Heritage, empowerment, activism, and identity can sometimes be tossed around as cultural and creative buzzwords. But for visual artist Erin Kendrick, these principles are hardly trends. She has spent her life fully embracing, intently studying, and purposefully applying them through her art and in her life. Kendrick works in painted portraits yet the images she creates of African-American women aren’t concerned with being mere representational works. Kendrick is dealing with a unique level of empathy. The inherent stories in her subject’s faces are compelling: one may smile; another appears almost bored, while most stare straight ahead, challenging you to find and make a connection.

Last year, the Riverside cultural space and gallery the Yellow House hosted Kendrick’s exhibit, Her Own Things. It was her first-ever solo exhibit and was widely acclaimed by both the press and art lovers alike. A Jacksonville native, Kendrick left Northeast Florida 20-plus years ago to begin studying art, garnering her BFA from Florida State University and MFA at Georgia State University. Atlanta became her home base, where she worked as an arts educator and continued to show her art in galleries and museums throughout the Southeast. Ten years ago Kendrick returned to Jacksonville, where she’s stayed busy work in her studio space at CoRK Arts District, while also finding time to start her design-and-event company, E. Street Design Co. Kendrick took time out of her schedule to talk about her upcoming exhibit, Oh, Snap! which will be featured as part of the Riverside Fine Arts Series.

Daniel A. Brown: To the uninitiated, how would you describe your overall artwork and creative philosophy?

Erin Kendrick: My artwork and creative philosophy is rooted in confrontation. Sometimes it’s nice and pretty and polite and sometimes it’s aggressive and unyielding. I don’t make art for art’s sake. I’m an educator and an advocate so I try to make work that’s purposeful. My work is rooted conceptually to feminist theorist and cultural critic, bell hooks’, “concept of the oppositional gaze.” Essentially it is the intentional act of returning the gaze in an act of resistance. To put it simply, I live in world that has grossly undervalued black girls and women. In my artwork these women stare back, sometimes at the viewer but mostly to one another, reminding each other that they are greater than historical assumptions, propaganda and prejudice. I feel like we’re experiencing this black, female renaissance: a period of time where we are finally putting ourselves first. My paintings and installations visualize that process. My goal is to encourage empathy through connection, by choice or by force. I paint black women’s humanness.

Tell me about the show: Is there a collective, unified theme to the work or rather is it a series of separate narrative ideas?

There’s generally always a unified theme to my work that also incorporates the space that it occupies. I consider myself to be more of an installation artist who paints vs. a painter so the space is almost always a part of the body of work. The paintings tend to interact with one another, exchanging gazes, symbols, colors, and ideas so the space between them becomes a part of the work too.

For this exhibition I spent some time listening to the SYBARITE5’s music. It had this trance-like quality to it—for the musicians and for me.  It reminded me how music tends to steal you away from reality for a moment in time. I am also in the process of writing about the Black Arts Movement, a movement during the 60’s and 70’s when African-American artists were encouraged to create works of art about black life and subject matter specifically for a black audience in a focused attempt to reclaim ownership of our identity. BAM’s founder, Amiri Baraka, spoke of the necessity of counter-hypnotism, suggesting that African Americans were in a state of hypnosis, wherein which our identity had been formed by oppressive constructs that taught us that we were less than and most importantly, separated us from our African history and lineage. Essentially, he posits that if we actively engage in reconnecting with our past and take ownership of the production and distribution our art – words, sounds, images – then we can break ourselves out of this theoretical state of hypnosis. The juxtaposition of the trance inducing music, my research of this concept of counter-hypnosis, and my stance in my work became the point of departure for the exhibition. The name of the show is, Oh, Snap! The paintings will depict different states of arrest at the snapping of one’s finger, the break from the state of hypnosis; the moment in time when who you were and who you are (and who they are) are all in question.

The portraits are an interesting dance between the somewhat-defined lines of the women’s faces and the kind of charged, electric sense of improvisational motion and cloud-like forms of color. Did this approach “begin” this way or was it more of a development and evolution of earlier styles?

Yes, I’ve always used the same application but over the years I have learned to control the ink and how the colors blend a bit more. I use eyedroppers to apply the ink; I use a paintbrush to wet the area first (with water) then drop the ink into wet spots. Sometimes I manipulate the ink; sometimes I let it do its own thing. It’s long process as I can only apply two to three colors to a painting a day to allow drying time. The technique has morphed into what feels like staining the surface. It started to feel like I was painting the stains of all the things that defined the subject’s identity. It feels good when someone says that a woman in my painting is beautiful considering the fact that she through layers and layers of stains.

Your work is a celebration of African-American womanhood and history. In what ways do you think this strong sense of identity and self are expressed not only through your art; but in your life in general?

It really stems from a challenge issued to me by my major professor at FSU, Professor Ed Love. He instilled in me a responsibility to tell the truth about my own experience in my work. There was no room for BS. He passed away in the semester before I graduated and it felt like a torch was passed. Teaching was never a consideration for me until after he passed away. Seeing a performance of [Ntozake Shange’s 1976 play] for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf, gave me purpose and pushed towards telling women’s stories. Teaching in an urban high school in southwest Atlanta (College Park) exposed me to just how much girls, who were only around 10 years younger than me at the time, lacked in terms of basic information about their history. All those things got me to this point. I’m an educator at heart, maybe even a historian. Art is just my vehicle. It’s pointless to have all of this information and not share it. I try to share it in transformative ways.

What are some of the ways in which people who might believe that they are “less than” or marginalized can draw hope and strength through empowerment?

Practice. Recognize that you’ve always had the power to create the life you want so decide where or who it is that you want to be and get there. Do it every day. Ceaselessly. Read. There’s a lifetime worth of education that will never be taught in school. Learn the art of critical thinking. I’m always teaching my students to think, reason, identify and weigh the options. Don’t limit your knowledge to only what you’ve been told to think.

The opening reception for Oh, Snap! is held from 8-11 p.m. March 29 at Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd, 1100 Stockton St., Riverside; tickets for the performance by SYBARITE5 are $25; entry to the gallery space is free. For more info, go to rivershidefinearts.org.

This feature originally appeared under the headline “Know Thyself: Artist Erin Kendrick continues to live by empowerment and activism in chronicling the journey of African-American womanhood” in Void Magazine Vol. 9, Iss. 11, Bold Bites.