Art + Culture / my work

Oct 13, 2015 · 8 min read

What is the intersection of art, culture, and my art work?

To be honest, I find my art has more to do with society than culture.

Because, what is culture?

Culture is the collective behavior of any particular group of people. Culture is social experimentation shaped through communal experience. Culture — any culture or subculture– finds itself at home within the concept of art.

Because, what is art?

Art are the manifold creative expressions inherent to human nature. Creative expression (which of course may take on any of infinite incarnations– as a song or as a sketch for example) is the fingerprint of the soul. Art is the natural, native home for culture, because human expression belongs to social behavior. Even as individuals, we try to learn from and understand ourselves.

So, that (anyone’s) art (from anytime and anywhere) references culture I consider a forgone conclusion. It’s inevitable and undeniable — even in the most abstract forms or iterations of art, there will always remain traces of someone’s culture.

When art parlays with society however, it becomes the personal as political.

Because, what is society? (And how does it differ from culture?) Society is the structure within which any and indeed usually many cultures exist. When we speak of institutional racism or the prison industrial complex or the glass ceiling, for example, those are societal structures. Not cultural ones. Society does not mean necessarily the government or Wall St. or any particular individual or corporation to demonize. It’s actually the opposite in many ways: society pertains to each and everyone’s responsibilities as members of a given (usually territorial) community. Society, to me, has to do with accountability in a way that culture often eludes. Whether one participates in society or protests it, both are political actions in that they take power away from an abstraction and hand it back to a person, whether oneself, another (often unfortunately a politician), or a collective whole.

Art, as the home of culture, when it speaks to or of society, empowers through demanding accountability. The best creative expressions, in my opinion, insist that human beings and human feelings and human needs are taken care of and addressed in the ways that will help all in the society to thrive.

This is the point at which art is potentially revolutionary. It is potentially revolutionary because art has the power to create new languages, with which to engage new forms of expression, achieve new depths of communication, which in turn is (I believe) the closest thing to engendering evolved human social behavior. This is radical change.

Art is revolutionary. But only when artists choose to take it to that level. A place beyond, and I’d say above, the commercial plateau. Those that do that, take their art outside the gallery, outside of the mall of common approval, are what I consider real, true artists.

Since this is my gold standard, how do I go about practicing real art?

Well for one, notice I said practice and not produce. Lydia Lunch said it even better: “If you’re doing it for the money, you’re not doing art. You’re doing commerce.” One radical idea I espouse which is part of my reason for being an artist, is that human value is far far greater and worth much much more than our mere productivity. The idea that we– our bodies, our minds, our spirits– are only worth what material objects we can produce, including money itself, is capitalist nonsense. Money is only a representation of worth. Objects are just things. But people? We are everything and I’ll tell you why.

It’s because of our imaginations. Our imaginations hold the keys to everything we want and need and aspire to, as individuals, as citizens, as members of the human race, and even as earthlings.

I take images as my medium, my paint, often maps are my canvas, and collage to me is a language. A language, half of which I make up and half of which is given to me by the culture and societal influences around me at any given time.

Part of my work is to gather images– from sources such as magazines, calendars, newspapers, advertising, which is everywhere, napkins, business cards, books, signs, stickers, maps, and so on– which I have done, around the world. My material comes from Texas, from Greece, from Thailand, and so forth.

What are we told through images? How are we educated by the images all around us? What other stories can I tell? What are the journeys I want to see? The narratives I want to hear?

What’s really going on– behind the scenes, behind closed doors, in the underground, in the closet, in private, or in public? I try to place an emphasis on context through juxtaposition in my work. Juxtaposition of images, of textures, of shapes, occasionally of text, of scale, of borders. Every element adds or alters meaning, because it adds to or alters the context of the whole. My job is to observe keenly, and to stop when I’ve communicated, when I can visually “hear,” what I have to say.

How do I work with culture to create art? It depends, but I’ve identified the following patterns that recur in my art:

  1. Exposing similarities in behavior across cultures. Taking human nature as baseline, intersectionality depicted.

2. Imposing real life “pseudo context” to question how the images I have “rescued” are treated or viewed in their original context, to explore for what purpose they are used or were created, to reinforce what messages?

3. Building a fantasy or utopian context, “I dream a world” new or unknown, where the characters or figures I’ve cut out of the slavery of advertising can consider doing something else, could find a comfortable home in a different situation.

4. Combining all of the above in one work.

My biggest challenge is empowering myself. Is that not each of our biggest challenge, especially as artists, if not in the rest of life? Without empowering ourselves how can we truly follow our innate talents and gifts?

As an artist, as an artist who works in collage, as black, as a woman, every element of my identity informs my voice. And the extent to which I embrace my experiences and my origins (all of which take place within culture/s and society) is my choice.

What I envision, what I reject, my philosophy, my beliefs, my methods are all choices, and sometimes it’s difficult when I’m the only one who seems to understand my intentions or their place — their import– in the art world and world at large.

Of course there are always the legends who have gone before to whom I may turn for inspiration. Masters whether educated or artists, black, women, or not sharing any identical characteristics — that are ultimately superficial– with me. Luminaries like Bettye Saar, Mickalene Thomas, Billie Holiday, Lydia Lunch, Nan Goldin, Faith Ringgold, Romare Bearden, Betty Davis, Nona Faustine, and Sandra Bland, who was a creative activist before she became a martyr. … Brave souls who empowered their subjective marginalized voices and their one of kind perspectives bright or dark, loud and clear with their work.

My audience and clientele is mixed, women and men and more of many ethnic and geographical backgrounds, but mostly tend to reflect me: people with loud laughs, big personalities, and great senses of humor, young, old, in between. I had one of my first exhibits in rural India. My last solo show was this year in Czech Republic. My work and I gravitate toward people who like stories and pay attention to spaces.

I believe in the power of the narrative. I believe the power is ours to change the stories we tell ourselves, what we tell the world, and what we believe. I believe a level of integrity across all of the above is necessary for human evolution. I think it is our responsibility as artists to read culture, to imagine a more effective, healthier, happier society.

I know artists have the experiential power to do this, to practice this more than everyone else– because we are the tellers of our stories.

With Nefertiti Escapes! I wanted to create a narrative that had to do specifically with culture, although I didn’t think of it as such originally. I saw Nefertiti on my first trip to Berlin. Her beauty overwhelmed me. But I could never forget, neither before, during, nor after my visit to the New Museum that, although revered and enthroned, she was not at home. She was created in and made to be in Egypt, inherently. No castle forming around her could change the fact that it is her prison. So, to assuage my grief, I imagined what might happen if she escaped. That is how instantly culture became the silent subject of this story.

Exploring the world enriches one inherently, but so, equally, does having a home, which in one sense is a metaphor for knowing one’s history, which is kind of a euphemism for belonging to a culture.

Another story I wrote is The Volcano Who Moved to the Alps. This story relates to what brings me here. It’s a story about not belonging.

I was once a student, as they say “just like you” at HSPVA. In my senior year I left with School Year Abroad to spend the year in Zaragoza, Spain. Despite the fact that in order to get into this program required me to apply a year in advance, included multiple essays and recommendations from my teachers and guidance counselor, I found out the week before my flight, that due to my decision to pursue educational enrichment abroad, I would not be allowed to graduate from HSPVA at all. I was shocked at the time, but certain of my commitment to expand my horizons. I left and never looked back. You’re looking at a high school “rise out.” That day in fact, when I was 17, was perhaps the last time I was in this building. I wrote about my experience for my college application essays to Yale and Harvard, the only two schools I applied to, and was accepted at both universities. At HSPVA I was a dancer with low self esteem, a sad story, and a dream of more. Now I am a successful visual artist and Yale graduate with an MFA from Zurich University of the Arts in Europe. (But y’all already know what happened to Beyonce when she left here!)

My point is actually not about my story or her story or about HSPVA or Yale or dropping out of school or any specific cultural story. My point is about your story, your experiences, your perspective, and your voice in society. Trust yourself. Trust that voice. Trust your struggle. No one else has that privilege or your gifts.

Thank you.

  • Words and pictures by Whitney Sparks (
    October 14, 2015 at the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, Houston, TX


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making stories visual + leading outside yoga + telling art narratives

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