A friend recently called me to ask if it was ok that she took a nap on the first day of her artist residency/retreat.

I asked if she was tired and needed a nap and she responded with an emphatic YES.

I laughed and reminded her that I called from the train platform on the way to my own residency, panicked that I was somehow not worthy. The first full day, I walked around in circles in my beautiful sun-drenched studio, laid flat on the floor and cried buckets.

Then I fell asleep.

I took a lot of naps and remembered how to ride a bike again during that residency.  

Some days I felt guilty about not actively creating work and sleeping in the middle of the day, surround by a pile of books or scribbles of my own fragmented writing.

Other days, I knew I needed sleep to heal myself. 

I had showed up wounded with doubt and fear and a mild case of depression that I would later come to understand.

For a long time I had mixed feelings about what I created during my residency, until I was recently watching Spike Lee’s problematic episodic version of She’s Gotta Have it.

Nola Darling at Nation Time Residency – She’s Gotta Have It (Netflix)

(Big Spoiler Alert)

In season 2, on the heels of a breakup, the title character, Nola Darling is awarded a coveted fictional one-week residency for Black Artists on Martha’s Vineyard. The welcome party and participating artists featured represent a who’s who in the Contemporary black visual art scene including: Amy Sherald (notable for the Michelle Obama National Portrait Gallery piece), the legendary Carrie Mae Weems, Tatiyana Fazlalizadeh (who’s the real artist behind Nola’s art work), MacArthur Fellow Titus Kaphar, muralist UncuttArt and so on.

Nola does not seem to be thrown by the talent in the room, but she later toils in her studio rearranging the art making objects, takes long bike rides to the beach, talks to the locals and most notably strikes up a romance with a Nigerian-American artist complete with African vs African-American stereotypes. At the end of the week she is not proud of the work she creates – a very unfinished and muddied version of a self-portrait, perhaps reflective of how Nola is feeling about herself as a romantic partner and as an artist trying to make new work and pay her bills without “selling out.”

It was watching this moment that I forgave myself for the naps and the long journal entries that felt too self-indulgent. Even though I created work that I ultimately liked, I criticized the process often. I didn’t understand why I sometimes needed days in between work. I thought “Someone is providing time and space so I better produce something worthy, fast.”

I write this because I know I am not the only one who has felt this way.

Nola had to remind me.

My friend who is wondering if sleep is a good use of time had to remind me.

For me I know the allowance was larger than sleep. I had to admit it was ok to be selfish with my time and my thoughts and slow down enough to be fully present.

Maybe you are at a residency right now or have been given time and space and feel the obligation to produce your Opus. Do or Don’t. These kind of spaces allow us to take care of ourselves and in doing that hopefully sets the conditions for art making. Whether it be the beginning, middle or end.

I think about the art I admire which keeps me thinking long after I have left the dark theater or gallery spaces, or public spaces. The work usually developed from an involved creation or emotional process with longer gestation periods. I say this while also firmly rooted in improvisational practices and presentations. This is not a contradiction. I truly believe that improvisation that feels good and communicates with an audience comes from deep knowledge and process – whether learned, practiced or dropped into our bodies just in time by our ancestors.

A work that has both of these qualities and has deeply fueled me personally is Sharon Bridgforth’s River See.

The process during and after the writing of the script involved 18 workshops that took place over three years in Austin, Boston, Chicago, Miami, Minneapolis, New York, and Providence, and included different performers and audience members and therefore different embodiment and connection to the stories.

As a witness participant and a cast member, I watched Sharon craft and re-craft, determined to get it done but in that time she also lived her life, moved out of Chicago and eventually came back to premiere the piece in 2014.

Many years prior, around 2008, someone had asked her “What is the work you need to do to save your own life?” Eventually she made River See.

A series of blues stories set on a river boat, with juking women, queers, deviants and Seers, River See is the prayer before the first Great African American Migration. 
Experienced through the heart of, SEE, a young woman-in-training, an ensemble cast along with witness/participants journey through a world where the living-the dead-the unborn/the past-the present-the future co-exist.
SUGAR/BITTERSWEET AND ARTIST, MAGDA CAMPOS-PONS (GIFT OF RICHARD COHEN) ORIGINALLY INSTALLED AT THE SMITH MUSEUM OF ART IN NORTHAMPTON, MA
Copyright © 2019 The President and Fellows of Harvard College

When I think about healing work that takes time, I also look at the work of multimedia Cuban born artist María Magdalena Campos-Pons specifically her 2010 piece Sugar/Bittersweet.

She created an installation that spoke to her family’s personal history with sugar plantations in Cuba. Campos-Pons lived as a child with her family in a former slave barracks in the sugar plantation town La Vega and her yoruba ancestors had worked in the sugar-cane fields. 

Sugar/Bittersweet is a simulacrum of a sugar cane field, with columns of raw sugar disks and cast-glass forms pierced by African spears as visual metaphors for the tall, graceful stalks of the sugar cane plant. The spears, set into African stools, reference the slaves who worked the sugar cane fields. Roped Chinese weights allude to the weighing of the crop after harvest. They also refer to another aspect of the artist’s ancestry: the Chinese indentured laborers who were brought to Cuba to work for the sugar mills as they became increasingly mechanized (Linda Muehlig, 2010). This is a process that began before Campos-Pons was born, and then continued to inform multiple pieces leading up to Sugar/Bittersweet.

In an interview with Smith Museum of Art leading up to the opening, Campos-Pons said that this work is an epiphany of ideas and concepts that she had been trying to gather. She felt as if she was touching something that was important, maybe just important to her.

I don’t know what the work is that I need to do to save my own life, or if I am in need of a survivor piece at all, but I know that I have learned that art making in all its forms has a way of making you listen and feel. 

It does not need to be rushed and perhaps is not the actual product at all. 

It is process, always process.

And part of that process might include

admitting you are human,

you need a nap, 

and maybe a bit of healing.

Instigation Festival 2018 (left to right: Marie Casimir, Onye Ozuzu, Nicole Boyd Buckles, Jasmine Mendoza, Meida McNeal)