After Decades of Formulaic Work, the Pan-media Artist Finds Freedom in Uncertainty, Within the Security of Family
Interviewed by Qiana Mestrich / Photographed by George Pitts
Walking in trendy Fort Greene, Brooklyn I spot the massively intimidating Vanderbilt Studio: the David Adjaye structure that famed architect Lorna Simpson shares with her husband and fellow artist James (known to the family as Jim) Casebere. In serendipitous timing, as I approach the building Lorna drives up to the sidewalk aside daughter Zora, whom she has just picked up from school.
Inside the studio, the mission is clear: space functions as a quiet, creative refuge from the mundane world outside. The family dog, a white, blue-eyed Husky mix named Tara is lying on the floor seemingly on guard. Yet all presumptions about the personal lives of “high-brow” artists are dismantled by the loving kindness of Lorna’s interactions with her daughter and both of their concerns for Tara’s incessant scratching despite a recent flea bath.
From one mother to another, I’m eager to hear Lorna Simpson’s experience on raising a child while creating art. “Being a mother teaches you so much about patience and being very aware of how you say things. It really makes me very present on a day-to-day, in terms of guiding [Zora] and the way I say things to her.” Having a teenage daughter has given Lorna several years to become this conscious about good parenting. Although she attributes her ability to balance motherhood and art-making to the fact that she had her child at the age of 38, when her career was as mature as her sense of self.
When Zora was just three months old, Lorna brought the whole family to Japan for an artist’s residency – a move most new mothers probably wouldn’t fathom making. It’s refreshing to hear a woman artist unabashedly admit that she “needed that intellectual stimulation” in the midst of a caring for her baby. Like her own daughter, Lorna Simpson is also an only child – born to a social worker father with Caribbean roots (Cuba and Jamaica) and an American mother who worked as a hospital secretary.
Simpson’s parents groomed the artist-to-be, exposing Brooklyn-born Lorna to all of the arts the New York had to offer. Although they later didn’t approve of Lorna’s career choice, perhaps their disapproval is partly what fueled her tenacity: a trait often more suitable to describe someone on the executive track rather than an artist. With a career spanning nearly three decades, its no wonder Lorna Simpson’s CV is eighteen pages long.
As a young artist Simpson describes herself as “driven and directed, getting in touch with curators, talking to people applying for things. I was highly motivated.” An internship at age 18 within the Studio Museum in Harlem’s education department ignited Lorna’s desire to become an artist. Armed with a formal art education and political inspiration, Simpson burst on to the art scene in the mid-1980’s at a time when artists of color were becoming in vogue after years of being overlooked by the art market. This newfound inclusion of artists of color is evident in the remarks of writer Huey Copeland in a 1990 Art Journal article where he exclaims, “This year outsiders are in.”
Making her mark, Simpson became the first African-American woman to have a one-person show in the “Projects” series at the Museum of Modern Art (1990) and to represent the USA at the Venice Biennale (1993).
Shunning the documentary style that had previously been used (and abused) to visualize the Black American experience, Simpson mastered the conceptual. Inspired by film but unable to afford to make movies, her early work fused photography and text, playing with alliteration and double entendres (see Kid Glove, 1989). As is often expected from an African-American artist, Simpson’s critics have assumed that she’ll always deals with “Black woman issues”. Oftentimes these racial interpretations in her work overshadow equally powerful expressions like the shifting roles of gender and sexuality.
By the late 1990’s, Simpson’s foray into film came out of a desire to work collaboratively, citing that the practice of photography is more of a solo act
and less evolving. In the spirit of collaboration, we see artist Wangechi Mutu play both a 19th century housemaid and a wealthy 1960’s housewife in 2003’s diptych film Corridor. In 2001’s Easy to Remember, singers hum a John Coltrane ballad in which Simpson’s intention was to “create a piece where it’s kind of making music with one’s body and exploring what that does in terms of frequency, beyond just seeing.”
Scanning Lorna Simpson’s work over the decades, there’s a natural progression that you don’t always see with artists. It’s as if she’s applied that same patience seemingly first gathered from motherhood, to her own artistic discipline. Inspiration for newer work recently on view at The Brooklyn Museum revolved around a set of black and white images Lorna bought on eBay featuring an anonymous Black woman. Looking at them she insisted, “Something has to happen with this. This isn’t something that I should just frame and put on the wall as a found object.”
After four months, Lorna observed the pictures to be “so serial in terms of her repetition of poses,” and their presentation “almost like a contact sheet in the sequencing of images, got me thinking about the performance of it.” In mimicking this Black Jane Doe’s beauty poses and role-playing for the camera, her anonymity was broken, revealing to Lorna parts of her identity, like the fact that she was double-jointed and able to contort her body. In the final ghostly collaboration, the viewer is forced to do a double-take of the grid as we see Lorna herself recreating each 1957 image, blurring the lines of time, identity and personal history.
Now that we can add performance to Lorna Simpson’s list of mediums, I think of the future and ask how she sees her art living in the digital age. “Well I have a website,” she quips. The Internet may not be a space that Lorna is wiling to creatively experiment with, but she’s certainly a fan of new media. “It’s fascinating what the technology has afforded.”
Smiling as she reveals a recent family memory, Lorna recalls driving with Zora talking to her Dad (Jim, who’s currently working on a show in London) via Skype video conference and simultaneously filming the streets of Brooklyn Heights with her iPhone. Jim found Zora’s footage of the street scenes to be so beautiful asking what street they were on while Lorna soaks up the sweetness of this family connection being facilitated over digital time and space. “In some ways those kind of moments are wonderful and ephemeral – that’s what I like the most about [the technology]. Not so much that it captures something that you can repeat endlessly somewhere in cyberspace but those moments that are ephemeral like an experience, kind of in the moment of conversation.”
Clearly we won’t find Lorna socializing on Facebook or Twitter, so where does an established artist get that raw, unfiltered criticism necessary for growth? For Simpson it’s not always from her husband, Jim. She candidly describes being married to another artist as a “fucking nightmare” due to scheduling conflicts and the sheer boredom that can come from “talking shop.” Although she admits Jim “does give me really interesting insight” and as in any healthy union, they’ve compromised so that “both try to just give [criticism] in little bursts so that it still remains interesting.”
Outside of her immediate family Lorna Simpson is able to have “frank and open conversations with” fellow artists Glen Ligon and Kara Walker, along with prominent figures of the art world like Thelma Golden, Director and Chief Curator at The Studio Museum in Harlem, and art historian Okwui Enwezor.
As I proceed to leave the protective fortress that is the Vanderbilt Studio, Lorna circles back to motherhood, trying to reassure me. “As they get older they do eventually come to see you as an artist.” Although she says Zora really sees Jim as “the artist” while Lorna is still “Mom” despite that, ahem, “big ass art show” she just had.