C. M. Turner

C. M. Turner is an independent curator, educator, and writer whose projects focus on quotidian experiences with communication, representation, identity/reality construction and management, and the overlap between physical and digital spaces. Turner has spoken on the themes of video art and Internet culture at the 2014 Mid-America Print Council Conference and the 2016 Mid-America College Art Association Conference, and his writings have been published in Report Magazine, AEQAI, and UnderMain, Inc.

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Striking Balance: A Conversation with Kiah Celeste

In a large and open studio space on the edge of Louisville’s Portland neighborhood, an array of disparate objects are sprawled out on the floor. Walking through her studio, interdisciplinary artist Kiah Celeste points to sandbags covered in neoprene and faux-leather jackets, slumping and resting on the floor and each other, noting how the objects and composition are both “heavy and weird.” A writhing, hundred-foot length of recovered fiberglass ducting is piled nearby. A gymnastics balance beam covered in upholstery material and painted vibrant blue occupies another section of floor space. Shelving and work surfaces hold containers and collections of the raw materials that will combine to become performative, sculptural assemblages, guided by Celeste’s artistic intervention into the former lives of these recovered, post-industrial elements.

As she surveys a box of golf balls and motions toward a hard-worn football striking-pad, the artist defines her materials as, “Really just a bunch of garbage that’s fun…a bunch of stuff that I’m like ‘Ooo, I want to play with that!’.”

Indeed, her recent works are playful combinations of reclaimed elements that rely on balance and gestalt to assert a new material narrative, one that defines aesthetic as function. The striking results of her explorations in the studio, and Celeste’s overall evolution into the artist she is now, have come from personal expansion and creative versatility.

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Celeste was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. She moved around between the neighborhoods of Flatbush, Midwood, Sunset Park, Bensonhurst, and Borough Park before heading to SUNY Purchase in Westchester County, New York, for her undergraduate studies in fine art photography. After finishing her degree at Purchase, Celeste felt a need for more. She explains she wasn’t looking for an escape; she was yearning for expansion:

People are like “You’re from New York, why would you ever want to leave, that’s where everyone wants to go,” but it’s still like to me, growing up there, that’s not what it was, it was just my home. In retrospect it’s like, “Yeah, it’s like the best place in the world,” but when I was living there it was just a place to me, and it was just my life, and I wanted to find out what else was out there and explore and you know, open up my world, which was just Brooklyn really. My dad went his whole life and never left Brooklyn, and that sounds like a nightmare to me. Some people like that, but I like to move around… So by the time I graduated school, I was just like, “I’m getting out of here. I’m just going somewhere,” just because I’d never been anywhere before. As I started traveling more and more it made me really appreciate where I come from.

Where we come from is more than a neighborhood, or a city, or a state. Families, communities, and institutions all play a role in shaping individuals into artists. As a child, Celeste loved drawing and dancing, and her parents nurtured those creative expressions:

My dad taught me how to sew, so I’ve been sewing since I was like little little. My dad, he played guitar and he drew, and he wrote poetry, and my mom went to the Manhattan School of Music… Both my parents were very creative people, artistic people, and that just seemed natural in my house. But I didn’t make a decision when I was little to be like “I’m gonna be an artist when I grow up!” That kind of came later.

In elementary school, Celeste began formal training in dance, continuing that training through high school. But ultimately, the necessity to work within a company, and the interpersonal requirements of dance, pushed her toward alternative expressions, citing a need for personal space and time to foster creative growth. In photography, Celeste found that space, and chose to pursue lens-based work as her focus in college. Her undergraduate work was grounded in street photography, channeling a likeness to the works of Gary Winogrand, collecting candid images of people in public. However, the desire to expand her creative lexicon and balance her energies pushed Celeste to adapt her output again:

By the time I was finishing up my senior year in college, I felt like I was really restricting myself as a photographer in this two-dimensional world, and I decided to do a performance for my thesis project and document it through photo, and also have a physical archive and a video compilation, and an installation. And it was me, like, exploding with all of this repressed creativity, or like I needed to release a different side of myself that I was submitting to, being a two-dimensional artist for four years.

Installation view of Celeste’s exhibition “It Is What Is Not Yet Known”, 2021, Quappi Projects, Louisville, Kentucky. Image courtesy of the artist.

Free from the restraints and dogma of academia, Celeste forged a path to working with objects over images. She began by fastening objects to walls with hardware and calling them three-dimensional paintings. She states that it was a natural progression from those early three-dimensional experiments to her current work:

I decided to completely reject any type of hardware and any necessity for proper installation, which cut out a middle part of the process, which was great because I really don’t have any patience. So it made everything go faster, and allowed me to be more immediate with my pieces, and also I didn’t have to spend money on hardware. And I thought it added an element to the work itself, because then the work was entirely a piece of art instead of having elements that are logical, using the logic of having to install something in the piece itself. So instead of using a bracket to help something stand, I use one of my weird objects to help it stand.

The evolution of Celeste as an artist, from dancer to photographer to interdisciplinary creator, is a progression built on intuition and balance. Since childhood, her creative output has been concerned with working in public space, with movement, and bodies, and ideas of performativity and representation. It makes sense that as she has grown as an individual, her practice has grown to maintain the underlying currents of what drives and defines the work, while expanding and adapting what the processes and output actually are.

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In her studio, Celeste discusses her influences, her processes, and her goals as an artist. Materially and aesthetically, she points to artists such as Richard Serra, Robert Morris, Eva Hesse, and other minimalists as inspiration, though she doesn’t consider herself a minimalist. She relates that she was inspired to read Kant because of Adrian Piper’s connection to the philosopher’s Critique of Pure Reason (1781). Similarly, Celeste purchased a vinyl copy of Boléro, a one-movement orchestral piece arranged by the French composer Maurice Ravel in 1928, because Jean-Michel Basquiat listened to the piece on repeat during a residency in 1982.

She flips through a stack of records showcasing jazz, classical, and Italian film soundtracks, and relates that she’s also a fan of grunge-rock and singer-songwriter albums before summing up her connection to audio-based inspiration:

Music is huge for me. I cannot work without music. Physically, I don’t think I could do it. When I’m installing my shows at other places, at galleries or whatever, I’ll like freeze up because they don’t always play music there and I’m just like, “This show may not go on because I need my music,” [laughter]. I would cease to be an artist without music. I’ve got my little record player here… I’ll be like, in the zone, and the record will be playing, and once it finishes it will just go right back, the needle will go right back to the start, and I’ll just leave it there, for hours, and I realized that that’s what happened to Basquiat.

Celeste has worked on refining her process and practice over the last several years, building a material language and working methodology through necessity and desire. Since 2017 she has completed international projects in Berlin, Germany; Barcelona, Spain; and Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Local projects include work in Cincinnati, Ohio; Frankfort, Georgetown, and Louisville, Kentucky. Celeste’s inspirations and materials are intimately connected to the locales she visits, where forms and media are literally lifted from the streets:

“Balance Bath (Abu Dhabi)”, 2019, Bathtub, metal rod, tile, brick, cement block, metal sheeting, modeling clay, 228 cm x 137 cm x 70 cm. Image courtesy of the artist.

I think it’s a really nice thing to feel the essence of a place based on the materials that I find. Like in Abu Dhabi the pieces I was finding were very obviously from there, because I was using tiles from the street that you know came out of the ground of UAE, so there’s no mistaking that it’s from there and literally a part of that city. But then there’s other things like that tub [referencing the central figure of the site-specific sculpture Balance Bath, 2019]… I could probably find that tub of the piece I made in UAE anywhere else, I see tubs all the time… I have friends sending me pictures of tubs they find. I had a friend send me a picture of a tub in Iceland and he was like, “This is your Iceland tub!” They all look slightly different but there’s a connection I think…and there’s other little signifiers.

Individually, these signifiers – small markings, logos, and so forth – point to local sources and connections. Collectively though, Celeste’s oeuvre can be viewed as dislocated from a specific time and place, gesturing toward a global aesthetic language built out of regional material dialects.

However, there are limitations in working with this process. Currently, Celeste is unable to show works from different projects in the same show, due to the resources required to ship her pieces internationally. “I don’t have the means to do that yet. But when I made the piece in Abu Dhabi, I was like, ‘This is a piece from Abu Dhabi and for Abu Dhabi, because it’s not coming back with me’.”

That work had an overtly performative element to it, linked to the temporal aspect of the sculpture going up and coming down, marking Balance Bath as both site- and time-specific. Celeste notes:

That piece was gone a few weeks after I left. I guess the city took it away because it became, like, trash, which is what it was in the beginning, you know?… Now I’m just holding onto my work a little bit, but that’s not to say that I am attached to my work. I mean I’m attached spiritually to my work, but I told myself a long time ago to not become attached to it and to learn to just let go, because it’s just material objects.

“Of Few Words”, 2020, Concrete, rubber, pigment, Dimensions variable. Image courtesy of the artist.

At the core, Celeste’s work in her ongoing series I Find This Stable is about exposing the beauty in the unexpected and exploring material relationships. She is seeking to transform the utility of individual objects, highlighting a new functionality as an aesthetic object. Her works are combinations, where multiple materials unite under contrived conditions, alluding to unseen potentials. The artist acts as a sort of guide, coaxing her materials into situational forms and relationships. “I’m using my autonomy with my hands and my brain to bring these inanimate objects together in a way that they would have done if maybe they were able to move on their own,” Celeste posits. Instead of bending metal scraps or splitting wooden shards into aestheticized shapes, she builds works by finding the “natural” ways these reclaimed materials fit together, like a post-industrial jigsaw puzzle.

By bringing these individual materials together to create a cohesive, new whole, Celeste’s process functions as a speculative practice with practical applications. Celeste explains:

It goes back to the balance thing. They’re literally balanced, but they’re also in balance in that there’s not too much of one type of material and not too much of another type of material but they come in contrast with each other to build something that seems likely inevitable to come together. Even though they’re all very disparate, it seems like they were destined for each other in their differences. I’ve been using a minimal amount of objects…three different materials per piece seems like a good amount before it gets too crowded or it gets convoluted. I want to put my hand in there, but I still want it to be its own individual thing, doing whatever it was kind of meant to do, or not meant to do [laughter].

“Bound to Bend”, 2020, Exercise Balls, perforated steel sheet, latex tubing, pigment, 102 x 67 x 122 cm. Image courtesy of the artist.

She continues:

I think the facts about these materials – that I’m not buying them, I’m not spending a ton of money to buy these new pieces of plastic and fiberglass and mass produced materials – I think if you know that they’re being repurposed in this way it kind of would automatically make you realize that it is negating the capitalist sensibilities of those materials… so using them in this way is giving them a new life, a beautiful life, a nice kind of dainty life. They get to be art now. They don’t have to be used in this rough, abusive way.

Celeste concedes that the “treasure hunting” aspect of reclaiming and repurposing materials is fun and fulfilling when she’s able to find things, but not so fun when she can’t, which tends to happen a lot. So, seeking out and storing the building blocks of her work is a balancing act in and of itself:

The best is when I’m just driving or walking and I see something and I’m like, “Oh my god what is that!” It just falls in your hands. But that rarely happens here, so I still set out and look for stuff. Sometimes an idea pops in my head and I just need to find this thing, and that’s so hard to do… I really don’t want to be a hoarder, that terrifies me. I want to do things with intention and purpose, so ideally I’ll look for something specific and bring it back to the studio, but I work in a few different ways. If I have an idea for a specific piece, then I go out to look for materials for that piece. Another way is just going out and finding objects I can make into a piece. Sometimes I’ll just have stuff here for months that I know I’ll use but I don’t know how to use it yet and then all the sudden the day comes and it works.

Celeste acknowledges that playfulness, experimentation, and a tinge of humor inflect much of the work:

Exploring and playing is a huge part of getting to the final product. That’s where it all came from, just exploring and finding out how these materials work together and then getting to this final product which was interdependency and balance because of not using hardware or not using practical or logical means, but using the playfulness to get there… I think the irony of the pieces is that they’re kind of these silly objects. You take them seriously, but it’s not like you’re taking them seriously as these industrial objects anymore. They’ve transcended that, they’re beyond that now. For me, it’s hard to look at those vacuum tubes and see them as vacuum tubes, I don’t see them as that anymore. They’re just a thing, they’ve become something else. So if I’m doing it right, then [other] people will be thinking that too.

There is also an aspect of adaptability that Celeste cultivates within her work:

I think that’s a big thing for me, just moving forward and using what you have to get the best result. So in the work, I’m using my resources, [of] which I don’t have many. I don’t have a ton of money to spend on materials, and so it’s gone from a thing of necessity to enjoyability. I’ve adapted to my lack of resources to find resources in my means, and that’s led me to this kind of amazing experience where I’ve had to go out of my comfort zone to find things. That also goes into my priorities environmentally, just being sustainable and repurposing things that are gonna get thrown out and trying to do my part in that sense.

Going from a place of necessity to a place of enjoyment is a beautiful illustration of adaptability. This is an artist embracing her place in the universe as both an individual and as a piece of a larger environment, acknowledging coexistence and harmony while recognizing forces of tension.

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The pieces in I Find This Stable and much of Celeste’s current output rely on balance and interdependence, conditions the artist advocates in daily life. These are aspects of Celeste’s personality that become imbued in the work:

The work came out of my thoughts as a living, breathing, human being. When I’m working I’m alone, I’m in my own world, and it’s the world that I want to be in, so maybe I’m creating things in an ideal world for myself, where things support each other and things balance together, and things that are very different help each other. But also there’s a tension there that is both pulling against while pulling for it.

This speculative view of how reality could be – where things that are very different can still support each other, where balance and interdependence lead to strength, even while external forces help and hinder such processes – is a position Celeste advocates for in both the physical structures of artwork and the less physical structures of social bonds.

By seeking to express the possibilities inherent within the materials she uses, Celeste creates an allegory for what she is seeking in the world at large. By being speculative and highlighting overlooked possibilities, Celeste shows the viewer that there are unlimited potentials if we are willing and able to disrupt certain patterns and accept other ways of being.

Here, Celeste is wading into the philosophical waters of phenomenology, urging a reawakening of our senses to the world around us, attuning to a higher awareness in our everyday activities. The artist maintains a strong connection to the mundane through the objects she collects and combines within her work. She relates her relationship to the mundane to the writings of Haruki Murakami, where the quotidian is often elevated by pointing to the more “magical” moments of daily existence. Celeste also references the filmmaker Jim Jarmusch to describe her connection to the mundane, citing the director’s 2003 film Coffee and Cigarettes:

It’s just a movie about nothing, about people drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes, and it’s one of my favorite movies because of how he creates romanticism on this thing people do every day, and I think that’s how I want to live my life. Life is just a bunch of disappointments [laughter], so why not use that boring shit you see every day, or you do every day, and make it a romantic thing?

This point is very much at the heart of Celeste’s practice. By stripping the utility of an object and revealing its aesthetic functionality, the artist is shaking the viewer, as a sensing being, out of routine and creating a resistance to forced systems by inviting a connection to a larger sense of being.

For Celeste, these moves are simultaneously conscious and intuitive, creating a certain amount of contrast within her work. As humans we build connections like hard is the opposite of soft, yet the reality is more like these things exist on a spectrum than as opposites. By placing materials in proximity to each other, by creating new conditions and relationships between objects, Celeste is embodying both a speculative and grounded approach to illustrating inherent beauty and functionality beyond perceived design. What Celeste is performing is what communication theorist Marshall McLuhan summed up in 1964 with the phrase “the medium is the message.” Here, the artist and the work are performing a philosophy of interdependence and balance, finding a way of being just as they need to be. As Celeste succinctly puts it, “That’s really what it all comes down to, it’s balance, in every way.”

Kiah Celeste is an interdisciplinary artist currently residing in Louisville, Kentucky. Upcoming exhibitions featuring her work include KMAC 40 at the KMAC Museum in Louisville, Kentucky, and a solo show at Swivel Gallery in Brooklyn, New York. For more information, please visit her website at www.kiahceleste.com.

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Arts

Great Meadows Foundation Funds Four Artists to Attend the 58th Venice Biennale through “Bully” Grant

Great Meadows Foundation, a grant-giving foundation launched in 2016 by contemporary art collector and philanthropist Al Shands, has steadily been upholding its commitments to contemporary art and artists in the state of Kentucky. The mission of the foundation is to “critically strengthen and support visual art in Kentucky by empowering our community’s artists and other visual arts professionals to research, connect, and participate more actively in the broader contemporary art world.”

Left to right: Great Meadows Foundation Director Julien Robson with “Bully” Grant recipients Lucy Azubuike, Ramona Dallum Lindsey, Toya Northington, and Sandra Charles. Image by the author.

In service of that mission, Great Meadows recently funded four artists to travel to Italy for the 58th Venice Biennale. Lucy Azubuike (Frankfort, KY), Sandra Charles, Ramona Dallum Lindsey, and Toya Northington (all Louisville, KY), traveled together to Venice on September 14, 2019, and spent six days visiting the Venice Biennale and satellite events and exhibitions. Great Meadows Foundation also provided a curatorial guide, Cecilia Holden, to help orient the artists in navigating the Biennale and its collateral events.

The trip was funded through a Great Meadows Foundation “bully” grant, an occasional, unsolicited grant awarded to artists who have not previously received support from the foundation. In the press release for the grant announcement, Julien Robson, Director of Great Meadows Foundation, described the “bully” grant, stating, “It allows the foundation to reach out to selected artists who have not yet received a grant and provide them with resources to visit significant exhibitions and events of the foundation’s choosing, where they can directly experience the works and ideas of important artists in the international contemporary art world.”

Upon their return from Venice, Azubuike, Charles, Lindsey, and Northington submitted reports to the foundation detailing their experiences and perspectives, portions of which are reproduced below. Supplemental questions were also provided to the artists by UnderMain in an effort to glean a holistic vision of how the trip has impacted their engagement with contemporary art in both the studio, and within the larger community. Their responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Lucy Azubuike inside Plastique Fantastique’s Blurry Venice. Image courtesy of Lucy Azubuike.

Lucy Azubuike:

This was a beautiful experience, even though in a city of water I could not find any water to dip my feet in, nor to swim! I tried but couldn’t, they were all blocked. Thank God for the Venice Pavilion and the Blurry Venice experience, even though I was only able to swim in barricaded water. Talk about having something you cannot reach. It was quite an experience.

I felt at home in Venice, considering that I am close to three artists that were showing at the Biennale; I have shown work with Zanele Muholi in the 2008 exhibit Like a Virgin, Njideka Crosby is literally my sister as we are both Igbos, while El Anatsui is my mentor.

What I saw was familiar to what I know about art: art is life, and the same artist can express art in different forms. The theme of the Biennale was “May You Live in Interesting Times.” This title in itself is an art. Ralph Rogoff, the 2019 Venice Biennale curator, opened our eyes to realize that every era is an interesting time from a different perspective.

Artists are able to ask open-ended questions, which force viewers to reexamine their views and positions about current issues. That was the strong aspect of this Biennale. They showcased what is happening in this era uniquely. For instance, this era’s interesting time is the Internet and globalization at its peak, so the question of boundaries toughens. What is a boundary? Is it virtual or real? Can a physical wall be real protection? Basically artists reveal the truth, which might not be pleasant, in unique ways.

This era has environmental dangers at its edge. The artists of the Lithuanian Pavilion highlighted that in their brilliant performance Sun & Sea (Marina). The French and Malaysian pavilions explored environmental degradation by man’s action and technology. I am a nature-art advocate, A.K.A. The Jungle Ambassador, representing the unrepresented. This trip availed me the opportunity to experience and document some tree-arts in Venice, especially in the Giardini. I am already writing a book exploring this regard of the trip.

The works at the Biennale are a testimony that art is more relevant in the world than ever and that people are beginning to appreciate and pay more attention to the prophesies of the artists. I am more energized to keep my art alive knowing that art is indispensable in our world.

Sandra Charles with work by Zanele Muholi. Image courtesy of Sandra Charles.

Sandra Charles:

I am extremely grateful to Great Meadows Foundation for affording me the opportunity to visit the 2019 Venice Biennale and to have shared this experience with three exceptional African American female artists. This visit was enlightening and lifechanging to me both personally and professionally.

All the articles about the Biennale do not come close to the actual experience. My overall impression was amazement. I was overwhelmed by the enormity of the exhibit and the trip exceeded my expectations. The intensity, passion, and freedom that I found in each artwork was refreshing. I was impressed by the diversity of the cultures, mediums, and subjects. Each piece was unique and the artists’ responses to the theme “May You Live in Interesting Times” were just as unique and varied.

It was very meaningful for me to see an exhibit that included so many cultures. Even with the artwork I questioned, I was able to appreciate the passion behind the pieces. This to me was a challenge that I gratefully accepted. Art should make you think, should make you take another look at how you see the world and challenge your own point of view. Not only is the Biennale interesting, the city of Venice contains numerous exhibits and museums. You can view pieces from the Gothic and Renaissance periods at St. Marks, or Cubism and contemporary art at the Peggy Guggenheim Museum. The Biennale also had collateral exhibits. I was able to visit AFRICOBRA: Nation Time, an exhibit close to my heart. These were the artists that influenced my generation and helped shape the civil rights movement through their art.

Without a doubt the experience of visiting the Biennale and Venice had a profound impact on me as an artist. Even before the trip was over I found myself wanting to get back in my studio and push my art past the boundaries that I had set for myself. The art I viewed at the Biennale had a sense of freedom and confidence that I felt was lacking in my work. I was so impressed with the experience that I am rethinking my current series of paintings. This trip changed that perspective. If I had not agreed to attend the Biennale I would have missed my opportunity for inspiration. This was truly a life-changing trip. I am so grateful and so happy I chose to go outside my comfort zone. After visiting the Biennale I feel I am more aware of how art is approached internationally. The trip gave me a better understanding of how local art mirrors a larger art community. This visit made me more aware of the common thread that connects each artist, and that connection intensifies on a local basis. I am hoping that this opportunity will also be extended to other emerging African American artists. Such an experience is invaluable.

Ramona Dallum Lindsey inside Plastique Fantastique’s Blurry Venice. Image courtesy of Sandra Charles.

Ramona Dallum Lindsey:

My funding for the 2019 Venice Biennale experience did not come in the traditional way. It happened because a series of people stepped out of their comfort zone to try something different. Various paths lead to privilege. Wealth buys privilege. Race regulates privilege. Knowledge acquires privilege. Networks access privilege. Privilege brought me to my Biennale experience. It was the result of several people with privilege recognizing social, cultural, and economic inequity and consciously choosing to use their privilege to address it.

Cecilia Holden was one of the best additions to our experience. Our three-plus days with her allowed us to truly understand Italian culture. She introduced us to her friends and family and showed us what it was like to live in Venice. We learned the rationale behind a cash-only economy. She showed us the locals-only restaurant, accessible only by boat. And helped us understand why you don’t drink coffee in a to-go cup.

Vian Sora told me I would discover art as I wandered the streets of Venice. She told me not to be afraid to step inside open gallery doors and to anticipate art surprises around unsuspecting corners. I’m drawn to art that connects with my heart and mind. Art should make me feel something. There were several works at the Biennale that did nothing for me, but I saw my travel companions deeply engaged in discussion about the same works. They were drawn by technique, construction, or composition. Something in the work challenged their practice. Their example opened me up to looking at art and people from multiple perspectives and purposes.

In the Venice Pavilion lacemaking was immortalized in plaster and canvas. I was inspired to explore the endless possibilities of textiles and women’s work to stand on its own as contemporary art. Artists representing historically overlooked, misunderstood, or forgotten populations must boldly take every opportunity to transform majority controlled, privileged spaces into our spaces. Artists must be unflinching and daring to challenge the status quo. I traveled all the way to Venice to be reminded, “Say it loud! I’m Black and I’m Proud!” The AFRICOBRA: Nation Time exhibit brought me to tears. I traveled to Venice to reconnect with the power of the Black American experience. Gerald Williams’ Take It (1974), reminded me of my complexity, vibrancy, and textured reality. I am not African. I am not African American. I am a Black American.

Americans embrace a microwave mindset. We desire to obtain things quickly, succinctly, and easily. For Americans, obtaining knowledge and wisdom should be effortless. The ancient Venetian architecture, the melodic rhythm of the canals, and two-hour meals reminded me that history takes time. The Biennale art was abundant and complex. A cursory glance was insufficient for understanding. You had to linger with it, converse about it, and deeply reflect on it. This is a universal truth for understanding the complexities of this world.

Left to right: Charles, Northington, Lindsey, and Azubuike. Image courtesy of Sandra Charles.

Toya Northington:

I felt at home in Venice almost immediately. I never felt a sense of being othered or made to feel different. People were impressed to see African Americans there. The expectation was for Black tourists to be from Europe or another close country. Being from the United States was a sign of status. I also expected Venice to feel like an exotic, foreign place, but it looked a lot like home to me. I could see reminders of Old Louisville throughout the city with the cracked plastered walls, old fireplaces, decorative metalwork on the doors and windows, and stained glass. The more I explored the historic beauty of Venice, the more I appreciated my neighborhood at home.

Prior to the trip, I felt that I was on the side of the marginalized or less fortunate artist. In Atlanta I was an emerging artist, but in Louisville my work is mostly unknown. I questioned whether I was still a professional artist since I had not shown my work publicly in a few years. I was seeking validation and acceptance from the local art community.

All that changed once I arrived in Venice. Suddenly I was someone significant simply because I was African American and I was there. I walked a little taller and blended into the culture. Soon I realized some of the barriers that I had experienced were imagined or minute in comparison to my ability. Not only was I able to recognize my privilege, but I was also reminded of my responsibility to share my knowledge with other up-and-coming artists in my community.

This grant was a chance to see some of the most dynamic art being created today by African American artists and other people of color. I don’t see enough representation of this type of work being created and exhibited locally. Seeing the works in person fueled my confidence in my vision and ability as an artist. I came back to Louisville with a burning desire to create with an unrestricted freedom. All the questions that I had been asking about where to take my work were answered for me in Venice.

There is a formula for reaching your infinite potential as an artist that includes exposure to national and international art, resources, and time and space to create. Those luxuries are rare for African American women artists. If you aren’t connected to certain social circles you miss out on those opportunities. If you are invited to those spaces you must be prepared to be the only African American/Black person in the room. That means walking into a space where you are largely ignored or unseen. That’s why this grant and trip were so important. It was a movement or disruption of the status quo present in our art community. We are here to make space for other artists of color.

Additional information on the artists can be found on their websites:

www.lucyazubuikeart.com

www.scharlesart.com

www.ramonadlindsey.weebly.com

www.instagram.com/toya_northington

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Navigating Experience and Longing in the Art and Design of Mia Cinelli


It’s an overcast Monday afternoon when Mia Cinelli opens the front door to her home with a welcoming smile. Situated on a tree-lined side street a few miles from the University of Kentucky in Lexington, Cinelli’s home provides a space to work away from her on-campus studio, which she concedes is presently serving more as an office than a creative space. Cinelli came to Lexington in 2017 when she accepted a position as Assistant Professor of Art Studio and Digital Design at UK’s School of Art & Visual Studies. Prior to her current position, she was appointed by Defiance College (Defiance, OH) to launch a new design program while concurrently serving as the college’s gallery director, positions she was offered directly following the completion of her MFA at the Penny Stamp School of Art and Design at the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor, MI).

Cinelli is an artist, designer, educator, and a proud “Yooper,” a native of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. She pulls her hands up to her face to mimic the mitten-like geography of her home state, pointing out with a grin that Yoopers come from the left hand, the sliver of state connected to Wisconsin that is separated from the rest of Michigan by the Straits of Mackinac. Speaking about her connection with the region, Cinelli is almost wistful, “The Midwest, I think, is more like a deep personality trait, as opposed to a place, and the U. P. is especially weird. It’s really an esoteric culture of flannel and mining and logging. Something I miss kind of deeply…in the winter everyone says ‘stay warm,’ that’s the sendoff everywhere, but I always liked that as a Midwestern thing, like the Midwest is warm, it’s cold in terms of its climate but it’s warm in terms of its people.” It’s obvious that Cinelli is concerned with people, especially within her creative pursuits. In her studio work as an artist, Cinelli’s output asks us to consider, reflect, attune. As a typographer and a designer, she’s working toward clearer forms of communication and deeper methods of expression.

Artist/Designer Mia Cinelli in her home studio, Lexington, Kentucky. Photo by C.M. Turner.

For Cinelli, aspects of function, intention, and context are intricately interwoven, which can blur the line between art and design. She sums it up in this way:

When I was in school I remember reading, “design is art with function,” which was the boiled down version of the saying, and as I got older I was like, “I think that’s kind of a bullshit answer,” because art has function, too. I don’t think that’s the delineating kind of thing…clearly it all has a function, they just have different functions and they have different kinds of context…but it has to be intentional, it has to be thought out. A function can be a totally emotional experience, it can be a function on behalf of the person making it, or it can be on behalf of the people who are seeing it.

There is an atmosphere of awareness that surrounds Cinelli, with attentiveness informing process and practice. She acknowledges that she’s striving for awareness, and that having a background in design aids in the endeavor, relating, “So much of what you do in client work, or in the process of design, the making, the figuring out, the failing, all the good stuff that gets to the thing that gets made, all that process, so much of it is about being able to clearly figure out what it is you’re trying to do and how it is you’re going to do it, and then communicating it to someone else…so that, I think, is about explaining intention and trying to kind of match intention to what it is you’re trying to do.”

This carries over into her approach to exhibiting contemporary art as well, understanding that exhibitions function as designed experiences. Cinelli posits:

How does someone move through this [exhibition] space? How does someone learn about something in this space? How do you scaffold information or format the art in a way…how do I frame an experience intentionally so that what I want to happen happens, or that there’s at least a chance for that to happen? Because you can never control how the work is received, that’s never going to happen, but you can kind of set up the parameters you want and you can use space effectively to say “okay, what information do we have, how does someone absorb it, or not, and then how do they leave this room different from how they walked in?”

This desire to impact audience members and elicit change is palpable in Cinelli’s practice. Her work can be divided into three broad categories of inquiry, which often overlap: Language and communication, memory and history, and corporeality, or the body itself. Speaking toward the overlap, Cinelli pinpoints an overarching unifier, “I think a lot of my work is about longing; even the work not about memory, I think is still about longing, either a longing for something to exist in the world that doesn’t, or a longing for something else…it’s something I have a hard time articulating for myself, except that those seem to be the experiences that stay with you, they seem to be the things you carry around….”

As an artist and a designer, Cinelli is seeking to solve problems, so a certain sense of longing is absolutely vital in her work. No one sets out wanting to change the status quo, whether in a practical or ambitious way, without first identifying a specific problem or set of circumstances to initially address. There are always changes that need to be made, paradigms that need to shift. And if catalyzing change is what your work is about, then a sense of longing belongs there.

Mia Cinelli, Speculative Series, 2019, Courtesy of the artist.

Mia Cinelli, Speculative Series, 2019, Courtesy of the artist.

Take her Speculative Characters (2019) series, for example. On her website, Cinelli offers the following explanation for the works:

In the age of emojis, type and image work in tandem to bolster our typographic voices, conveying our wide range of emotions. What if, in lieu of relying on smiley-faces and eggplants to make our point, new punctuation could formally articulate meaning through gesture and expression? Much like [how] written music relies on specific symbols to designate key, volume, pacing and pauses, I believe new letterforms—inspired by facial expressions, hand gestures, and metaphors—could better inform our visual inflection. These new characters are proposed to supplement our existing typefaces, attempting to make the rich complexities of verbal (and nonverbal) conversation visible.

Here, Cinelli has outlined a reason for her longing, a desire to more closely align verbal, physical, and textual communication. And it’s not just a longing on the artist/designer’s behalf. People often ask Cinelli where they can get the characters, if they can download them, if they’re available for mobile phones, underscoring that there is a larger desire for these kinds of expressive marks.

Mia Cinelli, Speculative Series, “Awkward Pause” 2019, Courtesy of the artist.

Mia Cinelli, Speculative Series, “Anticipation Point”, 2019, Courtesy of the artist.

The series is concerned with clarity of expression and ability to convey emotion, but also with the future of ideas. It’s speaking both to language, and design itself, in terms of what the future of designed expression might look like. Cinelli genuinely enjoys this. She uses the term “visual inflection” to describe the performative nature of typefaces, fonts, and symbols, textual signifiers that communicate voice and emotion. Some of her Speculative Characters are indeed visual puns based on accepted punctuation marks, such as Awkward Pause (a horizontally elongated comma) and Anticipation Point (an exclamation point with a long, curvilinear lead-up), while others are clearly influenced by physical expressions, such as Angry Quotes (tilted quotation marks approximating a furrowed brow) and Shrug Sign (a kind of warped W representing raised shoulders). She acknowledges that the physicality of these forms is especially significant to her personally, relating, “I love the way we’re dealing with language, the fact that we’ve brought corporeality into what is now a digital space because we all understand…we can have a pretty clear communication based solely on facial expressions and gesture, we can have this communication and it’s in-person, which is really different if we call, and even more different if we text…physicality and tactile experiences, for me, are just huge and really important.”

The importance of physicality in Cinelli’s output is evident when her larger portfolio is explored. Her Penance series (2019), investigates the identity of apology through hand-starched and hand-sewn pennants. The custom typography is also hand-drawn, before being digitally refined. Cinelli revels in the handmade process as a performative act, tedious, laborious, which she describes as its own kind of apology. To her, process imbues output with its own kind of layered message, and in this series the challenges of producing the work reflect the challenges faced when working up to an apology, or in parsing out which individuals, groups, or institutions should issue or receive them. Like crafting a meaningful apology, Cinelli relates the labor of working with intention, “They were difficult to make and really tedious, and they took all of this time, and I had to hand-dye this because I didn’t have the right color…[But] I like the act of making the work as well as the work itself, and I like the play of them, they feel really playful but they also feel really sad, which I really enjoy in my work.”

Artist/Designer Mia Cinelli with Penance series, “Mea Culpa”, 2019, custom typography hand-cut and stitched, stiffened wool and acrylic felt, cotton/acrylic thread. Approx. 10” x 24”. Photo by C.M. Turner.

Cinelli likes to take the recognizable and subvert what we think we know, taking the familiar and undercutting expectations. She brings forth tongue-in-cheek observations that also hold authenticity, speaking a common language with a foreign tongue, sparking interest. The Penance pennants speak the language of universities and athletic clubs, generic identifiers for specific groups. Cinelli takes these signifiers and undercuts the tribalism inherent in their visual language, pointing to the universal truth that everyone needs to ask forgiveness for something at some point. If we can get better at acknowledging our mistakes and asking for forgiveness, then perhaps our mistakes will stop feeling so monumental. This all plays to Cinelli’s penchant for speculative projects that work toward the way she wants the world to function, which is tied to the longing she sees running throughout her creative endeavors.

That longing is starkly front and center in Cinelli’s Insatiable Spaces series (2018), which includes facsimiles of parade candy, popsicles, and breakfast cereal. Her website states: “Engaging with the archetypal form of a house as a metaphor for the familiar, I aim to explore the physical manifestations of yearning through emotionally functional objects—addressing, alleviating, or activating our longing. Here, nostalgia and homesickness are similar as insatiable desires. These tiny spaces are sardonic faux-confections—simultaneously delightful and disappointing.”

Mia Cinelli, Insatiable Spaces Series,” Parade Candy”, 2018, printed waxed paper, clay, acrylic paint, wood, cellophane, dimensions variable. Photo by C.M. Turner.

Insatiable Spaces also puts the artist’s subversive streak in focus. At first glance, the miniature clay and wood sculptures are convincing confectionary stand-ins, especially when they’re wrapped in intricately approximated waxed paper or cellophane. Cinelli describes the experience of observing viewers’ reactions to the work, noting that people often walk past the pieces or up to them expecting genuine treats, then reinvestigate, and then confront their upset expectations. “I like that kind of recognizable weirdness to these, that you know what they are and you know what they aren’t. So by the time you see them it’s like, ‘I thought this was going to be something else’.”

While she cites nostalgia as a strong element within Insatiable Spaces, Cinelli leans into something harder to pin down and ultimately more productive in the majority of her work. Nostalgia is an easy target, especially in the current sociopolitical climate. Cinelli sees that people are yearning for “the good old days,” even though those days really weren’t so good. For her, it’s not about recapturing a feeling, but about finding a way forward, stating, “You want to go back and you can’t. You picture this other time and it’s totally gone. So for me, I think the work is more about navigating that experience.” This form of confrontation and memorializing is about re-inhabiting physical and mental spaces in another way. Cinelli affirms:

I think I’ve always been interested in memory and fleeting experiences and things that are and then are not…and so for me a lot of it was manifested in the ideas of home or places that you can’t return to, which I always find really strange. Those seem to be really salient moments in my life, when I leave apartments and I give the key to someone else…so there is that level of physicality. You can’t place yourself there anymore, you can’t physically go somewhere anymore, and the past, I think, is the same way.

This focus on fleeting experiences ties back to Cinelli’s sense of awareness, of being in tune with what is outside of herself as well as what’s in. If artists are cultural producers, they are as much cultural synthesizers, pulling things out of the ether to filter through a lens of subjectivity, in an effort to open people up to further possibilities. Cinelli’s personal philosophy is succinctly stated on her website, “It’s more about experience and less about aesthetic.” Her work is forthcoming, embodying perspectives gained from lived experiences. She attests, “In living, you pick things up and you hang onto them and you find yourself just carrying things around, and sometimes you’re just like, ‘well, I’ve got to put some of this down,’ and sometimes you just make the art about it, and then you can put it down, and it’s done, and it’s outside of yourself again, and you’re okay with it.”

Mia Cinelli, Insatiable Spaces, “Milk Prototype”, 2018, Photo by C.M. Turner.

This is how she feels about the houses from Insatiable Spaces. Cinelli is stepping back from work in a similar vein after producing that series, then reproducing the work for concurrent exhibitions, and reflecting on the two shows. She frames these pieces as artifacts of experience, what she describes as “emotionally functional objects,” catalysts for understanding and acceptance. One of the more poignant and performative works in Insatiable Spaces is a model of the artist’s grandmother’s home, cast in soap. The casting is washed away until it disappears, tying in the physicality so often present in Cinelli’s work. Ultimately, this piece is about knowing the moment when a thing is gone, knowing when a thing is no longer the thing that it was, understanding it, and accepting it. When a colleague points this out to Cinelli, she acknowledges that this is exactly what she’s trying to pin down in this reflexive work, what she’s working through. Moving through life, picking things up and putting them down, and hoping it does some good for other people. When she discusses putting herself into the work, Cinelli confesses, “I care a lot about what I do, I don’t think I could do this work if I were half-assing it, because I want it to be good and I want it to be earnest…you can try really hard to make something that feels like it matters to you, it’s really earnest, you really want it to be something that comes from a place of honesty and of a kind of labor of love that comes from making stuff.”

The earnestness comes through in Cinelli’s work, imbued by the artist’s genuine intent. In the world of contemporary art, there seems to be no separating the work from its maker. The artist’s name is their brand, and who they are is tied to the reading of their work. Cinelli concedes that this is somewhat of a struggle for her personally, “A lot of this comes back to identity, and who you are, artist or designer…or typographer, or all or none or both, and so much of my practice has been trying to figure out what that footing is and who you are when you’re with other people, because sometimes it’s both and sometimes it’s neither, and then what does it mean to be more than one thing, because it’s not like I make the same work all time….” While she maintains conceptual linkage of her output through themes of longing and speculation, it’s true that the media and aesthetics shift from project to project. Cinelli acknowledges, “Sometimes I’m casting silicone, sometimes I’m sewing some weird objects, sometimes I’m printing weird type, and there’s consistency of idea, there’s consistency of intent, but there’s not always consistency of medium, which I think can be really hard because you can probably look at my work and go ‘what does this person do?’ which is different from ‘what do they make?’”

For certain artists, each work must be the thing it is meant to be, meaning the message is inherently tied to the medium. This requires learning new processes and experimenting with new materials in ongoing trials of error. For Cinelli, these moments of labor are also points of great excitement:  “All of it’s labor, all of it’s work, and you can’t devalue the work you do, but I think you can frame it in such a way for yourself where you have to remember that it’s a privilege to be able to design, it’s a privilege to make art. I feel really unbelievably fortunate that I get to teach for a living and make art for a living.”

While the look and feel of her work may vary, critical attention to her practice reveals a deep connective thread between Cinelli’s diverse output, which is—ultimately—an investigation of what it is to be. This kind of ontological approach to art and design necessitates the medium carrying the message. What unifies Cinelli’s practice is an awareness of the ways things are, a desire to change what she can, and an understanding that fostering earnest relationships among artists, designers, clients, and audiences means that sometimes the work must be more about the experience than it is about the aesthetic.

Mia Cinelli is an artist, designer, and educator based in Lexington, Kentucky. For more information, please visit her website at www.miacinelli.com.

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