How do women of color, specifically black women, employ mark making to transform overlooked spaces to imagine future potentialities? Focusing on making processes as generative healing, both Olivia Guterson and Avery Williamson, two muralists commissioned by the Ann Arbor Art Center, are interested in mobilizing the power of line as a tool for letting go. Collective loss and struggles for survival are projected into portals, offering lenses through which to map out realizable landscapes of growth, joy, and play.
During my conversation with Williamson, she remarked about the power of black abstraction as “a way to engage with the loss of [African American history] and also to celebrate the opportunity to imagine alternative worlds and lives.” Directing their focus to an incomplete archive, a juxtaposition of ancestral cloth, texts and annotations, and family photo albums, Guterson and Williamson’s work looks back as much, if not more, than it looks forward in order to self-realize diverse possibilities and individualized languages for expression. After sorting through queries, both theirs and mine, and pulling concepts and direct quotes from conversations with each artist, I am interested in a unifying question that runs through their work. How does the anonymity of abstraction lend its way to an ambiguous existence, encased within the permeable membrane between portraiture and landscape, that leaves traces of the past while denying the possibility of a future reimagined without gaps?
Olivia Guterson, a Detroit based interdisciplinary artist and new mother also known as Midnight Olive, began our conversation confiding in me that she didn’t talk much as a young child. Although this was temporary, her commitment to making things has developed in conjunction with the development of a mode of communication that is uniquely hers – a language of line based patterns. This creative sensibility is illuminated in her later remark, “To teach is to seek to understand and then make sense of for others,” a practice she compared to the artist’s process of making and leaving behind personal artifacts. The mural Guterson drew is exactly this, a release.
Talking about Nalo, her son of several months, and her grandparents, I came to comprehend the role of family in certifying her connection to art making. Sitting on the pavement of the parking lot as Guterson hugged to the wall to draw the last flower of her mural, she told me this was the third time Nalo and her had been separate for a several hour block. On prior occasions, he was strapped to her chest as she dragged her sharpie pen across white painted bricks to replicate patterns from her grandmother’s wedding dress on the leaves of drawn flowers. This collapsing of time and space runs through her work; a weaving of generations of familial history into floral landscapes that juxtapose imagery from the fabric and quilts of Black Americans and Eastern European Jews. It is this connection to family, and possible lack thereof, symbolized by her white Jewish grandmother not gifting her and her siblings with a quilt at the age of thirteen, or the legacy of enslavement inhibiting a clear drawing of ancestry, that has Guterson infusing her natural landscapes with historical motifs as a conduit for rebirth and growth. The white space in between the flowers allude to this, and complicate an already multifaceted relationship to the act of giving. “I needed to take up space because I was given space and I don’t feel that way anymore,” Guterson says. “I realized I didn’t need someone to gift me my heritage through a quilt or something. I had the ability to create my own language and a lot of healing through it.”
Avery Williamson, an Ann Arbor based interdisciplinary artist, began making the meditative line paintings in 2017 in response to the epidemic of killings of black people at the hands of police. While these works existed primarily in black and white, a value scale consistently employed in Guterson’s drawings, “What the Water Gave Me” is painted with ultramarine, white, and payne’s grey acrylic paint and medium. The scattered marks, referenced by Williamson as “guts,” are produced throughout a long timeline of active processing, extended because of the scale of the work. Additionally, dictated by its size, Williamson stood above the metal panes, which lay face up on her studio floor, as she painted. This process, in which Williamson interacts with her “canvas,” or metal panes, in “as an arena in which to act”, (Rosenberg, 1952) is similar to painting methods of the mid twentieth century action painters. Harold Rosenberg, an American art critic and influential figure regarding Abstract Expressionism, wrote, “What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.” Avery’s identity as a black woman offers an incredibly important perspective through which to reframe such critique, as many of the ascribed artists were white men, and see contemporary black abstraction through a process centric lens. Swimming through a series of events into a sea of expansive blue, this portal gives birth to the power of water and its dynamic currents into a hopeful future where black joy and healing are prioritized and unconstricted.
The meditative actions, or modes of creation, of Olivia Guterson and Avery Williamson unveil murals that exist as archival documents for the public’s viewing. Both artists expressed this act of leaving behind as an important part of iterative processing; a glimpse into a passing of moments let go of. “The personal archive can tell us so much more because there are fewer hands mediating us and our relationship to the objects and the words,” William says. I believe our only option is to enter these portals to explore all that these two women have left for us to discover.
Olivia Guterson’s mural is on display at 111 N Ashley and Avery Williamson’s “What the Water Gave Me” at 113 W Washington. In addition to these aforementioned artists, the Ann Arbor Art Center also commissioned eleven other muralists, so don’t forget to check out the other exhibited work while you’re in downtown!
More of the artists’ work can be found below:
Olivia Guterson/Midnight Olive: