Marquise Stillwell
Episode 9: Derrick Adams on Visual Language and Reframing The Black Experience

In this episode, I speak with the Baltimore-born, Brooklyn-based multidisciplinary artist Derrick Adams. His work resides in the prestigious collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Studio Museum in Harlem, the Whitney Museum of American Art among many others. We go deep into Adams’ interest in visual culture as a language - a tool to reshape cultural narratives and more urgently, reframe an empowered view of the Black experience in The United States. Adams’ work and interconnected way of thinking is central to The Sweet Flypaper podcast series and its focus on multidimensional vision and responsibility.

https://the-sweet-flypaper.simplecast.com/episodes/derrick-adams-on-visual-language-and-reframing-the-black-experience

Marquise: So welcome to The Sweet Flypaper, my name is Marquise Stillwell.

Neil: And I am Neil Ramsay.

Marquise: And today I have Derek Adams. Derek is an amazing artist and friend and someone that I really enjoy his work in so many scales, from the way that he uses color this visual language all the way down to the expression and also this idea of black joy. And it's been a theme on a number of conversations that I've had on The Sweet Flypaper. But yeah, I'd like to jump in now and give me your theme, I know you've seen Derek's work. What does it feel like when you see his work?

Neil:I remember, in particular, I'll tell you a particular time, a piece that I saw. I think it was during Art Week Art Basel. He did an installation. He took over an entire space floor on everything, in PRIMARY project, so it was about 1,500-2,000 square feet. And I remember there was a particular picture where he had, this one just stood out, where it's like eye level and you saw these eyes and above it was the crest at the top of the White House. And the eyes were obviously a black person. And, you know, generally this was very subjective, I suppose, and I don't want to come from a sort of analysis. But the full the immersion that this was a black and white and there was this. And what it reminded me of, being from London, was the days of ska, S K A. Yeah, and ska was coming together in a sort of a reggae format fast before the sort of neo-Nazi takeover. It was the type of music that really brought black and white together, and the representation of that was a checkered black and white flag. And I remember the colors and this particular use in there having that sort of resonance, which is probably very individual because of my background. But I saw it as an extension of that conversation and particularly with the references to the sort of U.S. power struggle where he was bringing the black folk into it.

Marquise: Yeah. No, I mean, that's the way that he brings you in, it's very powerful. I think just expanding the work and the way that he expresses that face, you know, the other piece that I love is his floaters series, which goes into this conversation about black people and leisure, which is another interesting topic because you don't always see us relaxing. Right?

Neil: Yeah, you don't always see that. But also to speak to that which I'm interested in you know, looking forward to this conversation is the idea of taking that from the visual experience to the built environment, which is something I'm very interested in. How do we create spaces for black joy?

Marquise: ​First, thank you so much. I really appreciate you being [here] and have always admired your work.

Derrick: ​Oh, thank you. Thank you for having me, Marquise. I'm looking forward to having our discussion.

Marquise: ​What I always like to do is, you know, a lot of people who would follow me or listen to the podcast, they may know a little bit about art, but some people don't know, you know, everything.

So give me a sense of who Derek, Addison, how your approach to your work. How would you describe what you do beyond—I mean, I know you're an artist, but talk a little bit more about just who you are and how you've positioned yourself.

Derrick: ​I kind of describe myself as more of a facilitator in most ways, through visual language. And, I'm really interested in using visual culture and visual language in order to kind of hijack the conversation and kind of gear it more towards presenting visual images of empowerment and self-reflection of the Black experience as a central conversation in my work. And a really, I guess, more first-person platform and the way I present the ideas surrounding the experience.

Marquise: ​Got it. Got it. We'll definitely get into some of the work that I've seen in the past and those conversations, but what's on the top of your mind right now with your work, and what have you been thinking about?

Derrick: ​Joy, and mental stability is something that I feel is really pressing a lot in the black community and the creative community. I think that, you know, with everything happening in the world, and things that has continue to happen with Black people and people who feel disenfranchised in a lot of ways, I feel like I'm really excited and focused on creating spaces that will allow us to have some level of self-reflection, and ease and leisure...and things that I feel are more important for us to engage in. [Marquise: Yeah.] You know, and things that I think will help build our stability moving forward.

Marquise: ​Yeah. Yeah. Talk to me a little bit about the project in Harlem, which I really loved, the hospital project. Derrick: ​Oh yeah.

Marquise: ​How did that come about, and give me a sense of how you felt about that project?

Derrick: ​Well, a little over a year ago, I was invited by ​RX Arts​ to propose a project for The Harlem Hospital Children's Ward. I was very excited at the opportunity because it's, you know, something I've never done, I've done wallpaper works and things like that, but I've never had, like, a client in a hospital. And, you know, kind of thinking about the history of Harlem Hospital, the history of it being in Harlem, and who the patients may be, all draw a really special interest to me.

And my really had to really, I really was challenged to think about what, what would be the most ideal image for young patients to look at. And I met with the director of the hospital, and one thing that she told me that I kept in my mind a lot is that she said all the people will come here, all the patients who come here are not happy, they don't want to be here. So anything that could distract them from the experience or take them to somewhere else would be the most ideal scenario.

And so with that in mind, I had to really think about the patient as a client and really think about what would be my most important takeaway, what would be the most important takeaway for them while they visited the hospital. So that kind of became the motivation for, what the end product, which is a wallpaper depicting people—figures—floating and this kind of blue space with these flotation devices around them, because I felt like it was important to create a certain level of levitation and looseness with, the viewer’s experience. So it was exciting to have that commission.

Marquise: ​Yeah. That theme of joy definitely comes out and it's something that I've always...when I walk away from a conversation with you, or I'm listening to an interview with you, this theme of joy...you know, my favorite conversation and really something that you really put into me, and then I actually used a different presentation for some work we did was the photo of Dr. King in the swimming pool​.

Derrick: ​Oh yeah, I love that photo.

Marquise: ​Oh man. I just, it's unbelievable...anytime I can use that photo for a presentation to talk about Black Joy... Talk a little bit about that photo. And then I do want to talk a little about the idea of Radical Joy as well, but give me a sense of how you came upon even understanding that photo, because it's something that we've seen when we were kids, but I think as adults, it probably holds a different meaning to us now.

Derrick: ​Mmhm. Well, as a kid, I don't recall seeing it at all. But even if I did see it, it probably was not something that people celebrate it in the way that I celebrate it now, as an artist, because I don't think that people may have looked at it in the same level—critical context—because of understanding how important leisure or the idea of it for the Black Body is, and how it's such a significant part of creating the balance of who we are and the complexity of understanding the things that we've gone through and going through. And how, even within our culture, we don't look at leisure being as radical or as pressing. When we think about, what does it represent for us?

Because that's not necessarily being here in this particular space, this country, this planet has not always, has never been the ideal for thinking about us or imagining us as, you know, people as—contributors to society. I mean, those things, I believe those things I know, but it's something that is always a subject of, discourse, you know?

Marquise: ​No, and it's, it's really powerful because you and I and others were in these white spaces, right. We move in and out. And I remember we ran into each other, out at Aspen at the Aspen Ideas Festival last year. And you know, where we were the spots, right? The Black spots running around.

Derrick: ​Yeah.

Marquise: ​And, and trying to find that moment in these beautiful mountains to relax, to find a moment of leisure when we know our all eyes are on us. Right? [Derrick: Yeah.] You know that after speaking to you about that, it was something that continued to resonate with me in trying to find that, how do you find that leisure space for yourself?

Derrick: ​I mean, as you become, I guess, more successful in your field, I think leisure is something that is something you have to take... more so. Because of all the different, hectic things that kind of come with being successful or being considered successful. So it's a lot more public engagements that somewhat seem like leisure or may seem like a joyous occasion, but we in a creative field, a lot of things are kind of intertwined with work.

So for me, I think, you know, just as an artist, I think the act of leisure or the participation in it is something that I have to take. I have to. You know, and take it to mean like an action of this, isolating myself or situating myself is not something where I, it's not like I can just say, okay, I'm taking off today is really have to like, break away.

And that's, what's so compelling about Dr. King's photo. You know, I've always looked at him as this person fighting against stuff and being very ready, and active. And he was—but also looking at the image of him in Jamaica, with his wife, in this pool, I know he was thinking of things. I know it was a moment of reflection. I know that, you know, as you mature as a person and you become more devoted to your craft, you also realize that being productive also means thinking. And being productive also means leisure. We learn that as you mature in your profession, that I'm making art all the time, even when I'm not physically making art, like if I'm sitting in my bed, I'm making art.

If I'm in a pool, I'm making art. Everything that I do is about being productive. So the idea of withdrawing and relaxation or leisure, or spending time with friends and loved ones, adds to the level of intellect that goes with being a producer, a cultural producer.

Marquise: ​Right. Do you feel that the idea of being radical is also part of this idea of audacity, right? Because Derrick: ​Yes

Marquise: ​...with all the adversity that comes at us and we are able to relax in it sometimes, and just sip a cup of tea in the midst of all of this. Do you also apply that idea as well?

Derrick: ​Yeah, it's radical. I mean, you know, everyone can relax, but I think it's radical because our relaxation is riddled with politics even more so the way we look at each other, like in times like these in times of unrest and things like this...we feel that we have to be, representatives of things in a way that we can't show exactly what we really do on a daily basis, that we have to create a front to show that we are contributing to our society. But in fact, you know, just being an active community member in your neighborhood is radical. Yeah. Just, you know, walking a lady across the street with her bags to her house, from the supermarket. To me, that's radical. I think that's what we should start looking at when we think about the idea of being radical and being socially engaged, you know? Those kinds of small things will impact the community at large in the way that we see each other in the way that we engage with each other.

Marquise: ​Absolutely. So when you're walking around Baltimore, what do you see? What colors do you see? What's the joy that you see when you're walking around?

Derrick: ​Well, you know, I, I go back and forth from Brooklyn to Baltimore all the time, because you know, I'm from Baltimore, but I live in Brooklyn. I've been there since ‘92, ‘93 and I’ve been going back from Baltimore to New York since then.

And I’ve also gone through, you know, going to school, went to college, teaching in both places, Maryland and New York. And I've just started to understand what it is to be from an urban space and how to really be somehow helpful to the urban space. As a person who understands the complexity and complications of growing up in a central area of a city. [Marquise: Yeah.] You know, and for me, I think that really has fueled various levels of the way I look at life, the way I look at art, the way I think about necessity when it comes to art, things that I think are very important for us to kind of think about when we are trying to grow... in my position, now as an artist, as an educator... to be somehow involved in that, and be active in those things.

But I see colors. I mean, when I'm in Baltimore, to me, Baltimore is a city and there are depictions of Baltimore and the media that are not necessarily a full perspective of the city because, you know, I think of Baltimore as being like a regular boring middle-class or lower middle-class city. I mean, when I drive through the streets coming towards my visiting my family, they all live in, you know, regular little houses with nice little lawns and they have barbecues and, you know, they go to Target to do these things. They go, you know, they go to the store. I mean, it’s just not as dramatic and or sensational as...

Marquise: ​Some regular shit, just like, yeah.

Derrick: ​Yeah. And I always laugh because when I'm driving through most of the cities... and these places aren't even, I think Baltimore is, to me, it's like an urban suburb. I think that the city, the Downtown of Baltimore, which I also go through it sometimes, yes, it has a lot of strife. But those things are just based on, like, things that are very complicated and things that are not necessarily the product of poverty, but more a product of legislature.

Marquise: ​Yeah. Policies, bad policies. Yeah.

Derrick: ​That people don't understand say that all the time, you know, voting is important. Voting for the president is important, but it's more essential as Black people living in urban spaces to control the legislature on the ground level of your neighborhood, from the council, people to the representatives in your neighborhood. A lot of people who live in urban spaces don't attend, like, Town Hall meetings. They don't attend like, zoning meetings. You know, even if they're buying property, they don't really go to those things. And those things are what really changed the way that money and things are allocated to your community.

So learning about those things, I think is where I feel like we're weaker in, as a cultural group. It's not about like getting to the top by voting for this big person on top. Right. Who may help trickle down some things it's about picking the people from the ground up. Who will help to push you up, not sprinkled down to help you survive.

And I think I'm learning more about that as I mature as a person and understand the complexity of being Black and how we always are the central figures in campaigns, where either party wants to get, like, a vote, we become so important.

Marquise: ​Yeah, absolutely. One theme that I've been really thinking through that a lot of your work sparks is this idea of evidence. And a lot of your work really builds on telling our story. [Derrick: Yeah.] The story of Black Joy, and even beyond just telling the story, building the evidence of our smiles, building the evidence of our happiness. Talk a little bit about how you approach some of those ideas of building evidence, and how you see your subject matter and making sure that you're documenting those moments.

Derrick: ​Well, you know, it’s so interesting, you know, with being an artist. Being a black person, you know, there's so much material for us to make work about that deals with issues and topics of, you know, oppressive structures, conflict obstacles, those things are very relevant to make work about. But you also, you know, you have to also think about ownership who owns these objects that you have making that talks about poverty or violence or oppression... who owns these works?

They're usually not African-Americans. Most African-Americans who are successful, who can buy art are really interested in aspirational imagery. It’s easier for a person who's not from your culture perspective to collect a work of conflict and of trauma to put on that wall to talk about. as a matter of fact, but as a person who can afford to buy something for thousands of dollars, if you are a doctor or a lawyer or an athlete or a finance person, you're not going to have works of trauma on your wall. If you have kids, if you have a wife or a partner, you want to look at images that are reflective to where you want to be... and how you want.... I mean, art has always been about that. Art has always been about taking people to another place. And the reason why the work has impacted society, the way we have, through images of trauma, or images of oppression... is because those words also take people to places that artists want them to go.

And those people are usually people who have never had those experiences of oppression or conflict. And for that, having those works are not as traumatic on your wall. But I also started to look around and observe and think about the people who collect my work and talk to them about why, and a lot of them saying, like I work in a very high stress job.

I work in a certain type of environment that's very toxic. And I deal with racism or discrimination blatantly all the time. So when I come home from my job, I want to look at works that are more reflective of where I am now, where I am in my space, how to empower my kids when they come home and look at art and what art represents for them.

So as an artist, I think about the future. I look about the future, the future generation. I also think about how artists like myself, how we live—like what is our daily routine, who are our friends and how we need to start making work that comes from our first person experience, as well. Not negating from works that are overtly political or literal in nature, because those works are necessary, but we can also look within and present some of the ways that we are living, because a lot of artists I know have leisurely life experiences.

Marquise: ​But your work does both—would you argue your work does both? I mean, this is political.

Derrick: ​No, no, no, no, my work does too, but yeah, I think that, you know, my position is not...even though I think that the idea of it is political, I would say that it is in retrospect, looking at it as a person critiquing the importance of it, but the fact that I produced various images, leisure being one of them, but I've done things as ​Stony Island Arts Bank​, where I went to the Archive of Johnson Publishing​ and made collages about the inventors and the product designers.

I'm just really more thinking about how it's more important to counterbalance the images that are reflective of trauma, as it is to talk about successes. Because I think that the reason why they get my work is political—I know it has a political position— is because a lot of the things that I make work about, at a time it's always an opposition or additive, of what's happening to us in a negative manner. [Marquise: Right] So I think that showing images of people who've done things at a time that was beyond what we're dealing with now—to see Black people graduating from college and like 1925 and 1930 or whatever... to me, that's amazing. I mean, that's mind blowing to think that people were doctors and lawyers at that time where we have way more freedom and ability to accomplish goals now. And these particular individuals were, you know, probably dealing with way more opposition. And a lot of us don't know who they are. A lot of us were not taught these people at a young age.

So, for me it's how can I put that into the art? How can I make art about that without comparing it? I don't want to compare blackness to whiteness in my work or Blackness to other things I want to talk about Blackness as the main topic, right? As the primary topic from the first person perspective. And for some people, it might not necessarily always appear to be political, but my intentions are to educate through visual language.

Marquise: ​But I mean your bold colors, and let's talk just a little bit about really your process of your work. I love your use of color. I love the way that you play with color. Talk a little bit about your thinking through, with your use of color and what that means for how you bring out what we were just talking about.

Derrick: ​I'm very conscious of color arrangement when I'm making things. And when I made ​the show for MAD Sanctuary​ was based on my research of the green book. And, Victor Hugo green ​and his wife, Alma Green​, who created the ​Green Book​ and The Motorist Guide​. I also was looking at ​Jacob Lawrence's Migration Series at MoMA​, and I was really studying the palette of the Migration Series. So the works that I created for the Met exhibition that were sculptural objects, as well as works on paper and panels. They kind of incorporated the color palette from Lawrence's Migration Series, and these particular works because I felt like that language and that conversation was happening through the execution of those works that he made, but I kind of wanted us to kind of bring that into what I was making for The Green Book. Cause I felt like it had some conversation happening or some overlap, and I want to kind of bring you this kind of really established language that Lawrence had formed through his series into this work for people to kind of just understand the warmth of the color palette that he used.

[Marquise: Yeah.] It was a very particular palette that he used in that work. And I think it has to do with the time he made it and the colors he was looking at and what people were wearing. And so those things I felt were essential for me to adopt those colors into that particular body of work. And that was just for that body of work.

Marquise: ​Yeah. I mean, you could really see the way that you're playing with color, but it's not to a place where it's grossly overdone. You know, it's not Easter Sunday colors. Yeah,

Derrick: ​No, I understand. Yeah. Yeah. I think it's important to be. For me, I don't really work out of, like, a stream of consciousness when I'm making work.

I think the stream of consciousness happens in the pool, or you know, talking to a friend or laying down in a bed, I think when I'm working, it's really more about action and putting thoughts into action. And so I'm very conscious and quite aware of what I'm trying to accomplish with implementing color or texture or any type of thing that I feel is important to have a conversation about this experience.

Marquise: ​I've been lucky enough to see you in studio and outside of studio, and inside your studio there's a certain balance and intention that you have because, you know, you wear your coverup. [Laughter] Like you, you go in, you go into your work.

Derrick: ​Yeah. I feel like I'm going to work. I feel like I'm going to work. You know, I think that studio to me means work. I do a lot of thinking outside of the studio and when I'm in the studio, it's about action. And so when I'm working, it's about putting things down and then looking at it after, and then understanding it from my perspective of how necessary the moves I just made are, and what's essential, what's not essential. To pull things out, to rearrange things. But when I'm in my studio, I really think about just getting it out, how to respond to things that I'm thinking about and how to produce a body of work that's in conversation with ideas that may or may not be visual.

Marquise: ​Right, right. That's dope. Let's talk just a little bit, before we close, on what's next for you? What are you thinking about? You know, we're going through these changes right now. What does the future look like for you for the next couple of years?

Derrick: ​Oof. Well, I do a lot constantly, you know, just in my daily, I teach at Brooklyn College. I'm a co-chair of the Graduate Department, and the Fine Art Department, I do that. This is my third year at Brooklyn College, I really enjoy the diversity of the student body, that’s what brought me to Brooklyn College at this particular time in my career where teaching was...definitely a challenge with everything happening, but for 2021, I have quite a few projects lined up.

I have a couple of solo shows happening and I have a museum show at Milwaukee Museum in the fall at the Henry Museum in Seattle. And I'm in the midst of building a retreat in Baltimore for Black creatives—it’s for people who are in the area of visual, literary, culinary, and entrepreneurs who are interested in having a discourse with these creative fields, also music.

It's pretty open—it’s a pretty loosely defined concept. But the major goal is that I started thinking about my interest in leisure and interest in relaxation. And so I decided, you know, what did I put that into a real experience? For creative people to come and to experience some of the things that I talk about in my work. So this place is really a big property with housing for short-term residencies, to participate in meditation and yoga. There’s a couple of studios here, you know, it was going to be a bunch of just activities that really will help young, Black creatives to understand the importance of ease, the importance of moments of reflection and just quietness. And so my goal was to open this probably in a year or so.

Marquise: ​Okay. What are you teaching students? I mean, what should students and other artists who may be listening to this... what is something that you want them to take away from your work and your process?

Derrick: ​For me, it's very, you know, also I learned, you know, getting mature, you know, you understand that your advice that you give artists is so different for the way that they see their generation. You know, for me, I made art under the impression that regardless of selling work or not, I'm an artist. So my job is to make art, if not for anyone else, but for myself. And that's not necessarily a philosophy for a younger generation...it's about acknowledgement and exposure.

And so I don't know what the future will be when you think about what art is, but I recommend artists to keep that in mind that, you know, art is really just more of a—for me, it's a therapeutic exercise and process. And if I was not making money off of work or not being acknowledged for what I'm doing, I feel that I would be making what I'm making.

[Marquise: Right.] So I just think that there are artists out there who feel that way. I think that's a good way to be, and you don't have to necessarily be in competition with any other artists in your peer group. I think that if you're getting enjoyment out of what you're doing, just as a daily exercise, then continue to keep doing it. I believe that if you come to terms with that way of making art, then that's a good place to be and you will never be disappointed in the outcome.

Marquise: ​Yeah. Well, thank you so much, Derrick for joining me for this chat today. I've always, like I said, I’ve always loved your work and anytime I get to have a conversation with you or whether I run into you at an event, it's, it's always a pleasure, and you always leave me with a lot more questions, which I really appreciate—than answers. You always push me, so thank you.

Derrick: ​Well, thank you for having me, Marquise. I appreciate speaking with you. It's always a pleasure. And I look forward to you know, having more conversations, having you by the residency in Baltimore at some point...

Marquise: ​Yeah, no Pioneer Works. We want to get you out there and...

Derrick: ​Yeah!

Marquise: ​Ayana Johnson​ and I, you know, we do the ​Urban Ocean Lab​ thing together.

Derrick: ​Oh yeah. Awesome, okay.

Marquise: ​Yeah, we founded that together. And so, I definitely thinking through some things together, on that side!

Derrick: ​Let me know.

Marquise: ​Yeah, definitely. You know, we're all in the same, or similar circles and so I would love, love to collaborate with you. So, thanks again.