In Conversation with Katelyn Brown; Navigating the Arts, Academia, and Self-Reflection in Baltimore City
AS A COLLECTIVE, WE WANTED TO TAKE TIME TO HIGHLIGHT THOSE THAT ARE DOING THE HARD WORK OF PURSUING THEIR OWN CREATIVE AND ACADEMIC GOALS, WHILE ALSO PAVING THE WAY TO FURTHER THE REPRESENTATION OF MARGINALIZED PEOPLE IN THE ARTS AND HUMANITIES. WE HAVE CALLED THIS SERIES, TAKING OUR SEAT. FOR OUR CURRENT FEATURE, WE ARE PLEASED TO CHAT WITH ARTIST, KATELYN BROWN.
Katelyn Brown - she/her pronouns - explores the black woman experience and its marriage to the black community and the world in broader terms primarily through digital portrait photography and mixed media. Self-taught, Katelyn began photographing as a means of investigating self image. In her early work she yielded chiefly self portraits, highlighting freedom and black beauty as major themes. Her influences include Quazi King, Mickalene Thomas, James Baldwin and Kerry James Marshall; as such, Katelyn has attempted to weave the vast definitions of black womanness together with notions that are present but not limited to self love as a revolution, vulnerability, and introspection being the needle and thread. Currently, Katelyn lives in her home city of Baltimore, MD, where in 2018 she received her MFA in Photographic + Electronic Media from Maryland Institute College of Art.
Speaker Guide | AB: Akea Brionne and KB: Katelyn Brown
AB: There was a recent article, in the Baltimore Sun, that cited Baltimore as the city with one of the highest rates of gentrification in the entire country. In what ways, if any, have you witnessed this in your daily life as an artist who’s from Baltimore?
KB: Wow, I think I've witnessed this since I can remember-- being a kid and sort of realizing that all of us black folks were being moved out to the counties that border the city because housing projects were being imploded. Watching the Harbor East area of downtown expand has been one of the most distinct physical manifestations for me, it kind of just appeared out of nowhere in an area that used to be sparse and redlined for sure. Station North is also an example I've seen just sort of spring from nothing. North Avenue used to be a hub of Black business and culture and now it seems MICA and Hopkins have, in some way, shape or form, assigned themselves to spaces in the Station North area leaving the POC that live in Station North with little to no access or resources.
I also think since Baltimore is a hub of creativity and is a tiny tiny city, people come here to gobble up the culture and creativity, then leave. Or they come with developers to build some nice pretty buildings to rent to upper middle class whites in areas that are 'up and coming' and then they leave. Who's gonna fight them about it? Black folks can barely secure our own necessities.
AB: That makes me think about an ongoing issue in the city; sustaining residents. One discussion that I never fail to hear, is the constant struggle with getting people who come to study in Baltimore, to stay after they graduate. Do you think there are enough opportunities in the city for creatives to be able to support themselves comfortably?
KB: Ha! If I am a Baltimorean and I am considering leaving, it is absolutely understandable if people want to leave after they graduate. This is a hard city to live in for many many reasons. I do think people should think more intently about coming to a city like Baltimore to consume and go without contribution-- especially if they are not POC. Alternatively, I also feel there is a bias in Baltimore within companies to hire whites who are not from here because somehow the understanding is that those people are 'better'. Bmore Art just did that. There are opportunities but we have to also keep these companies and organizations accountable to holding space for this predominately Black city to be equitable in employment.
AB: You just answered one of my own questions! ( Would you ever consider leaving Baltimore? )
I consider it everyday. I'm very tired to be honest.
AB: With that exhaustion in mind, and as a recent MFA grad, how do you feel about the job market in Baltimore; specifically for artists?
The job market seems to be opening up for artists to expand the ways that we work with art and food, fashion, community, etc. I'm excited to see how it will continue to develop, I just hope it keeps en equitable lens and doesn't become hardwired without. I believe my degree helped me get my job to an extent, but I don't know if it was sole reason I was hired. I have not seen the fruits of that labor yet in the job market. Its seems that most people who get MFA's want to go on teaching, which is something I also want to pursue at some point, but even with an MFA from what I've seen, you have to start as an adjunct making little to no money and killing yourself trying to pick up other gigs here and there. That's pretty bogus and sounds like some outdated form of institutional crap to me.
AB: That’s something I hear a lot and I sometimes feel the same. Transitioning a bit to your academic journey, you recently completed your graduate studies at MICA. Can you expand on your experience there, and the challenges you faced while in school? What do you feel was beneficial about your time there?
KB: My time at MICA was so transformative for me in my way of approaching art-- of approaching life. I am grateful for the opportunity to have had a studio space, think more deeply about art history, theory, gender and race. I had space to think about what it means to be an artist as a profession and to make work that was so healing for me. MICA is an interesting place to be-- it sits in a very weird physical paradox of old wealth and again, redlining. It seems that a lot of the energy of white institutional racism still permeates the campus and the surrounding community. I've had experiences at MICA of white men being aggressive toward me, of them lacking the intellectual breadth to give me a substantial critique, and even felt tokenized to meet a DEIG audit quota. It's made me rethink my feelings about representation and equity a lot. I have also had amazing opportunities to meet well established artists and hear them lecture, have studio visits with some, and just be inspired by their work. Its a toss up, part of me feels so fed by my time at MICA and part of me feels traumatized. I will say the people I have met at MICA that have been supportive have been really really outstanding in holding space for me to come to them with whatever I have, good or bad. I feel apart of a community, even as an alumna, but I believe thats only because there is a handful of people there that really care about my wellbeing, not just my making it to the MOMA.
AB: There is often a pull for many artists, one in which they are stuck navigating the “real” world, the one with rent, doctors bill, car notes, etc., and the dream world, where they can freely make art and support themselves solely off of their work. How do you feel about navigating your personal practice now that you are no longer in school? Are you finding difficulties prioritizing your practice over providing for yourself (or vice versa)?
KB: I will always be an artist, that is a part of who I am and will never change. My day job will not change that, my spouse, where I live, nothing will change or impede my need to create. That is my life force. Capitalism will have you out here convinced that if you are not making money off of your life force or joy, that you are a failure. That is absolutely not true and leads us sometimes to enact violence on ourselves to conform. You can have a day job that pays your bills and has nothing to do with your artist practice. I think in a way that also helps you to expand and takes a lot of pressure off of your practice to be something that maybe it does not need to be. You do not have to profit off of your practice. I wish more education systems emphasized that. You can also do a lot of different jobs to support yourself in your lifetime that make you happy outside of your practice. None of us are a monolith.
Making work has been on a bit of a stop for me for the past year since graduation. I just couldn't step up to it with all of the new information I had to absorb from school. I had to take a break. We were expected to generate an enormous amount of output under severe pressure in those 2 years. There was no down time. After graduating, I would try to force myself to make and couldn't without crying or having some sort of breakdown, so I allowed myself to rest. Sometimes there is output and sometimes there is reception. Sometimes there just needs to be quiet and stillness to heal.
AB: Do you feel that your work is or has been valued? Is that something that’s even important to you?
KB: I do feel my work is valued by the people that it resonates with. In the end I make work for myself, if it is received and affirmed by others, that is amazing and I have so much gratitude for those peoples responses and love. That is one of the biggest lessons I think I learned at MICA: your work will not be for everyone, if anyone at all. You should keep making it regardless. There is so much liberation in doing for self, so as long as I value myself and my work, everyone else valuing it is a bonus.
AB: What advice would you give to young POC in Baltimore who want to pursue a career in the arts? Do you still believe there is value in pursuing higher arts education?
KB: I would advise my younger POC folks to just make, make a lot of work. Get into a really good habit of making for the sake of the thing, not just because its 'productive' or will 'lead somewhere'. There is no promise of fame or fortune in life in any profession so I think that would be my most substantial advice: do not chase fame or the highlight reels of social media. I know all of the art world junk may look nice and shiny but its way too much pressure and we already have enough to handle on a regular shmegular day. I also want young POC to embrace the notion of collaboration. Ive found in Baltimore its really hard for me to find people to work with on creative projects. My last bit of advice would be to find ways to stay grounded and present. Its really easy to get caught in the whirlwind of striving and pushing and chasing. I think its also really easy to take what the 'art world' dishes out, even from Black or POC institutions, as the status quo and deal with constant rejection from residencies, grants, etc. All of us are not that kind of artist and that is okay. There is more than one route to get most anywhere. Explore!
I do believe there is value in pursuing a higher arts education, you just have to know going in that you will be transformed. I guess its up to you to decide how.
AB: Something I find particularly interesting about what you just said, was your perspective of struggling with collaboration, here in Baltimore. That is a perspective I’ve often felt, but have not often found that my peers mirrored that same sentiment. Can you expand a bit on that?
KB: I've found that Baltimore is a place where collaboration happens in pockets. I think there are artists that work really well together and build together and those are the people that do really well and go really far. In general, I've just found it really difficult to find other artists who are interested in ideation and development from that stage of making. I won't say all but some are not really interested in what your ideas are unless they have a promise of notoriety or tons of cash. Don't get me wrong, I love money and I love sharing the wealth. I have just found it challenging to find my people in a career capacity. I have found myself being overly protective of my ideas also, which doesn't help in trying to work with others.
A Final Word from Katelyn
I just really want these large and / or well exposed institutions and organizations to stop using Black folks and POC as a means to talk the talk. Having a Black Womxn on the cover of your magazine or POC sitting on your committee without really addressing your motives for such is still a problem. Refusing to engage with the issues that most Black people and POC face in this city everyday is still racism. Not having enough faculty at MICA that are Black / POC to support each other, to support students and a healthy learning environment is still racism. Intention is not enough. Make sure that the staff, faculty and students who are becoming apart of your 'community' are not being abused or traumatized by white supremacy. Make it a requirement to have regular DEIG workshops or lectures for staff, faculty and students, Black and POC folks included; it helps us with our own blindspots and to better recognize how we might advocate for ourselves. Create more beneficial networks that engage with Baltimore City as a whole, not just the parts that don't scare you as much. Provide more access to mental health services and healing modalities, not only for MICA community, but for the surrounding area. I can see the work beginning to take shape but there is still so so so much to address.
To Black / POC folks: You're doing great sweetie.