In each episode of The Artists, T highlights a recent or little-seen work by a black artist, along with a few words by that artist that put the work in context. This week we’re looking at a painting by Michon Sanders who will be attending a workshop this summer at the Anderson Ranch Arts Center near Aspen, Colorado. Her first solo exhibition will open in January 2022 at the Friends Indeed Gallery in San Francisco.
Surname: Michon Sanders
Based in: Oakland, California.
Originally from: Tallahassee, Florida.
Where and when did you do that? This work was completed in 2020 – my school’s studio was closed due to Covid so I had to move my entire practice to my house, and that’s where I started this painting. It started as a continuation of a painting entitled “Repast to Follow” (2019) that I won with the AXA Art Prize 2020. I really wanted to capture the same essence of togetherness that is in this work, but in a different setting. I moved to Oakland about seven years ago and one thing about living and working here is that I have such a deep pride in blackness that I have never experienced before and that directly affects my work. I think if I hadn’t moved to Oakland, maybe even if I had taken this route elsewhere, I don’t know how “black” my work would be, how brazen and outrageous Black. Living in other places and being black was something to find your way around instead of thriving in it, but Oakland has given me such a great connection with black pride. Being out here gave me a sense of freedom and I built that right into my work.
Can you describe what is going on in the work? The title is Seniors and Children First (2020) and what you see is the meal, the after-wedding meal, or the funeral, or the church service, or whatever the gathering is. It is an unwritten rule that seniors and children eat first at gatherings, especially in the South. So it’s a group of people who all sit down to eat – they are talking, the meal is probably over, there are a couple of empty plates and people are looking at photos, and then there is a figure in the middle, that catches your eye that you know is neither a senior nor a child – and it’s that case of catching someone in the act, maybe in a place they shouldn’t be. It’s just one of those in-between moments that happen in black life.
What inspired you to do this? It follows in the same way as the rest of my personal art practice, which is about capturing those moments of life in between, especially and specifically for black people. It’s a way to demonstrate our humanity by illustrating moments of pause, moments when you may be on the verge of making a decision or changing course … or you just get caught in a moment. There’s a strong black culture around eating and being together, and so I really wanted to make a piece that celebrates this, but not the traditional “Here’s a family dinner” painting.
What is the work of art in any medium that has changed your life? I didn’t grow up with a huge artistic background; I knew the Renaissance and the old masters – Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci – and that was art to me. As a child, believe it or not, I really appreciated the statue of David; it was a miracle for me. As an adult, I actually got to see it in real life, and that was the first time I’ve ever had this experience with a work of art where you stand in front of it and are overwhelmed by emotions. I just cried. My mother said, “What’s the matter with you?” Really seeing it, knowing a little bit about what’s behind it and what an amazing physical work of art it was, that really made me appreciate art in a way that I haven’t had in a long time. Even before I even started looking at art as a profession, I was impressed by the technical work that went into this perfectly carved piece of marble. I think that was kind of a draw, that someone took a stone and made something beautiful out of it.
However, when I look at later contemporary portraits, like those of Kehinde Wiley or Barkley L. Hendricks, it reminds me that art can be so much more. You can insert meanings; You can add depth. You can insert personality and emotions. Now that I’ve grown up and do my own art, contemporary artists are more my thing. Hendricks – he was my early inspiration for painting, and when I finally got to see some of his paintings in person when the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco was hosting the Studio Museum at Harlem’s Black Refractions exhibition, I realized the The statue of David is something like what art should be, but Hendricks’ work, and all the work of those black artists – I was never taught that art could be like that. When I saw that I realized, “Oh my god, there are black people who paint other black people! And that’s normal and it’s celebrated, and it should be celebrated more. “
This interview has been edited and condensed.