Phoenix Joy Marie Savage, a native of Philadelphia, PA carried out scholarly works during her IAH Fellowship that were extensions of her research conducted while a Fulbright Scholar in Nigeria. Under prior research, Savage employed her background as a Medical Anthropologist and explored human relations in juxtaposition to her own head’s response to emotional environmental changes that occurred during human interactions.
Savage is the 2012-2013 Being Humans Fellow at the Institute of Arts and Humanities at Pennsylvania State University. While serving as a Visiting Artist and Scholar at Penn State, Savage will create a new body of work, Human Touch. The Human Touch Project will continue Savage’s explorations of aesthetically expressing the relationship between human and ethereal connectivity. More specifically, Human Touch investigates and addresses the invisible space that exists when human beings connect by way of a simple touch. The synergy and emotionality imbedded in the initial wax touch is carried forth in subsequet re-touching of the initial wax touch. These subsequent human touches via the exhibition audience further the exploration of object, emotion and Idea.
Savage's Seminar course 400 + 1 is based on the Yoruba theory of expansion and allows each student to locate themselves globally and communally through the exploration of their artistic practices and Process-Based Art.
Artist Phoenix Savage
uses sculpture to teach, inform, and share stories of our history
When I was younger my dad would take me and my brother to a small children’s museum where Norman Rockwell paintings hung and finger paint stains could be found on bathroom walls. Norman Rockwell tells America’s stories, my dad told me on our first visit to the museum. Okay, I thought to myself. This guy is a storyteller and every time I thought of Rockwell, I thought of America and stories and history.
Years later, I was having a discussion with a few friends about art and the ways in which art serves as documentation. We had all come to the consensus that art was a unique method of communicating history and culture ( i.e Mr. Rockwell). My friends and I were all Americans but I was the only African-American and as I was listening to the conversation, I couldn’t help but wonder where I could find the art that documented life of the hyphen. For while Mr. Rockwell and other American realists painters undertook the noble cause of preserving casual Saturday strolls to the diner or hammock naps, where was the preservation of those stories of people who looked like me?
And so I did what any inquisitive mind would do: I searched for answers. At times, I found my nose buried deep in a book and other times I found myself at a gallery, eager to stumble upon an artist whose works spoke to the history of my blackness. Last week I told you about a new exhibit, Ain’t I A Woman, at MoCADA in Brooklyn that features the work of several artists. Sculptor Phoenix Savage is among the artists featured in the exhibit and her piece Antithesis is a powerful example of art that speaks to and about the complexities of black femaleness, Diasporian culture, and the beauty of our existence.
The most fascinating element of Savage’s Antithesis are the cast iron eggs that rest atop colorful pillow mounds. The piece reckons with the ongoing discussion about black women and the myth of invulnerability. Yet, cast iron is a unique element of Savage’s general artistry. Her use of cast iron began after a project was lost during Hurricane Katrina. ” I was in New Orleans before the storm and I had this body of work based on Aunt Jemima but it was castings that I had down of women in my community when I lived in Nashville and the work ended up in New Orleans with me and I had to leave the work behind and I moved but the work was made out of plaster so it got destroyed in the storm and that’s what lead me to the casting because I felt so vulnerable from that destruction and I felt like I wanted to work in a way where my work was indestructible.” Savage’s desire for preservation lead to her new practice of cast iron sculpture however the implication of preservation extends beyond the physical. ” Casting is very difficult, it’s very time consuming and casting iron is more difficult, more time consuming than casting bronze or other metals and most people don’t like it because it’s iron so you don’t get that same glory feeling from it but the iron is who I am as a black person.”
It is the historical importance of iron within the framework of American history and the experience of Africans in America that motivates Savage’s work. While she admits that when she first began practicing art she “didn’t know the difference between fine art and commercial art”, she has always known how to express herself. Her work invites the viewer to acknowledge the contribution of black laborers in the U.S. while prompting dialogue about the future of our community. ” I am honoring those laborers who specifically understood and worked on iron plantations and contributed to the massive economic and overall greatness of this here America so for me to display the iron in a totally non-utilitarian form and to display it in a manner of fine art is highly significant for a black person to do.”
Savage boldly proclaims her message as a black artist. Indeed, she is a storyteller, a griot who is dedicated to using her art form as a point of reclamation and examination. ” I believe that my success- even though it may be a little bit more difficult, even though there may not be a big market for it- my success comes in looking at who we are as a people and figuring out how to visualize that so that you, or anybody else who can relate to you is able to locate themselves, you are able to locate yourself and I am able to locate myself in what I’ve just done.”
If you’re like me, ever inquisitive, ever eager for knowledge, I encourage you to learn more about Phoenix Savage.
It’s good to find the answers to the questions we ask.
Phoenix Savage: Fulbright Recipient!
Phoenix Savage, a second year GSU sculpture grad, received notice last week that she was tapped to be among the esteemed Fulbright Scholars for 2010-2011.
The Fulbright Scholars program was established in 1946 under legislation submitted by then Senator J. William Fulbright of Arkansas. As part of a flagship international educational exchange program sponsored by the U.S. government, participants are selected for their academic merit and leadership potential with the opportunity to teach, study and exchange ideas contributing to the finding of solutions to shared international concerns.
Prior to landing at Mississippi Valley State University, Savage earned an Associate’s degree from the prestigious Art Institute of Philadelphia. Upon completing her degree program at MVSU, Savage continued by earning two Masters of Arts degrees from the University of Mississippi at Oxford, 2001 and Northwestern State University, Natchitoches, LA, 2008. She is currently completing her Master of Fine Arts degree at Georgia State University, with a concentration in sculpture. Savage plans to pursue her international work in the West African country of Nigeria. “While in Nigeria I will be exploring and creating a new body of work based on the Yoruba concept of Ori. It is a concept fundamental to their religious and cultural positioning in the world as human beings. In short, it is believed that prior to birth, you enter a room and select a head, then you enter a second room and select a destiny, your human experience deals with how well you join these two forms of being so that you can have a good life. I will explore very reflective works in that I will keep a journal as to how I am adapting to my new environment and how my head is considering these various encounters. My sculptures will be the visual manifestations of these experiences.”
POSTED BY JPERAGINE
January 2009/Issue 11
Phoenix Savage: Black Like Me
Norma Clark: Transformation
Arthello Beck Gallery, Dallas, TX
December 8 - January 3, 2009
The newly renovated South Dallas Cultural Center's; Arthello Beck Gallery continues to offer the Dallas community contemporary art with its current exhibition of mixed media sculptures by Atlanta artist Phoenix Savage and Texas abstract landscape painter Norma Clark.
Savage a transplant to Atlanta, works in a similar vein of the "Ethnographic Sculptor" Charles Cordier (1827-1905). While Cordier was a figurative sculptor working in bronze and polychrome marble, both he and Savage share the profession of anthropology, using this discipline as source material for their sculptures. Cordier agitated the Parisian bourgeoisie; with his exquisite statuesque busts of Africans, proclaiming, "The most beautiful Negro is not the one who looks most like us." Cordier's NeÌƒgre du Soudan( Negro of Sudan) and VeÌƒnus africaine (African Venus) were exhibited in direct contrast to the circus style exhibitions that continued to dominate the arts and sciences during post Saartjie Baartman, France.
Savage on the other hand pulls from historical events, visually narrating the nuances of the African experience in America. Using iconographic imagery to trigger understanding and thought in the viewers mind, Savage employs metal casting, assemblage, still photography, ceramic and forged mental as mediums for her methods that provoke the viewer into a new recognition of the other. With John Henry's Legs, welded iron railroad spikes stacked one upon the other are embedded in cast bronze feet, Savage guides the viewer into the history of one of America's most popular folk songs, albeit partial truth and partial myth about a man who challenges a steam engine. The welded iron spikes calls into view the strength required of enslaved workers as America forged its way through the industrial age. However, the precarious image of the spikes stacked one on top of the other creates an understanding of the fragility of human strength. John Henry, a convict leased to a railroad company won the battle but lost the war, he died shortly after beating the steam engine as they raced to drill a hole in a mountain to plant dynamite.
Savage offers a re-telling of the Jim Crow South with Picnic. The black monochromatic picnic basket with its contents of an oversized metal fork and spoon, wine bottle, glass, napkin and hangmen's noose harkens back to surrealist scenes of strange fruit hanging from trees while families dine on culinary delicacies appropriate for a picnic.
The depth to which Savage applies subtle relations to history and bigotry are seen in They All Look A Like. Nearly 40 six to seven foot tall bamboo polls stand erect with black porcelain heads mounted atop, seemingly of the same face. Closer examination reveals the slight differences in facial gestures distinguishing one from the other. The sculpture touches upon both the ubiquitous cultural idiom "they all look a like," often repeated when one ethnic group applies benign bigotry towards another. At the same time, these hand-sculpted figures are reminiscent of severed heads planted on fence posts along River Road after the Louisiana Slave Revolt of 1811. With all of Savage's sculptures, there is a history lesson embedded in the artisanship and beauty of her art. Each sculpture offers the viewer an opportunity to question who, what, when, where and why? In many cases, the clues to the question's answers are in the sculpture's titles. Savage; like Cordier, employs anthropology with a dose of artistic desire, to offer beauty to the world as exemplified in the experiences of persons of African decent.
Norma Clark creates painterly investigations of her "mark making process" across, under, through, over, beside, juxtaposed to, and in conjunction with motion. Clark's abstract paintings are a journey with form and hue. Branches, a large size oil painting is an intertwined web of morphed branches set upon a grid ghosting their way back and forth, as if wind is to blame for their ebb and flow of shape, color and line. Branches employs black and white in highly strategic manners, so much so that it takes the viewer a while to realize that Clark is working with a very limited pallet of red, orange and green that she deftly applies achieving all that each color has to yield across its spectrum.
Clark, paints without preconceived thoughts of the sum gain of her painterly explorations, she describes her process as "beautiful chaos." Her interest rest with where the paintbrush lands in relationship to the next brush stroke. In its truest Zen state, Clark releases conscience control in order to allow the language of mark making its fullest achievement of beautiful chaos.
An infectious laugh bubbles up continuously from deep inside Campti sculptor Phoenix Savage when she talks about her life, whether during a telephone or face-to-face interview.
When she discusses her family in Philadelphia.
Her travels in Africa and how she challenged a great fear there.
Her 10 moves across the United States.
Her decision to move to Mississippi and study the burning of churches.
Her location in Campti and her studies at Northwestern State University.
And how it all affected her art.
Savage and five other contemporary working Louisiana artists will be featured in "Focus Gallery: Louisiana Artists at the Crossroads," opening today at Meadows Museum of Centenary College.
During the show's run, there will be Artists' Circle events to bring artists and locals together.
"They will explore the perspectives on career paths, creative methods/techniques and the community impact of the visual arts," said Leia A. Lewis, Meadows Museum educator.
Kara Olidge, a Ph.D. candidate at State University of New York-Buffalo, is exhibition curator. Lewis and Olidge organized the initial series of "Crossroads Exhibitions" in New Orleans from 1996 to 1998.
"These are Louisiana artists on the verge of breaking through and achieving national recognition," said Meadows Director Diane Dufilho.
At 46, Savage comes late to pursuing art as a full-time career.
"As a young child, I was always interested in art. My family encouraged me, but not much. They really wanted me to do something practical, to get a job," she said.
She was developing anthropology into a career, a move that brought her from New Mexico to Mississippi and eventually to Louisiana.
She ended up in Natchitoches two years ago on another research project, hoping to land opportunities to work as an anthropologist.
That didn't work out, but she purchased a home in Campti anyway.
"I needed to settle down, so why not here," said Phoenix. "It is a most charming old home on a beautiful plot in a tranquil settlement."
And she signed up for NSU's master's program in studio/sculpture. She has only a thesis class to go to receive her degree.
The thesis: "Black Artist and the Negotiation of Niggerism."
Summed up: How black artists negotiate for space to exhibit their work.
She describes her own work as "very contemporary, highly contemporary."
"She speaks to the African-American experience through the lens of her family and her community. She uses sculpture to do that," Lewis said.
Matt DeFord, Savage's major professor, appreciates the artist's work on a lot of different scales.
"Her work references a lot of personal racial history. She really chronicles the idea of what it is to be black in America and in the South," DeFord said.
"It speaks to something that affects us and has affected all of us," he added.
To tell her stories, Savage selects materials that range from hard steel to soft, pliable raffia and, in varied ways, combines them with porcelain, photography and found objects.
Among the pieces she'll show at Meadows is "Gilded Slave in a Box." Using Aunt Jemima salt-and-pepper shakers, the artist cast a mold of black porcelain and brushed the shakers with gold leaf, encased them in gold nails and arranged them in a long and narrow wooden box accented with raffia.
The point of the piece? "We should set Aunt Jemima free. She is the most overworked woman on earth," Savage answered.
The piece is DeFord's favorite Savage work. "In the South, a lot of children were raised by a black nanny. That same person cooked the food and was almost a source of comfort," he said.
"She took an antique image and reproduced it in ceramics and gold leaf and placed it in packing and glorified and repackaged it."
Instead of sketching her ideas, Savage writes them. "I make crazy notes about a sculpture to do. I write ideas and thoughts. I finally ask myself, 'What would that look like?' Then I envision what it would look like."
Her pieces, already being purchased by collectors, range from around $2,000 and up.
Although she is settled now, she grew up in Philadelphia, the product of a father who was a jazz musician and mother who was an educator.
"I originally came to the South 10 years ago, searching for an understanding of how African-American communities redeveloped themselves after the experiences of the burning of their churches in the 1990s. I was wanting to understand how people were coping with that," said Savage.
During seven years of life in Mississippi, she learned that there are really some good-hearted people in the world and that people who are already marginalized still are resilient about their faith.
In between home and Campti, Savage traveled to Africa where she walked on top of a rain forest via slings of rope, resembling a ladder that swings back and forth as you walk.
"I am afraid of heights. It was very scary and once you started you had to continue. There was no going back," Savage said.
And so she moved forward across the tree tops.
It sounds a lot like Savage's life.
She moves forward one home and one career at a time.
Today, she is an artist at the crossroads.
Meadows Museum announced in January that six contemporary working Louisiana artists will be featured in "Focus Gallery: Louisiana Artists at the Crossroads" at the Meadows Museum of Art at Centenary College. The exhibit will be featured at the Museum until April 14. The six artists of the exhibit, representing diverse perceptions and experiences of African American culture, include painter Marcus Akinlana, photographer Gus Bennett, Jr., sculptor Sheleen Jones-Adenle, painter Frank Kelley, Jr., painter Jamar Pierre, and sculptor Phoenix Savage.
If you go to the exhibit, proceed to the second floor of Meadows to the Focus gallery. You can start your experience with any piece in the gallery. Because there are various artists represented, the collection is held together by its theme: community and culture.
The first thing one will notice in the middle of the gallery is a pair of "legs" created by bronze railroad spikes with a pair of bronze feet at the base. This is Phoenix Savage's mixed media sculpture "John Henry's Legs." John Henry is an American folk hero, most notable for outlasting a steam power hammer laying railroad tracks. The power and dedication of John Henry is memorialized in the spikes. The spikes, vertically connected one to the other, create a powerful and moving image. Phoenix creates more memorable images with her piece "Gilded Slave in a Box." This piece can best be described as a longer vertical shelf with approximately twelve small boxes with little bronze figures. These figures have no faces or clear shape. They are lumpy and surrounded by grass straw. Taken separately, these items are plain. But combined, I got the sense of what it may have felt like to be a slave - a faceless, shapeless nothingness of a life captured in a confined space surrounded by trash.
Gus Bennett, Jr. depicts the everyday person within the context of a community with his digital photography combined with organic material from the subject's environment: leaves, stone, mud, etc. His sessions usually occur on the subject's porch. Bennett's ability to capture the essence of person is particularly remarkable. His photo "Tyari" depicts a young African-American male all dolled up in a monogrammed suit holding a remembrance notice of a family member. The uncertainty, youthfulness, and naivety are clearly captured on Tyari's face and in his body language.
Shelene Jones-Adenle's tall, thin bronze sculptures, including "Jazz" and "High Rise," represent individuals that make up community and the enduring nature of family, civic, and social relations. The treatment of the bronze gave the sculptures a dark color that to me invoked a sense of finality instead of a sense of endurance. The construction of the sculptures also created an urban, industrial feeling instead of a social, communal sense of connectivity.
Frank Kelly's paintings deal with faces of a community. These painting are more traditional. Kelly uses traditional lines combined with bright, but slightly more subdued colors. In "Women of Mali," Kelly depicts a West African working woman. He creates her face in such a way that she could easily be someone the viewer knows personally or a modern westernized woman about to hop on the metro to run off to work at the office. The sense of connectivity to one's work, passion, and family are readily understandable in Kelly's works.
Jamar Pierre's paintings are probably my favorite of the collection. Pierre reconstructs the rich culture of New Orleans and the community that is defined by music, dance, food, and art. Pierre's style is marked by a combination of bright colors with solid, but at times fluid lines. It can best be described as post-realism. At times, Pierre's paintings border on impressionism, but then a sneaky line slips into the frame and reminds the viewer that these images are more than impressions. Pierre's "Faces of Katrina" depicts a host of characters of various ethnicities, classes, and culture that make New Orleans unique. Pierre uses black paint to outline the faces. The black paint somehow pops right off the campus, seeming bright instead of dark and gloomy. The black also makes the reds, yellows, and greens of the campus stand out, much like New Orleans stands out in the South. The painting evokes a sense of loss and sacrifice, but there are also elements of hope. It is truly inspirational. In "Blowing Out the Past" Pierre uses Louis Armstrong and his trumpet to lead the host of other images in the painting to teach the viewer about the rich vivaciousness of New Orleans. Bright red, orange, and blue paints combined with fluid and bending lines create a sense of happiness and fulfillment.
Overall, the Meadows exhibit leaves its viewers with a better sense of what it means to be at the crossroads of a culture, what it means to connected to a community, and how the past affects the future. All of the artists are to be commended for their rich and vibrant works and their contributions to Louisiana's artistic community.