Why I do what I do.
I am an artist because my grandmother, Bernice Curry, had an agile artist’s mind. She expressed it in her home, her garden and her interactions with the communities she intersected. Creativity and ingenuity were central to the life she built for herself and family. In many ways, these attributes were necessary for survival in her world. She made no claims to the term artist, but she was an extremely creative person. She was forever pointing out figures spotted in clouds, on tablecloths or in the twisted limbs of a tree. She could create items of beauty for the house out of found objects. Like a lot of black people who migrated north from the south in the thirties and forties, she didn’t have a lot of money. She had to make do with what she had or could find. She used creativity to make up what was lacking. Anyone who visited our apartment for the first time, was given a tour that included in-depth explanations of objects she created to sustain and enhance her home. She made a bathtub enclosure out of old screen doors, for example. No one necessarily had to know the tub enclosure was upcycled, but she made sure they did. She was proud of her work. This practice of creative upcycling continued long after the necessity for it waned. Her interventions were transformative for our living space and the people in it (me in particular). It is not unusual for members of my family to share their handiwork, their extensions of this tradition, to this day.
Nana also maintained a large flower garden where we lived. Her almost obsessive gardening played a huge role in my becoming an artist. I grew up in Tottenville in Staten Island. It is the southernmost tip of New York and probably a small town as New York City gets. I grew up there, as my mother did because this is the place where my grandparents settled after their move north. I imagine the availability of jobs brought them there. Or, perhaps the proximity to Sandy Ground, a long free community of black clammers and the ferry to Perth Amboy, NJ, drew them there. I can only speculate, but Tottenville was, and still is, a mostly white town. A small enclave of black families lived there as well. For the most part, they were relegated to a place called “the flats,” a small apartment complex on the edge of town. I learned much later it was one of the few places in town that would rent to black families. Nana made the best of that situation. She turned the large dirt lot on the side of the building into a beautiful garden. There were grass, marigolds, petunias and many other kinds of annuals I don’t remember the name of. She kept that garden meticulously manicured. It attracted people from around the neighborhood. They would walk by, admire the garden and eventually talk to her. I now realize the garden was a form of social practice. She seduced even her most trenchant white neighbors with the garden's beauty. Her work in that garden—her joy really—helped make black families living in the area safer and more comfortable. The garden was a space of social practice that built alliances. That garden was her solace and entry into the community. That garden was vital to the way I think art as well as how I think about working in and building community.
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