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Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Meet CMAI Artist Toby Sisson

Each year, Worcester Art Museum’s Central Massachusetts Artist Initiative (CMAI) invites two artists who live or work in the greater Worcester area to have their art showcased in a solo installation in our Sidney and Rosalie Rose Gallery, alongside other contemporary artists in our permanent collection.  The first CMAI artist for 2019 is Toby Sisson.

In Toby Sisson’s piece, American | naciremA 1, the word “AMERICAN” appears again and again, forward and backwards, in block capitals or cursive, in different angles and sizes, in black, white and grey.  In some ways, it resembles a page torn from a diary, and indeed Toby compares her process to journal writing: “It helps me understand what I think.  Making my art helps my thoughts crystallize in my head.  I keep experimenting, making adjustments until I reach a sense of resolution.”

Born in Minneapolis, Toby worked as a bartender for thirty years before deciding to pursue her love of art.  She enrolled at the College of Visual Arts in St. Paul, and graduated magna cum laude and co-valedictorian, soon after earning her MFA from the University of Minnesota.  In 2009, she moved to New England to take a position as professor of studio art at Clark University, and creates her own art in her Providence and Worcester studios.

For her CMAI exhibition, Toby created a new piece, American | naciremA 1.  From early on in the process, she felt that this collage would be a significant piece, a turning point in her artwork.  “I’ve been interested for a long time in text, collage, and working in black and white.  But now it was all coming together in a new way.”

Toby Sisson discussing her work, American | naciremA 1.
Her inspiration was partly political, partly personal.  Toby often begins with a question or idea inspired by something she read or saw; in this case, W.E.B. DuBois’ concept of “Double Consciousness.”  DuBois wrote that black Americans must contend with a dual identity – on the one hand, their own concept of self, or how they perceive themselves, and on the other hand how they are perceived by white culture, the dominant culture.  “Double Consciousness” refers both to the gap between these two perceptions, and the ways in which each person reconciles them within himself or herself.

Toby overlaid this concept with personal experiences of growing up in a mixed-race family.  In particular, she remembered her father being a member of the Nacirema Club in Minneapolis, a social club founded by African Americans.  Opening in 1955, the club was one of the few places where the black population of Minneapolis could gather for community meetings, Christmas parties, and other social events – segregation laws barred them from white clubs.  Over the decades, a community grew around the Nacirema Club and a few others in Minneapolis, with a vibrant musical scene including jazz musician Bobby Lyle, soul singer Wee Willie Walker, funk band Flyte Tyme, and even Prince.

Today, Toby better understands how the beloved community fixture was created from the black community’s need to have an alternative space – even after segregation was struck down, the exclusive atmosphere of clubs catering to whites continued to make the African American audience and musicians unwelcome.  The Nacirema Club – one of a network of similar clubs across America – was subversive by its very existence, as was its name: Nacirema is “American” backwards.

Once she had her concept – Double Consciousness, creating a space for yourself when the larger culture doesn’t recognize you – Toby needed a way to make it visual.  She started pulling together ideas from artists she admires: Glenn Ligon, who uses text to create art from words; Martin Puryear, a sculptor who works with ambiguous, almost organic forms; quilters, who take apart old clothes to create new designs.  Though without the vibrant colors usually associated with quilts, Toby’s piece is a patchwork of texts, recombined to create a new whole.

For Toby, the process of creating the piece is as important as the final product.  She describes it as an “intuitive, constantly evolving” process, rearranging the text fragments in new combinations to find what works.  Talking through her ideas with WAM Curator of Prints, Drawings and Photographs Nancy Kathryn Burns also informed her process, helping to crystallize the concepts that shaped the final product.

So in the end, what does she hope viewers will take away from American | naciremA 1?

“I’m not as attached to the idea of ‘what people take away.’  Once a piece leaves my studio, how it works in the world will depend on the minds of others.”  She prefers visitors to form their own ideas and impressions while looking at her artwork.  With the title and artist statement as a starting point, she allows viewers to form their own questions, and search for answers in the work. “I get excited when they catch associations and references I wasn’t fully conscious of,” she admits, which fits with her own complex ideas of authorship: “Who really creates the work? It’s somewhere between the author and the audience, in the ambiguity.”

Toby Sisson’s CMAI artwork, American | naciremA 1, will be on view in WAM’s Sidney and Rosalie Rose Gallery through May 12, 2019.  She also has an upcoming show at Brown University in June.  She will continue her American | naciremA series with further works exploring ambiguity and Double Consciousness, and is excited to see how the concepts will evolve.  You can learn more about her here: https://tobysisson.com/home.html

- April 10, 2019

Video: Toby Sisson discusses her inspiration for this piece.

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