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30-35 minute experience, or the time it takes to prune an old tree.



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    Note: This conversation was conducted virtually and published in April 2024. It has been edited for length and clarity.

    Crafting Lineages

    Artists engage in many forms of labor with varying degrees of visibility — in their studios, at universities, and at home. In the following conversation with artists Tammie Rubin and Tanya Crane, they discuss the contentiousness of what gets described as work, who participates in which kind of labor, and how they use their artmaking practices to learn about and preserve their families’ histories.

    Illustration of Nose and Magnifying Glass
    Defining Labor
    Decorative Line

    Jessica Ferrer: This issue of New Suns examines labor from different angles. How do each of you define or understand labor as both practicing artists and professors?

    Tanya Crane: I was just reflecting and speaking to my husband this morning about how yesterday when I was at work at school, I witnessed one of the facilities people on his hands and knees scrubbing the little portion of the elevator where the door opens and closes. I was like, oh, okay, and then as I kept walking I saw one of the student workers who is supposed to just be in the mail room had their feet up and was looking at their computer. Not a care in the world. 

    And I was thinking about this pervasive kind of way that folks look at who has to occupy which kind of labor force. The majority of my school, the majority of the students that we serve, are white students. The majority of the people in these labor positions are Hispanic, and I was just thinking, how does this still exist? And in being employed by this university, am I complicit in this? Am I enforcing this? How can I make my students more aware of these issues and their own privilege?

    As a practicing artist, I feel that labor is pretty much ignored as far as how we’re seen as artists in general. The labor is not there, it’s just the product, right? People are overlooking all the time and the research and the education that we’ve gone through in order to produce the things that we make. That’s another way that I’m looking at labor. 

    As a teacher, mentor, and a professional, I spend a large amount of my time — maybe more time than the actual making of the work — doing those things. I don’t think I would quantify it, but I would say that the labor aspect of what I do is the majority of me as an artist and person.

    Tanya Crane. Miguel's Story, 2022. Copper and enamel, 6 x 3 inches. Courtesy of the artist. Artwork © Tanya Crane.

    [ID: An enameled copper bowl etched with tally marks on its exterior and a handwritten narrative on the interior.]


    Tammie Rubin: Yeah, it’s interesting that you’re talking about labor at the university and its different components because it’s something I always think about as someone who teaches process-based materials that have a lot of steps, need equipment, and maintenance. It mirrors my own work in so many ways as a sculptor. I use a lot of slip casting when I work, and I have to make prototypes, use found prototypes, and make molds. It’s laborious. I end up lifting heavy things. I have to pour in my slip; I’m usually making my own slip because I color my slip with various pigments. There’s a lot of physicality that goes into the work, but in those tasks — where I’m looking at historical, social, political, cultural research that I’m doing and using it through the lens of my own family and then funneling it through a wider lens of Black Americans’ experiences who were part of the Great Migration — I feel like they come together in some ways through the labor. 

    There’s this other thing that happens when I’m getting ready to make the work. It’s not making the work yet, but I feel like I’m answering questions in the back of my mind. I’m not a person that does a lot of sketching. I may have sketched a little bit, but I’m someone who is intuitively working with the material as it’s in front of me, and so I find that preparation is the place that gives me a pause to consider the conceptual and the next things that I’m going to do when I get into the studio. When that other labor’s done, then there is the labor of making, but I don’t think of them the same way.

    As a professor, it’s interesting because the labor that I put out for my classes is different from the labor that some of my peers are doing. There’s a gap in understanding the labor if you’re in metalsmithing, ceramics, sculpture, or printmaking, any of those where it takes a lot of equipment and management of a space. I’m really butting up against this idea of how my labor doesn’t seem to be as valued as other professors. My peers teaching an animation class aren’t responsible for ordering computers, setting them up, handling the software, none of that. But in my area, a lot of the labor ends up on me, so I’m really thinking about how we got to this place of inequity within art departments and if there’s a remedy for that.

    There are a lot of different modes of labor and the last one I’ll mention is the one that we have less time for: those spaces where we can sit and dream and consider without having tasks intervening. You have to balance labor in your practice with teaching because there’s only so much energy.

    Tanya: Yeah, I was thinking about this… artists as laborers and how often it’s dismissed that we actually labor over anything. We’re thought of as these floating, carefree people who kind of enter into work every once in a while. Even as teachers or professors, I think, as a country, we dismiss that work as labor. It’s something that we all need and want and is required, but it’s dismissed as unimportant or as if it doesn’t come with any labor. It’s very interesting, the dynamics of education and artists as people who actually do things.

    Tammie Rubin. Church Elders, 2022. Masonite collage, 15.5 x 10.5 inches. Courtesy of the artist. Artwork © Tammie Rubin.

    [ID: A prayer fan made from masonite with collaged decals. The collage includes a photograph of five Black men dressed in matching suits and hats against a background that repeats the phrase, “I AM A MAN.”]


    Jessica: It does feel like there’s the magic [of an artwork] and then the demystification of how something actually gets made. I want to keep unpacking that. To that end, I was wondering if you could both briefly describe your current workspace or studio and what your preferred working conditions or rhythms are when youre making.

    Tammie: I am actually in a little bit of a point of transition. I did a three-month residency at Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts in Omaha, and I gave up my studio before I left. When I came back, I was like, okay, I’m gonna find a new studio. And I did. I signed my lease and I have yet to finish moving into it. I’ve always been working in multiple spaces: I am basically the 3D department at my school so I have a little corner of the space of our facility that I use for sculptural work, and there’s a wood shop here. I need a clean space when creating 2D work like the prayer fans and the plotted drawings, but right now I’m doing that all in one space. And then I also have my home office. 

    I have a lovely space; I just have to have time to move to the space. I’ve had some shows and so it’s just been like trying to put one foot in front of the other as of late, but I’m really excited because it’s a space owned by another artist who’s also a graphic designer. She bought a deconsecrated church, one of those small A-frame neighborhood churches in a Black neighborhood, and she’s a Black artist, and then she built this studio space, this community space. 

    It’s really, really special. I signed the lease because even though I knew I didn’t have time to move in at that moment, I was so excited about this possibility. I’m so glad I’m gonna be writing my check to her! It’s a wonderful feeling to know directly where that money is going and to be a part of a project because I’ve never been in a studio space like this, where it’s from the ground up, owned by a Black woman, creating this kind of intimate environment. I have a little pause after March when I will fully move in.

    Tanya: That sounds amazing. I used to rent a space for a couple of years and I loved the kind of community that it creates when you have different people doing different things in different spaces. The climate control there was really bad though. (laughter) My husband and I looked for a house for probably at least five years. And we finally bought one and we needed studio space. My husband is a drummer and a percussionist. I make jewelry; I’m a metalsmith, and so I need a sink, and I need very good electricity for my kilns. 

    We found a house with a walkout basement. The whole bottom floor is basically another apartment, and we share studio space. He has one side; I have the other side, and because it’s a walkout, it gets great light. But basically it’s like a T-shape. There are two rectangles: one rectangle used to be the dining room, and that’s my making space, and then perpendicular to that is the kitchen area, which is where I do all the washing of my enamels and things, and then there’s a large table for drawing, planning, and laying things out. Lots of Zoom meetings happen there, and I teach a lot of workshops online, which has been great. That happens in that space, and then I have another space off of that, which is like a sunroom, but they call it a Florida room. (I’m from the West Coast, and now I live on the East Coast. They call things weird names.) It gets lots of sun, but in the winter it’s not heated, so it’s very cold. I store plants there that need to overwinter. I take photos out there of my jewelry, and I set up another bench with the idea that I would invite another jeweler in to just share the space and be a mentor to. I did that a little bit last winter for a couple months. That was fun.

    There are a lot of different modes of labor and the last one I’ll mention is the one that we have less time for: those spaces where we can sit and dream and consider without having tasks intervening. You have to balance labor in your practice with teaching because there’s only so much energy.

    Illustration of Nose and Magnifying Glass
    Family Archives
    Decorative Line

    Jessica: I also would love for you both to touch on the research aspects of your practices. In particular, you have a shared interest in the effects of the Great Migration and unpacking your families’ histories. I’m very curious to what extent your practices are informed by place.

    Tanya: A couple summers ago, I started on this topic. I was interested in interviewing the Black side of my family. Growing up, my father, my aunt, and my uncle all lived in South Central Los Angeles, and then I lived with my mom and my sister in a suburb. My father passed away a long time ago and I really wanted to know more about him and where everybody migrated from. I conducted some interviews with my aunt, who has since passed away, and now I have [been interviewing] my uncle.

    I’ve been finding out where this seemingly never-ending journey that they have been on began. It started in Oklahoma, I believe, and ended up in California [in search of] a “better” life. That’s where I’m starting with this topic, and I’m transcribing those interviews onto enamel and sometimes paper. We’ll see where it goes from there, but so far it’s more personal to my family and not as broad as the actual Migration itself.

    I’m thinking about how I have moved a ton — I’ve moved probably thirty times in my adult life – and lived all over the place. How I exist as a Black woman in those spaces has really affected the work that I make. I’m always thinking about the objects and the things that I come across, and the histories behind those objects and things. The buildings. How the landscapes change. And I respond to those things by making something enamel in my aesthetic and comparing it to something that I find. There are lots of found objects, with their histories that are already contained within them, in my jewelry pieces. Sometimes they become sculptures, too. Those sculptures are often things that I’ve already found that I’m responding to. That’s a new thing for me.

    Tammie: When I considered moving here after being offered this job, I had to really think about moving to Austin because I had never lived in the South before. It made me think about both of my parents, who met in Chicago and got married there. Either we would make a yearly pilgrimage south or one of my grandmothers would come north. Illinois is a very long state if you’re going north to south, and around Cairo is the dividing line between what has been the North and the South. We’d drive to Memphis and spend some time there with my dad’s family and then drive to Mississippi and spend time with my mother’s family. 

    Just the consideration of me moving to a Southern place made me think about them in a historical context that I had not thought about before. It made me think about the stories that they would tell me, how migration affects this country economically, socially, and culturally, and how it still affects things today. I really became interested in why a lot of Black people live in certain locations. 

    I was also thinking about my friends who were immigrants — their stories so mimicked my own family’s story. The rituals we’d kept as far as things like food, the idea that you came and lived with a relative, you sent money back, people had nicknames, you wanted your kids to understand where they came from. I would be driven down and I’d stay for a couple of weeks with my grandmother. This is how my friends talked about their stories. I’m not an immigrant. I’m a migrant within my own country thinking about Black citizenship and how our citizenship has always been questioned by this country and how we still strive for autonomy.

    I started working in a familial way, thinking about narratives that are specific to my family, but then very quickly I wanted it to become universal because this history is American history. It’s not a siloed history. We’re Americans, and so this Black history is American history. We have six million people who moved between 1917 and 1970. It was a lot of people coming from these rural areas to larger areas of cities and also finding when they got there that there is no utopia. 

    Some of the mapping that I use in my work are the routes of how people got to different places. My parents were in Chicago because the railroad, the city of New Orleans’ train, starts there and it goes directly north through Mississippi, through Tennessee to Illinois, and then it keeps going and you can take it to Wisconsin. Black people who lived in Texas and migrated were usually going to California, and people who were in Florida, closer to Alabama, were going up the East Coast. 

    I’ve been thinking about this movement of bodies and this striving for more. And then once you’re confronted with these institutionalized ways of controlling your body, through redlining, for instance, thinking about how we continue to strive forward. It’s both. It’s seeing the history and seeing how it affects what’s happening now and what’s happening in the future, because these things become really circular.

    Tammie Rubin. Sunday Morning Offerings No 2., 2023. Pew, ball moss, cotton, twine dipped in porcelain and fired, and peanuts, 33 x 67 x 26 inches. Photo by Hector Tednoir. Artwork © Tammie Rubin.

    [ID: A medium-blue bench installed in the middle of a gallery space. Two bags of peanuts and a small pile of indecipherable ceramic objects rest on opposite sides of the bench.]


    Jessica: I wanted to follow up, Tammie, on the project you mentioned, I AM WOMAN I AM LABOR I AM HOME. What have you learned so far through the interviews youve been conducting and how have those learnings informed your approach to making?

    Tammie: I started these informal interviews with relatives and recently, unfortunately, one of my first cousins who I feel like had a lot of information, just recently passed away. My parents and that whole generation are all basically gone at this point. And you know, it’s hard actually. I have so much respect for Isabel Wilkerson’s book, Warmth of Other Suns, because that book took years and years of following up with people and forming relationships.

    I AM WOMAN I AM LABOR I AM HOME is a reference to this idea of being a linchpin for Black women’s labor, domestic and industrial. All the women in my family worked. They had husbands, but they all worked, so this idea of a housewife was never a reality for them. At the same time, they were still doing all of this domestic labor at home. And then also having this fine line of [understanding] your husband is going to make more money than you because he’s a man, but you also don’t want to emasculate your husband either. Does he think about what you bring home as helping? Does everyone value the economic labor and the money that is being brought?

    And then I was also thinking about the fact that both my grandmothers were domestic workers. They worked in other people’s homes helping take care of their kids and households. And on the other side of my family, it’s not a secret, but it doesn’t feel like something that we’ve talked about. I don’t know if there was a sense of shame about that or if it was just because by the time I knew my grandmother she had been long retired, but it did make me think about this lineage. There were actually anti-loitering laws where if Black women refused to do work they could be brought up on charges for refusing to work in someone’s home. I’m thinking about this as an economic, cultural, and metaphysical idea of the work with women. 

    I’m starting with these conversations where I’m asking women, how do they view the past labor of the women in their own family? What was that labor and how do they relate it to their own labor that they’re doing now? I definitely see a direct lineage between the women who were working with their hands to me now as an artist working with my hands. I’m at the beginning.

    I’m excited but it’s also a little unwieldy, the interviewing part. I’m still trying to figure that part out a little bit better.

    Illustration of Nose and Magnifying Glass
    Marking Time
    Decorative Line

    Jessica: Thank you for sharing all that. I’m excited to see it take shape. Tanya, I had a question for you regarding the recurring tick mark motif in your sgraffito work that you’ve said evokes a sense of time passing. Why do you incorporate that kind of notation into your pieces?

    Tanya: The tick marks are multifold. They’re a way that I get into my work, kind of like a meditation. So the time that’s passing, I’m just like, tick, tick, making these marks. It’s fun, it’s repetitive, I don’t have to think at all. My brain just kind of shuts off. It’s really nice. 

    And then on the other hand, when I’m doing tick marks that are intentional, they’re stemming from the stories that my uncle and my aunt have told me about my father and who he was. He worked as a janitor, I think, in a public school in LA somewhere, and he was incarcerated multiple times. He was a Black man growing up in LA. He wasn’t a drug user, but I think the culture in LA at that time in the 1960s was that white policemen did not like Black men, and so they were often just singled out, beaten, taken to prison on charges that were made up, and this actually happened a lot to my father. The tick marks that I make on some of the pieces, like what’s his worth?, reference when you’re incarcerated. You pass the time through those types of tick marks. 

    That piece also has some other significance. He had ALS, and eventually he was paralyzed, couldn’t move, and the tick marks are on the outside of a urinal like those old, enameled urinals that they used to use in hospitals. The inside is gold leafed and then the whole outside are these 1 2 3 4 5 tick marks in black and white. It’s passing time. It’s somebody else’s time.

    I’m remembering what I wanted to say to Tammie. It was about interviewing — because that is another way of me getting information is interviewing — my uncle and previously my aunt, but I feel like an imposter. I feel like this is not my life: this is me gathering this information as somebody who didn’t have these experiences and then disseminating it into work or pieces that I make. 

    The way I’m remedying that for me personally was to sell one of the pieces that I made to a museum. I gave my uncle the money. I was like, this is your story. This isn’t me, you know, the materials are nominal. It’s in a museum now, and he’s so excited about that. To me it’s this kind of reparations. I’m the intermediary for those but these other people, who are predominantly white folks, are paying him now for his labor, you know, so I feel good about that. But yeah, it’s the passing of time.

    Tammie: I think that’s really interesting because I also use a lot of tick marks and repetitiveness, and I always think of them as bodies moving through space. And so this idea of continual shifting through time and space, I love that.

    Tanya: Yeah, they’re also universal marks. They’re very recognizable. I see these marks that I’m making in Aboriginal work and West African work. 

    Tammie: I think that the visual codes of pattern making are definitely something innate and pass through multiple cultures. This idea of mark making — whether it be tattooing or making mandalas or scarification — there’s just something about having the physicality of that on a surface. You were saying it’s meditative, but I like that we use our bodies to do that action. It’s active even if, as you said, you zen out. The motion still has to happen, so I like that idea of a passage of time.

    Tanya Crane. What’s his worth, 2023. Enameled steel urinal, sgraffito enamel, 24-karat gold leaf. Courtesy of the artist. Artwork © Tanya Crane.

    [ID: A steel jug placed on its side covered with etched tally marks.]


    The way I’m remedying that for me personally was to sell one of the pieces that I made to a museum. I gave my uncle the money. I was like, this is your story. This isn’t me, you know, the materials are nominal. It’s in a museum now, and he’s so excited about that. To me it’s this kind of reparations.

    Jessica: Both of you have such wonderful attentiveness to surface and texture in your work, but I think what I am especially drawn to is the way that the mark making renders the hand visible. I would love to hear from you why you think it’s important for people to work with their hands.

    Tanya: I think it’s so you don’t forget. You’re connected to the materials and history when you’re working with your hands — not necessarily the final outcome — but you’re connected to a lineage of people who have been engaged in a process, who have been engaged in this labor.

    A machine doesn’t have the same effect. For instance, I’ve started making my marks on an iPad, and then making that [digital drawing] into a screen print and screening that onto my work. And I think the only reason why it looks handmade is because the screen didn’t fully wash out, and so it looks more staticky, which I absolutely love. Thank god it didn’t actually all render perfectly because it’s a different kind of look than my physical going through each mark. It’s very important.

    Tammie: Yeah, I mean, I feel like there’s something about being present, right? When you’re working with your hands, you have to be present in the moments of thinking about the work, thinking about the idea of the work, engaging with it. Actually problem solving and trying to get better, right? So this idea of what I think [of] in my head [versus] what comes out through my hands. Often there may be a gap there, and it’s through the repetition of making that I can close that gap to what I’m envisioning versus what is actually happening. 

    I think it also gives us a good sense of other people’s labor in the world. I saw something on Threads that said, “Why does this handmade cup cost so much? Why is it $128?” And it’s like, well, you know, when I have students who are taking clay handbuilding and wheel throwing, they understand what that means now. They understand all of the things that it takes to make it, because it’s not about that one cup! It’s about all the hours before, all the prepping. It’s about the overhead of the studio. It’s about the material. It’s all about all of that. There’s a certain amount of empathy and engagement, but also challenge. Because oftentimes we think, I can do that. You don’t know you can do it until you actually do it. Doing it is different than thinking you can do it. And there’s a lot to be gained in failure. I feel like we shouldn’t lose that. You do something, you’re bad at it, and you keep working at it so you get better. The hands can be a part of that labor.

    Portrait photo of Tanya Crane by Jesse Beecher.

    [ID: An African American woman smiles at the camera. Her hair is curly and dark in a natural afro style with a colorful scarf tying it back. She is wearing overalls, black-and-white enameled earrings, and sparkly green glasses.]


    Tanya Crane
    She // Her // Hers
    Providence, RI

    Tanya Crane is a Southern California native who, after years of geographic exploration, has found a home and community in Providence, Rhode Island, where she currently practices her research and creative disciplines. In addition to Crane’s rigorous studio practice, she is a Professor of the Practice in Metals at the School Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts where her interdisciplinary focus in jewelry, craft, sculpture, and performance is utilized to influence the next generation of artists, craftspeople, and thinkers. Her jewelry and sculpture are framed within a dual existence of prejudice and privilege, having adapted to life amongst family in both the white suburbs of rural Los Angeles and the predominantly Black suburbs of South Central, Los Angeles. Craft has manifested as a conduit between these two worlds that have provided her with the cultural infrastructure that is centering her current work. Her jewelry amplifies and elucidates the strata of human existence; these include history, race, class, and culture. Coming from the perspective of an African-American woman, Crane uses community and inclusiveness as a magnetic beacon to diversify and expand ideas, understandings, and codifications.

    Portrait photo of Tammie Rubin by Essentials Creative.

    [ID: A Black woman with short hair looks out beyond the camera. She wears tear drop–shaped wire earrings, a colorful patterned shirt, and poses alongside a sculpture and mural.]


    Tammie Rubin
    She // Her // Hers
    Austin, TX

    Tammie Rubin is a ceramic sculptor and installation artist whose practice considers the intrinsic power of objects and coded symbols as signifiers, wishful contraptions, and mythic relics. Rubin’s artwork delves into narratives of Black American citizenry, migration, autonomy, longing, and faith. By weaving together familial and historical narratives, mapping data, and magical thinking, her installations evoke ritual moments of physical, metaphysical, and spiritual escape. Rubin holds an MFA in Ceramics from the University of Washington in Seattle and a dual BFA in Ceramics and Art History from the University of Illinois, Urbana–Champaign.
    Instagram: @tammierrubin

    BG Graphic