Local designer and “multimedia spectacle generator” Jess Brown MID 09 is one of 10 new full-time faculty members at RISD. As an assistant professor in Industrial Design, where she earned her master’s degree, she shares with students her passion for social justice and enthusiasm for exploring difficult issues related to race, class, poverty, gender, sexuality, feminism, diversity, equity and cultural appropriation. Here Brown discusses her joyous return to RISD and her efforts to support students of color.
So how is your RISD background guiding your approach to teaching?
I was a grad student here 10 years ago and remember what it felt like to be one of only a few people of color at RISD and someone who didn’t have a lot of money.
I’ve seen the gaps in my own education and what I’ve had to fix in the real world, so I’m back with a new sense of agency. It feels really good.
Are you getting the support you need for what you hope to accomplish?
Absolutely. I haven’t been let down yet. When Charlie [Cannon] hired me, he told me to listen and look and see what needs to be done. And he knows I don’t hang back.
Students are dealing with race and gender and climate change… everything that’s happening around them. They need faculty to get behind them, and there’s no time to form a committee!
So, in addition to teaching a full course load, you’re making the time to mentor students?
Oh yeah. Students of all races are coming to me for advising, but especially black, Latina and Indian students. They’re thirsty. People of color need to see themselves [among the faculty].
The issues that we tackle on a daily are heavy. If you can’t bring that into the work you spend hours on every day, what’s the point?
And what’s the student response thus far?
They’re bringing their authentic selves and their cultures into the work. Getting to the core of who these students are is leading to phenomenal work.
I teach a grad seminar called Design and Activism, and one Chinese student juxtaposed the real China with American perceptions of China: red lanterns, dragons, takeout food, geishas. She made a hand-stitched book with Googled images of China on one side and her own photos on the other: family, love, incredible vistas, contemporary design. It was powerful.
Do you maintain your own studio practice as well?
I create healthy boundaries for myself so I don’t burn out, and one of the things I make room for is my own work. My studio practice is multidisciplinary: video, painting, collage, creating little vignettes that mix the real and the fake. All my work is about spectacle.
And you’re a musician as well, right? Are you still performing with the Extraordinary Rendition Band?
I am. And I also started a womxn’s activist party band called Clam Jam Brass Band. We’re working with organizations like MoveOn.org, performing at different protest rallies. We are also engaged in the community and visit middle schools to talk about things people find uncomfortable—while keeping it fun.
Tell me about This Is MY House, the performance piece you did in July at the RISD Museum.
The museum invited me to respond to a space, and I chose the jewel in the crown: The Grand Gallery. There isn’t a [painting of a] single black face in that room! It’s all plump white women being fed grapes by cherubs.
I added 12 large, framed reproductions of paintings showing people of color from that time who weren’t enslaved and weren’t servants.
That research process was painful. But when I stopped Googling black and started looking for Moorish or Turkish, I found images of black nobility. It was like discovering another piece of my past.
And the performance element also got people really excited, right?
Absolutely. As I said, I’m always trying to create spectacle. I sat on a throne dressed as an African queen with ladies in waiting. We had an amazing dance troupe called The House of the Glitter Goddesses and a Malian drummer, DJ lights ….
My goal was to transform the space and create a new dialogue, and the response was huge! You could feel the energy shifting in the room. It felt like this could be a brand-new day.
—interview by Simone Solondz