Foundation's Talk with Neil Kendricks

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Neil Kendricks is an artist, filmmaker, writer, photographer, and educator. In 2020, he participated in Art Produce’s Artist-in-Residence program where he created a series of mixed-media drawings exploring the fallout of systemic racism in America.

Kendricks believes that the different artistic mediums, such as photography and drawing, are interconnected, as they all try to reach a better understanding of the human experience. For him, these mediums are tools to express the way he sees the world.

In July 2020, he did his first artist residency; the Art Produce’s Artist-In-Residence. Despite the health crisis, he was able to make the best of this experience, and even wishes he had applied to a residency earlier in his life – it was, in his own words, “a real game changer.” During his time in seclusion, he wrote a letter to himself, allowing himself to make mistakes and to persevere. In his new “oasis for creativity,” he felt like he was transported in another world, another lifetime, and was able to let his muse free.

During the talk, Kendricks shared with us the encounters that inspired him, such as the conversation he had with film director and screenwriter Jim Jarmusch, when he was working as a journalist to pay for his studies. Jarmusch had given him great advice on art that Kendricks kept with him and still follows to this day. For Jarmusch, it was essential that as an artist, you pay attention to what the work itself wants to tell you, despite what your preconceptions are, and if the end result isn’t what you expected in the beginning, then it is simply because it was meant to be. The key is to let yourself make mistakes and let the work become something else if it has to. This job allowed Kendricks to meet many artists early on, and helped him continue down this path.

In matters of inspiration, Kendricks studied the work of Goya, and reflected on the notion that art works as a time capsule and is therefore symptomatic of a specific time period, but that it can still be relevant in contemporary contexts. Like Goya, Kendricks wants to be part of the construction of his era through his art, and he wants to convey strong messages. Kendricks also had a look at the works of Käthe Kollwitz, whose drawings reveal her strong empathy for other human beings, and of Sue Coe, which depict the violence of agit-props.

In his talk, Kendricks shared his experience of growing up and living in the United States as a Black American, which often made him the victim of unfair police treatment. His personal background, associated with the rise of the BLM movement – which corresponded to the start of his residency – made a new artistic concept emerge in his mind. To develop his ideas, Kendricks did rough drawings in his sketchbook of George Junius Stinney Jr., a fourteen-year-old Black boy who was convicted of murdering two girls and executed by electric chair in 1944, making him the youngest American to be sentenced to death and executed in the 20th century.

This was the genesis of a new concept for Kendricks and the start of a new series of portraits: “Strange Fruit,” which draws its name from legendary singer Billie Holiday’s song of the same name lamenting the lynching horrors of the American South. He worked on the overlapping of faces, sometimes with objects, representing the lives lost in the maw of systemic racism. Kendricks then got the idea of using sheets of shooting-range paper as the basis for his drawings, which were mostly black and white portraits, and created a “memento mori to the fallen.” He explained that this was mostly a trial-and-error process, as it was very difficult to draw on shooting-range paper, and he was not sure about his use of color. This almost drew him to get rid of some of his creations, before remembering that mistakes are essential to progress. Kendricks explained that despite receiving an offer for this series of drawings, he refused to sell them, as his emotional attachment to them was too strong; he wanted instead to create a collection of ghosts “big enough to fill a room.”

Kendricks shared with us his other projects; his photography series, his storyboards and film projects, always highlighting the importance of seizing any arising opportunity, the unexpected interest of “happy accidents” and the value of human relations, from which he always drew a strong inspiration. He explained how even one of the worst experiences of his life – when he found himself partially paralyzed in his right arm after an operation – turned somehow into a creative opportunity, as it is how he started to work with film cameras.

Throughout his talk, Neil Kendricks highlighted how humanity is essential to his art and how important it is to produce artworks every day to keep on progressing, no matter the quality of the pieces. He always advises his students to keep on persevering and to make mistakes, as he considers that those who will go the farthest and “shine the brightest” are not always those who are the most talented to begin with, but those who never give up and instead keep on trying.

To view his work, visit his website.