Artist Jordan Weber joins us in the ArtLab studio to discuss race, identity, design of the built environment and art-making in historically white spaces. Employing slick black obsidian stone and chrome rims, Weber’s sculpture entitled Perennial Philosophies was recently installed outside the ArtLab. For the artist, it evokes a dark “sea we must wade,'' a line from poet Amanda Gorman’s inaugural poem “The Hill We Must Climb”. A section of Gorman’s poem is included in this sculpture as a memorial to the social upheaval of the summer of 2021. We sat down with Jordan to discuss the halfway point of his year-long Loeb/ArtLab Fellowship at Harvard where he is using utilitarian materials to produce sculptures, and social spaces that speak to ways in which racially oppressed people are physically restricted. We are also joined in the studio by John Peterson, Curator of the Loeb Fellowship at the Graduate School of Design; Director of the ArtLab, Bree Edwards and co-host Harvard College sophomore, Kristian Hardy.
Link to Jordan’s residency page on the ArtLab website: https://artlab.harvard.edu/jordan-weber-0
Link to Perennial Philosophies: https://artlab.harvard.edu/event/new-sculpture-jordan-weber
Other projects by Jordan: http://jordanjweber.com/
Link to John’s Biography: https://www.gsd.harvard.edu/person/john-peterson/
Link to the Loeb Fellowship website: https://loebfellowship.gsd.harvard.edu/
Link to Kristian Hardy’s biography: https://artlab.harvard.edu/people/kristian-hardy
Works in Progress is recorded and produced in the Mead Production Lab, located on the traditional territory of the Massachusetts people, the original inhabitants of what is now known as Boston and Cambridge. The show is hosted by Bree Edwards and Kristian Hardy, engineered by Kat Nakaji, edited by Jemma Byrne, and produced by the ArtLab at Harvard University with help from Thinkubator Media. Theme music by Kicktracks and Gvidon.
For more information about the show, the ArtLab, and the artists featured, visit artlab.harvard.edu. You can also follow us on Facebook and Instagram by searching ArtLab at Harvard.
[INTRO MUSIC PLAYING]
Bree Edwards [BE]: Welcome and thank you for joining me for Works in Progress, a podcast about artistic research, inspiration, and collaboration. My name is Bree Edwards. And I'm the Co-host and the Director of the ArtLab. In this podcast, we will speak with contemporary, visual, and performing artists who are grappling with pressing issues and transforming ideas into action and art. The ArtLab is helping to create the conditions for the arts to flourish at Harvard. And Works in Progress brings those artists and their ideas to you.
In this episode, Artist Jordan Weber will join us in the studio at the ArtLab. Jordan is halfway through his year-long Loeb ArtLab Fellowship. Using utilitarian materials, Jordan Weber produces sculptural, social objects and spaces that speak to ways in which racially oppressed people are restricted physically, geographically, and socially. Jordan is based in Des Moines, Iowa. And much of his work has centered on the Midwestern states of the US. Jordan brings a remarkable artistic vision and commitment to exploring place, race, and power.
We're also joined by John Peterson, an architect, educator, activist, and the curator of the Loeb Fellowship at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard. This fellowship has created opportunity as a way to support interdisciplinary research and experimentation, and to improve social outcomes.
John holds degrees in fine art and architecture from the Rhode Island School of Design and was a Loeb fellow himself in 2006. After our chat, we'll be joined by Harvard sophomore, Kristian Hardy, who will speak with Jordan Weber about race, identity, and making art in historically white spaces.
BE: Jordan, you've been at Harvard for about three months now as part of the Loeb ArtLab Fellowship. How's it going? What are the classes you're taking?
Jordan Weber [JW]: It's going pretty well. Classes, you know, sign up for five, six and kind of edit down. I guess is how it seems like it's been going. And I'm taking three right now. So, one at the Divinity School. One right behind us at the science and engineering building and actually two at GSD. A couple of ecology by design courses they are pretty great. I'm learning a lot.
BE: What's the class of the Divinity School?
JW: That is Trauma and Resilience by Dr. Cheryl Giles. It's focused on leadership in trauma-informed practice. So different modalities of healing, how to be a leader in that world, in that context, as well as absorbing other people's trauma without retraumatizing yourself, which is really important for me personally.
BE: Are you the only artist in this class?
JW: I am. Yeah, I am. It's mostly chaplains, doctors, a couple of Buddhist practitioners, one’s from Mongolia. It's a really great class. And there's only 10, 11 individuals in the class. So it's really intense, really tight room. A lot of ego being let go and all the things that go along with that. So it's a really appealing class if you're trying to get outside of like your practice and into the mode of healing a bit more.
BE: That sounds really different than the classes you're taking at the College of Science and Engineering.
JW: Completely different. Yeah, I mean the courses I'm taking at science and engineering are way over my head. (laughing) I shouldn't be sitting in the room at all. It's a lot of nanotechnology and medical devices. And I think it's a micro-macro course, and the kids are a genius in that, in that seminar. I mean, it's ridiculous how smart these students are here. You kind of realize your intelligence level when you're in a room with a bunch of 18, 19, 20-year-olds. And you're like, I'm not where I should be right now.
BE: Well, and it's also about the muscles that you stretch--
JW: Yeah, true.
BE: I imagine that this is one of the purposes of the Loeb Fellowship, to expose the fellows to being in classrooms maybe that they haven't been in a while, that they've been busy working in their practices, in their studios. And now suddenly they have an opportunity to be in a classroom.
John Peterson [JP]: Yeah. And also to be in a completely different environment, to have colleagues from all over the world, have colleagues from really different backgrounds, different practices together working towards something that's like a shared agenda. But yeah, classes are a big part, but it's only a part. I mean, obviously the institution, the place, the idea of people coming together not because they're family, not because their neighbors, not because of these other affiliations that were so friendly or familiar with, but because of this strange and unique thing called the Loeb Fellowship.
BE: So John, one of the things that you often call me back to is that the name fellowship, that it's the Loeb Fellowship. And that that's a really important part of the experience.
JP: Yeah, I think it's really maybe the most important part of it. It's different for every fellow. But the ability to build relationships in fellowship with people that are outside of your normal network in a deep way… turns out to be one of the most powerful aspects of the experience, and useful and productive aspects of the experience.
BE: I've been such a fan of the Loeb Fellowship and familiar with some of the artists that have come through the fellowship. It's really wonderful to pilot this collaborative residency this year with Jordan's residency. I wanted to talk a little bit about Public Architecture, the nonprofit that you founded in 2002, and public interest design. First, what is public interest design? But also, what relationship does it have to socially engage contemporary art?
JP: In one sense, public interest design isn’t a very… it's an awkward idea, an awkward term. Certainly, the design of the built environment-- and that's what we're talking about. We're not generally talking about when you say to public interest design, you're generally not talking about product design or graphic design. You're talking about the design of the built environment. It has such a strong social consequence that to argue that some aspect is more social and some is less is a little challenging.
I think, when you think about public interest design, what you're really doing is challenging the idea or encouraging the idea of a social agenda when it comes to the design of the built environment. That means there's an enormous environmental consequence to the design of the built environment. 40% of the Earth's resources go to the construction trades. Does a building, or a landscape, or a city plaza have an environmental impact? Of course it does. It's whether you act as agents of that consequence.
So this idea of public interest design is, does the designer have an agenda to be agents of positive social outcomes? So where does that overlay with an art practice that might have a similar agenda? And obviously, Jordan is here because that social agenda is so clear in his work. And he's harnessing both the muscle and capacity of art making with the built environment... and our cultural understanding to lead us to questions and maybe future outcomes that have a clear positive social outcome.
BE: Interesting. And one of the ways that I understand perhaps a simplified version of public interest design is to deploy designers working for good. Sometimes that involves facilitating matches between designers and a community group. Sometimes it's pro bono work. And Jordan, your work is often made in and with community. In some ways, you are also deployed or partnered with a community group. I wanted to dive into your process a bit and talk about some of the things that you've learned about working in community perhaps from growing up, but also on the ground in a number of your projects. What are some of the lessons that you learned, some tools that you bring into it, perhaps even ethics of working with community?
JW: Yeah, it's a really lengthy process. And you know, looking back over the past 15 years, the time and the energy that is spent kind of building the genuine and the right relationships to build projects in communities that you're from or may have a connection to, or not from, takes way more time than I had ever anticipated.
So looking back 15 years, had I known, I think, that it was going to be such a labor-intensive process in terms of energy and time, I don't think I would have quite gone down the same path in terms of building these structures and these projects from the ground up. I think I would have angled a bit differently. And I… I should have learned that from projects like Rick Lowe Project Row Houses.
I say that to counter with it's the most rewarding aspect of my work as well. The five to eight-year projects and the relationships built up with learning with community members, and really that inclusivity that comes with these projects. And figuring out what the community actually wants me to help with is the project for me, is the most rewarding part as well.
There's pros and cons in that arena of working. But kind of bouncing off of what John was saying with this responsibility to the environment and the social aspects of our practices, I don't think there's any other way to do it, right? I think that if you're in the mindset of helicoptering into a situation or into a community to build these things for individuals and for communities, it's not as fruitful as this long-term engagement.
And I've had to learn that over the years the proper ways of going about doing that and how not to helicopter in, and to be invited in, and to also bridge build in order to have a successful project. And I'm still learning, right? I'm still pretty young in the practice. It's a good solid 10 or 11 years of being right in the pocket of the practice of community engagement. And there's things that I'll probably be able to tell you in five years from now that I am tripping up on now.
BE: And I would imagine that some of the experiences you've had working in the community motivates you to take a class like the one you described with the Divinity School on trauma and working through that.
JW: A lot of my work in general is trying to be at the front lines of the process and the uprising -the movement right now as compared to the late '60s and early '70s. And that takes a tremendous toll on you mentally. And you don't really realize how much of a toll it's taken until you're sitting in a class about trauma and resilience at Harvard. And you're coming into terms of six, seven, eight years of doing that, being on the front lines or trying to be on the frontlines as much as you can and building these projects as well, it's a bit intense.
BE: Do you think art operates differently than activism, either in terms of outcome or engagement, the emotional reaction?..
JW: I feel like if unsuccessful in what I'm doing, it doesn't operate any differently. Because my art seeks to be utilitarian, 110%. So I don't see the separation between the two. And I find.. they're not worth my energy and my time if it isn't. At this point in my life, I feel like there's no time to waste socially and environmentally. So, if there's something that I'm doing and it doesn't have that impact and that those two are syncing in a way, I have a tendency not to do it.
BE: And you have said that you want to expose elements within the work that are relatable to your community, to your people, to create openings within the work that people can relate to. Can you say a little bit more about this, what the materials are, or what those openings are? What do you mean by that?
JW: This is really a subjective opinion about how I feel my work relates to my own people. But that comes out of experience being biracial in the heart of the Midwest. And in my community, it's not predominantly white. It's very diverse, but being biracial in the '80s and '90s wasn't that common in Iowa, in Des Moines, Iowa. And the way I was able to relate to the side that I identify most with, which is the African-American side, is to do things that the African-American side would do that would accept me.
And this is both natural and some sort of survival mechanism, (laughing) especially the middle school I went to. And basketball was one of those mechanisms for acceptance. And I became one of the best basketball players in the region. And I feel like that helped with the acceptance of being biracial and trying to be more Black than white, or identifying as Black more so than white not because it was 100% what I wanted to, it's because that's the environment that I was in. And I didn't feel like society saw me as white anyway. And I knew that from a really early age.
So the materials that I use are from my history and my background as being accepted as a Black individual in my community. So a lot of chrome, we all know about the chrome rim movement in the '90s, a lot of references to basketball, a lot of references to hip hop culture. And pairing that with elements of the Earth now with black obsidian, which I've been using quite a bit. And to pair those in a way that would be interesting enough for individuals, young Black individuals, to want to approach the work.
BE: So that's a great way to sort of segue into the sculpture of the public artwork that's right outside the ArtLab, right outside where we're speaking today. And in the summer of 2021, the Harvard Committee on the Arts commissioned seven artists to create new artwork for the campus in response to the public health crisis of COVID-19, racial injustice in the US, and the Black Lives Matter movement.
And you were commissioned to create a sculpture for the ArtLab. For your sculpture, which you've entitled Perennial Philosophies, you selected a section from the poem, “The Hill We Climb”, written by the Harvard graduate Amanda Gorman, which was part of her 2021 inauguration poem for Joe Biden as US president.
When we were talking about the selection of this poem, this section of the poem, you said, the loss we carry, a sea we must wade is spot on. Like spot on in like exclamation points. It was perfect! And I just wanted to ask what did you connect with about that line, or why was it spot on and perfect for this particular commission, which did employ obsidian, which did employ chrome rims, but was coming into the Harvard campus?
JW: John can speak to this a little bit too because John was there helping us arrange the obsidian. And the whole time we knew you were going to do some sort of Chinese or Japanese rock garden, right? And my background with Zazen, Mahāyāna Buddhism, comes into play in this. But as John would tell you more accurately than I would about the stones… each stone is an island in the water being represented around the stones is something that I had in my mind when we were talking about the poem, “a sea we must wade.”
And it's literally what's happening in the movement right now. It's one police killing after another. And the toxic stress and the trauma and the constant worrying if it's going to happen to you, or in your community, or to one of your loved ones. It really does feel, although you're with your community, that there is a sea of a surge of attacks on the Black body from all sides any point in time. That's why that line was spot on, “a sea we must wade.” It's the continued struggle of the past 400 years that doesn't seem to be going away anytime soon.
JP: I want to point out that if hopefully you're listening and just the kinds of things that Jordan is saying, like chrome, basketball, hip hop, Buddhism, gun violence, racial justice, the Earth, the things from the Earth, the Earth's healing, how can you not want to see that artwork?
I mean, it seems like… wow, that's such an interesting collection of real things in the world right now. And somebody like Jordan who can put that together... that doesn't lead to an answer but leads to questions that maybe… in a kind of harmony about collision or a kind of energy around the collision of these things. Wow, maybe there is a way forward that doesn't feel so mired in the muddy boots that we feel like we're all walking around in right now.
BE: And one of the challenges of the podcast is that we describe the visual, but it's really hard to see it. And I mean that we do have show notes so we can put photos of the sculpture in the show notes, so people that are far away can see what it looks like. But the other beautiful part of it is that it's a public artwork. So that if you are local, if you're in Boston or Cambridge, you actually can go over and experience it any time.
And we've already experienced that. Freshmen undergraduate students at Harvard felt really comfortable engaging with it. That they could understand the references. That they felt like it was an artwork that wasn't alien from their experience. And I think that that's a really radical gesture.
And I think what you're also describing is creating the opportunity for Jordan to be at Harvard for his whole entire self. So I want to ask you the question, how art spaces, university spaces can be more inclusive and supportive of Black, brown, Indigenous artists, researchers, scholars?
JW: I think we really have to think about ways to make the spaces look more inclusive as well. And that's obviously why I'm doing what I'm doing. But when you walk into these structures in these buildings, for example-- and I'm only using the science and engineering building because I'm staring right at it. But when you go inside of these spaces, they're extremely sterile still. And I would imagine that that's not just the Black, brown, and Indigenous individuals. I would assume that that's other students coming in from all different backgrounds.
And I really feel that we need to find ways when you walk into these buildings and into these spaces and these institutions to make it feel universal. And how you do that for everybody? I don't know. But I can always speak on how I feel like it can work for Black and brown individuals and not even Indigenous individuals. And that would be another two hours of a podcast that I don't think we have time for.
BE: That's the extended version.
JW: That's the extended version. Yeah --
BE: The after show.
JW: So I guess am I saying I don't know? It feels like it's such a big undertaking to make these spaces feel more inclusive. But you see Harvard attempting that. I see at the Kennedy School on Saturdays on Memorial Drive a gathering of Black and brown folks. And I don't know what they're doing because I haven't been invited to these spaces yet. But I know that I want to get out of the car and walk up to it. There's bread breaking happening. And the amount of Black students at Harvard and seeing other Black students and brown students in and of itself, I think, is a welcoming tactic that universities are deploying right now.
JP: To build off of Jordan's comments, this comment of maybe I don't know, it seems like a really good place to begin, or I'm unsure. These institutions have been built by the power mechanisms, structures, and people who control the shaping of the institution. And so those institutions I think by in large, without too many exceptions mirror the individuals, the culture where the power resides.
And I think until we can fully or even nearly fully appreciate that, except that, see that, how can we make these institutions appropriate, welcoming, inviting to cultures, to people with different backgrounds? How can we ever achieve that if we're only creating these institutions to serve a much more narrow community of people? And that's what we've done. And that's just a reality. That we shouldn't cry in our milk too much about it because there's so much work to be done.
I think the reality of it is we don't know so much of how that's done well. And I think if we just take the built environment architecture, landscape architecture-- a statement resonates with me from a previous Loeb fellow by the name of Emmanuel Pratt who does work in South Side, extraordinary work in South Side, Chicago. And he was describing a new park that was going up in sort of the adjacent neighborhood, if I understand correctly.
And the specifics aren't important. But just a few blocks away, the income went up significantly. The demographics were different than the neighborhood he was in. And as he's approaching this new park, he can see from afar that whatever that park is it's not designed and built for him.
And so, I don't even understand exactly how to parse that up, but I understand how powerful it is. And I also feel that I understand how true it is. So how do we begin as somebody crosses the street begin-- how do we communicate this is for you?
And until we accept the fact that we've been designing for ourselves-- and that's a narrow idea of human beings. And we need to design for a much broader community and have to figure out how we actually do that. We're not going to get there. But if we take that on, it's an exciting challenge. If we take that on, we may begin to really see some changes in the way institutions look, both physically, formally, but also their policies and the working administrative aspects of these institutions.
JW: And by the way, Emmanuel Pratt, as you just nonchalantly dropped his name, that project, the South Side of Chicago, is one of the keystones or a guiding light in the Midwest for a lot of practitioners, myself included.
BE: Hearing you talk about the relationship between design and art, and empowerment and social justice, sometimes almost even sounds like the artist is sort of a translator or a mediator. Do you feel that way sometimes?
JW: 120%. Especially if you were spending 2 and 1/2 years in one neighborhood, you are mediating a lot. And there is a lot of miscommunication between. And you don't understand the depth of cultural dislocation in cities until you're on the ground for a long time and you are working between an institution and a community. You see all the pitfalls of the institution. And you see all the ways the community has been ran through and bamboozled by these institutions for a number of years to fill their own agenda.
It's not until you spend that time on one or two projects that you know that you are the bridge builder, or you're trying to be that or the mediator-- the majority of the time. And it's rewarding like I was saying before. But it comes with a lot of stress and pressure to make the right moves for both the institution, who is again funding you and you're representing in a lot of ways, but then the community that you're representing and from and of as well. It's a really difficult position to be in.
JP: And I just want to add, if we just look at Jordan's work, we see the translation, we see the mediation. But I think there's another aspect that's really important as an artist. He's also pushing. He's also asking the question people are maybe about to ask or should ask. And so he's going beyond just the simple translation. And I think there's artistry in the translation. But I think the real power is in moving beyond the translation and asking of someone to stretch themselves to be uncomfortable maybe.
And maybe Jordan leads them to an area that doesn't resolve itself, isn't an answer. But it's a question that needs to be asked or should be asked. And that's where I think it gets really exciting in his work and the work of others. But that's the difference between, I think, a good community voice and an artist.
BE: That's a great point, John… yeah. And one of the guidelines I've been using to help to create the ArtLab is to really try to listen and follow the lead of the artists. It's challenging in similar ways because artists do push institutions. And I think that the ArtLab should be guided by what artists are saying. And often that's not about outcome. It's about being in a place of exploration.
I've really appreciated being your colleague as we've launched this pilot collaboration that is unique together, and just having another curator to speak with about creating the right conditions for artists, for creative people, for collaboration, for fellowship. It's really been very valuable to me to have a colleague willing to share.
And also to Jordan, to having an artist who will push back, who will help guide the way this institution is built in some ways, because we're still very much at the beginning. It's such an honor to work with both of you, and to have you both work with each other.
JP: Well, the honor is mine for sure.
JW: Yeah, it's been great. And the next push I'm going to infuse hopefully into both of you is another year at ArtLab and the Loeb Fellowship.
BE: I guess that's a sign it's going well --
JW: Yeah, right. It's a beautiful thing.
BE: Thank you so much.
JW: Thank you.
BE: We'll take a short break. And then Kristian will be speaking with Jordan Weber.
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Kistian Hardy (KH): Hello --
JW: Hi, how are you doing?
KH: I'm well. How are you?
JW: I'm good.
KH: My name is Kristian, and I'm a sophomore at the college studying Theater, Dance, & Media and African-American studies. And I'm a undergraduate research fellow at the ArtLab. And as a result of that, I've been working a lot on this podcast and I've done a lot of research on you, Jordan Weber. And I'm so excited to have you here with us today. So thank you so much for coming --
JW: You're welcome.
KH: Something I found really fascinating was your focus on environmental racism, and how environmental racism and institutional racism are like can't be separated and are like one on the same. And I was wondering if you could expand a little bit on where that passion or that like motivation to focus on environmental racism came from, and why you think it's so important that we do have work that talks about it and shows it, and things like that.
JW: Yeah, I mean to start with the last part of the question, it's the thing that is killing us the most rapidly in our communities. We have heart disease, asthma, pulmonary disease. And a lot of these things can be accounted for by just looking at the industry. And the lack of healthy food and the apartheid of… land apartheid in terms of healthy soil and our communities in the Midwest.
So that all kind of stemmed from me being from Iowa, and Iowa having less than 1%, I think it's 0.1% of prairie and wetland left. So it's the most altered landmass in the entire US. So I always tell people it's the totality of white supremacy. Nebraska, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa, if you look at land and you look at the annihilation of Indigenous folks in these communities in this area. And just being exposed to the monocropping.
Des Moines is a capital city just like any other. But if you go 10 minutes in any direction outside of the city, it's corn or soybean. And that got me thinking from a very early age why in the hell is Iowa all corn and soybean, and what is driving those systems of power. And why don't we have wetland and the woods and the forests that other places do?
So yeah, that's all the back story of just being exposed to the little bit of woods that I was allowed to go into a relative of mine owned as a kid. So all those things kind of blend themselves together at one point in your life and you just start doing the simple research. If you're of the mind enough to be curious, it's easy to find these things out.
KH: Pivoting to the work you just created in the ArtLab, Perennial Philosophies. It's this really cool sculpture with like different-- well, you can explain it actually.
JW: I'd have to give you some flowers here too, because you are the one who wrote to Amanda Gorman to allow us to get the actual quote and use the actual quote on the sculpture. But the idea is to create more spaces for Black and brown individuals to feel like is their own or is their own. And that's kind of the overall idea of that project is to have a little bit of respite or decompression areas that I feel like need to be expanded upon throughout the campus obviously.
So we have more zones of decompression and respite. And that's really all that is. It's in the shape of a Zen garden or a Japanese Zen rock garden. And it represents literally a perennial philosophy in many ways between five pillars of hip hop, five pillars of Islam, five stones to slay Goliath-- I'm trying to remember all these right off the top of my head.
KH: These are good. I didn't even know all this.
JW: Yeah. And five books in the Torah. And the main reason for that is the five initially is the starting five of a basketball team. So I played collegiate basketball. So all these things kind of fold into themselves for me or into each other, I should say, that are really empowering to me personally.
KH: Yeah, we just had a wonderful student performance. And that was the venue for this space. And I think that I definitely could see all of the inspiration and all these things that you're sharing now behind the work kind of come to life through that performance, which is a really nice thing to experience because your work is pretty intergenerational, I would say. I think it touches a lot of different communities from different age groups. And it often responds to moments from history, like you talked about the protest and just… America's history in general. While also like finding ways to be functional and serving what current communities need. And I was wondering, how does this intergenerational focus or impact, I guess impact or-- Lord, how does this intergenerational focus then like influence your art? And how do you view your art to be received by different generations?
JW: That's really simple. Because like I said before, (laughing) I'm right in between being a young human being and an old human being. But specifically, Aaron Williams, he runs the Ville in North St. Louis. We did a site visit to Sumner High School, which is where Tina Turner went to high school. And he asked that question specifically to make me aware of it. And other individuals always do as well, but this is just one story in a way that made me think that I wasn't engaging with an older community enough.
And the reason he brought that up is because of the percentage of churches around Sumner High School in North St. Louis. I cannot remember the number, but there's a lot of them, dozens and dozens of them. And he said, if you really want community support, you need to reach out to the churches and the older generation that have been living and have been oppressed in this area for far longer than we have.
And that point is really brought up in every community that I go to. I feel like that if I don't approach the older community in a way that's inclusive, they reach out to me, right? So there is a matriarch, nine times out of 10, that's going to break my practice and me as an individual wide open if I'm not making the right moves, which is the best thing that can happen in each project.
And then along with it being for younger folks, like I'm still relatively young. And I know what we all relate to in the works. And I know that certain things I've looked at and experienced enough artwork where I just know what is going to be impactful and what's not going to be, at least in my own head I know. And I think that's where some of the success of the visuals of the project come in.
Now I should say, on the other hand, not all the projects are successful. Like, I've done quite a few projects and they're not sustainable in terms of community outreach and impact, or funding dwindles away, or COVID happens and the institutions that I'm working with or the non-profits I'm working with are struggling on their own and they can't sustain some of the projects. So even now, things aren't as successful as they really should be. But it's because we're in a really tough time right now too, I think.
KH: I definitely understand. I think everyone has been extremely impacted by the state of the world. And so that certainly would leave its mark on the arts and art industry as well. And going back to incorporating like the past and history and such, how do you balance honoring the past, and I guess in the case of community, like honoring these elders and the people who have been there for so many years while also effectively responding to the current moment, like what's happening in the now?
JW: I think that responding to the past is really easing the work because we are living through a cyclical moment of oppression that we’ve seen our parents and our grandparents have seen. So I think it's a really easy to respond what they've gone through because we're going through a lot of the similar things, especially when you see the blatancy of the murders of George Floyd, for example, and Tamir Rice, and Philando Castile, and Mike Brown.
I know that they're not just relating to what we're going through because they're living through it. And you know in their mind that they've known decade after decade that not a lot has changed, right? So I don't think it's hard to relate in the work to their movement. Because yeah, it's one and the same. In a lot of ways, it's the same fight. It just has a tendency to bubble to the top of media and social media to make everybody else aware of it. But we know that we still have the same footing in society that we always have, which is pretty slippery.
KH: I definitely relate to that. At that point, did you have an idea of what legacy you thought you wanted to leave, or you were just like, yeah, OK, I feel that.
JW: At that point in time, especially in my 20s, I was just trying to survive and not work construction anymore because I worked for my uncle's company. It was like the most grueling labor and grueling 12, 15-hour days that you can possibly imagine. So it was more of like, all right, I didn't make it to the NBA. Like, if I don't make it in art, I'm going to be in a lot of trouble… both physically and mentally.
And I was struggling mentally at that time. So I knew that I was always going to push hard enough to make it as an artist. And that happened pretty quickly where I was able to within five years quit working construction, and to do art full time when I was, I think, 25.
KH: Wow, that is a perfect segue into a final question that I have for you. I think it's almost like you've lived like multiple lives throughout your lifespan, which I always find really fascinating. Because I think, especially in spaces of academia, students are told that like-- or maybe not necessarily pulled, but it's inferred that you should have this one path. And you study this thing and you go and do the thing. And that's kind of how life works.
And I was wondering as someone who has pursued many different things in various disciplines, what advice would you have for students that are wondering how they can kind of make it work, or how these different passions that they may-might have, how they can make them intersect? And as another caveat, how have you felt that being someone who has expanded so many disciplines, like how does that inform your practice and your process?
JW: This is much less geared towards a student at Harvard because you guys have the whole entire world ahead of you with the pedigree. And just having Harvard on a sheet of paper is a huge deal. But if you say drop out, or if you are struggling after Harvard and you have a job that you don't feel is to par with what your dreams were, my advice is and always is to have some sort of job that will not take you completely mentally away from the creative process in your mind.
So if you have to work a 10-hour job doing something mindless at an office, can it have a low enough mental impact where you can create things in your mind and leave you enough energy at night to pursue the thing? And for the love of everything in your life, push as hard as you can, even though people are going to tell you staying at that job is the right thing to do. You have your retirement and all the things that go along with that with 401(k) and all that.
Even though people, especially your parents, are telling you to continue on that path, you have to have this parallel dream that you're really pushing hard for. That you know that at a certain point when it's smart, you can deviate onto that dream path and pursue that or hopefully they can intertwine.
I don't know if that's always the best thing if they intertwine. But always just have the courage and the confidence to know that what you are pursuing is exactly what you want to do because we have such limited time as human beings. And hopefully that dream is impactful for other people. It's not this self-fulfilling thing.
KH: I think those are very, very wise words. And to wrap it up, how have you found that having experience like different disciplines and having a non-linear path has informed your career?
JW: The thing about it is like you can do the things on your own, and you don't have to outsource. Because if you're outsourcing as a young individual, if you're outsourcing a carpenter, labor, then you're probably not going to be able to afford to make the actual object or the project. If you have the skill set to do it, you can do it all on your own because you're young, you have energy, you have time, and you can push into that.
KH: Exactly. Well, thank you so much for chatting with me. I appreciate all of the wisdom and stuff that you shared in your experiences. And I'm excited to see what else you continue to do--
JW: Thank you.
KH: --in your life.
JW: And I'm excited to be invited to one of your plays at some point because now I know that you're at the Loeb theater since I randomly saw you outside of it.
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BE: Thank you for listening to Works in Progress a production of the ArtLab at Harvard University located on the traditional territory of the Massachusetts people, the original inhabitants of what is now known as Boston and Cambridge. This podcast is recorded and produced in the Mead Production Lab. For more information about the show, the ArtLab, and the artist featured, visit artlab.harvard.edu You can also follow us on Facebook and Instagram by searching ArtLab at Harvard. I hope you'll join us for the next episode.
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