A Q&A With Stacy Lynn Waddell

 

Q&A with Stacy Lynn Waddell

In 2021, Art Papers published an article about a new series of works by Durham-based artist Stacy Lynn Waddell in which she examines the history of landscape through the work of 19th-century English American painter Thomas Cole and self-taught Black Pittsburgh-based sculptor Thaddeus Mosley. The Mint’s Chief Curator and Curator of Contemporary Art Jen Sudul Edwards, PhD, took notice. As an extension of the series influenced by Cole and Mosley, Waddell created Landscape with Rainbow as the Sun Blasts the Sky (for R.S.D.) 1859/2022: an homage to American artist Robert S. Duncanson’s 1859 painting Landscape with Rainbow, which is in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and was displayed in the United States Capitol Rotunda in 2021 in honor of the inauguration of President Joseph R. Biden. Duncanson was one of the most important Black artists of the 19th century. This event brought significant national attention to Duncanson, who remains little known beyond art history circles. The Mint Museum is pleased to have acquired Waddell’s tribute to Duncanson: Landscape with Rainbow as the Sun Blasts the Sky (for R.S.D.) 1859/2022, which will be a part of an upcoming reinstallation of the American galleries at Mint Museum Uptown in 2023. Mint curators Jonathan Stuhlman, PhD, and Jennifer Sudul Edwards, PhD, caught up with Waddell to discuss her inspiration behind the work. Lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

Jonathan Stuhlman, PhD: We are doing a rotation in the Mint’s permanent collection galleries next summer, shifting focus from different approaches to portraiture to different approaches in landscape. I am really looking forward to including Landscape with Rainbow as Sun Blasts the Sky
(for R.S.D.) 1859/2022 in that. There are earlier works in this series dedicated to Thomas Cole and Thaddeus Mosley. What made you decide to extend it beyond them to Duncanson and to this painting in particular?

Stacy Lynn Waddell: I was given an opportunity to show work in a four-page spread in the publication Art Papers. I thought it was a perfect opportunity to examine the core of the romantic idea of how we have come to be as a country. We know there are holes in all of that — it is moth-eaten— but thinking about Thomas Cole and Thaddeus Mosley was really about access. How do I reconfigure
or have people take another look at some of Cole’s most important paintings by inserting Mosley and his works into the scene and drawing parallels between the lives of the two men as naturalists. The other thing was to bring forward an interest in landscape. One of the things that I have thought a lot about, especially during 2020, was access. You couldn’t go places. Once we realized that outside was a safe space to convene, then I feel like the doors were blown off in terms of how people thought about being outside.

JS: Suddenly, everyone is an outdoorsman.

SLW: Everybody! So, I was thinking about that, too: how we do not necessarily consider the space
that we have. We do not consider our dependency upon nature and how we have disrespected that
relationship.

JS: Then you shift from the Cole/Mosley series to Duncanson. Was it because of his importance as the first and best-known Black American landscape painter?

SLW: Yes. When the painting was rededicated, I thought, “yeah, this is the moment.” Think of the biblical significance around a rainbow and the promise just this idea of a promise. Another thing that the pandemic did was push us to keenly focus on political discourse. To have this painting emerge during the inauguration as a kind of promise, it just struck me as something that seemed important. Also, the fact that here is a Black man (Duncanson) at a time when Black people had no access. This painting was made in 1859, American slavery was still the order of the day, yet Duncanson was able to access and occupy spaces in America and abroad. I found that to be fascinating. It stood as an emblem of possibility for the onlooker and me as a Black woman from the South functioning as an artist.

JS: Duncanson’s painting, and the rainbow’s landing on the cabin in the wilderness, has been interpreted as symbolizing divine blessing on westward expansion, yet we were doing so at the expense of all the people who originally lived on the land. There is an irony there as he was a Black artist painting on the eve of the Civil War. Duncanson soon thereafter just got the heck out and went to England by way of Canada and left the country for several years. So, to me, it is a painting that is loaded with so many tensions and ironies. What led you to pick the tondo (circular) format for these works and the details in the way that you have done — piecing in the panels in the sky with the rounded swirl. To me, it calls to mind the arc of the rainbow, but I’d love to know more about how you landed on the bit of the picture you chose and the way that you put it together.

SLW: I started thinking about how I would intervene upon the original painting. What would make the most sense for me, someone who loves to appropriate. I do a lot of that in my art. I find photographs and other images that I take and insert a different meaning or myself into the work. Tondos are typically formats of paintings that we ascribe to religious works. The circle points to an internal way of connecting to something. My pieces are works on handmade paper made in India that is very irregular with deckled edges, but still round. So, you still fall into that place. My drawings are created by burning paper. I am burning paper and then I am adding gilded (gold) material. I love surface texture. I thought, “why don’t you just reinterpret paintings in your materials that are all about surface interest?” The paintings I am referencing in this also call attention to the environment. Gold leaf is tough on the environment. It is metal. It is gold pounded into sheets with a decorative pattern inlaid. All the alchemy and all the gathering of metals happen before I get the material to use it. So, when I’m using this material, I’m thinking about science, the environment, and the optical illusion of seeing a rainbow. It is interesting to me to overlay a lot of our contemporary concerns onto a painting that was about an ironic look at a promise. What is it that we really stand for as a country? What is it? What direction are we really going in? It is natural for me to take what I do and lay it on top of something else and then hope that someone gathers something from it. Hopefully, what the viewer can extract from looking at this series is going well beyond looking at a landscape and even beyond the Duncanson references. The materials may lead them back to some of the concerns: the environment, the landscape, their relationship to it, and what, if anything, are they doing to protect these spaces.

Jen Sudul Edwards, PhD: One of the things that I find so interesting about Duncanson is that with romanticism over the last 100 years, we have been much more critical about it as a practice, of it being nostalgic to avoid reality, whitewashing history to erase crimes against humanity that were going on at the time. You mention the irony that is embedded in Duncanson’s treatment of it, but I also find a kernel of a reminder in Duncanson, and in your series, that romanticism was also created because of a need for hope. Was that a consideration of your series, which was started during the pandemic and has the
need for a rainbow at the end.

SLW: Artists are romantics, especially the idea of romanticism as a longing or looking at something lovingly or looking back at something and thinking that there is always hope. It is what we do every day in the making of the work. To be an artist, you are pulling things out of thin air with the hope that someone will come along and find interest in it — just to create a relationship with it through the eye and through the gut. But then also, to maybe buy it and show it and talk about it and write about it. I think that at the heart of all of us, we are all romantics. I mean, for me, I grew up in the rural South. I ran through fields and grew up on a farm and have a clear relationship to the out of doors, to the land, to owning land. It is not a foreign idea for me to know that people can own land and own large parts of it. My great grandfather, Zollie Coffey Massenburg, owned hundreds of acres at a time when a Black man in rural North Carolina, did not. When he passed, his 14 children all got large plots of land, one of them being my maternal grandmother. When I pass an open field, immediately, there is something that is pricked in me about remembering, longing, and wanting that to be kept whole. No one’s going to buy this and build on it. If we could just have green spaces. The idea of romanticism is deeply embedded in me. I think when people stand in front of work, there is a romantic gesture that is happening internally with whatever work they are looking at. You bond with it. You are creating a relationship. Whether you realize it or not, you are siphoning through your personal and psychic experiences. It is a romantic way of engaging with something. So yes, I come to everything as a romantic, as someone who has a longing. I think my interest in appropriation is a romantic gesture to see something and want to make it not better, but to make conditions better and add my voice to that, to envision a better world. The only way that I know how to do that is just with the materials and things that I love working with.

Staff spotlight: Rebecca Elliot

Rebecca Elliot, assistant curator of craft, design, and fashion.

‘Art can be a source of joy for people, and I like to make those experiences happen’

Rebecca Elliot is one of the creative minds behind the new exhibition Craft in the Laboratory: The Science of Making Things and lead author of the catalogue by the same name.

 

Rebecca Elliot is the assistant curator of Craft, Design, and Fashion at The Mint Museum. Her journey with art has taken her around the globe, from her student days studying abroad in London and frequenting the British Museum, to her jobs at the Cranbrook Art Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and finally to the Mint in 2012, where she’s currently the assistant curator of craft, design and fashion. Here, Elliot shares a glimpse into her life inside the museum, from the glamorous (handling 18th-century men’s suits and thrifting with iconic fashion designer Anna Sui) to the decidedly unglamorous (copy editing and emails). — As told to Caroline Portillo. Lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

I grew up in central Ohio in a town called Delaware, Ohio, about 30 or 40 miles north of Columbus. I loved to read fiction and liked writing. I loved art, especially drawing. My sister and I — she’s three years older than me — would have coloring contests. I even tried to design clothes. I would play with my Barbies and have them do fashion shows. For me, it was more about Barbie having a job, a career, and wearing stylish outfits.

For undergrad, I went to Smith College, a women’s college in western Massachusetts. I took art history during my sophomore year, and then I spent my junior year studying abroad at University College London, where I took a lot of art history classes. UCL was close to the British Museum and I would often go after school. In London, I also visited the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, the Victoria & Albert Museum, and the Tate Gallery. It was really cool actually seeing the scale of the paintings and what the texture looked like, knowing what it felt like to stand in front of it, and noticing what other people did when they were there. That’s when I first started thinking about working with museums. The interface between the art and the public was interesting to me.

Here’s a snapshot of a recent day in my life. First, I helped Annie [Carlano, the Mint’s senior curator for craft, design, and fashion] lay out the jackets from two 18th-century gentlemen’s suits for a Zoom call with a curator from the V&A in London. Because I’m the copyeditor for all the Mint’s exhibition texts, my afternoon was spent answering emails and reviewing exhibition label proofs. I spent the evening on one of my hobbies: ushering for a show at Actor’s Theater. I enjoy theater, and ushering is a great way to help out and see a show for free.

I love thrifting and actually got to join fashion icon Anna Sui on a thrifting expedition. Anna was in Charlotte in November last year for the opening of The World of Anna Sui at Mint Museum Randolph. After lunch, we ventured to Sleepy Poet Antique Mall. I have admired Anna Sui’s style ever since her clothes started appearing in my favorite ’90s teen magazine, Sassy. I was thrilled when I got to join her entourage and go thrifting in Charlotte. I walked around with Anna and Vogue’s Senior Fashion News Editor Steff Yotka, observing which items they gravitated to and occasionally commenting about things that reminded me of Anna’s style. I was with them as Anna found and inspected a tablecloth — the three of us unfolded it together — and decided it was worth the $20 price. It’s fun to know that I was there when she found a small souvenir to take back and enjoy in her home.

Speaking of Sleepy Poet, I made a point to go there just before they moved out of their old location, knowing there would be bargains. Sure enough, I found a Heywood-Wakefield wood headboard and footboard, possibly mid-century modern, for $25. Whenever I’m thrifting or antiquing, I look for interesting mid-century modern items. I like old stuff, decorative stuff, fashion, and art.

When I’m visiting a museum, I nerd out. I look at the objects and the labels — how are they written? Would I do it the same way? I look at what objects are next to each other, how they play off each other. I look at what’s in the room, how the wall colors are, the pathway.

I love working at a museum because museums give people so many different kinds of experiences. Art can be a source of joy for people, and I like to make those experiences happen. Art can also be something that makes people uncomfortable, that makes them question and think about things they may not have before. We are facing many difficult issues, everything from the environment to social justice to politics. The work I do matters in those areas. We’re not trying to be political, but we are trying to make society better.

Curator’s Pick: “Baseball Pitcher” by Ott and Brewer

Curator’s Pick: Baseball Pitcher by Ott and Brewer

Curator of Decorative Arts Brian Gallagher discusses this modeled sculpture of a baseball pitcher, made at the Trenton, New Jersey ceramics manufactory run by Joseph Ott and John Hart Brewer. In 1873, they hired the Canadian-born sculptor Isaac Broome to create a prototypical American work for their firm to display at the Centennial International Exposition that opened in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, May 10, 1876. This sculpture is made of Parian, a type of porcelain that has more feldspar in its body than conventional porcelain and is fired at a lower temperature. These conditions give the Baseball Pitcher its ivory color and smooth, marble-like texture.

Curators’ Pick: “Farol” by Elaine de Kooning

Curator’s Pick: Farol by Elaine de Kooning

Jonathan Stuhlman, PhD, senior curator of American Art at The Mint Museum, discusses Farol, Elaine de Kooning’s 1958 painting inspired by bullfights she attended Sunday afternoons in Juarez, Mexico. “Farol” refers to the movement made by bullfighters, sweeping their capes out of the way as the bull charged by. The piece captures the motion, energy, and action of the fight itself. Although long overlooked, the work of de Kooning and her other female Abstract Expressionist colleagues has recently received greater attention thanks in part to exhibitions like Women of Abstract Expressionism hosted at The Mint Museum hosted in 2016.

Curators’ Pick: “Spectral Boundary” by Tom Patti

Curator’s Pick: Spectral Boundary by Tom Patti

Senior Curator of Craft, Design, and Fashion, Annie Carlano, discusses Spectral Boundary by artist Tom Patti. In combining more than 30 laminated and fused layers of glass, interlayer and woven fiber materials, Spectral Boundary exemplifies Tom Patti’s pioneering artistic effort to interpret the relationship between an advancing industrial culture and North Carolina’s textile heritage. The 40-foot monumental glass wall was made with the same compression machinery that manufactured the skin on the Stealth bomber, thus the wall is bulletproof and bombproof. Spectral Boundary is an outstanding example of how artists and scientists think alike.

Curator’s Pick: “Figures Eight” by Doris Leeper

Curator’s Pick: Figures Eight by Doris Leeper

Jen Sudul Edwards, PhD, chief curator and curator of contemporary art at The Mint Museum, explains the significance of works by mid-century modernist Doris Leeper. Leeper, who worked in painting and sculpture, hints at her interest in the three-dimensional in the painting Figures Eight. Leeper was born in Charlotte in 1929 but moved out of state. She maintained a presence in North Carolina, however, participating in the Mint’s juried competition series Piedmont Exhibition.

Curators’ Pick: “Autarchy” by Formafantasma

Curator’s Pick: Autarchy by Formafantasma

An intriguing installation created by the design group Formafantasma in its studio in the Netherlands, Autarchy explores the idea of how we might make functional vessels for the home from locally sourced, natural materials, while paying homage to the craft of baking and cooking. Autarchy is an outstanding example of the way in which designers and makers think and work like scientists, researching and experimenting with materials and formulas to create, solve problems, and achieve amazing results. This piece was made especially for The Mint Museum with the assistance of Mint staff and is on view in the Craft + Design permanent collection galleries at Mint Museum Uptown in the installation Craft in the Laboratory: The Science of Making Things.

Curators’ Pick: “Bracelets” by Marcus Amerman

Curators’ Pick: Bracelets by Marcus Amerman

Marcus Amerman, a multimedia artist who is best known for his pictorial beadwork that combines Native American tradition with imagery from contemporary popular culture, designed and created these two cuff bracelets depicting the Dalai Lama and agents Mulder and Scully from the television hit series X Files. Amerman grew up in a family of artists and learned beading at age 10 from his Choctaw aunt who had married into the Hopi tribe. In 1982, he drew upon the multitude of cultural influences he had experienced to create his own style of beadwork.

The bracelets are on view in Craft + Design permanent collection galleries and the Craft in the Laboratory: The Science of Making Things.

The Mint Museum from Home is Presented By Chase.

Curators’ Pick: “Weathervane” by Brent Kington

Curators’ Pick: Weathervane by Brent Kington

Assistant Curator of Craft, Design, and Fashion, Rebecca Elliot offers insight on the sculpture Weathervane by artist-blacksmith Brent Kington, part of a series of sculptures inspired by the weathervanes of Kington’s youth in Kansas. With nothing but gravity holding the two parts together, Weathervane is able to spin, but also to pitch and roll slightly in a breeze or if touched. While the sculpture is meant to be enjoyed indoors rather than to gauge the wind’s direction on a farm, it alludes to nature with the two differently sized disks representing the sun and moon. 

Weathervane is on view in the Craft + Design permanent collection galleries as part of Craft in the Lab: The Science of Making Things.

The Mint Museum from Home is Presented By Chase.

Works by artist My Loan Dinh that explore the human condition

In My Loan Dinh’s series “(Re)constructing the space in-between,” objects, covered in eggshells, appear fragile; but they are strong — strong enough to break glass. “I reach for these tools not only to break barriers, but also to build, forge, and construct new paths towards freedom and equality. Many things, like stones and bullets, can shatter glass. I am here to build,” Dinh says.

‘Broken, but in one piece’

Charlotte artist MyLoan Dinh explores the human condition – and the search for home

By Page Leggett

MyLoan (pronounced “mee-LAHN”) Dinh has been working with an unusually delicate medium: eggshells.

The Vietnamese-American artist, who splits her time between Charlotte and Berlin, uses them to encase objects — passports, hammers, boxing gloves. “With boxing gloves, you think of fighting,” she says. “I love the idea of pairing things that are complete opposites. There’s a tension there — a deeper meaning that starts a conversation.”

People might see the eggshell mosaics and think of the destructiveness of violence or the fragility of life. But for life to begin, the egg has to be open, to be broken, Dinh says. And brokenness is part of being human.

“I like creating something whole out of fragments,” she continues. “I like this idea that even though we might be broken, we’re in one piece. We’re going to be OK.”

The MInt Museum_MyLoan Dinh
MyLoan Dinh, United States (born in Vietnam), 1972– . “Off White,” 2019. Boxing gloves, eggshells, acrylic. Museum purchase made possible by the Charles W. Beam Endowment Fund.

From coop to kitchen to studio

Working with eggshells is tedious and time-consuming. Dinh starts by procuring eggs. She has to boil the eggs, crack and peel them. Then, she methodically places each tiny piece onto the object with an adhesive. She uses a stick pin or a needle; her fingers are too big for the job. Once the entire object is covered, she fills in with even tinier shell shards. She doesn’t want too much of a gap between fragments.

Each object gets covered in five or six protective layers. Something fragile has been made durable.

Some of the “eggshell art” was featured in Dinh’s installation for Constellation CLT — an exhibition series that spotlights local artists — this spring and summer at Mint Museum Uptown.

“I think it’s wonderful that museums are starting to look for artists in their backyard,” Dinh says. “There’s a lot of talent here. And why not expose the community to those artists? It’s wonderful that part of the community can now see themselves in these spaces.”

The part of the community she’s referring to: Asian-Americans. “When I was growing up, I couldn’t see myself in a museum setting because I didn’t have any role models,” she says. “I couldn’t name a single Asian artist. I saw some Asian art, but it was more like artifacts. So, this Constellations program is really amazing.”

‘A place we can call home’

She and her family were on one of the last ships out of Saigon in 1975. Dinh was 4. She has no memory of her homeland but still feels connected to her culture.

Her story is deeply personal, but there’s a universality to it. “Everyone deserves safety,” she says. “We all deserve the same basic human rights, the opportunity to live in dignity and to somehow find a place we can call home.”

Finding her way to safety was harrowing. For six days, they were forbidden to dock because the ships belonged to the now-defunct South Vietnamese government. “We were stateless,” she says.

The U.S.S. Kirk was the first, and then dozens of former South Vietnamese Navy ships, cargo and fishing boats lowered the Vietnamese flag and raised the American one. That was just the beginning.

Dinh’s family went to three different U.S. refugee camps before a Lutheran church in Boone agreed to sponsor them. “We’re still in touch with the pastor and his wife,” Dinh says. “At the time, there was this — not really, anti-Asian hate — but fear. People were afraid for different reasons: Would we be able to adjust? Were we Communists? Half the congregation wasn’t sure should they take us in. The minister told them, ‘As people of God, we have to.’”

They came to Charlotte because there was a bigger Vietnamese population here and it’s a bigger city. Dinh’s parents wanted to find their community.

Dinh herself has found a large creative community here. She and her husband — Till Schmidt-Rempler, a former dancer and choreographer — frequently host musicians, poets, storytellers and dancers in the 1935 log cabin that’s home to the couple and their teenage daughter. (Their son is working toward a PhD in art history in London.)

Evolution of an artist

Dinh’s work has evolved a lot since she first picked up a paintbrush to create what she calls “representational, figurative work.” It didn’t take long for her to expand her subject matter and media; she experiments to stave off boredom. In recent years, she’s been diving into storytelling.

“I began revisiting stories about what my family faced when I was growing up,” she says. “Much of that stuff, you just push away. You focus on your survival. You don’t want to bring it up because you think: ‘I’m resilient, I need to move on.’ But I felt it was time to pull it out slowly because of this shift in America, this racial reckoning.”

She doesn’t consider herself a political artist, but rather an artist concerned with social justice.

She hopes viewers see that concern in her work. “I think it’s good to let viewers enjoy the pieces for what they are, but I also like the idea of them reading my artist’s statement to understand why I made the piece. My message is that we need to find a way to share space with each other.”

‘My daughter ate it’

Dinh doesn’t always use food in her art — although she has coated everyday objects in candy conversation hearts — but she was inspired to create an installation last year using a ubiquitous Asian dessert.

“I created a fortune cookie installation the day after six Asian women were murdered [in Atlanta],” she says. “I just made it, held it in my hand and photographed it for social media. And, when Jen [Sudul Edwards] said she wanted to show it, I had to tell her: It was a real fortune cookie, and my daughter ate it. But I can get more.”

There are six fortune cookies in that little installation, she says, one for each of the six women murdered. The fortunes have numbers on them, and they are real telephone numbers to an actual hotline, Dinh says.

With her eggshell art, Dinh is a purist. She leaves the shells the colors nature intended. But she wanted dark brown eggs for several pieces — and went searching.

“There’s a chocolate brown egg that comes from a fancy French chicken called the Marans chicken, she says. “I joined a Facebook group of people who raise chickens and asked if anybody had Marans chickens. They were so responsive; I’ve been getting eggshells in the mail. Chicken people are really good people.

“You never know where you’ll find your community. And community is really another word for ‘home’.”

Page Leggett’s writing appears regularly in The Charlotte Observer, Business North Carolina and SouthPark magazine. Besides writing, her other great passions are travel and art collecting. The first art lessons she took were at Mint Museum Randolph.

This story previously published in the Winter 2021 Inspired member magazine.