Category: community

“ain’t i a woman?”

















In 1851 Kingston native Sojourner Truth electrified audiences at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, OH with an extemporaneous speech on the value of womanhood known as “Ain’t I a Woman?”  Having been invited to create a mural for the O + Festival in Kingston, New York my collaborator Jess X. Chen and I wanted to honor the historical contribution of Sojourner Truth to the women’s rights movement and her role as an humanitarian by asking three New York City based, African-American, female poets to share with us poems pertaining to African-American womanhood.  The three poets included Jennifer Falu; writer, poet and teacher T’ai Freedom Ford and writer, poet and director of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe Mahogany Browne. Sadly, due to time constraints only Mahogany Browne and T’ai Freedom Ford were included in the mural.

In celebrating these poets Jess + I chose to include verses of their poems as halos around their heads. Mahogany Browne’s halo is extracted from her poem “Black Girl Magic.”
They say you ain’t posed to be here
You ain’t posed to wear red lipstick
You ain’t posed to wear high heels
You ain’t posed to smile in public
You ain’t posed to smile no where, girl

You ain’t posed to be more than a girlfriend
You ain’t posed to get married
You ain’t posed to want no dream that big
You ain’t posed to dream at all
You ain’t posed to do nothing but carry babies
And carry weaves
And carry felons
And carry families
And carry confusion
And carry silence
And carry a nation — but never an opinion
You ain’t posed to have nothing to say
unless its a joke

Cause you ain’t posed to love yourself Black Girl
You ain’t posed to find nothing worth saving in all that brown
You ain’t posed to know that Nina Beyonce Tina Cecily Shonda Rhimes shine shine shine

Black Girl,
You ain’t posed to love your mind
You ain’t posed to love
You ain’t posed to be loved up on

You only posed to pose voodoo Chile’ vixen style
You posed to pop out babies & hide the stretch marks
You posed to be still
So still they think you statue
So still they think you a chalked outline
So still they keep thinking you stone
Until you look more Medusa than Viola Davis
Until you sound more Shenananay than Kerry Washington
Until you more side eye than Michelle Obama on a Tuesday

But You tell them you are more than a hot comb & a wash n set
You are kunta kente’s kin
You are a black Girl worth remembering

& You are a threat knowin yourself
Loving yourself
Loving your kin
Loving your children
you black girl magic
you black girl flyy
you black girl brilliance
you black girl wonder
you black girl shine
you black girl bloom
you black girl black girl
And you turning into a beautiful blk woman right before they eyes

T’ai Freedom Ford shared her poem “I Sell the Shadow to Sustain the Substance” which she dedicates to African-American conceptualist Glenn Ligon and to Sojourner Truth.  Verses of her poem were projected onto her and used in her halo.

“I Sell the Shadow to Sustain the Substance”

As a Black woman I am untitled – nameless.

My heart a faint glow of neon wire buzzing toward some shameless demise.

I stand against walls looking nonchalant.

Flashbulbs mistake me for celebrity or bored whore.

Same difference.

As Black woman I am installation art as negress.

My heart a black plastic bag ghosting streets.

What parts of me ain’t for sale as woman?

A sincere word of thanks goes out to Gaia, the Kingston O Positive Festival, Michael Pisacane, Andrew Erdos, Clara Darrason, Mahogany Browne, T’ai Freedom Ford, Jennifer Falu, Jess X. Chen and the good people of Kingston, NY.



finished mural


jess + me


the poets, jess + i

with mahogany browne, jennifer falu, t’ai freedom ford and jess x. chen.

kicking it with j c + the family

ha!  silly me.  i thought i was just going to jc’s house to get a photo of her holding my new 1 color, hand-pulled screen print on archival paper (which features her as a 6 month old).  but no…












“rethink coal”

15″ x 25″ archival screen-print                        embossed, signed + numbered for $35

meanwhile, if you’re going to dream, dream big!

hank's-mom-in-mirror hank-+-his-son dream-big dream-big-2












owen at the crossroads; back to the future…












2.  painting %22future%22

















4.  with jeff wilson + clara bensen (styling)

















3.  with jeff wilson + clara bensen

















with jeff wilson + clara bensen

Artist Nils Westergard painted a mural in the fall of 2013 of a young man (Calvin Smith), from the community of Inscription House.  Last spring there was a day when the wind gusted up to 70 miles/hour resulting in several panels of the mural being blown off.  With great effort a friend and I repaired the painting.  (Thanks Stella!)  The same thing happened this spring; however, before being blown off a second time the piece was tagged by the Route 16 Lost Boyz.

I wanted to interact with Nils’ original piece and found a one of my favorite photos of Calvin Smith’s nephew, Owen + attempted to create a dynamic between them where they’re considering their futures.  Thanks to Jeff Wilson, Clara Bensen, Daniel Fararra + Nils Aucante for an amazing day!


glicée prints from my film library

minnie chasing sheep through navajo creek tom_web

minnie chasing her sheep and goats through navajo creek         may 1995


grandmas in a sun storm-tom_web

grandmas in a sun storm – navajo mountain                 august 1995


alice barlow w granddaugter 2 tom_webalice barlow with her granddaughter                               february 2000

Archival digital prints from film negatives on archival paper measuring 15 x 18 available for $150.  All prints on the website are available for printing in any size.  Yay!

mary williams in gray mountain; chloe + jetta in bitter springs





lee + effie begay stopped by to say hello in gray mountain.  they were headed to flagstaff but recognized the photo of mary williams, lee’s auntie, and they turned about to check out the piece.   thanks for the love you two!



chloe-in-bitter-springs-(day-of-installation)chloe with her pet lamb, jetta,in bitter springs.

Interview with Kyle G. Boggs, host of “Collaborative Communities and Contested Spaces: A Mini-Conference on Teaching, Resistance, and Alliance” to be held at the Museum of Northern Arizona 12, 2015



labrona x jetsonorma in cow springs, august 2014 

Kyle: What pedagogical strategies have you employed that allow students and/or community members to a) recognize the influences that shape the way they see, value, and experience natural landscapes? b) how has that particular understanding resulted in the marginalization or outright dismissal of those peoples who approach those landscapes with a different—sometimes competing—view? How do we see the complexity in natural spaces? What is the role of art in translating this complexity? What does privilege and oppression look like in contested spaces? How can art be used to transform our idea of were oppression takes place, and what it’s impact is on people and landscapes?

me:  Thanks for giving me the opportunity to evaluate and discuss my process.  I find the introduction to your question revealing in that it reflects your position as an academician.  You ask “What pedagogical strategies have you employed that allow students and/or community members to…”  This language is troubling to me in that in assuming I practice a “pedagogical strategy,” it creates a false power dynamic with me in the role of teacher and the community as student.  Yet in my 28 years as a primary care physician and more recently as a public artist on the Diné nation my role is both teacher and student.  Certainly as a public artist interacting with the community while erecting work often in areas where I’m not known as a physician, away from my power base, I am primarily a student.

  1. What I read into the framework of your question is what strategy do I use to engage the community through my art practice?   For me your first question becomes “What strategy do I use to engage the community through my art practice to recognize the influences that shape the way community members see, value, and experience natural landscapes?  Or in what way does the art I create shape the way community members see, value and experience natural landscapes?”

The scale of my work and its presentation as large black and white images of people from the community challenges people to perceive their surroundings differently.  The work appears on manmade structures but is presented in such a way that it reflects the vastness of the Colorado Plateau in its scale.  The reservation doesn’t have a tradition of public art or muralism.  While people are accustomed to seeing photographs their primary association with photography is color images on a monitor, in magazine or on billboards.  The scale of my images and it’s presentation on manmade structures along the roadside influence the way people see, value and experience natural landscapes.  The art is also an opportunity for me to challenge the community to see not only the natural environment (landscape) differently but their social environment differently as well in that a lot of the imagery I chose celebrates the culture.

While one might object to the presentation of unsolicited murals as intrusive; the work is on par with the intrusiveness of advertising but it’s intention is to foster a sense of pride and enhanced self esteem.   Most people have come to accept advertising even in unadulterated, natural landscapes even if they don’t agree with what’s being promoted.  Simple, large, black and white depictions of people who inhabit these spaces invite viewers to engage those people and to create dialog both within the community and between outsiders and community members.  This is in contrast to the purpose of advertising images found concurrently in those landscapes.

  1. How has that particular understanding resulted in the marginalization or outright dismissal of those peoples who approach those landscapes with a different—sometimes competing—view?

Those people with contrasting, competing interpretations of the landscape and the art that appears in the landscape are not without means to challenge my work in that it’s sometimes defaced.  For this reason public art and more specifically street art is considered the most democratic of art forms in the way this dialog between practitioners and the community evolves.

As a case study, let’s look at art that is currently being generated in public spaces on the reservation and in Flagstaff to honor the sanctity of sacred spaces, specifically the Confluence of the Little Colorado River and the Colorado River.  This is a site where a developer based in Scottsdale is proposing to build a resort that’ll impact the ecology of the area as well as the way various tribes that hold this site sacred will relate to one another.  As a consequence the tribe is divided over the issue as the Bodaway Gap/Cedar Ridge communities on the reservation have an unemployment rate around 60% or higher.  There are few employment opportunities around this area.  A reductionist view of the question being asked by Traditionalists who oppose the development is whether its worth sacrificing the culture for short sighted economic development of one of the 7 wonders of the world.  Art that has been generated around this issue speaks to the uniqueness and sacredness of the Confluence and the Grand Canyon without consideration of the competing view for economic exploitation.  There are times when art shouldn’t be objective and has to take sides.  Perhaps it’s considered propaganda but artists have to decide where they stand on an issue, understand their intention and feel good about their role in supporting the good fight.

  1. How do we see the complexity in natural spaces?   What is the role of art in translating this complexity?
  1. What does privilege and oppression look like in contested spaces? How can art be used to transform our idea of where oppression takes place, and what it’s impact is on people and landscapes?

My art project is an example of how privilege looks in contested spaces.  I think frequently about how my day job as a physician supports my passion for creating public art yet the public art is used in a way to support my work as a physician.  By this I mean my work in the clinic is to promote wellness while my work in the field as a public artist promotes emotional and psychosocial wellness.  But no doubt the medium I chose for public art is heavily dependent on a consistent funding source to create it (otherwise identified as my salary).

I’d suggest billboards represent a form of oppression in contested spaces.  For example, in 1989 the Pepsi corporation erected a billboard along Highway 89 near Moenkopi Wash outside Tuba City directed at motorists traveling from Flagstaff and Phoenix to Page and points further north.  The billboard depicted cold, refreshing cans of soft drinks to relieve the motorists thirst traversing the hot, barren but beautiful Painted Desert.  However, the ad neglected to recognize that the corn syrup laden drinks depicted appear in a region of the country with one of the highest rates of adult onset diabetes.  Art was used to transform our idea of where oppression takes place.


It used to read “Welcome to Pepsi Country.”

Thanks again for this opportunity to share my process + philosophy.

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