Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Homework of Art

By Riché Richardson

I originally drafted this editorial piece last December on request from a regional business magazine, which focuses on my perspective as an artist from a business standpoint and as a business woman.

I once described myself as a person who mainly works as a university professor and moonlights as an artist. My weekday hours are dedicated to meeting the demands of my work as a professional in academia where the goal is excelling in the primary areas of evaluation and review, which include research, teaching and service. Even during periodic stretches of time on sabbatical leave when teaching and service are not expectations, writing assumes center stage and consumes a lot time. Yet, because having a space to nurture interests unrelated to my academic agenda is crucial, I have had to carve out time to also be productive as an artist. Maintaining a well-equipped home-based art studio and doing my work as an artist effectively from the space of home is a must.

I made my first mixed-media appliqué art quilt as a senior at Spelman College in 1992. I continued to make art quilts as a graduate student in the 1990s at Duke University and when I joined the faculty in the University of California system. In California, my art studio was a corner in my living room. Because of my steady pace and rhythm of art production, by the time that I went up for tenure in 2004, I had also developed a body of art work and was invited by the director Georgette Norman to do my first solo show at Troy University's Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery, Alabama in 2008. My quilt portraits project is grounded in family quilts featuring my grandparents, Emma Jenkins Richardson and Joe Richardson, during their years of living in Florida during World War II.

Since 2008, I have been on the faculty at Cornell University where I have continued to excel as a professor. I have also begun to establish a reputation as an art quilter whose work has been documented in books and films. It has appeared in national exhibitions from “Un Patchwork de Cultures” in France to “Quilts for Obama” at the Historical Society of Washington, D.C. The former opportunity entailed my being brought to Paris in 2009 under the auspices of a grant from the U.S. Department of State as a Cultural Envoy of the U.S. Embassy in France in its “Speaker Series,” and honored with a talk, exhibition, film screening and reception at the U.S. Ambassador’s Residence in tandem with the exhibition’s Paris opening.

I have been able to produce a substantial body of quilts by working steadily for at least two hours primarily on Sundays after church. I first established this pace and rhythm when I spent that window of time reading the Bible in a year as a graduate student. My work sometimes spills over into other periods during the weekend, or inflects some weekdays during my summers off. My art studio makes my art projects accessible and allows me to maximize my work time.

As my art project developed and on the road to my first solo show, I released several complimentary print cards primarily for the purpose educational outreach, which also necessitated collaboration with a photographer. When I lived in California, the photographer for my first show, Keith Stevenson, would periodically visit my high rise condominium apartment in downtown Sacramento and shoot my quilts on the balcony, which was another way in which the work related to my quilts unfolded at home. We scheduled a couple of photo shoots at his apartment in Berkeley facing the Golden Gate Bridge. We even did a public photo shoot on the campus where I worked, UC Davis, during Black Family Weekend and permitted film students to document it. The print cards are fun to produce and have received an enthusiastic response, which makes me optimistic about possibilities for seeking a deal to market, distribute and sell them for profit, along with other merchandise, for my unique quilt portraits. My goal is also to open my own art studio and gallery for purposes of community outreach, and to establish an art production company that tithes 20% of any profits to support community interests. Quilters such as Carolyn Mazloomi and Kyra Hicks are among the people who inspire me in the field. Similarly, I admire Faith Ringgold for her famed quilts and wise business example.

So far, the exposure that I have received as an artist has blessedly come without even working with a publicist. Yet my project could not have ever reached the success that it has reached at this point without the contributions of a committed production network whose work has also overlapped and been highly collaborative. Patricia A. Turner’s regular trips to my apartment in California to document my work as a quilter for her book first introduced me to Keith’s photography and her interviews established the groundwork for my later appearances in documentary films. Filmmakers Anne Crémieux and Géraldine Chouard showcased Keith’s photography in their film about my art. I have learned a lot from witnessing their expertise in film and photography. I have also learned by working with various curators.

Over time, as my art career has developed, it has definitely also been necessary to do a lot of homework in building my literacy about business, a must for the wise artist. Since living in California, I have kept a portfolio outlining my business plan in detail, as well as diligent records, so that I will be prepared when the doors open to the right opportunities. In 2007, I had to decline the opportunity to be represented by an art dealer who sells the work of major African American artists, and who wanted me to draw my images on paper instead of fabric, my fundamental and foundational medium. I have faith that I will meet the right one at the right time. In art as in everything, I am confident that walking by faith, keeping my project pure, maintaining its integrity, and making the right choices will guarantee the best and most meaningful kind of success.

Remarks at My Aunt Pamela R-Garrett's Retirement from Kindergarten Teaching

Photos from the Retirement Celebration Held May 23, 2013

What a beautiful and blessed retirement celebration for my aunt and two other colleagues at Edward T. Davis Elementary School! It was off the chain! Here she is making some wonderful concluding remarks.

My aunt Pam and me at her retirement celebration.

My aunt Pam and her daughters Megan and Keri at the wonderful retirement celebration; all of us are also Delta sorors.

My aunt Pam, her daughter Megan and her son-in-law Patrick. My aunt got one of the best surprises ever when she saw Patrick sitting in the audience, who is currently away in Japan in the Navy.

Her daughters Megan and Keri Smith and Megan's husband Patrick at my aunt's beautiful retirement celebration. Keri did an outstanding dance as part of the program that got a standing ovation, and I was also honored to be on the program to do a tribute to my aunt.

Video of Keri's Liturgical Dance to "Let the Church Say Amen"

Remarks for Pamela R. Garrett's Retirement Celebration

I am overjoyed to have the opportunity today to stand up and give a salute to my aunt, Mrs. Pamela Garret, alongside her two other honored colleagues, for a remarkable career teaching career. It is so gratifying to see her culminate a journey that I witnessed from the time that it began. I am thankful to be here today with other family members and friends to support her, and also bring greetings from my grandmother and her mother, Mrs. Emma Richardson. I know and speak firsthand about how proud even relatives no longer here with us would be of the outstanding teacher she has been in her career, and to see her reach this day, beginning with my grandfather and her father, Joe Richardson. It has meant so much to me throughout my life to have my aunt as an example walking along the road a bit ahead, and setting such a remarkable example both as a woman and professional.

I personally watched her evolve from the Easy Bake oven and her sewing projects that filled so much of her time during her adolescent years, to her daily lesson plans and related artistic projects for her classroom. It was as if the whole floor was covered with alphabets in every conceivable color motif, and the stream of laminates was endless. I remember my amazement as she’d be busy at work cutting out what seemed to be endless reams of laminated materials and designing games, and know the hard work that her job requires on so many fronts, year in and year out. Consistently, she has given her students her very best, working late into the night.

I know that the privilege of having her example has made all the difference in my life, and inspired and motivated me as I have pursued my interests as a scholar and artist. I cannot even begin to describe all of the ways in which my aunt has supported the project of my education over the years. She has consistently been there for me. I love and appreciate her for that, and respect and admire her as a professional. She does for me in my life now what she has always done. Her continuing commitment to her students and deep devotion to what she does helped to set the achievement bar high for me from the very beginning. She is the kind of kindergarten teacher I have wished a thousand times I’d had myself, and the kind that I’d want for a child of my own.

One day around her year 26, I saw her one morning looking so energetic as she began the day with such beautiful fashion flair to boot, and it was an image that gave me the hope that I, too, would be able to continue to meet my job with that level of commitment even after so many years, while also redoubling my commitment to serving youth both inside and outside of the classroom as she has throughout her career that has been complemented by an outstanding record of community service.

A few weeks ago, my hairdresser was having a concern with one of her children at school, and I was very inspired that when I consulted my aunt Pam, she took the time on a busy afternoon, zoned in on the problem with the precision of a surgeon, and gave such pointed advice about the matter, which was resolved well as a result of the suggestions I was able to pass along. That moment further attested to what a master teacher she is. I am heartened by how many of her former students she still encounters when out and about, and the fondness that they demonstrate for her. In her epic teaching career, students have known her as Miss Richardson, Mrs. Smith, and now Mrs. Garrett. All I can say is, I am thankful, honored and privileged to have been a witness of her extraordinary teaching career since its beginning. I congratulate and salute you on behalf of our nearest and dearest loved ones. Thanks to God for everything that you have achieved. It is all to His glory and purpose. Peace, prayers, and many blessings in all you do as you continue on your beautiful journey.

Copy of My Letter of Support for Pam's Nomination for "Alabama Teacher of the Year" a Few Years Ago


I write as an extra voice among her official recommendations to support enthusiastically Pamela Richardson-Smith's selection as "Alabama's Teacher of the Year." I am her niece, and write just to say that Pam is truly one of the best educators that I have seen. I can attest to the big difference that she has made in my life through her professional work in education. I am now a tenured associate professor at the University of California Davis, the author of a book, co-editor of a university press book series at the University of Georgia Press entitled "The New Southern Studies," and an executive committee member in the Southern Literature Discussion Group and the Society for the Study of Southern Literature. I am also an emerging quilt artist. That I have had such a journey thus far has been possible in part, I think, because I have been able to observe my aunt's remarkable example as an educator throughout my life, beginning when I was a child. She is one of the best role models that I have ever had, and one of the earliest people I saw whose example inspired me to strive for success. She is deeply committed to education, and has been true to that mission for many years, to the point of becoming a master teacher. Pam approaches teaching, as everything, with a lot of flair and originality. She is intelligent, she has an incredible sense of humor and wit, she has a kind heart, and she is sincere. She is a deserving and ideal candidate for the award "Alabama Teacher of the Year," and definitely most deserving.

Charity as they say, begins at home, and Pam truly helped me in my life like few people in this world ever have helped me, or would help me. She supported me, sacrificed for me, and encouraged my development even before she had children of her own. As a child, I inherited her Barbie dolls. In hindsight, I realize that I began to inherit things back then from her that were a lot more valuable, and that have made a tremendous difference in my life. I gained my first very exposure to the university classroom at the age of five when she took me to a class one day with her at Alabama State. I could not have ever imagined, as I sat in that lecture hall, that that day with her as a child would set a foundation for the profession that I would pursue years later. In general, it was clear, from my early impressions, that our family expected a lot from Pam and wanted her to do well and become a success.

There is so much that I can say about what I have witnessed from my own standpoint in observing Pam's journey as an educator. I remember her excitement as she began her practice teaching. I was there at the beginning as a child watching her daily as she made projects for her classroom. I personally watched her evolve from the Easy Bake oven and her sewing projects that filled so much of her time during her adolescent years, to her daily lesson plans and related artistic projects for her classroom. That they were oftentimes projects that she regarded as too sacred for my play made me all the more curious about them. It was as if our whole floor was covered with alphabets in every conceivable color motif, and the stream of laminates was endless. Looking through her wealth of catalogs filled with educational supplies as a third grader showed me what was possible in terms of teaching and learning, and made me hungry for those things. The kind of energy and care that I witnessed her bring to creating an inspiring classroom for her students is still there now, and the projects have never stopped. Two years, ago, I saw her leaving the house one morning on one of my visits home, with such pep in her step, such a sense of purpose and mission, and dressed so well. I thought it amazing that anyone, after 27 years in a field, could meet it with such energy and excitement, and hoped that I would be able to meet my own job with that same level of energy and vigor after so many years. Her career has not been all sunshine and roses, however. I have seen her deal with more challenging issues in her teaching, such as when she has encountered students who were victims of abuse, with grace, care and consideration. She does her job with care and love from year to year. She has been the best possible steward of it over the years.

I cannot even begin to describe all of the ways in which Pam has supported the project of my education over the years. On her tight schedule as an elementary school teacher, just as she was beginning her career, she took the time to take me to school daily when my grandparents needed her to do so. She performed this role consistently at several points in my childhood. She used some of the finances of her teaching career to buy me gifts that would educate me, like a Polaroid camera. She was my babysitter every summer. Twice, she consulted the principal and organized and served as the leader for Girl Scout troops at St. John the Baptist Catholic School during my elementary years. This was just one illustration of her commitment to community service that also showed her support for me, for my classmates and friends eagerly participated as she had monthly meetings with us, and organized a range of activities for us, including a trip to Camp Kiwanis. She supported things I did in college, even as she was married and raising two young children. Even now, she continues to offer generous support as a professional. She does for me in my life now what she has always done. She has been there for me, and I love and appreciate her for that.

Her work as a teacher has been a central aspect of her journey to womanhood, and I am proud of the woman that she has become. She is a fine teacher and a true lady. When I began my Ph.D. at Duke University in 1993, I tutored weekly for a year at First Calvary Baptist Church alongside North Carolina Teacher of the Year, the phenomenal Elnora Shields, in the Life Development program sponsored by Delta Sigma Theta Sorority. Week to week, I got a close and visceral understanding of why she won that award. She reminded me of veteran teachers I knew in school who set the bar high and maintained "old school" values even in the midst of vast educational transformations. She also reminded me of Pam.

This recommendation underscores from a personal standpoint what colleagues and community members who support her nomination also believe- that Pam is the best. As one of her former students, albeit at home, I feel privileged to know her, and in part have become who I have become because of her. I give her my enthusiastic recommendation from the award of "Alabama Teacher of the Year."


Riché Richardson
Associate Professor
English Department
University of California, Davis