An Interview with Debra Priestly: Artist as Archivist

Debra Priestly’s recent solo exhibition “black” at Jane St. Art Center demonstrates the enduring sense of openness and renewal which has vitalized Priestly’s decade-spanning career in the visual arts. I met Priestly last summer when she was a Visiting Artist during a dreamy early summer residency at the Vermont Studio Center. Her artist talk resonated with me as I sought to understand how to archive and chronicle my ancestry; my three grandparents had recently passed away in the span of eighteen months during the COVID-19 pandemic, and I both lamented and yearned for a way to uplift their lives through my poetry. Priestly’s work inspired me in the sense that I could breathe amongst the grief, and her artist talk asked me to consider both what it means to preserve and persevere. Her work invites deep listening and looking. In this interview, Priestly and I discuss archive, color, and the role of the personal in the universal. Priestly is Professor in the Art Department at Queens College, City University of New York.

Kassy Lee: When I engage with your work, I’m reminded of Arlette Farge’s statement that “an archive presupposes an archivist, a hand that collects and classifies.” I first encountered this quotation as the epigraph to Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive, and it originally comes from Arlette Farge’s The Allure of Archives. This interplay between artist and archive fascinates me. In several of your works, your family photos and objects are re-interpreted through painting and sculpture. How do you see yourself as an archivist? What role does the hand of the artist have in sculpting these family materials into art?    

Debra Priestly: Thank you for introducing me to Farge and Luiselli. I look forward to reading their works.

As artists, we are all archivists; our work archives or maintains moments of our time and place. It has become more evident to me that I am essentially making memory maps and listening spaces primarily through two ongoing series, “preserves” and “somewhere listening.”

Over the past few decades, I have explored themes of memory, ancestry, history, current events, and cultural preservation. In some works, such as “mattoon 5”, 2002, I archived my ancestry through photographs, maps, and objects from my family archive. In addition, site-specific installations such as “tongues 1 – 7” emit vocal recordings of oral narratives, hymns, and prayers collected over decades.

KL: In your work, I admire the interplay between negative and positive space. Could you discuss your use of negative space and how it operates in your work? What does it mean to “take up space” in your installations, paintings, and sculptures?

DP: I want to invite the viewer to take pause. I think a lot about the physical and metaphysical space between things. This is as true for a drawing as for a multimedia installation. Open space or void slows our pace and encourages us to focus. Open space is never empty, and often, negative and positive spaces trade places. The overall scale of a work is relative to the body form, and how I’d like the viewer to engage with the subject dictates the scale.

For example, “somewhere listening: Company B, 365 Infantry Regiment, 92nd Division, A.E.F. 1918-1919”, 2014, is an installation of 212 charcoal portraits highlighting each soldier from an all-African-American WWI regiment. The composition emphasizes the significance of each soldier’s individual service and the magnitude of their collective effort. To fully appreciate the men, a viewer must be willing to spend time with the twenty-five-foot-long installation. Even the title deliberately takes up space. In the site-specific installation, “black” 2022, I ask the viewer to enter a dark room and walk along a tar paper-covered path to the spotlighted pedestal. Once there, one can witness or participate in the miniature scene.

KL: The motif of containers and vessels seem to figure throughout your work. What draws you to this recurring motif of mason jars, tea cups, ceramic bowls, and other vessels?

Utilitarian objects have been a recurring motif in my work since the mid-1990s. For example, when my grandmother opened a small aqua-blue canning jar of sweet pickles, narratives seem to flow from it. This memory leads me to use the canning jar and other utilitarian objects to tell narratives. I am thinking about the power of association in many cases, but also about the ability of a container to preserve, contain, and display another object, a memory, or even an idea. Utilitarian objects are familiar and assessable. However, it also prompts viewers to tell their narrative and consider that the personal is universal.

In my ongoing series entitled “preserves”, the canning jar is the locus through which narratives unfold. I am interested in the ways everyday rituals, such as the preparation and consumption of food and the everyday objects used in these rituals, can spark a dialogue.

“mattoon 4” features early to mid-20th century images from my family photo archive. From left to right are Noah Hardiman, Benjamin Bradick, Alburna Nichols with her family, and Eugene Barnes. They lived in thriving African-American communities along the Wabash River in Illinois and Indiana. These images, juxtaposed with aqua blue canning jars prized by my maternal grandmother, are arranged in rows reminiscent of her neat, colorful well-stocked pantry.

When my grandmother opened a canning jar for a family supper, she opened a portal, setting us on an incredible journey of storytelling, complete with a host of questions and answers:  “What’s in the jar?”, “Do you have the recipe?”, “Who made it?”,  “Where do they live?”, “How does one travel from here to there?”, “How were the crops this season?”, and my favorite, “How is that person related to me”?

While these works are my memory maps, I want to prompt the viewer to consider their own.

a darkened room with table filled with figurines lit from above with a dim spotlight

KL: Your work also tends to be achromatic. Your recent solo show at Jane Street Art Center was entitled “black.” What informs your use of color in your work?

DP: As I began distilling my imagery, color unless used judiciously, felt extraneous. Systematically removing color led to a white-on-white series, eventually giving way to a black-on-black series. Color is a complex tool. It can distract from or emphasize form and content. Also, we are so bombarded with color in our daily observations that purely white work and purely black work can have a bold impact. Achromatic work can be exciting as we notice the nuances within whites and blacks. Both color and the absence of color can be particularly complex, especially when cultural references are implied.

In 2022, I had an exhibition at Jane Street Art Center entitled “black.” The exhibition was an array of new paintings, drawings, sculptures, and multi-media installations. The work explores the color black as a formal element while maintaining the idea that blackness possesses infinite possibility.

KL: As a professor and artist working through multiple decades, what is something you wish more young artists knew or would take on in their work?

DP: I ask my students to stay curious, be open, explore, and keep sight of their narrative. I ask the same of myself every day.





Title Image: Debra Priestly, black (detail), 2022, lamali, India ink, bamboo, birch, paint, LED, tar paper. Site specific, dimensions variable.

Image: Debra Priestly, black, 2022, lamali, India ink, bamboo, birch, paint, LED, tar paper. Site specific, dimensions variable. Installation. Jane Street Art Center, Saugerties, NY

All images Copyright Debra Priestly.

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