Q&A: Artist Radcliffe Bailey on Process, Creation and Acceptance
Issue   |   Tue, 04/03/2018 - 21:14
Photo courtesy of Olivia Gieger '21
In “Seven Steps East,”now at the Mead, Radcliffe Bailey draws inspiration from his family and heritage, as well as Miles Davis’ song, “Seven Steps.“

Radcliffe Bailey is an American artist based in Atlanta, who is especially known for his mixed-media, painting and sculpture work that centers around African-American history. One of his pieces, “Seven Steps East,” is currently on display at the Mead Museum as a part of the “HOUSE” exhibition. Bailey visited campus recently, and The Student had a chance to interview him.

Q: When did you first realize you wanted to become an artist? What was the first piece that you created that made you realize you were meant to be an artist?
A: Well, I was guided by my mother to go to art school. My first passion was to play baseball; I wanted to play baseball and all of my attention was guided toward baseball. But my mother created a school outside of school for me when I was in school — she used to take me to museums.

So, when it came to going to college, I wasn’t going to walk on and play baseball, so I went back to my mother, and we went to visit some art schools, and I decided to go to the Atlanta College of Art, which was close to mom at the time too. And it was a museum school; it was connected to the High Museum of Art, which I had spent a lot of time in as a kid, so it felt comfortable.

That’s when I decided to go to art school. But I wasn’t thinking about being an artist. I didn’t know what that really looked like. So, when I realized, “Okay I’m making art right now,” was probably my junior year of college. Everyone went away for the spring break, and I locked myself in the studio.

The studio didn’t have any windows and I realized I was working for over 24 hours, but I started to hit a note, and I started to feel good about the stuff I was making. That work itself pushed me in a certain direction. I started using objects from my family and things like that, and the work that’s actually here [in the Mead] is done two or three years after that with the same thoughts, somewhere in between painting and sculpture.

Q: Speaking of the multi-media aspect of your work, did you start out just doing one discipline or were you always working with multiple forms of media?
A: I got a lot of people inside of me, and each one of them I allow to speak in different ways. I don’t really try to make [one more present] one way, or one [prevail] the other way. I just allow them to be, and I have the freedom to go back in time and forward in time. So that’s me.

Q: Could you speak about the piece we currently have display in the Mead, “Seven Steps East?”
A: I was collecting objects and fences and things from houses — houses that were abandoned or being torn down. I’d go to empty lots and collect wood, and there was something about rebuilding a house.

I took the title from the fact that I was listening to Miles Davis, this piece called “Seven Steps,” so “Seven Steps East.” I started playing with numbers seven, three and four, dealing with numerology in a strange way.

The objects in the piece are also based around my interest in African art. At the time, I started looking at a lot of stuff from the Congo and African-American practices in the South, such as bottle trees. You’ll see an anvil, dealing with blacksmiths but also dealing with certain deities from Nigeria. So, it was really like a mixture of all of these different things that I think about, that I’m interested in, and I’m trying to draw a connection to my own personal DNA.

In certain areas, you’ll see almost like a brand, and that brand was taken from a store that was in my neighborhood, and I was representing the blacksmiths that came from the Carolinas and New Orleans, by using that brand.

The photographs in the piece are images of twins that were in a family album that my grandma gave me. A lot of times you get these old photographs, and I wanted to give them life rather than them being in a book in a corner. So, they have life now. I also painted with wax and tar and wallpaper, using all kinds of materials from house building.

Q: What is your process in creating a piece of art? Do you always look for something to center your pieces around or do you usually have the idea first and then look for a specific object?
A: My process is very loose; it’s very free. I collect things, and I read a lot. I have to be around objects for a while. I almost have to put a certain patina on it so it can have a life, a new life, because I’m using objects that have a past. I still pinch myself and say, “Woah, am I doing this?” or “This is what I do … Oh man, how lucky am I?”

It’s also stressful because I’ve got to get myself in the headspace all the time. I try to go to a place where it’s soulful, it kind of has a lot of pleasures and pains all mixed up together. It’s like the blues, there’s a screaming, and there’s a kicking, and there’s a certain kind of emotion that I deal with to make work, so it’s hard.

Q: Do you have a piece of work that’s your favorite or you think is most important?
A: They’re all kind of important, in a way, but I like to compare it to pages in a book; I like the most recent thing I’ve written.

When I think about that piece that’s here [at the Mead], it’s real important because it was the first show I had in a gallery that I got a major review for. John [Wieland, the owner of the pieces on display in the “HOUSE” exhibition] was the first major collector to purchase one of my works, so for me that was a major moment in my life because I had to learn to let go of my work in a certain way, even though it was so personal to me. I had to let me go and have its own life. And I’m able to see it today, which is kind of eerie and strange.

Q: Any advice for someone who wants to become an artist?
A: A friend of mine who was a curator told me, “Always consider yourself to be an emerging artist, always emerging — never ever date yourself.”

So I try do this; sometimes I get a little nervous when I go, and I see older works of mine, ’cause I see it and I’m like “I want it do this to it, I want to change it, and I can’t do that.”

I was always insecure about what I was saying. I was insecure about every mark. I was unsure — I just put it out there. My first belief is that I never make a mistake when it comes to making marks, so I’ve learned to live with that.

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