Teaching Artist Spotlight: Rowan Renee

By Clare Walker, JAC Intern

Portrait by Lauren Slusher

Recently, JAC had the chance to speak with Rowan Renee. Rowan (b. 1985, West Palm Beach, Florida) is a genderqueer artist based in Brooklyn, NY. Their work addresses the intersections of gender-based violence, intergenerational trauma and mass incarceration through State records and family archives. 

In 2019, they acquired the contents of their father’s criminal case file from the State Attorney who prosecuted him. Using lithography, weaving and metalwork, they re-presented these records as “hanging files” in a fictitious police evidence room. This installation, No Spirit For Me (2019), was included in the critically acclaimed exhibition Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration at MoMA PS1. 

Their work has been exhibited in solo exhibitions at Smack Mellon (2021), Five Myles (2021), Aperture Foundation (2017), and Pioneer Works (2015). They have received awards from the Aaron Siskind Foundation, the Harpo Foundation and the Jerome Hill Foundation, and they are the 2022 Artist-in-Residence at Green-Wood Cemetery. 

JAC: How did you become involved in this work? What was your path to where you are today?

RR: I spent the last few years making art about how my own family history has been impacted by intergenerational trauma and incarceration. Working with my Father’s case files gave me access to the procedural aspects of his case I hadn’t known before. And, through learning the inner workings of the system, I became deeply critical of it. I started to connect what my family had experienced to a more systemic understanding of injustice within the criminal legal system.

JAC: How did you come to installation art as a genre?

RR: At a certain point, I started to have trouble containing the stories I wanted to tell within standalone objects. Installation art allows me to be much more deliberate about how my work creates relationships to the environment around it. It also lets me think about how the audience will encounter the work and its relationship to the body. Through seeing my work as intertwined with its context or environment and embracing that as part of the work, I believe I can tell more nuanced stories. 

JAC: Will you tell us about your project Between the Lines? Will you share what the project means to you and what the process of conceptualizing it was like?

RR: Between the Lines is a series of art workshops by correspondence with LGBTQ+ identified folks who are incarcerated in Florida. I started research in 2019, and the first iteration was supported with funding from We, Women Photo in 2020-2021. I wanted to raise visibility for the specific issues that people in the LGBTQ+ community face, like being placed indefinitely in solitary confinement simply for being out as gay or transgender. I wanted to focus on Florida because this is the state where I grew up and also where my dad had been incarcerated. I had done the most research about legal history, and I knew the state is horribly underserved, especially for arts programming in prisons, so I felt there was a lot of need. 

JAC: What does it mean to you to be able to provide visibility and care to LGBTQ+ incarcerated artists? 

RR: I more often think about what it means to the people I write, many of whom are serving long sentences and don’t have much support from their families. There is such a need for human connection, and it really brings into focus how the culture of the prison system fundamentally denies people their basic human dignity.

JAC: And will you tell us about your most recent project A Common Thread?

RR: A Common Thread is a community weaving and transformative justice studio situated inside of Recess’ exhibition space in Brooklyn for two months this winter. The project arose out of my own studio practice and how weaving specifically helped me process some of the trauma surrounding my dad’s case that was beyond language. The program centers on co-weaving sessions, which are intimate conversations that take place while sitting at the loom and making together. There are also a few virtual public events where I talk to people about how they bring transformative justice ideas into practice in everyday life. 

A Common Thread is open through March 4th, 2022, and all events are free. To schedule a co-weaving session or see the upcoming virtual events, check the project page here.

JAC: How did you come to craft as a “framework for envisioning and enacting transformative justice”?

RR: When I started using this term, I really think I meant it in the most narrow sense, to describe the world within my artwork. Through craft, I felt like the act of making, and particularly the repetitive motions of loom-weaving, created a ritualized space where the body could articulate the unspeakable. I came to see the efforts to process feelings or conflicts that were unresolvable as deeply healing work, and something that brought me closer to closure and peace than anything the criminal legal system could have offered me.

JAC: How have you been impacted by your experience working with incarcerated artists?

RR: I’m often in awe of the incredible resourcefulness and resilience it takes to make art in prison. From navigating draconian mail room rules, to sourcing art supplies, to dealing with guards who can confiscate or destroy artwork at any point, there’s a lot of dangers for the creative spirit. And yet, the refusal to heed those limits is such a powerful assertion of freedom.

JAC: Has the subject of your work and your experience creating work around prison environments influenced the way you approach your own art, writing, and projects? What inspires you?

RR: Yes, in the sense that I have become much more interested in history and context, and feel like there is no such thing as a “white cube” or totally neutral space. And that art institutions are not as removed from the prison system as they seem.  

Rowan’s latest exhibition A Common Thread is open until March 4 by appointment only. Through co-weaving sessions and public conversations, the project brings together artists, activists, and community members—particularly those who have been personally affected by the criminal legal system—to fundamentally rethink how society thinks of crime and punishment while exploring art-making as a system of care and healing. Find more information, and reserve tickets for studio visits and co-weaving sessions online. The exhibition will also be accompanied by a series of virtual events, one-on-one conversations between Rowan and practitioners of transformative justice. Register for Rowan’s upcoming virtual event in conversation with YaliniDream here

Check out Rowan’s website and instagram!

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