Begin/Again: Marking Black Memories

Visitor Reflections | Maya Freelon

Dr. Jennifer Keene, Professor and Dean of Wilkinson College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences 

Dr. Angelica Allen, Assistant Professor and Co-Director of Africana Studies Minor 

Artists generally have no issues incorporating the spiritual impulses that fuel so much of their work. The creative process can, at times, involve a very personal and deep spiritual journey which emanates from the universal human condition of overcoming pain. In Maya Freelon’s piece, the work feels like the spiritual and material act of what it means to transform, or to “Begin/Again” as the artist poignantly evokes. The maze of details in this piece pushes the viewer to attend closely to the individual decisions that were made in order to bear witness to a form of truth telling that is being revealed. The softness of the tissue in the center stands in contrast to the striking colors from which it radiates from. The work is materially transgressive in that it has the unique ability to remain delicate and not disintegrate despite the forces of fluorescent pigments that surrounds the tissue. The end result is a vibrant beautiful expression which perhaps, is a fitting metaphor for the journey towards personal transformation.

While mesmerizing and captivating to witness, the reality is that the process of personal transformations are a grotesque and brutal journeys. Much like the enduring metaphor for the shape shifting butterfly which develops its wings for eventual flight, transformations are very much a part of life’s journeys and its continuous unfolding. On a personal level, I learned about the power of personal transformation after losing eight family members in a close succession within a four year period. These familial losses paradoxically stymied my writing process and sharpened my ethnographic insights as I conducted fieldwork research among the descendants of African American military men in the Philippines who were also dealing with loss in various forms. These losses also pushed me to think about the role of spirituality in my intellectual and scholarly work. For my personal transformation to occur, a commitment towards a deeper self-understanding, finding my own voice, and expressing my truth was needed. This is a similar self-discovery project that I see and more importantly feel from Freelon’s piece which provokes the aesthetics of personal transformation through the visual metaphor of what it means to “Begin/Again.”

Kayla D. Harriel, Inclusion and Outreach Coordinator at Pixar Animation Studios & former Escalette Collection Registrar 

I have used tissue paper for as long as I can remember. To cover a birthday gift in a bag, make fake flowers for a friend’s wedding rehearsal, or create colorful collages while employed at a children’s museum. Tissue paper ripped from handling, can ruin a project. I would neatly fold, cut, and strategically place the tissue so it could remain perfect, being intentional with every wrinkle and crease.

When I saw Maya Freelon’s work, I thought of all the torn pieces I discarded, the crinkled pieces I smoothed with my hand, the perfect creation my loved ones tossed to the side as they opened their gift. Like Maya, I found tissue paper fragile, but she uses the fragility to give her work beauty and depth; captivating you with its vibrancy and motion, which is unlike anything in the Escalette Collection.

I’m elated that Maya’s artwork has a place in this collection. The approval to purchase her piece was a dream come true because I couldn’t wait for others to connect with it as I did. Under the direction of Dr. Lindsay Shen and the help of Jessica Bocinski, more unique works from diverse people will find a home in the Escalette collection, opening doors for versatile stories to be told at Chapman University. 

Su Chen, Student, ENG 587: Aspects of a Writer

Maya Freelon’s work: Begin/Again strikes me with its simple choice of material, combining with the most imaginative, rich colors that leave me with an intense visual impression.

I enjoy reading Maya’s inspiration coming from the memories with her grandmother. The wise woman’s life experience and wisdom serve as a creative foundation that nurtures Maya’s artistic growth.

We see how Maya chooses her working material like tissue paper, one of the most mundane, perhaps even trivial, but indispensable material that accompanies us in everyday life. I can easily relate her choice to her quote that “art that’s inclusive, art that’s accessible and art that builds bridges.” I also feel amazed to learn what Maya recalls the origin of the work from a past unexpected water leak incident in the basement. When Maya mentions it as “a happy accident,” I could imagine it might have looked uncomfortable at first; it is a vulnerable scene to look at the tissue paper to tuck away the leaking water. But Maya’s take is different, “finding beauty in the simplest form,” she sees the various colors bleed in the tissue paper.

Through her unique perspective, Maya brilliantly transforms a banal and fragile moment of life into a new prospect of creativity. The marking of memories, that she not only keeps the same material from the accident, but she also elaborates the colors with a vibrant texture that reflect in delicate layers under the light. Green and red are the most dominant colors, which also are my favorite colors of the work. Both colors give the perception of life and passion. With other colors joining in the palette, the bright light overwhelms the backdrop that maximizes the visual impact to a high standard that truly symbolizes a new start to me, to begin again.

Todd Gilbert, Student, ENG 587: Aspects of a Writer

The first two words that come to mind when I look at Maya Freelon’s artwork are “eye” and “candy.”  Colorful images that pop have always grabbed my attention quickly.  They pull me in and hold me spell bound.  Her colors are brilliant and bold, her shapes both organic and crystalline.

Her medium of choice—tissue paper—is something we all have access to and therefore usually see as mundane.  To have the artist show us its potential, which we never could have imagined, creates in us a sense of awe and gratitude.  Or at least it did for me.  The images themselves are gorgeous but to understand their genesis is transformational.

The issues of race and fairness Freelon talks about in her “Art on Fire” video are beyond vital.  When we thought about “the future” as kids, we had such high hopes.  Forget flying cars and faster-than-light travel—we can live without those.  What we can’t live without any longer: justice, tolerance, and beauty that everyone can share on an equal footing.

Shelby Groussman, Student, HON 210: Monsters and Monstrosities 

While navigating through this virtual art gallery, I found that the artist that moved me the most was Maya Freelon. I loved that fact that she decided to use tissue paper in her artwork after she found wet, bleeding, tissue paper in her grandmother's basement.  Using tissue paper is such a beautiful and unique way to make art.  The bright colors in her art work provoked hope and inspiration in me as a viewer.  In Maya's video, she was talking about how black artists should be respected and paid fairly and she burned her own artwork to make a statement.  That is definitely an issue.  People should not have to burn things to send a message or communicate with each other, but it is what she feels she needs to do to be heard.  I feel like art does have the capacity to change situations.  Art is a common language that everyone can relate to in their own way.  I love that Maya said, "after destruction, comes rebuilding" because we can not reverse the damage that has been done, but we can take part in the rebuilding of our communities and incorporating "black memories" into our lives. 

Even Gershon, Student, HON 210: Monsters and Monstrosities 

I found the art of both Maya Freelon and Mark Bradford to be visually stunning and emotionally moving. I love that both of these artists use simple, easy to come by materials and turn them into to pieces of art that are both approachable and equally as mesmerizing as the works of art that use up-scale paints and work materials. Both of these artists work to challenge the "classical" art world to see the importance and power that comes from recognizing diverse artists. They also call their viewers to be empowered to make art of their own as well as calling everyone who sees their works to consider the history behind the materials they've used. For example, Mark Bradford's use of end papers in his work is used to both prove the accessibility of art and start an open conversation about beauty and hairstyles in the Black community. I believe that this art does have the capacity to change situations because this art is the first step in a conversation that can lead to change. The art of all five of these artists will inspire other Black artists to tell their stories as well as providing a backdrop for discussions around race, culture, and our troubled past. Additionally, I think Maya Freelon's burning of her own artwork is a further example of the ability of art to make change because Freelon is demonstrating that if we scream loud enough, people will eventually pay attention. It's sad that it takes fire for people to pay attention these days, but it is also proof that there are ways to get people to look up and start dealing with the unpleasantness of the reality in which we have found ourselves. In terms of our own personal abilities to make change, I think that we can incorporate Black memories into our lives by choosing to bring with us an understanding of the systemic hate and racism that so many have faced for centuries. As someone who wants to go into film, this means that I need to consider more than just my own perspective when creating art by bringing other voices to the table that are different from my own. For people who aren't necessarily interested in going into an artistic field, this means taking the time to try to view life from the perspective of these Black memories. This means taking the time to think about how history has sculpted our present into one of unjust privilege and unfounded hate and considering how we can change things now so that our future is not just more of the same. I believe that if we recognize the problems of our past, then we can finally find an effective way of mending the situation that will ensure our world to be a more comfortable place to live for all.

Amelia Anbild, Student, HON 210: Monsters and Monstrosities 

Immediately upon opening this online art exhibit, I was drawn to the work of Maya Freelon, and I stayed drawn to her work and kept thinking about it while viewing all the other artists that are a part of the exhibition. To me, the bright colors and light in her work choose to celebrate the joie de vivre despite the dark times and the bleakness of the movement we find ourselves in as a society because in truth, the fundamental pleas for equal rights at the heart of the Black Lives Matter Movement should have been met with wide open hearts and minds years ago. What truly fascinated me and excited me beyond the artwork was Maya Freelon's personal history. Her father and mother and grandmother were artists in their own right and produced another wonderful creative with a unique view and an important message, further implementing the value in my mind of creatives to society as a whole. You can't spur change and impart a message if you have nothing to say. Another thing about her page in the exhibit that caught my attention is the video of Ms. Freelon burning her art. The video itself with its theme and the captivating images of burning canvas and paper is art. The editing, visuals, shot composition, soundtrack, ect.; all of it spoke to me. Her call to action and evocation of pathos were very effective and made me want not only to join her, but to create art with her. Art matters because it makes a statement. Behind every stroke, every color, there is meaning and intention to be interpreted by the viewer which can elicit strong emotion and strong reactions. That is why I believe art is one of the most powerful mediums for change, no matter what type of art. In a future that becomes more and more digitally motivated by the day and people in society tend to feel increasingly distant, the need for artists to connect us and unite us will continue to grow. This is the perfect time and the perfect opportunity for black artists to share their experiences and ingrain them in the minds of others because we are teetering on the cusp of change, and the new generation has the chance to really make a difference in this world for the better.

Kelly Taylor, Student, HON 210: Monsters and Monstrosities 

Upon the first encounter with Maya Freelon’s “Begin/Again,” the title is what stuck me first. The idea of beginning in my mind clashes with the ability for it to occur again. I believe in fresh starts and beginning new chapters which can be reoccurring events, yet the slash between the words offered a sort of resistance between the terms to me. “Begin” and “again” became separated as distinct terms which caused me to question whether we really can begin again. Can we go onwards to a new dawn without dragging the past along? If so, is it really a new beginning if we are burdened with the old? Part of what I love about the piece is how it drives these issues to the center of my mind without giving me an answer. They stick and worm their way into my own musings until I find myself contemplating them in the world around me. I have the honor of looking at the piece with my own eyes, my own vision that is completely and uniquely different than every other human. We all look at the same exhibit, but each of us sees a slightly different picture. It is colorful and connected in a way that takes memories from everyone and wounds them into one collective memory that is both the same and unimaginably unique for every viewer. It is unifying while still embracing differences. This is one of my favorite phenomena in all forms of art: the pull that extends from each of us to the work. It is that pull that allows me to hope that art can change the world, that we can become a patchwork quilt made up of an infinite amount of squares, every little piece making up a beautiful human race. Perhaps that is the optimist in me who cannot help but see the hope in the collision of colors. I hope not.

I realize now upon further contemplation that the slash in the title is also conjoining the two terms in a way that makes them inseparable. Is there a level in which “begin” and “again” become synonymous or at least continuous? If every day, every glance, every work of art, every sentence is a little bit of a new beginning, can it not be said that we experience this poignant “start” again and again? An infinity of possibilities awaits with every new breath. At least, I like to think so.

Meredith Heika, Student, HON 210: Monsters and Monstrosities 

I agree with Shelby in that Maya Freelon is the artist that moved me the most. As an artist myself, I always get frustrated for gravitating towards colorful, happy pieces, as that feels like the easy way out. However, this piece seemed like it meant so much more than just putting bright colors on paper in an effort to emulate hope. The way in which the colors bled together creates almost a "bubble" in the middle of the work. Personally, I could see palm leaves and other symbols of nature within the "bubble", and the rays of color seemed to be somewhat of a halo around the center, drawing the eye to it and proving the true goodness of whatever was within. The piece provokes a sense of excitement and wonder, highlighting the inherent beauty of black memories. 

I find it extremely fascinating that both Maya Freelon and Mark Bradford used unconventional materials to show that art doesn't need to be made with the most expensive paint or the most revered brushes, a concept that I believe is pushed too much in the art world. Additionally, I love that the materials each artist uses represents a loved one in their family: tissue paper for Freelon's teacher grandmother and end foils for Bradford's beauty shop mother. One thing that I, as an artist, constantly attempt to do is incorporate the love of my family into my pieces, and both Freelon and Bradford incorporate the memories of their strong and hardworking family members into their work is truly inspiring. In this way, the beloved memories of their family are immortalized within their work.

I believe that art truly does have the capacity to change situations. Visual art can easily provoke an emotional response that moves the viewer to tears, especially when the work is meant to represent justice, freedom, or victory. Even though books may not be considered traditional works of art, I believe that creative writing is one of the most powerful ways to change people's minds about controversial and unjust happenings around the world. 

Elyse Runkle, Student, HON 338: ThanaTourism

Maya Freelon’s work specifically stood out to me for two main reasons. One, was the emphasis put on accessibility of her artwork. She does a lot with a little, using tissue paper to make these extravagant yet touching pieces. This is empowering in that it tells future generations that they don’t need to buy the most expensive supplies and take the most expensive courses in order to make art that is moving and beautiful. Additionally, I was drawn in by the video showing her burning her own artwork in response to the Black Lives Matter movement. This was extremely moving to me, because most artists look at their art in a more self centered way, centering themselves. She, however, is making art for the greater good and is willing to sacrifice it. This was an extremely beautiful sentiment to me and I’m so glad I was exposed to her artwork. This ties into the work of Rotimi Fani-Kayod, as it is apparent that he makes his pieces for a greater purpose, to explain and explore the LGBTQ+ experience as a POC. It is this disconnect from the personal agenda that I find so inspiring. I also specifically enjoyed the pieces from Ian Forde, specifically how they illustrated an experience in such a poetic way. In the honors program, we study interdisciplinarity and this was a perfect example of doing so in a beautiful, informative, and moving way.

Iran Gomez, Student, HON 338: ThanaTourism

I decided to dive further into examining Maya Freelon’s work. When I first came across her work, she immediately captured my attention because of the vibrant colors, it screamed bold and daring. When I read more about what her work was about, it was shocking to find out that she created her paintings by using tissue papers. The contrast of the colors and tissue paper can truly reflect upon what is happening in today’s society, transformation. A small difference is where change begins because like in the painting, the water transformed the tissue paper to something extraordinary, something so different and unique. 

2020 is the year for change and even though it was not the year we had in mind, change is happening and we need to accept it. Again, we must start small to see a huge impact, but by starting small that is where change begins, changing your school’s policies, changing your city’s policies, changing your state’s policies. In Maya Freelon’s work, Art on Fire, the idea “after destruction comes rebuilding” was really thought-provoking because it relates to the BLM movement on how enough is enough, riots broke out during the protests but as Maya mentioned, “she can make more art pieces, but she cannot bring back the countless lives lost”. We can rebuild buildings but we cannot bring back the countless black lives that have been lost. 

I think art like this could be considered as “Dark Tourism” because for example, “Art on Fire” it is a metaphor of how many black lives have been lost.

Isabel Nguyen, Student, HON 338: ThanaTourism

Maya Freelon’s work, Begin/Again, struck me the most. The vibrant blend of colors and their unique dispersal really caught my attention. My first impression was that of beautiful chaos, release, an explosion of color that was once restrained. The piece makes me feel that same sense of release and wonder. There are two issues that arise from this piece and they are interconnect- ed. The first is that of the continual suppression of Black people in the United States. Freelon talks about how her grandmother, who came from a family of sharecroppers, inspired her work with her never-waste mentality. She works with those humble beginnings to create work from common materials, colored tissue paper. She makes art more simple and accessible, which connects to the second issue. For centuries, art, museums and galleries have been something for aristocrats. Pieces have been made of expensive materials like marble and oil paint. Freelon challenges that idea by creating something beautiful out of tissue paper.

Black memories need to be incorporated in our lives because they are a natural part of human history, especially American history. Their memories would allow us to have a more comprehensive view of history, rather than a look at history from the conqueror’s side. They can be incorporated in our understanding of history by asking Black voices for their input.

I think that art exhibits like this can be considered dark tourism because they allow curious “travelers” to learn about tragedies and dark histories. Physical travel isn’t necessary for tourism.

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