Artist Interview: Brian Pittman

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What are the materials you use for the body of your work? Could you tell more about your work process from start to finish?  
I paint with charcoal ash acquired from a Klansman’s charred cross, a linen flag from my world that is adorned with my planet’s symbol for freedom (which, coincidentally, looks like prison bars), a cotton shirt, a gift to me, worn by a  “free-slave”, and grape soda as a dedication to all the corner stores in my hood that only sell this unnatural and unhealthy, yet delicious, “drank”!

How do you select the images of the portraits that appear in your work? How do the stories of these men influence the piece itself?  
I select images based on how they relate to my life as a black man. In my mind, I am a one of the bravest beings in the world because I am a black time traveler who is willing to visit the past. During my travels I have the unique privilege of meeting historical figures and eye witnessing historical events. I interview people such as Malcolm X and Mya Angelou. I even met Jesus. He seems like a decent guy. I befriend slaves with no given names in the past and the present. I ask them about their struggles. Sadly, slavery is possibly more rampant in the present day than ever before. In addition, I find meaningful newspaper articles from the past that are eerily similar to present day articles. I remind the world that we really need to focus on learning from our past (especially the bad things). I just don’t think we as a society are following this practical guideline.

How did you get to access the Klansman’s charred crosses that you use to produce charcoal ashes?
I traveled back in time and waited for the angry Klansman to leave the yard of the poor black Mississippi family they were trying to intimidate. Then I waited for the cross to burn down and collected the ashes. It was not a total waste. I did inform the terrified family that things get a little better and we roasted marshmallows.

When you present your work in different parts of the United States or internationally, is it received or understood differently? For instance, have you struggled with California audiences missing the cultural reference of Southern food?  
I am not worried if my audience can’t understand or relate to my cultural references in its entirety. I am sure there are plenty of places that have never heard of grape soda or soul food (carbonated water, too.) I am okay with that. However, I am sure the world as a whole is familiar with misogyny, slavery, genocide, and bigotry. A good example is Diego Rivera. In his later works, his frescoes contain cultural references that contain the history of the Mexican people. I obviously, would not understand every thing within the confines of the painting but I am compelled to interact with his work and ask questions. There are plenty of commonalities in my work that I feel everyone could relate to. I believe art should inspire you to think and reflect.

What is your personal relationship to grape soda? Do you have a preferred drink that you can get in the Bay Area but not in the South, or vice versa?
It reminds me of my childhood in Mississippi. (Even though it was scary because I discovered that people actually despised me because of the color of my skin. I became cynical and jaded around twelve years old. Nothing could cheer me up like a cool refreshing grape soda.) As a child, I thought grape soda was the most refreshing beverage on the planet!  It is cheap! Does it get any better than that? There is plenty for everyone in my neighborhood! I never questioned the fact that it is extremely purple and there is absolutely NO grape juice involved! I no longer drink store bought grape soda because it is NOT grape soda.  I make my own grape soda from scratch and it is actually made with real grape juice. My only complaint about the Bay Area is that they do NOT understand the term SWEET TEA! Sweet tea is NOT tea I add packets of sugar to! No! Nothing like trying to sweeten my own iced tea! I particularly enjoy the sugar granules that fall to the bottom! Nothing worse that drinking half-assed sweet tea and choking down the sugar clumps at the bottom of the glass! What the hell!

How will the Jack and Gertrude Murphy Fellowships and the Edwin Anthony and Adelaine Bourdeaux Cadogan Scholarships Awards, administered by The San Francisco Foundation, and the accompanying exhibition support your work and future artistic development?
This award offers to me what I believe every artist dreams about: EXPOSURE! I will be heard! The award is a MEGAPHONE for my artistic voice! And for that, I am sincerely thankful!

About the Interviewer:
Milda Vakarinaite is an Arts Leadership Associate at SOMArts.

Image above by Brian Pittman