Janyce Denise Glasper is an artist, writer, and independent scholar. She is the creator of Afro Vegan Chick and Fem Film Rogues. She is currently working on an important and ambitious project called Black Women Make Art (BWMA), a database of Black women artists worldwide, past and present. BWMA launches in January 2020.
What inspired or motivated you to pursue a career in the arts?
I have loved drawing from the moment my mom introduced the four color pack of nontoxic crayons. My siblings and I were rebellious together— drawing on the white apartment walls, the blank pages of mom’s Danielle Steel novels…
I also believe watching cartoons and looking at picture books fascinated my imagination (especially animal parties). Throughout my childhood, whenever people asked me, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
I always replied, “an artist, writer, and illustrator.”
You have a BFA (2013) and MFA (2016). When you were studying, did any of the curriculum cover Black women artists?
Throughout elementary, middle, and high school, I only learned about the white male artists—Picasso, Van Gogh, Escher, Chagall (my third grade favorite). However, my first Black art teacher, Mr. Mason introduced me to the Harlem Renaissance in the seventh grade, introduced Augusta Savage. My high school art teacher, Mrs. Rogers told me all about Faith Ringgold.
Thus, I entered my undergrad studies at the Art Academy of Cincinnati with weak art history knowledge. There, I learned about Kara Walker, Carrie Mae Weems, and Lorna Simpson, but no other Black women (and I had taken five art history courses including French and American Painting).
Years later, I applied to Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts for grad school, having fallen in love with the work of former students Njideka Akunyili Crosby and Diane Edison. Those two women figurative painters (exploring self-portraiture like me) were the starting point to an incredible journey moving from small Dayton, Ohio to large Philadelphia— a city of 1.5 million people. The environment alone encourages a creative mind to explore all it can. I was visiting New York City and Washington D.C. often— finding “new” Black women artists like Wangechi Mutu and Amy Sherald. In addition to these influential travels, PAFA’s Visiting Artist Program as well as my visiting studio critics (Titus Kaphur, Abigail Deville, and Jennifer Packer) opened my eyes to others out here working— past and present.
When did you start working on Black Women Make Art?
Earlier this year, while planning to teach a Black Women’s Art History course and figuring out where does that timeline begin, I was conjuring up recipes/stories for a future book on inspirations from Black women painters like art historian Mary Ann Caws’ “The Modern Art Cookbook.” I had been reading Lisa Farrington’s “Creating Their Own Image: The History of African- American Women Artists” and began thinking about Black women all over the place, in pockets of the world, not mentioned in any books, but making art and having an audience celebrating them there.
However, back in May, the Art Writers Grant Program came up. I was originally applying to fund the Black Women Artists Cookbook, but couldn’t-- it’s required to have published a book already. Thus, I chose the blog option and essentially “pitched” Black Women Make Art (BWMA).
Last month, I began working on BWMA, wanting to have the foundational framework accomplished-- win or lose it still had to happen. I had acquired so much information, so much data. The desire to share it was extreme, like a bubble ready to pop.
Ava Duvernay said, “If your dream is only about you, it is too small.”
I knew deep down inside that my independent research of Black women visual artists would benefit others.
Can you tell me about your research methods for the database?
My research began with listing all the Black women that I already knew— about fifty women off hand. Then adding others from books in my collection, sifting through Studio Museum Harlem’s catalogues/Artist-In-Residence program, and finding more from the limited library collection. Google helped immensely, just specifically searching the USA, Caribbean, UK, Canada, France, Nigeria, Senegal, Tanzania, etc. The bulk of the women discovered, however, was through Instagram. I follow wonderful art appreciators/curators who are aware of many that I didn’t— @HeikeRass, @prizmartfair, @theladiig, and @africanartstories.
I originally planned to have 366 women, a highlight for each day of next year-- a Leap Year-- but amazingly enough, there are almost 400 women-- a happy surprise.
After I gathered names, I then looked for news articles, high resolution images, and began penning biographies and art synopses. My writing about these women’s works is in a style that is almost entirely prose. It is less analytical theory and more creative thought. I want it so that everyone can look at the compiled images and understand the worlds these women inhabit.
Once finished the women will be separated by individual artistic practices of drawing, painting, printmaking, sculpture, photography, mixed media, performance.
What is your typical day like? How do you balance your various projects?
I wake up early in the morning and draw or write for a while. Afterwards, I take the free Flyer bus downtown and utilize the Sinclair Community College Library to read novels, write more biographies for Black Women Make Art, and work on pending grant/fellowship applications. If there is time left in the day, I blog on femfilmrogues about a film/TV/web series recently seen or a new recipe or product review on AfroVeganChick.
I believe having an inner hierarchy helps. It’s easy to procrastinate, especially in this distracting social media age. On occasion, I have writing assignments and often put those ahead of anything else. Then, I make art, write short stories, and read books. It’s a healthy diet for me— having portion control, keeping my creative life active while also valuing the importance of my many projects. In the end, they’re all extensions of each other, little branches that come from the same tree.
This is probably going to be a hard question, but who's your favourite Black woman artist?
Yes. That is a pretty tough one. I love a lot of these women artists including some “new” discoveries for very different reasons. Yet, it was Augusta Savage that made me realize that the art world is not who’s going to be the next Picasso or Van Gogh or any other white man in the problematic art history canon. She was a prominent Harlem Renaissance sculptor, activist, and writer— also a Pisces like my paternal grandmother.
I’ve browsed through Augusta’s private papers at Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and have the great urge to edit and publish her short stories someday. The world has got to know that about her!
One of the best experiences of my life was finally seeing her classically rendered sculptures of Black busts at the New York Historical Society back in May. (Read Janyce’s review of the show here). It was fate in motion seeing her famous “Gamin” three times this year, at three different institutions— the Columbus Museum of Art, the Newark Museum, and the New York Historical Society. I loved seeing “Gamin” through the context of the Harlem Renaissance and as an important part of Augusta’s retrospective. She was such a phenomenal talent.
Do you intend for this to be a living document?
However, it would certainly be an honor to create a coffee table book in the future. There are close to four hundred Black women visual artists in the database. To conjoin young, middle, older, and ancestral Black women visual artists in one collective entity, to have a large book to open and share— that is a dream.
The launch is still a few months away but what has the feedback been like so far?
The feedback has been incredible! I made the announcement on my art Instagram and created the Twitter account. People are very excited about it. I have had several offer aide and guidance— which has been kind and unexpected. Their joy definitely fuels me to finish in the best way possible.
Beyond providing an educational tool what are you hoping that people will get out of using the database?
Black Women Make Art is a reactionary form of activism against the canon that continues to keep Black women visual artists out of the vault. This resourceful tool lets the world know that talented, multifaceted Black women artists are present, have always been present, and should be kept in art conversation.
Little Black girls who love art, who love to draw, paint, sculpt, take pictures, and all that, have got to see that there is an amazing alternative than becoming the next “Picasso.” They can follow in the footsteps of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Beulah Woodward, Belkis Ayón, Tony Gum, or anyone else in the endless line of Black women visual artists all over the globe. Their valid contributions to that mark the spirit of creativity cannot be denied any longer.
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Story by Glodeane Brown