We all know mysteries can hold a mind captive. The mystery that has been with artist Lamar Whidbee involves his family’s heritage. “My knowledge of my family tree stops with my great-grandfather,” he says. “Where do I come from before that?”
The Hertford, NC native and UNC grad student is an all-star athlete turned artist and wants to use art to leave no questions unanswered — or unreachable — for upcoming generations.
ArtsNow went beneath the surface of the Instagram previews of Whidbee’s latest works and talked to him about his current exhibition “Learned Behavior,” on view now at The ArtsCenter in Carrboro. The opening reception will be during the 2nd Friday ArtWalk, August 12 from 6 to 8 p.m. in the Nicholson Gallery. Exhibition on view until August 31.
Q&A by Laken Geiger | Photos by Beth Mann
ArtsNow: You recently finished the install for “Learned Behavior.” What can people expect on 2nd Friday?
Lamar Whidbee: Yeah, I installed it Monday. It’s a hybrid — some paintings and sculptures. It’s similar to Rauschenberg’s Combines. I’ve taken materials that have been used in my house, and around my house too, like a deconstructed dinner table, window panes [and] stuff like that.
Why those things in particular?
The window represents an act of viewing. As a child I remember just looking out of the window and thinking about the world beyond that one location. I grew up in a real southern rural town in N.C., so I would just imagine other worlds beyond where I was. I thought, “Why am I stuck in ‘this’ specific space?” And same with the people around me, why are they confined to this town and this “it’s just the way it is” mentally?
Rather philosophical questions, huh? Any idea where they stem from?
I asked my grandmother where her father or mother [was] from and she couldn’t tell me. That’s just ridiculous to me. My knowledge of my family tree stops with my great grandfather. I look in history books and it’s like, okay we start with slavery and all of that but what [about before] that? Where do I come from before that? I don’t even know my family’s involvement in slavery. I wonder what plantation they where at, what life was like for them and were they always in N.C. Stuff like that.
Has this series helped you process this or reconcile anything?
Making this work helps me understand why people think they way they think and act the way they act; why things are the way they are. I take a lot from listening to different interviews with people — like James Baldwin, Dick Gregory or old MLK and Malcolm X speeches. Also W.E.B. Dubois’ “The Souls of Black Folk.” It’s a combination of a lot of things.
What have you learned in regard to why people think the way they think and act the way they act?
Why people act the way they act is cyclical. It’s a learned behavior, that’s why I chose this name. People have been trained to act and think in a specific way. It’s a feeling out there, that African Americans can’t have a mind of [our] own and I [think it’s because of] a lost history. We’re trained to think and act in a certain way. It comes down to clothes, language; it’s a learned behavior. Even for me, I speak English, but when I’m around my friends and family you can call it Ebonics. And I find that the further I go to be more progressive it seems like I have to leave behind my actual heritage.
In my work, I use black oil paint, and sometimes house paint, as a symbol of erasing history. Because basically, with the lost history, I don’t know when I’m learning to be something else. And this same thing happens over generations and to specific people.
What’s the erasing process of your work like?
I may write something [or] I may just draw an image of a person, but then I erase it. It’s a metaphor for the person, or history, or words that were said at one point in time but then it was erased or disregarded. I do it to raise questions on what we choose to hold on to, and for others to consider the impact of those things lost, or far removed.
Your work features friends and family. Who will we see?
You’ll see a painting of my wife, a painting of my nephew, my sister-in-law and one of my friends. Then there are the sculptural pieces, too. I have a chair with black paint thrown all over it and three flowers sitting on top that are made out of papers from found books. It’s a reflection on my memories of my grandmother sitting in a chair and sharing wisdom – it’s me grappling with the fact that books hold more weight than grandmother’s voice.
And I have another piece [of] my father. It’s not a portrait, but it’s representational. It’s made of tires, a pair of his jeans, and some of his travel-log papers because he is a truck driver. And another piece is three noses and three mouths – one [is] my father’s, [one is] mine and [another] my mother’s. [They] represent and question which genes we share. That comes from years of me looking around and wondering how we all related as a “family.”
Portraits of close friends and family are painted onto original surfaces to pay homage to faces that resemble that of my own but will most likely never understand who or where they truly originated from. Everything I make is personal. If it’s not, then I feel like there’s no purpose in me trying to say something with it.
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When did you find that you could do this art thing?
In high school I was a state champion in track; I was a football player; I played basketball; I did everything. I was a true athlete. That was the only thing I knew. I went to college on a football scholarship and was a total jock. All I knew was that I needed to take an opportunity that got me outside of where I was from. I had no idea what would come after school.
While I was at NCCU I took a painting class with Beverly McIver, a nationally recognized artist and the Esbenshade Professor of the Practice in Studio Arts at Duke University. In her class, I sold my first painting to Emily Kass, then the director at the Ackland Art Museum. That’s when I realized I had something. I realized I [didn’t] have to be the typical athlete. I’m a die-hard athlete, like I’ll watch every game. But I realized I didn’t have to fit the stereotype.
What’s gotten you through when you hit resistance?
Knowing that I’m doing what I believe in and that I have unique talent. Everyone doesn’t think the same way I do. It’s about being honest with myself. There are times I want to just quit, but for what? There really is no purpose of giving up, especially if at the end of it all I want to be an example. And getting to the breaking point is what makes it worthwhile. If it wasn’t difficult there wouldn’t be a purpose.
When you put your work out there, what type of viewer responses resonate the most?
I like the moments when I go to different high schools, middle schools and do oral presentations. I like it when I have my art in public and some African American youth doesn’t understand it but they start asking me questions. I like it when we start a conversation from the pieces. I like it when people from my hometown call me and say, “I saw you in the newspaper, do you want to come and do something?” That’s my motivation to keep going. Selling a painting is good, it keeps the lights on, but it’s not the root of it all.
When kids ask you about your work, what are their questions? What does a conversation sound like?
A lot of times it’s, “I like this but what does it mean? Where do you come from?” They know me as an athlete and they ask me about the transfer from athlete to artist.
What do you hope to get across to them?
That you don’t have to follow a system. You find something that you can be open and honest with yourself about and you just go for it. I tell them to be open and honest about their passions, their dreams.
As you move forward as an artist, what do you hope to bring about?
The work that I make is not for me. I want people to realize that they don’t have to be confined to what they are taught they should be. That’s part of the reason why I am pursuing grad school [to earn] my MFA. I want to be the crash test dummy and use my experiences to educate and empower others. I want to find out as much as possible, learn as much as possible and share it. I hope to work with the school system and the youth in middle and high school and show them that they don’t have to keep blinders on and stay stuck in a system.