Dual Vision: In Conversation with Sabrina Nelson

Photo by Danielle Eliska Lyle

Sabrina Nelson was born in the late 60’s during the riots in Detroit Michigan. She is a painter by degree from Detroit’s College for Creative Studies. She is on the staff for the College for Creative Studies where she works hard at motivating and preparing students to pursue an art degree in Detroit. Sabrina has lectured on the preservation of Black Feminism in Art at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit. She is a guest curator at The Carr Center and for Music Hall Performing Arts Center. In addition she has judged art competitions for over 30 years as well as curated several art talks and exhibits. Sabrina often interviews guest artist for the City of Detroit’s Culture video channel MyDetroitCable. Her work has been exhibited at the Detroit Institute of Arts, Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, Museum of Contemporary Arts in Detroit and the African American Art in Culture Complex in San Francisco CA. Sabrina’s work has also been exhibited in Florida, New York, Louisiana, Illinois and Ohio. Her work is in the collection at the Charles H Wright Museum of African American History and private collections in FL, NY, OH, GA,CA and MI. She has participated in the Miami Basel at Jakmel Gallery, American University in Paris.

How did you come to work with your specific collaborator? Did you know them before this? Were you familiar with their work?

Yes, I came to work with Levon based on him attending College for Creative Studies. But we knew each other because we went on a social responsibility trip that the college sponsored where we went to Haiti, stayed in an orphanage, and helped several different orphanages build things and make things that they could sell to bring in money to the orphanage for the children. I was one of CCS’ mentors that went and at the time Levon was a student in fiber and textiles through our Craft and Material Studies Department, so we got to know each other then. The trip had some issues, there was some uprising in Haiti so we had to postpone the trip and then there were some issues, Levon’s mother was very sick around the time and then she passed. We were very much a family that surrounded him and shrouded him with love from the college. Not a blood family, but a bonus family if you will. So I’ve known him since he was a student at CCS and then afterwards as a professional artist meandering through his path of how to be who he already was.

And so it was a great collaboration, when they picked us to be together I was like, “this is perfect.” I’ve always loved the tactile arts and being able to play with materials, and the idea of fiber. And I had already been working on my theme called, “the black bird,” and things that had been happening in Levon’s life that were very intersectional. There were some things happening to Armenian people in Turkey, and he has family there, and just dealing with that trauma and how people are oppressed, and then me dealing with the trauma of how African American people are oppressed with all types of death and destruction that happens in day to day life here. And we both talk about how death is imminent but we don’t have to help it. So my black bird theme with some of the other things that Levon was working on, like dress— not in terms of a physical dress but how we shroud the body, how we cover the body, how we wear armor, how we protect ourselves with what we wear. We become superheroes in that way, through what we wear.

Before the actual process of making, what was the process of deciding on what to make like? What was the making process itself like?

I needed Levon’s help on this project I was working on called “The Mothers, the Black Birds” and thinking about how you become a nurturer in your own community and you want to help protect fledglings or your baby birds, and how your womb is your first home but when you’re out of the womb the nest becomes the second home and just thinking about what it means to be the mother, or the idea of the caretaker, or the nurturer, and the protector. And so I wanted Levon’s help because I wanted to initially use rice paper to make these dresses, but he was like, “no, let’s do this, let’s think about that,” and he already had this idea for making this garment to wear, almost like a performance piece, and I had done a few performance pieces already where I was the black bird and so I wanted to have this dress be the spirit of that, so I asked Levon to help me with it, making something that was wearable, but also something that was more symbolic of that spirit being, and then having that idea of flying above everyone. He helped me with materials, and I had these drawings in my head, but nothing ever comes out of my head into my hands the same way. It was really great having him help me with the process, and looking at a different way of seeing things. When you’re in your head and you get it out of your head through your mouth and you tell somebody else, then they bring in their energy and what their imagination comes with, and materials that they’re used to using. So that was really really great. We had several meetings talking about what we wanted to say and how we wanted to say it visually, and what our visual conversation would look like as the pieces collaboratively came together.

What new possibilities were offered through collaboration that would not have been possible working alone? Did you feel any disadvantages compared to working alone? 

Well typically I’ll go and find something that is a 2D piece or either an installation/3D piece/found object that I don’t have to buy, and it was really great for Levon to take me to Arts & Scraps, I can’t go to TJ Maxx in the same way as Arts & Scraps because it’s so busy and overwhelming visually, and it’s too many things in there and I want everything. I think artists are hoarders. So Levon took me to Arts & Scraps and he kept me very focused, which I needed. I got my little basket of things that I needed for what we had as a conversation. I just looked at it as a different possibility, as long as I had a handler in there with me I was good. I came out with my little basket of things, and it was really wonderful to empty them out in my studio where I can think clearly, and then look at these pattern papers and think about skin, like how women or caretakers go about taking care of everyone except for themselves, and when you deal with tissue paper or pattern paper for making garments it’s very thin, you just put it on top of the fabric generally as a tracing tool for cutting out the pattern to put it together, but I liked the idea of the pattern paper being the skin of the dress, it’s very sensitive, it can tear easily, it’s very light, but once you bind it together with some packing tape, some thread, needles, and other things, it becomes a whole garment. But, that whole garment is easily damaged if you touch it too much, and so I was thinking about people in general, we go about taking care of others and sometimes we don’t even take care of ourselves. 

I didn’t feel any disadvantages. Levon had some ideas that didn’t flesh out as well as he wanted with the length of time— I think sometimes the idea of time for the artist is a misnomer, like the idea of ‘forever’ or the idea of ‘perfect’. We all reach for it, like the idea of ‘staying on time’ or ‘being perfect’ or ‘having forever’, but none of those things really go together, they don’t really exist. So we had this initial time schedule, but then the MOCAD staff had to take a knee, they had to take a Kaepernick because of what was happening politically with them in terms of human resources. So that kind of let us lay dormant for awhile, we had started the project, it went to sleep for a little bit, and some of us kept going, even if we weren’t gonna use it for Dual Vision, we were still going to have that conversation. So once it rebooted we had time to really sit and think about it. As we worked out the problems that we had created ourselves in our heads, the physical making of the project in our own separate spaces came out really well I think. Just looking at the show and looking at the collaborations, I didn’t feel like there was any difficulty working with Levon. Even though the path was a little meandering, we still came back to ourselves and what we wanted to say and how we wanted to say it and the materials we wanted to use.

Did working collaboratively provide you with any insights that could be extrapolated and used outside of art in either a personal or political context? Were there lessons learned that could be used in other aspects of life? What did it teach you about democracy?

I just want to say that an artist is always working collaboratively, even inside yourself. You’re always dealing with a hierarchy of self, you’re always dealing with an idea of, for me: “What am I saying? Who am I asking? Who am I talking to? Does it fit well with my mission? Am I talking about the times that I’m living in?” like Nina Simone says, “am I being a revolutionary artist?” as Grace Lee Boggs said I should. Just thinking about art and activism, it’s always a collaboration with community and also self. So if there is no collaboration we are not having shows, we keep the work in our spaces and in our heads, so when it comes outside of our heads through our hands it then becomes a collaboration between you and your audience, or you and the person you’re collaborating with, the co-artist, the co-pilot if you would. There’s always collaboration, and that doesn’t just mean in art, that just means in community, in living, in how we deal with life, how we walk through life, unless you’re a hermit. So when you come from a community like Detroit, every second person you know knows somebody who’s creative. We all know each other, it’s a family affair here. So there’s always collaboration even when we’re not working together, sometimes we’ll do studio visits, we’ll have meals together. We need to get things out of our heads because if it stays in there it exists in a space that sometimes is not real until it comes out.

Going off of the title of the exhibition, how do you and your collaborator see your specific work differently? 

We definitely had a conversation about it, but if you physically look at our pieces— mine is off the ground, Levon’s is very grounded— if you look at the details of his work, the spiderwebs, the protective eye that you see in so many cultures, and so as I think about that being a beaded thing that goes across the chest and the neck area and connects the garment’s bodice to the bottom skirt, I’m thinking also about my piece, about the bird cage and how its representative of the womb, that is basically saying “we have protection of these babies as long as they’re in the womb, but once they’re out we can no longer protect you.” We can do the best we can but the idea is that we take our nurturing and our mothering and we just have to put everything in the hands of faith and fate, because whatever is going to happen is going to happen but our hope is that we are protecting, that we are providing a space for you to come and be safe and who you are, and how you are. And I think both of our pieces talk about that. But also shrouding yourself with protection, and being your own mother if you will, and taking on another persona of superhero when sometimes this world makes you feel like you’re just this little speck on this planet and you don’t mean anything, but taking your creative talent and imagination and pushing through the idea that you are important, and you will make a mark on this planet, and you have something to say about what’s going on in your head and in the world and here it is.

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