Inspired By Vermonter's 1890s Poem, Artist Celebrates Positive Black Representation

Apr 3, 2021

As a child growing up in South Carolina, artist and printmaker Jennifer Mack-Watkins' curiosity was fueled by thumbing through her local library’s card catalogs and then following those threads. Such as the manner in which Mack-Watkins came to create the works in her first museum solo show, “Children of the Sun,” up now at Brattleboro Museum and Art Center.

VPR’s Mary Engisch spoke with Jennifer Mack-Watkins about the new exhibit. Their interview is below and has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Engisch: Jennifer, “Children of the Sun” uses the imagery of kids dolls as this narrative framework to celebrate Black bodies and Black voices. Tell me your inspiration.

Jennifer Mack-Watkins: I just wanted to research during COVID times and find something that would bring me joy in a time of disaster. One place would lead me to another place. So, like, research is like a really big part of playing as an artist. So I ran across W.E.B. DuBois’ The Brownies' Book, which was a monthly magazine that ran for about a year. And I found these beautiful photographs of children that families would send in. And I found joy in looking at the photographs that families submitted. I found joy in looking at the faces. I found joy looking at the games that were displayed in the book and poetry and illustrations.

So it just took all that and put it into one book, which was incredible. For me, just growing up in the South and not having access to stories that were about my own culture. [All I ever remember] learning about was like, tar baby and like, plantation and slavery. I know that my parents did everything that they could to make sure that they provided me with, like, about my own culture. Light-years later, taking care of my own children — I have a daughter and a son — now, there is a lot more accessible books and toys. But back growing up for me, it wasn't that. I wanted to make sure that, you know, the work that I created for this exhibition, it also remembers how important it is to make sure there's a representation of all children, particularly African American children, and how there needs to be positive representation in using historical people to remember the past, but also remember how important it can go forward in the future.

Can you talk more about the inspiration that came from Grafton Vermonter Daisy Turner?

The connection is that, when I first was asked by the curator of the show, and I was like, "What? I've never been to Vermont. What's happening there?" And so I thought, in order for me to really, you know, connect with Vermont, I wanted to find out African Americans who have lived in the Vermont area. I found out about Daisy Turner, because I looking for specifically a female in the mid-1800s to early 1900s. And I found her.

An image of Daisy Turner greets visitors to the "Children of the Sun" exhibit at the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center.
Credit Erin Jenkins, Courtesy

And so through research, I reached out to Andy Kolovos at the Vermont Folklife Center. He sent me books about her. He sent me audio, he sent me photographs. And so from there, that really sparked my research. And so well, I want to know more about her childhood. Reading through the book and listening to the audio, I fell across the story of her "Dolly" poem. And so basically, she was asked by her teacher, they're doing it like a poetry contest, and her teacher was trying to give her like a doll that was stereotypical. Her teacher gave her a poem. But [Turner] wanted to really change it all together. And she didn't really feel connected with what the teacher had wanted her to say, but she just took matters into her own hands. And she made up a new poem, and she read it out loud.

She went against the teacher. She went against her father. She thought people would be really upset at her. But actually, she won the contest because she gave her doll a voice. She gave all that character to a doll. And I thought, "Wow, this is perfect. And that's where the body of work began."

And you use excerpts from Daisy Turner in the exhibit at Brattleboro?

When you come in, you'll be greeted by an old historical photograph of Daisy Turner with the hat on. And there will be an area where you'll be able to hear two poems. One poem will be the original poem, audio that I got from Vermont Folklife Center of the “Dolly” poem that is actually recited by Daisy, and that was recorded by Jane C. Beck, who also wrote the book about her.

Hear Jane Lindholm interview Jane Beck about her book, Daisy Turner's Kin, on a 2015 episode of Vermont Edition

Also, you'll hear a contemporary poem in response to the “Dolly” poem and story in my exhibition as well. The poem written by the writer Fayemi Shakur. I wanted to have the sense of, not only visual — looking at photographs and connecting historical references and also my own interpretation — but I also wanted to have the sound. Whenever I heard the story, I was deeply connected just by her voice.

I'm looking at a close up of one of the lithographs from “Children of the Sun.” An image of a doll. It’s beautiful. It's dressed up, and there's like, stars and things around its head. Can you describe more about what you were trying to say with this particular image?

It's like a space scene. The backgrounds of the dolls were like, celestial and stars. But then I wanted to make a real space scene where [the dolls] are walking on the moon.

There's stars in the background, there's sun in the sky. The whole purpose of that diptych is, anything you imagine, can happen. You know, no one can stop you from whatever you would like to think about your own future.

It's funny, when I opened the print to send it to Brattleboro, my daughter was like, "That's me, and that's my brother." They were dolls, but she saw herself in all the work that I created. And I thought that was really, really remarkable.

So hopefully people will see themselves in the work that I create.

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