Monthly Member Feature | July 2019: BTS w/ Jennifer Mack-Watkins
Behind the Scenes w/ Jennifer Mack-Watkins
How were you taught art education and about Black aesthetics growing up?
Black Aesthetics: Black is beautiful!
As a native of South Carolina the arts and culture was a big part of my life growing up in the south. One of the very first creative person I learned from was my mother. My mother owned a hair salon for over 30 years. I would witness my mother give the power of beauty to the clients she served daily. She would envision a style that would make them beautiful and create detailed coiffed hair styles that fit each women’s personality. As far as culture, The Gullah culture is known for the production of sweetgrass baskets, blacksmiths make gates by hand that would be used to decorate mansions, houses were built from scratch by black masonries, bricklayers who would stack bricks of houses, and the plantations were worked by enslaved Africans who grew agriculture and labored until they slavery was abolished. My parents would always educate us about what we made as African American people in Charleston and to always be proud of where I come from.
My art education began at a young age by watching my oldest brother cut hair designs in men’s heads, paint jeans with bold letters, draw on anything, and drew in a bold way. At a young age, I was recognized into the Gifted and Talented Arts program and participated in county art contests, won contests, had access to summer arts classes, and was always encouraged by my art teachers. Year after year I continued to try various mediums and techniques to develop more as an artist.
How was art recognized in your household growing up?
Growing up in the Mack household my father and mother recognized that education was the basis of being successful. They also acknowledged that being able to work with your hands could go far. My mother a hair stylists, my father an electrician, and both of my brothers cut hair. My parents would provide us with any materials we wished to try as young budding artists. At first, I was introduced to playing the piano and played from kindergarten until my freshmen year in high school. Growing up I would also create fashion designs, beaded/string loomed bracelets, and fashion for my dolls. I would go through so many sketchbooks that would be full of my creations. My family would always say how good they were. My oldest brother really paved the way to pursue art because he attended art school along with my youngest brother years later. I attended Morris Brown College to pursue my undergraduate degree in studio arts and arts education. Then I went on to Tufts University to obtain a master’s degree in art education. Lastly, I graduated with a master’s in fine arts, Printmaking, from Pratt Institute. It all paid off because we are all are working artists: My oldest brother is an abstract painter and youngest brother is a shoe maker.
What was your experience as you moved into becoming a professional artist?
My experience working in printmaking began in high school when one summer I participated in a gifted and talented week long summer class and learned about monoprinting. I was so fascinated with the medium and made many prints. Two of my prints got awarded in the county and I even received a small check for my hard work. I continued studying art in highschool (Art I and Art II) but my senior year my art portfolio was denied in advanced placement and I was unable to take art that year. I was so upset but I continued to practice making art on my own. At the same time this fueled me to keep working hard because I wanted to be an artist. In college, I had an awesome printmaking teacher Mr. Hickey who taught classes at Clark Atlanta University. I ended up taking Print I, Print II, and Independent Studies. During this time, I exhibited my work, studied works at Spelman’s and Clark Atlanta’s art galleries. I began to understand composition and developing narrative, I was mentored by Louis Delsarte, Dr.Lee Ransaw, and Arturo Lindsay taking classes throughout The Atlanta University Center.
I attended grad school and studied art education and went back to Atlanta. I would become involved the artists community by exhibiting, being a founding member of The Atlanta Printmakers, met weekly with a group of artists for figure drawing sessions at Spelman, worked at Utrecht Art Supplies, and assisted practicing artists at various government funded arts programs. I was teaching but wanted to go to art school. I spent some time building my portfolio and applied to a number of schools. I was accepted to Pratt and studied Printmaking for 2 years.
After graduation I continued to create prints, taking Mokuhanga classes with the artist April Vollmer (2012-2015), and exhibited my work all over. One of my first big shows in NYC was at Rush Arts with the curator Larry Ossei-Mensah. In 2015, I applied to a month-long residency program in Japan and was accepted. Upon my return I was nominated for the Joan Mitchell Emerging Artist award. Later that year I was selected to have my work be a part of RUSH 20th Print Portfolio. In December I had the opportunity show with RUSH Arts at Art Basel. Currently, I am still exhibiting my work, conducting workshops, and taking classes to improve my skills with artist Takuji Tamanaka at Manhattan Graphics Center in New York City.
You’ve had the experience of being taught about art—how to see it, how to contextualize it within history and how to make it utilizing Western tools and technicalities then you create it from your perspective as a Black woman, and all the roles and layers that being Black and woman and being a Black woman, is composed of.
Taking all of these multiplicities you also have found a career as an art educator. How do you inform your students and viewers about art and painting and printmaking?
As an art educator, I encourage my students to have an understanding of why artists create based on historical and conceptual concepts. I try to make sure to use a diverse perspective of artistic views based on gender, society, identity, culture, and education. It is important to all look at art history but also what is missing from it and taking control and researching to find information on their own and not being afraid to wonder and develop questions. As far as printmaking, I do an intro to the all the places in the world that contributed to the development of printmaking from: paper, tools, materials, printing press, technical skills, and experimentation of the medium. I am able to show my own work and demonstrate because of my experience as a printmaker. When I travel to present at conferences or conduct workshops I can be an example of being a professional printmaker by showing photos and speaking about my experiences in Tokyo and Hawaii.
What do you find to be one of the biggest misconceptions surrounding Black art?
One of the biggest misconceptions about Black art is that all of my work produced deals with race and social issues. I think my work personally deals with my own identity, daily experiences, idealized spaces, my work as an educator, being a black female, motherhood, inequalities. struggles, and things I think about. I am interested in equal rights and social issues but I believe that isn’t what my work is only about all the time.
How did your views of art education change after you became an art educator?
When I became an art teacher my views about art education was that all students are creative in their own way. I try to see each student as developing individual where they might not see themselves as an artist but they can see that they can accomplish a challenging task with my guidance and support. It is not a harsh or critical environment but a space that they can see improvements if they try their hardest.
Who is your favorite Black woman printmaker?
Elizabeth Catlett. Madonna and Child,1982. I have an original print of hers in my living room that inspires me everyday.
How did her praxis (practice + theory) shape your idea of what a Black woman printmaker could be?
I feel that her subject matter of depicting mother, children, addressing strong societal topics, joys of life, education, and women in powerful positions has inspired me to look more at myself and the world around me to create my body of work. Her ability to combine strong technical skills and emotions encourages me to practice until I have reached mastery in various printmaking techniques.
What is keeping you focused right now?
My husband and daughter are keeping me focused as far as learning how to manage my time wisely. My art making process, my 2-year-old daughter enjoys seeing me work and likes making art with me. I want to continue to inspire her to be creative and love culture and the arts. My husband keeps me focused as well because he is a hard worker and allows me the time to step away and be artist. He is so supportive.
What is making you happy right now?
Having a space in my house to create my artwork. It’s a small corner but it works. I want to keep adding small improvements to make it easy to make prints. For now it works just fine.
I believe in the power of beauty and its ability to build self-confidence and it inspires my creative practice as a Black female artist. The center of my artwork depicts elements of beautification and the importance of being comfortable with one’s body no matter what shape or size. My artwork and community work of educating young adults helps to celebrate the many roles of the Black women who are nurturers of their own children and the community they serve.
Let’s see what happens when every featured Black woman printmaker fills out the exact same form.