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Reinstating Dignity and Agency: A Conversation with Sam Vernon

Alexandria Deters

Sep 02, 2021

I first met Sam Vernon (she/they) in 2016 when she performed with Lizzy DeVita at The Chimney (2015 - 2020), New York. I was struck by their friendship, their fascinating performance, and to be honest, they were both very nice. (I had just moved to NY and a bit of kindness meant so much!). From that first encounter 5 years ago, I have continued to follow both of their work and practice. 
Over the next few years, I followed Sam’s practice and watched it develop and expand. Her practice delves into her own personal history, the narrative that she has seen evolve in her own life, and what that means for her. The work is heavily influenced by her own research and memory, she expresses her conclusions and finds through haunting collages, installations, different types of paper (magazines, scraps, doodles, etc), and works on paper.


In February 2021 at the Printed Matter’s Virtual Art Book Fair, LA, Sam’s book After Belkis, was published through Floss Editions. The book illustrated 26 prints in tribute to the legacy of Afro-Cuban printmaker Belkis Ayón (1967 – 1999). Flipping through the pages, her printing techniques emphasized texture, and each page and each print is filled with melancholy, and contemplation.


Wanting to know more about her latest publication, and having always deeply admired her practice and work, I excitedly reached out to learn more. 



Installation detail of Future Shock at MiM Gallery, Los Angeles (Jan 23 - Mar 27, 2021) 



I first met you when I saw your collaborative performance Sound Perception, with artist Lizzy DeVita at The Chimney (Brooklyn, NY) in 2016. In the performance you discussed ghosts and personal history, subjects you continue to tackle in your work. Can you tell me more about how history and its ‘ghosts’ have continued to play into your practice and have evolved?


That was a treasured collaborative performance with Lizzy which pushed me to play outside of my usual codex of worlds built from my drawings. 


The pain of detachment and moving on is like a spirit’s desire to live again. This is the emotional context of my oeuvre – “How Ghosts Sleep”, a non-linear story in which each work is another part of a larger narrative. I re-imagine the traditional ghost story and consider how many ways it can be re-told in my vernacular. The idea of ghosts provokes potent human feelings: fear, longing, guilt, tenuousness, rage, even laughter; we are fascinated by them. The investigation of this irony fuels my work. This interdisciplinary approach to image making - drawing, printmaking, photography, installation, and painting - fused to my meta-history, is compounded by characterizations and inventions of Blackness.


The initial step of any work I create is motivated by a basic idea: image on paper carries psychological, conceptual, and aesthetic power. Drawings bear traces of the past. The material and the work intersect in many ways. My drawings, prints, objects, and paper installations include the abstraction of natural landscapes, namely abounding forests and open space. I think about how paper blows in the wind like the leaves of climbing ivy, like my projections of ghosts, imbuing fragility and ephemeral transformation of space, or how paper is still in the absence of breeze. Perhaps viewers feel that impression or context, but it is not a requirement. I would like the viewer to at the very least encounter vastness and/or texture. The titles of my work imply the narrative or reference for an opening into meaning.


In your installations and works, you use the medium of wheat-paste art/xerox to create layers and complex stories. Can you tell me more about this? 


I have difficulty discarding the smallest bits of paper that carry special memories for fear of losing that moment to my own imperfect issues with accurate recollection. Yet I don’t treat the paper materials of my life, scraps, tickets, notes, letters, awards, doodles, journals, and pages ripped out of magazines, etc. as precious items. I find them stuffed into drawers and folders, forgotten in purses, or tossed into piles that build over time. But I always re-visit them during my quarterly or annual cleanups (often motivated by a move) so I feel forced to organize which always means managing my paper, including drawings crumpled in bags or in nests on the floor which are also exhibited in large installations, and within prints and objects.


I integrate everyday objects and two-dimensional media into large-scale installations influenced by found patterns, street art, the human figure, and abstraction. In addition, I create layered Xerox drawings and collages derived from printmaking techniques to construct narratives. The result of an ongoing investigation into my drawn and photographed image repository is subject to re-contextualization within a site-specific work or mixed media object. My goals are towards the production of Gothic visual art in which autobiographical, polyrhythmic experiences are included within the expanse of the genre.

You recently published a new artist book After Belkis, 2021. The publication is beautiful and haunting. Can you tell me more about this work/series?


Belkis Ayón is quoted saying, "I am mostly interested in questioning humanity, the fleeting feelings, the spirituality." I love the quote and feel I'm asking the same questions as Belkis in my own work. After Belkis is a book representing a series of prints in tribute to the legacy of Afro-Cuban printmaker Belkis Ayón (1967 – 1999). Together these images illustrate a stark and haunting meditation in black, white, and shades of gray. Twenty-six monoprints at times employing collagraph techniques pay homage to Ayón’s masterful style and brilliant studies. Nuanced iconography, ambiguously gendered figures, and ghostly veils stretch into intuitive, loose abstractions tapping into contemporary mourning.


I describe the book as a “dreamed-up collaboration” and “printing out one’s feelings” to emphasize the ritual of processing grief while celebrating the freedom to experiment along textural lines. The images were translated to riso and screenprint by the amazing folks at Floss Editions and Sunnight Editions (Oakland, CA) respectively for an edition of 180 hand-bound books.


One of the things I love about your practice is your dedication to teaching artists of the next generation. Currently you are teaching upstate at Bard. What are you teaching there, and where and what are you teaching next?   


Thank you! This upcoming fall semester is extremely unique: I’m teaching undergraduates “Drawing I” and “Print I” in-person at Bard and graduate students Dialogues & Practices remotely at California College of the Arts. I’ll also advise groups of undergrad and graduate students at both institutions. Next semester is still in the works. 


You recently lived on the West Coast, teaching at California College of the Arts. What was the largest difference you experienced in the west coast art scene/energy compared to the east coast?   


I don’t think it’s simply an east coast/west coast dichotomy because Northern California, specifically the Bay Area, is extremely different from Los Angeles or San Diego in Southern California. In my opinion, the Bay Area’s visual art scene is concentrated and mighty. There are incredible artists, arts administrators, curators, writers, performers, academics and intellectuals there. I researched rich histories of print, painting, photography and publication. I learned about rigorous practices in ceramics and textiles. 


The East Bay in comparison to San Francisco has major differences in energy and contemporary art models. Thankfully when I arrived in California I had professional attachments to an institution or else I think it would have been very challenging to understand the lay of the land. In New York City, art is everywhere. You walk into a scene off the street and tap in. I had to plan and be much more intentional in the Bay because happenings were spread out from San Jose, to Napa, to SF, to Oakland. I’m grateful for all of the lessons. 


Much of work and practice has been exhibited and created in non-profit art platforms, rather than in commercial settings. Was this a conscious decision and if so, why? 


I have to ask myself why I’m creating and who I’m making for. Folks in greater numbers are waking up to the disasters of for-profit infrastructure and predatory systems. During the pandemic and global protests for Black Lives, masses of folks participated actively in mutual aid. Some people have been doing this all along while others are seeing the value of care in this way for the first time. I want this ideology reflected in my practice. What if we considered our personal histories as an echo for future histories with desirable alternatives? Can these desired histories be performed through abstraction? 


My large-scale installations attempt to conceptualize speculation, imagining, feelings and telling stories as a radical practice, repository of hope and emotion. These ideas don't fit into most for-profit gallery models; a good amount of the work is ephemeral, it isn't saleable. Most people who work with me take a leap of faith and give me the keys to their space for a few weeks to create something timely and site-specific. 


You have an upcoming solo exhibition, Impasse of Desires, opening this fall at the Museum of African Diaspora in San Francisco. The main aspect of this installation/exhibition is Matt Richardson’s 2013 publication The Queer Limit of Memory. Can you tell me more about how this publication is used and referenced in Impasse of Desires?  


Matt Richardson questions and critiques the museum in visceral and formal ways, pushing us to necessitate queer Black folks as an integral part of Black history, present and future. I wanted to include his voice and subjectivity because there is always more work to be done in this regard. Some of the text is collaged into the approach I took with creating the installation. Read his book!   


Besides your own art practice, you are an active curator. You recently curated Spirit & Flesh, a group exhibition at / slash art in San Francisco. When you are curating other artists’ works, what are you looking for in their practice?  


Distinction, dedication, struggle and search. I write in the curatorial statement, “Imagine an artist who wakes up to themself, and by their own action, frees themself. In some ways, you're free when you can walk away. You're free from any type of relationship or system when you understand that you're not being ruled by unconscious attachments and desires. Perhaps an artist’s work is truly powerful when it is becoming more distinctive, shedding the layers of expectation and starting to say, “No. I don’t want that.”


What is the one piece of advice you would give young queer artists today that are afraid of being ‘too political’ in their work? 


"The personal is political" reinstating dignity and agency. Be authentic and have integrity! 
What is the one question you wish someone would ask you, and what is your answer? 


What would you be doing if you were not an artist/educator/organizer? I would be a librarian! 



Sam Vernon is a visual artist who earned her MFA in painting and printmaking from Yale University. Her installations combine Xeroxed drawings, photographs, paintings, and sculptural components in an exploration of personal narrative and identity. Recent solo exhibitions at venues including San Francisco’s Museum of the African Diaspora; UT Downtown Gallery, Knoxville, Tennessee; G44 Centre for Contemporary Photography, Toronto; and Seattle Art Museum, Olympic Sculpture Park. Her work has been part of groups exhibitions at, among other institutions, California African American Museum; San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art, Barney Savage Gallery and The Cooper Union, New York; Jenkins Johnson Gallery, San Francisco; We Buy Gold, Brooklyn; Brooklyn Museum; Queens Museum; and the Drawing Room, London. Honors received include San Francisco Artadia Awards finalist; Sally and Don Lucas Artists Program (LAP) Visual Arts Fellowship; Artistes en Résidence, Clermont-Ferrand, France; Fountainhead Residency, Miami; Helen Watson Winternitz Award, Yale University; Emma Bee Bernstein Fellowship, A.I.R. Gallery, Brooklyn, and A.I.R. Gallery Emerging Arts Fellowship. Collaborative projects include visual art contributor to The Arsonist, a play by Mai Sennaar, at Museum of the African Diaspora, San Francisco; Broadside Press, with poets Danez Smith and Nathan McClain; and Black Women Arts for Black Lives Matter, New Museum, New York; and performer, Ganggang: Creative Misunderstandings Series, organized by Alejandro Guzman, Brooklyn Museum. Vernon has been a panelist, moderator, or guest lecturer at, among others, San Francisco State University; University of California, Berkeley; Watkins College of Art, Nashville; Utah State University; Barnard College; Union College; and Voelker Orth Museum, Queens, New York.