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Kaleidoscopic Art Activism: “The Tracy Piper” On Being WORTHY

S’uuuuup. Inner voice, here. I know I’ve been MIA for a while, but jeeze, all of the dumpster fires! Bingeing on Netflix for the past 18-ish months has been a fairly reliable coping mechanism. Probably healthier than our addiction to spray cheese. It’s been tough to maintain an even keel, though. You know how comfortably numb we’ve been every time we watched “The Joy of Painting”? Welppp…the entire time, we’ve been cheating on dear sweet Bob Ross with The Tracy Piper.  

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This isn’t a ménage à trois justification, per se. Our fluffy-haired chill pill has definitely gotten us through some inky black days. But recently? We’ve been fantasizing about telling our artistic zen master where to shove his happy little clouds. That’s actually how The Tracy Piper won our heart…by getting into our head.

Our artivism side bae just gave it to us straight. She admitted that not everything can be painted away. Sure, we can complain about the problems in the world, turn a blind eye to them…maybe spend 18-ish months of our life passively watching the chaos unfold. Or we can follow The Tracy Piper’s lead by creating a plan of action. Something to really believe in. The mic is all yours, TTP…

“I Am Here” – which was created during my art residency in 2020 – is a statement to America that black women deserve way more than what society has given them.

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The increased demands of parenthood throughout the COVID-19 pandemic have resulted in a ‘one sandwich short of a picnic’ headspace for many. You managed to maintain your sanity long enough, however, to secure four solo shows in two years (with a fifth show on the horizon). Additionally, you’re releasing a new art book entitled Worthy. How? How?? Howww???

Mentally and physically, parenting through a pandemic has been one of the hardest things I’ve done. My work, which shines light on the idea of connection and community, has definitely given me strength, solace, and preserved my sanity. My time as a circus performer gave me a very goal-oriented mindset. To stay on course, I create goals, break them down into small achievable steps, and build toward something bigger.

Raising a kind, open-minded son with a steadfast moral compass is a huge legacy to bestow upon the world. You experienced a natural mind shift as a parent, though, that inspired you to want to do more. Is there anything in your personal history that contributed to your predilection for art activism?

I grew up in Oakland CA, a place that gets a lot of bad press but has a deep history of activism. Ever since I was in high school, I’ve marched in protests. Among the many societal inequalities that I’ve witnessed firsthand, I’ve seen guns in school and have personally known victims of gun violence.

I can’t turn a blind eye to what is really going on. I choose to live a life in which I care about the world around me and try to make a positive impact. Having a child only intensified my convictions.

Every small act of support has more of a positive impact than you might imagine.

The concept of diverse representation is splashed across every page of Worthy. Would you have felt inauthentic if you chose to create conventional portraiture with no societal message?

Change starts with each of us. I am a white woman and I do not take my privilege lightly. Society may not let others walk through the door, but if my privilege allows me to pass, then I’m definitely opening that door for the huge community of other artists who deserve a voice.

My classmates, neighbors, and friends are emblematic of real-world diversity. There is no way that I can be an artist without representing my life and community within my work.

Free time is generally in short supply as a parent, but in the era of COVID-19, even more so. Are you further along in the manifestation of your art career goals because you are a parent….or in spite of it?

Careers and motherhood are a difficult mix, and almost impossible to simultaneously do well. COVID-19 didn’t change that. I really care about my little one bearing witness to real-world action. Through the lens of my art, I am able to stand up for all the worthwhile causes that resonate with me while also showing up for my family.

Compared to pre-pandemic times, has your to-do list as an art activist grown even longer?

This period in our history has made me far more aware of the effect that art can have on the world. Throughout the summer of 2020, Voss Gallery and I raised over $20,000 for various causes that we believe in, which definitely inspires me to further my activism.

I think the hardest part about being an art activist is admitting that sometimes, I don’t know what the solution to a problem really is.

Whether you were a parent or not, do you think that all roads would have inevitably led you to your art activism calling??

Ever since I launched my art career, I’ve felt that representation is essential for a healthy art world. Activism can be loud, but it can also be quietly reflected in a tender rendition of LGBTQ+ love. Creating art that accurately reflects the wonderfully diverse world that we live in is a form of activism.

How do you achieve such prolific output as a parent-artist? Do you sleep paint (instead of sleepwalk) or teach your son spelling words while priming canvases?

Reserving time to paint has become the most precious and rare thing. I’ve completely stopped noodling around. I no longer wait for inspiration. When I’m lucky enough to find an hour every other day to paint, I refuse to waste it. I wish I could sleep paint, though. That would be amazing.

What have you done to cultivate and support your inner zen during these trying times?

Zen? Hahahahahaha! I am roughly 10 miles away from a zen mindset. I’d call my life controlled chaos. About halfway through 2020, I realized that I needed something more because I was losing my mind. I started a nightly gratitude journal, which helped me to recognize what was truly amazing in my life.

Too much hate exists in this world, and far too many people get left behind. At times, I feel like as though there is nothing that I can do about it. Love is what keeps me going.

Would you please explain how your Voss Gallery art residency happened? Is releasing an art book an automatic part of that role?

My artist residency was the first of its kind for Voss Gallery, and so is my art book, Worthy. Back in 2018, Ashley Voss and I talked about the world and how every day felt like a monumental shift. I told her that I felt compelled to create no holds barred work every week that reflected what was really happening in society. I also wanted to encourage the art community to follow suit.  

Ashley thought it was a great idea for a residency, so “Through the Looking Glass” and “Down the Rabbit Hole” were born. Each week, I created new paintings. I also interviewed artists around the country (which can be seen on Voss Gallery’s IGTV page). We had hard conversations about social/cultural issues and shared our thoughts about what it was like to be an artist during this time.

Ashley brought the art book concept to me, partially due to the positive response of my paintings and interviews during my residency.

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The artwork included in your book required years of your life to manifest. Did you imagine that the entire project would require as much time and energy as it did to see it through to publication?

Honestly, I never imagined that I would be publishing a book. I’ve been so focused on painting that the book felt like coming up for air. Worthy brought into perspective just how hard I’ve worked and what an accomplishment that really is.

We have needed truly representational art for ages, as well as art that shines light on who we are, globally.

Is giving birth to an art book easier, harder, or comparable to bringing a human child into the world?

There is nothing harder than bringing a human child into the world and being their caregiver. Giving birth to an art book was definitely work. It was a lot less messy, though. I was able to work on it according to my schedule. Plus, I got much more sleep.

Just like raising a human child, though, I didn’t create my art book alone – my wonderful husband did all of the graphic design. Ashley Voss was instrumental in helping to keep me focused throughout the process, plus she helped me to write, re-write, and re-re-write the text.

How did “I Am Here” end up gracing the cover of your art book?

I realize that a book cover emblazoned with that painting isn’t going to solve anything. Still, “I Am Here” – which was created during my art residency in 2020 – is a statement to America that black women deserve way more than what society has given them. I hope it will inspire others to discuss this topic in far greater depth and care enough to be part of the solution.

What is the most fulfilling part about creating an art book? What about the most unexpected part (good or bad)?

Seeing all of my paintings together – along with their narratives – has been really fulfilling. I hope that those who purchase Worthy will experience a greater depth of understanding regarding the heart that went into this project. Within the body of the book, I explained my thematic approach to each show. I also offered greater insight into why I have so much passion for art activism.

Ever since I launched my art career, I’ve felt that representation is essential for a healthy art world. Activism can be loud, but it can also be quietly reflected in a tender rendition of LGBTQ+ love.

Do we need representational art more in 2021 than we did in 2019?

We have needed truly representational art for ages, as well as art that shines light on who we are, globally. Artists with diverse backgrounds should be encouraged to discuss stories that differ from the status quo.

Have there been times in the past two years when addressing difficult social issues has been more than you bargained for?

Too much hate exists in this world, and far too many people get left behind. At times, I feel as though there is nothing that I can do about it. Love is what keeps me going. That’s when I’ll create one more painting, engage in one more conversation, sign one more petition, or pass along one more lesson to the next generation. Those few baby steps make me feel as though it’s still possible to turn things around.

Society may not let others walk through the door, but if my privilege allows me to pass, then I’m definitely opening that door for the huge community of other artists who deserve a voice.

How do you maintain your inner resiliency as an art activist when trolls are always eager to poison the purity of well-intentioned efforts?

Trolls are scared people who hide behind internet anonymity. I think the hardest part about being an art activist is admitting that sometimes, I don’t know what the solution to a problem really is. I love people enough, though, to want to inspire change.

Your circus performing days are partially responsible for the colorful look of your paintings. At the same time, your kaleidoscopic palette and bold brushstrokes also summon the idea of a multicultural tapestry. Is your melting pot aesthetic by design or did you stumble onto it?

I know how to paint photo-realistically. My current painting style actually emerged out of my aversion to perfection. I start with an abstract layer of color and shape, essentially creating ‘mistakes’ all over the canvas. Then I pull images out of it. I use strong color due to its vitality. I’ll never get tired of fluorescent pink and baby blue together.

I can’t turn a blind eye to what is really going on. I choose to live a life in which I care about the world around me and try to make a positive impact. Having a child only intensified my convictions.

Some claim that – prior to falling in love or having a child – they viewed the world in shades of grey. Does the work that you’ve produced during your art activist years seem more vibrant to you?

Having a child gives you a new appreciation for everything. Your toddler will literally stop and smell roses every block. You can either hurry them along or kneel down to smell the fragrance with them. It’s that shift in perspective that changes you.

Is your pride as an artist rooted in the underlying message of your socially-charged work or in its aesthetic appeal?

My work has always contained a socially charged message. There just wasn’t a label for it. When I was finding my voice as an artist, I used my friends as models. I saw how powerful the representational nature of my paintings was to them. Worthiness is a right. They never imagined that they’d be enshrined on canvas.

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You recounted the story of a man with tears in his eyes who was taken aback by a muse emblazoned on one of your canvases. He said that she could have easily been his sister or his mother. Is it even possible to top that experience?

That moment in my career was so earth-shatteringly important because my art is all about making people feel seen, heard, and loved. That man didn’t expect to see someone who looked like him up on a wall. In that very powerful moment, I realized that I had achieved my goal.

I hope that those who purchase Worthy will experience a greater depth of understanding regarding the heart that went into this project.

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Can you recommend three fellow art activists who are helping to make the world a better place? Why do they stand out in your mind?

Thank you for asking – I love shining a light on other amazing art activists!

@sergegayjr is one of the most talented painters I’ve ever met. He creates work that demands attention. His recent mural in San Francisco’s Castro is LGBTQ+, diversity-minded, and all about COVID-19 safety.

@davidpuckartist makes moving work that is focused on LGBTQ+ and mental health.

@wolfe_.pack is a self-taught painter, amazing muralist, and, an art activism powerhouse. Her work revolves around feminism, black power, and gender identity.

Plenty of people are genuinely opposed to racism, ageism, heterosexism, and various other -isms. They’re just not quite sure how to take action, though. Is there one simple yet effective way for a single person to help shift the behavior of society?

Engage in challenging conversations. Listen to what people who don’t look like you are discussing. Invest in the change that you want to see! Want to see more women entrepreneurs? Or more black businesses to succeed? What about far more visible LGBTQ+ companies? Do you want to make sure that your purchases aren’t destroying the environment? Put your money behind like-minded businesses!

Every small act of support has more of a positive impact than you might imagine – even something as simple as writing a complementary Yelp review. Purchase goods from an ethical or socially responsible business. Let your friends know why you think it’s important to back businesses with a social conscience. Oh, and VOTE!

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Would you please offer insight into your upcoming solo show?

The concept of what we’ve lost – yet still gained – during this monumental period in history serves as the inspiration for my paintings. We will never forget what happened, how it happened, and what side of history we were on. My show is supposed to happen at SCOPE for Art Basel Miami. Hopefully, the Delta variant of COVID-19 will cooperate.

Finally, please sum up your legacy in an elevator pitch-style obituary.

The Tracy Piper left the world a better place than she found it by reaching millions of people with her art and transcendent message of love. She leaves behind a new generation of creatives who care deeply about the world around them.

The Tracy Piper Social Media Accounts

Website | Instagram | FacebookTwitter

Voss Gallery Social Media Accounts

Website | Instagram | FacebookTwitter

About Author

Longtime eco-journalist, art wordsmith and creativity connoisseur. Anything that hovers in the right-brained spectrum or is born out of unbridled imagination elevates my spirit. I probably revere mother nature's ever-changing shazaamy brush strokes more than the average humanoid. Technicolor art supplies make me weak in the knees, as do wet-nosed luvvies.

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