June 27, 2014

Spotlight: Grace Rosario Perkins

Creating visions with Grace Rosario Perkins.

Capturing feeling through her artwork in a multitude of ways, Grace Rosario Perkins creates visionary pieces by evoking thought, feeling and language onto mediums that allow us to create our own thoughts, feelings and language. Coming from a line of artists and having spent a majority of her time living on the Akimel O'odham Indian and on the Navajo Nation reservations, Grace’s upbringing has affected her artwork greatly through the years, and has created a unique spin on the way language and artwork come together. Repetitive motifs of women, mountainscapes, abstract patterns and shapes all built from a consciousness in which memory, familial identity, pop culture and obsessive mark-making are paired with texts.

Though her work is often explicit, it incorporates a use of language, both Diné and English, by using words with widespread and vague meaning such as “Feeling,” “Vision” and “Circumstance” that allow the viewer to create meaning for themselves. Grace Rosario Perkins' artwork brings so much to life, it's hard to ignore the visionary behind the it all.

TLS: What was it like growing up and living on both the Akimel O'odham Indian reservation and on the Navajo Nation?

Grace Rosario Perkins: I live in Oakland and have been here for a while now, almost eight years, which I actually don't think was ever my intention to spend so much time here. It's changing a lot (just saw a list that Oakland is the most desirable city for "young artist" types to live in America. Cool, and also with this new "tech boom" no one can afford San Francisco so Oakland is the new spot) and that is sometimes hard to fully and comfortably digest. There's good company here, though. As far as the reservations--I didn't grow up solely on them since I had a pretty fluid childhood experience, moving back and forth between these spaces and Santa Fe, New Mexico, where I was born, with other various spots in between.

Overall, I have a deep affinity for these spaces as an adult because I have always, in a very large way, been exposed to a lot of different kinds of people, which in hindsight gave me a strong impetus to do the kind of work I now, as an adult, feel most compelled to do. The res can be pretty bummer, like any poverty stricken place, especially places like the Navajo Nation where a lot of issues exist such as lack of resources--water, electricity and even jobs that could supply such things. This all undoubtedly affects the quality of life there. However, the time I've spent on both reservations has been a time of deep reflection, isolation and in turn, created a very specific environment to work in and later think about. All in all, I respect the land and feel the most connected to those spaces than I have any other place.

TLS: Do you come from a line of artists?

GRP: My father is an artist--he's primarily a painter. My brother makes music. My mother is an artist in her own way--she would paint little landscapes and play the accordion when she was younger. She is also really funny and that's an art. Both my uncles are print-makers. My grandmother embroiders and sews. My great-grandmother was an amazing quilter and there has been spurts of silver-smithing and jewelry making in my family.

TLS: You’ve mentioned working with your father on projects. What’s it like collaborating with your father?

GRP: This collaboration is a newer thing for both of us. It's pretty natural. I grew up seeing my father here and there--he often lived away from us, but his creative energy or influence was always present whether I took note of absorbing it or not. He definitely always had an opinion about what I was doing but just this last summer, I was out for a visit and he had these two big canvases and asked if I wanted to add to them. I did. I don't know why but I painted "Sentient Beings" really big on one and then worked more faces and texture into them. He had "A.D." written on another… I don't know if that is in reference to "Anno Domini" or maybe it's someone's initials? He has a weird sense of humor.

When I came back for Christmas, we continued that same way of working in the midst of a pretty heavy time. I kind of like it because in my own work I often let things get too precious and I get so wrapped up in text, and there were times where my dad in big weird slippers would just paint over whatever I laid down and I had to just go "Ok" while his Steely Dan record was blasting. It's a way of communicating and it's a way of learning, and in the case of our familial history, it helps that we're doing that at this juncture of our lives. I hope he sees it that way too. We don't really talk about it but we talk about moving back and forth between the pieces. "I hate those circles." "I like them." Now I have this stack of works on paper--all acrylic--and I paint on them and I'm going to ship them to him in a bit, back and forth. We don't even talk on the telephone that often.

TLS: You’re a part of Black Salt Collective. What is it and how has it helped you grow?

GRP: Black Salt Collective is a small collective of queer women of color who have come together out of a very strong-willed destiny to create collaborative work that embodies our varied backgrounds while also creating a cosmogony that tells our histories in a more contemporary context. People often view art by people of color in a very basic, boring, Westernized way ("Ooh, so and so made this and it's about this and this and their people were like this and this and this") and I personally won't settle for that and it's pretty safe to say the rest of Black Salt feels that way as well. We nurture each other, share ideas and work together. Black Salt has helped me grow in so many ways. It's a really important support system. Not often is there such a support system, and in this network we continue our own line of working in a new environment. We shot six hours of tape in the desert last summer and I keep telling people we made a creation story. That's crucial. It's in the works. I love all of them--Sarah Biscarra-Dilley and I just collaborated. Adee Roberson. Anna Luisa Petrisko and Fanciulla Gentile who was in the group, they're all visionaries.

TLS: What or who around you inspires you most in your work?

GRP: I teach, and that's always been a large sense of motivation for me, only because I constantly have to shift around subject matter, material and accessibility in projects, so I basically see myself going, "I want to make something like this later but in my own way" or I look at a color palette that is horrifying in my mind, but I also respect it. I have friends who make things, particularly the Black Salt women, and they inspire me--please look at all of their independent projects, as they're amazing artists and thinkers. I also have a lot of love in my life that for the first time presents its challenges but also its positive aspects. I'm also largely moved and inspired by Lonnie Holley, a very important person/artist/musician I recently got to spend a little time with. I also like to surround myself with houseplants. I like color, pattern and texture, and I surround myself with it in my immediate environment so I never get bored with my surroundings. I'm bad with money and that's good because I'd probably have like 9,000 pieces of art all over. I've had friends tell me I have too much going on in my space but it suits me.

TLS: From giant papier mâché heads, paintings and illustrations, to even textile work. What's your favorite medium to work with?

GRP: Right now I'm really into weaving. Sometimes painting gets really over-processed; you spend so much time making a line and stepping back, looking at form and going back in. Weaving is all movement with, at least in the way I'm now working with and most interested in working with, a very loose way of planning design. I'm keeping things really simple and work very quickly while weaving. At this moment, that feels natural. After that, painting is my number one, but I'm trying to get a little space and play around before I jump back in. Some of my more recent paintings are probably my favorite paintings I've ever done. All this stuff is connected though, and I think of the things I make as being ideally one thing, creating its own space. Bunch of paintings, bunch of sculptures, some head masks, some weavings and markings on the walls and floor. That's how it supposed to go.

TLS: What’s your favorite music to listen to while you work?

GRP: A lot of reggae and rocksteady. I also have a playlist called "studio" and its got dad jams, then stuff like UGK, 112 and Wendy Rene. Pretty varied. Also podcasts like Coast to Coast and Anything Ghost cause I love that stuff.

TLS: What do you do to continue exploring yourself and growing as a person and an artist?

GRP: Whoa. Explore myself...well! I listen to intuition, dreams and my mother, grandmother and father. I talk on the telephone to family a lot for perspective. I make things to keep energy moving. I have a lot of energy.

TLS: What do you do in your free time?

GRP: Work on art. Hang out. Uh, meditate, listen to music, tell jokes, problem solve and watch television shows on a computer. I have to zone out with all these things on my shoulders so TV comes in there and in no way would I deny that I do that. No shame. I like to watch the NBA playoffs. Athletes are really romantic to me and I like to go to crummy dive bars and talk to people about who's playing well this year.

TLS: Are there any upcoming projects you’re most excited about?

GRP: I'm most excited about my upcoming show titled "Thin Leather" with my father at EM Wolfman's in Oakland. It's a new bookstore that has a small gallery space in the back. Details need to be a little streamlined, but the show is this November and will feature the collaborative paintings I mentioned and some trilingual weavings by myself featuring text in English, Diné and O'odham. From what I know, there will be a small edition of zines coming out in conjunction with the show put out by EM Wolfman and I'm thinking that will be transcribed conversations, writing and process work. Not sure yet, but at least 2/3 of what I've said.

TLS: Your work is often pointed and incorporates a use of language. Words like “Vision,” “Feeling” and “Circumstance” appear frequently in your artwork, as well both English and Diné and O’odham. What do those words mean?

GRP: Diné and O'odham are the two tribes I am, but in this case, I'm talking about language. Diné actually means "The People" in our Native language but were tagged "Navajo" from a Spanish adaptation of the Tewa word meaning "fields adjoining an arroyo" and well, Pima is a mishearing of the word "Pi'Mac" which, in O'odham, means "I don't know" but was instead adopted as their name: "The Pima." Akimel O'odham, which my father is--they're "The River People," and Tohono O'odham is "The Desert People." I'm incorporating more and more Native language in my paintings as a way of resistance and a way of understanding language loss and establishing identity. There just aren't enough Native people being taken seriously in a contemporary art context.

As far as the text--these are all open-ended words that I felt a lot of people would most likely project some sort of association onto. I mean, we bring the meaning. Feeling--well what kind of feeling? Vision--what kind of vision? Circumstance – is it working in your favor or not? For me, they have more association with the idea of determinism, challenging it by using the notion of "vision" to cancel out "circumstance." This is a pretty important idea to toy with on both an individual level, cultural level and on an even larger scale. Vision is also a word with a strong appearance--vision! It has its own aesthetic just as it exists. It grabs you.

TLS: The usage of repeating patterns and images in your work, such as eyes, are used often throughout your artwork. Why is that?

GRP: I don't really have a reason. I drew strange looking women forever and now I'm breaking that down to lines and forms and placing them in an intuitive system (sounds weird, but you can channel things within a particular set of ideals).

TLS: If you could predict your own future, what would be in the stars for you?

GRP: Short term: switch focus, travel, fly out my mom for a visit, weave gifts for my friends. Long term: build a house, do good things, travel, tell a story.

See more of Grace's work here.

Paula Cooke is a writer and art enthusiast with a love for wanderlust and girl groups of the 90s. She can be found lost in a zine, art museum or a barrel of salt water taffy at any moment in time. Her interest in art and writing fuel her passions in all things in her life, and although she is exploring many different outlets of expression along the way, she is never totally lost.