Shedding Water & Poise with Heidi Peele

by Shannon Jay

Heidi Peelen’s work sheds the polite skin females usually portray, and unleashes every lady’s raunchy side. Whether large-scale mixed media pieces, goofy installations, or comedy routines, she creates characters (sometimes at her own expense) that might not be classy but are complex. What some may perceive as lower class at best or trailer trash at worst, she turns into stunning pieces that provoke beauty and respect. She’s nobly brought what she learned in the Big Apple at Pratt Institute back to humble beginnings in Hampton Roads.

She’s put herself out there for performances at Push Comedy and Watershed Art House, which she created and runs. Next, she’s shaking-shit-up at Chrysler Glass Studio this week for a Third Thursday performance. When I asked her to tell me a bit more about it via email, the question boded the shortest and vaguest response of all: “Me trying to be the perfect homemaker and me being the perfect homemaker.”

As for everything else, she’s pretty much an open book:

So, you do… a lot. Maybe start by listing out your extracurriculars?

As far as “extracurriculars,” I’m not sure if I can define them as such, I am genuinely bored by a lot of things and as result aim to find pleasure in other stuff. I really like other stuff. Most of the time the other stuff is anything and everything but the thing I SHOULD be concentrating on. If its a Sunday and I am alone, I like to play the autoharp and make up songs (only if my breakfast voice is still on) and sometimes I record them and sometimes I honestly just strum two chords over and over again until I never want to look at the autoharp for like a month. Also, I really am recently finding pleasure in housecleaning, redecorating and not leaving the parameters of my yard, unless its like someone’s birthday and even still I’ve flaked on like 3 this past year alone. Also I find sanctitude in making lists and never returning to them again. I have 8 to 10 spiral notebooks in rotation that I cant keep track of. 

What got you into comedy?  

I’ve made home movies dressed as really unfortunate characters since I was in ninth grade. When I found a place where other people were doing that and on stage, and then strangers were laughing and actually enjoyed it? And when I felt the adrenaline surge of hearing strangers laugh at me and I did it on purpose, I don’t know – that kind of turned me on, so I went for it.

Its fun, but I can’t fully submerge into anything. So I do it and try to incorporate it into my art and my day to day as naturally as I can, it makes sense. Especially for art, because art is a joke and I’ve been doing that since they told me you got to pick something to be good at and/or make money. I don’t make a lot of money. 

Money must come from somewhere. What’s your current “day job”?

Still teaching. I’m part-time waitressing too. I’ve worked in factory-produced metal stamping for the family business, I’ve worked as an assistant project manager in a basement in Brooklyn, I’ve been a Xerox printer salesman, I’ve made money doing what I had to do to make money.

I think there’s a beauty in employing yourself into fields that make you uncomfortable, because undoubtedly I learn something with every single job. Whatever we’re defining as a job these days. 

Tell me a bit about your sexy one-woman show.

One woman shows are a blast. I like to play with the role of performer for the audience and audience as the performers for the artist. Psychology is a favorite pass time read. But I am by no means experienced in the subject, especially anything written past 1970-something. I love any 60-70’s psychology. Its so much less forgiving than the contemporary, I think.

Anyhoo, the one woman shows are a way for me to low-key hate myself. Because just before I have to go out and perform, backstage, I freak all of the way out and want to call it immediately. Questions begged, “Why are they here?” and “OMG what do I contribute to society?” its all sort of just a cheeky guarantee that I get to develop my own existential crisis for actually no reason at all. The whole show, the whole production, is like one giant excuse for me to self destruct. Awesome. 

“Low-Key Starved” was all purely experimental (and I definitely want to do one again). It was really about toying with audience as performers vs the performer as the audience and how to make myself even uncomfortable. Like I had expectations of people reacting certain ways or walking out or getting fed up or laughing but then when they did I was like oh no what am I doing.

“This is How You Art” was more about the philosophy of watershed. I wanted to get the general art enthusiast up to speed with the tongue in cheek world of art academia and the contemporary and more conceptual pieces that have blurred the lines of art for even the experts. So I’d introduce a performance artist or sound piece or whatever through a live re-enactment (of course with some art licensing) and then allow the audience to experience it. After the re-enactment I would commentate on what they witnessed, and prompt them based off of Goethe’s 3 questions: what was the artist trying to do? Was it worth doing? And was she successful at doing it?

Speaking of Watershed Art House, What was the initial premise behind it and are there any upcoming events?

Watershed Art House is an attempt to yank the area out of the gallery and into the mindset of art as experience. Not a product, not an end result, no a sale, or potential sale or how much for this or whatever, but Watershed is supposed to stretch the mind. Omg that sounds zealous, BUT, I want it (and the people involved with me on this want it) to make art approachable and shifting and ever-changing and incredibly ephemeral. We live in a world of– never mind I’m not even going down the roads, but its a work in progress and we want art to be the experience and temporary and approachable by everyone. Amen. (and I think our next event is this fall- tba, tbd, y’all.)

What are all the visual mediums you work in? What’s your favorite?

I’ve been drawing since the magna-doodle and my mom made a really big deal over my drawing a deer – it looked like an animal of sorts I guess but whatever I was four and she thought it was the bee-knees and I think when your so easily influenced and you’re a little bb child and your mom makes you feel like Picasso, your 4 year old mind is like, “shit yea, I’m gonna be Picasso”. But recently (although I do draw alone and when I’m on the phone, or idk, whenever) I don’t see a point for visual art. I don’t see a lot of a point for anything, but especially visual art whose end product takes up space and time and money. I’ve spent a lot of those things in my life-long affair with this bit and I won’t stop, but the ebb and flow of our love demands that occasionally, I cut her off. Right now I like video and projections, and happenings and performances, and making myself really uncomfortable swimming in all those pools. And its working. Art should make you (as the artist) uncomfortable – if I feel good and cozy and comfy with doing the same thing I’ve been doing for a bajillion years, then really, what am I doing? 

What music/movies do you usually paint to or draw inspiration from?

I like anything with low to no dialogue. I like music with words I can’t understand but chords and repetition I do. I love repetitive qualities in sound. I love sound collage. One of the MAJOR films that truly dug out my insides and in ways revamped my brain was Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life. Still now. And if I weren’t a trite millennial I’d give you my musical artist faves, except that then everyone reading this would know about them and then they might get a little more popular and then they’d do something awful with their next album and I’m approaching 30 and really need some stability in my life rn. 

To see more work, check out her portfolio, and her 360 portrait project on Instagram

Hank Willis Thomas Reanalyzes Everyday Black History

by Shannon Jay

Based on a lecture Hank Willis Thomas gave at the Chrysler Museum in 2015

Hank Willis Thomas’ interest in studying how black people are represented in media begins with Deborah Willis’ exploration of how they were portrayed in photographs. Then a teen skimming through a Philadelphia library, his mother stumbled upon “Sweet Flypaper Life,” featuring poems by Langston Hughes and photographs by Roy DeCarava.

“Sometimes I See Myself In You” by Deborah Willis, 2009

“This was the first time she saw images of African Americans as she had seen them – as everyday people,” Thomas recalls, noting this is when Willis realized “photography could be used to tell different stories, and to humanize.”

After not being able to find much else on the history of blacks in photography, Willis decided to write her first of several books on the subject entitled “Black Photographers, 1840-1940: An Illustrated Bio-Bibliography.” She went on to win the Guggenheim and MacArthur Fellow for her research, and revive a previously unwritten history of the Black experience previously buried.

“Priceless #1” 2004

“I came to photography and came to appreciate it through her”, Thomas recalled. “Our relationship is very much this conversation between her research and my work as an artist.” This bond is illustrated in a piece entitled “Sometime I See Myself in You,” a melding of the mother and son’s faces to create three different portraits. 

Thomas uses the language of advertising, one he believe to be the most powerful in the world, “to talk about things that advertising couldn’t responsibly talk about.” After the impactful murder of his cousin Songha Willis Thomas, Thomas discussed the “irony of picking the perfect casket for your son being a priceless experience.”

Years later, he revisited photographs taken from his cousin’s funeral with this familiar tagline from MasterCard ads. He describes this particular image in his photo series, “Branded,” as “a way to talk about how, even in mourning, we’re still being marketed to.” Other works in the “Branded” series steer away from taglines and Thomas’ personal experience, shifting to examine the correlation of logos in what he calls an “age of branded consciousness.”

“Logos as our generation’s hieroglyphs…because they are imbedded with so much meaning, that they can actually be used to tell different stories.”

He does this through eye opening imagery, like Nike swooshes scarred several times on a man’s chest, to the shoe company’s Jordan logo hanging from a Timbaland tree. In these pieces, Thomas parallels the branding of slaves to logos currently lining black bodies, or black bodies hanging from trees to hanging from basketball hoops – in the sense of both being a different variation of black men as a spectacle.

Advertisements relating to the history of blacks in America are apart of what Thomas described as, “this way in which [he] can look at an image of one thing, and turn it into a reference to so many other things.”

“Absolute Power” 2003 & 2016

Photos featuring the Absolut vodka logo explore the “creation of blackness…by Europeans with a commercial interest in dehumanizing people.” Thomas recognizes the Us vs. Them mentality categorizing race breeds, noting that, “we’re still allowing that kind of language to define us.” These images tackle the history of institutionalization, from slavery to the prison system.

“I recognize race as a fiction, something that is untrue but dictates so many of our lives.”

While “Branded” reinterprets logos though Thomas’ art, his series “Unbranded” removes these logos and taglines to allow art in advertisements independently tell a new tale. “I’m interested in how things that were status quo at some point shift,” Thomas continued, “and they also change history and how we relate who belongs where and what place.”

Ads from 1915 to present day have all marketing language removed, leaving mainstream depictions of women and African Americans and the “amazing story that’s happened in the images that we buy and discard.”

“Because [women and blacks were] asking for more opportunities,” Thomas noted, “[these ads] keep them in a certain place.” This project, along with all of Thomas’ consumerism commentary, encourages the viewer to always consider how images we buy into on a daily basis affect our deepest ideologies. 

Much of Thomas’ work is the analyzes old images to give new context. A series of bronzed hands cropped from photographs taken throughout history, Thomas said, “draw to defiant voices and gestures in moments of protest when so much is at stake.” 6 months after its completion, one sculpture in particular took on a whole new meaning with the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement. “Raise Up” is a row of bronze arms, inspired by a cropped shot of South African boys being stripped search.

“All of a sudden, something that was based off a moment of subjugation 50 years ago is speaking to a moment of uprising and defiance in the 21st century.” 

While commentary of the black experience is prominent in Thomas’ work, his broader focus is any change of perspective, epitomized in his collaborative works. In works like “Zero Hour,” a collaboration with Sanford Biggers, the viewer moves side to side of a frontally blurry image to see it clearer. “I like that idea of work where you have to change your own positioning to see it,” Thomas said. 

The “Truth Booth” visits Bamiyan Bhudda, blown up by the Taliban in 2001

He played with the idea of different perspectives in a collaboration with Jim Ricks and Ryan Allexaim called “Truth Booth.” Premiering in Ireland, this interactive piece allowed viewers to tell a camera what Thomas refers to as “their own version of the truth.” “Truth Booth” later traveled around the world to Afghanistan, South Africa, Miami, and even a presidential debate.

The attempt to tell the untold stories of the silenced throughout history is evident in all of Thomas’ work, no matter the medium. Whether it’s removing logos from ads to let the imagery speak for itself, retelling stories from old photos by cropping portions and breeding them with bronzed new life, or even welcoming folks to voice their own point of view in Thomas’ interactive installations, viewers walk away considering a fresh, new perspective.

Even if they remain unchanged, at least they looked at things a little differently, if only for a moment.

Don’t Touch My Pride: Douglas, Williams, and Media’s Criticism of Their Hair

by Shannon Jay

Venus Williams and Gabby Douglas have a lot in common — they’re strong, black women who have come out on top countless times in traditionally elite, expensive, and white sports. They’ve also suffered from plenty of media scrutiny. Whether it’s through these women’s hair, unfair application of rules or norms, or stereotypical assumptions, the Williams sisters and Douglas are too often marginalized by critics in ways that overshadow their historic accomplishments and countless contributions to America’s greatness.

Overt coverage of these athlete’s hair in particular work to maintain white beauty standards and attempt to make these women feel bad about their black pride.

At 15 years old, Gabby Douglas left her first Olympics as the first African-American woman to take home the gold medal in the all-around individual title. Instead of this historic victory that earned her praises from the president and her face on cereal boxes, the media was focused on her hair. Twitter was abuzz with criticism, and her hair became one of the micro-media site’s top 10 2012 Olympic controversies. In her article on the social media response to Gabby Douglas, Kathleen McElroy found most hairy criticism did not come from whites, however, but from “Black Twitter.”

The usually strong support system that actively acts “as a public space and subject of the white gaze” was the same that ripped Douglas down, showing that beauty standards and the unfair practice are upheld in our sweatiest, hardest working athletes. Particularly upsetting is that this should be the community that’d be the proudest of her accomplishments and the most understanding of her hairy dilemma.

Douglas’ mother told Fashionista that the family made jokes to diffuse that situation and uplift the gymnast’s spirits to keep her focused. “How ignorant is it of people to comment on her hair and she still has more competitions to go,” she said. “Are you trying to ruin her self-confidence? She has to go out there and feel good about herself.”

Black America risked a historic shining star’s success to note her napiness, but why? McElroy said what played out was the voices of African American women who were “once stifled by their hair choices [are] now liberated and uniquely qualified to scold black women to get in line.”

Unique hairstyles don’t just skew success and lower self-esteem only when it comes to beauty standards, but can sometimes affect women’s scores. At the 1999 Australian Open, Venus Williams lost beads from her signature hairdo. In accordance with the controversially interpretive Hindrance Rule, she was docked a point due to the “distraction.”.  In her post-match interview, Williams said she had not been warned when beads had fallen out in past games. Her opponent Lindsay Davenport even revealed that “it’s not a distraction, a little annoying, maybe,” but “it’s the rules.”

However, this unprecedented incidence usually applies to the flailing of larger, louder, easily seen objects such as loose balls or the hat that Davenport had lost points for in a previous match. The fact that no one had said anything about Williams’ beads flying in previous matches, writer Sarah Projansky suggests this is “an unfair and racist application of a rule that was written without Venus or, potentially, other African American players in mind.”

With this in mind, Projansky begs the question in her book “Spectacular Girls: Media Fascination and Celebrity Culture” — what if it was a clip or barrette that fell out of a white player’s hair? Furthermore, was Davenport really that “annoyed” at a single bead, or moreso Venus’ presence and her place as a fair opponent, as a black woman in a white world?

Keeping in the stereotype of “angry black women,” LA Times said Williams “lashed out” during “bead-gate,” qualifying that she “did not go ballistic and start crying, the way she did at Wimbledon,” painting her as overly emotional and erratic in multiple instances. Meanwhile, they praised Davenport’s “businesslike performance,” who herself said she’s “a different player” than Williams, citing her confidence and smartness on the court as deciphering factors.

Commenting on the rest of Williams’ disoriented performance, Davenport said, “you have to be a little tougher, [and] not let that bother you.” But, it’s hard to not be bothered when you know the cards are stacked against you, even when you’re one of the best. It’s tough to not be thrown off your game when an instance occurs where this disadvantage is so apparent. You’re already defeated when no one else sees that, and think they’re better than you because of it.

For these women, the political will always be personal. Being docked unfairly, criticized trivially, and given no empathy in the face of tragedy doesn’t stop these women, who have defied their scenarios to be the best. Imagining them being any greater without these restraints is hard, but it’s a road we deserve to earn for them, for the amazing ways they’ve represented America on the world stage.

Their inclusion in these spaces is only the beginning of the work that needs to be done, and the analysis of the nuances that halts this change will always be necessary to provide personable progress. For all the time, sweat, and tears they’ve devoted on and off the field for us, we need to work always to earn them the respect they rightfully deserve.