Suzanne DeCuir is an artist who over the past 20 years has been a painter, but recently she began working with textiles. She and her husband are raising three daughters, adopted from China, who have inspired her most recent work “Life Jackets.” She finds time to make art in the left-over margins of the day and will be sharing bi-monthly stories about how she grapples with what she wants to say and how to show it.
This is a part of a series of posts about process. It records the various minutes/days of being an artist in the midst of creating work that always leads to discovery, whether via smooth or bumpy paths.
These are studies for a larger piece that will include more images and fabric…creating something to reflect my daughter’s peaceful sleep that belies her nightmares that come every night. I drew these on paper with charcoal and then blew them up on the computer and printed them on fabric using my computer. But now my art teacher recommends (strongly) that I make them life-sized so I will need to rely on old-fashioned drawing skills to create larger originals. Larger is harder! We’ll see.
Sometimes it seems to help the creative process to work on several projects at once, so while I continue finishing the big quilted piece about my Irish grandfather I have been working on this simpler block piece with rectangles made of fabric and paper. About six months ago when I was not sure what I wanted to do next, I started making these rectangles separately, just fooling around with little abstractions and enjoying playing with color and texture. They are arranged here with pins; I still need to sew them down. The ribbons in blue and red are bias tape just draped somewhat randomly – I just wanted a sense of movement. We’ll see how it turns out. It’s about 5′ by 5′ and I have no idea about whether or not it will need a border.
I have been working on a piece conjuring up memories of my Irish ancestors with these bits of cloth and emblems of places and things. My grandfather came from Northern Ireland the year before the Titanic sailed; he was one of 12 children and since he died in the 1940s, he was never to see his parents or most of his siblings again. He made his way from New York to the copper and silver mines of Jerome, Arizona. Since he did not like mining, he parted ways with his brother Henry and struck out for Los Angeles. He met and married my grandmother and worked as a motorman on the Pacific Red Car Line his entire career. (That would be the kind of job you could get with a third grade education.)
This piece is almost finished…I intend to finish the border, although I still would like to leave that material on the right going beyond the right-hand border. I have added a few references to my father and his family…he is in the lower dark square holding a pole vault pole.
He grew up quite literally on the other side of the tracks from my mother—he was in South Central LA and she was in West Hollywood. A small thread connects their initials. There’s more, but I need not explain every symbol; every memory triggers another. These words of James Joyce from Finnegans Wake seem apt: “over the bowls of memory where every hollow holds a hallow…”
I have used rusty nails, quilting scraps, photos transferred to cloth, and both hand and machine stitching for this piece. Here are a couple detail photos:
Riverlake Plantation was built by Antoine DeCuir in 1823.*
It has been a challenging winter since my wonderful mother passed away last month. She was the best person I knew. I am lucky to have art to turn to, as it always proves to be such a refuge. I practically run to board the train each week for art class in downtown L.A. Although I still enjoy painting, my latest refuge has been working with fabric — I’ve been creating a large piece that explores my family’s past.
My father always warned me not to look into his family’s side, saying “you may find a horse thief.” So far no horse thieves but definitely some twists and turns. Turns out I am descended, in small part, from people from Benin and Ghana. My grandfather was one quarter black; my dad was an octoroon.
As I have learned, the DeCuirs came to the U.S. in 1720 from Macon, a town that was once in France but is now in Belgium following a few wars and boundary changes. In Louisiana, our newly arrived ancestors started marrying those already there….many were free people of color.
Apparently, Louisiana has a complicated racial and colonial history. Before Louisiana became an American territory in 1803, the area was under French and then Spanish control. Some of these free people of color were quite wealthy and even owned slaves themselves. (At the time, slaves could gain their freedom in several ways, by fighting for the colony or teaching the master’s children, for example.) I have a hard time getting into the mind of my slave-owning French, Black and Creole ancestors. I can’t help but think about how bizarre this is while I sew.
Using fabric from the present and the past, this new artwork uses as a reference point the area of Pointe Coupée, Louisiana, but rather than just copy a map, I have used it as a way to suggest many elements that come to mind: the much-divided plots of land for sugar, indigo, and cotton fields, the winding Mississippi, the mixing of French and African languages that became Kouri-Vini, the stolen lives of endless work, and the fact that I nearly lived my whole life knowing nothing about these ancestors.
*Re. Riverlake Plantation: I opened The NY Times in December of 2019 to learn, to my horror, that author Ernest Gaines (Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman) grew up on Riverlake where five generations of his family had lived as slaves. About 20 years ago, he purchased the unkempt graveyard in order to be sure it would be taken care of properly.
Suzanne’s website is suzannedecuirfineart.com. Click here to watch “Life Jackets,” the 8-minute film by Pamela Beere Briggs & William McDonald featuring another of Suzanne’s recent projects.
After finishing my Life Jackets project, I felt the pull to do a little painting again. During the months of making those jackets, I had done a lot of thinking about the unknown futures of individuals—now my thoughts turned to unknown pasts, especially relatives on my late father’s side. A genetic test revealed I was 6% black. Further research revealed I had ancestors who were free people of color who actually owned slaves themselves. Disturbing to say the least. A little research brought me to news that the remains of the last slave ship to reach America had been unearthed; this provided the inspiration for the painting “The Cotilda” which landed in Alabama in 1859.
Click here to watch “Life Jackets,” the 8-minute film by Pamela Beere Briggs & William McDonald featuring Suzanne’s recent project.
Twenty one years ago this month, a very bundled up baby was thrust into our arms in a tiny hotel room in Chengdu. After the Chinese adoption contingent left, we started to unbundle her because she seemed too warm. Garment after garment came off until we reached the last one…a beautiful, humbly made, and somewhat fragile jacket. Someone had really worked on this to make it useful, repairing it by hand over and over again. We brought it home with us.
I came across it a some months ago and an art project has grown out of it – exploring ideas about lost potential (all those kids who are still there, maybe working in factories and fields), about fate, randomness, and so on. With the encouragement of my teacher I have gone somewhat beyond my initial thought of making a few and I am over 100 now, all smaller than the original. I want them to look as old and worn as the original, but evoke the feeling of being worn by an individual whose life we know nothing about.
Pamela Beere Briggs, one of Two in the World’s explorers, and UCLA Professor William McDonald, filmmaking and life partners, decided to make a film about Suzanne’s new project “Life Jackets” when they saw a few of the jackets. They both believe that the world needs as many stories about people doing things out of love and looking at what connects us all as a community. “What we can do as filmmakers and storytellers is share stories about people who are actually doing things out of thoughtful kindness.”