Kara: [00:00:00] The content of the work was so scandalous and, and wrongheaded in so many ways, taking the stereotypical figures out and trotting them about those whole histories of African American artists wrestling with the stereotypical depictions and minstrelsy, and it seemed worthy anyway to me as a, an artist to consider them as some kind of artwork.
Helga: What does it mean for African American artists to bear witness to oppression in their work? What happens when making use of symbols of black servitude brings one recognition? I'm Helga Davis and welcome to my show of conversations with extraordinary people. My guest today is the American painter and silhouette-ist, Kara Walker, who rose to international acclaim at the age of 28, as one of the youngest ever recipients of a [00:01:00] MacArthur Genius Grant appearing in exhibitions, museums, and public collections worldwide.
Kara's work wrestles with the ongoing psychological injury caused by the legacy of slavery. Kara joins me today to explore how she navigates her own inner conflicts, why teaching isn't really her thing, and how a curiosity for history led her to the silhouette.
Do you remember some of your first days of school?
Kara: Um, uh, No, no. At the moment, no, I don't
Helga: Didn't have the new notebook or the new shoes?
Kara: I remember preparing for the first days of school. I remember like the thrill, I still get the thrill of wanting to go and get things or you know, when my daughter was little going and, you know, getting the new clothes and the new this and that.
I love that, [00:02:00] that breath, that scent of like the new things and the potential that they all have. And then I don't really remember first day of school jitters. I don't really remember—I remember some shoes that I hated.I remember some arguments with—fights—
Helga: What were those?
Kara: Uh, Buster Browns.
Helga: Yes! I had those shoes.
Helga: You didn't like your Buster Browns?
Kara: No. They looked like potatoes on my feet. And I, and I balked at that.
Helga: I had a black pair. But they were purchased with the idea that they would last the entire year.
Kara: Right. It wasn't about—it wasn't like I had a choice about my—it just meant that I complained consistently every time I saw them on my feet.
Helga: I was thinking this morning about how to start speaking with you. And usually, you know, I have all my little questions and my [00:03:00] thoughts because I've been thinking about you since I got my email saying yes you could come. And so I think rather than ask you some questions, I just want you to tell me something.
Kara: Oh no. Oh boy. I mean, I, I was similarly wondering how I was going to respond to questions because I've been a little bit in a, um, in a bubble or cage or a, I'm not sure, a box for the last little while. And I feel like I haven't spoken to a human being outside of my own household for months. Um, I do that though. I think that the, the, the default zone for me is a little bit locked in from time to time. And it occurs to me that one of my, one of the issues that's actually embedded in my work, even though we're talking oftentimes about power and, you know, the, [00:04:00] the withholding of power from others and the oh, that, and me striving to, to, to be heard and to make voice one's discontent or one's sense of oppression. It's also an internal state that I occupy, and so it's, it's a double, triple challenge sometimes like, fight my own power structures in order to emerge into the world full of its troubles.
Helga: One of the things I was thinking about when thinking about speaking with you was about your work from the perspective of being a witness to the oppression, the power dynamics, the degradation of everyone involved in the images that you work with.
Kara: I don't know. Sometimes and especially in the last [00:05:00] days, I've been really struggling against even bearing witness in my own practice. I think it gets to be too much sometimes. Um, and I think that one of the ways, at least generally when the work is flowing and I'm able to kind of maybe float above a little bit the images and the histories and the realities that of the moment and their connections to the past and the questions that it raises for the future when I'm able to sort of suspend myself outside of that tangle of problems, I can find something like a, not just a sign of benevolence, but also a kind of sense of humor about it. And I think that—
Kara: I mean, in, in the work, you know, there's a quality of it. It's cartoonish in a way that I completely recognize as myself and my voice in, in its better moments, you know, like a child looking at everything.
Helga: Which also speaks to the scale of the work too. So when you're a child, everything and everyone seems so big.
Kara: Right. And everything is big and also there's a kind of the ambitious, you know, goal, wish to be big somehow.
Helga: For you to be big or for the history to be big?
Kara: For me to be big, to rise into that space of the enormity of, of everything. Yeah. It's hard using words sometimes to talk about things. Yeah. I was trying to figure out a way to avoid language, um, which is of course another way of putting myself in the box of not speaking to anybody. But I had this whole theory earlier this summer, like sometimes I'm dissatisfied with pictures, drawing things. Either it's too easy [00:07:00] or it's not easy enough. And I was like, oh, I'm gonna write and maybe it's time for me to write, you know, pictures aren't doing the tricks. So then I'll sit down and I'll write.
If I type, that's one way, that's one kind of language. If I write long hand. If I write on a piece of paper that's a, with a drawing tool or with a paintbrush, that's a different kind of writing and it doesn't clarify as much as I would like for it to. I just got to this sort of funny impasse where I just gigantic paper piece with writing all over it.
I was just frustrated. It was just like this explosion of frustration about many, many things, and I wrote it all down and I was like, what? Okay. Did it, did it exercise the demons? I don't think it did. I think it just kind of put them away somewhere where I didn't have to see them or think about them.
Helga: Really? But you still made something.
Kara: I did make something, but it, sort of, entered into a space that wasn't a conversational space. [00:08:00] I guess that's what it is. = I didn't really have an argument with anybody, you know, I just had an argument with a piece of paper and a piece of paper just said, just said whatever you want.
Helga: I, I was in New Orleans a couple years ago and I was standing on a corner waiting for the light to change, and I looked over and I saw a poster for an exhibition of yours that was happening there or something about your work that was happening there and on the post, all the other things had been ripped off but your image of the work was the only thing that was intact on the, on the post. And I wonder and wondered then, what is it about what you do that might [00:09:00] speak to people there, to people anywhere?
Kara: Yeah, I don't, I don't know. It surprises me, actually, but I think that, um, it is important to me usually to have an image that's arresting that can be kind of very quickly at one level and then have lots of kind of subsequent readings and meanings just embodied even in one figure or, or two figures interacting so that there's, yeah, multiple readings possible.
Helga: What drew you to the silhouette?
Kara: There were multiple points of entry to sort of arriving what seems like a very simple simple—this is really kind of a story from grad school when I was at, um, Rhode Island School of Design, I was a painting printmaking major and I was really trying to shake myself out of some kind of complacency around painting, and I really [00:10:00] knew that I had this one chance in a way, you know, this like two year opportunity to like, really get clear on on what I was not able to articulate.
So part of it was, okay, if I don't pick up paint brushes and oils, that's one tool out of the toolbox. You could just throw that away. Um, what do we have left? Okay. Part of it was a physical aesthetic sort of process of elimination. And then I was also thinking about history. I was thinking about my own personal history and I was thinking about this History with capital “H,” this magnitude of sort of entering into a historical body, recognizing my body as not just my own autonomous place, but something that has been shaped and formed by the vicissitudes of history, of slavery, of the American project. You know, like, how did I get here? How did we get here? What is this place? And I think at the time also to be in a city like Providence, that [00:11:00] historical preservation, you know? It's like, wow, look at what we're holding onto. What is it? What does it all mean?
I think it really dovetailed with my interests, which I, I think in Atlanta had a harder time processing just because historical preservation is a different, different animal in a, in a city like Atlanta in the south.
Helga: In what way?
Kara: Well, of course there's historical homes. Those historical homes, and some of those homes are plantations. There's this ongoing, um, wrestling match between a white ruling class and, uh, what had once been the lowest of underclass in the black community that fought and fought and keeps fighting to not just have a place, but to be the place and I [00:12:00] think in the eighties and nineties, living in Atlanta, it's, well, historical preservation just means a different thing. It means what do you wanna, what do you wanna preserve that for?
Helga: And so you get to RISD and something else is being preserved?
Kara: Yeah. Something's being preserved. And I think that I, I, it allowed me to kind of sidle up next to this idea of historical preservation. Because I think when you're making art, whatever the subject matter is, you kind of have to be in love, you know, you kind of have to be in love with the whole thing, the processes, the, it's anguish, but it's, yeah love is that, and you have to be like, I wanna go look at this historical home and see why the, you know what, what's up with these like cedar shingle like why is there a carriage house? And what, what's a carriage? You know? [00:13:00] And what are these pictures of these people, these merchants and these sailors? And where would I have fit in among all of this au milieu? And where would I, a young African American woman painter, slash poet, where would I, how do I enter into this society? If I refuse your answer, where will I fit in? So I think this was the, the silhouette, the, the making of it kind of arrives in this moment of, of these different questions, and also as it is in itself a process of elimination, of cutting out, of sort of reducing all of these holes into another form. Not any less hole, but somehow more complete.
Helga: You know, I've, I've always been curious to know or to think about what happens with what's left behind of your [00:14:00] work? Any desire or curiosity to explore what gets left behind
Kara: Literally on the cutting room floor or…?
Kara: You know, the first time, the first large cutout piece that I made, um, I created it on the spot. I mean, over a couple of days at the drawing center in New York in 1994, I had no idea prior to that exhibition how I was going to get those on the wall. Cause I didn't have that kind of space to work in. So I had to, it's like I will be there, and I will work on it in your space. And that worked for me. That the spontaneity of it, the, the fear, I think is like, this is your big opportunity. I had my sketches, you know, I had some notes, but most of it was like, it's all in me and it's all gonna come out in this, in this big gesture. And then at the end of the [00:15:00] run of that exhibition. I took everything off the wall and rolled 'em up and put 'em in the crawlspace and really, of the apartment I was living in.
And um, and I thought that's something beautiful. That's what I thought. I thought to put this racist fantasia on the wall to thrill, delight, and perhaps amaze and terrify an unready public. I mean, I have to say the difference between 1994 and is something I, I am kind of aware of. I guess it was an unready public. And, um, and then to just take it away and say, you know, you know, no. You don't get any more of that.
Helga: And then the stuff on the floor literally was just, it was just crumpled up?
Kara: Yeah. It was just the remains. I know my cousin James always wants to take the negative space.
Helga: Yeah, that's, that's what I mean. I [00:16:00] mean I had the opportunity to see it once. The negative space. And it was talking to me; it was powerful in a completely different way. Because then I had to talk about what was missing right, from this? And so I've, I've always been curious to know if there was any potential or desire for you to, to work with it.
Kara: Yeah. I mean, I think that here and there I might have. But it never became the, the focus of the work for some reason. And then after about 2008, I just didn't wanna make cutouts anymore. I was too occasionally, but—
Helga: And here we are, we are in 2022 and it's still a huge part of your practice.
Kara: Yeah. Yeah, that's, that's kind of the crux of it is that, I guess in 2007, 2008, I had this [00:17:00] large traveling retrospective. You remember I had a very interesting period of time where somebody later said you might have had a nervous breakdown.
Because it sounds to me cause it's not a technical, you know, psychological term, but it's what that sounds like. And then, so when I look back at that period, I think oh, oh, right. That's why I, why I couldn't show up for things like my own show. You know, for instance, why, why I couldn't explain it.
Helga: But what were some of the issues around it that, that kept you away from such a huge experience. I think that one could imagine, oh, she's got this huge retrospective. She's made it right. She's arrived.
Kara: Right, exactly. I had arrived. I had been arrived. I felt like I had been [00:18:00] arriving for the, say, 2007, 1997 was MacArthur. =So 1994 was the drawing center show.
I was already a historical artifact when I was 37, which is kind of nuts in a way. Um, and then you think, well, what am—what's, what's left now? I got another potential several decades to go. I didn't know what next? What do I do? And so I was going through a divorce. There was a lot of sort of personal factors that affected my wellbeing at the time, and then I just felt so exposed.
So it wasn't just like that the work was big and it's sort of historical reckoning and that people were having these sort of big experiences with it. But that it, it all got to be a bit too much for me to hold you know, and feel so, uh, gutted and vulnerable at the same time. Showed up as much as I could, but then at a certain point [00:19:00] I was, I think by late 2007 at the Whitney, some things physically, I just couldn't muster up the strength.
But I have the, this is, this is where the humor comes in, the childlike humor. I think it's childlike humor or, uh, what do you call that? Just a, a kind of blindness, I—and maybe this is true of anybody who's going through these kinds of like traumatic states, is this kind of wild belief that you're still managing. You know, like this internal state that's kind of like, no, I'm functioning because I'm, I'm completely fine and I'm gonna get up, I'm here and I'm gonna go and I'm gonna go to my studio. I'm gonna sit in my studio for several hours, you know, so, yeah, that was an interesting period of time. So I forgot while I got there.
Um, I feel like unloading because I [00:20:00] think meeting with you in my empty studio in around that time, and I always remember how empty my studio was.
Helga: Except for what was on the floor.
Kara: Oh, maybe that's why. Okay.
Helga: Except for what was on the floor. And that's why I got so curious about it because I was like, wow, look at this.
Kara: Hmm. Interesting. That was on the floor? So was I in some soulful way that was just like flat, so I didn't notice it. It all comes back.
Helga: So you have the drawing center, you have a MacArthur. You get to this huge retrospective and feel that the whole thing is traumatic.
Kara: Yeah. I think in, at an earlier age, I thought, well, this is a trap. When I started making this work and I was like, I think I might be making a trap for myself, but let's see
Helga: How come? [00:21:00]
Kara: Well, I think it's like the, uh, the trope of any black creative person in America for the most part, like playing around with stereotypes and then getting real, real popular for it, and then getting, uh, chastised for it and then feeling all these different ways about my capacity as an artist to affect conversations or change or to just change the dynamic. Not like I did this just out of putting a couple of ideas in an algorithm and saying, oh, this would do it. You know, it was really part of an effort to, to understand, like I said, my, how, how I, and we all got here doing this sort of Freedom project in America.
Helga: There's, there's a perspective. And what about getting popular for it?
Kara: Yeah. Well, what can one say? You know, I don't [00:22:00] know. I think it makes a shy person shyer and highly suspect of people who can just be easy with it. Really like how is that person doing that? Are they doing it? I said, you know, am I doing that when I go out? Do I seem confident and it's a, it's a, it's a funny kind of privilege to wrestle with, to have become well known. I mean, it's nothing like having been well known and having all of the gravitas and maybe airs about one that one might get from feeling like one belongs and then somewhere, somewhere and then finding oneself, somewhere else where one does not belong for all the same old damn reasons. Yeah, and then you have to fight again or fight in some passive aggressive way or write nasty letters or get in somebody's face or, I don't know. I'm [00:23:00] just making it up right now. Just speculating, just making, make conversation
Helga: Lest one forget there is that potential too. Alright. All right. And then, so that's the one side of the getting popular for it. And then, who were the angry people? What are they angry about?
Kara: Mm, many people were angry about the, I mean, the content of the work was so scandalous and wrongheaded in so many ways. You know, taking those stereotypical figures out and trotting them about with abandon like a, again, like a, um…
Helga: And without apology.
Kara: And without apology, eh, no. Yeah, I guess that's true, feeling like I, I I could use them. And I mean, I [00:24:00] think there's, there's whole histories of African American artists wrestling with these stereotypical depictions and menstrual minstrelsy and paraphernalia and the sort of wealth of objects that just sort of exist out there, sort of these totems of black servitude or something that are, are so absurd and galling and peculiar and, and such a part of an American cultural landscape that it's hard to just collect them and it's hard to just ignore them and, and, and it seems like worthy, or it seemed worthy anyway to me as a, an artist to consider them as some kind of artwork, some kind of strange, popular culture product that means something to this place that we're in and to use them like any art object or image or icon and blasphemed them, I guess [00:25:00].
Helga: You’re listening to Helga. We'll rejoin the conversation in just a moment. Thanks for being here.
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Helga: And now let's rejoin my conversation with painter and silhouette-ist. Kara Walker.
Was there someone in your family in particular who was really supportive of you when they [00:26:00] saw that you had this huge interest in drawing and painting?
Kara: Oh, well, yeah. I mean, I talked about my dad a lot, but my father was a, well, he's a retired art professor. You know, he taught for many years when I was a child in Stockton, California, he taught at the University of the Pacific. There he was the department chair and it was of course a point of pride to say my father is the chairman of the art department. You know, I was the baby love child of the family, the happy accident.
I've been told something along those lines. I was a little bit my father's child, so I went with him to work a lot. So I spent a lot of time at the university art department and at some point he did institute some summer art classes for kids. So I also spent my summers doing those so there was at least a community of children.
I wasn't just hanging around with aging art professors, and, and hippie art students. Um, [00:27:00] but they were all lovely people everybody there. So my dad's support was always implicit and then sometimes he would be explicit. Say, look, look at what Kara made. Um, but for the most part it was like, here's some materials, go draw.
Helga: So, and you just kind of took to that, it wasn't a strange thing for you?
Kara: It wasn't a strange thing for me. I mean, I do wonder if I had ever had a piano, what, what the difference might have been but I think that there was a combination of being entrusted with materials and with time, you know, not being, you know, I wasn't looking over my shoulder. He wasn't like pointing things out that I could do better. We would go to art shows, we would did studio visits. I was having some memories of that recently because I just have this very distinct sense memory. It has a lot of sort of FM radio involved as well, like driving around the Central Valley of California like, I don't [00:28:00] know, dropping somebody's artwork off at their house in Tracy. It would be hot. It was like a hundred degrees. And sitting next to my dad in the car with the radio drawing in a little, uh, sketch pad that he got me with a big pen. And uh, yeah, just a lovely kind of thing waiting around and people's makeshift art studios.
So I think that the sense of like being an artist was just sort of a natural thing. It wasn't something that I thought of as particularly exceptional because there were just so many people that I knew who were doing it in their regular settings, houses and garages.
Helga: Do you have any big feelings about the commerce of art in this moment?
Kara: I don't know. I feel like I know people who really go on a tear about it and I, and I just, um, I [00:29:00] don't think that I think about it nearly enough, but I think that I rarely make a work that I know will sell. You know, I rarely go, you know, in the direction of doing the thing that the gallery might—my gallery's been lovely, lovely people.
They never said, you know, it'd be really great if you did one more cutout, you know, really lucrative if you just snip snip. But no, I think that I've always just kind of felt like if I could just be able to make what feels right. and explore my studio practice. This is literally a practice. Like I'm always in this sort of quandary of like, oh, what do I, what does it, I do again, okay, how do I, how, how do I approach this, you know, and it's always starting from square one, so I'm, I'm not really wedded to the commercial, even though I enjoy some of the, the fruits of, you know, commercial success. I don't really wanna get [00:30:00] bogged down by it. And I think there was a little bit of that like family pride thing. Like you're doing it so, you know, like it counts for something that you're, you have a public presence in that, that kind of way.
Helga: I was wondering because I had this conversation with Robert Wilson once, and he was kind of wagging his finger at a group of us and saying that we weren't willing to suffer, and that when he was making his work, they lived five and six to a loft and that they had parties and they critiqued others', each other's work. And I said, Bob, you know, a loft now is $10,000. So how exactly should we do that? And even though he knows that that model is not [00:31:00] exactly available to most artists, he nonetheless felt the need to defend it. I think that he just has a different way of thinking about art making and what it takes to develop a vision.
What is it now that you think for art students is important for them to know about making work and, and to not necessarily be looking to make the thing that the rich person can hang over their sofa?
Kara: It does feel like there's this, there's on the one hand, in the last bunch of years, some institutions and galleries are trying to diversify their programming as they say. Or maybe they used to say, maybe, [00:32:00] you know, to expand the range to become more inclusive. And then I wonder about that feeling of being suddenly embraced after a lifetime of working. And then what do you do with that commercia embrace if you've survived long enough without it? How does that impact what you do?
How you feel about it. Is there even a place or a confidant who will go with you down the pathways of doubt around it? Because so much of what our conversations are sometimes are bound up in this idea of access and making it and, and providing access to others. And then suddenly we're all accessing the same commercial or capitalist kind of dynamic, and then that becomes okay and then it's hard to critique it. As far as the students and things, I hung [00:33:00] up my teaching hat a couple of years ago.
Helga: How come?
Kara: I'm not good at it.
Helga: What do you mean you're not good at it?
Kara: I'm stingy. I'm stingy.
Helga: What does that mean?
Kara: I'm selfish.
Helga: What does that mean?
Kara: I want it all for me.
Helga: There we go.
Kara: No, I mean, I, I, I had a challenging time and I sort of stuck with it for, for a while. Um, the last teaching job that I did, I enjoyed a lot at, at Rutgers and I had a smaller cohort than we sort of worked together on, um, on some monuments projects and we took some field trips together, which I thought was really fun to do and it's just tricky because I feel like I'm shy and the only thing I really know to talk about is my own work. And then, yeah, I can listen fairly well to what other people are doing, but I am constantly battling with a sense of my own, um, you know, some, some dynamic of my own that feels inadequate and da da da, and doesn't know and you know, should be a better student of art or a [00:34:00] better student of what's happening right now in the world. And then that takes over in my head and becomes a big boulder that I have to push out of the way in order to meet somebody where they are. And that takes a lot of time. It takes a lot of time for me to get out of my own head.
Helga: But it's a nice place your own head.
Kara: I mean, I'm familiar with it as, as it's been the theme of this conversation. It's like, yeah, I've been in my own head for a while now and 52 years of it.
Helga: But I know that you came to Einstein on the Beach when we were there in 2012. That's 10 years ago.
Kara: I know. I dunno where time is going. Yikes.
Helga: And maybe people think you only think about one thing or that you only, you have a singular lens around art. And so talk a little bit [00:35:00] about the other things that interest you that maybe have something to do with your practice, right, or just inspire you.
Kara: This last, I think, you know, like the last two years with the pandemic and everything, it's really clear to me that I have a strategic kind of military mind when it comes to making everything go right and smooth as far as like keeping my, the ship of my home life completely operable. This is not to say this is an interest of mine, I'm just saying I have an aspect of me—we got a house after I thought I could tough it out in the city for six months, and I was like, bye. I was resentful of everybody who vacated as soon as the city shut down.
And then I was like, bye, see you later but I didn't leave for long. I just have a place where I know that I can [00:36:00] breathe for a minute and then I can come back here. And in that process I've found that I also like gardening. Like a lot of people discovered gardening and drawing or the way that I draw are so linked as far as it is, you just begin, you know? Like there's the you know, seeds, water, like, doesn't take too much, but something either will grow or there'll be weeds or it won't grow, but it something kind of manifests and you're in the process of it and you don't have to think too hard about it.
And I enjoy reading, listening to books has become a new thing. Um, and I want to see more theater, but I haven't been seeing much theater. I think a lot of the things that are interests of mine have been a little bit stymied. Partly it's just been the last couple of years if things have been stymied and I didn't work hard to go against the grain.
Kara: Mm. Oh, my work is so figurative. I always wonder if there's a, I feel like my work is so willfully, um, uh, retrograde in some ways as well as far as like not fully being able to delve into abstraction, although being able to appreciate it when I see it and conceptually, well, I'm not saying I'm not conceptually rigorous, but sometimes it's just goofy. Sometimes I go for, in the midst of a, of an idea, uh, a bit of goofball. And it's not so much that I go for it, it just happens to be there.
Helga: Is this a conversation you wanna keep having a, a, a conversation with your practice that you want to keep having, that you feel still, like you've not excavated enough, that you're not at the bottom of that you're not at the end of your curiosity [00:38:00] about that is, uh, not necessary. That is—
Kara: Oh, I think it's necessary. Whether or not I'm done with it is the bigger question.
Helga: Is it done with you?
Kara: Oh, no, no. I mean, that was, that was the question in 2008, and clearly I've continued to make work. I think it just requires, you know, certain, I'm, I'm, I've made a lot of work.
And I could say I'm pretty prolific in some ways, but I think I'm fairly slow when it really comes to like thinking things through and getting to a place that I can and will work, work it out. And I think in the slow years, let's say 2020 and 2021, I had an idea. And I thought, well, I should do that since I have all the time in the world and nobody's asking for anything, and that's the perfect time, right when nobody's wanting anything from me.
And that still took, you know, six months of sort of prodding myself to just [00:39:00] begin, you know? Then I would sort of slowly put some things in place and then it just begin you know, it doesn't have to an epic just, you just have to start. So that it's an interesting kind of, like to sort of watch the waves of interest and curiosity in me, because it does seem to be a very sluggish kind of flow from time to time. A little bit swampy.
Helga: But I think that's part of what keeps people from making anything, right? They think, okay, here's my paper, or here's the keyboard, or here are the people. It has to come out right exactly the first time. And this is, this is not how anything works.
Kara: No, no. You know, I think that a lot of my work is the sort of process of getting to the work.
There's, you know, the sketches, drawings, writing, like there were a couple of like key things that I knew I could do to sort of prod [00:40:00] myself in the direction of the final sort of piece, but so much of the, the prodding has become sort of the work lately. Like a lot of, you know, there's a drawing show. It was like 600 drawings and show, you know, it's just like a lot, you know, but it was like a history also of, and I thought, okay, if I can look at all of this history of all of these prods and prompts that I've set for myself, then I will have done that part of the work. So now I can begin. So it's not so much that I don't have the interest, it's just that I haven't finished a lot of the projects that I set.
Helga: You're in process.
Kara: Yeah. I'm, I'm in process. I hope to be in process for a long time. Uh, I have a good friend who's an artist who just turned 93 and she, she's a good model, goes to the studio most days, you know? Says she's still working on, still struggling with the same struggle and I think, oh, oh no. But it's, there's, it's a good struggle, but it's just, you know, it's, it's still a struggle. You know, I, and, and I've had that moment myself where I, you know, like I'm onto something new. I've got, okay, okay, I've got this idea and I'm, you know, sit with it. I'm going to write it down. So I have this sort of note over here while I'm holding this feeling over here, and then days, weeks later, I start to sort of execute the idea and I'm like, oh, look, I've just made something that looks exactly like like all the other drawings, you know, oh, I just made a cutout. You know, I just made a, I just made an image, you know, I just reduced something. Uh, you know, and so it's kind of like finding another way to, to, um, I don't know. I'm looking for like a cooking analogy, you know, another way to, to whip the cream or something. I'm just like, okay. But it's not a matter of the curiosity being gone or the, the, the need [00:42:00] really physical need to like, get into something in the studio like to sort of physically be making something. I think that the blocks and the impasses and the walls and the labyrinth are mini and they're varied and the distractions are mini and they're varied, and so it seems to take longer to sort of get through the maze of impediments, you know, internal and external to just arrive at the soil or the page, you know, the blank space.
Because, you know, early on I, yeah, I was always aware that there's nothing blank about an empty wall. You know, there's nothing empty about an empty white wall in a downtown gallery space, it's full of meaning. You know, it's full of histories right there. And like what, what the white wall symbolizes and, you know, what the downtown and what the counterculture and what the, you know, like all of the sort of things are embedded in that space.
And then so to, [00:43:00] to sort of like, treat it like it's just empty is wrong, but to treat it like it's over full is also like, can be a little debilitating. So you just have to find the little place where there's some overlap, but it's still your space to enter into.
Helga: The one question I ask everyone I speak with is, what is it that you do every day that every person can do?
Kara: The first thought that came to mind was go to the studio every day, but having a studio is a huge thing. But having a studio in mind is also kind of a thing. I remember there's a teaching moment that comes to mind pretty often where I was very angry at somebody who was complaining about the size and shape of their studio space in a somewhat privileged setting.
And I said, you should be able to make your work anywhere, which is something that I think, I [00:44:00] believe for myself and for others, which means sometimes I do work at the kitchen table. Sometimes it is overwhelming to go a couple of blocks away or a couple of train stops away to another building, and sit in there.
Sometimes you just have to be close at home. Sometimes the sketchbook is your studio and just have it by the bed and have the thoughts and ideas or images that come to mind, put them down and then think about what you can do with them if there's more. If there's more to the story. Is there more to the story or is it just a sketch?
Helga: Just yesterday, the official White House portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama were unveiled. Barack Obama's was a portrait of him standing and set against a bright white background, whereas Michelle Obama's had her seated on a red couch with a light blue dress. Have you seen them yet?
Kara: Yeah. I mean, you know, I, I, I was scrolling [00:45:00] through my newsfeed on Instagram and I saw that there was another set of portraits unveiled, and it seemed as calculating political as the choice of the two portraits by black painters in the first instance. These are the official portraits by white painters, uh, one with Barack Obama in the stark white background, which is peculiar because, because, you know, the Kehinde portrait was against a field of green.
So in either case, he is a man positioned against a wall of opacity that I wonder about like why impenetrable? It doesn't seem that politically or by his policies or anything there's anything particularly I impenetrable about Barack Obama. He seemed to be pretty open about a lot of things. So it seems like, I mean, where like the Kennedy portrait is like brooding and melancholy and you know, sort of has all of the [00:46:00] sort of gravitas of, of the assassinated president or the, you know, the Reagan portrait is just like, you know, corporate and, you know, been, I've seen them, apparently I've studied them. So, uh, and the Michelle portrait was so devoid of life, I was just shocked. There's no highlights on the skin. And so that her skin color seems wrong and it seems matte. And, um, these are the things that I noticed about, uh, those two portraits. That's all I can say. Painterly concerns. Yeah. You know, because I did sort of a satirical take on Kehinde portraits of Barack Obama, but just very cartoonish. Um, just trying to get at the stuff that was swirling around our ideas of Barack Obama as a, as a leader or as our president or as, uh, a pariah in the eyes of [00:47:00] the Tea Party and, uh, the others. So this new portrait is sort of devoid of any of that. It was a tough presidency surrounded by whiteness, I think I ran off steam just now talking about those feelings.
Helga: Beautiful. Thank you so much.
Kara: Thanks for having me.
Helga: Thanks for listening to my conversation with Kara Walker. I'm Helga Davis. Join me next week for my conversation with scholar, Brown University, professor and founder of the Global South Center at Pratt Institute, Macarena Gomez Baris.
Macarena: There's so much pleasure in being at that sea edge. It can be an erotic space, central space, and I mean that in the sense of the full [00:48:00] senses. Of recharging the tiredness of working from a different orientation of the ions, the, the energy fields, the magnetism, the liquidity.