An honor and responsibility for the TOAD (teacher on active duty) most Mondays is to give what’s called a TOAD Talk at the day’s Assembly. The topics of each talk are completely up to the TOAD and have ranged from sea slugs and feminism to vampire bats and glitter. A recent talk by history instructor Gina Green focused on art, identity, and the moving work of Bisa Butler. Read on for a transcript of her talk.
There were many potential topics on my short list for today’s Toad Talk. At one point this talk was going to be about sleep deprivation and a phenomenon called “Revenge Bedtime Procrastination.” At one point this talk was going to be about why the humble potato is a superior food. Ultimately, I decided to dig a little deeper and pick up on a theme that has run through all of my teaching in the past couple of years and that theme is identity.
Today I want to talk specifically about art and identity. A big part of my identity is as an artist, and I would like to share a little bit about my own art journey, but I also want to talk about how identity can show up in art and one artist who is really inspiring me right now. In fact, this whole talk is just a preamble to my real goal which is to tell you about this artist.
A little bit about me first. I always drew and painted as a child and from my earliest days I loved making art, perhaps more than any other activity, and I took every art class I could convince my parents to sign me up for. My mother is an artist so I grew up in a home that valued art. Our house was filled with art, including my mother’s beautiful drawings and paintings, we had tons of books about art, and my parents always prioritized taking us to all of the big art exhibitions that would come through Los Angeles. I felt completely confident as an artist, enjoyed art making, and actually envisioned this as one of a few possible career paths.
While I ultimately set myself on a different career path, I continued to paint, but increasingly found it to be a source of some stress. It was hard to find the time and, as a young adult with a full-time job and a full-time social life, I did not have a lot of clarity about how I might integrate art making into a life that was brimming with other types of demands on my time.
But also, as I got older, when I did sit down to paint I would often struggle with the question of “what should I paint?” And I’m afraid that for me, this was really inhibiting, for my creativity.
Looking back I can see that while I had no shortage of visions and ideas based on things I loved and was into—like the visual culture of my imagination—I think as I grew into adulthood I had a complete blind spot when it came to thinking about how my identity might show up in my work in other ways.
You see while art was a big part of my identity, my identity was not really showing up in my art.
I was so focused on technique and also this looming question of, “what should I paint,” that I think I missed some opportunities to use the art making process to better understand more aspects of myself. How there was the me that was “just me” with all of her quirks and interests and passions, and then the part of me that existed in tandem with, and in reaction to, a whole range of socially constructed ideas about gender or race or intersections of gender and race, which seem so relevant and meaningful to me today?
This past summer, I got to thinking more deeply about reviving my own art making practices again and recently learned about some artists who, in addition to creating beautiful art, have modeled for me meaningful ways that one can integrate identity, history, resistance, and resilience in art.
One of the artists that I discovered is Bisa Butler. And I’d like to show a brief video about her work today.
I’ve been trying to think about why this artist’s work blows me away so much. And I’ve been thinking about a few things.
First, as someone who shares so many identity markers with her, I find her to be an inspiring role model.
Second, I think in some way, for me her work connects with what we’ve been trying to do in Honors US History, by elevating individual stories of all types of people in the past, instead of focusing our attention exclusively on dates, battles, and laws. One of the things I hope my students can get excited about is excavating and understanding these stories, finding scraps of information in old documents and patching them together to breathe life into them, through their writing and in class activities. And I feel like Bisa Butler’s paintings do this, but in the realm of art, by infusing life back into old archival photographs.
Finally, I think that something that moves me deeply about her work is how much care has gone into painstakingly patching these images together from scraps of fabric—a laborious and time-intensive process. The images themselves are not only breathtaking and beautiful but the act of assembling them feels to me simultaneously like an act of the most tender and reverential devotion and an act of the most fierce and amazing resistance. And it is this that most moves me and inspires me as I revive my own artistic life.
More about Bisa Butler: