The colleges are on strike in Ontario, thus for the last month my teaching days have been a bit of a muddle. My interview with the amazing artist Charmaine Lurch risked being put off as we tried to navigate schedules and locations but the power of technology won in the end—the impressive reach of wireless connections! I found a little room in my dingy makeshift “office” for the day and placed two phones side by side, recording with one and speaking (excitedly!) into the other. As a lover of and believer in the power of language, read on and see why this compelling voice in art and education had me at “hello.”
Charmaine, can you tell me about your evolution as an artist?
Thanks for this opportunity! My work—well, I’m just going to jump right in: from an early age I always drew. I was such a quiet child so I think I drew as a means of expression. When I looked back on that early work I found that I often drew people without faces. That was interesting to me. In this new work that I’m doing today I find myself looking back and wondering if I sensed my own invisibility in a way as a black child.
Only upon looking back [at my childhood art] have I seen that I’m essentially doing that same work now—what I drew without knowing as a child. This reflective work has made for an interesting understanding of myself—reminds me of the African idea of “sankofa”…
Yes! I was going to say that, “looking backwards to move forward…”
Yes. A lot of my work is around hypervisibility and invisibility of black people, black subjects. It has taken on many forms through things like arts education. So when I’m in the schools and they’re learning about early settlers I try to bring in work around the early black presence and that material comes directly from my art. For example, there’s my work around Thornton and Lucie Blackburn who were the first black entrepreneurs in Toronto, who started the first taxi business that the colours of the TTC came from. Their story was invisible—and it was an accidental find that that story came up to be known in Toronto and further in Canada. [That story is an example of] the kinds of invisibilities that I work with, some of them unintentional and other times completely intentional—and whether it’s doing arts education or my own work in metal or in paint, invisibility is an ever-present theme.
I don’t know their story. We have to circle back—but as I listen to you speak here I wonder: how in a bio would you be described? You’re doing so many different things? Who is Charmaine Lurch?
A complicated question! A mother, a daughter, an artist, an educator—for me they are seamless. There’s a wire artist I loved named Ruth Asawa and she said there’s no separation between art and life and living and taking care of her family… and for me it’s the same! It can be very tiring because it’s always ongoing.
Absolutely. It says on your website that you’re an interdisciplinary artist and educator…
…Yes, and I go on to describe the practice of wire and metal and paint and how they intersect to tell stories of invisibility. I do a lot of work on wild bees and nature and landscape, and that intersects with my work on black subjects in the environment… it’s all a complicated way to say I work in many areas that I believe speak to each other!
I love the idea of intersecting without it becoming “I have to become all things to all people” because that’s the opposite right? To be pulled in too many ways, as a woman, that certainly complicates things…
A Mobile and Visible Carriage
Circling back to where we started, looking at the piece you have installed at the Art Gallery of Ontario right now, why that one?
That’s the Blackburn Carriage. It is a layered piece even though it looks very simple. I mean the fact that it sits on the ground talks to me about placement and environment. The spaces in the carriage talk about erasure and invisibility. With the colour I tried to imitate, beyond the earth colour, some of the colours of their taxi cabs—pointing to their practice, their entrepreneurship, their movement on the land in Toronto. And even as my work engages with the Blackburns as a couple, as a black couple, I love to focus on Lucie Blackburn. I love that they are always Lucie and Thornton Blackburn, not separate, but in the story there’s a real draw for me when I look closely at her activism and the service she did. They could not read or write but they ran a business that was highly successful and then left money to people and places like Little Trinity Church in Toronto.
I have a personal connection to Little T!
Yeah! It was the church they attended and it was close to their home. The back half of their home was purchased by Toronto District School Board, making it one of the first public schools in Toronto… and it is also recognized as an Underground Railroad site in Canada.
Wild! Listening to you now I can see why this work is in what the AGO curator described as essentially a pushback or an intense conversation with our larger question of what it means to be “celebrating” this notion of Canada 150. Did you have choice about what you put into the show?
I would have chosen this piece anyways but they wanted stories that were outside of the norm… so it was fortuitous for me.
You know my next question is going to be about activism as a concept and how that plays out in art, let alone feminist activism. I wonder: for you does the artist’s doing of a work like the Blackburn Carriage get a little lost with the audience’s focus on the final product of the art piece itself? Said another way, is the doing of your art a feminist act? A form of activism?
I guess I look at those titles as boxes that are important at one level but also contain us in a different way. So I like to leave it open. I believe that my work is critical and creative simultaneously. Often its subjects give a counter rhetoric to the national voice. My work is really about what it means to be human. So under that mantle many people would consider it an activist’s work. It is a form of resistance to show blackness in so many ways that are positive and to talk about erasure. For example, I have done work around black female bodies that responds to a particular idea of blackness to counter a particular idea of blackness… to change perceptions— not just on a visual level, but in my conversations where I’m hoping to change the mechanisms of cognition. Recently I did a brain sculpture that was about connectivity. I wanted to show what it means to bring erased ideas out and connect them to people… that’s how change can come about. For example, my work on Henrietta Lacks who was the first black woman whose cells were taken from her—what science calls immortal or HELA cells. Hers were responsible for the DNA strand, how we understand it, the cloning of the first sheep (Dolly), AIDS research…
Her cells, taken from her without her consent. I’ve done a lot of work around that story and you can see how that would be a part of arts education for those who don’t know the story! It’s about giving voice to the voiceless. That’s activism.
I have some serious research to do as I write up this interview—so many new things I’ve learned in the midst of our conversation!
I hope I create a visual language that people can connect to. And when I’m in the schools I tell the students all the time that I learn constantly from them, as they are able to place words in my brain and connect to me… it’s not just when people tell you things but how they connect to you that I think makes people want to know more.
It makes me think of author and activist Lee Maracle’s talk at York University a few years back. She used the traditionally science-based term “concatenation” to speak about human connectivity. I swear the whole audience pulled out their cellphones to google the term! But when I mentioned it to my brother-in-law later he totally knew it—as a biologist—pointing to the power of language to connect across interdisciplinary lines.
How do you spell that? I’m writing that one down!
We laugh and chat for a few more moments before getting off of our various phones. For the rest of my afternoon I was affected by what was a powerfully edifying conversation. My coffee grew cold as I continued to google the various names Charmaine had mentioned throughout our talk. I read on, learning more and more with each new Chrome window I opened. I found myself twisting the wire that connected my ear phones to my phone and took some pleasure in noting the tangible metaphor for art-making and meaning wound around my fingers.
Charmaine Lurch is an award winning arts researcher and interdisciplinary artist. Her contribution to Canadian art has been influenced by a wealth of cultural experiences, academic studies and formal art education. Charmaine’s present research involves an examination of how anti black racism creates a climate of invisibility and erasure of the experiences and agency of racially marked subjects in society. Her work has been exhibited in a number of galleries including the Royal Ontario Museum, Scotiabank Nuit Blanche, The University of British Columbia, and the National Gallery of Jamaica. Most notable is her work with Inner City Angels, an art education charity bringing innovative approaches and awareness around social justice and environmental issue to Toronto schools. Currently she is one of 36 artists included in the AGO’s new exhibition titled Every. Now. Then: Reframing Nationhood.