“Sometimes It’s the Stuff You Love that Hurts You the Most”: An Interview with Poet and Visual Artist Rachel Slotnick
Kathleen Rooney | December 2015
Image Credit: Rachel Slotnick
A poet, a painter, a muralist, and a teacher, native Californian Rachel Slotnick is a ray of sunshine—not in the cliché or simplistic sense, but in that both she and her work are radiant and essential. She is brilliant at working alone and with other people—a true artist and a gifted collaborator. I first met her back in July of 2013, when a handful of fellow poets and I were doing Poems While You Wait as part of the Buena Park Arts Expo in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago. Rachel commissioned a poem from Maureen Ewing on the subject of a friend who died in a motorcycle accident and her grandfather who was mourning her grandmother after her battle with Alzheimer’s. When Rachel returned to pick up the poem, she introduced herself more formally and asked if she could join our collective. Her brilliance as a poet, her thoughtfulness as a public artist, and her kindness as a person were immediately apparent, and she has been poeming with us ever since.
Her debut book, In Lieu of Flowers, was published by Tortoise Books in August of 2014, and she works as Adjunct Faculty at Chicago City Colleges, the Illinois Art Institute, and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. At the end of August, we spoke over email about the symbolic language of flowers, listening to what your career is telling you, and how murals require their makers to give up control.
Kathleen Rooney: You describe your excellent mixed-genre debut, In Lieu of Flowers, as “a collage in book form” because of the way it blends poetry, prose, and paintings. Can you speak about how the book came together, and also about how you make decisions in terms of genre in your work?
Rachel Slotnick: I was always confused about my identity as an artist. I wanted to be a painter. Writing came more naturally to me, painting was more labored, and I found that rather romantic. I wanted to struggle. Mary Lou Zelazny, one of my advisors and mentors at SAIC said, “There are moments you have to pay attention to what your career is telling you.” SAIC was the only MFA in writing program I applied to, and I was rejected from most of the MFAs in painting. I didn’t want to be a writer, but was told my writing was the heart of my painting. It took me five more years to really understand that. Now it is my painting that comes easily, and my writing which is more personal and painful. But I think that tension between those two worlds is what keeps me chasing these stories, or glimpses, or letters, or whatever they are.
Sometimes it’s just about being homesick. When I moved to Chicago, I started writing and painting my family. I think of myself more as a collector or collagist than a painter or a writer. I collect sentences and fabrics, and at one point or another they start behaving like stories. I’m not so focused on narrative design, at least not in this book. I’m interested in the feeling or masquerade of narrative in the residue of our memories. Sometimes that looks like a poem. Sometimes it’s a portrait. Memory is the common denominator. So much of my work revolves around watching my grandmother’s memories deteriorate. And painting is about memory; in effect, we begin to forget the second we look away from the model to make marks on canvas. So however the memories smudge in between the narrative frames—colors on canvas, or to do lists that go nowhere, it’s all about losing control, and taking stock in the fleeting glimpses.
As for how the book came together, it kind of grew all at once. I had these three characters: the fisherman, the mathematician, and the musician. I even had rules for each of their worlds—what sort of language the mathematician could use, what sort of weather follows the fisherman around. The painting and text always coexisted, but seeing them share close proximity on a page helps them converse with each other, in a way that breathes new life into very old, bottled-up moments.
KR: Relatedly, the appearance of flowers across all of the media in which you work strikes me as both celebratory and elegiac. What role do flowers in particular play for you as an artist and writer, and to what extent do you consider your works to be memorials of sorts?
RS: Flowers started out for me as a didactic tool—quite literally—there are fabric flowers all over my art classroom and I spend hours daily trying to get students to draw what they really see rather than what they know. I was always gluing fabric to canvas, as a way to challenge my color palette, and I loved that fabric smacked of a certain feminine connotation. But the flowers, while feminine, also gave me sculpture. They made the paintings less about window and more about surface. They leapt out of the imaginary and into our world.
Then I started to pay attention to the fact that they were flowers. It’s fascinating that we designate certain flowers for weddings and certain ones for funerals. Keats said that lilies represent the return of the soul to innocence at death. I suppose I find solace in the idea of planting new life. My grandfather’s house was overrun with daffodils, and it’s strange to me that the same daffodils that graced my mother’s wedding cake, now reside on my grandparent’s tombstones. I’m interested in the flowers that defy categorization. I’m in love with shape-shifters. They give me hope.
I consider most of my work to be about memorial. It’s the only way I know how to cope with loss. If I paint it, it feels permanent. My father is still alive, but he was very sick for most of childhood. I don’t sit down intending to write about him, but I think those memories of the hospital are harder to shake when they happen in formative years.
My dear friend was killed by a drunk driver while riding his motorcycle to work. I wanted to paint a wall for him, and for those who loved him. His family actually held a memorial service for him at the mural site. So, I did it for them, but I also really did it for myself. It was a way of doing something, when it seemed there was nothing to do.
I also was busy teaching in the City College system, and many of my students discussed deaths of loved ones as parts of their final projects every semester. Whether it was illness, gunfire, or accident, I got tired of writing “Run-On Sentence” on desperate paragraphs in unforgiving red pen. I felt that I needed a place for those stories to go. So I opened my mural up to my students, and had them write memorial messages on the wall. People still add to it every day. I was amazed at the power of a wall to combat grief and promote community. It was also so interesting to see my student’s messages in text interacting with my painting. I had to let go of control in order to build something larger.
KR: Back in September of 2014, you completed a gorgeous mural outside the Logan Square Blue Line CTA stop. Within a week, it was bombed with unreadable red and white graffiti—not just a tag or two, but something that seemed like a deliberate attempt to destroy. At least from the outside, it seemed as though you handled what must have been a frustrating and even heartbreaking situation—to see your public art ruined—with grace and resilience. Can you share the story of how the mural came about, and how you bounced back from its defacement?
RS: This is such a great question, especially since it relates to giving up control. Murals appeal to me because they have the capacity to communicate with more people. Sometimes painting, just like writing, can feel lonely, like sending work out into a void. Murals are a little louder—they’re more prevalent, and with that terrain comes the good with the bad.
I am passionate about street art and graffiti as valid art forms, and I discuss them all the time in the classroom. So often, “famous” works by Banksy or Swoon are bombed with graffiti. The difference is, street artists are taking part in a larger conversation. In a sense, they expect or invite the tagging as furthering the dialogue. The wall is a living and evolving thing, and over time it becomes a larger story, as evidenced by Banksy’s graffiti war with King Robbo. Philosophically, I emulate these principles of art making. But, when my Logan Square mural was tagged, I was devastated. I wasn’t surprised; I was just heartbroken, because I had left my heart on the wall.
It was particularly painful because the poetry and imagery on the mural was memorial. But because my poetry is open-ended, there’s no way a teenager could have known that. The kid who tagged my mural, and I say kid because he was only 12, was a symptom of a bigger problem. First, there’s a want for recognition. Literally, the primitive impulse to see your name writ large. What’s going on in this kid’s life, that he felt he needed to do this? Then, there’s the desire to destroy someone else’s work. I think the decision to intentionally bomb someone’s labored image must come from anger or pain. Also, Logan Square is in a complex transition right now, as it is experiencing gentrification and as a neighborhood, it is extremely divided. What was so amazing about that wall in particular, is how much the community cared about that public space. It raised questions about ownership. Whose wall is it? Honestly, I was amazed that people so loved and so hated my mural. No one was neutral. People were polarized because the community was polarized. Even with my best intentions, I was still naive, and I learned a lot from that wall, because the local teenagers who helped me prime the brick ended up being the same teenagers who bombed it. And people care so much, because a wall is a symbol. And if they reclaim their wall, they reclaim their community. I was inspired by their passion; it was just difficult to be in the spotlight during the conversation.
Yes, I was devastated. But also, the tagging forced me to re-enter the work. I painted and fixed, and in the process the mural design grew and evolved. So a year later, it’s a very different wall. I still sneak out there and make changes every chance I get. I thought this mural was done so long ago. The graffiti forced me to let the work grow. I don’t regret it happening, and I’m trying to be open-minded about where it might take me next.
Graffiti is tricky because there are some things that are clearly not okay, and some things that are very confusing. The University of Chicago recently whitewashed a collaborative mural by “En Masse” and Chicago street artists because of complaints about a figure in the mural holding a gun and a stuffed animal, and the murder of an 18-year-old which took place not long after the mural was put up in proximity to the wall. In class, we have animated discussions about whether or not art could be responsible for violence. A beautiful mural on Diversey Parkway was recently tagged with a swastika, and I drove by it every day all summer, and each and every day, it broke my heart. Eventually someone painted over it with red paint. I want to say all art is expression, but I think there is art that can hurt. I’m not sure how to handle that, because in art history, censorship has been dangerous. I suppose graffiti at its core is where art meets text. So I’m in love with it. And it’s a shape-shifter. It can be different each and every day. But sometimes it’s the stuff you love that hurts you the most.
Kathleen Rooney is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press and a founding member of Poems While You Wait. She is the author of seven books of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, including, most recently, the novel O, Democracy! She is the co-editor of Rene Magritte: Selected Writings, forthcoming in Fall of 2016. Follow @kathleenMrooney.