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Local Artists Live: Erica Chisolm
February 27, 2021; 10:00 AM–10:30 AM CST
“I have always been an artist, for as long as I could remember.” Erica Chisolm embodies being an artist with an inspired—and inspiring—confidence. Erica decided at six years old, as she looked through an art portfolio belonging to her talented mother and her mom’s twin sister, that she wanted to create masterpieces. That early epiphany melded with her experiences growing up as a darker-skinned girl in a predominantly white space led Erica to the decision to use her gifts to help inspire others. “I am passionate about exploring my healing and my trauma, in regards to the African American experience, to create a better life.”
An impactful memory from her childhood in Birmingham that placed Erica’s bold drive to create face to face with her developing understanding of her own identity, was in fourth grade when her class created a collaborative Alabama History Quilt. The students were told to look through their Alabama history books and pick out a topic, then design a quilt square with that theme. Nine-year-old Erica chose the Klu Klux Klan. “My teacher looked at me in disbelief, but I was determined. The quilt, almost 20 years old now, still hangs inside the elementary school.” This memory serves as a reminder of her innate purpose, of an artist who has big things to share.
Erica continued to explore art through various avenues, and after high school, she attended the Aveda Institute Atlanta and graduated as a Master Cosmetologist. She recalls that her experience in this field helped her grow as an artist, but that she was not fulfilling her purpose. Erica went on to receive her bachelor’s degree in sociology with a concentration in urban development from Georgia State University, with a minor in art, naturally. Now, as the Creative Placemaking Specialist Fellow for Urban Impact Birmingham—a place-based nonprofit located in the Historic 4th Avenue Business District and Civil Rights District of Birmingham—her goal is to increase public engagement and decrease blight, using tactical urbanism projects and public art. “Birmingham is culturally rich and art poor. I believe that we were created and we have a right to create, and if you take away someone’s right to create, you create chaos. Birmingham has been starved.”
Through her community-focused work and the art she so passionately makes, Erica is certainly fulfilling her purpose now. Read on below to find out more about this artist, and don’t miss her feature on Local Artists Live, when she takes over the MMFA’s Instagram account at 10 AM CST to offer an intimate look into her creative space, inspirations, and artwork.
Above: Erica Chisolm, Redemption (A painting of Nathaniel “Nate” Woods, who was executed in Alabama on March 5, 2020), acrylic, mixed media on wood, 24 x 48 x 1 inches
This program is part of the series:
Meet the Artist
What do you appreciate about life in the South?
Food & Family. I love the South, from its deeply tangled roots to the smell of love coming from the kitchen. The resilience of the people living in the South is contagious. Knowing that I am walking on the scared grounds of Freedom marchers and Civil Rights leaders fills me with empowerment. I love going to restaurants like Green Acres in the 4th Avenue Business District of Birmingham, knowing that my late grandmother worked around the corner when I was a little girl and that my granddad would skip school to order a bag of chicken wings and sneak into the only movie theatre that allowed blacks to view films. No, I do not love the thickness of covert racism, and overt racism written into the policies of institutions and stained into the minds of the people, but the resilience and determination to prevail inspire me.
Who is an artist with works in the MMFA’s collection who you respect and why?
Thornton Dial, Sr. Lost Americans. Alabama in my opinion has done a terrific job of hiding the great artists from its people. Artists like Thornton Dial and Kerry James Marshall have not quite made it to the mainstream art world. It’s important for the future that we celebrate these artists because if we don’t know that they exist we will have a hard time knowing that we exist. Before MMFA I had not really heard much about Thornton Dial. His piece Lost Americans resonates with me. The found materials used in this piece remind me of something I know to be true. Black people in America have been robbed of knowing who they are and where they have come from. I am a lost American, and I use my art to find myself. I paint so that my unborn children can find me, and also find themselves, and in a way, this work was painted for the children of Mr. Dial, born, and unborn. Thornton Dial speaks of truth in his art. He was never artistically trained and chained to the rules of what Art should be. I am a high-textured painter, and I am thrilled to walk behind Thornton Dial, a black from the same city as my little sister.
What piece of art that you have created is your favorite, and why?
Clean Hands – I created Clean Hands in the Fall of 2019 after I quit my job and then started as the Creative Placemaking Specialist in Birmingham. At first, it was a testament of me washing my hands of the beauty industry, but the more time that passes I understand it is so much more. It was the start of something new, the start of understanding, the start of growing, the start of me finally stepping into my purpose. I painted a woman using neutrals surrounded by blue roses on wood. The work was featured in the HIGH RISE SHOW in Atlanta in October 2019. It was my first art showing, and the reviews I received will live with me forever. This show also featured two original Jean-Michel Basquiat masterpieces. Clean Hands has since then been collected and is hanging inside an Atlanta home.
Do you have an all-time favorite work of art, and have you seen it in person? If you have, how did you feel in that moment?
At this moment I do not have a particular favorite work of art. I am always excited to see Salvador Dalí and Picasso’s work, but I am also a big fan of Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald. I have not yet been to the Smithsonian or seen the paintings of Michelle and Barack Obama, but that is on my bucket list, and I must see them. Those two artists have done so much for my faith in black art. I am a big fan of their portraiture. They help me see that there are no ceilings.
Tell us about your most preferred place to be on Earth. What role, if any, has the energy of that place helped shape you as an artist?
My preferred place to be on Earth is Free. It is not a physical space. There is no physical space on Earth that I would like to be in if I am not free. Freedom has helped shape my art practice by allowing me to release. To know that I am free to release helps me to create, and to go into spaces where I am not welcomed. I have been in places where I was not welcomed or wanted, and the psychological toll that takes on a young woman is something we should speak on. But there is nowhere on Earth I would like to be if I am not free. Freedom is a place, and that’s where I want to be.
What drives your creativity?
Spirit. I have a mantra that I state before I start my work. I say “Let my head, my heart, and my hands all be on the same accord to do your will Lord.” I am inspired by my surroundings. The people I meet, the things I see, and mostly color. My experiences also drive my creativity. Yes, I paint textured portraits, but those portraits are a filtering of my life experiences and the things I need to grow beyond blockages. I paint people I’ve met and people I haven’t met.
What is your preferred medium?
I prefer to use acrylic paint on wood. I also use twine, tissue paper, decorative paper, and other additives to create cracks and texture.
Do you listen to any particular music when you create?
Neo Soul, Gospel, R&B, Alternative, Jazz. Depending on what I’m painting. I allow my pieces to set the mood. I also enjoy listening to poetry and conversations with black writers and activists.
What advice would you give to beginning artists?
Keep painting. Someone once told me to keep painting. I have to say that at first, I felt insulted, but as I’ve grown, I now understand. On those days that you feel like you just can’t keep painting. With every stroke there is a lesson to be learned, there is energy that longs to be released. Release it. The reward is in the release. Yes, we paint for others, but artists must paint and create for themselves. Keep painting, that is how you get better and how you learn and grow, and you never know who is waiting and watching.
What actions might we take in the state of Alabama to grow our appreciation of art and encourage creativity in our youth and for the future?
More public art, more art education, more art exposure, no more secrets, more truths. Alabama must nurture its artists. All of them, not just the white artists, but all of us. We have to tell our stories, for the future. Alabama needs a public art budget to help feed its artists and rid the idea that artists can only make money when they are dead. We are here and we are telling the stories; Alabama needs to make more space for creatives. More spaces for citizens to be inspired. Art does exist outside of museums and galleries. Art is important, and the benefits of art are notable. Stop pretending like it is an anomaly.