Editing as Collage

I miss those quiet summer days that made for a great time to experiment in writing.

A new approach to editing–cut and paste style! Pillow, pen, scissors, tape and paper.

I had a professor remark that my writing was “collagistic” in a way that mirrored the topic that I was exploring: Romare Bearden’s collages and photomontages. Wish I could say that this approach was always deliberate. Bearden was deliberate (See From Process to Print: Graphic Works By Romare Bearden). However, I’m learning to embrace this writing style which wanders between creative inventiveness and distracted chaos. I obsessively cut and paste my Word documents on the computer screen. I splice from within the document and from previously written notes, and I paste those iterations together with new thoughts and inquiries. This past summer I tried something new. I built a physical collage of an article-in-process on Bearden. One of my arguments has to do with the physicality of collage methods–cutting, pasting, arranging, and rearranging–in order to come up with a visually distinctive and multi-layered work. Bearden said this about his process of building collages:

I build my faces, for example, from parts of African masks, animal eyes, marbles, [and] mossy vegetation. . . I then have my small original works enlarged so the mosaic like jointings will not be so apparent, after which I finish the larger painting. I have found when some detail, such as a hand or eye, is taken out of its original context and is fractured and integrated into a different space and form configuration it acquires a plastic quality it did not have in the photograph.[1]

I wrestled for two weeks to finalize the article. I implemented a much more measured collage-like form at the process stage than ever before. I literally kneeled on the floor of my office, then in the serene space of the Newhouse Center for the Humanities at Wellesley College in the final weeks of my Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship in Art and Africana Studies. I accomplished a lot just in seeing my article before me. Visually tracking one argument to the next was useful. I actually went into a hypnotic zone of organizing–no music, no chair, no human interaction–except when I was home. My six-year-old walked in to see all of my papers on the floor (ah, work-life balance). She asked, “Mommy, what are you doing?” I wasn’t always sure, but I wanted something magical to happen with my writing, or, at the very least, something coherent.

I haven’t submitted my article yet. It’s still not ready. I need to cut-and-paste my way towards something inspiring in my new digs in the Jewett Art Center. Pass me the scissors!


[1] Romare Bearden as quoted in Michael Gibson, International Herald Tribune. Letter from Bearden dated June 15, 1975 [copy], Bearden Papers, AAA; Schwartzman, p. 216, 310, n21.

The Grind: Mama PhD? Yes, I can!

This is a long overdue follow-up to a previous commentary on “Going To Ethiopia (Or Can Parents Really Have It All?).” I managed to spend three weeks in Ethiopia in January teaching African Art and taking in the sights, sounds, and smiles of Addis Ababa. Some of my readers followed my journey via this website and Facebook on my experiences I titled “Notes from Addis.” It was a successful trip, and I am sure that I will return. Being a Mama PhD abroad is only possible through the immeasurable support of my husband who holds down the fort for me during my absences.

My family at the Davis Museum of Art, Wellesley College. Fall 2012.
My family at the Davis Museum of Art, Wellesley College. Fall 2012. Photo by Judith Black.

What many of my readers did not know was that I was also on the job market. The academic job market is no joke. For those outside of higher education, the fact that the entire process from initial application to phone interview to campus interview to rejection/offer can take up to six months. So, in the midst of my world travel, I had the added pleasure/stress of pursuing tenure-track positions across the country. This process required even more days away from home almost as soon as I returned from Africa. In the midst of it all–teaching, parenting, interviewing–I did land a job. If you’ve already taken a look at my title, you know that I managed to land a place on the impressive (and therefore humbling) faculty in the Department of Art at Wellesley College as an Assistant Professor of Art, the Arts of Africa and the African Diaspora, specifically. Phew!

What I think many find particularly significant is that I did this with two small children. Due to my previous posts on this website, my little ones were no secret to my potential employers, including Wellesley College. One of my friends commented on how surprised she was that I didn’t just talk about my kids, but that I joyfully marched them around campus in full view of my colleagues (my kids kind of think the campus is an extended playground)! Actually, what she said was, “If it were me, I would have kicked them in the bushes.” Ok, that sounds cruel, but I understood her concern. Kids take up an immense amount of time, critical time to write, research, attend meetings, teach, write some more, especially when you’re trying to land tenure. What can I say? I’m a proud Mama PhD! I learned a long time ago when I decided to have my first child while I was writing my dissertation that academia was going to have to accept me with all of my grown-up responsibilities of raising a family during my childbearing years. On the flip side, I have had to rise to the challenge of accepting the demands of academia with my family in tow.

While many men do take on a lot of the responsibility for child-rearing, women tend to take on the bulk of the work of raising children, especially in academia due to our flexible schedules. Even when it comes to parental leave for the birth of a child, men tend to use the time to advance their research while most women use that time to, you know, take care of her newborn (See “On Parental Leave, Men Have It Easier,” Chronicle of Higher Education, January 7, 2005). For any woman struggling to advance a career in academia with a family, it is no secret that the balancing act takes the support of one’s immediate family, extended family, neighbors, friends, near and far to manage. As I juggle the summer schedule, self-imposed deadlines for articles and fall class prep are my motivation in the midst of camp and daycare drop-offs and pickups. Early mornings, late nights, and weekend work-days are the only way to accomplish my goals. Again, the supportive husband pictured above has made this compromise feasible.

My daughter spent a week taking classes at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. I dropped her off and picked her up most days. An exhausting and fulfilling opportunity.
My daughter spent a week taking classes at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. I dropped her off and picked her up most days. An exhausting and fulfilling opportunity.

I lean on my local “village” of neighbors (’cause it takes one to raise a child, right?) who are willing to take care of my kids in a pinch. Other times, I may just whine to my mom on the phone 200 miles away. The knowledge that I have peers and mentors who are also enduring (or who have already survived) similar situations comforts me in the midst of the struggle.

Two recent events this spring highlight a network of women who remind me that I am strong enough and human enough to do what I need/want to do as a Mama PhD. First, one my GFF’s (Grad Friend Forever), Tanya Pohrt, the Marcia Brady Tucker Fellow in American Paintings and Sculpture at the Yale University Art Gallery, defended her dissertation at the University of Delaware. She was the final member of our cohort of five who completed the doctoral program in the Department of Art History. I, along with two other GFF’s, surprised her when she emerged from the room. We each have two kids each. We each have jobs in either academia or museums. We each know the challenges faced to accomplish this tremendous accomplishment. We thought it important to mark the occasion together as fellow Mama PhDs!

The second event was Wellesley College’s 2013 Commencement. My colleagues at Wellesley are extraordinary. Again, I am humbled to join the ranks of the faculty here. I was grateful to take a photo with my fellow female scholars of African descent. Certainly scholars of color face additional stressors due to race and institutional racism in order to not only complete the PhD, but also to thrive in academia. [I’ll save my comments on race perhaps for another post. In the meantime, see the recent publication, Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia.]

Drs. Brenna Greer, Layli Maparyan, Filomina Steady, Tracey Cameron, Angela Carpenter and Nikki Greene. May 2013. Copyright Nikki A. Greene.
Drs. Brenna Greer, Layli Maparyan, Filomina Steady, Tracey Cameron, Angela Carpenter and Nikki Greene at Wellesley College. May 2013. Copyright Nikki A. Greene.

This picture will continue to remind me that there are women who struggle and achieve by my side (single, married, with and without children). I thank all of these women–friends, colleagues, neighbors–who make being a Mama PhD not only possible, but a thrill.

The Grind: Going to Ethiopia (or Can Parents Have it All?)

Ferryboat

I’m leaving on January 1 for Ethiopia to teach at the Alle School of Fine Arts & Design at Addis Ababa University. Exciting? Yes. Nervous? Oh, yes! Why, it’s a fabulous opportunity to meet students and faculty in a gorgeous country. I get to not only teach art history, but also, I suspect, learn so much about the art, culture, and cuisine of the region. I will be there alongside my Wellesley College colleagues, filmmaker and native Ethiopian, Salem Mekuria, and artist David Olsen. I tagged along with Salem to Cuba for nine days, and I managed to have one of the most significant art and cultural experiences of my life (see “Belonging in Cuba“). Dave has been there for two weeks already. He assures me that I will enjoy myself, the people, the art–everything. Bonus: I get two Christmases. Ethiopian Christmas (Ganna) is January 7.

Then, why am I so nervous? I have a family. I’m on the grind

We’ve all heard the African proverb, “it takes a village to raise a child.” I know this more acutely than ever. When both of my children were born, I lived in South Jersey in a cozy suburb with dream-come-true neighbors with children our kids’ ages. I had a separate group of mom-friends whose friendships sustained me with non-stop playdates for our kids and grown-folk nights out when we all needed a break. Since moving to Wellesley College, just off-campus, we’ve established a new village. Faculty and staff members with children, with whom we go on walks, splash around in the kiddie pool, go trick-or-treating, and, most recently, decorate holiday cookies. That’s the village I’m depending on while I’m away.

Christmas cookie decorating with "the village" (December 2012)
Christmas cookie decorating with “the village” (December 2012)

But, let’s be honest. My husband is doing the heavy lifting. He’ll have get them ready and out the door in the morning. He’ll have to juggle picking them up at the end of the day, feeding and bathing before bed, and doing it all over again for not one, not two, but nearly three weeks! So, when I’ve announced to people that I am going to Ethiopia, most people then ask, “and you’re leaving the kids?!” Especially the moms. Some look at me with delight. Others, I can tell, look at me curiously, saying the same thing, “and you’re leaving the kids?!” I’m pretty sure those people, especially moms, are really thinking, “what kind of mother does that with two young children at home?” Or, perhaps what I may be taking for judgement of me is fascination/admiration for my husband. Honestly, neither of us truly knew what this wild ride of a career in academia would bring when we got married after my first year in grad school. I only finished up my degree in January 2010, and we’re both adjusting to my having a “real” career in a new destination (Wellesley College). In the last year alone, I’ve had to leave the kids behind to travel to Washington, DC, Philadelphia, the UK, New York, and Cuba (did I mention I was away for nine days?). That’s in the last year! Great opportunities for me, but a fine dance in communication and compromise for both of us. He’s held down the fort in a way that few fathers could manage for a day or two. I’m grateful. I’m lucky. (Well, really, I chose well).

I want to work. I want a family. I’m a better academic for the lessons learned from having children: patience, time-management, a life beyond the classroom and research. I’m a better parent for having a career: patience, time-management, a life beyond my children. I don’t want to relinquish the accomplishments I’ve made thus far in becoming “Professor Greene” nor do I want my children to feel like they are simply afterthoughts to Mommy’s lectures, articles, and world travel. Frankly, it would be much easier if we had family nearby to help us along the way. Though I’ve had an arsenal of very competent, fun, brilliant Wellesley College students to babysit, last-minute meetings, guest speakers on campus or article deadlines don’t always fit their schedules. There’s nothing like having a grandparent or auntie nearby to help out here and there (for free). Thus, my husband and I are figuring things out on our own for the most part. We negotiate schedules that include early morning and late-night work hours for me, and disruptive kid pick-up times for him. Believe me, it’s taken some creative circus-like juggling to make this trip to Ethiopia happen.

If you haven’t had a chance to read Ann-Marie Slaughter’s article in The Atlantic “Why Women Can’t Have it All” from earlier this year and if you’re a working mom, read it today. She talks frankly about what so many working mothers worry about in the 21st century. More importantly, she warns young people (not just women need to concern themselves with this) about what it will mean to have both a career and a family. Being a working parent is tough. It’s exhausting. It’s beyond frustrating at times. There are occasions when you just have to say enough is enough. Slaughter’s son needed her home. She gave up her career in the State Department in order to return to a more manageable life in academia at Princeton (wow). I have friends who have given up jobs to stay home (including dads) or taken part-time positions in order to better balance family and career. I also have friends who have been able to pursue their careers with full gusto, taking high-powered positions or starting their own businesses that require long hours and commutes. Often, for the latter group, they can afford the extra daycare or have family around to help out. We don’t necessarily have those two privileges. But, I’m still in the early stages of my career. I want (and need) to take advantage of incredible opportunities like this one I’m embarking on.  I’ve been reassured by my mom-friends that everything will go well while I’m away. Intellectually, I know that. I have a competent, loving husband and father. Emotionally, the fact is this will be my longest time away from my kids (gasp). This will be the longest time I’ve been away from my husband  (clutching pearls). I’ve had a hard time sleeping for the last three weeks thinking about my time apart from them. The Newtown shootings made me feel even more desperate to stay close to my kids than ever. But, on January 1st, I leave for Ethiopia.

I had humble beginnings in Newark, New Jersey, but I later went on to boarding school in Connecticut, a year abroad in Barcelona at age 16, and onto a career in the arts (see “I was a poor black kid…”). I want my children to know that the sky really is the limit on what they can become professionally and what it will take to get there. I want them to truly see the world for themselves and not just understand it virtually through books, television, or the Internet. I’m attempting to lead by example. Three weeks in the big scheme of things is not that long (if you’re not my husband). I won’t be able to continue to make big trips for too much longer without them. I hope to have the wisdom to know when it’s no longer feasible. Actually, one of my goals is that as the children get older, we’ll be able to take extended trips together as a family. I agree with Slaughter, women cannot have it all. But, like Slaughter, at this stage in the game, I’ve gotta try!

I expressed to a high school friend, somehow who knows me well, in other words, about my anxieties about leaving the kids. I told her how I was doing this because I wanted to set an example for them about exploring the world, but that I was terrified. Her wonderful response? “Your kids are going to love you for this!” Another good girlfriend, a mom who is also on the grind, remarked, “You will love you for this.” I hope they’re both right.

Here’s how it went:

January 3: “Notes from Addis: Arrival”

January 4: “Notes from Addis: Art in the Making”

January 6: “Notes from Addis: Netsa Art Village”

January 18: “Notes from Addis: Departure”

January 16, 2014: “Notes from Addis: A Look Back”

“A Generous Medium”: Worth More Than a Thousand Words

Photo: Nikki A. Greene

A Generous Medium: Photography at Wellesley 1972-2012 at the Davis Museum at Wellesley College will enthrall photography enthusiasts, collectors, scholars, and curators alike. As a contributor to the exhibition catalogue, admittedly, I am biased. For me, the most exciting part of the exhibition as a contributing writer included the excitement of seeing all the other photographs together on display. The curators arranged the works, quasi-19th century salon-style, by order of accession date, which provides a chronology of tastes of sorts. Those tastes were shaped by the Davis Museum–the donors, the museum directors, or past and present faculty members available to offer expertise–at any given moment over the last four decades. I wrote on two photographs included in the show: Ellen Gallagher’s Abu Simbel (2005-06) and Radcliffe Bailey’s Echo (2011). Both images were acquired by the Davis Museum in 2011 under the leadership of the Davis’ current director, the Ruth Gordon Shapiro ’37 DirectorLisa Fischman.

A Generous Medium: Photography at Wellesley 1972-2012 – view from ground floor balcony. Photograph: Nikki A. Greene

You see, we weren’t assigned the works. Each of the 60 writers, which included alumnae, donors, museum directors, past and present faculty members, chose one or multiple photographs about which to write critically or to reflect thoughtfully. Subject matter, style, and technique vary, of course. Thus, the exhibition reflects not only the importance of photography in the Davis Museum over the last forty years, but also the personal thoughts, professional tastes, and research interests of the contributors. Portions of their texts hang alongside each photograph. In fact, the interplay of text with the images become the most integral and fascinating experience of the show. I hope as many visitors as possible drop in to see this innovative show. Eugène Atget, Andy Warhol, Dawoud Bey, and Cindy Sherman, among many notable others, reside in the same room. THAT should be motivation enough to get to the Davis by December 16. Truly, with so much to see–and read–one would be hard pressed to find a comparable photography show as visually and intellectually stimulating. Here’s the most recent review from the Boston Globe (9/24/12): “The Davis Showcases 40 Years of Photography.”

At the very least, you’ll want to see my pick, Gallagher’s Abu Simbel and her version of funk masters Sun Ra and George Clinton awaiting a blue, fur-lined spaceship. Funky indeed!

Ellen Gallagher, “Abu Simbel” (2005-06) ~ acquired in 2011
Outline of Radcliffe Bailey’s “Echo” as part of “A Generous Medium” in lieu of the permanently installed piece on the second floor. Photo: Nikki A. Greene
My daughter examining Bailey’s “Echo” on the second floor of the Davis…intensely (March 2011). Photo: Nikki A. Greene
Artist & Art Historian Margaret Rose Vendreyes and the imitable Lorraine O’Grady on opening night of “A Generous Medium.” Margaret wrote for show and Ms. O’Grady (Wellesley alumna) has a piece in the show. Photo: Nikki A. Greene
O’Grady (in center w/blue boots) addresses students after returning to campus on November 13, commemorating her donation of her archives to Wellesley College.

 

A summer break…

Under a Cape Cod sky…

Labor Day is approaching, which means the unofficial end to summer and a return to teaching. I’m ready. I had a busy summer. Even though I didn’t tweet or write a single entry for this site, I basically stayed on the grind, balancing writing and time home with my kids. With the help of a writing group, I managed to write entries on Radcliffe Bailey and Ellen Gallagher for an upcoming exhibition catalogue, A Generous Medium: Photography at Wellesley 1972-2012,  for the Davis Museum, a review of the 11th Havana Biennial, and an article on Betty Davis (finally!). I’ll include links to the articles when they become available.

Unlike last year when I had to pack my home to move to Wellesley, I actually had fun this summer! Three dear friends came to visit me from New Mexico and Atlanta, and I went to my first Red Sox game with them. I got to meet #2 Jacoby Ellsbury after the game!

Also, a long weekend in New York City…

The Guggenheim

A trip to Provincetown on Cape Cod…

and a stay in Martha’s Vineyard…

helped me rejuvenate, reconnect, and relax! When you’re in the midst of the grind, you don’t realize how much you need a break from it all–until you get it!

But, now it’s time to get ready for another semester. I’m continuing at that the Newhouse Center for the Humanities as a Mellon Postdoc at Wellesley College. I’m going to work away on my manuscript, and I will be teaching my class, “African Art and the Diaspora: From Ancient Concepts to Postmodern Identities.”

El Anatsui, “A Strip of Earth’s Skin” (2008)

I’m looking forward to getting back into my research and back into the classroom. Stay tuned for more posts on those topics.

Here’s to the start of another great academic year!

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