Probing Issues of Race

Kelly Taylor Mitchell | MFA 18 Printmaking

While second-year graduate student Kelly Taylor Mitchell MFA 18 PR doesn’t consider herself to be “a black experience liaison,” she does focus on cultural record keeping and the role of everyday spaces inherent to community-building among black Americans. As Mitchell was wrapping up fall semester and beginning to think about her degree project and life after RISD, she shared insights about how RISD and the Printmaking department have influenced her practice and where she’s going from here.

Why did you decide to pursue an MFA in Printmaking at RISD?
Research and academia are important to my process and the source of much of my content. After doing undergraduate work at The School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts and studying lithography and relief printing with Wernher Bouwens in Paris, I chose RISD because there’s a lot of academic support here in addition to opportunities for studio exploration.

Which professors have been particularly helpful to your growth?
Andrew Raftery has been my conceptual resource since Day One. It’s so exciting to find someone who can jump into your head and pull out the perfect words to express what you’re thinking. And [Graduate Program Director] Megan Foster 00 PR has been a great advisor. She’s a master printer, and her technique is incredible.

Tell me about the process you use to transform ideas into work.
I write a lot. Sometimes I pull out words that become the starting point for a piece. My family’s history is another point of entry: where theory meets personal history.

Can you say more about that? Is your recent installation about slavery? Does it reference your own history?
It's rooted in slavery and more specifically in plantation architecture. Both sides of my family came to this country as enslaved people. I’ve become obsessed with the outbuildings that surrounded plantation houses: storehouses, tool sheds, icehouses and especially kitchens. One of the [more subtle] tragedies of enslavement is that those who worked in the kitchen were made implicit in the institution of slavery because they were forced to sustain the lives of other enslaved people.

What’s the meaning behind the dug-up dirt floor?
People dug holes in earthen floors to hide their valuables: a sweet potato, a letter, etc. If I think about what I would put in that hole, it would be my family’s oral history—something valuable that remains hidden unless you’re able to dig it up.

“Living in Paris really reinforced the sad reality that racism and segregation are neither dead nor solely American.”

And you’re also making artist’s books?
Yes, but I use the word book very loosely. Making books is a good way for me to parse things out—to focus on one story, one idea, rather than trying to throw everything into one piece. The books also inspire installations. It’s kind of a call and response between the two mediums.

You lived in Paris for a while as an undergraduate, right? How was that different from your experience as a black woman in the US?
Living in Paris really reinforced the sad reality that racism and segregation are neither dead nor solely American. I mean, I loved Paris but the arrondissement where I lived looked like a completely different city. Being a black woman in that environment was especially interesting because I didn’t fit into the existing categories. I wasn’t French and I wasn’t African. African women gave me a hard time because I didn’t braid my hair.

Kirloskar visiting artist Pallavi Paul (left), an Indian artist now working in the UK, talks with Mitchell about global signifiers in her work that speak to non-American viewers.

Do you think about global audiences when you make work? I understand that Indian artist Pallavi Paul visited your studio when she was here last month?
She made me think about international audiences in a way that I hadn’t before. Of course, slavery is different than colonization, but she pointed out shared histories of imperialism and global signifiers that are recognizable within my work. It’s great to know that the work can live outside of the US in some way.

What’s your take on RISD’s efforts to make its curriculum more diverse and inclusive?
There’s definitely a black community at RISD, but curriculum-wise there is so much work to do. I just don’t think there’s enough talk about queerness or blackness or class in coursework. You hear it in Wintersession when grad students teach because we want to talk about it. But you don’t see enough of it in syllabi.

Will you take up that mantle and consider teaching or are you too focused on developing your own work right now?
During Wintersession I’m teaching a theory-based studio class focused on black feminism. It’s my first collegiate-level teaching experience. There’s a lack of black women educators, and that calls me to teach, but I don’t know if I’m ready to be an educator [after RISD]. I still have a lot to learn. I’m applying for residencies and fellowships and to a couple of PhD programs in Africana studies and historical anthropology—coursework that would inform my studio work.

“...the students here—my graduate cohort in particular—are incredible: so kind and generous and talented.”

What are you hoping to accomplish in your last semester at RISD? Where is your degree project headed?
I’m planning to take an introductory metalworking class in the spring to learn about welding and working in the foundry. I’m thinking about creating different iterations of this installation and considering different materials: textiles, metals. Sensory elements are also becoming crucial to my work. These ropes, for example, have been processed with tar, Crisco and beeswax, which is incredibly smelly. The painters thought there was a fire in here when I first started!

What are some of your best moments at RISD so far?
I’ve had so many great moments at RISD! If I had to focus on one thing, I’d have to say that the students here—my graduate cohort in particular—are incredible: so kind and generous and talented. I might not have gotten through the program without them. They have become the most meaningful part of the experience for me. They’ve made it all worthwhile.

Simone Solondz / photos by Jo Sittenfeld MFA 08 PH