The Transcendence of the Ancestors

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Artist Statement by Susan Thompson / Textile & Mixed Media Artist, and Art Educator

The Violence Transformed Project

It is important to understand that violence is not only a physical action. Sometimes its most damaging effects are in the social and emotional dimension of human experience. Here, I write about such experiences and how I and others use creative expression through art to transform these social and emotional aspects of violence into a state of mind that generates a sense of peace. This transformed state of mind enables us to respond more appropriately to the chaos and confusion that violence produces. 

First, I will discuss how those of us in the AAMARP (African American Master Artists in Residence Program) collective did this as a response to Northeastern University’s demand that we move out of the studio space they had agreed to give us in their building. Northeastern University has supported our community of Black artists for over forty years with studio space. Now, they have decided to end this support. Second, I will share how I use my process of making art to transform my anxiety and confusion about the covid pandemic and other social ills.

Northeastern University says the AAMARP artists have to go. They state that they need to renovate the building for safety and security reasons. This does not explain why they don’t want us back after the renovations are complete. The confusing and disrespectful tone of the University’s letters to the AAMARP artist suggest that the need to renovate the building is not simply about providing a more safe and secure physical structure.

The AAMARP artists see themselves as being treated unfairly by Northeastern University. We decided to let the larger community know about our situation. After four months of being locked out of the building, Northeastern let the artists have access from 10am – 6pm Monday through Friday. While limited access is better than nothing, it did not do much good as most of the artists work during the day and make art in the evenings and on weekends.

During the lock-out, starting in late July, the AAMARP artists produced an amazing series of “Pop Up” exhibitions outside of our building on the stairs at 76 Atherton Street. Every Saturday from 3-5pm, the site miraculously became the Dystopian Revolutionary Gallery. Each week a different artist was featured to exhibit artworks and talk about what drives their work. This series was called JUSTICE ON THE STOOP and has been documented by five or six of Boston’s most prominent Black photographers. The final show took place at the end of September 2020.

The production and documentation of these exhibits and performances has enabled me and the other members of AAMARP to transform some of our feelings of frustration and being upset about Northeastern University’s demands. We have turned our negative frustrations into creative and productive acts that demonstrate and communicate to the larger community what AAMARP is about. With these exhibits, we have shown how we can continue to contribute to a sense of creative possibility in the Black community, Northeastern University and the City of Boston as a whole. My participation in JUSTICE ON THE STOOP has refreshed and renewed me to move past the traumatic situation that AAMARP has found itself in. I feel more empowered to forge ahead with my colleagues to collectively tackle the herculean task of finding a new home for The African American Master Artists in Residence Program.

Now I would like to discuss how I have used my art making to transform the social and emotional violence that I personally experienced as a reaction to covid-19, police brutality, racial injustice, and other societal ills. As an artist, person of color, a woman and matriarch of my family, I am deeply concerned about the well-being of my children, my grandchildren, my extended family, my community, the city, our nation, the world of humanity, and the environment that sustains our entire planet.

The quilts that I am presenting on this Violence Transformed platform have great significance for me. I created these quilts during the initial three-month covid-19 lockdown experience where I seldom left the house. I was obsessed with painting printing and dying fabrics that I put into several   patchwork quilts.

I very much connect with the tradition of patchwork quilting and the folks who create these quilts. I grew up in a home where I saw my grandmother and her friends putting together quilts. It was fascinating to see my out grown Sunday dress become strips and squares in one of her quilts. I draw upon this tradition in making my own quilts. In addition to painting, printing and dying my fabrics, I also change the surfaces by drawing waxing, sculpting, embellishing and sewing.

Most of my artworks contain symbols to establish meaning in my quilts. I am using color, texture, patterns, and symbols to create designs, tell stories and communicate the truth as I know it. With these works, I am inviting the viewer to step into my personal world and see how I make manifest some of the myriad ideas in my head. I want them to understand that this is how I bring some sense of order to my thoughts and feelings in my daily experience of living. During this covid time, creating art has helped me to try and understand and cope with uncertainty in a world that has been completely upended.

I am very much encouraged by my African heritage and my ancestors who had the spiritual strength to survive and be free in an unjust society.

My quilting process is spiritual as well as creative. It involves wishes in the form of prayers. These prayers are written on fabric and layered into the quilt. The prayers may be Christian, Native American, Muslim or Buddhists messages for peace and freedom or African words for healing. I do this because, I, like my ancestors believe in God, the Great Creator. This Creator protects, heals, and brings you through a crisis to victory. This victory transforms the violence of chaotic experiences into a peace of mind and a joyous heart.


 

Artist Bio

Susan Thompson is a textile, fiber and mixed media artist who lives and works primarily in the Greater Boston area.  At Hunter College of the City of New York, she became interested in African American History and the visual arts.  Her concern for the development of mutually supportive relationships between African American artists and their communities led her to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where she was a Research Associate in the Community Fellows Program.   Ms.Thompson has exhibited widely in Massachusetts and other parts of the United States.  She has participated in cultural exchanges in Haiti, Cuba, People’s Republic of China, Japan and with Native American artists in Santa Fe, New Mexico.  Her work reflects the diverse cultural influences that she has encountered in her travels abroad in her own cultural heritage.  Through fabric, she creates unique designs, which sometimes tell stories that communicate the struggle and soul of her people. 

Susan Thompson has created public art for the MBTA Orange Line, the Parks Department, the Harriet Tubman House, the Afro-American Museum, schools and other organizations.  She is currently an artist-in-residence in the African American Master Artist in Residence Program (AAMARP) at Northeastern University.  She recently retired her position as a art instructor in the Artful Adventures Program, Museum of Fine Arts Boston and is currently teaching art at Paige Academy, a private school in Roxbury Massachusetts.