After the election of Donald Trump by the electoral votes of "red" states, I resolved to challenge my feelings of incredulity and animosity towards those states by visiting as many of them as I can while Trump is in office and making paintings about my experiences there. From January 2017 through January 2021, I am taking short trips to several red states each year. While there, I talk to people, take pictures, and make notes and drawings. Then I come back to my studio in Seattle and make a group of paintings based on my experiences in each state. My primary goals for this project are to make contact with red states (specifically the people and landscapes they contain) and to make paintings.
In each state I visit, I am asking people who live there where they think I should go in their state. I ask them to choose a place that they think is important in some way - which I have left open to their interpretation and has varied widely! Some have told me to go to popular tourist destination landscapes like the Grand Canyon. Some have told me to go to places that have been significant to them personally, like the oldest restaurant in Savannah where a young man’s disbelief in ghosts was bluntly put to an end. Some teens in North Carolina told me I should visit the projects where they live. Some have told me stories about important people in their state. In Natchez, Mississippi, the director of the Natchez Museum of African-American History and Culture told me the true story of Miss Nellie Jackson, who ran the longest-standing African American business in Natchez: a brothel. She was a loved, trusted member of the community and bailed freedom fighters out of jail. One night in the 1990’s she denied entry to a drunk white man. That night he burned her house down and she died a few days later.
When I go to the places people have told me to go, I'm thinking about those people and their stories. I'm also having my own experience in the place. All make their way into the paintings, sometimes in an abstract, minimal way, sometimes in a more recognizable way. For example, some of my Mississippi paintings feature Miss Nellie with a large "N" and with the red and white awnings of her house.
With this project, I am not attempting to summarize each state. I’m not trying to have the quintessential experience of each state. I’m not observing from a distance. I am having an experience in each state, as myself. I’m doing this out of a personal need to not spend four years hating half of my country. As a painter who often bases projects on a sense of place, I know that I end up feeling connected to the places I paint. As a queer, feminist artist from a blue state, I’m using painting as a way to insert myself into places where I’m not sure I belong. I’m using this project as an opportunity to interact with people I normally wouldn’t have the excuse to meet.
The resulting paintings are usually landscape-based and somewhat abstract, with a personal narrative running underneath. My goal for the paintings is for them to communicate something about the place they represent, so that the person experiencing the painting ends up feeling connected to the place in some way they weren’t before.
I am reading Moby-Dick while I do this project. Part of the title of each painting (the part in parentheses) is a chapter title in Moby-Dick. I am on a journey of intimacy with our country. I must be stalwart as I pursue my whale so as not to be slain in the process.
"Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off - then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball."
- Herman Melville, Moby-Dick, 1851
You can read my experiences in each state in my red country trip diary, here.