Johns Hopkins Gazette | March 23, 2009
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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University March 23, 2009 | Vol. 38 No. 27
Race, Culture and the Arts

Renee Stout, photographed here in her Washington, D.C., home studio, will lead a six-week series of lectures and workshops for students and the community.
Photo by Kaveh Sardari

Africana Studies Center at Homewood welcomes its first artist in residence

By Amy Lunday

The Center for Africana Studies at Johns Hopkins is welcoming renowned visual artist Renee Stout to the Homewood campus this spring as its inaugural artist in residence for a series of lectures and workshops, beginning with an introductory lecture for students at 4 p.m. on Thursday, March 26, in the Shriver Hall Board Room.

Ben Vinson, director of the center, said that the program began as an idea hatched in fall 2006 by a group of Africana Studies faculty drawn from throughout the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences. "It was initially an idea without funding until a generous donation was made by alumna Christina Mattin," he said. Current plans call for visits from two artists.

Stout was chosen by an advisory board comprising Vinson; Jay Fisher, senior curator of prints, drawings and photographs at the Baltimore Museum of Art; and two Johns Hopkins alumni: Leslie King-Hammond, graduate dean emeritus and founding director of the Center for Race and Culture at Maryland Institute College of Art, and Lowery Stokes-Sims, director of the Museum of Art and Design in New York City.

"We had a blue ribbon group of people looking nationally at artists who could speak to our campus needs while addressing our ability to think about how race is represented through imagery," Vinson said. "It's all about the students — in the end, that's why we are doing this."

Stout, who takes inspiration from found objects, is encouraging students to bring things to the lecture that might help her create pieces that will initiate a campuswide dialogue on critical questions concerning race and culture, both on campus and beyond. Some of the items on her wish list: skeleton keys, old postcards and photographs, wooden boxes, odd buttons, old medicine jars, flattened rusty bottle caps, old bits of lace and swatches of fabric with funky patterns.

"I have an idea of something that I would like to do while I'm there that would involve creating an installation that the community could contribute to by bringing found objects," Stout said. "I would then try to incorporate everything that's contributed into what I will be working on so that people can feel that they helped to make this happen. I would also like people to understand that an object they consider worthless may not be so worthless to an artist or someone who sees that object in a different way.

"At this point," she continued, "the process is very organic. Personally, I would just like to go into it with an open mind and allow the environment that I'm about to step into to inspire me and lead me into an interesting creative situation."

Stout — who says she enjoys residencies because she likes connecting and sharing ideas with other people — is known for addressing a variety of social issues in her work.

"Renee will be looking at the intersection between art and race, and that's particularly timely given all the excitement generated in the past few months on matters of race," Vinson said, referring to the election of President Barack Obama. "What's appealing to us is that her artwork highlights the Diaspora, [studying] race and ethnicity from a cultural vantage point that is inclusive and resonates with the time we are living through right now."

Stout grew up in Pittsburgh and earned a BFA from Carnegie Mellon University in 1980. She moved to Washington, D.C., in 1985 and then began exploring the roots of her African-American heritage, according to the biography on her Web site, In creating pieces "that encourage self-examination, self-empowerment and self-healing," Stout says she finds inspiration in the belief systems of African peoples and their descendants throughout the African Diaspora as well as her immediate environment.

"When an idea hits me, I immediately decide which materials will best allow me to make that idea tangible," Stout writes in her artist's statement. "As a result, my bodies of work have included paintings, drawings, prints, sculpture and photography. I see each one of my pieces as a fragment or installment in an ongoing narrative that's my contribution to telling the story of who we are as a society at this point in time."

Stout also writes that her art conveys her "continuing need for self-discovery and the need to understand and make sense of human motives and the way we relate and respond to each other." She often uses imaginary characters — including her own alter ego, Fatima Mayfield, a fictitious herbalist and fortuneteller — as role-playing devices to address "romantic relationships, social ills or financial woes in a way that's open, creative and humorous."

During Thursday's lecture, Stout will present a slide show of her work and will discuss her inspirations. Other events include a lecture, on Friday, April 17; student workshops, on Saturday and Sunday, April 18 and 19; a lecture looking back at her time here, on Thursday, April 23; and a community workshop and panel discussion on Saturday, May 2.

The dialogue will continue in the fall with a second artist in residence, photographer Hank Willis Thomas.


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