Narrator: This podcast is a project of the Mass Cultural Council. We believe in the power of culture – the arts, humanities, and sciences – to enrich communities, advance equity, and foster creativity.
L’Merchie Frazier: With all of the projects that I do, it is in search and exploration of what’s inside there that can come out that has not previously been explored.
Anita Walker: Hi. I’m Anita Walker at the Mass Cultural Council, and welcome to “Creative Minds Out Loud.” Our guest today is L’Merchie Frazier. She is a visual and performing artist, a historian, an educator. I know you mostly from the Museum of African-American History here in Boston, but you do so much more. And welcome to our program.
L’Merchie Frazier: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Anita Walker: So I’m going to start with what I don’t know about what you’re doing, and you’re doing so much work in the area of social justice as an artist and particularly through your residencies, and I want to talk about a couple of them in particular. So first of all, talk about what you did with Boston AIR. First of all, what is that?
L’Merchie Frazier: Boston Artists in Residency Program was a relatively new initiative that began out of the Boston Arts and Culture Office to highlight Boston artists, to work with communities, to connect them to city hall and connect them to the citizenry in Boston. And so my competitors– or I would like to say, my colleagues and I designed projects that would fit in the conversations of how we want to look at issues in our city, how we want to frame conversations with people in our communities. And my project centered on substance use, and I centered my project in the realms of the Department of Public Health and worked with women who were with their families in a center called Entre Familia in Mattapan, a residence that had been started by a woman who wanted women to rise. And so in this academic environment and residential environment, we had conversations that helped us to create poetry and quilting. And with that, we had dynamics of starting almost, like, quilting bees, and having in-depth conversations about personal lives and how we can be better and how we can develop ourselves into more adamant, confident people. So as an outgrowth of that, we had exhibitions at the Strand Theatre and at City of Boston, and now those quilts are featured at the First Church in Cambridge, and there is a Friday Café, which I will be going to later to do workshops around people who are homeless, who go in and out of this regular Friday event, and we will do art-making and have discussions and do portraits. So it has an afterlife, if you will.
Anita Walker: One of the things I love about this work is so often we think of the arts or the work of the artist as being pretty, a decoration, entertainment, a diversion, something over here, that it’s enjoyable and fun. Or we think about the arts and culture as really an economic driver. It’s all about economic development. I really think the superpower of the arts is the kind of work that you’re doing, and it’s really addressing something that is an epidemic in our society today, which is isolation and loneliness, and as a result people turn to substance abuse. What is it about the arts that is sort of an antidote to that, or a wonderful intervention?
L’Merchie Frazier: I think it’s the power of your own creativity that can emerge from being involved in artistic practice, and many of the women that I worked with– and it’s often more than not– have not done or seen the opportunity to have art in their lives. And so I believe it is something we can’t live without, so the enlivening of human beings individually and collectively to participate in the arena of art-making helps to evolve that spirit of creativity that enables your world. It enlarges your conversation, your discourse, your ability to be able to engage with others and connect. So, my work is centered on– as I said, I think it’s perfect for this project– speaking out loud and helping others to speak out loud to find their voices. So with all of the projects that I do, it is in search and exploration of what’s inside there that can come out that has not previously been explored. So the women who I worked with and others who I work with find some confidence in being able to say, “Oh, I can do that?” and hopefully it will be a transformative moment to see they can do that even much greater than we achieved and keep going with it as a mechanism and vehicle to bring about a just society.
Anita Walker: Oh. That’s a great story. You’ve also done some work around housing displacement. So most people don’t think of an artist or the arts addressing what’s really a serious issue, certainly in Boston and other places, where the price of housing, gentrification, people having to continue to move. What in the world do you have to do with that <laughs>?
L’Merchie Frazier: Well, as a board member at City Life Urbana, I was brought to that organization because of the prices of my own home and displacement– possible displacement. I am a mortgage holder in Dorchester, and when my home fell under the prime lending scheme that was happening, I sought out that organization, and it helped me to understand that I was not alone, that I could protest, that I could have a voice. And so it was my pleasure to be introduced not only to people who are activists but also who had the understanding of what it would take legally to protect, and I was asked to do art-making with the constituents there. So, “Home is Where I Am” helped me to launch this understanding of home is beyond your four walls. Home is where you can place yourself geographically and locate yourself in community with others and be active in that in terms of everyone deserves a place to be. Everyone deserves a place to call home as a physical place, but we also need to be at home in our thoughts and our environment and integrate those with the people that we care about. So as a process of then saving my own home–
Anita Walker: Which you did. That’s great news.
L’Merchie Frazier: Yes. Yes, yes, yes. I am very proud to say, through some experimental means and some other kind of methodology– we won’t talk about that right now, but it was nothing illegal, okay. I just want to say that.
Anita Walker: That’s another show.
L’Merchie Frazier: But the art that came from that was one of enabling and empowerment. And I recently went back through an artist residency funded by Northeastern University called “Stable Ground” to explore this idea of the stability of home life. I went back to City Life and did another project on poetry and art-making that resulted in an exhibition at the City Life 45th Anniversary– that they’ve been alive that long and advocated for people’s houses where constituents and I celebrated that moment with our words, and one of the poems that resulted was “Home is a Circle.” Coming back to myself, I just understand more about that as I work with others, it is a two-way street in terms of the artist and community. We are always in a learning process, always students of life, always students who want to understand what the past, present, and future will mean to us. And so, that was a part of the examination of “Home is Where I Am.” If you have a suitcase and you can pack your life up in it and you go somewhere, that’s where you are. Okay? So, that was a part of the joy of connecting with residents in Boston and helping others to not be grievous about their situation but to embolden and encourage the strength and courage it was going to take to get through that fight. One woman reflected on her being a tree and that her roots were deep, and that this residency helped her understand she had a voice and that her branches were going to spread now. So, that’s a kind of reward that is greater than any monetary benefit. But to know that you’ve touched a human being that way is enormous.
Anita Walker: It feels as if so much of everyday life is transactional. It’s a very quid pro quo, this for that, very shallow level. And when you ask people to go deep and to think deep and to go deep into themselves, that’s got to be hard for people to do the first time. How does an artist– how do you give people the strength and courage to do that?
L’Merchie Frazier: Well, my first understanding is this idea of respect, of coming to where they are, meeting them where they are, and they have to tell me where that is. And so allowing a platform to develop that is enabling begins the process of our journey– that I want to go there with them, not that I’m preaching at them. And I think it’s a different kind of approach that I always feel I’ve gone different places in the world through my residencies– Taiwan, Cuba, France, Brazil, and Africa– and looked at how people connect to the idea of being somebody, that somebody-ness. And so when I open the platform for us to start our series of meetings that we may have and art-making, it is to honor them as human beings, for them to reveal more about who they are. And the opening up is more organic than not. It is not a forced one. They want to shy back for a little while, that’s fine, too. But what we eventually come to is an emergence of the people who are in the project and their spirit, their stories. Their stories are extremely important. The narrative that we’ve created in America doesn’t contain enough of the everyday people who are doing– who are ordinary like me but doing extraordinary things.
Anita Walker: Is there a story you could share with us today from your work with people in any of the projects you’ve talked about that you can’t forget?
L’Merchie Frazier: Well, that word “forget” is real. My whole life work is called “Save Me from My Amnesia,” and so–
Anita Walker: I didn’t know that.
L’Merchie Frazier: And it is about reconnections and reclaiming from the displacement of African peoples all over the world who have been displaced from a mainland and are now diasporically spread out, to understand that greatness from which we come. And this hyphenated American kind of experience has kept me going all over the world. One of the places that I was in was Brazil, and there is a festival that takes place in Carnival in February or March, according to when Easter is. And there was a woman who used to come out for the Tuesday night celebration and music of this wonderful group called Hola Doon [ph?], and they play these majestic drums with African rhythms, and it’s in a place called Bahia Pelourinho where former enslaved people were sold at auction. But there was a woman who I noticed who had– she had only her upper body, and she did not come in a vehicle. She came from a suburban [sic] area of Bahia, and she managed to get there every Tuesday. And I said at that moment, “What is it that you have to complain about with every limb, your brain intact, your understanding and your intelligence to move forward, and your whole body functions, that is alive? Yet compared to the might of this woman, you pale.” And so that, for me, was a transformative moment that I then do not have anything to complain about, that I then can amplify what I have and share with other human beings like her, like others who are quite able, and understand we are born with everything we need. We just need to use it.
Anita Walker: Oh, such an inspiring story. L’Merchie Frazier, visual performing artist, historian, educator, and another one of our wonderful “Creative Minds Out Loud.”
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