Ben Portis Interview

MARCH 18, 2008

Ben Portis:  All right. Hello Faith!

Faith Ringgold:  Hello!

Ben Portis:  The Art Gallery of Ontario's installation of art from 1969 to 1970 follows two themes, freedom and conflict. How did you experience freedom and conflict in the '60s?
Faith:  Well, freedom was a big deal. And I guess it always has been in my life. I see that as the big hand that keeps me from doing the kinds of things I'm ready to do. It prevents opportunities and sort of decides who I am and where I will be able to go in the world. I don't think there's anything more important than freedom.

And if there is a problem with freedom, then it's a huge conflict because the two do go together. I remember a long time ago... Well, probably in the '60s. I decided how much did I want to do some of the things which I was doing which was going against the grain of what artists are supposed to do, especially in their work. In the '60s, for instance, work was supposed to be abstract, was supposed to be not about anything, no message. And I just had to decide that I was going to tell my story, whatever price I had to pay.

So, that's a conflict. It's a conflict with the art world, it's a conflict with the other artists that you're working with, it's a conflict with your family, with your friends, with people who you don't even know because of rejection for what it is you've decided to do. But I do believe that it's worth it, as an artist particularly, to struggle and to get where you want to be, to do what you want to do, no matter what the price because in the final analysis, the work does not change, the times may.

Ben:  How has your understanding of these issues emerged in your art?

Faith:  Well, that's a funny kind of thing. How do I say what it is I'm trying to say about what's going on? I try to find imagery that I can create that will set the scene and the early work that I did in the '60s I called it...

Ben:  American People?

Faith:  The American People series, yes. I called it super realism... No, not super realism, it was what they were doing. I don't know the name for it, I can't remember it right now. [laughs] But I wanted my images to be cutoff in the frame because I wanted people to feel that they were right in front of them, the images were in front of them, not off somewhere in the distance.

I really wanted the art to be a statement that everybody would be able to understand, I didn't want it to be ambiguous. But I also wanted to bring some measure of beauty to that to attract their attention so they would come toward it, so they would attracted from a distance and then they would move close to see what the message is or they would get the message.

But not many people wanted any message in the '60s. They don't want artists... I mean, I remember one guy who told me: "I don't want any pictures screaming at me from the wall." So, I heard that but at the same time, I felt responsible to do what I wanted to do. And so I did.

Ben:  Did you depict events or scenarios that you thought people would recognize or was it more intuitive?

Faith:  No, I think I didn't depict absolute events. But I was trying to say in my work what's wrong with America, what's happening. Like, for instance, in "Die," I wanted to point to the growing violence and bloodshed that was happening in America, all of our great leaders being assassinated. And I started painting blood on my paintings too because when you see blood, the first thing you think of is death and I didn't want to use... I liked the idea of using blood to explain death and violence.

Although it was very traumatic for me when I first started with the "The Flag is Bleeding" and I first painted that blood on the flag. It went all through me. It was like oh my goodness! I felt very emotional about it. And I got over it. I remember I was at Spectrum Gallery, the first gallery I belonged to. This was the summer of 1967. I was in the gallery that I belonged to that they call the Spectrum Gallery and this guy came up on the elevator and the elevator was right opposite "Die" when I was painting it.

He came up there for something. And he got off the elevator and he said: "Oh! Look at all those blood!" and he got back on the elevator and ran downstairs. What's interesting about that is that some years later, say, 20 years later in the 1980s, that painting was in a museum and I was there at the time and there were some little children, second and third graders, and their teacher asked me to tell them about that painting. I didn't know that kids were going to be there. They didn't know I was going to be there.

So, I said: "Oh, wonderful!" I said: "You're a little young to understand this," I said. "But this painting is really about people being assassinated and violence in the street and I guess some of you have seen some of that and if you haven't, you will, and I wanted to make a statement about it by using blood, having blood all over the people." And one little boy said: "What blood?"
So by 1980 something, they were already immune to what I was doing. I thought that was fascinating because actually, in newspapers, on television, everywhere, before the late '60s, we never got a chance to see people bleeding. They didn't give us those kinds of photographs. Those kind of photographs were not published. Now, the sky's the limit.

Ben:  So that last story leads to my next question, why do the '60s remain vivid and relevant today or do they?

Faith:  Well, I think there are some things that have changed but they're still very relevant that there's a lot of work to be done. Yeah, I think the '60s are very much alive for some people obviously, not for others. Because freedom is can't just achieve it and walk away from it, not that we ever achieved freedom in the '60s.

But even if we had you can't just walk away from it. It's something that has to be constantly cared for. Like my doctor says if you've got some kind of illness medicine today can treat it but they can't necessarily cure it. You see what I mean?

So I think the '60s in a lot of ways treated the awful episodes of inequality that ravaged this country but it's not been cure. It's still there. I think people have to be conscious. Everybody has to pay attention. Because I think it may even be human nature to oppose other people in a violent manner and to want to deprive other people of their freedom so that I can have mine. You see?

I think that may be something that people do because it's instinctive. I'm not sure. Why is it that people are so determined to deprive other people of a good life?

Ben:  So, a little shift of topic. All right, the 1960s were the years that you found your artistic footing. What was it that came together for you then?

Faith:  Well, I found my images. I found my colors. I found my voice. I found my audience. I found...I didn't find the market. [laughs] In the '60s nobody wanted to buy my work and that was for sure. I couldn't give it away in the '60s. But a lot of people did write about it. I had more than a little attention but no opportunity to show it.

And that was not good. Because what that does is it works more on the artist than it does on the audience you don't have. You'd probably stop working if nobody's looking. It's just going to be absolutely impossible to continue to work if there isn't anybody looking at what you're doing.

And I think also, you can't just change and try to do something that's more acceptable to people just to get an audience. So it was very difficult in doing and... there was a point I wanted to make here. Can you say that question again?

Ben:  What came together for you in the 1960s artistically?

Faith:  Perseverance. Yeah, just live it, stay there, don't move, they don't know better than you. The artist is the only one who knows what they should be doing. It's not about anything but the time you're living in and yourself. And I fed off the time.

I can remember...I was teaching at the time and I remember running home from school to turn on the television to find out what was going on. And it just appeared to me that there were so many brilliant speakers, so many people speaking out on the events of the times.
We don't have that now. There isn't anybody saying anything that moves me. I was deeply moved by lots of people in the '60s who rose to the occasion and told us things that were worth listening to. You know, explaining the events of the time in brilliant ways.

I don't see that now. I see a lot of people saying, "What are they talking about?" It seems like there's an agenda and it goes on no matter what the events. So it's very different. But I think we may be coming back to that time. What is it? Like every 40 years we have some kind of revolutionary changes? I think we're in that... we're here.

Ben:  Now, what painters were you looking at for inspiration and direction?

Faith:  I looked at everybody. Andy Warhol and I looked at. I looked at Andy Warhol and William de Kooning. I loved his women series and I loved his colors, I mean, he wasn't political. But Andy was. He had a lot of statements to make about what was going on at the time. Not exactly like I was doing.

Jacob Lawrence, wonderful, I was very much impressed with him. I was also drawn very much to the whole pop art movement because of the big statement. You know how they made the figures so big and bold and how they would take an average thing and use it as a, you know like soup cans. I didn't use soup cans but I did in my "The Flag is Bleeding"

I made a commemorative stamp 8' by 6' to memorize... to memorialize the Black Power Movement, on a stand. The stand was little and then it's a pop art thing to do to make it, you know, real big. I thought that was good.

So there are a lot of artists I was really inspired by. When I would sort of get into a slump I'd go in a museum and look. And look and look and look until I felt really good [laughs] and then I'd come back home and do some more work.

Ben:  Living in Holland did you feel any distance between your life, your world and the world of the artist that you see in other parts of New York or other parts of the world?

Faith:  Oh yeah. I knew that my life was different from theirs. I knew my struggle was different from theirs. I knew my art was different from theirs and I had to be very careful about not allowing that to turn me around.

It's wasn't easy to do that but it was absolutely completely necessary. I remember before I found my voice before I started the "American People Series" in 1963 that's when I started that I used to go around looking for a studio, I mean for a gallery, a gallery to represent my work.

I was doing landscapes, pictures of boats, water, scenes like that. And I went to this gallery on 57th Street Ruth White Gallery. And she had a lot of very beautiful landscapes and different kinds of stilllife pictures and so on. And I had some of those same subjects with me, and I would take the art with me. I wouldn't take pictures or any of that, I took the art. [laughs]
And so, I came into her gallery and my husband was with me, and we put the art out for her to look at, and she looked at it and she said, "You can't do that." This was about 1963, yeah. Just at the beginning of when I started my American People series. And I looked at her, and then my husband looked around, and we saw in her gallery all these still lives and landscapes and all of that.

I don't remember what else we said to each other, but when we left there he said to me, "Do you know what she means? Because she's got a lot of landscapes and all in her gallery that look very much like the same subject matter you have." So I said, "Yeah, I think what's she's saying is, 'with everything that's going on in this country, you can't do that. You should be more involved in the times. Tell your story. This has nothing to do with you.'" I mean, landscapes are beautiful and I love landscapes, and I've come to do more landscapes, but from a whole different perspective. And I said, "You know, she's right."

Now, whether she meant to be nasty, or was she just thinking up an excuse to keep me out of her gallery? I don't know. That didn't matter. I just took that remark and turned it into some good advice for me. And that's when I began to see that I was living in this really powerful period in American history, and as an artist and as a woman, I needed to be documenting it. As a black person in America, this was a time for me to have a voice. And this could be my voice, let's see what I can do with it.

I remember that summer I took my daughters up to Martha's Vineyard, and I took James Baldwin, I had written everything he had written, and Amiri Baraka Mainly James Baldwin and Amiri Baraka. And I read and read and read, and what they had to say was interesting, but it isn't as an artist would say it. And I began to paint that American People series that summer. I give her credit for stopping me in my tracks and telling me, for whatever reason she had, that I should find my voice and my vision.

Ben:  What is the artist's role in the community, from your experience?

Faith:  Well, I think the artist's role is to, in some ways, document the times. Because we look at art through history. We can tell a lot about the time the artist lived by just looking at the pictures, or the sculpture that they did. And every group of people does this, every culture of people, every race of people does this. Those who have highly developed, fascinating cultures create artists who have the same, because they work together. So as a black woman, my role is to speak in my voice as to race and gender, about the times that I lived in. And I see that as a responsibility that I take on.

Just looking at art from all over the world, you can see that artists have done this. They show you what happened, what was happening at the time they were living. In many cases, if they're figurative, they're going to show you the people, what they look like, what they were doing, and what they were feeling, you know?
A very interesting thing is the minimalist period that came out of the '70s. Well, maybe it started in the '40s, but... I mean, during a time when the country was in upheaval. So it was a way of saying, "We're not, we're just going to see everything very plain," and very... not even beautiful. We don't even want to use those words. "We're just going to phase out of all this excitement."

The minimalist period was right in there with all the political art, all the figurative art. What a great period. And I would love to see that happen again. I don't think it's happening right now, but I'd like to be in the middle of one of those periods again, like the '60s.

Ben:  Along with being an artist in these years, and for many years before you had been a teacher, how did that bring a sense of purpose, responsibility that you took into your painting?

Faith:  Well, I have taught art to children from prekindergarten straight through to graduate school in college. And I love being a part of collegeaged artists' work, of their development. I like to feel that I can help them. And so I taught for many years at the University of California in San Diego; those were glorious years meeting young people who needed direction to create art.

I taught for 18 and a half years in the public schools in New York, and that was wonderful too, especially teaching the little ones. Prekindergarten to about fourth grade, they're magic. [laughs] They are so spontaneous and so wonderful. When I was in college we were taught to copy the great masters of European painting. And in that way, we learned a lot about composition and color and so on. I mean, I don't condone it, but I will say that it had a benefit.

However, you could get very stiff, you know, not knowing what your composition is. What are your colors? What's your spontaneity? I think I learned that from the children. Those little kids could pick up a paintbrush and put some color on it and just go. They knew exactly what to do with the space, and that's one of the hardest, most difficult things a painter has to achieve, is knowing how to compose the space. What do you put there? What color is it? What color is next to it? And children are masterful of that. I give them credit for that. I am so happy that I did become a teacher instead of an artist who never taught, because I don't know what the outcome would look like. I really don't know.

I know that when I was a very little child, I was always given paper and paint and brushes to paint, at home, in school, everywhere. And on my way to school... We lived in the valley, and the school that I went to was on a hill. As we would climb and hill, we would see these boys coming out of the subway on St. Nicholas Avenue, walking up the hill to Convent Avenue, and then turning down to go down the street.

I remember one day, I said to my mother, "Where are they going?" And she said, "They're going to the City College of New York." I had always been told from the time I was a little kid that I was going to college when I grew up, but nobody had said what I was going to be. Although I did all this art, nobody ever said, "You're going to be an artist, aren't you?" Never. Well, in the 1930s, you know what I mean? It didn't work.

So, one day she took me down there to see these gothic buildings at City College. I fell in love with that whole university at that time. I said, when I grow up I'm going to go to this college. And so, that was in my mind.

When I graduated in 1948, and I went there to get my matriculation process and all that, I discovered that females were not permitted to matriculate in the School of Liberal Arts at that time at the City College of New York. So, late '40s. Now my whole world was blown up in space, because my plan was to go to City College and get my art degree.

So, they said, "You can go to Hunter, you can go to Brooklyn." "No, I can't go anywhere like that, because this is what I've been thinking about all these years. I want to go up that hill." And it never occurred to me that all those boys I saw going up that hill, those were all boys. I never saw any girls go. But it didn't occur to me, "Well, you can't do that. They're all boys."

But then I found why they were all boys. They were all boys because the school was really a man's school. But I did also discover that I could go to City College if I majored in art and minored in education, and I could become an art teacher. I said, "Yeah, OK."

My family loved it because I come from a family of teachers. So, they said, "Oh, that's so wonderful. Thank God. This kid's not going to be one of those artists that can't find work."

So, I did go to City College. I did get a bachelor's and a master's degree in art education, and was able to take all the art courses plus an extra bonus: I could teach. And if I hadn't done that, would I have found a way to teaching? I don't know.

I don't know what would have happened, but I know this. If I had missed the experience of teaching those little children that would have had a great effect on my work and the kind of things I do. So, I'm almost glad that they didn't allow women at the time, because it worked for me.

Ben:  Earlier you referred to yourself a black woman artist, but there have been times when you've had to be a black artist apart from being a woman artist, or a woman artist apart from being a black artist, because there were two struggles going on. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Faith:  Well, I don't know how to divorce them. I don't know how to separate the two. Both need urgent attention at all times. So, it does require that one be cognizant of the fact that there are two struggles. You can't just separate them out. It just is continuous. I don't separate them. They're the same.

Black men don't have a problem, gender. Gender's not their issue. I can see that very clearly. But it is mine. So, we have one problem that's the same, the one of race. But then we have this extra burden, this extra thing that separates us out in a way that nobody can understand. Like women who are not black do not understand the black part in the women. And the men who aren't women don't understand the women's part.

But it's up to me. I have a responsibility to understand it all, because it's all my issue. And that is exceedingly difficult, but with all the other difficult things I've had to face I just take it on.

Ben:  Your 1967 canvas dye (DIE?) was the culmination of your first important painting series called American People. What was the series about?

Faith:  The series was about what was happening in America at the time. All the different kinds of issues that were fresh, that were being reviewed for the first time. The positions of black people being so alienated from the majority race of people, white people in America, that it was something that we faced every day.

Every single solitary day everywhere, no matter what you did, there were some peoplein fact there were a lot of peoplewho closed their eyes and pretended it wasn't happening. But there were others who just had to face the music and realize that there was a lot to be done.

What was wonderful about it was the many wonderful people who came out of that. I think people rise to the occasion in difficult times. You get these people who are so inspiring and so uplifting that they make the bad times almost worth it, because you see such beauty in other people. We had so many people like that.

Like, for instance, with Martin Luther King and the way he lived his life through his speeches. You could recognize the fact that he was going to pay for what he was doing, but it wouldn't stop him. He was revved up, he was on a roll. He couldn't go back the other way. There were periods in his life when he could have stopped and just got quiet. And I'm sure there were lots of people who did that. But he could not do that.

How awful for his family that he was assassinated the way he was, but it was a benefit for us, because he gave America a new look, a new consciousness that lives even today. So, he lost his life, but for an excellent cause. I can't think of a better cause than he did.

And I think he knew that, and he tried to tell us that in many of his speeches, that he knew he wouldn't... Like he said, "I've been to the mountaintop, and I've looked over and seen the promised land. I might not get there with you." But he felt that life would be better because of some of the things that he was doing. He felt purposeful in his life, and that's a great thing to feel. And then there were others, so many others that did the same thing.

Ben:  Many of the people that you depict in "American People" have an almost ordinary, anonymous appearance and quality to them. Could you say a little bit about that common touch? 40.00

Faith:  Yeah, it's along with the size of the people and the fact that sometimes their heads are cut off or they're so frontal in the frame that we can't see much of them, we can't see their whole body, has to do with the fact that I am trying to associate these images with everyday people. These are everyday people, these are not anybody special. This is just the man, the woman in the street. That's what I wanted to do. I was trying to make it personal. Personalize it.

Ben:  To finish off, could you tell us a little bit more about "Die" and its details and how some of the things that we've been discussing today are evident in that?

Faith:  Well, there's another story connected with "Die" actually. There was an artist. His last name was Woodruff. I can't remember his first name. Anyway, he is in Port [inaudible] and he was taking a group to Japan. No, he was taking a group to Liberia for a black and African Festival that was going to be in Liberia. I applied to go and he said: "Send me some of your work to look at."

And so, he was an African American man. So, I sent him my American collection, like from '63 to... I think this conference or whatever it was, was happening in 1966 in Liberia, the first International Art Conference or something. I really wanted to go very badly and I sent him my work from '63 to '66.

And he saw it and he said: "Well, you know? Your work is too static. It doesn't move. Your figures seem to be very rigid and not moving in the space." See, there's another thing, as a woman, you always have to have an art lesson. [laughs] Sell your work and they give you an art lesson free. [laughs] As if I didn't know how to make things move. So, anyway, I didn't get to go. [laughs] I did get to go to the next one many years later, but I didn't get to go to that one.

I thought about him and I always like to take those bad things, like that woman who said: "You can't do this." I turned them into something beneficial to me. I could just get angry and go away or I can see a benefit. I know how to make things move and I proved it with "Die." [laughs] I did that the way I did it. Now, if it hadn't been for him, I may have made that composition different. But those people are moving. [laughs]

I mean, why does he assume that I can't make people move because they're not moving in the paintings? Maybe that's why I didn't want them to move. I didn't. I wanted them to be as they were. I wanted them to be confrontational, I wanted them to be in your face. I didn't want them moving. But then I thought about this last painting of the... The three last ones. The other two were pretty standing still which is what the whole series was. But the very last one, "Die," they're moving. [laughs] And bleeding and fighting and carrying on.

And that was in tribute to him because he just assumed that I couldn't do something that I wasn't doing at the time. These are some of the things you have to go through. You're black and a woman, you can't do it. I mean, in this I can see everything that you know how to do, there are going to be a whole lot of things I think you can't do. And that is just a heavy burden to have on you.

But I distinctly remember Hale Woodruff was in there. He was a very important African American artist. He taught at NYU and he organized this group to go to Africa in 1966 and boy, I wanted to go. I couldn't get there because I didn't have the right work, what can I say?

Ben:  Any more questions? I just need you to move your head off in front of the mic [inaudible]. It was perfect until just the last two seconds.

Faith:  OK.

Ben:  OK, you've got another question?

Man 1:  I just want to ask you about one element of that painting which is in contrast to the mÍlÈe of figures you've... This is, in fact, two canvasses that are square and within each canvass there's a division of nine squares that are in a kind of somber, static, gray and was that to set off the dynamism of the figures?
Faith:  Yeah, that's the sidewalk. After that, my color, my palette changed and I started... For a period of time, I painted very black paintings because after that period came in the "Black is Beautiful" period. And that was very moving for me and I painted people and backgrounds in harmony with black skin and I called that the "Black Light" series. That was a series of 12 paintings I did after.

So, I'm coming into it and I wanted to hold it. Also, it speaks to the truth that I finally get to do in 1980 with those squares because that's sort of like a signature of quilt making. So, I'm doing the squares. It's also a way of holding a very vigorous kind of composition together by making those squares and it's also the sidewalk.

So, it just represents a lot of different elements in the composition. It's a compositional thing that I thought held everything together. Also, tone down some of those wild colors and was not moving at all. And also, I think this was the second time that I use children in my composition and I just that the children were a great contrast to the adults who were just raising hell. The kids are terrified and holding on to each other. So, it has a contrast use.

Man 1:  Thanks. Thank you, Faith. That was terrific.

Faith:  You're welcome, this was fun.

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