The most common question I hear is actually 2 questions, "Why do the people have no faces?" and "Why are they all black?"
I get these questions, one after the other, in so many different forms- it's fascinating how many ways this can be asked! Sometimes in utter confusion, sometimes as a bashful questions as a person is surprised that they haven't come up with a satisfactory answer on their own, sometimes it comes through as a whisper- an actual whisper- as if this may be a sensitive subject, and sometimes even in an accusatory tone. My favorite questions come from the kids. When they ask the question, I simply ask them what they think the answer is. Without fail they answer, almost exactly the same every single time: "It's not like you're looking at anyone specific, you're looking at everyone, you're looking at yourself". Yep.
There has been much study done by artists, colorists, and scientists on color theory and light. It all bears looking into and understanding as it explains the why and how color affects us, but I'm not going to get into that today. I'm going to tell you my story of the how and why I use color in this way.
For more than 10 years now I have been incorporating these "people" in my batiks. What started as a fun practice in "purposeful regression" became the platform for story telling in these pieces. The first practices were playing with rudimentary stick figure forms, using the negative space to an advantage in the medium. Keeping the spaces for the figures "open" during the whole dye-ing and waxing process, allowing each color to penetrate the cloth, blending all the colors together = black. I liked the idea of inclusiveness in the color black, just as much as I liked the inclusiveness of representational stick figure. It stuck.
As time and skill progressed another idea struck me. I work on these pieces for months at a time. I am a highly emotional individual and am fueled and motivated and inspired by subtle sensitivities. It is often times hard to pin down one particular emotive avenue to portray in my own art. Emotions are rarely singular, stories are not without emotional complexity. I traverse the emotional landscape of each piece through patterns and colors and composition. As the time would come to examine the emotion of the actual human subject in the piece, I wouldn't want to...who am I to pin down someone or something into one particular emotional moment? The emotional fluidity of a scene could continue to ebb and flow without me ever having to stop it.
And that is what, with each new piece, I am trying to work towards. Creating a scene that explores ideas and stories through the pattern and color and composition. The pieces are really just the beginning of the story, the first sentence or paragraph maybe. The people in the scenes are there to continue the story with the viewer. That faceless face reflects anyone who looks at it, pulls one in to participate in the story.
Truly, I didn't realize that this was the purpose for some time. I took the work out into the world, exhibited in galleries and shops, but the real fun was exhibiting at art fairs where I could see firsthand the response from people. The reaction from people spanned the whole emotional range from giddy to depressing. People come in, look around and exclaim that the pieces either "are" or "make them feel" ..... fill in the blank... every emotion has been covered. One piece will evoke polar opposite reactions from different people. These people are not seeing something that I put in the art, they are really seeing a reflection of themselves in it. There is sweetness, there is light, there is goofiness, there is sadness and bitterness and hurt and healing too. We carry it all, and often, as I have seen in my booth, we just need a place to put it. Sometimes my work allows some space for someone to put those emotions and name them.
As far as the blackness of the people, yes they are black. Not brown, not even African or Haitian or Caribbean. I haven't "traveled to exotic lands" and brought back native art. The people in the pieces are black. And this is where all that color theory comes into play... Very simply, I find the contrast of black and all other colors interesting. The faces offer a resting point for ones eyes and sharpen the rest of the colors in the process. If I think of the piece as a sentence or a story, the figures are the punctuation.
I won't deny people their questioning, though, of why I use black figures, I can only answer for my own simple reasons. It does make sense to connect the pieces with African art, as batik does have roots in Africa. And some of the pieces do hint at southern life, but those are from my own experiences, and my own personal nostalgia. I have often had people look around the booth, their eyes fall on me, the question of "who is the artist" asked and answered, followed by a look of surprise at the white girl in the corner. Batik has been around for centuries and is still an integral part of some cultures in Africa, Asia, and very much Indonesia, used as much for design as storytelling. Why it hasn't take root as strongly here, is another question entirely.
This reasoning and purpose in the work was not initially planned. There was not conscious forethought for the path the work has taken. It evolved and I'm constantly receiving new hints and information on the "why" of what I do. Seeing people's faces and reactions and communication with the pieces has been paramount to the continuation of the series. And hearing kids explain, without hesitation, to the adults the reason for the faceless figures is pretty darn magical.