation that lasted for about an hour, hour and a half or so of really just unpacking this idea. , but these ideas and notions of, of, of love and [00:46:00] compassion and patience and unrequited love . Right. You know? Mm-hmm. was, was really sort of at the core. of, of, of grace for my mother.
And I thought that she nailed it. Um, beyond all of the philosophers, beyond my pastor, beyond, um, the priest, it was my mother and her own deep thinking about the role of compassion in a life. And how you offer that and extend that to others, that you extend the compassion and empathy of humanity to all around you, regardless of who they are and regardless of what they think about you, is the act of grace.
So that your laughter this morning at the woman. Who [00:47:00] grabbed her purse when she saw you? Your laughter was your grace moment because otherwise you could have slapped her upside. Her head. Indeed.
Helga: some days. Martin. Some days Malcolm, you know,
Carrie Mae Weems: you Right. And so that ability to laugh it off. Mm-hmm. and to. At the situation gave her an extraordinary opportunity that you didn't have to give. Hmm. Thank you. Thank you. All right, my sister. Peace. Peace.