This is Part 2 with Tiffany Gholar (Part 1 here). I was personally blown away by Gholar’s fourth publication, The Sum of Its Parts: Artwork, 2014-2018. Immediately upon completion of it, I recalled Carrie Mae Weems in a video commemorating her 2014 MacArthur “Genius Grant” win. At the time, Ms. Weems was featured in solo exhibit at the Guggenheim, a show I visited several times. Yet, her relief and decompression was palpable as she described what the notably large grant meant most to her upon first word of it: “I won’t have to fight so hard for every, single thing.”
As an outside fan, my impression was Weems was writing her own ticket. As long as I had followed her career, I never imagined she had to fight for anything. And while I have the privilege of friendship with Gholar to come inside, I still had the same impression of her career from my outside look. The Sum of Its Parts was a wake-up call I needed and could have written myself. I suspect Weems and more could as well. Why don’t we?
Gholar has provided missive for a new way to write about the creative life, art-making and (most specifically) Black women navigating those historically troubled waters for all talents. Usually, we receive saccharine look-back chronicles of celebrities’ “early days” as starving artists and couch surfers, after the most iconic artists blossomed into household names. Rarely do we hear from those of us who remain somewhere in the middle, as budget artistry and near volunteer work for our works are not the most sexy and glamorous revelations for a public who needs its stars to help them escape or fantasize.
Daily, in real life and online, we walk on a lonely balance beam between the blessed opportunities we have to show dreams come true and our necessity to be paid or sell. The Sum of Its Parts suggests the world must see both in equal measure and respect if writers, artists and creatives at large are to persevere. It is my honor to join Gholar in enlightening others on the unseen fight for every success.
Gholar is a multi-facted visual artist whose many offerings include personalized interior design for commercial and residential spaces, custom made artwork tailored to clients and participation in women-centered art exhibitions. She is an expert in a variety of space models, building types and art materials as well as current trends in art, design and color. She is also a prolific writer who has documented four bodies of work with companion books to explain the theoretical, process and societal depths behind each body. Her contributions to fiction include the novel A Bitter Pill to Swallow, a Chicago Writer’s Association 2016 Book of the Year; School Library Journal praised it for inserting an uncommon element of multi-generational concerns into modern YA fiction.
Her vibrant, uplifting collections of smaller retail products, apparel and displays are available through Zazzle’s Mixed Media Art Design store– including offerings based on one of my favorites of hers: “Flower Power.” This juicy, complex collage work is but one example of Gholar’s radical efforts to bring fine art to the mass public, with printing options available on products such as journals and totes. It is artwork I passed on to inspire for my latest novel’s cover and I was happy to see it influenced the final result. Please enjoy the rest of our discussion on what it is to be Black women creating today.
Kalisha Buckhanon: I remember coming to last year’s The Other Art Fair and seeing “Violet Verve.” That’s a real painting. It spoke to me, called out. Thank you for documenting its creation in the book. I regret I could not buy it, mainly because of these self-funding creative issues you document in The Sum of Its Parts. Ironically, my friends who aren’t creators splurge on art, film, theater more than I do- and I’m the one who needs that creativity on a regular basis, to power my own creative motor. So if creative professionals can not splurge on each other or feel guilty when we do, and the masses are just on the internet, how can we adapt: artist cooperatives, individual subscription services, social media boycotting?
Tiffany Gholar: Thank you for remembering “Violet Verve.” That really means a lot to me. To answer your question about how we can adapt, yes, I think artist cooperatives and individual subscription services are a great idea. I have seen other artists do well with them. I’m not sure if boycotting social media is the answer. But I am trying to network more in-person because I haven’t reaped the benefits from being online that I had expected to. That’s why I am also feeling a lot more skeptical about the social media for artists “experts.” I am wary of wasting my time with their webinars and articles, or buying services I don’t need.
K.B.: I never noticed “Violet Verve” had a flaw, the number “7” you said the paintbrush accidentally dried into it. I also did not notice you had a want of buyers, were responsible for the booth fee, did not get a grant to pay the exhibition fee, had no help hauling your work to set up and dismantle it, and- though I should have known this one- weren’t paid for two-days time you spent there. Reading your side in the book, which I participated in the unpaid labor of, made me realize how much I speak and put on shows for free. All writers do. But I go to writers’ public readings, and museums, just assuming grants pay big speaker fees and wealthy patrons buy larger artworks. I never consider the sum of my part adding to a whole, and I am an artist. Besides buying books and small art pieces here or there, what can I do? Am I wrong for sharing many things and artists I love online, giving glimpses and snippets with awareness people may not be buying?
T.G.: No, I think it’s great that you share the work of the artists you love online because you never know who might see it, or if what you’ve shared will be passed on by someone who could make it go viral. If even ten percent of the accounts that follow me on social media would share my work as much as you have, I would be so much better off.
K.B.: That’s good to hear. I do think you are exemplary to others for offering so many options to the public, from your quite informative social media channels to your many smaller products a lot of fine artists don’t consider or provide.
T.G.: Yes, I love it when people buy small art pieces from me. That’s why I make them. I know that not everyone can afford to spend a few hundred dollars on a larger painting, but plenty of people have $25 for a miniature piece that can decorate their cubicle or bookshelf. That‘s also why I use print-on-demand sites like Zazzle and Society6, so that I can also sell my work at lower price points to customers who want something practical, like a throw pillow or a phone case.
Gholar’s “The Doll Project”, created out of concern for thin body images forced on women and girls, features a variety of charming and affordable gifts or products at Society6.
T.G. (continued): As for the art fair, my brother actually helped me bring the paintings from my studio to the venue. He helped me hang them as well, so at least I did have help in that area. But you’re right about the time that I was not paid for. I spent four days total and never sold a single painting. I had to borrow money to even get my booth! You’re right about the unpaid labor of creative work, though sometimes the venues that will pay may be surprising. A few years ago, I did a show at a university gallery. They sent a messenger service to pick up the artwork and return it when the show ended, in addition to paying me a fee for participating. I would love it if all my shows were like that.
K.B.: You wrote about leaping into Instagram with high hopes and finding out it was just another area to compete in the “Best Life” show. But you pointed out great connections you made from Twitter and Facebook. So, it is a two-sided coin. I am curious how you stay so prolific on social media, but still manage to create as much art as you do. Any tips or ideas about best practices for those who are overwhelmed in this area?
T.G.: I try to schedule my social media in advance so I don’t spend as much time online, although sometimes it’s easy to get distracted because so much is going on I want to keep up with. Scheduling allows me to continuously share my work while I am actually not on my computer or phone. Half of the “content” I share is finished work or occasional photos of work in progress. The other half is work that inspires me by other creatives. I only follow accounts that I enjoy hearing from, at least when it comes to individual people. I don’t believe in “hate-following” people.
There are some local organizations I don’t necessarily agree with, but follow to see what they’re up to. I don’t debate people on social media, either. I’m not afraid to stop following accounts that annoy me, turn off retweets from accounts that share things I don’t want to see, mute accounts that are tedious, and block people who are downright hateful. It’s not perfect, but it has helped make my experience tolerable, and even enjoyable sometimes. Although my work has never gone viral on social media and I have only gotten a handful of art sales and projects because of it, it has benefited me in other ways. It’s made me aware of grants, galleries, art shows, and other opportunities I wouldn’t have known about otherwise.
K.B.: I have a personal mission to avoid mentioning “Trump,” not even in a card game. My horror is so deep. But I can not avoid applauding you for being so clear about his contamination of our souls, and our souls root all creatives. I, too, stopped creating from it. This unqualified leader has scattered our thinking, given us forms of mental and emotional illness. In the book, you vowed you are “Reclaiming My Time.” What do you hope will be the sum of all you are and have learned in your next body of work, 2019-2023?
T.G.: I can definitely understand that! I didn’t want his name to defile my book, so I never used it once. “Horror” is a great way to describe how I felt about everything that has transpired since the 2016 election. I was also furious, disgusted, and depressed. I disapprove of him on so many levels. But as a Black woman, I feel a deep resentment for the power he and the unqualified people around him have been given when I am under so much pressure to be ten times as good to get paid half as much and get half as far as a mediocre white man. And I despise being governed by fools.
For the sake of my own sanity, I spend less time watching the news as I did when he first came into power. I think that obsessively watching the news on TV and online was what drained my creative drive in 2017. Now I try very hard to maintain some semblance of balance, between staying informed and being overloaded with information that enrages me because there is so little that I can do to change things. I still support resistance movements, but I allow myself the creative freedom to make whatever kind of art I feel like in the moment, even if it means some people might dismiss it as escapist if it’s not a vessel for all my negative feelings or if it’s not protest art.
K.B.: There is so much pressure, especially on artists of color, to make protest art. Sometimes we just want to tell stories and make magic like we’ve done all our lives. But given this has been our lives for so long now, I’m coming to a loss on how not to infect my work with it. It’s going to be interesting to see how both our work evolves within this.
T.G.: I’ve actually started working on my next art book, though at the moment it doesn’t have a title. My goal for now is to build my interior design practice so I feel less pressure to sell my artwork. Of course, I still want to sell artwork. However, worrying about sales can make painting less enjoyable for me. I am really interested in continuing to work in the same style I’ve been working in. I feel like I still have a lot more textures and shapes that I want to explore, and still feel excited about the prospect of making new work.
(Tiffany Gholar will read from The Sum of Its Parts tonight at Tuesday Funk, Chicago’s longstanding reading series, at 5148 N. Clark Street, 7:30 p.m.)
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