Ten Questions for Artist Bethany Collins

Senior Select is a unique program sponsored by Agnes Scott’s Art and Art History Department that encourages graduating seniors to research works from the Art Papers annual auction for potential purchase for the college’s permanent collection. This year, the Class of 2013 seniors attended the auction and won the bid for Beige, 1951 by artist Bethany Collins. Collins agreed to an interview in her studio, and, included below, are ten questions from our conversation.

How would you describe the works in your Dictionaries series?

Oversized, erasures of dictionary definitions, in which the residual nature of language is allowed to remain in a way that competes with the original language.

What is your process for choosing these words?

The terms selected for the Dictionaries series have all been descriptors of blackness, and often more specifically biracialism—yellow, beige, half and half, half-breed, white-ish. They never quite get at the term or definition of “black,” but rather play around the edges.

Most of these definitions are definitions of color. We’re defining colors with words and not by showing the colors themselves. Is there significance here for the color and using black type?

The black type on white paper feels very authoritative and not debatable. The pink erasure is reminiscent of the giant pink erasures used in school. I like the idea that they are about color and delineations in color, but the colors are absent. Communication is one of the most intimate things we possess, which is one key reason I enjoy playing with language. The ability to communicate with you means we share an intimate connection, can solve anything or figure out anything. Yet, at the same time, language can be so starkly used to exclude, include, and draw these strict boundary lines to separate us.

Are you conscious of all these colonialist terms emerging from your work, or are they arising unconsciously?

I’m conscious of it. All of my work has been about race and identity. It is also about trying to root myself in blackness. I am biracial and this sense of missing or absence of things that would feel grounding is often reflected in my work. I’m interested in this tension that is built on the history of the Southeast.

Are you literally writing the text?

In the Dictionaries series, the text is photo-transferred. I find the definition I like, photograph it, rub it onto the American Masters paper, and then erase it back off. I like that they appear transcribed, but also the distance that is happening through filtering the original definitions through all these new formats. It pushes me back from the text and forces me to look at it more objectively. For me then they become more personal through this processing of language.

How does the erasure link to the rest of your work? Is it similar to the chalkboards of your White Noise series?

One of the first steps in the White Noise series process is erasure, but to a much more obsessive degree. I write whatever text, statement, or question I’m focusing on and obsessing about in the background, referencing chalkboard punishment—where you have to write your lesson in order to learn it. That gets erased, and on top of it, the same language is then deconstructed. You have to look to the title and assume that I am not lying to you in order to “read” any of the included language. You can’t get it. It’s mine, and it’s distinct from you.

Some of the definitions, but not others, have the whole definitions erased. How do you choose what words to erase or not to erase?

What I’m looking for is that there is still a connection between the whole definition and whatever part is allowed to remain, but the whole and part are not interchangeable in terms of our understanding. A lot of the time, what’s left is another way of describing that color. So how can I describe something that has been described as describing something else? It never quite makes sense. There’s never a sense of complete understanding. So it is when we attempt to converse about issues of race.

How did you choose this paper?

It’s American Masters paper, which I think is funny. The dictionary is an American Heritage Dictionary. The paper is American Masters White. I’ve also worked with American Masters Black. But the white page has the most ties to education.

How are you thinking about race in these works?

For me, race is both internal and external, how one self-identifies and how others see you simultaneously. It is a negotiation between those two. Historically, bi-racial has been claimed by blackness. Plus, I’m from Montgomery, Alabama. There, there’s a much clearer boundary between black and white. It’s more of a contemporary conversation to talk about biracialism.

Are you thinking about how people perceive race by color?

It’s more a conversation within blackness. These are all terms that have been used by black people to describe others, based largely on skin tones. It’s a bit of an exclusive conversation. The colors are about distinctions. By working with them, I’m interested in how we draw these internal and external boundary lines.
To see more of Bethany Collins’ work, visit  bethanyjoycollins.com.

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