“There’s an expectation in the Black middle class not to discuss failures in public because we’re up against so many negative stereotypes and under pressure to be the image of “Black Excellence” all the time. But it’s exhausting… I honestly had no choice but to include very raw journal excerpts that express my frustration, anger, and resentment in order to give an accurate account about what my life was like between 2014 and 2018.”
-Tiffany Gholar, on being a Black woman artist working today and her latest book The Sum of Its Parts: Artworks, 2014-2018
It was all so remote once… The writers were in the library, the poets were in the school books, the painters were in the history books, the actors were on the screen, the notables were in the encyclopedia. But time, expanded horizons and life choices shoved me in range of those definitions live and in the flesh, down from the sky, in front of my eyes and from behind the scenes. In fact, human beings of those definitions and ones like them comprise the bulk of my chosen family. And nearly every time we get together we share challenges, drawbacks and difficulties behind our closed doors.
Tiffany Gholar is one of them who never ceases to surprise and touch me. We landed in the grand but suffocating University of Chicago air as not just one of 25 or so Black women per year. We were also Christian and Midwest-mannered young women in the prime training ground for success often sadly reached by cut throats and verbal swords. Yet although she was younger, she was a mirror and mentor to me, a reflection of hard commitment to stand your ground and take the high road to sleep peacefully at night.
Today, we work in professions and worlds where not much is different. Reality, truth and normalcy can be character flaws in the games we play in, as Black women navigating rare achievements with few spots for us anywhere let alone at the top. Still she is a frequently exhibited painter, interior decorator, design expert, Jeopardy! champion, novelist and blogger working out of the Fine Arts Building of Chicago.
So by the last page of her fourth book, The Sum of Its Parts: Artwork, 2014-2018, I knew Gholar is poised to elevate even higher. She takes her power back and her rightful place as an ingenue with a story that matters. She is no longer content to appear not discontent with the inequities and setbacks we creative artists and professionals are coached to hide or stay quiet about, unto a horror story known as “#MeToo” bubbles over to reveal what women in hard to reach places truly go through. Or, sometimes the viral mug shots and exposed bankruptcies uncover the most talented people’s secret substance abuses and losses of control. Sadly, but thank God rarely, even family and close friends may know nothing of the despair behind visible successes until a suicide appears.
The Sum of Its Parts stands apart from most other art books and artist memoirs I’ve read. I used to be unable to feel authors’ pressure to keep up the ruse people like us are superhuman, the crouching behind finished and perfected works. Today, with my own heartbreaking or crisis experiences behind everything I’ve done, I need more. I need more like this book. Gholar’s display of glorious art and life-giving paintings, completed across five years, come with grown woman commentary about what it took to see each piece through. In wisdom, she snakes the darkest corners of life- grief, breakups, economic peril- in a chronology of change and chaos where blank canvas was the steadiest hold.
I highly recommend her story and could talk to her all day about the truths we are not the better for hiding. For now, we say what we can in this Q & A series I hope makes other women and creatives feel less guilty or alone in the crazy beautiful lives we have.
Kalisha Buckhanon: You have inspired me to be braver about my energy, time, money. We are in similar positions. Book releases and TV appearances are fine accomplishments, but the general public does not know the economics of professional creative industries. And it benefits creative industries to maintain apparatuses that keep misunderstandings alive because it’s “show” business. Show business depends on fantasy, celebrity, how things look versus how they are. Yet, despite all this, we keep creating more. What drives you back to your studio and into the work?
Tiffany Gholar: Thank you. I’m honored you feel I’ve inspired you. I agree, there is often so much going on behind the scenes people don’t know about when they see creative professionals making public appearances. I remember reading about Gwendolyn Brooks receiving her Pulitzer at the same time her electricity had been cut off. That image stayed with me because it’s a perfect metaphor for how precarious finances can be for creatives. The economics of it all can be so terrible at times.
I keep working in my studio because there is nothing else I really want to do. I have tried doing so many other things and have had so many different jobs I feel like I have lived many lifetimes in my life. None of my jobs were as satisfying for me as my creative work has been. In fact, most of them have felt very draining. But art has always been fulfilling for me. I have too many ideas not to keep working. There are so many things I want to try and materials I have been saving for making assemblages and collages to just walk away from being an artist. Making art and being an artist means being true to myself and my purpose in this world. Art means too much to me to give up on it.
K.B.: I have read your other books (The Doll Project, Post-Consumerism). They were traditional think-piecing about art and artmaking, steeped in process, craft, method and statements. What provoked you to infuse this latest book with so much personal history, life memory and candor?
T.G.: I almost didn’t write The Sum of Its Parts. After ending Post-Consumerism and Imperfect Things so happily—the first book with me getting my art studio and the second one ending right after I had won on Jeopardy! —I didn’t want to write a book that would have a downer ending. I was afraid no one would want to read it. I thought I was going to have a big commissioned piece at the end of 2017, so I could end my book with its completion and use that piece as my cover image and give the book a different title. Unfortunately, the project fell through.
Even though I had so many setbacks, I still wanted to tell the truth. There’s an expectation in the Black middle class not to discuss failures in public because we’re up against so many negative stereotypes and under pressure to be the image of “Black Excellence” all the time. But it’s exhausting. All the admonishments from well-meaning business coaches to just “fake it ‘til you make it” never fully resonated with me, and this time was no exception. I honestly had no choice but to include very raw journal excerpts that express my frustration, anger, and resentment in order to give an accurate account about what my life was like between 2014 and 2018.
It was a heartbreaking time. I went through the end of a long engagement, a tumultuous rebound relationship, a series of disappointing art shows, the final rejection letters that led to me self-publishing my novel, hiring the wrong editor for my novel, the election of a blatantly white supremacist president, and the death of a beloved aunt. Rather than just giving up, I decided to keep making art because it is one of the only things I truly looked forward to.
K.B.: That’s a lot, too much. One thing I’ve been repeating out here with my own book is the heroine shows the peril involved when women live a life I call ‘unorthodox’ in almost every way it can be. I did not think it was my intention to develop her that way, but it has been an opening to spotlight how many women and myself live against the grain. We defy all the norms that come with age and expectations. We should be married, showing up to our bosses and job offices, managing children, owning a home. Yet so much about our lives and journeys precluded this norm, and it’s impossible for most to comprehend.
T.G.: I think another reason for my candor is turning 40. Now that I’m older, I don’t care as much about what other people think as I did when I was younger and extremely self-conscious. I was afraid all the people who told me I’d be a “starving artist” would say “I told you so” if I mentioned my struggles in public. Growing up in schools with high-achieving students from kindergarten through undergrad has given me a peer group that I would often compare myself to. Then I’d feel like a failure because so many of them make so much more money than me and have such prestigious careers. But as I get older I am less concerned with that. When I wrote The Sum of Its Parts, I wrote it knowing I felt the need to write it anyway. And I know that if I hadn’t written it the way I did, I wouldn’t have written it at all.
K.B.: You dedicate the book to your Aunt Thea. We are just a generation away from when traditional Black families who had survived so much saw an artist career as a disappointment, almost blasphemous! And this is still the case for working class and first-generation college folks. In that case, educational opportunities are for sure economic uplift. Talk about family support in all this.
T.G.: I dedicated my book to my aunt not only because I lost her right before I wrote it, but also because she was truly an advocate for me and my creative ambitions. She and my parents were the first generation of my family to graduate from college during a time when there were a handful of careers that aspiring Black professionals were encouraged to pursue. I’m grateful to be a generation removed from that, but am painfully aware that it is just one generation away. I am also very grateful for my family’s support.
K.B.: I’m part of the first generation, and hearing more that it is often no different to have another generation padding us. African-Americans were shut out longer than any other racialized group in the world. Carrie Mae Weems is a Black woman multidisciplinary visual artist who survived by the skin of her teeth, even with publishing and solo exhibiting. In her 2014 MacArthur “Genius Grant” profile, it pricked me when she said the reward’s meaning for her was to “not have to fight anymore.” Few people on the outside looking in ever thought she was fighting. I wonder if she’d written something like this. What do you say to women who have the undying fire that art is what they must do in life? Would you encourage other women to do this?
T.G.: Wow, I didn’t know that about Carrie Mae Weems. She’s right, it really is a fight. I definitely would encourage other women who want to be artists to do so, in spite of all the disappointments that I have dealt with recently. I know from experience that this is a very unpredictable field with very high peaks and very low valleys. It’s very feast or famine. Looking back now, I see how blessed I was that I experienced some early successes. Hopefully my current slump is temporary.
I decided to go back to school to study art because I wasn’t getting anywhere with my interior design degree, which I had invested in because I thought it would be the practical but creative thing to do. And then the housing market crashed. I went into art thinking that if I was going to be broke anyway, I might as well be broke while doing something I love. Seeing how terrible the job market is now, with the gig economy and all the other ways that workers are underpaid and overworked, I still feel that way about art. I’m not fully convinced that there is anything better. So many jobs are utterly meaningless. So why not do something that actually matters to you?
This is Part 1 of a 2-Part Interview. Read Part 2 next week ahead of Gholar’s reading from the book at Chicago’s longstanding Tuesday Funk reading series September 3.
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