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Praise Fuller on Faith Ringgold's "Tar Beach"

The Houston-born experimental photographer opens up about her favorite children's book and why the sun is her greatest collaborator.

In Celebration of Black Contemporary Artists returns with a conversation between Duneska Michel and Praise Fuller, a Houston-born visual artist specializing in cyanotypes, alternative photographic printing process. Below, Praise discusses Tar Beach by Faith Ringgold and why the sun is her greatest collaborator.

Duneska Michel: Hi everyone! I am Duneska Michel and I am the Community and School Relations Specialist here at Children’s Museum of the Arts. And I am extremely excited to bring on Praise Fuller, a Texas-born, Brooklyn-based visual artist who specializes in cyanotype. Let’s get started with the next iteration of In Celebration of Contemporary Black Artists. Hello, Praise!

Praise Fuller: Hi!

DM: How are you doing?

PF: Wonderful. I got the sun hitting me and I feel in my element!

DM: Yeah, you look great. I’m so excited that your work is right behind us — we’re getting a little peek. So gorgeous. So, we can start with the children’s book that you selected, which I am extremely happy that you chose.

PF: The book that I chose is Faith Ringgold‘s Tar Beach. I know she has a number of children’s books, but I always hold this book close to my heart. I say if I was an art teacher, I would find some way to work it into the curriculum. In my practice, I’m drawn to textiles. Being from the south, I also feel like a love of quilts is an important part of the culture. When the exhibition was up at the New Museum, it existed in quilt form, and I spent a long time staring at it.

DM: Yeah.

PF: I feel like the book itself is just really good. Just food for imagination, while also kind of speaking to the time that it was in, and also just being timeless itself. It has beautiful illustrations and vivid imagery like mixed media, paint, and textiles. I feel like children would not only enjoy the story, but also want to explore the different visual elements of the book. I have a quote from the book that I love. It’s a short quote and it says: “I can fly. That means I am free to go wherever I want for the rest of my life.” I think that’s a sweet message for kids to hear. A better way of saying “the world is your oyster” — that limitations should be questioned, conquered, and challenged. And I think that Faith herself just really represents that and her work, because she’s done literally everything.

DM: Absolutely. A tidbit that I found out about her, because I was actually working at the New Museum during the time of prepping for her retrospective, was that she wanted to be a writer for a long time. And she kept finding that people weren’t giving her that opportunity. And I think that it’s so beautiful that what she ended up doing was incorporating her writing into the quilts. Now we’re at the point where we’re referencing this amazing children’s book that she wrote, and it’s just so thoughtful and kind. I feel like it has this very comforting nature to it, so I’m so grateful that you chose it.

PF: I’ve watched the video of her reading it like a hundred times.

DM: Yes, that’s so true too. She feels so familiar, as a person, when you watch interviews with her.

PF: Yeah, I love her so much.

DM: Has her work influenced your practice? I know that you’re both into textiles, but I’m curious if you can elaborate further.

PF: I feel like I wanted to explore storytelling a lot more when the show was up. I went three times and each time I was there for hours. One way that I related to Faith was that she started out writing, and I’m sure we’ll talk about this later, but my first endeavor into creativity was writing. Even before I make a cyanotype, I usually write a poem, and that helps me form visuals. And so I’ve been wanting to do a lot more writing, as well as visuals, and see how to marry the two. Faith does a great job at that. Like the room that just had all of the quilts and all of the stories, and—

DM: Yeah. I remember when I first saw it in person, I was just like—

PF: I cried.

DM: So you’re thinking about incorporating text now.

PF: Yeah, and then also bigger scale. I’ve already started doing that a bit more. I made some, I think they’re around six foot tall cyanotypes recently. I’ve been working on those these past couple of months. But I want to do that again but see how I can incorporate text into them.

DM: Absolutely. When was the first time that you read Tar Beach or any book by Faith? Do you remember?

PF: Tar Beach, I read it, I want to say a couple of years ago, which is sad because I wish I discovered it when I was younger. I discovered Faith probably late high school, early college. And discovering that she wrote children’s books was just the sweetest thing ever. I love when people are able to incorporate things to keep children in mind. I feel like a really important part of being a kid, and being creative, is finding artists that you enjoy and want to learn from.

DM: Thinking about that, I’m so curious about your first experiences with art or with creativity when you were younger. Do you remember?

PF: Yeah. When I was a kid, I was a sleepy kid. I would always fall asleep in church. And so my mom would give me a notebook, and then I would just doodle in there, or write poems in there, or just do whatever I could. It’s not really a specific memory that I have, but I just remember being in church, writing. Also, I remember late elementary, I discovered that my dad wrote poetry, and my dad was always a very stoic person. He was also a professional boxer, so very masculine and not really showcasing his emotions. Finding his poetry meant a lot to me. It was one of the only ways I could really connect with him. He also wrote all of his poems in perfect calligraphy. I would try to write poems that I had written myself, in calligraphy, without studying how to write calligraphy, but just seeing how he wrote the letters, trying to emulate that. Then I wanted to discover how to dive into visual art a little bit more. But I always kept writing poetry or writing fiction as a base for that.

DM: What was that transition like when you went into visual art?

PF: It was interesting because I don’t draw, so I’m creating all of these vivid images in my head, but how can I translate that with cyanotypes? I mean, when I was younger, I was just doodling. I didn’t really care what things look like. But when I was really wanting to get serious about it, when I found cyanotypes, I was trying to find a way to do that. I had a show last summer where I wrote fables or tales with animals as the characters, and then tried to translate that through the work, and it was pretty seamless. I think the only thing I really struggled with was composition. I wasn’t really worried if people understood it or not. I think things are meant to be open to interpretation, and I liked the idea that this was born out of a little blurb that I wrote for myself.

DM: Totally. Especially because writing was your foundation. So it’s like, let me start with what I fully and wholeheartedly know and understand and love and then see how that translates in this medium that I’m exploring. Which also makes me curious — how did you get into cyanotype?

PF: I didn’t go to art school or anything, but my major in college was digital media, and I was never married to one medium. Even growing up, being creative, I tried painting for a little bit, I tried photography for a little bit. And then I feel like you have a conversation with yourself when you go to college, and your parents are like, what do you want to do with your life? I’m like, I want to be an artist. So my parents are like, okay you wanna be a graphic designer? And so I was like …

DM: Capitalism. Like what?

PF: Yeah, exactly. So I was like, okay. I learned Photoshop and all of the Adobe programs, but I was just like, I’m in front of a screen way too much. I hate this.

DM: Yeah.

PF: I was doing film photography as a hobby, and the whole dark room aspect was just so much to do at home, but I discovered cyanotypes because it’s just two chemicals. They come in these little bottles, you mix up the chemicals and then you can reproduce images hundreds of times. That’s how it was invented in, I think the 19th century. It was just a cheap reproduction of photographs. I was like, boom. Wow. I can’t believe I found it in the same vein of how it was invented. And so with that, I was just printing portraits that I took of friends, very quickly got bored with that, and was like, okay, how can I get weird with it?

DM: Ah, wow. And this was in college age, so relatively recent.

PF: Yeah, pretty new, which is always so crazy to think about. I grew up in a very academic household as an only child, so my parents were very much like, get your education. You want to do this stuff on the side? That’s cool. Even now, I tell my mom a few things like, oh this museum wants to do this. And she’s like, that’s amazing. How’s work going? And I’m just like, I just feel like being creative is not only important for professional development, if that’s something you want to pursue, but I think it’s important just to experience.

DM: Absolutely. I think a lot of that has to do with accessibility. Which is the point of this series, just speaking to artists about their practices, their lives, and how they navigate the work that they do and produce. So many families, so many parents, also have a misconception of what being an artist means. Again, they’re thinking about it through the lens of capitalism and what is productivity. As a child you think, okay I must be a graphic designer if I want to be creative. But there are so many different routes that you can take, so many different options. Have you ever thought about how your work is accessible to children or how to make your work accessible to children or families? Is that part of your practice at all?

PF: I feel like that is something that I’ve been wanting to work towards a lot more. I actually got asked to do a workshop for a family day sometime next year. I’ve been wanting to do more opportunities like that, and find organizations that would be willing to host cyanotype workshops.

DM: Absolutely.

PF: Like I said earlier, it’s important for kids to find their favorite artists. Maybe doing a workshop where they bring in work from, I don’t know, an artist that they love and create a cyanotype inspired by their ideas. It doesn’t really require that many materials, and you can use the sun.

DM: Yeah.

PF: I feel like there’s so many ways to reproduce things and have children be able to work with the materials.

DM: That’s also so incredibly poetic. Like the sun as a medium.

PF: I always say it’s my best collaborator.

DM: I love that, as a moment of reflection. That’s beautiful. There’s one question that I feel like is so important — What advice would you give a young artist?

PF: I love this question. I have a couple of things. I would say experiment with everything and also don’t throw anything away. I’m an advocate for hoarding in that sense, because I think that keeping an archive of your development as a person is reflected in all of the art that you create. Being able to see how you progress and learn is really important, even for the future that you’re working towards. I always keep all of my trials and errors and try to learn from them. Anything that you create has meaning because it’s a part of your process. Secondly, I would say write down any questions that you have about anything at all and see how you can explore it creatively. Also, try and find these answers with others that you’re inspired by, and educate yourself on the life and work of these people that you’re inspired by. Be a teacher to yourself and to others. Make art with friends and share things. I think that collaboration is probably one of the most beautiful things that you can do with the community. I’m always looking to try and do more collaborative things because I feel like I learn best that way. When other people’s ideas are being incorporated into the mix. And then lastly, read. Find a topic you enjoy and read on it. That’s something I definitely did not do enough when I was a kid.

DM: Wow, such incredible advice. Truly. Thank you for taking the time to talk to us and thank you for showing in so many different capacities that art doesn’t have to be insular, it can be communal and collaborative and fun. I appreciate you tremendously.

PF: I’m so blessed that I got to be here today.

DM: See you soon!

PF: Bye!

"Keeping an archive of your development as a person is reflected in all of the art that you create."