Last spring, Teresa Baker mentioned an artist talk she’d given recently, how she had gotten into some fraught territory with a woman in the audience who was pushing her to prove her authenticity. The way Teresa described her frustrated disinterest in playing this game reminded me of something Grace Rosario Perkins said earlier in the year at Cushion Works about the pressures artists face to deliver a certain straightforward identity to curators eager to check off diversity boxes.
Grace and Teresa each evade the straightforward in their art, playing with personal histories and pushing abstraction in compelling and surprising ways. And they share some common ground beyond the studio. Both lived and studied in the Bay Area; both left urban arts centers to be in rural/out-of-the-way places, going there for family but also affording themselves big chunks of time to dedicate to their art. Given that TBR is very much about place, I thought putting them in conversation would be a nice thing — to talk family and geography as artistic influences, and whatever else might interest them.
The conversation unfurled, as they often do these days, in a shared Google doc, in between residencies and openings and installs. Grace and Teresa began with my starter prompts then added their own questions and images, creating a multicolored embroidery of fonts, quiet little text echoes of the layered, nuanced vibrancy in their visual work. –clr
Claudia La Rocco: Would you describe your current studio setups, including what’s surrounding you outside? What do you look at, hear, smell, etc.?
Grace Rosario Perkins: I live in Albuquerque. This was a landing space for me after a breakup and my grandfather passed; he was in hospice here. I live in an old bookstore with built-in shelving and a loft where I have a bed… underneath is a little area I use as a dense closet space. I found this place on Craigslist before I even moved; my landlord is a New Mexican guy who used to farm. I only have one painting wall really and I’m cleaning constantly because it gets chaotic fast since it’s a live/work and it’s small scale. This changes how I look at the work. I just had two rooms at my Skowhegan residency and I really spread out; I felt so spoiled by working there, whereas here in Abq, it is such a dance, moving paintings to accommodate the space.
I’m on a somewhat noisy street but after where I lived in Oakland, it feels pretty quiet. I am across the street from a community garden + my neighbors are all brown people with families — one family sells flowers, and another I am just getting to know. I have a pretty constant buzz of traffic and lately they relocated the crossing guard right in front of my only door: I hear her every weekday greeting people. Sometimes through my screen door I can see her dancing or singing along to the music I play — namely oldies, like any Motown. She comments on the days I don’t play music.
Albuquerque is fine, though… it’s small and I feel anonymous usually. On Sundays when it’s warm, I go downtown (about a ten-minute walk) and attend the Lowrider cruise where families and car clubs show off their cars… cruising, blasting music, partying. There’s a really good old Lowrider magazine video of the Albuquerque Lowrider convention in the nineties (Abq is first on this video) and that energy is pretty alive still. I went to the convention last year and sadly I’m going to miss it this year. It’s a maximalist dream.
Teresa Baker: This video is amazing. I’m obsessed with the colors.
I just moved to a new studio in El Sereno, the Eastside of LA. It’s the first space I’ve had since I lived in Beaumont, TX, six years ago that’s bigger than two hundred sq. ft. I am still feeling overjoyed for the space and the ease it affords my movements. Although I did enjoy working part time outside by my garden for the last few years, this is nice because I don’t have to spend time rolling up work and moving it before it’s finished, especially in the winter and rainy season. I know that dance you mention!
The area is very industrial — a lot of metal factories — I hear banging during the day from a big metal company across the street. They seem to make giant pipes and culverts and they have an American flag hanging off a crane, so I see that out my window. There is also a family-owned casket factory kitty-corner to the studio that I see driving in and out every day. They have a lot of pretty flowers outside that are very well cared for.
I hear a lot of traffic noises, speeding cars, peeling out, the occasional donuts — it’s all very LA. Then of course a helicopter overhead.
The studio has very tall walls and my window is placed high up, so when I’m seated I see the tops of a palm tree, a light pole, and an electric tower. But, when I stand near the entrance of the studio, I get to see the El Sereno Hills and even the Angeleno mountains in the distance; it’s actually a lovely view but I don’t enjoy it much because I have to be in a very particular spot to see it. So, mainly, I just look at my art and materials all day long. My studio faces north in a very big warehouse, with fifty-nine other studios, but I rarely run into any fellow tenants.
Because my seeing is limited, I think it allows me to daydream in my work even more, to create the feeling of seeing things that I want to see in the work. Working in not only lands I am not from, but also in a studio where I don’t get to see out the window as easily means I lean on my memories even more, and I think as a result, my colors are getting brighter and in a sense the landscapes are getting louder. At this moment, I am less interested in capturing the calm solitude of those places I am from, but rather want to exaggerate their vibrancy.
I have a yarn wall — which is exciting to me — it’s basically my version of having all my paint laid out in an organized fashion.
CLR: How has the Bay Area influenced your work? What were some of the immediate or pronounced shifts you noticed in your respective practices when you left?
GRP: When I was in the Bay, I spent the first few years deeply into film. I was shaped by retrospectives at the Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) and volunteering at Artists’ Television Access in the Mission, running the door or the bar and going to Other Cinema stuff a lot. It was extremely formative. Right before arriving in Oakland in 2007, I lived on my mom’s rez (Fort Defiance, AZ) and my dad’s rez (Blackwater, AZ), pretty alone — so I wasn’t streaming experimental cinema or hanging with people screening specifically gay cinema. Getting to Oakland and being thrown into Access was huge, to find community in these little niche zones. I didn’t study painting at Mills but art history and video. I would go to school during the day and write papers on St Catherine’s image in Italian renaissance art + read Walden or something, then go work the door at a Fred Halsted screening at ATA and drink wine and hang out in the evening. Watching a band play or taking the Mills College shuttle to the UC Berkeley campus and seeing the Pasolini retrospective at BAMPFA... they were just these isolated points of expansion. I jammed my head with a lot of information during this time.
The Bay gave me a real floating DIY approach to everything. Being self-taught, I’ve always had to be self-directed and also draw energy and influence from outside and extremely varied places. All my friends were in bands or wrote poetry or DJed or organized, and it was galvanizing. I lived in houses with lots of people and I was entrenched in familial friendships. Being around so many people who just “did,” a lot of makers, musicians, etc., I started to just “do.” I can’t play an instrument, well, I’ll start a band. I can’t draw, I guess I’ll make a painting. I have no film equipment, I guess I’ll make this movie. That was a really good energy to be around.
I played in punk bands after teaching myself the drums and rode my crappy bike around to house shows. After I got an undergraduate degree at Mills I became an art educator working at spots like NIAD Art Center and Creativity Explored, among others, teaching adults with disabilities and eventually at-risk youth at after school programs. I got to know this woman named Bonnie Grossman who ran a gallery out of her house in Berkeley and collected self-taught artists such as AGRizzoli and I’d go over there and read her books and talk with her. I never took that place and her generosity for granted.
I met Lonnie Holley also while living in the Bay Area, at the Kadist. He made me cry the first time we met and he told me I was going to write a book. The next day I went to the now-demolished Berkeley Art Museum building where Lonnie recorded an improvised set on keyboard and he sang to me. A lot of those songs were about me and my grandmas and he sang that I was a worker bee or that I had fruit to harvest — I sang with him, too. He has been my friend, mentor, family, and collaborator since that day I was lucky enough to hear his voice echo through the concrete architecture of that old BAM space. This is one of my favorite Bay memories.
When I left, to be quite honest, I became more invested in a solitude I had before on the reservation or in Santa Fe, where I am from. I went through a few depressions from feeling isolated, too… just smaller social circles in New Mexico… and dated a couple of people, throwing all my energy into these relationships and my family… caretaking, which I am still doing. Then I had a major moment in the last year realizing I had a place to myself and I could work virtually anytime. I could paint all night and make a mess. I have often had home studios and been in partnerships that get punctuated by schedules — being alone this last year shifted my schedule more to a continuous routine. I would live “life” during the day and spend my evenings eating a light dinner and painting till two or three a.m., crawling into my loft bed after. Having this privacy became crucial — just being in a place where no one was seeing the work but me and it became this daily mental and physical space to come to. That changed everything. My entire work ethic. It’s like the Bay I knew over a decade was the food I had to digest and now it's being used for energy finally.
TB: That makes sense to me — the food you had to digest. It’s funny how some places really stick with us and come out later in our memory, in the work. Most recently, I find myself thinking back to my time spent at a residency in Ucross, WY. And, I have also been returning to memories of the feeling of living at Little Bighorn Battlefield, on Crow Territory. The colors of the grass, the sound of walking on the yellowed grass in the fall before the snow starts, the particular glow of orange at sunset in the warmer months, the sound of quiet once the park gates closed and the tourists left. We lived within the National Park boundaries, in park housing. It is also a working cemetery, so there were concrete coffins at the end of the road where the maintenance office was. And to visit my dad’s office I had to walk through the cemetery from our house.
Do you enjoy teaching? Is it something you still do or would like to do? Also, I’m just seeing you have a lot of friends who write poetry — poetry is often the place I look to when I need to come up with titles or research how to articulate the feeling of a body of work. Language stresses me out most of the time, and I have a lot of admiration and love for writers.
Is Albuquerque a place where you think you might stay?
GRP: I do like teaching. I feel like I’ve had some extremely impactful relationships as a teacher but I’m also someone who throws a lot of intensity into whatever I am doing so sometimes it has been a bit hard for me to find a teaching/art practice balance. I would do it again if the institution or space felt just right.
I hardly read poetry, admittedly, but I’m really obsessed with CAConrad right now and their book ECODEVIANCE: (Soma)tics for the Future Wilderness. I love ritual as a daily art making practice (great podcast with CA here). For me, art and ritual are always inextricably linked. I use materials and photos and personal notes in my work often. They all have important symbolic power; putting them into conversation provides a place to put intentions and release things.
In terms of Albuquerque, I’m not sure how long I will stay here. I feel pulled quite a few places right now but giving myself a little time to pick that apart.
TB: I went to grad school in the Bay Area and then was in residence at Headlands Center for the Arts following graduation. So, the Bay Area was a time of experimenting with different materials as well as learning my language of abstraction. It’s also a community that I hold very dear to my heart; the friendships and mentors I gained there mean a lot to me and influence my life and practice to this day. I made some very deep relationships, artists I still call on to discuss life and art. There is a freedom, a different lifestyle on the West Coast, from where I grew up on the Northern Plains, and the East Coast where I went to undergrad, that I think helped to liberate me in the studio. There is not so much rigidity, at least in terms of always having to answer to art history, that I credit to being a major influence on my practice. I would also be remiss to not mention the landscape, the environment — the proximity to the ocean, the grandeur of the Bay Area, is incredibly inspiring and freeing. It is so different from the landscapes I am used to, and I just find it to be one of the most beautiful places and one of my favorite places.
One big shift was that I finally stumbled upon a material (artificial turf) that I could really work with as a ground. I had been searching for something that was structured and held its own shape, so I didn’t have to make a backing, and that was blank in a sense — there wasn’t already a lot of context within art for how it was being used. I have been using it for five years now, longer than any previous material. Another big shift is I brought culturally significant materials into my practice like willow, buffalo hides, deer hides tanned various ways, brain tanned to parfleche: materials all used within my tribes in ways that spanned the functional and the spiritual. I had wanted to incorporate them in my practice for a long time, but I had been waiting until I knew how to use them within my work.
GRP: Ooh, I like that you say the Bay Area is a place where there isn’t a lot of rigidity in terms of having to answer to art history. I was just talking to someone who also had lived in the Bay, that we had never been in a place where even protest had force. I think similarly to you and how we maybe had some overlap in our time there, there was definitely a really good energy that broke things up for me.
I’m curious what you considered helped you learn your language of abstraction there? I’m also just interested in what painters you like, or who your people are there? I love that it is an interwoven community and even though I’ve been gone for a while, I still feel very held by that community.
TB: I think a lot of trial and error, honestly. But, I think it was the freedom of the place, of CCA as an institution, and their approach in grad school. I specifically did not apply to East Coast schools because after living in NYC for eight years by then and being immersed in the art world through different avenues, I knew that actually what my practice needed was time and space vs. an incredibly critical program. I did not go to an art school undergrad, so I was still really fresh at understanding my work, and I was searching for a more open approach to grad school. CCA for me at the time, while rigorous and critical, had that element of freedom… but, I was also on a mission to figure out how to create what I felt like was mine through formal gestures and investigations!
Do you mean painters in general? Or Bay Area painters? I will answer the general painters (who I don’t think are always painter painters but material people too…). Richard Tuttle was an early influence. His work clicked for me instantly. Milton Avery, Forrest Bess, Dyani White Hawk, Louise Bourgeois, Kay WalkingStick — and, she’s not a painter, but I also am influenced by my grandmother’s quilts. Really any of my family’s hand sewing works, on both my mother and father’s side, whether it's regalia or blankets, or embroidery from my German grandmother. My interest in artists runs the gamut, but those are some I can easily return to over and over.
I still feel very held by that community as well! My life there definitely revolved around CCA, and the people associated with that school at that time. Even visiting advisors made a big impact on me. I have so many grad-school friends who I admire dearly, I won’t mention them all here, but a lot of people made big impacts on my thinking and gave me opportunities early on — like my dear friend, McIntyre Parker, who ran Pied-à-terre. Jackie and Aaron from Et al., who gave me my first group show out of grad school at the now-closed Interface Gallery in Oakland, brilliantly run by Suzanne L’Heureux. So many people support artists in that town. Then I spent two years at the Headlands! So, I also got to meet artists from around the country/world while living in the Bay Area, which is how I got to build a friendship with the dear Claudia La Rocco! I guess what also feels nice to me now that I am years apart from that life, is that these people in the Bay, true art supporters, also got to see various stages of my practice just by nature of my attending grad school there.
Who are some painters you like, Grace, either Bay Area or just anywhere, in general, throughout your practice?
GRP: I love Richard Tuttle and can see him as an influence. And wow, quilts, yeah, years ago I saw a Rosie Lee Tompkins show at the Oakland Museum, a little before the Berkeley retrospective, and I was blown away. When I taught, I would show slides of quilts to my students to think about color and pattern and composition. Quilting is also a huge part of my family history. My great grandma was a quilter and she hand pieced each quilt and I am lucky to have two that are almost forty years old.
Favorite painters… Bay Area… hard one… Marilyn Wong, an artist at Creativity Explored I often refer to as my painting teacher. I’ve told this story often about Marilyn... when I taught at Creativity Explored, she started to work on a larger scale in preparation for an exhibition, moving from paper to stretched canvas. As someone who didn’t study art in school, watching Marilyn approach her first canvas was huge for me. She just walked up and did this giant circle with a brush and I was like, “Ooh yeah, that’s how you start a painting!” Marilyn also has an incredibly intuitive sense of color. I really consider her a major influence on how I approach movement and boldness of line in my work.
I am also into Forrest Bess. I’ve been looking at a lot of Hilma af Klint lately or always. I like a lot of painters who generally are way more subdued than I am, haha, but more than anything I am influenced by how people integrate their spirituality or belief systems into painting, even if they’re super complicated… Purvis Young. Thornton Dial.
CLR: What are some of the ways family (however expansively or not you want to define that) shows up in your art that might not be immediately obvious?
GRP: My dad is a painter and was a painting professor, an activist, too, involved in some major stuff I’ll link here (protesting racist mascots at his alma mater) and here (protesting a burial site where the remains of two hundred-plus indigenous peoples were on display) when we lived in Champaign-Urbana in the early nineties. He’s in there, though, in the work... conversations we have or even his artistic influence, it’s all in there. I bring him into shows I am in, too. I just had a meeting with a gallery and they asked about my dad, I was like “Wow, I can’t escape him.” I grew up in an intergenerational home, so everyone was around. My grandma was mom, my aunt was mom, my uncle was dad, my parents were there, and my brother.
In more obvious ways, I’ve used photos… but I feel a little more distanced from that now, or protective, especially in the “art market.” Everything is contextual. All my paintings use text in some form… notes from family or a joke someone said. Even when stuff gets painted over, they’re still there.
TB: Grace, my father is not an artist, but I laughed when you mentioned not escaping your dad. I also often get asked if Gerard Baker is my father. My whole family is proud of him and his tireless work within the National Park Service as the first Native American Superintendent to parks like Little Bighorn Battlefield, Mount Rushmore, Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail, just to name a few. He worked to bring the Native side of the story back to those national parks, through oral storytelling exhibits, permanent educational exhibitions, advising from the local tribes — to make sure those stories are told and the correct history is included in these places that are on traditional Native territories.
I think the most important way my family shows up in my work is through the feeling the work gives off. My immediate family, my relatives, my culture — it’s all in there. There is a spirituality my people hold that ties us to the land, to our belief; it’s inherent in all my family and it’s where my work holds my family. It’s an unspoken thing, and rather a felt thing. Something I do, but don’t talk about, is that I chase the idea, the urge, to capture spirit in materials, in objects — there is a spiritual component that I just hope to translate through the feeling of an object. It’s not a verbal thing. I talk about land and abstraction and all of these true things that my work also pursues, but the thing that is hardest to put into language is how to talk about the spirit of a culture, of peoples, of place, of moments of gatherings — and that is the part that is most important to me and that I hold closest and quietest and do my best to see if the work can be an object to hold that for me.
To capture people, and memories, and places, and the presence of it all — the smell, the feeling, the sun beating down, the wind, the crunching of the ground beneath — all of these different moments and experiences distilled, for abstraction to convey.
CLR: What’s your relationship to narrative? What role do materials play in that relationship?
GRP: I think my relationship to narrative at this time is embarrassingly autobio. Everything is just this moment… like a collage of what is inspiring me or what I’m thinking about, especially the latest work. In the last six or seven months, I got really into plant medicine and plant study — I guess “ethnobotany” — and how these materials relate to my people. I’ve been rubbing rue, ocotillo, datura, rose petals, and more into everything. The paintings contain mirrors, candlewax, altar oils, opal, jade, incense, and then I have been putting other materials like visitor badges with my temperature that they take at my grandma’s nursing home as a type of COVID protocol or plastic bags from the grocery store up the street or a napkin with a dude’s phone number written on it who was trying to hit on me (I covered the number, out of decency of course). These are all elements… like “Here’s Grace and this is a painting about ___blank___.” Someone just recently referred to my work as being about “the natural world” and I never thought of it that way — but it is about nature, and its symbolism. And the paintings are also about emotions. Feelings. Incantation and hope and grief and whatever. And again I can feel embarrassed but they’re honest and in that — I do see them as being about femininity, which I used to have such a complicated relationship to but now embrace in my queerness, and materiality, indigeneity, color, texture… and that’s the story I can tell because it’s accessible and unfolding. In the narrative, I’m less interested in people “getting it” right away. I guess that’s why I love graffiti so much — like bad street graffiti which I’m constantly photographing for inspiration on my daily walks. There is this urgency to communicate: it gets lost or muddled in the noise of other messages but you can find it there, a sentiment or gesture that holds a lot. Like “I love Melissa” or something angry like “Fuck you little bitch!” but through a mass, it loses its potency and becomes an ingredient in what you’re consuming. It can be either tender or funny or sad and what strikes you will strike you. You extract the message.
TB: I understand how the autobio might feel so raw, but I think the way you handle it in your work is so well done! Relatable, but also it’s nice to get to see the artist behind the work through the snippets you show us.
I struggle a bit with narrative and the expectations that surround it. I think, truthfully, I sometimes wish I had a narrative practice. On one hand, it just seems like a clearer way to communicate art to an audience. And secondly and probably more importantly, being Mandan and Hidatsa, I was raised listening to stories from my grandma, my dad, my uncles, aunts — all my relatives — and understanding the function of oral stories within my culture, sometimes I am still confused why abstraction makes so much sense to me. In away, I think I set an expectation on myself: if my work were more narrative I would be carrying on traditions in a better way, or rather able to express and share it in the “right” way.
But, I am realizing more and more that actually there is narrative in the work, a narrative that my materials get to carry forward. One of the things I love about abstraction, and a way I approach my work, is that the materials stand in for many ways of seeing the world, our lands, for reflecting on our current state of humanity, and for thinking a lot about the past; what is lost, culturally speaking. Mass-produced materials don’t have life in them: machine made, in a big production line, they are void of history, meaning, sentimentality. Whereas, for instance, some of the buffalo hide I have used in my work was given to me by my dad from a buffalo he killed on our reservation, from a herd meant for our people for food. So, that hide, that material that I then sew onto my work, innately holds a history, life, and family in it.
Hmm, just also thought about this, there is an expectation from the art world that as a Native artist, there has to be narrative in your work. That annoys me and makes me want to retaliate a bit. I don’t like that way of defining who we should be and how we as Native artists should act within this Western art world framework
Do you feel an expectation to bring narrative into your work? How do you handle expectations in general within the art world? I guess I always find that as a Native artist, there are expectations of what the art should do, what it should say.
GRP: I would say that I sometimes feel others placing a need to legitimize my indigeneity by pushing me to be more literal or ascribing literal interpretations to nonliteral work — which, like you say, you feel retaliatory toward. Even making abstract paintings with a particular density, I am always asked “What does this mean or what does this symbolize?” I also feel it is important to have a bit of pushback. This is why I love abstraction.
I think overall as Native people we unfortunately still exist in the imagination of a lot of people… the understanding is complicated by displacement or ignorance… We are required or asked to explain because of the way things have been set up for people to view us — which is either monolithic or these really stagnant views. I remember having dinner with a mentor who is indigenous and talking about how as contemporary Native artists we will still be curated into collections of artifacts or shown alongside them more so than readily integrated into other collections. That is a major problem because to non-Native viewers it implies a lot. How Native artists are being shown is changing now but I know that my work is a bit noisy and not completely legible to a lot of curators as work “about” my indigeneity so it happens sometimes and sometimes it doesn’t that I will be included in these conversations.
Narrative, honestly, is an interesting word; I’ve never applied it to my own work when talking about it. Or even used words like “story.” I think I like abstraction so much because it ultimately relinquishes you from having a clean narrative. It makes things more visceral. Color is so important, too, and material… they feel intuitive, which for me is in relationship to spirituality. I think abstraction is essentially just a method of working toward personal freedom. And also it feels very open-ended to the viewer.
TB: So beautifully said!!! I agree — agree with it all. You are right, we do still exist in the imagination of many people, which is why I also think it’s exciting that so many Native artists are currently being shown in more galleries/institutions — within the wider art world in general, so that all of our different voices are being heard, and we are showing the varying nuances within our cultures and who we as Native people are today.
I like what you mention about the link of intuition to spirituality — I believe that for sure. Curious in general what your process looks like? Is it all intuitive?
GRP: Everything is intuitive. I start with text or a shape and build and build and take away and sometimes destroy things or cut them up. It’s a constant dance. I’ve always admired the people in my life who have such precision and plan but I also probably wouldn’t have the same energy in my work if I did that? I think of automatic writing or stream-of-consciousness writing… you’re just unfiltered. I guess I essentially do that? But with an editing process. But being vulnerable in this way is spiritual… and in this American colonized culture we are encouraged to be less vulnerable as a means of being “strong” or “professional.” I don’t know. I find it best to just put it out there.
TB: Grace, we have such a similar process. I love hearing it, and also love how our similarities manifest in such different work.
Just a general image of something that makes me happy. Californian landscapes continue to feel so foreign to me but the plant life constantly brings up feelings of awe.
GRP: So beautiful! Today I am going to the rez… Dinétah. I haven’t been home in a while. I love the red iron oxide soil. It is home.