Writing an article on a work of art is complicated for many reasons. We each bring our own perceptions, bias and learned conventions when placing value or simply looking at a work of art. The complexity of contemporary art can include an additional layer — the ethnicity of the artist.
Making works of art and art criticism today is not simple, there are many questions one could ask for doing either activity. For me, when I think about the ethnicity of the artist and how to look at their work, Leo Segedin asks some of the right questions in his article titled "Outakes From Making It: Race, Gender and Ethnicity in the Artworld." He asks: “… Are there generally acceptable ideas about what constitutes aesthetic ‘quality’? Does each minority group have their own aesthetic standards, its own criteria?... Is there a common aesthetic within a minority that is only accessible to the minority? … What constitutes ‘minority’ art? Who defines the essence and social agenda of a feminist artist, a Latino or Black artist?”
Why anyone, minority or not, becomes an artist can be just as complex. The quotes by Vicki Rhoda, the featured artist for this special edition of Up & Coming Weekly, answer many of Segedin’s questions. The answers are found in why she became an educator, what is important to her in the classroom and why she is an artist.
Raised in Elizabethtown, North Carolina, Mrs. Mazie Bell Rhoda (Vicki’s mother), gave her a set of art supplies at the age of eleven years old. While at home, Vicki would sit on the steps and repeatedly draw and paint the small church across the street. To have a creative nature and be open minded is a wonderful attribute, but it was also the cause of some of the challenges in her life.
The direction of Rhoda’s life took hold when she was in high school, she met Ms. Peggy Webb, her art teacher. Not only was Ms. Webb an excellent teacher but she was also the only African American art teacher in Bladen County in the 80s. Inspired by an African American role model Rhoda’s direction in life was permanently altered on the path to become an artist and educator.
Since being inspired by Ms. Webb, Rhoda earned a bachelor's degree in Art at Fayetteville State University. She has taught art in the public schools for 23 years, grades K-12. For the last four years she has been on the faculty at FSU in the Department of Performing and Fine Arts teaching art education and core art classes after earning a Master of Art Education at the University of Florida. She has also earned an advanced degree as an Educational Specialist from Grand Canyon University. Rhoda is presently working to complete her Ph.D. in Educational Leadership K-12.
Rhoda stayed enthusiastic about teaching in public schools for 23 years. When she began teaching in the Bladen County public schools during the mid-90s Ms. Webb had relocated to another county and Rhoda became the only African American art teacher in the county.
Rhoda reflected on the lack diversity of the teachers in the Bladen County schools at that time and what a relief it was to be employed by the Cumberland County public school system. Finally she was in an educational environment where the teachers and students were equally diverse, she felt more comfortable, she could be herself.
No matter what school she was teaching in, Rhoda knew the importance of art in the public schools and witnessed the positive effects year after year. She shared with me: “Having art programs in the public schools is as important as math and science for many reasons. The myth is that art is simply recreational. Yet, taking an art class teaches the students diversity, global literacy, aesthetics, artists and art styles, and problem solving. Students leave an art class and see the world in a different way. Not only do they express themselves creatively, but they also can become personally transformed.”
She continued, “Certain assignments revealed many of the personal problems students were having at home or a tragedy they have suffered. When talking to the student about the assignment they felt safe about sharing an experience. Art gave them a voice they did not have. For many the arts is an outlet to succeed in ways they could not in core classes. When I left public schools, I hoped I could have touched the lives of students in ways that would make a difference in their sense of self-worth and I was able to open the door to understanding diversity.”
Rhoda was hired at FSU to recruit for and strengthen the art education program. After her first year in academe she redesigned the art education program by developing four new classes and eliminating some classes. The changes from teaching in the public schools for so many years to teaching students in higher education is a big leap for anyone. When asked about the transition she stated: “It was difficult. In middle and high school your approach to lesson plans is very different than higher education. Although you teach critical thinking in public schools, in higher education the analysis levels are so much higher. I am working with adults, so my language (personally and professionally) is very different. I’m happy to say the attention span of students at the university is lengthy compared to the public schools and is not only expected but required.”
Rhoda’s success as an art educator is partially due to being a practicing artist. By being an artist she can share her creative efforts; the students are able to see she is engaged in the creative process. It is the same creative process that began at the age of eleven when she drew and painted the church across the street repeatedly.
When asked why art remained so important to Rhoda, why she became an artist and to talk about her artistic style, she shared the following: “I was a very quiet child, while being creative I was reflective and thinking about so many things in my life. Art always gave me a voice to share what I could not do verbally. Later in life, around 1996, I learned a collage technique during a workshop and have continued to work in that media. The collage technique, in some ways, spoke to me. I could readily see images and myself in the layers of paper, I could relate it to my own life, and I saw ways to express my ideas. So what you are seeing in many of the earlier works is what I could not say out loud, but through the work.”
Rhoda continued, “In the beginning, I was trying to express who I am. Raised in a Southern Pentecostal Holiness Church, uniformity was stressed for men and women, but I always saw things differently than my family. Being an artist I found a way to express myself visually. Although my personal collages are about expressing who I am, it can still resonate with others who grew up in the South and
“I started my political work after the shooting of Trayvon Martin, I realized just being Black in America is political.
These are my experiences, being born Black is political, people in the southern Black community just handle it differently. The slogan Black Lives Matter is not new, we have been fighting for our lives to matter as long as I have been alive and historically. It is not OK to see color, yet due to social media, systemic racism is more evident. I always wanted my students to know everyone is important and we all bring something of value to enrich each other’s lives in many ways.”
The reasons Rhoda gives for becoming an artist answer some of Segedin’s questions. Making art is a form of self-realization and it gives people a voice to share experiences. If just being Black is political, no matter how some would deny it or be impatient with the statement, it is obvious that race, ethnicity, and visual culture are inextricably linked. Artists draw from their identity to create awareness for different reasons, some create to influence change in American culture.
In closing, works of art by some minority artists and other artists can be complicated and even some of Segedin’s questions are folly. We cannot characterize all works of art during the period in which they are being made. Ultimately, we can know some truths about works of art, but we cannot know all truths. It behooves us to stay openminded to why artists are creating works of art, search for a truth and new meaning. In the end, the history of art will often look like what we did not understand at the time.
Pictured: "Judged" by Vicki Rhoda.