We’ve finished reading Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler for SAM Book Club and our final reflection takes us inside an immersive installation by Saya Woolfalk at SAM to consider how change and empathy are intertwined. Our colleagues at the Northwest African American Museum are also reading Parable of the Sower for their June Book Club and and we will be joining NAAM’s live discussion on June 26. Join us by registering here! Please read along and share your thoughts with us while you stay home with SAM!
Empathy is a word that can buzz through the air, or be embedded in one’s mind and body. Octavia Butler and Saya Woolfalk make this word come alive in characters who try to keep humanity on track.
Right now, 2020 is bringing dystopia right to our doorstep every day. If you pick up Parable of the Sower, a 15-year-old girl who has a condition of hyper empathy becomes your guide. Lauren Olamina’s vision of 2024 is not far away, and you join people running from an apocalypse. They follow Olamina, who calls her empathic abilities a disorder. By the end, you realize it is her super power, as she formulates an entirely new vision that ultimately offers hope to all around her. If you haven’t read it, now’s the best time ever. It’s an omen of the future we’ve got to figure out together.
Unfortunately, Octavia Butler died in Seattle on February 24, 2006. Four months later, on June 22, a young senator gave a commencement speech at Northwestern University, and said, “I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit. . . . it’s only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you will realize your true potential”. Barack Obama’s references to empathy kept coming while he was President. So did discoveries in neuroscience, which identified circuits in our brains that are wired to give us an ability to understand what other people are feeling. However, at the same time, the empathic deficit disorder continued to be seen in a rise of Hyper Individualism based on self-absorption, chronic loneliness, and a lack of curiosity about strangers or others.
Artist Saya Woolfalk steps into this era and establishes an Institute of Empathy. She cites Octavia Butler’s writings as a source of constant inspiration, helping her take leaps of imagination. In 2010–11, Woolfalk reaches out to biologists and theorists to consider the possibilities of interspecies hybridization as a factor for human improvement. One scholar, Ed Cohen offered a prophetic observation, “Unbeknownst to us, our futures may depend on the ways we learn to live with the viruses that take place within and among us—though the referent of this “us” would then be up for grabs. Yet this coincidence . . . troubles us both physiologically and conceptually.”
Unafraid of complexity and troubling concepts, Woolfalk creates a species of Empathics that are conceived to assist our evolution. By 2012, they are entering museums and offering evidence and research about how human beings can find ways to increase their empathic abilities. This Institute has presented solutions through guided dreams, role playing in cyber space, hybrid cosmologies in planetariums, performances and projections that have gained attention across the planet.
Only the Seattle Art Museum has offered The Institute of Empathy a permanent home. Three Empathics reside on the fourth floor and offer their suggestions for enhancing self-transformation. Theirs is not an immediate quick fix installation, as becoming empathic is not a sudden pit stop. It takes time to figure out what these alternative beings are about. They invite you to see their virtual chimeric space where healing gases are being downloaded, and you are welcome to walk into their mosaic shower which sends a flow of imagery down into a sacred pond full of insight. The Empathics also selected art from other cultures in the museum’s collection that can help enhance your ethical disposition and state of mind. Just as Octavia Butler’s novel ends with a glimmer of hope for a new philosophy called Earthseed, so these empathics reinforce a conviction that we can create the change we need.
– Pam McClusky, Curator of African and Oceanic Art
This is the fourth of five reflections on Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler, SAM’s Book Club selection. SAM Staff is reading and thinking about some of the themes in John Akomfrah: Future History, which we hope you will be able to come see on view through September 7 once the museum can reopen. Our final book club reflection will be shared here on the blog June 16. Our colleagues at the Northwest African American Museum are reading Parable of the Sower for their June Book Club and SAM has decided to cancel our Zoom Book Club discussion, previously taking place June 16, to join NAAM’s live discussion on June 26. Join us by registering here! Please read along and share your thoughts with us while you stay home with SAM!
“Back when Ronald Regan had just become president, people were talking about winnable nuclear wars. And I thought, ‘If people were falling for this kind of thing, there must be something basically wrong with the human species.’ So . . . . I had [my alien characters] arrive right after a nuclear war so that I could make my point and I had them tell my [main] character that human beings had two characteristics that didn’t work well together. One, they were intelligent, and that was good, no problem. And two, they were hierarchical. And unfortunately, the hierarchical tendencies were older and so sometimes the intelligence was put at the service of the hierarchical behavior.”
– Octavia Butler interviewed in The Last Angel of History
Octavia Butler is talking about her Xenogenesis series, also known as Lilith’s Brood, in the above quote from John Akomfrah’s 1996 video essay The Last Angel of History on view in John Akomfrah: Future History. Compared to the Xenogenesis trilogy, the Parable series delivers a more subtle version of sci-fi and Afrofuturism, presenting Earth in the not too distant future suffering from more extreme versions of our current issues.
In the third quarter of the book, Parable of the Sower finds Lauren Olamina, Harry Balter, and Zahra Moss continuing north, the unlikely companions brought together by the destruction of their neighborhood. As they walk, they slowly begin to absorb new travelers into their party. Lauren has realized that she should not only be watchful for threats on the freeway, but also for potential allies. The situation on the road gets more precarious after an earthquake. Scavengers are quick to descend on vulnerable communities in the aftermath. After the group rescues two girls from a collapsed house, a new member of the party, Bankole, observes, “I was surprised to see that anyone else cared what happened to a couple of strangers.” Though there is risk in inviting new people into Earthseed, the group is now as strong as ever, and there is a larger audience for Lauren’s teachings.
Octavia Butler’s work helped to shape the burgeoning genre of Afrofuturism, where the culture of the African diaspora merges with futuristic technology and settings. John Akomfrah’s video essay The Last Angel of History features conversations that elaborate on this theme.
In Akomfrah’s film, author Greg Tate says that he has “always contended that the Black existence and science fiction are one and the same.” The poet Ishmael Reed credits Tate with first drawing the parallels between the Black experience and science fiction, saying “[…] all those things that you read about alien abduction and genetic transformation, they already happened. How much more alien do you think it gets than slavery, than entire mass populations moved and genetically altered, forcibly dematerialized?”
Themes of outer space and of being alien are hallmarks of Afrofuturism. Butler’s protagonist Lauren tells us that “The destiny of Earthseed is to take root among the stars.” By settling the community on another planet, Earthseed would gain freedom from its current earthly threats, allowing the movement to grow and hopefully thrive.
“All that you touch, you Change. All that you Change, Changes you.”What changes us, we change in return. The dual pandemics of COVID-19 and racism threaten to overwhelm us, too big for any individual to confront. Our best hope for salvation is through collective action. With each new person that joins Earthseed, Lauren lets us know that they are now stronger than they were before. More bodies, more voices, more strength. With actions big and small, we can take agency over the communities we live in and help shape what comes next. Afrofuturism is not simply an escape into the fantastical, rather it often recognizes a cruel reality, then offers a symbol of hope, of imagining and shaping a better future.
Join SAM Book Club! SAM’s staff is reading and responding to Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler on the blog as a way to continue considering some of the themes in our currently closed exhibition, John Akomfrah: Future History. We can’t wait to spend time with John Akomfrah’s video essays once we are able to reopen—they will be on view through September 7. Read along with us in preparation for visiting this exhibition of three immersive video installations and share your comments and questions with us! Our next book club reflections will be posted May 20, June 3, and June 16. Our colleagues at the Northwest African American Museum are also reading Parable of the Sower for their June Book Club and SAM is canceling our Zoom Book Club discussion, previously taking place June 16, to join NAAM’s live discussion on June 26. Join us by registering here! Please read along and share your thoughts with us while you stay home with SAM!
Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower (1993) is the fictional autobiography of Lauren Oya Olamina. Her story begins in 2024, on her fifteenth birthday. Lauren dreams that she’s learning to fly. (Has anyone else been dreaming wildly, as I have, since the stay-at-home order?) The dream shifts to a remembrance of her seven-year-old self and stepmother, taking laundry down from a line beneath an inky, star-bright sky. Her stepmother recalls the formerly light-washed skies of her youth. “City lights”, she says. “Light, progress, growth, all those things we’re too hot and too poor to bother with anymore.”
The Olamina family lives in a tight-knit community—a tightly-secured, walled-in cul-de-sac in the Los Angeles suburbs. Water is expensive and rain is rare. Each house keeps a vegetable garden and hunts. The neighborhood shares one family’s television, the Window, for entertainment. The work at hand is survival.
Parable of the Sower lives on the science fiction and fantasy shelves of your local bookseller or library. Yet, Lauren’s economic and climate-collapsed world reflects irreconcilable elements of our own daily lives in the coronavirus pandemic. The constant plane dinning (I live under the flight path) has given way to bird calls, while our aviation-employed neighbors are furloughed. Amidst compounded food and housing insecurities, some report seeing stars for the very first time.
For Lauren, stars and acorn bread and vigilance are normal. What’s more, Lauren has hyperempathy syndrome: she explains, “I feel what I see others feeling or what I believe they feel.” Lauren hides the condition from everyone except her family because it is “better to have them think anything than let them know just how easy it is to hurt me.” We learn this as she riskily travels beyond the neighborhood walls to get baptized. However, Lauren doesn’t believe in her Reverend father’s god.
Change is her god. Each chapter begins with a verse from Lauren’s own belief system called Earthseed. Butler explains in an interview: “Lauren Olamina says that since change is the one inespcapable truth, change is the basic clay of our lives. In order to live constructive lives, we must learn to shape change when we can and yield to it when we must. Either way, we must learn to teach, adapt, and grow.” The beginning of Lauren’s story, like ours, is one of adaptation.
– Geneva Griswold, SAM Associate Conservator & Equity Team Member
50 years ago, who would’ve imagined that Earth Day’s 50th anniversary might occur on a day like today? As we all stay home and our days are full of uncertainties, there are also comforts; news articles about Venice’s canals flowing clear, video call birthday celebrations, and much more—amidst it all, we desire to honor Earth Day more than ever.
One way SAM is celebrating this Earth Day is to launch a new edition of our book club, and we encourage you to participate! Calling all bibliophiles, humans, pets, plants, and everyone—join us as we read Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler. Set in an apocalyptic dystopia of 2026, Lauren Olamina and her family reside in one of the last, safe enclaves of society in Los Angeles. As Lauren’s father struggles to salvage the remains of a society crumbling under global warming, wealth disparity, and crime, Lauren seeks to establish a new community founded on a revolutionary religion that may bring reparation.
We selected this book because it connects powerfully with John Akomfrah:Future History at SAM, which features video essays on migrant diasporas across the globe, Afrofuturism, and visions of the natural world. Good news, the exhibition will be extended until September 7 so you can come consider it in person after reading the book!
While we read, SAM staff will be reflecting and posing questions for you to join along in your own reading. Check back here every two weeks on May 6, May 20, June 3, and June 16 to hear from us and share your thoughts in the comments. We’ll conclude this virtual book club, with a Zoom meet up for all of our book club participants and beyond!
If you are looking for a copy of the book, here’s a list of independent bookstores with direct links to the book.
Please join us back here in two weeks on May 6 for our first discussion of the book. We are so excited for you to join us with your comments and questions while you stay home with SAM!
Have a Happy Earth Day!
– Lauren Farris, SAM Campaign Assistant & Equity Team Member
We are humbled by the generosity of our donors during this unique time. Your financial support powers SAM Blog and also sustains us until we can come together as a community and enjoy art in the galleries again. Thanks to a generous group of SAM trustees, all membership and gifts to SAM Fund will be matched up to $500,000 through June 30!
“The real magic of Carpe Fin is in the space between the object and the observer.”
– Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas
Hear from the artist behind the 6 x 19–foot watercolor mural commissioned for SAM. Haida artist Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas describes Carpe Fin as “Haida manga.” This unique approach developed by Yahgulanaas blends several artistic and cultural traditions, including Haida formline art, Japanese manga, Pop Art, and graphic novels.
Inspired by a traditional Haida oral story, the story is also linked to a 19th-century headdress in SAM’s collection carved by Yahgulanaas’s relative, Albert Edward Edenshaw. Carpe Fin calls attention to issues of environmental degradation and the rupture of the values that honor human-nature interdependence.
We asked SAM staff to reflect on the work and what stood out to them by answering which panel impacted them most. Have you seen the artwork at SAM or read the book? Read some reflections below and share your thoughts with us in the comments!
The very center panel—it’s more free form so it draws the eye. It’s the moment when Carpe realizes he’s been left behind on the island. His phases of expression and gesture really struck me.
The central panels—frames break down, creative topsy-turvy!
The third panel (upper center) for the transition from the human to the underwater world. The contrast of thick, thin, and detailed brushwork make it come alive.
The middle panels stand out because of the dynamic between the sea lions and humans. There’s a chaotic structure that reminds me of the circle of life, but it also shows an imbalance.
The central panel and how it just seems to come alive and break out of the typical comic book boxes/outlines; the overall image captivates your attention and makes you want to keep looking at the intricate, smaller details.
I was most impacted by the panel in which Carpe swims back wearing sewed-up seal skin. There is something about embodying the animal that he had been killing. I wonder how much the message of “you’re killing our women” would have sunk in without this physical experience or if he would have heard it in a different way?
I’m most impacted by the panel where the young boys kill a flicker. This senseless, purposeless killing of a living thing in a microcosm of the imbalance and lack of respect for the environment that has created dire circumstances for this community and communities across the globe. The energy that youth are bringing to climate activism lies in contrast to this detail and gives hope for the future. We all need to take responsibility and enact laws and regulations that will ensure the survival of future generations.
If you haven’t heard, Artemisia Gentileschi’s renowned painting Judith and Holofernes is currently hanging at SAM as part of Flesh and Blood: Italian Masterpieces from the Capodimonte Museum. This particular painting by Gentileschi has gotten a lot of attention in recent years as discussions of representation of women in the arts as well as rape culture have become part of mainstream media. A graphic novel, I Know What I Am: The Life and Times of Artemisia Gentileschiby Gina Siciliano was recently published by Seattle-based Fantagraphics. This Pacific Northwest illustrator and author conducted research for seven years to offer a picture of Italy’s cultural climate in the 17th century as well as an unflinching look at Gentileschi’s life whose artistic success and documented rape trial have cast her as a feminist hero in her time, one that we can still learn from today.
After giving a talk on the Contemporary Resonance of Artemisia Gentileschi at the opening of Flesh and Blood with Chiyo Ishikawa, SAM’s Deputy Director for Art and Curator of European Painting and Sculpture, and Estelle Lingo, Professor of Early Modern European Art at University of Washington, we wanted to learn more about her enthralling graphic novel. Done entirely in ballpoint pen, the book is an education in world history that is full of drama, tragedy, and passion. Italian artists in the 1600s don’t seem too hesitant about stabbing each other. Read below for more information on this talented author, feminism, and the figure of Gentileschi. If you’re planning to visit the exhibition to see Gentileschi’s painting, come on Thursday, November 21 and take a tour of the galleries with Gina!
SAM: What drew you
to Artemisia? When did you realize you were making a book-length work?
Gina Siciliano: I knew immediately that I was going to make a
graphic novel about Artemisia, right when I was introduced to her work in art
school, and then when I first saw the Judith painting in the Uffizi back in
2007. When I was ready, I broke the story into three parts and dove in, piecing
her life and times together in chronological order. Initially I wasn’t going to
extend it all the way to the end of her life, but I changed my mind. I decided
to make a full biography because I sensed a lack of older women characters in
movies, novels, comics, media, and our culture in general. It feels like once
women reach a certain age they’re just thrown out of the picture or relegated
to stereotypes, and it became important to rise against that.
What’s one piece of
information that got you really excited when you found it?
There were so
many exciting discoveries throughout this process, it’s very difficult to
choose just one example! When Jesse Locker’s book came out in 2015 that
completely changed the third part, and also when Elizabeth Cohen wrote about
the recently discovered handful of letters written by Artemisia and Pierantonio
to Francesco Maria Maringhi around 1620. They haven’t been entirely translated
into English, but Cohen revealed snippets of Artemisia’s writing in English,
and it was intense and wonderful to get a sense of Artemisia’s voice at that
point in her life. I got chills reading about her breakdown after the death of
her children and during her harrowing journey back to Rome. I rearranged that
whole section of the book after that. I’m also currently very excited about
Sheila Barker’s new scholarship on Artemisia.
But if I had to
pick the most exciting discovery of all it would be the 1647 revolt of
Masaniello! Rosario Villari’s book on the subject was a landmark for me, and
since there’s so little information in English I read his book several times,
taking extensive notes. I was struck by the Neapolitan people’s desperation,
and the way they repeatedly rose up violently against severe oppression and
corruption. I was startled to learn that Artemisia survived a ten-month
revolution, and it had barely been mentioned in my sources at all.
There seem to be
many versions of Artemisia’s life. The details of female life were not much
documented at the time so how did you decide to present the version of her life
that you did?
The goal was to stay as historically accurate as possible and invent as little as possible. I was influenced by Alexandra Lapierre’s approach. She spent five years doing research in various Italian archives, then strung together the holes in the information—the gaps in history—with fiction. Rather than project my own agenda onto Artemisia or use her story as a jumping-off point for my own artistic expression, I wanted to find out as much as I could about Artemisia—how she felt, how she lived, how she interacted with others. I see her as inseparable from Italian history. I wanted to re-create her world, and then put her into it. The goal was to put her life and work into context, not take her out of context. That being said, of course, bits of myself and my own outlook slipped in all over the place. But I included a big notes section, to show the reader that we’ll never know exactly what happened—all we can do is continue to discuss how we come to conclusions, how we piece together history based on a variety of sources, ideas, and perspectives. My version of Artemisia is based on academic research, as well as my personal, emotional connection to her work.
What about the
decorative symbols and icons in the full-frame character illustrations?
Each one of these
full-page portraits is comprised of Renaissance and Baroque symbolism, and also
my own impressions. Each one has its own mood, based on the character’s role in
the story. Some of these people—Caravaggio, Orazio, Artemisia, Galileo, the
Duke of Alcala, Masaniello—we know quite a bit about, so I had a lot to work
with. For example, Masaniello was a fisherman, so there are fish surrounding
him, Galileo has a diagram of the Copernican view of the cosmos above him, etc.
For these people, I used images of them from their own time to re-create how
they looked. But other figures—Loredan, Arcangela Tarabotti, Tuzia Medaglia,
Giovanni Battista Stiattesi, Artemisia’s daughters—are more mysterious. I had
to do more inventing and cobbling together whatever scraps of information I
could, to show what they might’ve looked like.
There isn’t space here to describe all the symbolism, but I’ll give a few examples: Artemisia’s daughters are shown with large, rounded, upright vessels—a common Renaissance symbol for chastity and sexual purity, whereas a spilled, horizontal vessel was a symbol for sex and impurity. The Duke of Alcala is surrounded by fig trees—lush and full of fruit—a Renaissance metaphor for sexuality again, in this case, male virility. Pierantonio stands below two bull skulls, alluding to his being a cuckold (Loredan’s epitaph about Artemisia on page 224 claims that she carved the horns of a cuckold for her husband). The glowing candles foreshadow Pierantonio’s later night-time swordplay. The characters with close ties to the Medici—Francesco Maria Maringhi, Christine of Lorraine, Maria Maddalena of Austria, Galileo—all feature the Medici’s famous logo/crest—a group of small, round, fruit-like balls. Loredan’s portrait is surrounded by water since he serves as an introduction to Venice, and below him is the logo of his famous academy (the Incogniti)—the mysterious Nile River, the source of which was still unknown at the time.
Can we have a
feminist hero and still have context and historical time and place?
My book is meant
to present a loud and enthusiastic YES to this question!
Will you talk a bit
essentially an earlier version of feminism. To me, the best biographies don’t
idolize or sentimentalize the subject, nor do they gloss over the
inconsistencies and contradictions of a person. Rather, they go deep into
history and analyze their subject’s position, and all the potential factors
that made them who they were. I love Paul Avrich’s writing about anarchists for
this reason. I’m also reading Lily Tuck’s wonderful biography of Elsa Morante.
Elsa Morante was an incredibly independent Italian woman, one of the first to
wear pants! At the same time, Tuck mentions how Morante chastised another woman
for having hairy armpits and sometimes scorned the feminist movement. I tried
to be open to these types of contradictions when writing about Artemisia too.
There’s reason to believe that Artemisia was a militant Catholic who didn’t
always treat her servants very well. But she also wrote about the disadvantages
she faced as a woman, she refused to let Agostino Tassi (the man who raped her)
off the hook during the trial, and we know that she worked within the same
circle as the Venetian Libertines who talked a lot about the roles of women
(the querelle des femmes). We can judge Artemisia by the standards of her own
time, and we can judge her according to the standards of our time. I think
there’s room for both.
Proto-feminism didn’t look like our modern first-, second-, or third-wave feminism. There wasn’t a political movement, it was more social. There was an ongoing intellectual debate about women and plenty of writing about women’s rights. Most of the early modern feminist writers made their point by listing numerous examples of virtuous women from the bible and ancient history and mythology, as these were the touchstones of Italian humanist and Counter-Reformation thought. Sometimes they listed contemporary examples too. But, as powerful as these lists of women were, they also conformed to the proper (men’s) definition of honorable women. Even the most outspoken feminists of the time, like Arcangela Tarabotti, used only the most chaste, angelic examples of women to argue for women’s rights. But she was trying to refute the prevailing notion that women’s sexuality was toxic, out of control, and evil (Eve and the original sin, remember?). Her argument that women are inherently pure and chaste seems weird to us (like we don’t even get to have our own sexuality?), but in that intensely Catholic environment it makes sense. That’s only one aspect of her writing, and I would argue that her feminism is still important.
Likewise, we can see that the powerful Medici women—Christine of Lorraine and Maria Maddalena of Austria—were, like most queens and noblewomen, arranging marriages within their courts to solidify their family’s (and their own) wealth and power. But this doesn’t negate the radical way in which they intervened to prevent domestic violence, and their attempts to give women some say in who they would marry. That meant a lot within a society where marriage had very little to do with choice, especially among the upper classes.
At first glance,
Artemisia’s world looks like a grim, unrelenting, misogynist hell hole, but
when we look closer and dig deeper, we can see that women (and men) were
pushing back against the status quo in all kinds of ways. The fact that so many
powerful men got behind Artemisia, aided her career, and continually bailed her
out (Orazio, Francesco Maria Maringhi, Cassiano dal Pozzo, Galileo, etc.) also
says a lot. These men probably saw her as an exception to the norm—an
exceptional woman—rather than seeing women collectively as equals. Artemisia
probably saw herself as an exception to the norm too, and probably capitalized
on that to a certain extent. But I still think the roots of feminism lie in
these early attempts to widen the expectations of what women were capable of.
Plus, there’s still so much we don’t know. Feminist scholars are trying to
bring a lot of buried, unknown, misattributed, and misrepresented women’s
writing, art, and music to light. This is an ongoing process, an ongoing
What is your
favorite Artemisia painting?
Oh geez, I don’t know! I guess the second Judith Slaying Holofernes in the Ufizzi. There’s just nothing else like it in the world.
– Chelsea Werner-Jatzke, SAM Content Strategist and Social Media Manager
Images: Gina Siciliano, I Know What I Am: The Life and Times of Artemisia Gentileschi. Seattle, Fantagrahics Books, 2019.
As National Poetry Month comes to a close, if you’re not sure what to read, visit the library inside of the exhibition Figuring History: Robert Colescott, Kerry James Marshall, Mickalene Thomas, closing May 13. While there you’ll notice a book of poetry by Morgan Parker titled There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé (Tin House, 2017). It’s a recent favorite read of this particular copywriter and the cover of the first edition (now sold out) featured a Mickalene Thomas artwork. More importantly, within the pages of this smart, irreverent, and deeply personal collection of poetry is a piece inspired by Thomas, reprinted below! Morgan Parker simultaneously brings great depth to listening to Drake and immense weight to racial discrimination as she fearlessly invokes generations of social injustices within her powerful and playful prose. Parker stopped by the exhibition while visiting Seattle and shared some thoughts on Figuring History as well!
We Don’t Know When We Were Opened (Or, The Origin of the Universe) after Mickalene Thomas
By Morgan Parker
A sip of liquor from a creek. Saturday syndicated
Good Times, bare legs, colors draped like
an afterthought. We bright enough to blind you.
Dear anyone, dear high-heel metronome, white
noise, hush us, shhhhh, hush us. We’re artisinal
crafts, rare gems, bed of leafy bush you call
us superfood. Jeweled lips, we’re rich
We’re everyone. We have ideas and vaginas,
history and clothes and a mother. Portrait-ready
American blues. Palm trees and back issues
of JET, pink lotion, gin on ice, zebras, fig lipstick.
One day we learned to migrate. One day we studied
Mamma making her face. Bright new brown, scent of Nana
and cinnamon. Shadows of husbands and vineyards,
records curated to our allure, incense, unconcern.
Champagne is how the Xanax goes down, royal blue
reigning. We’re begging anyone not to forget
we’re turned on with control. We better homes and gardens.
We real grown. We garden of soiled panties.
We low hum of satisfaction. We is is is is is is is is
touch, touch, shine, a little taste. You’re gonna
give us the love we need.
SAM: Reading We Don’t Know When We Were Opened there’s a lot of assonance that creates repetition and fragmentation that feels to me like a sonic equivalent to Mickalene’s visual fragmentation. What in Thomas’ work inspired you and this poem, formally or thematically?
Morgan Parker: I’ve always loved Mickalene’s work, for the glitter and the color and the attention and the audaciousness. Her work is a celebration, and it’s also a politically intentional decolonization of the art history canon. She builds new worlds and revels in those worlds. I wanted my poem to reflect her work and add to it, translate it in my own words.
How do you think the persona poem and the way that Mickalene Thomas casts her models as art historical figures and tropes relate? Mickalene’s figures are looking right at you and this alters their role—makes them dimensional, such as in a painting like Tamika sur une chaise longue avec Monet. Where do you think that same dimension lives persona poems?
God I love this painting. I like to think of all my first-person poems as playing with dimensionality. I’m interested in using the singular figure, or voice, to call up cultural figureheads and historical tropes. Persona poems are an extension of that—they have two first-person speakers.
What stuck with you from your visit to the exhibition? Any lingering or new thoughts?
Kerry James Marshall’s Souvenir I always makes me cry. It was also fantastic to see Robert Colescott’s work in person, as I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. I love the way it engages stereotypes and recasts history so playfully and comically. In a different way than Mickalene, there’s trickery in acknowledging the audience’s gaze—that’s something I’ll be thinking over for a while.
Morgan Parker is the author of There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé and Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up at Night. In 2019, a third collection of poems, Magical Negro, will be published by Tin House, and a young adult novel will be published with Delacorte Press. Her debut book of nonfiction will be released in 2020 by OneWorld. Parker is the recipient of a 2017 National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship, winner of a Pushcart Prize, and a Cave Canem graduate fellow. She is the creator and host of Reparations, Live! at the Ace Hotel. With Tommy Pico, she co-curates the Poets with Attitude (PWA) reading series, and with Angel Nafis, she is The Other Black Girl Collective. She lives in Los Angeles.
– Chelsea Werner-Jatzke, Content Strategist & Social Media Manager
Yayoi Kusama’s visual art output is prolific, but did you know that she was also a writer? Beyond penning her autobiography, Infinity Net, in 2002 she is also the author of Hustler’sGrotto (1992), a collection of three novellas written between 1983 and 1992, and various books of poetry. Stay tuned to this blog series for a focus on Violet Obsession (1998), a collection of Kusama’s poems paired with images of her performative work including her Happenings and her activations of her Infinity Mirror Rooms. We’ve invited SAM staff to spend some time with Kusama’s poems and select a piece that speaks to them. We’ll be sharing selections from Violet Obsession alongside the musings and inspirations of SAM Staff. The exhibition, Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors is on view at SAM through September 10.
SAM’s Copywriter and Content Strategist, and an author in her own right, Chelsea Werner-Jatzke, gets things started with with her thoughts on one of the more light-hearted poems in the collection.
TURBULENT GARDEN (AT THE PSYCHIATRIC HOSPITAL)
it’s a breeding ground of stray cats here
parent cats have mated with their children to produce children
brothers have mated with sisters to produce children
and now the place is teeming with cats
when beams of the crescent moon fell upon the garden
the cats ate that moon
stars adhered one by one to the garden
the cats played with the stars
it’s a garden of cats
where no one dies and the numbers only multiply
it’s an exceedingly strange
cat way of calculating
all the leaves from the treetops fell upon the cats
when the lonely winter comes
the shadows of cats just keep on increasing
they’re playing with one another
in the deathless garden
the rotting tails of fish accumulate
left over rice too is put aside
things human beings have contributed
they’re all disfigured cats
some with only half a tail
some with an ear torn off
not one complete cat in the lot
No one appears to have died
it’s even more turbulent on windy days
“meow, meow”—they run around
they leap about
I’m glad I’m not a cat
I wasn’t born a cat
because I’m not really fond of all that f***ing
– Yayoi Kusama
For me, the first appeal of this poem is the repetition. Kusama’s concerns with reproduction ad infinitum are clearly linked with breeding in this poem in a way that a work like Infinity Mirror Room—Phalli’s Field only implies. But in this poem, as in her visual work, what she reproduces is imagery, not just words (though the refrain of “cats” does reverberate throughout). Disfigured cats nibbling on a sliver of moon or batting around stars, never dying and endlessly multiplying are the fish tails and rice (rather than meat and potatoes) of the poem. But, it’s the turn that occurs at the end, when Kusama interjects in the first person, that lifts the poem above a landscape of feral felines into a psychological setting, all too fitting given the subtitle of the poem. We are taken directly into Kusama’s self proclaimed issues with sex at the end of this poem in a straightforward way. In her autobiography she talks at length about her fear of the phallus as the impetus to creating the soft sculptures that have appeared often in her work: in frames on wall, on furniture and boats, and in her Infinity Mirror Room. In contrast to the sheer volume of this motif in her visual work, her quick mention of being glad she’s not a cat allows the poem to be a playful menagerie in some undying garden, only lightly touched by human influence.
I think immediately of Turtle, my childhood cat. For weeks my brother almost had me convinced that she was a robot, until I saw her give birth. My father found her on a construction site in Manhattan on his walk home from work. She must have already been pregnant when he brought her into our tiny apartment. A few weeks later my parents pulled me out of elementary school in the middle of the day to come witness the birth of two kittens. Turtle caused another kind of issue at school: inquiries as to if everything was OK at home in response to the large and numerous scratches on my arms. Turtle didn’t take to domesticity and ran away within the year. We eventually gave her kittens to a neighbor. Turtle might not have liked being a mother, but she taught me how to climb trees.
Welcome back, book lovers! Today we’re here to discuss Sarah Thornton’s Seven Days in the Art World.
When I introduced this book here last month, I said it sounded like a whirlwind. Boy, did Thornton deliver. In what reads like part ethnography, part investigative journalism, part gossip column, the book flies around the world to relay some of the most high-drama, large-personality, and high-stakes scenes of the art world.
The picture Thornton paints is one of extremes. She didn’t just visit an artist studio: she visited Takashi Murakami’s massive international operation on the day he unveiled one of his most ambitious sculptures to date. She didn’t just go to a fair: she went to one of the highest-attended fairs in the world during the height of the art market. She didn’t just attend an MFA crit class: she sat in on Michael Asher’s legendary marathon session at CalArts, known for going longer than the average crit by a good ten hours.
It makes sense why she would choose these particular days and moments: extremes are fun. They make for fast-paced, engaging reading. But when taken all at once they hardly paint a, shall we say, realistic picture of what working in the art world is like for most people. What would Seven Days in the Art World be like if Thornton had interviewed the typical, instead of the extreme? An afternoon of returning phone calls and writing emails in a cramped office? A long string of meetings? No one wants to read that—so who can blame Thornton for choosing to highlight the days and players she did?
The other extreme that was impossible not to notice was the art market itself—and the moment in which Thornton was writing about it. In the author’s note she states that she conducted her research between November 2004 and June 2007; the book was published in November 2008. In other words, the book looks at the time period when the art market was growing to ever more staggering, unsustainable heights—and it hit the stands after that bubble burst, right in the middle of the financial crisis of Fall 2008. From the moment it hit readers’ hands, Seven Days in the Art World was a strange mix of the contemporary and the historical, highlighting a world that in some ways are timeless, and in others had already ceased to exist.
So, did I recognize the art world I inhabit in these pages? Sometimes. The events and spectacles Thornton details are certainly there, even if they’re fewer and farther between than Seven Days in the Art World would suggest. Mostly I recognized my art world in this quote from Artforum publisher Charles Guarino: “It’s the place where I found the most kindred spirits—enough oddball, overeducated, anachronistic, anarchic people to make me happy.” Amen to that, and shout out to my fellow oddballs for making this job so fun.
Because ultimately those of us who work in the art world do it because we love it. Not just the high-stakes, high-drama affairs, but the actual work of it. The long meetings and endless emails may not be fun to read about, but in the day-to-day they contribute to something we all care deeply about. So whether you’re writing, exhibiting, studying, or making art—or doing any of the countless other things that contribute to and support it—a hat tip to you, and to many happy days in the art world.
—Carrie Dedon, Curatorial Assistant, Modern & Contemporary Art
Welcome back book lovers! We return with the fourth edition of SAM Book Club. For those new to the series, here’s how it works: Once a quarter, I’ll be selecting a book about art to talk about here on SAM Blog. We’ll announce the book about a month before the book club date so that you can get your hands on a copy and read along. We’ll meet back here on the blog a month later to discuss in the comments.
This month we’ll be venturing into nonfiction territory with Seven Days in the Art World, by Sarah Thornton. Acting as a kind of tour-guide extraordinaire, Thornton leads her readers through seven arenas which contribute to the multi-faceted world of contemporary art: Christie’s auction house; an MFA crit session; the Basel Art Fair; the prestigious Turner Prize; the offices of Artforum; artist Takashi Murakami’s studio; and the Venice Biennale. Sounds like a whirlwind to me.
Visit your local library and pick up a copy, and let’s dive in together. Meet me back here on Wednesday, March 22 to discuss Seven Days in the Art World!
—Carrie Dedon, Curatorial Assistant, Modern & Contemporary Art
Welcome back to SAM Book Club! Today we’re here to discuss Scott McCloud’s graphic novel, The Sculptor.
The premise of this book had me intrigued: sculptor David Smith (no, not that David Smith) is struggling. His work isn’t selling, he’s having a major creative roadblock, he’s burnt all of his bridges, and he’s behind on rent—an almost literal starving artist. Desperate to gain recognition for his work, he makes a deal with Death (disguised, in a detail I loved, as his deceased great-uncle) to be able to mold any material with his hands into anything he can imagine. The catch is that David will die after just 200 days, a trade-off he is immediately willing to make—until he falls in love shortly after making the deal. Cue existential crisis.
I will admit that there were some things about this book that didn’t work for me. I could’ve gone for a bit more irony and a bit less angst, and a whole lot less self-pitying from David. And as for his love-interest, Meg—to me, she was more clichéd fantasy than well-rounded character. A Manic Pixie Dream Girl who descends from the heavens like an angel (literally) to dedicate her life (and death) to helping our male hero get over himself, realize his full potential, and live a happy remainder of his life. It’s a tale as old as time, and one that frankly bores me to tears.
But the central question still hooked me: what would you sacrifice for your work? At a much smaller and, let’s say, less permanent scale, we all make those decisions all the time. We trade off time with family and loved ones for time in the studio, or in rehearsal, or with an unfinished manuscript, or with whatever that work that gets you out of bed happens to be. And we do it gladly, because the work is worth it. But when does it stop being worth it? How much is too much to give? We’ve all been there, making those hard choices.
What really interested me about David’s trade-off was not the extremity of it, but the fact that even the ultimate sacrifice was not enough for him. David doesn’t only want to have the skills and room to make his art: he wants to be recognized for it, to be celebrated and immortalized. He makes a massive group of stone sculptures practically overnight—an incredible feat—and is devastated when they are not well-received by his gallerist friend. He achieves some anonymous, Banksy-like fame for his street sculptures, but is only truly happy with them when he learns they’re selling for half a million dollars. He learns towards the end of his 200 days that a collector has been trying to contact him to buy his work, and he laments “all those wasted days.” But were those days really wasted? Only if the goal is the final sale, the external recognition of talent. But if the goal is the process and act of making art, then that time doing the work is not ill-spent.
Ultimately, the most satisfying part of The Sculptor for me was the artwork itself. McCloud literally wrote the book on comics, and is clearly a master of the medium. The graphic novels that resonate most with me are the ones that use artwork to tell stories that words just can’t touch: the indescribable horrors of genocide in Art Spiegelman’s Maus; the terror and banality of a tumultuous adolescence in Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis; or the infinite history of a single corner of the earth, as in Richard McGuire’s Here. The Sculptor had many such moments for me, but the one that stands out the most was the beautiful and complex multi-page spread in which we see David’s life flash before his eyes, milliseconds before his death. The ability to both compress and stretch time onto a single page, to relay all the mundane joys and sorrows of a single life, to paint a full narrative without using a single word—that is a gift worth sacrificing for.
What did you think of The Sculptor? Tell us in the comments, and stay tuned for the announcement of next quarter’s book!
—Carrie Dedon, Curatorial Assistant, Modern & Contemporary Art
Welcome back, book lovers! We return with the third edition of SAM Book Club. For those new to the series, here’s how it works: Once a quarter, I’ll be selecting a book about art to talk about here on SAM Blog. We’ll announce the book about a month before the book club date so that you can get your hands on a copy and read along. We’ll meet back here on the blog to discuss in the comments.
I promised in the first installment of SAM Book Club that we’d be mixing up the genres in our reading, and I’m here to make good on that promise. This month we’ll be reading Scott McCloud’s graphic novel The Sculptor. McCloud’s protagonist is a struggling artist who makes a deal with Death to be able to mold any material into anything he can imagine—in exchange for his own life after just 200 days. Author Neil Gaiman described it as “the best graphic novel I’ve read in years. It’s about art and love and why we keep on trying.” If that doesn’t sound like something you want to sink into on a rainy Seattle day, I don’t know what does.
Visit your local library and pick up a copy, and let’s fall into an artful book about art together. Meet me back here on Wednesday, November 23 to discuss The Sculptor!
—Carrie Dedon, Curatorial Assistant, Modern & Contemporary Art
Welcome back to SAM Book Club! Today we’re here to discuss Dominic Smith’s newest novel, The Last Painting of Sara de Vos.
This is a book that’s hard to describe succinctly. In 1637 Amsterdam, artist Sara de Vos diverges from her training as a still-life painter to paint the landscape At the Edge of a Wood, an enigmatic work she makes as she mourns her daughter’s death. In 1957 Manhattan, the painting is stolen from the home of Marty de Groot, whose family has owned the work for 300 years. And in 2000 Sydney, renowned art historian Ellie Shipley is curating an exhibition of 17th century female Dutch artists when she learns that two versions of At the Edge of a Wood are traveling to her gallery: the original, and the forgery that she herself painted in 1957. Is your head spinning yet?
As difficult as it is to make an elevator pitch of the book’s plot, the three storylines mesh fairly seamlessly as Smith swerves between them—and as they begin to crash into each other. Although they are separated by centuries, the lives of the three main characters become intimately interwoven as they orbit around the painting.
In fact, I said there are three main characters, but you could make a case for four: Sara, Marty, Ellie, and At the Edge of a Wood. The painting itself has a presence, a personality, an impact on the events taking place. It certainly has a gravitational pull on the hapless artist, collector, and curator.
Harder to pinpoint than the plot itself is the category this book fits into. It could be considered a mystery, but the question of who stole the painting is answered on the book jacket. Some of the chapters read like historical fiction, but there’s a definite lean towards “fiction” over “history.” And I suppose there is a romantic relationship subplot, but it reads as more of a dysfunctional cat-and-mouse game than anything else to me. The easiest is to lump it with the seemingly ever-growing category of “art heist book”—think Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, Rebecca Scherm’s Unbecoming, and B.A. Shapiro’s The Art Forger*—but even that feels unsatisfying: the heist is hoisted in chapter one. What now?
Which brings me back to those four main characters. I think this is ultimately a book that is driven by characters, by relationships, and by the things we do to make, maintain, or break them. And ultimately it hinges not on relationships between people (although there is plenty of material there to armchair psychoanalyze), but on the relationship between people and objects. Or, I should say, one object, that fourth character which is the planet to Sara, Marty, and Ellie’s moons.
I suspect many of us have had a love affair with an art object: a work that moves you, that stays with you for years, that changes the way you think and maybe even changes the direction of your life. Isn’t that what drives us to art museums? The close encounter with art objects, and the chance to let them teach and inspire you?
But for the three human characters in the novel, the relationship with At the Edge of a Wood is anything but healthy. For Sara, painting it is an act of mourning she is driven to complete, as if it will assuage her grief or extend the too-short life of her daughter. For Marty, even as he seeks to reclaim the painting he suspects it has been a bad luck charm, blaming it for generations of ill health and unhappiness. And as for Ellie: what kind of self-destructive act is it to write a book about the very painting she forged, to spend a career shedding light on that one work, and to literally invite the crimes of her past to her doorstep? That is some serious projection of personal issues onto someone (or something) else.
As the plot thickens so do these issues until—they release. Sara finds happiness and love; Marty lives a long and happy (enough) life; and Ellie lets go of her demons, or they let go of her. And all three are able to rekindle a healthy relationship—a spark of new romance—with the object that inspired it all to begin with.
What did you think of The Last Painting of Sara de Vos? Tell us in the comments, and stay tuned for the announcement of next quarter’s book!
—Carrie Dedon, Curatorial Assistant, Modern & Contemporary Art
*See what I did there? Bonus books to tide you over until the next SAM Book Club installment! You’re welcome.
Welcome back book lovers! It’s time to announce this quarter’s read for SAM Book Club.
For those who missed our inaugural installation of this new virtual club, here’s how it works: Once a quarter, I’ll be selecting a book about art to talk about here on SAM Blog. We’ll announce the book about a month before the book club date so that you can get your hands on a copy and read along. We’ll meet back here on the blog a month later to discuss in the comments.
This month we’ll be reading The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, by Dominic Smith. The publisher describes this newly-released novel as “a collision course between a rare landscape by a female Dutch painter of the golden age, an inheritor of the work in 1950s Manhattan, and a celebrated art historian who painted a forgery of it in her youth.” I mean, can you resist?
Pick up a copy, take it to the beach, or the pool—or wherever these sunny summer days are calling you—and meet me back here on August 25 to discuss The Last Painting of Sara de Vos!
—Carrie Dedon, Curatorial Assistant, Modern & Contemporary Art
Welcome back to the inaugural edition of SAM Book Club! Today we’re discussing Gioia Diliberto’s I Am Madame X, and the woman behind John Singer Sargent’s most infamous portrait.
It probably comes as no surprise that Sargent’s 1884 portrait of Madame Virginie Gautreau caused, as they say, a stir. With a neckline that would be classified as a “deep plunge” even by today’s standards, Madame Gautreau’s 19th-century little black dress spoke clearly and unapologetically to the sitter’s sensuality. When you add her bluish-pale skin, the originally dangling shoulder strap, and—most scandalous of all—her wedding ring, you get a picture of a brash, vain, and sexual (married) woman living a century before her time.
Diliberto does an excellent job of capturing (or perhaps reconstructing) this personality. A work of historical fiction in the guise of a memoir, I Am Madame X is told in Virginie’s voice—a particularly poignant approach since her voice, and indeed even her name, had for so long been removed from the portrait. Diliberto relays some of her subject’s frustration and anger at this erasure, in a prologue narrated by the fictional curator Richard Merriweather:
“[Sargent] still calls it Portrait of Madame ***, just as it was titled at the Salon, or simply, Portrait. And he always requests that your name not be communicated to the newspapers. Isn’t that amusing?”
Virginie wasn’t amused at all. In fact, she was furious. “Don’t I have a name?” she cried, rising out of her chair. . . . “If Sargent had any honor, he would call my picture Portrait of Virginie Avegno Gautreau. After all, it is my picture as much as his.”
It was the claim over her own representation that so struck me in reading this passage, and which I returned to over and over throughout the book. Of all the many relationships Virginie has throughout the novel—with her family, with Sargent, with her ill-fated romances—it is the relationship with her physical self that the rest of the narrative hinges on. Her beauty is her calling card, profession, and meal ticket all wrapped up in one, and she cultivates it accordingly. True, much of this is imposed on her by external pressures, most notably her mother (let’s take a minute to remember that dear old mom made Virginie ingest poison to make her skin paler. Parents, amiright?). But ultimately Virginie’s self-determination to secure her status as Most Beautiful Woman in Paris drives much of the novel’s plot. The clothes must be flattering; the hair must be hennaed; and the skin must be near-deathly pale.
Which makes Sargent’s removal of her name from this carefully constructed image—much less the public’s decrying it as ugly—such a twist of the knife. If her whole reputation, persona, even sense of self-empowerment, is tied to her physical appearance, what does it mean to take that identification away?
At the end of the novel Virginie muses about how “everything was changed”, but what really struck me was how much seemed to be the same. The racial and social hierarchies of post-belle époque France and postbellum Louisiana are still very much in play. Virginie has a happy relationship with her daughter, but the girl’s “grand society” marriage to a successful man is still celebrated as a great achievement, exactly as Virginie’s own mother wished for her. And, in the estimation of the prologue’s narrator, “though her figure had become matronly, her finely lined face was still beautiful”—the ultimate “she looks great (for her age).” Everything has changed and everything is the same.
Well, not quite everything: Virginie has reclaimed her representation. She is Madame X.
What did you think of I Am Madame X? Do you agree that her physical appearance was essential to her identity? Did you think she changed by the end of the novel? Share your thoughts in the comments below, and stay tuned for the announcement of next quarter’s book!
—Carrie Dedon, Curatorial Assistant, Modern & Contemporary Art
SAM staff members tend to be avid book lovers, and when we’re not talking about art, you’ll likely find us talking about books. The books we’re reading now, the books on hold at the library, and the books we stayed up too late last night finishing. The books we couldn’t put down, and the books we just… couldn’t get through. We compare reading lists, meet in lunchtime book clubs, and make mass trips to the library to pick up the next haul. And yet, we still can’t seem to get enough—so I’m bringin’ it to the internet, to talk about books with you.
Introducing: SAM Book Club. Once a quarter, I’ll be selecting a book about art to talk about here on SAM Blog. Fiction or nonfiction, old or new—it’s all fair game! About a month before each SAM Book Club post we’ll let you know what we’re reading this quarter so you can get a copy and read along, then meet back here to discuss it in the comments.
To inaugurate SAM Book Club, we’ll be reading I Am Madame X, by Gioia Diliberto—the fictionalized account of Virginie Gautreau, the stunning subject of John Singer Sargent’s painting, Portrait of Madame X (1883-4). I’m looking forward to learning about the rule-breaking, scandal-raising, modern woman behind Sargent’s most infamous work, and her life in belle époque Paris. So, dear readers, hit up your local library, grab a copy, and meet me back here on May 24 to talk about I Am Madame X!
—Carrie Dedon, Curatorial Assistant, Modern & Contemporary Art