Why Alison Saar is an Art Hero
By Thea Fiore-Bloom, PhD
This winter I innocently entered my favorite Venice gallery expecting to linger over the David Hockney show, but something curious happened.
Despite being possibly the most celebrated living artist of our time — on that day in that place — Hockney was being eclipsed.
So where was all the oxygen in L.A. Louver shunting off to?
Upstairs, to a wonderful, small, outdoor patio gallery eloquently named the Skyroom.
Alison Saar, In the Sky
Because it was there that established sculpture and installation artist Alison Saar’s bronze “Grow’d” was enthroned.
I lingered upstairs on the edge of the Skyroom watching visitors blow past the Hockneys and stumble on “Grow’d.” Many lingering around the piece in an admiring hush, occasionally punctuated with excited whispers.
I totally understood why. Saar is a personal hero of mine and”Grow’d” pulsed; crackling with meaning viewers could feel 10 feet away.
The large bronze depicts a female figure seated on a cotton bale. Her twists of hair transforming into lifelike branches, rife with puffed cotton bolls in bloom.
Alison Saar’s “Grow’d”
“Grow’d” commands attention, provokes questions.
Questions like, what exactly was this sculpture about?
Christina Adora Carlos the communications director at L.A. Louver explains:
“‘Grow’d” makes reference to the artist’s earlier body of work from 2017-18 that centered around the character of Topsy from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
It specifically refers to the response Topsy gives when Miss Ophelia asks her where she comes from, who is her family, her origins?
Topsy replies she has none, saying: “I spect I grow’d. Don’t think nobody ever made me.”
The response can be seen as naive. But it’s far from it.
Topsy’s practical response is born of the harrowing fact that slaves like her and her parents were kidnapped; their ancestry and rich cultural descendancy stolen from them and intentionally obliterated.
Saar believes Beecher Stowe probably had good intentions when creating Topsy.
But Saar also observed that 1920’s Hollywood in general, and Looney-Tunes in particular, turned Topsy into a derogatory, racist caricature.
(For more on the origins of Saar’s Topsy-inspired body of work, check out Saar’s 8-minute video at bottom of this post.)
“Saar revisions Topsy as a grown woman,” writes Carlos. “Fully aware of who she is and in control of her destiny. She sits erect, as if on a throne, like a powerful priestess.”
As I stood mesmerized in front of Saar’s work about Topsy I was reminded that disrupting, revising or re-writing classic literature is a superpower artists and writers can wield to help humanity, to give voice to those rendered voiceless by dominant cultural norms.
Disrupt, Defy, Revise & Reimagine
Saar transformed a damaging stereotype into a healing archetype; one that viewers were drawn to and inspired by.
She made me remember we creatives have the ability (and perhaps the duty) to change the way a story ends.
“Our job is not to deny the story, but to defy the ending — to rise strong, recognize our story, and rumble with the truth until we get to a place where we think, YES. This is what happened. This is my truth. And I will choose how the story ends.” — Brene Brown
What stories do you know all know too well from your own culture, gender or personal experience that need rescripting?
How would changing something in that story help others? Who would they be?
And how could we begin?
Saar’s advice to a young art student at a recent lecture she gave contains a wise answer we know deep down is true but often forget about:
Saar’s Advice for Artists
“The one thing I’ve found to be important and continues to be important in my career is that there are so many influences out there and so many directions to go that it’s been vital for me to stay true to my internal vision and listen to my internal voice — and sometimes the success comes and sometimes it doesn’t […].
But the main thing is to find what you want to say and make sure you are saying it in a clear, truthful way. And then hopefully you’ll find someone who finds that true voice appealing to themselves.“
We don’t have to make art in a “clear and truthful way.”
After all, it’s terrifying to show work that has no veils.
But if we ever want to see a bunch of people blow past a wall full of Hockneys to get to stand around something we made, maybe we should change the way our own stories end and give it a whirl.
What do you think?
Let me know in the COMMENTS below.
Would you be up for revising a personal or public to inspire new art?_______________________________________________________
Need more help? Check out my post on:
Saar on her show “Topsy-Turvy”:
You might also like these other Charmed Studio posts:
Diane Arbus: 4 Surprising Things Arbus Knew That Can Help You Take Your Art from Okay – to Incredible
How Did Van Gogh Really Die? Why Most People Still Think It Was Suicide and How The Real Story Affirms Artists
This post is dedicated to artist Felonee Webster, a risk taking creative who never shys away from making art in a clear and truthful way.