One of the most distinctive features of LPR is that we feature an artist’s profile and work in each issue. Paul Rucker, who created the installation on racism called REWIND, is our featured artist for the upcoming Winter 2018 issue. Ann Bracken, LPR’s deputy editor, interviewed Rucker this fall. Enjoy!
An Interview with Featured Artist Paul Rucker
Paul Rucker explains his approach this way: “I want to deal with the truth. The ‘I know’ rather than the ‘I feel’ or ‘I think.’” History is what drives Rucker’s art, along with his passion for educating people on the relationship between slavery, structural racism, and mass incarceration.
He’s a visual artist, musician, and collector who likes to tell stories. He uses the objects in his collection to create art exhibits that are designed to present facts and promote discussion about history and societal issues.
Because Rucker’s work deals with the relationship between slavery and the prison-industrial complex, you might expect his collection to relate to these topics. “I have a little museum,” he told me, “and many of the pieces I’ve collected become part of my exhibitions.” One of the objects in his collection is a 50-pound ball and chain that was used to keep the convicts from escaping. After slavery ended, many states leased convicts to do the work that slaves were no longer required to do for free. In a Baltimore Sun article about Rucker’s REWIND exhibit, there’s a striking photo of him holding the iron ball. “I dropped that ball on my foot and broke my big toe,” he told me when we spoke.
Rucker also has a collection of books espousing white supremacy and justifying slavery. Two notable and disturbing titles are The Negro: A Menace to American Civilization by R. W. Schufeldt, M.D., and White Supremacy and Negro Subordination by John H. VanEvry, also a physician. Both of these books are part of the REWIND exhibit, as are branding irons used on slaves. Rucker lets the objects speak the truth of history.
Paul Rucker has a distinguished list of grants, awards, and residencies for visual art and music. In 2012, Rucker became a creative capital grantee in visual art as well as a 2014 MAP (Multi-Arts Production) fund grantee for performance. In 2015, Rucker received two awards—the Mary Sawyer Baker Award along with the distinguished Joan Mitchell Painters & Sculptors Grant. Rucker received the Rauschenberg Artist as Activist fellowship in 2016 and the Smithsonian Artist Research fellowship, which bestows on him the privilege of being the first artist in residence at the new National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Among his many residencies are the MacDowell Colony, Ucross Foundation, Art OMI, Banff Centre, Rauschenberg Residency, Joan Mitchell Residency, Hemera Artist Retreat, Air Serembe, Creative Alliance, and the Rockefeller Foundation Study Center in Bellagio, Italy. Closer to home, from 2013 to 2015 the Maryland Institute College of Art hosted Rucker as the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation artist in residence and research fellow.
Now Rucker can add Richmond, Virginia, to his other two cities of residence—Baltimore and Seattle. Virginia Commonwealth University named him an iCubed (Inclusion, Inquiry, and Innovation) visiting arts fellow embedded at the Institute for Contemporary Art, where he’ll teach a music course in the spring of 2018. Most recently, he was awarded a 2017 John Simon Guggenheim fellowship, and he’s currently spearheading a Kickstarter campaign to fund more exhibitions of REWIND across the country.
Little Patuxent Review: How does the REWIND exhibit speak to what’s going on in the United States right now? In particular, how does the exhibit speak to the societal tensions in Baltimore?
Paul Rucker: The exhibit speaks to more than societal tensions in Baltimore; the same things are happening all across the United States. I live in both Seattle and Baltimore, and both cities have similar problems. The redlining that began in Baltimore moved across the country to Seattle.
Some places are amplifications of the issues; others are subtler. REWIND is about history from a place of “I know.” I created a 30-page newspaper full of historical information and photographs as part of the exhibition. People need to know what came before in this country to understand where we are now. For example, in the 1920s, there were four to five million members of the Ku Klux Klan, all organized to protect white culture. Now we have a variety of groups, widely dispersed and less organized—the Neo-Nazis, Pro-Confederates, White Nationalists. Richard Spencer can barely get 100 people to come out when he speaks. If we look at this a different way, if ten people on a college campus came to hear Spencer’s speech, seven would just be curious, two might be followers, and one person would be there due to taking a wrong turn in the hall.
The people we really need to be concerned about are all of the white suburbanites and even white progressives who benefit from the structural racism in this country.
LPR: How do you see us—as a country—turning that around?
PR: First people have to know that the situation [structural racism] exists and that it affects some people more than others. I was reading the other day that if we allow society to keep going the way that it is now, in 2053 Black Americans will have a net worth of $0. Why is the average white family worth so much more than the average Black family? Is it because they work so much harder? Where are the nice Black neighborhoods? They don’t exist in any city.
Things have not improved in Baltimore despite having a Black mayor or a Black police commissioner, even with the country having a Black president for eight years. Mayor Pugh can give great speeches and she gets a lot of credit for taking down Confederate monuments, but she vetoed a $15/hour minimum wage. Taking down a few monuments does not address poverty, inadequate schools, or systemic racism. We had eight years of Obama, and even he couldn’t talk about race or white privilege. Why can white people’s kids feel free to walk to the store safely without fear of being shot, and buy Skittles and some juice, but Black kids can’t? That’s white privilege.
LPR: I read in one of your interviews that you wanted to do a piece on Freddie Gray. Have you?
PR: I’m still thinking about it. You know, that situation isn’t over yet; things are still going on. The police officers are on trial again, and three of them are Black. Right around the time of the uprising, I did an exhibit with flag-covered coffins at Baltimore City Hall. But when I do an exhibit or a new art piece, it’s all connected. It’s meant for everyone that’s been a victim of terrorism.
LPR: As part of the inaugural Light City Baltimore Festival, you shone a spotlight on places around the city where African men, women, and children were sold, and then you composed a cello solo for each site. Which site was most evocative or disturbing for your audience? How did people respond?
PR: I actually performed my cello compositions at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture, so that was a separate event. But the exhibit, which I named “In Light of History,” had eight separate installations along Pratt Street at the Inner Harbor. Each exhibit had an old street light and a sign detailing why the spot was significant. Many of the installations dealt with the buying and selling of slaves, with the text coming directly from old ads in the Baltimore Sun. One document that I purchased is a bill of sale for a three-year-old slave. As soon as you could walk, you were a slave. At the harbor in Baltimore, the point of entry into the United States, you entered as a slave. Location number eight was at
O’Donnell’s Wharf, which was a location for “incoming and outgoing brigs and barques where dockside sales of enslaved people took place.”
LPR: How did the audience respond?
PR: Mostly with disbelief. You never learned this in history class, did you? You know, the Inner Harbor is a place of beauty. People shop, go out to eat. These locations were never marked before, and they’re not marked now.
LPR: What are some other events related to slavery that people find unbelievable?
PR: The early slave trade began in Boston and Richmond, but Baltimore was included as well. People tend to think of slavery as happening only in the Deep South—places like South Carolina and Mississippi—but it happened all over the U.S. Just recently, people discovered a slave burial ground in Tribeca—that’s in New York City. They estimate that between 15,000 and 30,000 people are buried there. Some as young as five years old. The archeologists could see that many of them were worked to death because of their bone structure. White people aren’t buried in mass graves, at least in the U.S.
LPR: Tell me a little about your journey as a musician. What led you to choose the cello, and how would you describe your technique?
PR: Actually, I began as a double-bass player in elementary school, and then I played in college. At some point, I decided I wanted to learn the cello, so I bought one for $1000 and never took a lesson. I play differently from anyone else. I make up ways of approaching the instrument, and I improvise music on the spot. I’ve played with a number of orchestras, including the South Carolina Philharmonic, the Augusta Symphony, and the Ashville Symphony. Right now I have a performance piece called “Stories from the Trees” where I play music to animated postcards that depict lynchings.
My exhibit on the Klan features one actual Klan robe and several others made out of different fabrics. The exhibit was inspired by my time playing with the Augusta Opera in 1989, where I first saw Ku Klux Klan members.
LPR: You were awarded a 2017 Rauschenberg Fellowship for the Artist as Activist to dig deeper into the mass incarceration crisis. Say some more about that.
PR: Well, when people say that the system is broken, they’re actually repeating a false narrative. The system is actually working exactly the way that it was designed to work. People talk about the disproportionality in education from one community to another, but that’s because of the system that’s in place. We need to be asking why the education system disproportionally helps one community more than another. In the last election, the poor whites spoke out. And how do we justify the treatment of imprisoned people? What about when we say “He can do better than that. Pull himself up by his bootstraps.” First, a person needs to have some bootstraps.
In my exhibit “Proliferation,” where I show how many prisons have been built in the U.S. between 1778 and 2008, I use lights in different colors to show how many prisons were built in various time periods. By far the greatest boom in prison construction took place between 1981 and 2008. I get a variety of different responses from people. Some say they can’t believe we waste that kind of money. Other people cry.
LPR: In one of your recent interviews you said, Well, I did a TED Talk over a year ago in Berkeley talking about how they were using the word “thug” to describe Trayvon [Martin]. I said, “‘thug’ is the new ‘nigger.’” It’s a kind of coded language. And even the smartest people are not aware of how this language is being used. It gets into the news, even into the textbooks. How do we work to reclaim language and call out the code words for what they are?
PR: I am reclaiming symbols to tell the truth. I have a collection of branding irons, Klan robes, and books about White Supremacy as well as pro-slavery books that I bought from private collectors on eBay. I want to tell the true story of these items. Think about this language: How does it work when we have a team with owners? When the members of that team can be traded? Why are all of the owners white? Are they working in a field? Think about it.
We need to talk about how the narrative is framed when we discuss people. Who are our archetypes? What does a doctor look like? What does a genius look like? How do we frame history? My family’s been in this country a lot longer than many white people. Wealthy people want to control the narrative to justify the power they have.
LPR: Some public figures are using what could be called coded language to talk about the protests in the NFL regarding police brutality. For example, Owner Bob McNair said, “We can’t have the inmates running the prison.”
PR: I’m glad he said it. A lot of other people think it as well.
LPR: What do you see as an appropriate action for football players to take in response to his comments?
PR: Wouldn’t it be great if all of the Black players formed a superstar team? A Black-owned team? That would be a most amazing thing.
LPR: Your exhibit REWIND draws parallels between police violence and lynching and slavery and the prison systems. For those that haven’t seen the exhibit, can you describe “Excessive Use”?
PR: I wanted to explore what it was like to carry a weapon, so I got a permit for concealed carry and bought a Glock 22 40-caliber pistol. I wanted to know how it feels to pull the trigger, to shoot 50 or 137 bullets into someone. The exhibit features pieces of white paper with the names of people who’ve been murdered by police. Each piece of paper is named by the date and location of the tragedy and has the exact number of bullet holes that the bodies endured. I use my art as a way of showing what happens as opposed to simply talking about it.
LPR: Recently, both Michelle Alexander in her book The New Jim Crow and Ava DuVernay in her film 13th have discussed the movement from slavery to the current system of mass incarceration. Talk about how your work addresses the trajectory from slave labor to convict leasing to the current labor system that operates in prisons across the U.S.
PR: While I admire the work of Michelle Alexander and Eva DuVernay, I think we first need to give credit to Angela Davis for her 1997 speech “The Prison Industrial Complex.” You know, this prison system of labor is extremely profitable. Davis warned about that system and said that it would continue to grow. I had to fund my own projects because years ago, no one would fund me to talk about mass incarceration. Then several of my friends told me about the Rauschenberg call for projects. I applied, and I was awarded the funding.
LPR: Since the 1970s, the U.S. has seen an explosion in the building of prisons. Your performance piece, “Proliferation,” deals with this issue in an especially provocative manner. You cite the statistic that the U.S. has 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s prison population. Describe “Proliferation,” talk a bit about the genesis of the idea, and talk about what you hope audiences will take away from it.
PR: The map that I use in the exhibit came from the Prison Policy Initiative, and they were happy to have me animate what they had put together. I want to show, not tell. There are 2.3 million people incarcerated in the U.S. People don’t understand this is happening, and “Proliferation” is another way of telling the story. But all of us benefit from the system of prison labor in the U.S. Some of the biggest U.S. corporations use prison labor, including Bank of America, GEICO, Walmart, and ATT. According to the UNICOR website (formerly the Federal Prison Industries) prisoners earn between $0.23 and $1.15 per hour.
LPR: In other interviews that I’ve read, you’ve said that your work is not about race, it’s about power. Can you expand on that idea? How does that relate to the current situation in Baltimore with the trial boards and the officers involved in Freddie Gray’s murder?
PR: The system is about maintaining the power that people already have. Let’s think about the Baltimore Police. The Emancipation Proclamation was signed in 1863, but slavery wasn’t officially ended in Maryland until November 1, 1864. In 1862, a uniformed version of the Baltimore Police Department was established. What were the police used for? To keep communities in place first of all. Then they served as the public face to enforce redlining to be sure that “those people” don’t move into white communities. It’s about power.
LPR: What most inspires you to keep creating visual art and music?
PR: I enjoy telling stories. The power of the artist is to make the unseen seen, and I enjoy doing that.
And we need to talk about privilege. Everyone needs to look at their privilege. Look around your neighborhood. If there are no Black folks living in your neighborhood, you need to ask why. Black neighbors matter. If there aren’t any Blacks in your workplace, you need to ask why. Black jobs matter.
LPR: What is the role of hope in your work?
PR: Hope comes through knowledge. You can’t have hope unless you have something to believe in. When you learn that a system is stacked against you, that you’re not here out of any fault of your own, then you can begin to address the system. REWIND gives me hope.
~Ann Bracken, Contributing/Deputy Editor
Videos featuring Paul Rucker and his work
Real New Network Interview: “The System is Based on Profit”
Paul Rucker at TED-X: An Artist Copes with Reality
Paul Rucker is a visual artist, composer, and musician who often combines media, integrating live performance, sound, original compositions, and visual art. His work is the product of a rich interactive process, through which he investigates community impacts, human rights issues, historical research, and basic human emotions surrounding particular subject matters. Much of his current work focuses on the Prison Industrial Complex and the many issues accompanying incarceration in its relationship to slavery. He has presented performances and visual art exhibitions across the country and has collaborated with educational institutions to address the issue of mass incarceration. Presentations have taken place in schools, active prisons, and inactive prisons such as Alcatraz.
Rucker has received numerous grants, awards, and residencies for visual art and music. He is a 2012 Creative Capital grantee in visual art as well as a 2014 MAP (Multi-Arts Production) fund grantee for performance. In 2015 he received a prestigious Joan Mitchell Painters & Sculptors Grant as well as the Mary Sawyer Baker Award. In 2016 Paul received the Rauschenberg Artist as Activist fellowship and the Smithsonian Artist Research fellowship, for which he is the first artist in residence at the new National Museum of African American Culture.
Ann Bracken is the author of two collections of poetry, No Barking in the Hallways: Poems from the Classroom (2017) and The Altar of Innocence (2015), both published by New Academia Publishing’s Scarith imprint, and the deputy editor for Little Patuxent Review. Her poetry, essays, and interviews have appeared in anthologies and journals, including Bared: Contemporary Poetry and Art on Bras and Breasts, New Verse News, Reckless Writing Anthology: Emerging Poets of the 21st Century, and Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence. She co-hosts the popular reading series Wilde Readings and offers poetry and writing workshops in prisons, adult education centers and schools, and at creativity conferences.