An Interview with Grace Rosario Perkins
by José Luis Íñiguez
14 December 2015
Jose- I’m on my way. 7:44 PM (via text)
Grace- Perfect -- just made some hot ginger tea for us. 7:45 PM (via text)
Jose- I’m here at your door. 7:51 PM (via text)
Doors opened and I was encircled by Grace. As we made way to her living space, we caught up for a moment. We shared with each other what was happening in our lives and like always; we both recognized how busy we had been. That brief minute of sharing myself with her helped me ground myself in that moment. Her empathetic way of existing has always helped me balance myself. Grace has inspired me to protract what bring joy to my life and has been a great motivator in the acts of resistance.
(Ginger tea was served and we submerged ourselves in a beautiful and inspiring dialogue)
Jose- We can start by you sharing a little about where you come from and how that has informed your artistic practice from the beginning to what you are doing now. I know that you are in constant conversation with your culture and where you come from. I would like to know a little more about those influences.
Grace- When I started making art, I was in a very particular head space. When I was sixteen, I was kicked out of high school and was asked to leave the house. So, I was sent to my dad’s house in a small little town called Coolidge. It was a bizarre farm town on the edge of the O’odham reservation of five thousand people, where I lived on and off for the next 4 to 5 years of my life. I think that was one of the first places that I went deep. I started drawing a lot and it became a very inward way of recording my day to day. I began taking in the things around me, because I was around really desolate farmland, desertscapes and a weird rural town. My drawings substantiated my existence in a way. So, I think that was one of the first things that really started bringing me to make work about where I was from, the physical space I inhabited, and my culture.
Jose- In the past, we’ve talked about journaling in your youth, and I am curious if drawings were ever embedded in your process of documenting your thoughts? Or was it something completely different?
Grace- It’s interesting because, I don’t journal to that extent today. I used to be very meticulous. I would utilize photos and would draw and that is kinda where the faces started happening. I was sent to this GED program when I was younger that was next door to a comic book shop. When I would get dropped off by my mom, I would go next door and I would buy comic books. I would look at them and read them in my GED class. And so, I started drawing these cartoony things. It was like I was trying to learn how to draw through comics. I’ve never even really studied drawing, but I read lots of comics. The drawings eventually started becoming very systemic. I still start every drawing with the same four lines and then, I just build out. They change through time on how detailed they become.
Jose- You know now that you explain this, it makes complete sense that your drawings carry the comic book aesthetic. The imagery that your drawings carry with the repetition of the eyes, mouth, and their tense faces capsulate what comics provide to build an experience for their viewers. The language that is used in your drawing also serves as captions giving it that comic book illustration structure.
Before I moved to the Bay, I recall having an experience with one of your drawings. I was introduced to your work by a transplant of Bakersfield. It might have been a punk show flyer from my recollection. I bring it up because as I was commuting from San Francisco to Oakland, I began thinking about the drawings and how they morphed into actual objects. You have made a set of masks that you’ve painted what you’ve been drawing for a while and so my question is what do you think these objects are informing? what is their function?
Grace- Yeah, I use language as an anchor and a way to guide someone. I don’t think of it as being aggressive. In particular, using the native language of my family, I view that as a path of resistance. I think it is really important for me to use what is perceived as lost languages in a way where people are confronted with the discomfort of not being able to read it. That is one thing that I really like working with. My grandma is the last native Diné speaker, so it is hard to work with definitive sources. I work with a dictionary and various online resources because that is all that is available. The way I think about it is that information has been broken down so much in the language and it’s an act of empowerment to work with it, to take the scraps found in these dictionaries and use it. I’ve had people call some of these works “intense,” but that to me is also a way a person may distance themselves from the experience of indigenous peoples… so I try to use these words that are really commonplace like “drink” or “able” and contextualize them in sentences that are often really resonant to the experience of survival. In the Navajo dictionary I use, the example sentence for the word “drink” was “the drunk drinks a lot.” I read it and had to use it… it’s really a fragment that shows the impact of these struggles, these things we unpack through the breakdown of our culture.
Jose- I constantly think and reflect on the Thin Leather project you worked in collaboration with your father. It struck like a moving experience that brought multiple emotions to rise up the surface. I am interested in hearing you talk about the dialogues that happened through this collaboration. Since you touch on language and communication, what was it like having a conversation through the medium of painting?
Grace- A little back story about my dad, he was an activist when I was growing up. So, I grew up in this very particular way. My father was a professor at a university (the University of Illinois) that had an extremely racist mascot. It still exists unsanctioned where people to this day dress up like an Indian and dance around in buckskin and a headdress. After time, that experience and the system really pushed on my dad. We have talks about it and a lot of our conversations now are about… when you start to make work about identity it gets to the point where it’s going to hurt and then you are like, “Oh god, this is hard.” But, I think with that you have to decide whether you are going to go in or not. He stopped making such radically charged work but that history is still there. Now, his paintings are super meditative.
I went home for Christmas one year and he had a giant stack of paintings. I had never been invited to make art with him and he finally said, “Oh yeah, let's paint together.” It was interesting because it was healing, and it illuminated the dynamics of our relationship. I painted something and he painted over it. I pitched doing a show of these paintings over the phone and he said, “Yeah, I’ll do it.” To me it was probably more big than it was to him, but it was really important. I think during the whole process, when we were doing the painting back and forth, I tried to make it about language and about sifting through familial dynamics. I wanted to do this with my dad and sift through this thing, uncover history, and we can work back with these images or symbols. We kinda got there, but what was most interesting were the frustrating aspects where there was erasure happening. I would paint something in Pima or O’odham; he would paint over it. My father is someone that doesn’t like text in his work, and I’m all about text, but I think he phrased it like, “our language is erased and that is why I am doing that.” It made sense when he said it. It was very sad and harsh, but I think that’s was why I wanted to do this work together… to even push those conversations between us.
When we first started to paint, we did these two giant pieces together. Those were the first we did and he kinda told me about his family. My great great grandfather was named Crouse Perkins and he was trilingual; he spoke O’odham, Spanish, and English. He was very religious; he would prophesize and walk around preaching to people door to door. He got his name because his shoes were worn thin, so he had thin soles, “thin leather…” There was something there… an urgency in language and perseverance .That was what the collaboration was about to me. It was about the same cycle. We may not be going door to door, but we are still trying to use language to prove our existence, prove our resilience in a way. Here we are, family, doing that together. I think we did eighteen maybe twenty pieces and I only showed twelve or so and they were all done through this process of adding and subtracting elements without really communicating about it, only sending parcels in the mail and having a short phone call here and there. They’ve become some of my favorite paintings because they genuinely reflect the depth of our relationship.
Jose- You recently had a beautiful window installation called The Sun Is Hot at Shadow Office in Downtown, Oakland, and I was mesmerized by the use of color, form, and texture. How was the process like creating that installation in that specific space? Was this in conversation with the idea of home?
Grace- The desert to me is super formative. It’s really isolating, and it's heavy, and I think living there for so long you feel it as soon as you go outside. You just feel the energy. Now that I live in a more urban place, it’s obviously very different because it’s so concentrated in a different way, and I find myself less connected to nature than I was there. So, I revisit it a lot as a place of grounding. Even if I can’t be there it helps just to think about it as an influence; even if it’s a color palette or something that I experience there. The show, The Sun Is Hot, I guess it was kinda like a… way of talking about surrendering to the desert, using it as perspective, and putting things into place. An elder said “The sun is hot” to me in conversation earlier this year when we were talking about checks and balances. I recorded the whole conversation, but that phrase just burned into my brain.
It is weird because I just realized something about my work in the last year, that I reuse a lot of my stuff. This installation had a lot of that. I make prints of my masks, I make these structures, I repaint over them or rebuild them over time. It’s like I’m changing the meaning and flipping it. It’s also almost a cultural thing, the idea of using something, exhausting it, not just discarding something because I’ve used it… I really believe it working with what I have, like I made the masks as objects and then eventually they were performative and then one thing that I realized in the last few months is that instead of being live and performative, I realized “Oh god, I want to start documenting them and use them as vessels to portray something,” so I haven’t done that yet, but that is my next plan. They’re supposed to be vessels and they are emotive.
Jose- But they have been used. They have been used in certain projects right? I’ve seen images where Black Salt Collective members use them in the desert.
Grace- Oh yeah!
Jose- This is a perfect segue to talk about the collective you are part of and the intention for its existence. Black Salt Collective is an empowering group of women of color that has motivated me and I’m sure other to continue to resist and demand the importance of marginalized voices in the art world.
Grace- Yeah, we started in 2012, Adee (Roberson) moved into my house. We would talk about art and what does it mean to be making. Also be so frustrated and alienated in it, because of who we are. Sylvia (Fanciulla Gentile) was also living there and she also joined our discussions. One night, we went outside and shot photographs, made a logo, and wrote a quick bio, which is still what we use today. It came together. Basically, we embody what we make and what we make embodies us. We had our first show the following spring and over these past three years, we have grown a lot. The more I look at what we’re doing, it is evident about how the work co-exists, and converses from these four separate sources-- the convergence of our identities and how they can work together to create a more vibrant existence and future.
We’ve traveled together, performed, done site specific collaboration through the desert and on my family land. We all really care about one another and that’s maybe where the power is really grounded.
In our last collaboration, we had a performance on the corner of 16th and Mission where we played the drums for about thirteen minutes. There were projections with these pointed questions behind us invoking people to reflect on land and the spatial politics that affect us all as women of color and how that reverberates through our individual and collective experiences. We asked “How did your people come here? Whose land are you on? What did you leave behind?” I think that is something we are trying to push through. We are also trying to break labels a bit. We’ve talked about how do we get shows where we say, we just make stuff in this intentioned space, but also leave less room to be so didactic. I think that is a problem with white institutions. They are so quick to label anything… So with this show we are curating, Visions into Infinite Archives, is where we want to have a little more room to expand on this work and bring more people into the fold.
Jose- How did Visions into Infinite Archives come about for Black Salt Collective and what are the intentions for the residency at SOMArts?
Grace- We were invited to apply. Through that process, from the first day we talked about it, I was like “Oh, we are going to have this installation where it’s going to be overwhelming.” I kept on using the word overwhelming. I imagined it being so many objects, so many voices, so many stories. We wanted to be very intentional about who we invited. In the show; we have elders, emerging artists, we got everyone there. With the title, Visions Into Infinite Archives, it’s more about abandoning the linear framework that is used to categorize the work from artists of color. Timelines give room for this really anthropological way of breaking down the work and compartmentalizing it. We have been doing this stuff forever and we are still doing it and people are still going to do it. That was the whole idea, presenting these people in conversation —something that felt inclusive, big, and also pulling so many artists we know on various levels... artists we admire, artists who are friends, artists who are mentors, but all work from this departure point of identity, people who want to be heard. I believe things need to be more visible, more open, and more honest; that is what is, what I feel is the strength of this massive show. We have 30 artists and performers total, all people of color who in the art world are often told they’re marginalized voices, but instead of giving them this space that is very literal, very bogged down, we just want it to be presented as an archive, a working breathing space, a map of this work, and the many dimensions it takes. It really is an intersection of so many people I am inspired by.
Opening reception featuring performances from Chochenyo activist and poet Vince Medina, Hermano Milagroso and jeepneys + SOME TIMES in direct dialogue with the exhibition and its themes, Thursday, January 14, 6–9pm (Free)
Film screening of short films and Bontoc Eulogy by Marlon E. Fuentes on Saturday, January 30, 12-4pm (Free)
Closing reception featuring live sets by special guest musician Ryan Dennison (Deadrezkids, Fort Wingate, NM), as well as Tropic Green (Adee Roberson), plus an all-vinyl DJ set by Bay Area favorite Brown Amy (Hard French, Natural High) Thursday, February 4, 6–9pm (Free)