Kenya (Robinson) reflects on the end of her MFA program and becoming a professional artist.
Kenya (Robinson) is currently wrapping up her MFA in Sculpture at the Yale School of Art after several years as a working artist. An astute observer of culture, (Robinson) explores a range of issues from race and class to perceptions about gender, privilege, and consumerism. Her newest work places rogue installations within store displays and merchandise to emphasize the act of shopping, beginning with a Walmart in New Haven. All kinds of people encounter art every day, she explains, making this a good moment to think about the American national character and its shifting nature. (Robinson) took a break from searching for fabric, materials, and other supplies for her thesis exhibition to meet with me in midtown Manhattan to discuss how graduate school has influenced the direction of her career and creative practice.
Lee Ann Norman You’re in New Haven now, but where are you from originally?
Kenya (Robinson) I’m from Gainesville, Florida. This is hugely important to my identity, almost as important to my identity as creativity. I’ve long been an artist, but it’s a fairly recent addition to my professional life. In the past, I imagined artists as people with a particular set of skills—painting, carving, drawing—I didn’t recognize that we each create in the context of our personalized experience. Sometimes it includes that level of specific training and sometimes it doesn’t.
But, Gainesville is a small, quirky college town, so it has this amazing dichotomy—being provincial in that way—very southern—
LAN —What school is there?
KR The University of Florida. When I was there, it was 38,000 students, and it’s continuing to grow. Because of that, we have international students, many professional schools, scientists, a lot of medical researchers. . . you have this element of culture that exists there neck-in-neck with that southern fried, Bible Belt thing. You can go downtown and hear some pretty good jazz, but in that same space, there will be a van rolling around with an anti-Muslim sentiment written on the side—that’s the town where that preacher was trying to burn the Qu’ran—
LAN Oh! That’s right!
Lee Ann Norman speaks with jazz musician Jason Moran about his multidisciplinary approach to music and what inspires him.
I’m always looking for an excuse to visit Café Grumpy in Chelsea. I love the vibe that discourages digital mediation in favor of analogue interactions and face-to-face conversations. I’ve done a lot of reading, meeting, greeting, laughing, talking, and thinking there, so I was excited when award-winning jazz pianist Jason Moran agreed to take some time out of his busy schedule to chat with me. Since the late 1990s when he became a fixture in music circles, Jason Moran has been determined to keep listeners on their toes. Although the 2010 MacArthur “Genius” Fellow and Artistic Advisor for Jazz at the Kennedy Center works primarily in jazz, Moran is always eager to expand definitions of the genre. He often weaves elements from dance, language and literature, the visual arts, and other musical forms into his arrangements and compositions.
I’ve been thinking a lot about multidisciplinary work—the messy kind that isn’t easy to categorize. Such work usually requires knowledge and technical expertise that forces the artist to reach beyond her studio, writing table, piece of Marley floor, or practice room. To go outside of the self for creative expression is exciting, but inherently risky, and maybe a bit dangerous. “Collaborative efforts are never easy and everyone has a different spin on them,” I wrote in an email message to Jason prior to our conversation: “I’m quite curious to learn more about your approach . . . why you find it valuable. I’d also like to learn more about your process, what projects you decide need collaborators and why.”
I enjoy working with others to create something larger than I could on my own, but collaborating is hard work. Sometimes I wonder if it’s worth all of that messy ambiguity and negotiation—that feeling of cat herding—that inevitably results as part of the process. Talking with Jason, though, reminded me that the rewards of collaboration far outweigh any of the struggles.
Lee Ann Norman You kind of raised your eyebrows a little bit when I said, “Collaboration is hard.”
Jason Moran Well because jazz is so collaborative, at every turn you’re entrusting someone else with something. The gene make-up of the music is that you listen to others, that you respond to others, that you have your own idea and you know how to weave it into a bigger idea.