Two Lexington-based artists, James Robert Southard and Crystal Gregory, share their current projects, reflections and advice for artists (and everyone) during this time, and the ways that they continue to cultivate community.
How do you situate your work in the context of the current moment?
James Robert Southard (JRS): Over the past few weeks, a lot has changed with one of my projects, Better seen than unheard. It was a project done for the exhibition BallotBox in partnership with Louisville Metro Hall. The work is responding to the history of political campaigns in Kentucky. While the opening day of the exhibition was shut down due to the start of the Covid outbreak, segments of my videos were running on the CityPost Kiosks all over downtown. It was nice to see the work being brought outside the building and reminding everyone of the coming election.
When the protests against police brutality started, I joined the marches and rallies in Lexington, though, I had no clue how Louisvillians would respond to my kiosk videos. I was watching the marches live on local news and saw my videos in the background on every corner. Archival footage of Harry Belafonte introducing Kennedy at the Democratic Convention in 1960 were looping all over downtown Louisville. When protesters started to break windows, the kiosks were some of the first things to be damaged. I was not angry, but rather accepted that the kiosks would be defaced during the protests against systemic police brutality. The resulting videos wore the marks of the 2020 protests and couldn’t be sponged away so easily.
Soon after, I got news that conspiracy theories were floating around about the videos. Some protesters believed that the kiosks were attacked by hacktivists and posted videos on social media spreading the conspiracy. City hall shut down the videos in the hopes of not spreading disinformation. As much as I want my work to be exhibited downtown and maybe even help the protests, I agree with the city’s decision. There are too many falsehoods going around these days and I don’t want my videos to be interpreted incorrectly. We are talking about bringing them back online with more text discussing the exhibition and I am thinking more about how our elections are affected by political parties via our media. These protests are a response to our society while disregarding our traditional institutions, such as the media. They are growing and evolving each day and giving voice to those who are ignored. I am eager to see my videos up in the streets that exhibit the old world, while the marchers reflect the new one. (To get a glimpse of the video shown, click here)
Crystal Gregory (CG): Not knowing where to start (and feeling unable to attend all the protests I wanted to due to being eight months pregnant) I felt the urgency to take some sort of action. I have been looking to learn from Black Feminists past and present and am so grateful to have the opportunity to take an online training called Academics for Black Survival and Wellness created by Dr. Della V. Mosley and Pearis L. Bellamy. This course has been deeply transformative and personal. The classes I teach in Fiber and Material Studies are rooted in Feminist History, but what I’ve taken in this course has led me to question: what histories have been erased or undervalued in my field? And how can I change that?
What projects are you currently working on and how is social distancing affecting your art practice?
(JRS): With classes ending, I am taking my attention away from online teaching towards my time in the studio. I was offered a residency for the Maine Farmland Trust at the Joseph A. Fiore Art Center. Due to Covid-19, they have changed the residency to be an online one where I’ll work from my studio here in Lexington. I’ll be doing weekly zoom studio visits with the public as well as panel discussions with other artists and curators. I was going to do a project up in Maine about the small–scale farmers, but now I am turning my lens towards small scale farmers of central and eastern Kentucky. I will start this project in July/August.
(CG): I am thrilled to be working towards a solo show at Moremen Gallery in Louisville. Fortunately, my opening date is set for June 26th and we are going forward. Susan Moremen has been wonderful to work with and has altered the platform of the exhibition to include an online catalog, gallery viewing by appointment and video tours.
I am very excited about this exhibition and actually this grouping of new works has a direct lineage to my winter show at 21c in Lexington, The Event of the Thread, which traveled to Spring Break Art show in March. My upcoming exhibition at Moremen Gallery builds off of the work made for my 21c exhibition and is inspired especially by collaborating with the dancers and choreographer of The Moving Architects. In my new body of work, I am engaging materials to perform formal gestures that are both authentic to their function and frustrate their use. I am incorporating gestures of spills, boundaries, and gravity to articulate each material’s individual potential properties.
Our world health crisis has affected this new body of work in so many ways. First, in pure practicality, my studio building was shut down. I was forced to move what I could to a small back bedroom in our home. I wasn’t able to take my loom, but I did grab both a portable knitting machine and tufting equipment. These processes are new to me both technically and conceptually, both use looped structure systems, creating a semi two-dimensional plane (fabric) out of a single line (thread). Like our current social situation, each loop depends on the stability of its neighbor for durability and support but linked together make up a system that is incredibly strong as well as pliable and flexible. These looped structures took on a second layer of meaning for me personally as I am currently seven months pregnant and expecting a son this July. I will be showing these new bodies of work at Moremen Gallery this summer.
What advice and tips can you give to other artists during this time?
(JRS): Now is the time go back to the old project you never finished. You know the one. You still have the materials hanging around the studio and you moved on from it too soon to the next project for one reason or another. Time to heal old wounds.
Also, now’s your chance to catch up on your Baudrillard.
(CG): I don’t know if I have advice because I think we are all experiencing this time differently and with different challenges and hardships, but I can offer a reflection. I have been thinking a lot about time and slowness. With so much of my typical busyness stripped away (shows and trips canceled) I have been left with myself and my work. I have started to turn inwards, to turn off the radio, the music, and podcast and dig deep into listening to what the work is showing me.
How are you cultivating community for yourself and what can the community be doing to support artists?
(JRS): I’d say my biggest community event is an art exhibition I am finishing up this week. I organized a group exhibition at the Parachute Factory which is still happening even though we can’t have a reception. I am mapping and sharing the exhibition online with a virtual gallery walkthrough. I am also uploading videos of each student discussing their ideas behind each work. It is an online exhibition to show off their work at the end of this difficult semester.
The public can help by buying art, hiring artists, watching their online lectures and performances. Do the same for local galleries and venues. If you loved going to performances, exhibitions, or shows, you can continue to do so from the comfort of your own couch, but instead of the door charge or ticket prices, you donate. You do this, and they’ll still be artists and art galleries when this is all over.
(CG): The pandemic has put a great deal into perspective. I have found myself being a lot closer to friends and family that are physically very distant while the people I usually see every day I have spoken to less often. It’s amazing to feel closer to people that are across an ocean than across the street.
I will be participating in a project called Purple Window where artists are exhibiting each other’s work in the windows of their homes (or businesses) all over the world. This project feels like a great way to cultivate community and let each other in on the importance of making work. I have also been co-leading a sew-at-home network to make cloth masks for the UK Healthcare workers. We, as a community, have made nearly 1000 masks in the last few weeks that protect the coveted N95’s. This has been a great way to keep connected as well as keep myself moving through this uncertain time.
I really like the second half of this question. Artists, in this country in particular, are incredibly strong and resilient. They are passionate, inspired, and motivated and have the ability to apply creativity to many different types of problems. Artists can bring communities together, present issues, and activate healing. I think giving artists leadership roles and platforms to have a voice can have a huge impact on society. I have seen galleries, museums and art spaces create online exhibitions and virtual public events that have a greater turnout than in person events. This world health crisis is taking its toll on everything and the art world will suffer big change along with it. But optimistically I believe we can shape our own change. We have an opportunity and responsibility to take stock and ask what we need the new art world to be. We can strive to be inclusive of all, further reaching, deeply honest.
James Robert Southard
After receiving his MFA from Carnegie Mellon in 2011, James Robert Southard has worked in the art world through invitations to international exhibitions such as the Moscow Biennale for Young Art, Hel’Pitts’Sinki’Burgh in Finland, Camaguey Cuba’s 5th International Video Art Fest and participation in the Internet Pavilion at the 54th Venice Biennale in Venice Italy. In 2012, James started a collaborative photography and video series with the collaboration of the city of Seoul, Korea at Seoul Art Space Geumcheon. Soon after he took his project to Maine where he was a participant at Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, then later to MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire, Yaddo Retreat in New York, Jentel in Wyoming, MASS MoCA and currently to the dairy farmers of northern Vermont. His digital construction process allows for public interactions and collaborations to combine together in the aesthetics of each composition. While continuing this process in new communities, He has also returned to academia by teaching photography at the University of Kentucky.
Crystal Gregory is a sculptor whose work investigates the intersections between textile and architecture. Gregory received her BFA from the University of Oregon and her MFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago from the Fiber and Material Studies Department. In 2013 she was awarded The Leonore Annenberg Fellowship for the Performing and Visual Arts. With this grant, she moved to Amsterdam NL where she took a role as Guest Artist at The Gerrit Rietveld Academie of Art. Her work has been exhibited in museums and galleries nationally including Through the Thread at the Rockwell Museum of Art, Devotion/Destruction: Craft Inheritance at Dorsky Gallery Curatorial Projects, Load Barring: The Art of Construction at The Hunterdon Art Museum and Crossover at Black and White Project Space and has been reviewed in publications such as Hyperallergic, Surface Design Journal, Art Critical, and Peripheral Vision Press. Gregory is an Assistant Professor within the School of Arts and Visual Studies at the University of Kentucky and currently shows with Tappan Collective in Los Angeles, CA as well as Momentum Gallery, NC.