Alison Saar: And the Day David Hockney Got Dusted
By Thea Fiore-Bloom, PhD
Alyson Saar is a SoCal based sculptor, installation artist and creative genius.
Let me tell you a little story about the gravity and impact of her work.
A winter or two ago I innocently entered my favorite Venice gallery expecting to linger over the David Hockney show, but something weird and wonderful was happening there.
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 Room
Because it was there that one of the finest sculptors of our time, 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.
Christina Adora Carlos the communications director at L.A. Louver answers a few:
“‘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.”
Topsy’s 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 how 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.“
— Alison Saar
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:
Black Artists Matter: What Can I Do To Support Artists of Color?
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Orhan Pamuk, Nobel Laureate: Why Artists and Writers Need to Stay Weird
Or check out my one-on-one writing coaching packages just for kind creatives.Writing Coaching
Saar on her show “Topsy-Turvy”:
This post is dedicated to artist and Charmed Studio subscriber, Felonee Webster, a risk-taking creative who never shies away from making art in a clear and truthful way.
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Thea this post is stunning! To reclaim all that has been lost. The people whose identities were wiped from history due to slavery. To take those that we have lost and bring them back to life. To rise strong in the words of Brene Brown. To acknowledge and re-vision what was done to them and how they were labeled through history. It’s a fascinating prospect. What an incredible vein of creativity. Your perspective and insight raise it to the next level. Thank you. I’m a lover of archetypes and empowerment, especially where women are concerned. We have a lot of healing to do. Thank you! ☺
The Charmed Studio says
Wow, that means a great deal coming from you. I have to credit you for inspiring me to complete this post, I was so inspired by your research into Robert Smalls.
Janee Ward says
Alison Saar’s Topsy is so incredibly powerful. I can see why one would blow past the sunny Hockneys to see her work.
As a child I wanted the heroines in Fairy stories to do and be so much more than the happy ever after endings, It found later by reading the originals that those endings were often much darker and more powerful than Disney led us to believe. I love feminist retelling of fairy stories, Feminist Fairy Tales by Barbara Walker is a good one.
The Charmed Studio says
Yes Janee! Thanks for sharing that. I felt the same way as you did as a kid reading modernized fairy tales. Disney movies also left me feeling like I was missing what everyone was so excited about. Then, I found the Orange, Blue and Olive fairy books in a thrift store one day and liked those- more archetypal, less stereotypical. Darker and more intelligent. Did you know that the original Russian versions of Cinderella had one of the more determined stepsisters cutting off the back of her foot and stuffing it into the back of the silk shoe/slipper? Birds in nearby trees saw the blood trail as the stepsister walked toward his carriage to be his bride. They cheeped an alert to the prince that something was afoul.
I just popped over to look at the Walker book, wonderful! Never heard of it, thanks Janee.
Love Barbara Walker!
The Charmed Studio says
Have you seen that fairy tale book Gale? Her writing so lyrical, totally different tone then her other work.