“This Rampant Individualism Is a Farce”: What I Learned from Zoë Charlton
An American professor and multidisciplinary artist shares reminders about why representation, collaboration, and becoming comfortable with your own roots matters, as we meet in Vilnius.
Sometimes things take time to grow. This spring in Vilnius I had the chance to interview Zoë Charlton, an American contemporary artist and professor of art at George Mason University in Virginia.
As I was preparing for the interview, I felt like we were from two different worlds. She was an experienced American artist, and I was a budding Lithuanian journalist. But I wanted to meet her. I wanted to have at least a glimpse of Zoë’s life as a Black woman artist in a world built on patriarchal and Eurocentric traditions.
Also, I was anxious. This opportunity came to me at an odd time in my life. I was stuck trying to manage work and university, my dad was in the hospital, and I was facing mental health difficulties.
When I finished the interview at the 5-star Pacai hotel in Vilnius’ old town and later was transcribing it in my temporary home at the dormitory of Vilnius University, I thought I had flopped. Actually, I felt that my work was complete garbage.
Now, as the fall passes away, I look back on it in a different light. I realized that my conversation with Zoë was exactly what I needed at the time. It planted the seed of what would eventually grow to heal me.
Our meeting was one of two women in completely different stages of their lives: one just starting to grasp the idea of what it’s like to be comfortable in her own flesh and another who can already confidently talk about how to get there.
Zoë Charlton came to Lithuania because her collage piece In Climate and Culture was part of the art collection of Robert S. Gilchrist, former American ambassador to Lithuania, brought with him to Vilnius.
I saw it for the first time when Gilchrist hosted a reception in honor of the collection. I was invited there as a journalist. As I entered this space, I looked to the right and slightly up. Above a doorway, it greeted me: a collage of a light blue house with Floridian flora and fauna coming out of the roof and windows (both Charlton and Gilchrist grew up in Florida). The piece seemed to be held together by waves. From afar it looked as if the house was standing on clouds. The mixture of green and blue made it comforting to look at. It felt like home.
And it was. The piece is part of Charlton’s deeply personal Compromise Series. It shows her grandmother’s home in Tallahassee, Florida, where she and her family gathered for generations.
Charlton makes a variety of different works. Primarily she’s a figurative drawer. However, she combines different styles and experiments with installation, collages, sculpting, animation, and video. Her art is a social commentary on race and identity and is heavily inspired by her roots and family.
The first thing I learned about Zoë apart from her art was that her dad was a soldier, meaning that her family was constantly on the move and dependent upon the military. I always want to learn about people’s connection to their family and their home because I find it hard to connect with mine. We started the interview exactly there. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
I read that when you were little and your family finally settled down in one place, your mom got you a “studio” space in your basement – you had a studio from a very young age.
My mother believed in making space for her children. When my father retired from the military, we lived off-base, in an apartment in a small apartment building, like a converted farmhouse. There was an empty set of rooms. My mother asked the landlord if she could use them. She designated different spaces for my brother and me. So I had a separate space, separate from the family room, separate from my own bedroom. A separate space to make work in. I recognized that as a studio.
How wonderful is that, right? I am forever grateful to my mom for having the foresight to designate spaces to create in. I would walk into that space and know that I could shift the way I was thinking. I was there, in this space, to be creative.
What kind of space are you in your life right now? I don’t only mean physical space, but also your headspace, your soul space.
I’m in a very good place. Somebody asked my age the other day, and they all collectively gasped at the table, but I turned 50 this year! I feel settled in how I imagine myself and how I see myself. I feel very good in my thinking, I’m settled in my body and very affirmed in my communities. So those are very good spaces. And those are spaces that I built with other people.
How did you get to this point in your life? When I was preparing for the interview, I was thinking: you make collages, so perhaps those collages not only help you put the pieces of your art together but also pieces in yourself together and pieces in your life together.
I am a storyteller. My work of late has been about sharing the story of my family. I’ve been really thinking about, what it may have meant for my family to stitch together their lives. But it’s also about my own reflections on their lives.
For example, the Compromise Series is about my grandmother and the land she lived on. But the titles are all taken from Frederick Douglass’ speech. I read that speech every year on the Fourth of July. And when I do, I think about her. She had this joy and audacity to live the life she needed and wanted on the terms she created. But also in the social constraints of the time.
And I think that’s really special. She was building for her future, even if she did not know what that might be. But her future was that her children and her grandchildren and her great-grandchildren would eventually live. She was always living for the future, so her kids and her grandkids could have a better experience than she did.
How did learning your family’s history and recreating it in your pieces impact you?
It gave me space to not question if I belonged somewhere. Or not have a lot of doubt about whether am I going to be allowed to do something. I enter into spaces understanding, that I do belong in so many places and I have the right to build the life that I want for myself. I can’t imagine walking into a space thinking “Am I allowed to be here?”
And that’s a privilege. I understand that that’s a privilege, especially based on where folks in my family come from.
What has your dad being in the military taught you about making contacts and connecting with people?
My dad was in the Air Force for 26 years. He traveled to a lot of places. I’ve lived in multiple states in the US and we lived overseas in Japan in Okinawa when I was really young. Being a military dependant helped me understand what being a new person means. I’m never uncomfortable being a new person or being in a different environment. This has given me a lot of flexibility to reinvent myself. It’s also made me very comfortable to go into spaces and not know. I am very quick to ask a bunch of questions if I don’t understand a custom or a way of behaving.
What it was like growing up like that?
We did a lot of traveling. I’m used to being on the road. Used to being on a plane. Being in between spaces. Traveling is something that I’m so familiar with, so to be stationary for a while is a shock.
Right now I feel very rooted. I’ve been based in Baltimore for 14 years now and that’s wonderful. But I am gone a lot. I think I'm more uncomfortable staying put than I am moving around.
Growing up was very exciting. I remember getting in the car when we were really young and driving to the airport. Just to catch a plane to go somewhere. That’s a very early memory. So even now I'm typically in the airport really early in the morning, just to get somewhere else.
I think I had a really great childhood that introduced me to a lot of different things. It made me comfortable with being uncomfortable.
Why was your Compromise Series named this way?
I was thinking about the compromises that my family made to be where they were. I was thinking about the compromises that everyone makes to live where they need to. The compromise to not take a particular job, to not live in a particular neighborhood. My grandmother made a lot of compromises to build stability for her family. That’s why it’s titled that. Our lives are full of compromises, and so it just seemed very fitting for that series.
What compromises have you made for yourself?
Here is my compromise – my priority is my studio, so that means there are other things I am not willing to do so that I can prioritize working in the studio. I make compromises on the kind of service that I do because I don’t want to be taken away from my studio for too long. And I make compromises on the kind of social time that I have because being in my studio is really important to me. And I am willing to make compromises on the things I do for income because I want health insurance. I want a certain kind of life, which means, I won’t do certain kinds of things in order to have or maintain that life.
Why is the studio so important to you?
Because it is a space to work in a place that is mine. So that I can go and think and have the freedom to make mistakes and to get messy. And to be in space with honesty to myself. It gives me the space to try new things and have the courage to do that.
I don’t know anything about animation, but I am doing it. I know nothing about building, but I am working with people who can help me understand how to build.
As I’ve mentioned in the beginning, my mom said that it’s important to have a room of one’s own. And it’s interesting because my studio is a very collaborative space, but it’s also a space that I protect for myself.
How is it collaborative?
There are always people in it. Some things that I would like to do I am not skilled in doing. So it necessitates to be with people that know how to do stuff. But it is also a space where I can close some things out and think on my own as well. It serves a dual purpose.
Could you tell me more about those connections and collaborations?
In the most recent work that I’ve done, which is a part of a group exhibition called A Movement In Every Direction: Legacies Of The Great Migration, there were many hands that helped make that work a reality, and people that helped me research.
Jeffreen M. Hayes – we met twice a month to think about the ideas and for me to be challenged. Her area of expertise is Black books on the military, and that was really important for me to work with someone whose research centered on the very subject that I was invested in as being military dependent.
I worked with a group of students from different schools. To make that work, I needed extra hands, and they were generous with their time. And I worked with Malcolm Majer through his studios and he fabricated the pop-up book to do this. So there's that kind of collaborative moment.
For my current solo exhibition [Smokey Hallow – ed.] at the Maryland Art Place, I worked with Rick Delaney to do animation. His title is collaborative art maker, and he works with different artists. So he has a particular area of expertise in 2D animation and sound. And for this sub-portrait series that I did, I worked with collaborative paper maker Nicole Donnelly at Bronsky Center, which is at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.
Currently, I'm a part of a collective called Kindred Creative Residence + Agro-ForesT and it’s a group of educators, artists, farmers, and activists that came together to steward 66 acres of unseeded Abenaki Land in Vermont.
So there are different ways I work with different people. I also serve on boards, and I find that a collaborative experience as well. I also collaborate at my job – I teach. And I think that the classroom is the best kind of collaborative environment to be in because I'm working with learners who have their own set of experiences. And through that experience, I’m talking about my own as well.
“I think that the world wants us to think as a solo person, but I just can’t do that.”
I’m very curious to hear that because we live in a split society, where collaboration is a rather alien concept. What do we get in a collective? Why is it important?
It would be very arrogant of me to sit here and say that I built my life all by myself. There is absolutely no way that I could do all of this solo. And so this rampant individualism is a farce. It means that I don’t actually acknowledge how people helped me: how my parents have helped me, how my spouse helps me, all of those things. All of these people helped me build this life that we are living together.
So it doesn’t make sense to me to not talk about the spaces that I inhabit without referencing other people. And it seems pretty irresponsible to do that. I think it’s very arrogant. It also doesn’t acknowledge that the information that I got was from other people.
I think that the world wants us to think as a solo person, but I just can’t do that.
What has been your experience connecting with people on projects who have different opinions and see the world differently?
You know, I have been told that I sit in conflict very well.
I am a twin, so I came into the world with someone. I came connected with someone else and I shared womb space with someone. I shared a living space with my brother. And I come from a long line of twins. I am the third set of twins out of four. On my mother's side, I’m the second set of twins and the first on my dad’s side.
I don’t have a lot of photos that are without my brother. I credit that a lot with the way that I think.
Do you have a good relationship with your brother?
Yes! That’s a gift.
What’s his name?
Jimmy. I was talking with him last night. I think that a lot of people don’t have close relationships with their families, but it’s important to me that I do. I want to rely on them and for them to actually rely on me. That extends to me and the different communities that I am a part of. Because I want that. I want to belong.
We talked about most of your family, but not your dad. What was he like?
Well, his name was also Jimmy, so my brother is named after him. My dad was the oldest of fourteen children. He was born and raised in Tallahassee, Florida. He went into the military and was there for 26 years. He raised his family and had a worldly experience being in the service. He went to Japan and was in the Philippines and Vietnam. He lived in a lot of different places in the United States. My dad was a very serious person. His friends and colleagues described him as very loyal. He loved his country. Very committed to family.
What was your relationship with him?
He was very strict, serious. Part of my seriousness comes from him.
Did he support your art?
He did. He didn’t always ask about it, but he supported it. And I found out how much he supported my work after he had passed away. Because I talked to his friends and they said that my dad always talked about me. It was very special. Sometimes we find out how other people feel about us from other people. My dad was a very interesting person. He was a good storyteller.
Did you learn that from him?
Of course. He could tell the most amazing stories.
Do you have any specific memories?
He talked a lot about him and his friends growing up. But he didn’t talk about military life and his stories about Vietnam. He left that part very closed off from family because war is traumatic. He talked a lot about going to a segregated high school and he joked about the things that kids do.
I read that some of your pieces were inspired by him and Vietnam.
Yes, the work Permanent Change of Station was inspired by him. It is about him and another family that entered the military for a lot of different reasons: economic security, wanting to have different experiences, people who wanted to move away from home. But really, it was about my dad’s relationship with the Vietnam War.
There is a figure of a woman that is dressed in blue – Air Force blue. She represents both my aunt, who was the first woman I knew to be in the military and a self-portrait of me without the patches, because I am not in the military, looking into a representation of the Vietnamese countryside with a collage of Levittown, Pennsylvania, in the valley.
It is about the way my family historically has been able to navigate through spaces that may have not been built for them. That didn’t include them. But they managed to be global and retain things. So that piece is about how my family migrated, shifted, and changed their ideas and experiences.
Why do you think inclusivity and representation matters?
My life has required me to understand and accept other people, which in turn, gave me the ability to understand and accept myself. Relationships are contextual. My friend always talks about: “How do you want a relationship to be with you?” I must practice inclusivity in order for us to find a space to talk. If I want to be in the world and have experiences, even like this [meaning the interview – ed.], it requires me to be inclusive and open to any kind of ideas and any kind of people.
Representation matters because I want to see myself reflected in the world. As an undergrad, I never had one Black professor. My mother was an educator, and so was my aunt, but at the university level, I never had a Black professor. And when other BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color) students saw me walk in, they understood that they can do all these things. When I was a graduate student, I had the honor to work with three BIPOCs in the faculty. And it helped me understand who and what I can be in the world.
And that is why representation matters. I can’t imagine and I do not want to imagine not being able to see myself reflected in the world. Because I want to do things. And if my aunt does it, that means I can do it too.
There is a story I recently learned about my aunt. My grandmother was a domestic worker and my aunt would help my grandmother clean houses. Once they had to clean the house of a white family. The husband didn’t think the bathroom was very clean and started yelling at my aunt. My grandmother went to check the bathroom and said that the place was clean. However, the man was furious. At that point, my grandmother looked at my aunt and said that she didn’t have to do this, which gave my aunt permission not to do this.
She went on to become an educator, she went on to get her master's degree, and that was huge. My grandmother saying that gave my aunt permission to get a higher degree, which inspired my mom.
So I have these two women, different generations, who told me that I can do all of these things. And so representation matters – that’s huge. Like, it was never a question if I would go to school, because my aunt went to school, my mom went to school. Representation matters because it shows you the possibilities.