Inside the Artist’s Studio with Amanda Chestnut: Exploring Racial Identity Through Artist’s Books

Growing up out side of Binghamton, New York afforded me a bucolic, nonpareil childhood that combined a rigorous academic environment with a loving and supportive community. Largely sheltered from cultural strife, these seemingly unobtainable ideals are part of my motivation in asking difficult questions through my artwork.

Why do you have to make everything about race? installed at Visual Studies Workshop, Rochester, New York, January-February, 2015

Why do you have to make everything about race? installed at Visual Studies Workshop, Rochester, New York, January-February, 2015

Why can’t life be perfect? Where does this historic burden come from, and do we all carry it, even if only some of us actively choose to? In earning an MFA in visual studies from Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester, New York, I developed the ability to ask these questions through my artwork. Experiences at VSW formed who I am as an artist today.

from The Frederick Douglass Archive Project, in collaboration with Rare Books and Special Collections at the University of Rochester, Rochester, NY, 2013

from The Frederick Douglass Archive Project, in collaboration with Rare Books and Special Collections at the University of Rochester, Rochester, NY, 2013

I have been making photographs for 20 years, and had entered VSW with the intension of continuing to do so. I left VSW making books, instillations, and writing poetry. At VSW I learned to look to artists like Elizabeth Tonnard and Claudia Rankine for inspiration, as they deftly walk the line between literature and image art while exploring political ideas. The late artist and exhibitions guru Rick Hock would often ask us, “Why photographs?” He emphasized the necessity of choosing an appropriate medium for all works. Rick’s influence encouraged me in my explorations of poetry, bookmaking, and alternative mediums (like hair).

Actress Mae Johnson and Athlete Jesse Owens, in the folder "African Americans/Civil Rights/Jesse Owens," Part of the Soibelman Collection of Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester, New York, 2013

Actress Mae Johnson and Athlete Jesse Owens, in the folder “African Americans/Civil Rights/Jesse Owens,” Part of the Soibelman Collection of Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester, New York, 2013

Through VSW I was able to speak with artist Carla Williams, who validated my efforts in finding my voice as an artist of color. Finding this voice and using it well is a continual thought for me; I find Langston Hughes’ essay The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain from 1926 to be an interesting exploration of what it is to be an artist of color in America.

Since graduating a year ago in 2015, I’ve had residency opportunities at the Center for Photography at Woodstock in Woodstock, New York, and at the Genesee Center for Arts and Education, where I am currently in residence in Printing and Book Arts.

Cyanotype Book 4 was made during my time at Woodstock. The materials were in large part a felicitous combination of available materials and a printer that was insistent on not working. While waiting for technology to cooperate, I explored the cyanotypes, eventually compiling them into four unique yet similar books. My hair has been a continuing theme in my work because it has been a continuing theme in my life, as it is for many women of color. I spent many years allowing myself to be defined by my hair. This single feature, more than any other part of my body, has been used by others to measure how black I am, how white I am, how smart I am, how much money I have, and how much I am worth as an individual. While I know this is a societal/cultural burden that I do not have to make my own, I can’t help but explore why hair means so much.

I often ask myself, “How do I quantify hurt?” I wonder if the struggles that my my parents faced as an interracial couple, the brutality faced by my father because of the color of his skin, and the atrocities that were committed upon his ancestors all reside in me somewhere.

Through my books I have learned that my personal history is a shared history. I’ve been approached by many people with statements of solidarity. While many of the experiences that drive my work are deeply personal and often private in nature, in sharing them I’ve learned I’m not alone. This gives me strength to continue carrying this historical burden.

View Amanda’s artwork online at www.amandachestnut.com. Upcoming shows and classes, current projects, and cat photos can be found on Instagram @mandanut.

Stop by Main Street Arts to see her artwork in our current exhibition, Ink and Paper (runs through Friday, March 25). Take a look at our previous Inside the Artist’s Studio blog post by mixed media artist Peter Sowiski.

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