Michèle Pearson Clarke | WORK IN PROCESS



L.C. Why do you make the work that you do, what compels you to make it as personal as it is? Is there anything that would stop you from making work in this manner?



M.P.C. My work is rooted in my experiences and my preoccupations. I think that I make the work that I do to try to understand my own concerns and to try to find answers to questions that I am curious about. I’m not sure that anything compels me to make it personal other than the fact that I have always been comfortable with vulnerability, and it’s one of the frameworks through which I relate to myself and to other people. My previous career in social work also has a really strong influence on my work, and so what would stop me in any particular project would have to do with ethical issues and any personal boundaries set by the people that I was working with.



Can you say more about how your social work background and your aesthetic and philosophical preoccupations together inform the routine of your artistic practice?

Well, I am mostly preoccupied with the embodied intimacies and emotional realities of Black/queer people, and particularly with what we most often think of as negative or difficult emotions. Black suffering has long been paraded as a spectacle for public consumption, and so I am interested in the ways in which I can deploy effective strategies to explore our longings and our losses as a political act. And though I am really clear on the distinction between the role of a professional therapist and my role as an artist, I can’t deny that my counselling and listening skills are an important part of my process. They come into play in all kinds of practical ways, and my ethical framework is also derived from the ways that I worked with people as a social worker. And by that, I mean I prioritize things like informed consent and care during the process, as opposed to the project outcome.
 


 



How much of yourself do you put into your work? How do you set boundaries, if any, between your personal experiences and what you choose to share with the public in your work?

That really varies from project to project, but I would say that I’m definitely always in there, somewhere. I don’t really know how else to do it. But I set boundaries partly by working with other people who share my experiences, so that their boundaries become my own, and partly through formal choices that allow me to include an element of refusal. I’m always considering the history of the representation of blackness when I’m working, and I’m very enamored by the concept of opacity as it relates to how black folks can withhold as a political act.
Image
Can you share a specific example of when you allowed for an element of refusal? Could you also speak more to this concept of opacity, perhaps as it intersects with refusal in your portraiture?

I’m referring to opacity as theorized by Édouard Glissant, where he describes it as an active strategy of resisting the objectifying or dominant gaze of whiteness. Julie Crooks has been taking up this idea recently in writing about Sandra Brewster’s work, and Pamela Edmonds and Mark V. Campbell have guest edited an excellent issue of MICE Magazine on this theme, and these are some of the texts that have been really helpful to my own understanding of this concept. And so, in my last photographic project, A Welcome Weight on My Body, I tried to incorporate refusal into the portraits in both more subtle ways through body language, as well as sometimes in more explicit ways like having a participant close their eyes, or photographing the back of someone’s head. I’m still thinking through which strategies resonate the most for me.







What is your favourite part of the process?

I don’t know that I have a favourite part. It’s such an intricate thing, and each part has its own frustrations and its own mysteries and its own miracles. But I guess my favourite part is building the relationships that I need to make my work, first with my participants and then with viewers. The vulnerability and trust that is required teaches me so much, every single time.
 

Where do your best ideas come to you, and where do you get your best work done?

That’s a tricky question to answer. My ideas come from my own experiences, from conversations with other people, from reading, and from looking at the work of other artists. Some come fully formed and some slowly build up over time, as I grapple with what question I’m trying to answer, and how I want to communicate the answer that I want to share with an audience. And I get my best work done in relationship. I’m a talker and I often come to understand what I think through saying things out loud and being in dialogue about my conceptual directions. And the elliptical machine at the gym. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve figured a project out halfway through my morning workout.




 
 

How has your life changed since you started making work that is deeply personal and sharing it with the public?

Becoming an artist in the second half of my life has been extremely gratifying. My work on grieving my mother’s death has been an important part of my healing, and as I mentioned previously, all of my work has provided opportunities for me to connect with people, whether as participants or as audience members. I feel a tremendous amount of support for what I’m doing, and I don’t take that for granted at all.


Could you share what that support actually looks and feels like?

It looks like people showing up for me in all kinds of ways, whether that’s helping me find participants, actually participating in my projects, coming out to my exhibitions, writing about my work, or inviting me to contribute to their own projects. And also, taking the time to tell me what the work has made them think or feel. I make my work to communicate something, so I really can’t ask for more than that.
 

L.C. Why do you make the work that you do, what compels you to make it as personal as it is? Is there anything that would stop you from making work in this manner?

M.P.C. My work is rooted in my experiences and my preoccupations. I think that I make the work that I do to try to understand my own concerns and to try to find answers to questions that I am curious about. I’m not sure that anything compels me to make it personal other than the fact that I have always been comfortable with vulnerability, and it’s one of the frameworks through which I relate to myself and to other people. My previous career in social work also has a really strong influence on my work, and so what would stop me in any particular project would have to do with ethical issues and any personal boundaries set by the people that I was working with.

Can you say more about how your social work background and your aesthetic and philosophical preoccupations together inform the routine of your artistic practice?

Well, I am mostly preoccupied with the embodied intimacies and emotional realities of Black/queer people, and particularly with what we most often think of as negative or difficult emotions. Black suffering has long been paraded as a spectacle for public consumption, and so I am interested in the ways in which I can deploy effective strategies to explore our longings and our losses as a political act. And though I am really clear on the distinction between the role of a professional therapist and my role as an artist, I can’t deny that my counselling and listening skills are an important part of my process. They come into play in all kinds of practical ways, and my ethical framework is also derived from the ways that I worked with people as a social worker. And by that, I mean I prioritize things like informed consent and care during the process, as opposed to the project outcome.
Image
How much of yourself do you put into your work? How do you set boundaries, if any, between your personal experiences and what you choose to share with the public in your work?

That really varies from project to project, but I would say that I’m definitely always in there, somewhere. I don’t really know how else to do it. But I set boundaries partly by working with other people who share my experiences, so that their boundaries become my own, and partly through formal choices that allow me to include an element of refusal. I’m always considering the history of the representation of blackness when I’m working, and I’m very enamored by the concept of opacity as it relates to how black folks can withhold as a political act.

Can you share a specific example of when you allowed for an element of refusal? Could you also speak more to this concept of opacity, perhaps as it intersects with refusal in your portraiture?

I’m referring to opacity as theorized by Édouard Glissant, where he describes it as an active strategy of resisting the objectifying or dominant gaze of whiteness. Julie Crooks has been taking up this idea recently in writing about Sandra Brewster’s work, and Pamela Edmonds and Mark V. Campbell have guest edited an excellent issue of MICE Magazine on this theme, and these are some of the texts that have been really helpful to my own understanding of this concept. And so, in my last photographic project, A Welcome Weight on My Body, I tried to incorporate refusal into the portraits in both more subtle ways through body language, as well as sometimes in more explicit ways like having a participant close their eyes, or photographing the back of someone’s head. I’m still thinking through which strategies resonate the most for me.

What is your favourite part of the process?

I don’t know that I have a favourite part. It’s such an intricate thing, and each part has its own frustrations and its own mysteries and its own miracles. But I guess my favourite part is building the relationships that I need to make my work, first with my participants and then with viewers. The vulnerability and trust that is required teaches me so much, every single time.

Where do your best ideas come to you, and where do you get your best work done?

That’s a tricky question to answer. My ideas come from my own experiences, from conversations with other people, from reading, and from looking at the work of other artists. Some come fully formed and some slowly build up over time, as I grapple with what question I’m trying to answer, and how I want to communicate the answer that I want to share with an audience. And I get my best work done in relationship. I’m a talker and I often come to understand what I think through saying things out loud and being in dialogue about my conceptual directions. And the elliptical machine at the gym. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve figured a project out halfway through my morning workout.

How has your life changed since you started making work that is deeply personal and sharing it with the public?

Becoming an artist in the second half of my life has been extremely gratifying. My work on grieving my mother’s death has been an important part of my healing, and as I mentioned previously, all of my work has provided opportunities for me to connect with people, whether as participants or as audience members. I feel a tremendous amount of support for what I’m doing, and I don’t take that for granted at all.

Could you share what that support actually looks and feels like?

It looks like people showing up for me in all kinds of ways, whether that’s helping me find participants, actually participating in my projects, coming out to my exhibitions, writing about my work, or inviting me to contribute to their own projects. And also, taking the time to tell me what the work has made them think or feel. I make my work to communicate something, so I really can’t ask for more than that.




MICHÈLE PEARSON CLARKE | Michèle is a Trinidad-born artist who works in photography, film, video and installation. Using archival, performative and process-oriented strategies, her work explores the personal and political possibilities afforded by considering experiences of emotions related to longing and loss. Her work has been shown across Canada, the United States, and Europe, including in exhibitions at The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (2018); ltd los angeles (2018); Studio XX, Montreal (2017); and Ryerson Image Centre, Toronto (2015); as well as in screenings at Ann Arbor Film Festival (2017); Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (2016); International Film Festival Rotterdam (2015); and International Short Film Festival Oberhausen (2015).

Based in Toronto, she holds an MSW from the University of Toronto, and she received her MFA from Ryerson University in 2015, when she was awarded both the Ryerson University Board of Governors Leadership Award and Medal and the Ryerson Gold Medal for the Faculty of Communication + Design. From 2016-2017, Clarke was artist-in-residence at Gallery 44 Centre for Contemporary Photography, and she was the EDA Artist-in-Residence in the Department of Arts, Culture and Media at the University of Toronto Scarborough for the 2018 winter semester. Clarke’s writing has been published in Canadian Art and Transition Magazine, and she is a 2018 TEDxPortofSpain speaker. She is currently teaching in the Documentary Media Studies program at Ryerson University. | michelepearsonclarke.com

ILLUSTRATIONS | Wenting Li
MICHÈLE PEARSON CLARKE | Michèle is a Trinidad-born artist who works in photography, film, video and installation. Using archival, performative and process-oriented strategies, her work explores the personal and political possibilities afforded by considering experiences of emotions related to longing and loss. Her work has been shown across Canada, the United States, and Europe, including in exhibitions at The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (2018); ltd los angeles (2018); Studio XX, Montreal (2017); and Ryerson Image Centre, Toronto (2015); as well as in screenings at Ann Arbor Film Festival (2017); Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (2016); International Film Festival Rotterdam (2015); and International Short Film Festival Oberhausen (2015).

Based in Toronto, she holds an MSW from the University of Toronto, and she received her MFA from Ryerson University in 2015, when she was awarded both the Ryerson University Board of Governors Leadership Award and Medal and the Ryerson Gold Medal for the Faculty of Communication + Design. From 2016-2017, Clarke was artist-in-residence at Gallery 44 Centre for Contemporary Photography, and she was the EDA Artist-in-Residence in the Department of Arts, Culture and Media at the University of Toronto Scarborough for the 2018 winter semester. Clarke’s writing has been published in Canadian Art and Transition Magazine, and she is a 2018 TEDxPortofSpain speaker. She is currently teaching in the Documentary Media Studies program at Ryerson University. | michelepearsonclarke.com

ILLUSTRATIONS | Wenting Li
SEND TO A FRIEND + CONTINUE THE CONVERSATION