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.
Dell Marie Hamilton: For me, mindfulness is an action. It’s a moment to say or do something different, so it’s not just about being present. It is about, stop. Stop. Think. Then do.
Anita Walker: Hi. I’m Anita Walker at the Mass Cultural Council, and welcome to “Creative Minds Out Loud.” Our guest today is Dell Marie Hamilton. She is an artist, writer, and curator, and welcome to our program.
Dell Marie Hamilton: Thank you for having me. I’m really, really excited to be here.
Anita Walker: So we are meeting for the very first time, and first I want to ask you. Just tell me about your work.
Dell Marie Hamilton: My work? Good question. People always ask me what kind of work do I make, and it really just depends on the idea. But overall the way that I try to quantify my work is by saying that I use the body to investigate questions about personal memory, citizenship, history, and gender. So those themes seem to be always kind of running through my work in one way or another, but I do work across various mediums, so everything from performance art to writing and research to painting and photography and installation, and it really often has much to do with the site that I’m working with or even just talking with other curators, sort of thinking through what could be a way to approach an idea or a space or just kind of push the boundaries a little bit.
Anita Walker: So tell us about one example.
Dell Marie Hamilton: One example of that? Yeah, so there’s a piece that I have been performing for about the last three years. It’s called “Blues, Blank, Black,” and it’s a merger between folkloric traditions from Central America, so folkloric figure called La Sucia [ph?], who’s a bride, a jilted bride, who refuses to take off her wedding dress, and that’s merged with the work of Toni Morrison, and then throughout me sort of using dialogue sort of that I overheard from my parents as a little girl eavesdropping into their conversations, I sort of then kind of have used Toni Morrison’s work related to “Beloved” and “The Bluest Eye,” and I recite that, some of that language, from those two books, and then in between those processes I’m also invoking the names of Black women who’ve been killed by police, so women like Sandra Bland or Deborah Danner, so different kinds of stories of women who’ve experienced trauma and sort of are not here necessarily in the material world, but their memories– again, sort of personal memory and how they sort of still kind of radiate through our vine [ph?].
Anita Walker: You do a lot of work really in developing a community of artists of color.
Dell Marie Hamilton: Yeah, absolutely. That’s something that I’m always really focused on, particularly with curatorial projects. I myself, I feel like I’m really, really lucky that I went to the right school. So I studied at the School of Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University, and I went there very specifically so that I could work with Marilyn Arsem, who’s a pioneering experimental artist, and Magda Campos-Pons, who’s an Afro-Cuban artist who works also across media, and by working with them and then kind of just modeling their behavior, they are also artists who really believe in other artists. They’re artists’ artists, and by doing that, I kind of just watched them build relationships with different kinds of artist across the spectrum, and so through doing that and watching them and modeling that behavior, I feel like I’ve been able to just really create a community that’s supportive but also, too, just transparent.
Anita Walker: That is such an important thing you’re doing, because so often the work of an artist is solo. I mean, it’s really very isolated. It’s something you do by yourself. How is your work enhanced by the community?
Dell Marie Hamilton: By doing it? I think it’s probably because I learn so much from listening to other artists and trying to figure their work out. I did an event at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and it was a time to sort of think about counter-mapping and different ways to be in a space like that particular museum and try to sort of flip the script a little bit. But in order to figure out that activity, I just– I looked up work by Trisha Brown and Ana Mendieta and Heather Hansen and certainly, as well, Magda Campos-Pons, how they use their body as for– as an instrument for mark-making. But, again, it’s always for me about, let’s see what other artists are doing. What can they teach me? What can I learn? What can we laugh about? What can we argue about?
Anita Walker: You spoke about some of the work you had done earlier and particularly with reference to women of color, who had been killed by police officers, and people who read my blog know that I spend an awful lot of time quoting John F. Kennedy’s speeches, because he was actually the first and so far only president that really spent a lot of time respecting the value and the role of the artist in a democratic society, and one of the things that he said is that it’s really the role and responsibility of an artist to call out injustice, because artists are very, very sensitive to injustice when they see it, and I think about how powerful an artist’s revelation around injustice can be compared to just words, but how does that affect you as an artist? I mean, just how do you cope through..
Dell Marie Hamilton: Manage through that, how to cope.
Anita Walker: … and manage your own..
Dell Marie Hamilton: Angst?
Anita Walker: Yes.
Dell Marie Hamilton: Well, oftentimes I am in my studio trying to figure things out, and in that particular way there’s work I make that doesn’t ever see the light of day. I just need to make it so that I can get that stuff out of me. It just needs to go someplace else. But I have found that by doing that and honoring my practice that oftentimes when I leave the studio, I’m walking a lot lighter. So there’s very particular ways that I really focus on making or drawing or sometimes just dancing in my studio. That also helps quite a bit, but walking is another tool that I use for sort of clarity of mind. I’m not a meditator. My brain doesn’t function in that way. I actually was diagnosed with ADHD when I was an adult right at the beginning of going to grad school, so stillness isn’t a thing for me, but walking, for whatever reason– I’m really sensitive to space and color and smell and touch, and walking is one of the ways that I sort of gain clarity of mind.
Anita Walker: Do you think artists spend enough time thinking about their own self-care as they’re helping the rest of us understand..
Dell Marie Hamilton: The world.
Anita Walker: …What’s going on around us?
Dell Marie Hamilton: Right. I will say that I definitely talk a lot about self-care with my friends and colleagues, but I’m not sure if everyone’s able to actually do that for themselves, and I think it’s because we’re socialized, particularly once you get out of grad school or even sometimes undergrad– we’re socialized to say yes to everything, and if you’re an empath, like I am, that’s a double-edged sword. So you are sensitive to injustice, and you’re sensitive to other people’s experiences, but because you’re a sponge, some of that rubs off on you, right, and so what that means then is that you have to actually know how to say the word “no” and that there’s nothing to be ashamed about by saying the word “no”. I think that, again, this notion about the fact that, yes, we’re– as artists, we’re in the world, and we’re here to sort of enlighten the world, right, to sort of flip it into a different context. The challenge with that is that you actually need to know what your own boundaries are, right, because those are the only ways that you can continue to connect with yourself. So for me, yeah, the word “no”..
Anita Walker: It’s a hard one.
Dell Marie Hamilton: … it’s a hard one, but– and it may take me a lifetime to try to practice it and sort of really master it, but it works. It works, and I have found that if I let a curator know, “Hey, I’m having trouble with this particular idea. I feel compromised, and this isn’t executing my vision in the way that I want,” they’re usually like, “Okay, Dell, let’s figure something else out.” So, yeah, I found that if people really want to work with you, they will figure out ways to work with you and facilitate a process if they really want to see the work done, as well as also, again, paying attention to the artist’s needs.
Anita Walker: So we’re in a fairly toxic environment, and do you– how does that affect you as a working artist that is really– I mean, part of what your work is, is to really enlighten and reveal injustice around us, and it feels like we are at a particular moment in our national history, where it is almost paralyzing.
Dell Marie Hamilton: Yeah, it’s definitely paralyzing. I’m also a junkie, though. So I have difficulty turning some of the toxicity off, partly because I think I’m both fascinated and repulsed by what’s actually happening in the world. There’s something that Howardena Pindell said when she was here in Boston.
Anita Walker: At Rose [ph?].
Dell Marie Hamilton: Yeah, exactly, and she talked about how Trump doesn’t care about culture. So, to some extent, we as artists are kind of free to just do whatever we like at the moment, because he’s clearly not interested in cultural production. So that’s actually a good thing, right? But, again, it’s difficult to sort of, I think, wrap our minds around how we even got here. I think if you are someone like me who was born in the ‘80s and Ronald Reagan was actually elected on my birthday, yeah, you– I have a relationship to politics that comes through watching my dad watching the news, and I’ve sort of continued that as an adult. But it’s difficult to wrap your mind around what exactly is happening. So we have all the images. We’ve got the Twitter feeds. We’ve got screen shots. We’ve got leaked e-mails and all these different questions, but, yeah, it’s still pretty difficult for me to really understand how we got here, and it’s distressing. But, again, this is where walking comes into place.
Anita Walker: In a way, the artist has always been able to sort of strip away the clouds and the shade that prevent us from seeing what’s really going on, and it feels like it’s an upside-down world, because what’s going on is being screamed at us. There’s nothing to strip away.
Dell Marie Hamilton: Exactly. You’re right. There’s no secrets anymore to really– to speak of, and so, yeah, every now and then I’m able to turn off the TV but not all the time. So, it’s pretty hard. It’s hard. Yeah, there’s some times I kind of think maybe I don’t really need to know the details of every single thing that that guy is up to, right, because, again, there is a toxicity that comes with that, and– at some point, yeah, I guess this question about no, right, and sort of building whatever is a safe space for yourself, thinking through some ways to do that. One of the other tools I use is writing, so that’s another way oftentimes for me to figure out what’s happening with me, and I think also, too, as a trauma survivor there’s oftentimes– there’s things that are triggering my own feelings, and I’m not always exactly sure why, but I have figured that if I write about it, that gives me language, and that language creates this kind of boundary or some sort of fence, and it’s a framework, which then is like, “I can identify this. Now I know what’s going on.” I’m not a big fan of the unknown, as most human beings are, right? Human beings have trouble with change, right, and I am no exception to that, and so often, yeah, writing is the way to sort of capture that thing on paper and then look at it like, “Okay, now I understand what this is. I can name it,” and then it doesn’t feel as scary.”
Anita Walker: It feels like walking, writing, saying no, these are strategies really not just for artists but for everybody.
Dell Marie Hamilton: Yeah, I agree. I think often, again, we’re in this culture of everything is coming at us so, so fast, and it’s difficult to keep up with these things, so you do have to be just mindful, right? I mean, we talk about mindfulness, but for me mindfulness is an action. It’s a moment to say or do something different, so it’s not just about being present. It is about, stop. Stop. Think. Then do.
Anita Walker: So, as an artist who is creating work in this toxic time, when you speak to an audience or when you’re speaking to people who’ll be watching or observing and taking in your work, the injustice is fairly apparent, at least a lot of it that is being screamed at us. So what are you trying to communicate?
Dell Marie Hamilton: That’s a good question. I struggle with this as well all the time, because I’m not always so good at answers. I have tons of questions, but I think, more than anything, I’ve been thinking a lot about the fact that we’re in this moment together, whether we want to be or not. This thing, this project called America, we built it. Here, each of us individually, we all have something to contribute to it, both toxicity, as well as beauty and enlightenment, right, and so I started thinking about maybe chaos is what we need. Maybe chaos is exactly the antidote to keep us from being complacent or just taking in all the toxicity and then not thinking about what its impact is.
Anita Walker: Dell Marie Hamilton, an artist, writer, curator and one of our creative minds out loud. Thank you.
Dell Marie Hamilton: Thank you.
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