What Art Can Be, But Also What Art Can Do: In Conversation with Senghor Reid

How did you come to start painting?

My mother is an artist and my dad was an art collector, an historian, so I grew up in a house filled with art. It was a natural thing that we did every day, making art and going to see art. Growing up I was that kid that had a million activities, but as I got older certain activities fell off, but art never stopped.

And you were born and raised in Detroit?


And around high school you know this was something you wanted to pursue seriously and get a BFA?

I stopped growing so I knew I wasn’t going to the NBA. My voice changed so I wasn’t singing anymore. All these activities that I did started to fall off, but my art was always there and I was good at it. It’s such a natural part of my family’s culture. It wasn’t so much a decision I made, it was just a natural and organic progression.

There was no pushback when you told your parents you wanted to pursue a career in the arts?

At that point I just wanted to go to college. A career in the arts was still very abstract to me, at one point I wanted to be a psychiatrist, and then I wanted to be a comic book illustrator, it wasn’t until my junior or senior year of high school— I went to Renaissance High School for three years and then transferred to Cass Tech my senior year to work on my portfolio and get into college, and then when I went to U of M I was automatically in the art school. But even then I still didn’t know what my career was going to be, I was just making art. It wasn’t until I graduated and got my BFA and then I took a gap year of sorts, and then re-enrolled at Wayne State University to get my teaching certificate in Art Education, and then I started student teaching. From that point my career in the arts was kind of off and running.

When you were in college was the subject matter that you were dealing with in your work similar to what you work with now? How has that evolved?

No in college I was the hip hop head, so much of my work was centered around hip hop culture, music, art, and I was still doing comic book type things. It wasn’t until I finally graduated and decided that I wanted to be more of a figurative painter, and do paintings of other artists, my friends, my family. So that part of what I do has remained consistent. Now me painting and dealing with water and the environment and health and wellness, what I deal with now, that didn’t happen until I was seven or eight years removed from undergrad.

I had always done painting of the figure in interior spaces. Then one day I just remember I wanted to paint a person outside, and it dawned on me that I had not yet really practiced painting the outdoors, I hadn’t painted trees, and clouds, and grass, so it was kind of a personal challenge to myself. I started with painting clouds, trying to figure out how to do it, then painting grass, and then a self-portrait of me next to a tree so I could practice painting leaves. And then one day I started a painting of some water, and I fell in love with it, and painting water for me became a way to better connect with nature. Water for me is something that I’ve always yearned to be around, and being a city boy—we had Belle Isle, but I wanted an ocean. So I began to live through my paintings, and experiencing water through painting the water, and that became an obsession. I love the flow, it gave me an opportunity to paint in a really loose manner. It became a love. The process, trying to actualize this experience through my work.

Water seems like one of the trickiest subjects to paint, it’s a surface that’s always moving and changing, and the light is constantly hitting it in different ways, and so the idea of freezing it at a single moment in time seems incredibly difficult. Do you work from the camera for those images or are you en plein air?

I’m doing a little bit of both. I’m taking images that I see on social media, I’m looking at images from magazines, I’m taking pictures of water, and then on the occasions I’m in water I’m documenting those things. And from there I’m doing drawings of the water. Gestural. Working with oil pastel, oil sticks, and working on capturing like you said that movement, that organic shapeshifting that water does, I’m trying to capture it on a small gestural scale. And then I’m taking it and moving to a larger canvas and executing those same ideas in a broader context. It is very much a process based practice, in my studio I’m just making work. I’m coming to the studio and I’m drawing or doing a little painting or both. And over time all those different iterations of water being to speak with each other. I’m just going with the flow.

How long have you been painting water specifically?

I started in 2006, 2007.

Has your thinking about the subject matter changed at all, were there new things about painting water that interested you that emerged over time?

For sure. A couple of years ago I began to really question why I was doing these paintings of water. It started meaning more to me than just the challenge of painting water, or experiencing water through these paintings. I started to ask myself what does water mean in my own life? Do I drink enough water everyday? What about in our community? If Flint had never happened, would water be a subject that people in places like Detroit would be talking about? Would water justice be at the center of our conversation? And so I had to look at myself and think about how I could make work that would allow for me to investigate the role that water plays in my daily life. So instead of thinking of it as some sort of dream or desire, how do I make art that talks about me and water today at this very moment.

In 2019 I did a series of performance pieces to explore that idea. I called it The Aquatic Messaging System. In those performances I was trying to face myself and look at my own health and examine my own wellness as an adult and a Black man. Am I taking care of myself? Are we taking care of ourselves? There are so many issues that arise because we are dehydrated, because we aren’t feeding ourselves any nutrients. Especially as a teacher in Detroit Public Schools and seeing kids not eating anything of nutritional value. From sugary drinks to hot Cheetos to candy, and so I decided I really wanted to make more work that challenged people to think longer and harder about how to care for themselves and how they cultivate healthy living for themselves and for their family.

“Thirst” by Senghor Reid


There seems to be in your work a real push and pull between nature and culture (culture as defined in this scenario as human-made phenomena instead of natural phenomena). When I think of paintings of water in art history my brain jumps to paintings from the premodern world, but now when we talk about water it’s within this lens of “water vs. Mt. Dew” or “nature vs. culture.” 

It’s difficult. That’s the connection I want to make. If I can talk about water and the importance it plays in our daily life then it will be a bigger issue for people in understanding that not only are we dealing with issues like global warming and pollution, but also that clean, fresh water and its availability is being more and more scarce. That should be scarier than anything else for us, it needs to be at the forefront of our political discourse right now.

When the Flint crisis happened, did that really shift your thinking on water as a subject matter or had that already started?

I think that conversation for me had already started within myself, but when Flint happened I wanted to do something, I wanted my art to do more. But I didn’t know quite how to do that. I was asking myself, “do I want to go out and be an activist, do I want to go march?” My life doesn’t really lend itself to allowing me to do those kind of things, so then I thought “maybe I’ll go up to Flint and do a water project” but then I was like “no that’s corny.” No offense to artists who have gone there to do projects, but for me it was like no matter what I did I wanted it to be authentic.

That’s where it gets tricky, so what did that conversation in your head look like? What did authenticity mean for you in that scenario? What made that one initial idea feel inauthentic to you?

It would be inauthentic for me because I’m not from Flint, and I haven’t been to Flint in years. So the question became, “Senghor why aren’t you doing something in your own community, where you and your family live?” I decided that I wanted to do some work right here in my community on the Northwest side of Detroit. But I didn’t want to do painting. I also had this vision of me walking down Seven Mile in a wetsuit. I didn’t know what it meant, but I knew I wanted to get outside of the studio and into the community. I started doing performance work, I did a piece at Petersen Playground right on Curtis and Greenfield called You Must First Learn How to Save Yourself. I put on the wetsuit and I was on the tennis court at eight in the morning, this was July 2019, and I did yoga, I prayed, I did calisthenics, all while drinking water. And then I communicated with the water using scuba diving symbols, like hand gestures, to communicate with them the importance of proper hydration. And then after the performance we passed out water to the kids at the park. Not only did I want to do this art performance for the people, I also wanted to provide a service, providing everyone with fresh water. And then I did a second performance at the Raw Space on Six Mile across from Marygrove College, and that was indoors and it was a different context, but my work was still about water and proper hydration. 

You mention that you wanted to not only provide art but also provide a service. Is that something you’re thinking about a lot? Thinking about whether or not artwork in the traditional sense like painting is doing a service, that it serves a practical function?

That’s something that for me in doing performance, especially in neighborhoods in Detroit, I don’t want to come across as simply just spectacle. Yes I’m going to be a spectacle right now to get you to pay attention and to listen to what I’m communicating. If I’m performing I’m trying to interact with the neighborhood, but at the same time I don’t want you to walk away empty handed. I want there to be something tangible, whether its information, a pamphlet, be it water, or a piece of art. So that there is a full interaction, a full exchange of energies. So that you can walk away with something that will inspire you to question your own life, “do I drink enough water, do I need to put down the Mt. Dew?”

Speaking about the blurring of art and activism, do you see there being social and political responsibilities to art making, and if so what are they for you?

I believe artists have a responsibility to cultivate their talents and share them with their community. A special type of energy comes out of that process of making and sharing and collaborating. I think the artist’s responsibility is to make sure that they are authentic in their intent, and focused in their purpose to ensure that what they are doing as artists is productive for themselves and their communities. I think if you’re an artist and you’re working with a small group of people or making art only a small group will see, that’s wonderful, you have a responsibility to communicate, share, and inspire. Or if you’re a super famous artist and your art has a wide reach, those responsibilities remain the same. I think that in and of itself is political, radical, and progressive. I don’t think any artist has to be overtly political to be a catalyst for change.

“Sans Soleil II” by Senghor Reid

But for you art isn’t some separate field that exists outside of politics?

Art can be used for political purposes, but I think art is inherently political. I don’t know that you have to call it political in order for it to be political. What you are trying to harness is a certain amount of power in your voice, and through that practice your voice will naturally gain more and more strength and your ability to be a catalyst for change, inspiration, and positivity will increase. I think that’s the point. You are the ultimate communicator. Your responsibility is to do your art, and to share it. I think you go from there. 

What do you see as the social role of your art? What is it that you hope your art can do for others?

I always want my art to be an inspiration. I want my art to motivate people to be their best selves. I want to inspire children and young people. I get my palette from my mother Shirley Woodson, you always use bright colors to grab people’s attention. I always want to send a positive message, and to generate discussion within people. That’s my focus. I’m always asking myself, “I know what I want this work of art to be, but what do I want it to do?”

I also think the art of making is a selfish act, but in a good way. Making art for the artist is so therapeutic and healing. As I’m making art I’m thinking about so much, and healing little parts of myself and reflecting on little things that I’ve said, and mistakes that I’ve made. The process for me means so much. 

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