Ken Lovell, Visual Arts Chair, interviewed alumna Naima Green '07 about her path from Holy Child to a successful career in the arts. The entire interview was published in the Fall/Winter 2018 edition of Glimpses.
Photograph of Naima by Valery Rizzo
Ken Lovell: As a new teacher at Holy Child, I've been excited to hear about alumnae who have gone on to careers in the Arts. You graduated from Holy Child in 2007 and went on to receive a B.A. in Urban Studies from Barnard College, Columbia University and an M.A. in Art and Art Education from Teachers College, Columbia University. You are currently an M.F.A. candidate at the International Center for Photography - Bard. You have had a fellowship in the Bronx Museum's Artist in the Marketplace (AIM) program, an Artist Residency at the Vermont Studio Center and were the recipient of the Myers Art Prize at Columbia University. Also, your work has been featured in a variety of print and online publications as well as numerous group and solo exhibitions.
At Holy Child, our motto is "Actions not Words." I've spoken with a couple of your schoolmates who are now teaching at the school-Lauren Poccia '07 and Monique Gordon-Anefal '06-and they tell me you were very active in the Arts while you were a student. How did your education at Holy Child prepare you to be an active and thriving member of the art world?
Naima Green '07: I took my first in-depth black and white photography class at Holy Child. We learned how to expose and develop pictures in a tiny dark room off of the Middle School. Kerry Devaney Jacobs was a huge part of my art education. I remember telling a friend how much she shifted the way I thought about art, who made it, and my potential as an artist. Kerry and I stayed in touch well into my college years and she was a huge anchor for me in wanting o be in the arts and my time as a visual arts teacher.
KL: Were there any landmark events or character-shaping moments hat stand out in your memory from your time at the School?
NG: In 6th grade, Janet Baker, my social studies teacher, nominated me for The People to People Student Ambassador Program. It was through that program I traveled around Europe and Brazil as a teenager. Those trips were definitely the catalyst for my desire to travel alone and likely planted some seeds in my being an urban studies major in college. Mary Chappell was our theater teacher and I remember in 5th grade doing a dance as an amoeba! The more I think about my time at Holy Child, I am reminded of how interdisciplinary my education was and how that has manifested in both my artist and teaching practices.
KL: As an artist, I find that many non-artists don't understand the amount or type of work that goes into creating a finished body of work. Could you describe a typical day in your life and what kinds of skills you employ in your working process?
NG: Wow, I think about this often. I love going to school in New York because this is where my network is. However, it can be difficult to make work if I'm not intentional about creating the time. Right now, every weekday is different. I'm in class 4-5 days a week. I typically have Mondays off, so I will pickup freelance work or spend time doing programming for AFRICA'SOUT!, a non-profit I work for. Monday is also my day to write. Other days require me to be in class from 10 a.m. until 5 or 6 p.m. I'll then go to my studio or work from home making pictures, grant writing, applying for residencies, and planning for my thesis show this spring. I'm learning every day that being an artist means you must be a good multi-tasker and businesswoman.
KL: It must be an exciting time to be a photographer as the tools that have traditionally defined the medium have dramatically changed in the last decade. Computers and digital cameras have completely transformed how we capture, produce and share photographs. Has that change in the technology of photography affected your work?
NG: In many ways, the shift in digital technology has forced me to work more slowly. Currently, I find myself shooting predominately in medium format where I have 12 pictures per roll of film. I have to be very intentional about what I'm shooting and looking at. I spent most of Summer 2017 on the road shooting with a 35mm Nikon I bought on eBay years ago. I have a professional digital camera that I use for commercial projects and freelance jobs, but it's too heavy to be my everyday camera. I love my phone for that reason. I always have it on me as a way of remembering a place or idea. My iPhone pictures are typically never the final product, but they are a starting point for pictures and thoughts. I'm drawn to film because my work is heavily involved with color and light, and nothing captures color the way film does.
KL: One of the groups of pictures on your website is entitled "Saudade," a Portuguese word that doesn't have a direct English equivalent. Loosely translated it means a type of melancholic nostalgia. How does that relationship between deeply felt, indescribable emotion and precise visual description play out in your work?
NG: For a long time, I placed more value on thinking my way through an image or situation rather than feeling my way through it. Fortunately, I can now do both in a balanced way. I am very precise in my art making; it's important for me to have control over my tools, image frame, and subject matter. I move pretty methodically. However, what I love about making images is that I am able to create a structure for myself and then defy or unlearn it. Nothing is really set in stone.
Over the past two years while earning my MFA, I've allowed myself to be much looser in my practice. This has created a lot of space and freedom for me to work across media. For example, I started making textile pieces this year and I started painting again. I love working with my hands and sometimes the need for a more tactile material is overwhelming; that's when I'll find myself painting or printmaking-techniques I first learned while at Holy Child.
KL: As a photographer, you seem very comfortable in the places that you inhabit in your pictures, very "at home" in those worlds. Likewise, the people that you choose as subjects seem very relaxed and almost unaware of your presence. I've heard it said that the hardest thing to do is to make a difficult task look easy. Is that kind of calm, meditative space something you seek out in your work? Does it come easily? Or is it something you struggle to achieve?
NG: The calm comes easy, but not without work and practice. Being in control and being rigid are different. I've found that not knowing what will come as I make a picture is one of my favorite aspects of being an artist. I do seek out spaces hat make me feel at ease and allow me to breathe and be playful--parks, the ocean, the desert, my home. I love immersive landscapes. In order to make space for my subject collaborators to be comfortable, I have to embody that as well.
KL: You wrote an interesting opinion piece for the New York Times Sunday Review recently entitled, "The Perfect Woman to Paint Michelle Obama." The focus of the article is the painter Amy Sherald, who was chosen to paint Michelle Obama's portrait for the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. You point out that the choice of Ms. Sherald is a significant one because her paintings of black people are "quiet, ordinary and individual." She chooses to present her subjects without editorializing or politicizing their blackness. I couldn't help but wonder as I read the article, what kind of photographic portrait you might have made of the former First lady?
NG: I can only hope this becomes a reality! I'd love to make a portrait of Michelle Obama where she is lounging, perhaps in her garden, next to a bounty of freshly picked produce. I imagine soft midsummer light filling the frame but not overwhelming us.
KL: You wrote that the choice of Ms. Sherald to paint the portrait is, " ... a reminder that black artists need not present their work as representative of all black experience. Blackness is always nuanced. It is always personal." Could you elaborate on why a personalized, nuanced presentation of the black experience is essential and how that idea finds expression in your work?
NG: In that article, I mentioned a portrait of writer Diamond Sharp. This picture is part of a series called Jewels from the Hinterland, where I photographed over 85 artists of color in lush green urban environments. I did this as a way to challenge the predominant images of black people as belonging only in cold, concrete spaces in cities. A critique I received from a graduate professor was that the images were not charged up enough. That comment stung at the time and it took me a while to figure out why. I continue to think about the implications of that statement and the need for blackness to be in protest at all times.
It is reductive to only think about blackness as loud or flamboyant, and while it can be and is those things, blackness can also be subtle. I am interested in the subtleties. In her work, Sherald shows that black artists aren't obligated to represent a unifying voice for all of black experience. Blackness is also allowed to be nuanced, to be delicate, and to be graceful. It is allowed to be quiet. It is allowed to be ordinary. Sherald's paintings point to a specific woman, young man, or girl-just that one. We may be able to see these figures as mirrors and find ourselves in the work, but we are still looking at one little girl. not a representation of all black girls. This representation of blackness is special but the figures Sherald paints are not exceptions or anomalies. Like Sherald, I'm looking to humanize. I want the viewer to focus on the one person they see in the portrait; see that they have a name and are an individual. I'm not looking to represent a universal experience in my work.
KL: Who are the artists that inspire you? Are there any contemporary artists that you look to for inspiration? Do you ever mentor young artists?
NG: Romare Bearden was a huge influence when I was younger. His work was hung in my childhood home and I grew up surrounded by and learning about African and African-American artists from my parents. My contemporary influences can change by the day. Right now, I'm thinking a lot about Yoko Ono, Roni Horn, and John Cage because I'm making new work that includes more of my writing. Earlier this fall, I was spending time with the works of Jordan Casteel, Carolyn Lazard, Amanda Williams, and Alice Neel.
The influence and inspiration can change depending on what project I'm working on or where my mind is at the moment. I'm currently reading The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery. Inspiration comes from reading, writing, music, and other artists. Despite the political climate, we are living in a very rich cultural moment. As a former high school teacher, I am still in contact with some of my students. I try as best I can to help with internships, college applications, or just to catch up and encourage them with their work and trajectory. Teaching is very, very special to me.
KL: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us for Glimpses. It was great to learn more about your work, your writing, and your thoughts. Also, thank you for sharing your beautiful pictures. All of us at Holy Child look forward to seeing what you will do next and will eagerly follow your progress.