Multimedia artist Carrie Mae Weems discusses work in context of 60th birthday

Weems is the third speaker in the annual University Lectures series of Fall 2014.

Artist Carrie Mae Weems recently celebrated her 60th birthday.  With this milestone, she is working to constantly keep her work relevant. 

Weems, whose art encompasses photograph, text, fabric, audio, digital images, installation and most recently video, spoke at Hendricks Chapel on Tuesday evening as part of the University Lectures series. Her work tends to address sexism, racism and multiple political systems. In her lecture, titled “Swinging into Sixty: A Woman Ponders the Future,” she discussed her most recent journey: making sense of her work as important now that she has recently turned 60.

Photo: Courtesy of SU Photo and Image Archive
Carrie Mae Weems' talk, “Swinging into Sixty: A Woman Ponders the Future,” shared her insights into making sense of her work now that she has recently turned 60.

Born in Portland, Oregon, Weems studied photography and design at San Francisco City College. She received her BFA from the California Institute of the Arts and then received her MFA from the University of California, San Diego, according to her website.  After receiving her MFA, she enrolled in the graduate program in folklore at Berkley.

On Tuesday, Weems discussed her “firsts” with the audience at Hendricks. These included books, art and experiencing death. She said that being aware of what other artists are doing is pertinent to her as an artist and to her artwork. She also discussed her various artistic projects,

Weems spoke about the first time photography moved her. She said she had received a camera from a previous boyfriend — at this point she looked at her husband as comic relief — and started taking pictures.

“The work took me to a place I could not have imagined I could be taken to,” she said.

She then described other “firsts” and how they are relevant in light of turning 60. For example, she showed images of books that have inspired her as both a human and an artist. She still refers to some of these in her work, she said, and some remain “firsts” every time she revisits them.

Next, Weems spoke about other artists and how what they do gives her context for her own world . She said many times her work blatantly references other artist’s work. “Hidden in plain sight,” she said, describing how her art often bluntly correlates to other artists. She said the audience often overlook this because they believe it’s too similar to be intentional. 

“Sometimes I like this and sometimes I don’t,” she said of her audience’s dismissal of these references.

Moving on to discuss some of her own work, she showed her “Social Studies 101” collection, which is a take on Brown vs. Board of education.

Weems said she believes that as an artist, she is responsible for reaching out to the community, to help and to be brave. Demonstrating this was her project titled “Institute of Sound and Style.” In this, on a pack of matches were printed the words: “Contrary to popular belief your life does matter.” These, as a piece of the greater project, were passed out to a group of young men. A year later these same young men were invited to gather again and bring something of importance with them to the meeting. One young man showed up with the matchbox cover in his palm — the  words, “Contrary to popular belief your life does matter,” were still in tact.

She then showed the audience her “Kitchen Table” series, which is one of her most famous. This was a turning point in the work,” she said. “Where I was settled into the groove.” The series includes black-and-white photographs of various scenes taking place at the same wooden table.

One audience member asked Weems how she responds when her work as a woman is taken wrongly. “Oh, that happens all the time,” Weems said with a laugh. She said just as much as it’s her right to make that art, it’s the audience’s right to critique it.

She added that usually her art is treated with respect. If the audience meets her halfway, she said, they can either end up agreeing with what she is trying to say or not.  

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