Hi, I’m Gracyn Bird, a Museum Interpretation Assistant at The Trout Gallery. For this Artful Conversation post I interviewed Vincent Stephens, director of The Popel Shaw Center for Race and Ethnicity about the role that art has played in his life and work.
Gracyn: So, today I want to talk to you about Art, Diversity and Inclusion. But first, I know this is a big week for you at The Popel Shaw Center for Race and Ethnicity. Your office is hosting Building Campus Inclusion Week at Dickinson College. Given the circumstances of COVID 19, I imagine your planning process and programming is a bit different this year. Tell me a bit about how you approached organizing Campus Inclusion Week this year and what your experience has been like.
Vincent: In previous years, Inclusion Week has taken place on Britton Plaza and has included different offices, departments, and clubs sharing resources and engaging participants in different interactive activities. It’s often been complimented by workshops and lectures. Last fall we decided after doing this for four years it would be useful to think about how we can engage folks more deeply. We built up enough momentum to where we could approach the week almost like a conference, where there were multiple activities that we could engage participants with. We were really interested in capitalizing and utilizing the expertise that students, community members, faculty, and staff have in different areas.
So, during the summer after we were in remote format the conversation continued and we took a “less is more” approach as we became more virtual. What you’ll find this week is that there are nine panels, so each day has a mix of programs, and we also decided all of the programs would be recorded, so if a person was unable to join synchronously they would be able to watch it and absorb its content in whatever way they chose. And the library made a library guide, so all the different presenters have shared resources. If a person who wants to follow up and dig a little deeper can just go to the library’s site and get that information. It’s exciting because it’s a new approach and we were very selective about the themes. We wanted to touch on the fact that the COVID-19 virus has obviously impacted the globe and brought out many different social inequities and there’s a renewed discourse about antiracism and allyship. So many of our panels are looking at those topics. Next week we will also offer a one-hour discussion space where folks can process what they absorbed this week and what they can do in the future. Then we’re concluding the week with the art and social justice panel co-sponsored with the Trout Gallery. I’m so excited by the opportunity to bring people together even in these somewhat compromised circumstances.
Gracyn: So, I happen to know that art played a role in your upbringing. Can you tell me about how you learned about art when you were growing up? What kinds of messages did you receive about art?
Vincent: My father is an artist and made his living as a commercial artist. He did a ton of design work where I grew up in Jacksonville, Florida. I grew up with art as a natural part of my environment. We had a mural on my wall in the dining room, there were paintings, sculpture and woodwork that was always a part of my life. Art was definitely part of the landscape of my homelife. I also took an interest in art and design in my own way; I loved cars when I was growing up and I was a Boy Scout, so I remember I used to design cars for the pinewood derby. I would design the cars and my father would help me carve the wood and paint them and I won a few trophies for automotive design. One of the interesting things about the epidemic is a lot more of us are delving into our interests, so I’ve spent time reading interesting books about the history and practice of automotive design. I would also say I have a parallel love for the performing arts and literature; I love music, I love literary fiction, poetry, film, television, and many of my closest friends are artists. Art has always been an integral part of life. It never felt elite or separate; it felt like art expresses who we are and translates it for others.
Gracyn: Talk about one experience you’ve had with art that was significant in your life.
Vincent: The last gallery I went to was the National Portrait Gallery this summer. I’ve been to the Tate, the MoMA, the Whitney—but I would actually say the most pivotal gallery experience I had was when I was growing up. When I was a senior in high school I was taking a humanities course and one of the assignments was to go to a local gallery and write about an exhibit on a sculptor, Gaston Lachaise. And I remember spending time with different pieces and paying attention to materials, understanding what was being represented in both a literal and figurative sense. That was really helpful because I think sometimes when we think about a gallery or museum, we only think about a painting on a wall. We don’t think about sculpture or material objects. And I also think we are very passive. We read the description and say “that’s good enough” and walk on, but the purpose of this assignment was to do a close reading so that was really exciting because that was the first time I was really being pushed to think about art as something to interpret and analyze on a deeper level.
Gracyn: At The Trout Gallery this semester we are programming for an exhibition that will be up next Fall called Horace Pippin: Racism and War. I understand that you are a fan of Pippin. Could you tell me what you like about his work? Or is there a particular work of his that is your favorite?
Vincent: A few years ago when I worked at another university, we co-sponsored a trip with their art museum and went to the Philadelphia Art Museum for an exhibit called Represent [200 years of African American Art]. It was an exhibit that looked at African American art throughout 20th century. There was everything from Faith Ringgold, to Horace Pippin, to Kara Walker, so it was a very rich exhibit.
What I appreciated about the Horace Pippin works is that they’re telling a wide range of stories about African American life in the 20th century. I think there’s a tendency for folks to only conceptualize African American expression as a response to oppression and suffering. And so I think sometimes people look at black art with a didactic lens. But what I appreciate about Pippin is that he uses many layers of techniques in his work to show you many different facets of African American life.
I remember there was one piece that restaged a battle with many different textures and mixed media—that’s probably my favorite by him. He’s one of those expressive voices that’s conveying a more complex and rich understanding of Black American life beyond just one thing. We have to be able to hold multiple ideas at once—his work certainly is commenting on racism and oppression and segregation, but I think there’s a lot more to Black life than that.
Gracyn: Art has been part of numerous initiatives to promote diversity and inclusion. How do you see art playing a role in these efforts?
Vincent: Representation is so central. Since the industrial age—photography, film, radio, television—there’s so many different ways that we have become a mediated society. By representation, I don’t simply mean faces and colors—I mean thinking about the range of stories [represented]. I know there’s been a campaign called #OscarsSoWhite, where folks are saying “Why is it that in American film, there’s only one film a year that looks at black characters?” I think it’s crucial that we think about the way art can provide access to so many different kinds of stories.
Dickinson has been able to use our resources to think about what are things that people in our community are going to be excited about, whether it be physical or the performing arts. We’ve done social justice themed pre-orientations, and we often use the Trout Gallery’s collection as a way to stimulate conversations. For example, in the fall of 2018, we looked at indigenous Native American history, and because of the content that was at the Trout Gallery, it fostered some rich conversations and also allowed us to go to the Carlisle Indian school’s former site at the Army War College. So I think art is such a stimulating and engaging way to think about yourself, your community, the country, the larger world. There’s no way to talk about diversity and inclusion without thinking about the way different experiences are being represented in media, so I think art is very central to the work we are trying to do for the community.
I learned so much from my conversation with Vincent Stephens, and I hope that you all are encouraged to get involved in Campus Inclusion Week and consider the role of art in conversations about social justice.