Artist Interview: Elizabeth “Oscar” Maynard

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Behind your work are emotions of outrage, fear, and visibility. What did your process look like to create this alter? Did it differ from your usual process?
My process of creating this paper-cut is intrinsically tied up in being a white Southerner and grappling with the attitudes and biases embedded in frameworks I grew up with. That framework is absolutely not limited to the South. Racism can and does look very different in the West, and other regions in the U.S., often veiled by a progressive façade or behind respectability politics.

In this piece I am addressing institutional racism, state violence, as well as the connection between police violence and and individual acts of violence like that of Dylan Roof.  I also wanted to highlight the connection in the legal system between police brutality and the exorbitant sentences the New Jersey 7 received as Dykes of color standing in their resistance and their dignity against sexual violence.

This piece has been the hardest to make of any in the last four years because of the multilayered power dynamics. I am a white artist in a Day of the Dead show, making work about police brutality and institutional racism that I have never personally experienced. I am at best, bearing witness. I am imagining, because for me it can only be imagining, what it is like to go out into a world where you are constantly a target and can never feel safe. I do move through the world as a dyke, and as genderqueer white human who is occasionally targeted.  But what is different about me can be hidden and has been, in many places, culturally redeemed.  Queerness is no longer coded as immoral, illegal or sick to most of the American public. In making this piece I have thought about the heartache of bearing witness when your own community is under attack and how power moves to continually and insidiously disenfranchise and eradicate people of color.

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How has your personal experience influenced the work you contributed to the Dia de Los Muertos exhibition?
I am trying to bring my heart into this work and into the larger conversation. I am never surprised when there is another murder in the hands of the police, or an act of institutional violence. The day the Charleston massacre occurred my primary emotional state was not one of being surprised. I wasn’t surprised, but I did feel shame, something white people have to get away from if we are going to be effective. I love the South but I loathe its depth of white racism and how incredibly unaware I was of it until much later in life.

The day of the massacre I didn’t know what to say or write about the violence in my fathers hometown and my grandparents resting place.  I wasn’t surprised, but  when I could humanize the tragedy and it brought tears and feelings of powerlessness. My white tears felt just like crocodile tears. I imagine people separated the murders from the ones by the police, but in my mind, that morning, they were not separate. White pride and authority have been injured, and there is backlash in the place where people find sanctuary. There are no words for it.

When I go home I spend hours talking to my Mother who does not believe institutional racism exists. I imagine it might feel too big, too damning, too hard to allow the possibility of such a pervasive and personally implicating thing. I was tired and heartbroken after another one of our long sessions, talking in particular about the Charleston massacre and how Fox news framed it as an attack on Christianity. We went over and over the same points and in the end nothing changed. As heartbroken and drained as I felt I knew it could never compare to living as a person of color in this country.  I needed that perspective at that moment.  My job is to let my heart break and open over and over again. My job is to keep having these conversations even if their responses don’t ever change. Institutional racism will exist as long as we abide it. It is codified in law and woven through the cultural fiber of this land.

How does your work respond to institutional racism and violence?
It names it. It bears witness.  It memorializes some of those who have been murdered. It links homophobia, racism, and other oppressions. It links institutional racism and racist attitudes.

What do you hope gallery visitors will walk away knowing after visiting your piece?
I hope other white people will walk away with a stronger investment in dismantling racism and a stronger willingness to see the benefits of white privilege.

Elizabeth “Oscar” Maynard has a self-designed B.A. in Visual Art, Psychology, and Gender Studies from Antioch College.  They have an MFA from San Francisco Art Institute in Printmaking.  Their work has been shown at Somarts, Mission Cultural Center, and in a number of the National Queer Arts Festival shows.  They were a Queer Cultural Center Grantee for a 2014 show called Breaking Code, looking at mental health and madness through a queer lens.  They are an intern and educator at Kala Art Institute.  In their spare time they nerd out about gender, feed wild animals in local parks, carve gourd luminaries, and make new things from the Southern Living magazine recipes section. You can see more of their work at: www.countrycounterculture.com

About the Interviewer
Carolina Quintanilla serves as Interim Gallery Creative Partnerships Manager for SOMArts Cultural Center. She has a B.A. in Asian American Studies and is an Ethnic Studies MA candidate at San Francisco State University.

The exhibition:  Today is the Shadow of Tomorrow: Día de los Muertos is on view October 9–November 7, 2015.

Images top to bottom: “Untitled,” Elizabeth “Oscar” Maynard;“Untitled,” Elizabeth “Oscar” Maynard, photo by Dan Fenstermacher.