tanekeya word | future thinking
Written by Miranda K. Metcalf | Published 1 aug 2019
Listening to Tanekeya Word talk about arts funding is like listening to a Juilliard-trained pianist give a concert at the Royal Albert Hall. She takes on this intimidating aspect of the arts world that most of us find confusing - if not downright terrifying - and navigates it with confidence that makes it look easy. She has a bird’s eye view of the not-for-profit arts sphere in America gained through academic rigour, paired with artistic lived experience which provides a deep understanding of the ecosystem of artists, patreons, educational sectors, and institutions. Word uses these skills to take action for a brighter and more inclusive future in printmaking but just like that Juillard pianist, even though she’s making it look easy she’s put in well over her 10,000 hours to get there.
I speak with Word for the pine|copper|lime podcast just as she’s finished the coursework for her doctorate in Urban Education with a Specialization in Art Education at the University of Milwaukee. This time next year she’ll be Dr. Word, which will be the most recent accomplishment in the long list of her arts accomplishments. She has been an artist all her life, and is also the daughter of an artist. However, Word’s mother, with four daughters to raise did not believe that being an artist was going to pay the bills. She became a nurse who was (and is) unwavering in her support of her daughter's practice. “I get to live my mother’s wildest dreams because of the sacrifices she made for me,’ says Word. The Endless Endeavor is not restricted to Texas.
As an elementary student, Word attended an African American immersions school where she learned Swahili, performance art, and theater. This was her introduction to black artistic cultural production in an educational setting. She went on to attend an art-focused middle school with its own commercial art gallery so as a pre-teen Word was already thinking about the economics of art and the relationship between venue and creator. But it wasn’t just the visual arts that Word was involved in. She also played the clarinet, sang in swing choir, wrote plays, and studied forensics. Pause for a moment - I, dear reader, did not attend an art-focused middle school where I participated in a multitude of extracurricular activities. Rather, I spent a lot of my pre-teen years eating chips in front of daytime television. So when Word casually mentions studying forensics I can’t help but think, “um… ‘forensics’? As in Forensics Files? Play it cool, Metcalf, that can’t mean what you think it means… but what if it did...” It did not. Forensics, in this sense, is the study of speech, public speaking, and debate. It turned out to be a practice for whichever Word was quite gifted and she went on to win an NAACP ACT-SO award in the twelfth grade. Stories such as this are a perfect illustration that the academic life wasn’t just something that she was born into, but also that it was something that she was born to do. Word recalls how as a child she would cry when her mother would try to make her go to the YMCA and say “I just want to stay home and read my books and make art.” Basically, even in her middle school years Word wanted to be in a PhD program.
After her early education, Word attended Howard University earning a BA in English, and then American University earning an MA in Arts Management. It was while working towards her masters that Word was introduced to printmaking and papermaking while interning at Pyramid Atlantic Art Center in development. Then, during the second year of her PhD program, she fell head over heels for the medium, and subsequently - down the rabbit hole. She was taken with the Vandercook letterpress and learned how to set type, create artist books, carve linocuts, and screen print. For her PhD, she is writing about black women in the arts in the United States, so while the Phd isn’t directly focused on printmaking, she will be interviewing black female printmakers about what it means to be a black female artist in the United States, and how black women shapes spaces. And by the way, Word is also currently only 10 credits away from an MFA in printmaking. So after she finishes her dissertation, she’s going to go back, finish the credits, and add Master of Fine Arts to that aforementioned list of educational accomplishments, because, why not?
The culmination of interests in Art Management, printmaking, and spaces for and by black women artists has resulted in Word starting of Black Women of Print in October of 2018. Black Women of Print is a society of black women printmakers whose founding members include LESLIE DIUGUID, ANGELA PILGRIM, DELITA MARTIN, JENNIFER MACK-WATKINS, LATOYA HOBBS, STEPHANIE SANTANA, and, of course, TANEKEYA WORD. The project was kicked into focus after seeing the stunning lack of representation of black women in the history of printmaking. While the work of Elizabeth Catlett may come to mind with some degree of ease, she often remains the only historical black female printmaker in any history book on the subject. Word and the rest of the founding members wanted to create a society to help educate others about great historical black female printmakers who have come before by illuminating the work that has been overlooked. During women’s history month the Black Women of Print instagram featured one woman each day so people could begin with at least 31 women to start filling the gaps in their education and begin to understand the contributions these women have made. Artists such as Ruth Charlotte Ellis, a woman whose parents were born in the last year of slavery in Tennessee who went on to become the first woman to own a printing business in Detroit. She then used this to be an out and vocal advocate for gay, lesbian, and African American rights throughout her 101 year life. She is the kind of person that as soon as I learned about her, I was instantly fascinated and filled with admiration, and yet I had been completely unaware of her existence until she appear on the Black Women of Print instagram page.
However, Black Women of Print isn’t strictly a space for historical printmakers. Word was particularly interested in creating a space were the living contemporary black women of print could come together to share and cultivate intergenerational knowledge. Word didn’t know any of the printmakers that she reached out to to start the organization personally. “That’s the development side of me, I don’t have a problem asking,” she says, “I ask a lot but I give alot too.”
Once she had her core group, they began to dialog about how they would like the organization to operate. With Word’s background in development, sustainability was on her mind as they began the foundation and this is a happy marriage with the intergenerational thinking. Word says that she wants this organization to be around long after she is gone, to continually support black women printmakers. To this end, Word suggested a portfolio produced by all the founding members. While the portfolio in and of itself is a great printmaking tradition, it is the administrative details around the creation of this portfolio that are wicked smart. For instance the individual members cannot sell the portfolio, but they can pass it on to their estate. As they are going to create a portfolio every year, this caveat ensures that the portfolio stays in the collection of the members, no matter how big the artists are who are contributing to the portfolio. The portfolios not in the collections of the members have different destinations: one will be donated to an institution as a restricted benefit stipulating that that it must be exhibited; one will be sold and turned into a stipend for a black woman printmaker to go to a residency or help cover start up operational cost for a project; and one will go into the Black Women of Print archive. It is this kind of long term thinking that I find so admirable. Word has created an organization that not only benefits living black women printmakers by offering them a space to come together, share knowledge, and build community, but also one that will provide real financial opportunities for artists for years to come.
This kind of long term thinking and financial support is crucial since printmaking, whether we like to admit it or not, is so expensive that access keeps a lot of black women and other marginalized groups away from the medium. As printmakers we often like to pat ourselves on the back with the title of being a medium of the people, and while that may be true in some respects, Word is not shy about discussing the real roadblocks in the way for many people to have access to printmaking. Just to begin with, simply getting instruction is a major challenge. Most every person I have interviewed on pine|copper|lime truly fell in love with printmaking while at university. While the argument could be made that it is possible to become a master printer through apprenticeships those often pay little or nothing, and often require someone to leave home - their support system - to undertake it. Also, the days of learning letterpress or stone lithography as a trade for the local paper are long gone, so we’re making a big assumption that someone could find an apprenticeship without having already been exposed to printmaking in an institutional setting be it university or museums. Therefore, the options are the expense of attending a university or the time of an apprenticeship. The financial roadblocks are huge in either scenario, whether it is taking out large student loans or finding a way to live while working for free. Even without university or technical training, an artist could have access to equipment through a co-op print shop, but these are for the most part only located in cities with some degree of population density. Not to mention, access to a car, public transport, child care, a work schedule that allows a would-be printmaker to attend when the classes are offered, and being able to afford access and membership to the community shop.
Having worked in the public sphere of the art world for the past 10 years, I couldn’t even tell you how many workshops I never have been able to attend because they were hosted on a Saturday morning when those of us working in the public sphere of the arts world are on shift. With the final option being building a home studio and good presses starting somewhere in the low five figures, again this remains a financially prohibitive roadblock. Word of course knows that there are ways to make prints without such formalized training or special equipment. We have all seen videos about creating linocuts in your kitchen and printing them with the back of a wooden spoon, but this is such a limiting form of self expression and is not what will be seen on the walls of a commercial gallery or a museum. When Word talks about accessibility she isn’t interested in a token gesture, she wants those of us providing these workshops to think seriously about the ways in which we could take issues of accessibility into consideration. Simple changes about the time a class is held, or providing one or two scholarship spots in a workshop would make large steps towards getting printmaking into more people’s lives.
Word’s long term goal is to open up her own school with a focus in art education. Looking to the famous Duke Ellington School for the Arts in Washington, D.C. as a model, Word’s future students will receive their traditional college prep education as well as training in the arts. Words says she wants “to create a community of students who are engaged in artistic cultural production and understand praxis.” With the skill set Word possess, along with her deep appreciation and passion for education, I am sure that the students she will one day mentor will quickly find something they are destined to discover something to which they are moved to dedicate their 10,000 hours.