Conversation with Visual Artist
It was leading up to the LIII (53rd) Super Bowl hosted at the Mercedes Benz Stadium in downtown Atlanta when I started noticing colorful walls of art exhibiting well-known civil rights leaders, activists, celebrities, and abstract paintings surrounded the city. I began to adopt a few of the walls as my favorites in the City of Atlanta Historic District. The Ella Baker mural, "We who believe in Freedom shall not REST"; "Watch Me Learn" a wall inspired by legendary photographer Doris Derby, and "Educate, Elevate, and Empower," which shows an Angel reading. The artist wanted to show that denying anyone an education was inhumane and considered a crime —and the "Paragraphilizer," which questions the propaganda and indoctrination of the education system. As I gaze with wonder at these beautiful murals, mostly in a brown and black hue, still, I had no idea who was behind this craft. I started researching street artists in Atlanta and Charmaine Minnifield appeared on my screen. Imagine my excitement when I discovered she was responsible for most of my favorite murals.
I took a chance and sent her an email requesting a conversation to talk about her work and, to my surprise, she quickly replied, and humbly said, "of course!" I was thrilled when I got that email because I can only imagine how busy her schedule is as an artist. I am sure she had deadlines to meet.
On the day of our meeting, when Charmaine walked into the building, she had on an all black shirt and pants, with knee high rain boot. Colorful paint was splattered all over her from head to toe. Her appearance echoed her passion for art. At that point, I knew the ancestors had it aligned for me to be in her presence. She was going to share her adoration, enthusiasm, and knowledge about Black art and the importance of its visibility in communities. She apologized for being a bit late. She was fresh off a flight from Brooklyn, NY, working on an essential and unique wall, which she was unable to disclose the details of at that time. Soon, I would learn that she was working on a wall for the new Census 2020 campaign commercial. Despite her busy schedule, Charmaine took her time to answer every question I asked her. She shared valuable information about why she loves painting and the meaning behind her work. Her work visually celebrates the power of Black women. As we talked, I wanted to keep going for hours, but I knew her time was valuable, and she unselfishly gave me an hour of her life in which she could never take back. Please enjoy and be inspired by the conversation.
RJ: What do you consider yourself as an artist?
CM: I feel I am a visual artist, but I also consider myself a visual artist-activist. I do public art in the city of Atlanta, also produce and present artists and arts programming. Again, I do fine art and work out of my studio, where we are right now. I conduct most of my creative practice here and some working galleries and museums
RJ: What inspires you to do what you do?
CM: I think what inspires me on the personal and professional level is my ancestors as it relates to our narrative, my narrative, and our community. I am reclaiming Black narratives in communities that are affected by gentrification, but as an act of resistance. That, to me, is about a broader picture of who we are as a society where black people are now erased or not celebrated. My work on an individual basis, I am exploring identity, but on a larger that has to do with community. I'm also reclaiming the identity of and histories and collective cultural narratives of black people.
RJ: Do you have a ritual before you begin painting?
CM: Life is a ritual for me right now. Very much so. A lot of my work is the ancestral veneration. It's remembering and celebrating ancestors. And that is where I draw from when I talk about identity and celebrating black Americans and venerating ancestors. And we are encouraging others by honoring ancestors that are related to communities where their family resides. I think the ritual has to do with finding out those stories and researching history. When I go into execution, you know, there is some prayer and some attention put forward as I work. And then I'm not just, you know, doing a ritual for the sake of centering my work or centering the narrative of the ancestors. But also I'm thinking in terms of how I'm impacting that community. My presence itself is a prayer.
RJ: Tell me about your background and how you found your love for art.
CM: I'm from the Midwest. Post-Industrial revolution, Midwest. So a factory town. My mother was an artist as well. All right, she's an interior designer. But when I was very little understanding, She was raised in the presence of her uncle, who was an amazing artist. So I saw two generations in front of me at a very young age. I could tell they knew you how to draw, and that inspired me to feel like I could do the same. So I started drawing probably in kindergarten. My kindergarten art teacher and I are still connected. We did an exhibition together a couple of years back, a reunion show because they built a gallery in her honor. My family always encouraged me to draw. And I continued through school.
RJ: What's integral to the work of an artist.
CM: What's most integral is my own personal narrative. Like, I can paint what I think people want. I could paint what I think might be popular or are going to paint famous figures. But none of that matters. Not even ancestral images matter unless you explain their importance from the standpoint of a personal narrative. These are personal, you know, my experiences. This is personal in my family. So this is personal enough that I'm personally inviting you to explore your own family, and that to me is the power I haven't seen that administration expressed until I ultimately recognized that.
RJ: Tell me one of your scariest experiences when creating your murals.
CM: I would say, you know, I've always worked with a fantastic team. People are frequently around me, and I feel entirely safe in communities, so I can't imply that when I'm creating, it's scary. The people in the community are great. It's like as soon as I hit the ground doing a mural, I have security, I don't have to pay for security or anything. It's just people are there, and they want to show their appreciation for what I'm bringing to the community.
RJ: describe a Real-Life situation that inspires you.
CM: There is an amazing project, and I just I'm so inspired by it. I'm so excited about it, but I cannot talk about it, but I'm looking forward to telling the story. We just got back from Brooklyn, and we did a wall there, but we can't disclose the details. On the last day of that project, we started to sob with community members. That is how impactful that project is.
Also, I just curated a Toni Morrison exhibition at the American Research Library here in Atlanta, and this show is AMAZING. And I'm saying, AMAZING because we put the call out for artists to, you know, honor her and they came out. They painted work and created work without fail—two young women filmmakers made in her honor before she passed. I created a digital image. What it shows me is that people want to acknowledge their ancestors, and they want to hold up their Black them up like angels.
My work is resonating not just on my own. When you're talking about practice, my practice is whether you want to acknowledge it and go into ritual, you know, go back into prior. I'm just humbled to listen and give the opportunity, and they let me do this on the walls, you know, let me paint these monuments, you know, to ancestors. It's just like Stone Mountain - it replaces the intention of the Confederate monument. The Confederate monument was made to suppress and venerate everyone that suppresses. And these images of these women are meant to free – free the people of that community. So I'm just humbled - they let me do it.
RJ: When you got the word that Toni Morrison had passed away, what was your feeling?
CM: Oh, man. You know, each of these grand ancestors, when they take flight, there is some energy surge. And I was just really very sensitive to that and. You know, also when they take flight, it is like the world stops in their honor. I have so much love and respect for her. She was a genius of her time, and that feeling when I look at her, I'm so inspired because she did not fail her chance to impact the world. She did it with words and wisdom.
RJ: What other jobs have you done other than being a visual artist?
CM: I've done Arts Administration, creating programming content for communities. So I've done that for most of my career. And that is a degree of producing, so I used to be a producer for the National Black Arts Festival. Also, I did a community-based program for Fulton County Arts and Culture. And I've continued to produce the program over the years as an independent. But about seven years ago was when I just decided to work exclusively with my work on my own.
CM: The National Black Arts Festival suffered from the recession during those years, and the festival restructured in particular, and my job dissolved. I've been there for seven years, and I built a huge following, was pushing the boundaries of work within the context of the organization to be more inclusive with the younger generation.
I search for jobs, and I was interviewing but will never get the job. And I realized, like, OK, once I stop trying, then I've got to figure something else. And sure enough, I started my work, and as soon as everybody saw it, they said, oh, that's what we want. That first year I sold 22 pieces of art, and I never stopped. I just kept putting my work out. In my first term, I created a body of work from Penn Center Archives. So I started to incorporate my passion for history. Also, I was leaving a 15-year relationship and was experiencing a sense of my own emancipation. And it happened to be the same year of the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. So I went to Penn Center intending to document artistically, the first signs of freedom. This piece of art - this image, was at plantation that was first free. So I wanted to show freedom in my work and as a way to also just sort of, you know, reaffirm where I was and my own life personally. And that's where I sort of began. And sure enough, the Ancestors said, "yeah, yeah, we got you."
The last work that I did, I think I did not speak about this was, My God, Ella Baker?
RJ: YES!! I love that mural!
CM: But, you know, I'm going to say you talk about ritual and, as I said, the whole thing is ritual that I do with of, you know, nothing specific. But my community solidify my team, the Freedom Project team. We ended up inside of a forty-five-day window painting her.
But every day we painted, we burned a bonfire, and we went into the project, putting up her quote: "We Who Believe in Freedom Shall Not Rest." And we put that over Auburn Avenue. And we knew already, first of all, Auburn Avenue is all civil rights history, but also just the exclusion of women in that history and how that was immediately corrected. Everyone started paying attention to that project, and that worked. And Ella's story and Ella's legacy from around the country. We started hearing and watching it unfold and, all while we're burning fire. Now in certain traditions, when you burn the fire with intention, you're evoking ancestors.
That also was the night when Nipsy Hustle got killed.
RJ: Oh, wow.
CM: Yes, so my team – on my team, they're a whole team of deejays, and that's kind of what we do. We took the DJ equipment out to the wall, and we had an open mike freestyle until four in the morning.
RJ: Oh my, where was I? [laughs]
CM: That was pretty nice. Everybody was feeling it because Ella was about the next generation. Her words were putting the reins in the hands of the youth who are not fearful, afraid run into the storm. And that was Nipsy. People understood that the was ancestral voice was speaking through him, and that's the legacy of this young man. Those people came out, and we played his music all night. It was beautiful.
RJ: Wow! Thank you for sharing that Ella Baker and Nipsy story.
RJ: Do you believe art should be funded?
CM: Yes, I believe art should be funded like healthcare is funded.
RJ: Who are some of the artists you admire?
CM: Oh, yes! Betty and Alison Saar. That's a mother and daughter. Amazing work, they do symbolism of the ritual when they are two dimensional and three dimensional. And their treatment of the female figure and centering around the female narrative is something I love. I love for the same reason, Elizabeth Catlett, who is an ancestor, her treatment of the female figure is unmatched in history. Locally, I love my sister, lynn marshall-linnemeier—Mildred Thomas, in which there is a show at Spelman College featuring her work. And I do love Carrie Mae Weems, who is a photographer. I saw a display of her work at the High Museum once, and that shifted me on how I want to make art. And she's fantastic.
RJ: Do you have a favorite inspirational place?
CM: Yes, I love Cascade Nature Preserve, North Georgia Mountains and I love American beach and Penn Center on the coast, and I'm going to Senegal in a month, Sankofa – I'm going home.
RJ: What is the best piece of advice someone gave to you? And what great advice have you given to someone else?
CM: One of my bosses once told me, don't do the work; manage the work. That changed my perspective on work. And I've given advice; I believe it was, tuning into your own personal narrative.
RJ: This is an honor to sit with you and learning so much about your gift. Also, I admire how you impact communities through your art. Thank you so much for your time and wisdom.
CM: You're welcome. You caught me just in time because I am flying back out in the morning. I am excited to see how everything turns out for you and your project.
RJ: I feel the ancestors through here!
CM: Yes! Oh, so Devine!
Photo by: ARTS ATL, 23 May 2019, www.artsatl.org/this-week-in-street-art-black-women-celebrated-in-charmaine-minniefield-murals/.