It's a working title. But it's something in my head. I'm making marks with carpentry tools. T-squares and carpenter pencils. On a bigger piece I'll use a blue line; I'm anxious to see the chalk wisp along the line. I'm making lines like a child who thinks what he's doing is so important, so grand, but isn't. That's how I see America being made better right now. I like seeing lines dissolve, fade, into dust. Even real dust from pastels.
I love process. I love reading about other artists' process. How did you do that? Today I read about an artist who just won a big prize who fills maybe three sketchbooks before she starts a painting. But then the painting doesn't change. I'm not so capable. Today, I tore three pages out of a sketchbook, and then took a nap. When I woke, I filled the three. That's all. The last three above. The ones with color. I want to learn how I feel about these lines. I want to understand what they are capable of doing.
In the garden, as in how intimately you learn about each garden you make each year. Every garden is different, and as the seasons go on (it feels like fall today) I wonder how much time will I have left? Answer: That plot of land will be there in December. But as I have finally mustered the courage to pick up a paint brush again, my sense of color quickly changed, and it changed how I use a camera.
When I say, In The Garden, I mean IN it. Inside it like a rabbit might see it. See it for all the magic and beauty and fantasy that's there.
I have a little Fujifilm point-and-shoot that I bought while I was traveling in Canada when I once again had broken I think it was my third Nikon Coolpix. It's shock and water resistant and I carry it just about all the time. It's my little friend, my little sketchpad, and what I like most about it is I never know exactly what it's going to do. It gives me a lot of control, but many times it, well, it doesn't take over, but it's almost as if it says, wait a minute, why don't you look at it this way?
It's still during the pandemic, when it seems it's still going to to be a year or more when I'm trapped in my apartment, on my porch, in my garden, when I'm almost too frightened to walk to the post office. When you jack the ISO all the way to 3200, the results look like charcoal drawings.
Today at the doctor's the PA said, you'll need about three or four months to recover; that's not really a lot of time, and I replied, yes it is. Someone died the other day--they were 71, and I thought, that's six years away for me. Imagine if you were told you were going to prison for six years. Imagine you were told you only had six more years to live. Covid-19, for me, made time very important. Now it might be two years before I can visit the Musee de Cluny again. See Barcelona. See Chaco. Hike the West Highland Way. And in those two years, who knows what may happen...to me...to things. For a claustrophobic, when your world locks down, when it closes in, in any way, it affects you. It affects your breathing.
Three months ago, when Covid-19 became a real thing and anyone who had paid the least bit of attention in high school science class knew exactly what we were in for, the first thing I thought to jettison was achievement. Suddenly, my ego-driven desire for attention didn't seem all that important. I actually unfriended a bunch of people on Facebook who, truth be told, I was simply trying to impress. Suddenly, the idea of trying to impress some white, male, millennial with an intentionally bad haircut just to promote my images seemed awfully embarrassing.
With Covid -19 we couldn't not only travel internationally, going to the grocery store became a major excursion. (Frankly, it still is; see above about high school science class.) Then I lost my passport and my knee flared up and wow, my world got really small. My world narrowed all the way down to my backyard vegetable garden. That was pretty much the only place I consistently go, and even then I'm like Christina's World, I hobble back there and then crawl around with my camera. But that narrowing and slowing down didn't go unnoticed. And that's where I am. My world got really small...
Yesterday I made one image. One image I really liked. It made me happy to do it, and that was fine with me. It made me happy unlike the rejections I get when 800 people send in five images and mine wasn't one of the 4,000 the curator had to choose from. (How fucking ridiculous is that?) Or it made me happy, unlike the feeling I get when only five people give one of those hearts on IG. (How fucking pathetic is that?)
So for now, if anyone wants me, I'll be out back, crawling around with a DSLR with a 35 mm lens attached--a lens that I used to use all the time but for some reason traded it in for a 70 - 100 mm zoom--and sometimes a flash. And if I can make one good image, the day is pretty good. That's how small my world has gotten.
Art in the time of Covid 19. On my social media feeds I began seeing artists immediately reacting to the situation. Images of social distancing, of being alone, or just the opposite, complete with hashtags began popping up. And I'm beginning to see playwrights at the beginning stages of plays, with the "Time of the Coronavirus" as the setting. I guess I'm not really a documentarian. I do know my first reaction was that I suddenly felt that achievement wasn't something I wanted to focus on, so the 5:00 email I got one Friday that I wasn't accepted into the first round of a major award barely registered. What the hell would I do with the money, anyway, if no more than 10 people could congregate to see my play? Oh, and if your response is that this will all get better and we'll go back to normalcy sooner than we think, I'll just roll my eyes. A highly infectious, highly contagious virus with no vaccine available in the foreseeable future (read a year or more) and this is here to stay long after a vaccine is found.
More than ever, I'm turning my gaze inward, examining the micro world. Despite every bone in my body telling me differently, this world is extraordinarily beautiful, charming the pants off me on a daily basis. But, the one of the many things the coronavirus has made imminently noticeable is that death is all around us, it is clearly a viable choice of Nature for all us.
I don't know; this is a start:
I was raised in an apartment made up of four very small rooms. My sister and I shared the cramped bedroom in the back, and my parents slept in the dining room. It was embarrassing when any of my friends came over. They wouldn’t say anything; they ignored my family life, but I could tell they noticed and they judged. They couldn’t help it. It wasn’t their fault. That’s just how they…we…are raised.
We were simply guilty of the crime of being poor. And there are ramifications to that.
Also, while growing up in that tiny apartment, my father and sister both had serious mental issues that were left untreated. It felt like every day of my life I would scream in my thoughts, Can’t you be FUCKING NORMAL for ONE FUCKING DAY? They couldn’t, but I didn’t understand that, at the time.
I haven’t had these feelings in a long time, but now this is what my country feels like. All of this is so very familiar. Can’t you be FUCKING NORMAL for ONE FUCKING DAY?
I'm embarking on a new project, exploring my family and my history to try to understand what is happening in the United States. I've lived around insanity, and all of this is so familiar.
And I am so...afraid. An artist friend and I have been talking about the fear and all of the reasons for it at the very beginning of a project to put pen to paper or, in my case, pictures and ink and paint and God knows what else I decide to throw up on a board. I'm not crazy about delving into my past. I'm one who believes there's nothing better than a good suppressed memory. I'm not anxious to relive any of my childhood. And there's an immense fear of failure. I'm working with materials I haven't worked with in forty years. I mean, the chances of anything worth showing is minimal. But you know what? It's kind of fun. I am so inept that it's all I can do is have fun. I've been working with pastels a bit, and all I think is the same thing I think when I'm hanging out a car door shooting a series for Riding Shotgun: Don't think, just shoot. (Or in this case, it's, Don't think, just draw.) And I remember the idea that I had when I was in art school, that I never was interested in replicating anything, but instead just focus on what's inside me: my own work and my own presentation, about putting my own mark on something. So I look at these pastels and think to myself, well, you still know color. And your work is strong, it may not be pretty, but it sure does demands attention. And that's where I am today. Oh yeah, the coronavirus? I hope I don't die before I finished this project.
For the Provincetown Independent
The world’s not necessarily a kind place, says multimedia artist Johannes Barfield, and he hints that there were so many obstacles to overcome between his childhood artistic ambitions and the studio space he currently occupies as a fellow at Provincetown’s Fine Arts Work Center. But not once in an hour and a half did this reserved man whose art is rooted in his own personal history of growing up black in the South disclose specifically what those obstacles were. He remained guarded. Like with his artwork, the things he chooses to disclose or hide are his decisions alone.
Born and raised an only child in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Barfield’s mother headed the city’s Red Cross’s Disaster Services Department and his father was an independent long-distance freight hauler. As a child Barfield would sometimes accompany a parent to a disaster zone or ride shotgun cross-country with his father. His early memories of being on the road with his parents gave him such a strong sense of freedom that he titled one of his earlier pieces from a line from the rapper, Common, “Who Freed Me, Lincoln or Cadillac?”
Now, during his seven-month residency in Provincetown, he’s diving deep into childhood memories, expressing complex emotions, preparing for both his upcoming solo show at FAWC’s Hudson D. Walker Gallery that opens Friday, February 21 – 26, and a show in September at Mary S. Byrd Gallery of Art at Augusta University in Georgia.
For both shows, his chief topics are family, memory, and cars that are representative of freedom, but also the danger of being black and being pulled over and having a gun put in your face. Barfield uses canvas, paint, asphalt that represents both the road and blackness, joint compound representing institutions, college ruled paper, wheat paste, the adhesive of choice for street artists, images printed on a low-end office printer for a low tech feel, and iron-rich red dirt he brought from North Carolina to make the aggregate that is one of Barfield’s pieces. Another definition of the word, aggregate, by the way, is a construction material used in building roads and also a word that aptly fits Barfield’s work. When he was a child, before he wanted to be an artist, Barfield dreamed of being an archeologist, sifting through layers of past cultures to understand them. That practice now carries over into his adult work.
His layered pieces start with a central image—for example, his mother in a car or the cartoon character, Marge Simpson during a fit of road rage, who the child/artist imagined racially ambiguous with her blue Afro. The images are printed on the ruled paper, the paper then attached to the canvas with the wheat paste and smeared with the joint compound. Then it appears as if the asphalt and red dirt have been hurled at the image, obscuring most of its original meaning or context. It is up to the viewer to decide if the artist is forcing or inviting them to be an archeologist, to sift through the layers, through the blackness, to see and experience Barfield’s memories through all that representational material and then…what? It seems the most plausible response is that Barfield is inviting the viewer to experience what it’s like for him to remember through all of that concealment, through all the layers, good and bad, that shroud his memory.
Barfield explains that with these materials he’s trying to express a complex emotion. “It’s not sad, it’s not happy, it’s not melancholy; it’s all of those things intertwined. I’m trying to focus beyond binaries, and more on tertiary, a place that is in between, a space that embodies all of those feelings, collapsing those feelings, creating an intersectionality, looking beyond good and bad.”
While there are artists who are non-white who wish to be identified simply as artists without their race or ethnicity attached to the label, Barfield is not one of them. “Those individuals are fine for their path,” he says. “They are individuals who may have encountered discrimination, all types of things to hold them in place from being able to progress, or they’re people who don’t want to be pigeonholed in this sub-category. I am very prideful and being black is definitely a part of me, and it’s not something I’d want to deny or put in the background; I don’t want to hide my face. Being a black artist in America means you’re already an obscurity. There are so many people who came before you who don’t look like you. I just want to be true to myself, how I feel and my experiences and being able to share that part of my truth, is the only thing I feel comfortable with and what I’d want to project.”
John Greiner-Ferris is a fine arts photographer and writer in the Boston area. Sometimes he makes images. Sometimes he writes. Sometimes he does both.