Amanda Chestnut: Exploring Racial Identity Through Artist’s Books

Amanda Chestnut: Exploring Racial Identity Through Artist’s Books

Growing up out side of Binghamton, New York afforded me a bucolic, nonpareil childhood that combined a rigorous academic environment with a loving and supportive community. Largely sheltered from cultural strife, these seemingly unobtainable ideals are part of my motivation in asking difficult questions through my artwork.

Why do you have to make everything about race? installed at Visual Studies Workshop, Rochester, New York, January-February, 2015
Why do you have to make everything about race? installed at Visual Studies Workshop, Rochester, New York, January-February, 2015

Why can’t life be perfect? Where does this historic burden come from, and do we all carry it, even if only some of us actively choose to? In earning an MFA in visual studies from Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester, New York, I developed the ability to ask these questions through my artwork. Experiences at VSW formed who I am as an artist today.

from The Frederick Douglass Archive Project, in collaboration with Rare Books and Special Collections at the University of Rochester, Rochester, NY, 2013
from The Frederick Douglass Archive Project, in collaboration with Rare Books and Special Collections at the University of Rochester, Rochester, NY, 2013

I have been making photographs for 20 years, and had entered VSW with the intension of continuing to do so. I left VSW making books, instillations, and writing poetry. At VSW I learned to look to artists like Elizabeth Tonnard and Claudia Rankine for inspiration, as they deftly walk the line between literature and image art while exploring political ideas. The late artist and exhibitions guru Rick Hock would often ask us, “Why photographs?” He emphasized the necessity of choosing an appropriate medium for all works. Rick’s influence encouraged me in my explorations of poetry, bookmaking, and alternative mediums (like hair).

Actress Mae Johnson and Athlete Jesse Owens, in the folder "African Americans/Civil Rights/Jesse Owens," Part of the Soibelman Collection of Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester, New York, 2013
Actress Mae Johnson and Athlete Jesse Owens, in the folder “African Americans/Civil Rights/Jesse Owens,” Part of the Soibelman Collection of Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester, New York, 2013

Through VSW I was able to speak with artist Carla Williams, who validated my efforts in finding my voice as an artist of color. Finding this voice and using it well is a continual thought for me; I find Langston Hughes’ essay The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain from 1926 to be an interesting exploration of what it is to be an artist of color in America.

Since graduating a year ago in 2015, I’ve had residency opportunities at the Center for Photography at Woodstock in Woodstock, New York, and at the Genesee Center for Arts and Education, where I am currently in residence in Printing and Book Arts.

Cyanotype Book 4 was made during my time at Woodstock. The materials were in large part a felicitous combination of available materials and a printer that was insistent on not working. While waiting for technology to cooperate, I explored the cyanotypes, eventually compiling them into four unique yet similar books. My hair has been a continuing theme in my work because it has been a continuing theme in my life, as it is for many women of color. I spent many years allowing myself to be defined by my hair. This single feature, more than any other part of my body, has been used by others to measure how black I am, how white I am, how smart I am, how much money I have, and how much I am worth as an individual. While I know this is a societal/cultural burden that I do not have to make my own, I can’t help but explore why hair means so much.

I often ask myself, “How do I quantify hurt?” I wonder if the struggles that my my parents faced as an interracial couple, the brutality faced by my father because of the color of his skin, and the atrocities that were committed upon his ancestors all reside in me somewhere.

Through my books I have learned that my personal history is a shared history. I’ve been approached by many people with statements of solidarity. While many of the experiences that drive my work are deeply personal and often private in nature, in sharing them I’ve learned I’m not alone. This gives me strength to continue carrying this historical burden.

Upcoming shows and classes, current projects, and cat photos can be found on Instagram @blk_amanda.

Stop by Main Street Arts to see her artwork in our current exhibition, Ink and Paper (runs through Friday, March 25).

Recent Posts

Laura Bianco-Martinez

I am a landscape painter living in the Hudson Valley of New York working primarily in pastels and encaustics. After a career as an art educator I know focus on

Read More »

Elizabeth Caputo

Pictured: Elizabeth in her studio I had a friend a couple of Christmas’s ago take me aside to say “I really like your paintings, but your sculptures are just better”.

Read More »

Mark Lavatelli

In 1976, after studying and teaching art history, I decided to focus on the creation and study of paintings. In graduate school in New Mexico I encountered an area of

Read More »

Rachael Gootnick

I have loved books, and art, ever since I was a child, but I never could have imagined I’d end up here, living my life as a book artist. Life

Read More »

Molly Uravitch

Originally from the Washington DC area I have now settled in Sioux Falls, SD where I teach and run the ceramics facility at Augustana University. I hold a MFA in Ceramics

Read More »

Chihiro Makio

I was born and raised in Japan, and decided that I would rather attend an art school in the states than in Japan. Creating something has always been my passion

Read More »

Laura Bianco-Martinez

I am a landscape painter living in the Hudson Valley of New York working primarily in pastels and encaustics. After a career as an art educator I know focus on

Read More »

Elizabeth Caputo

Pictured: Elizabeth in her studio I had a friend a couple of Christmas’s ago take me aside to say “I really like your paintings, but your sculptures are just better”.

Read More »

Mark Lavatelli

In 1976, after studying and teaching art history, I decided to focus on the creation and study of paintings. In graduate school in New Mexico I encountered an area of

Read More »

Rachael Gootnick

I have loved books, and art, ever since I was a child, but I never could have imagined I’d end up here, living my life as a book artist. Life

Read More »

Molly Uravitch

Originally from the Washington DC area I have now settled in Sioux Falls, SD where I teach and run the ceramics facility at Augustana University. I hold a MFA in Ceramics

Read More »

Chihiro Makio

I was born and raised in Japan, and decided that I would rather attend an art school in the states than in Japan. Creating something has always been my passion

Read More »

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Closed 2/22 through 3/1:

We will be closed to the public Thursday, February 22–Friday, March 1 as we install our next exhibition, Path of Totality. Please join us for the opening reception on Saturday, March 2 from 3 to 6pm!

Closed 7/28 through 8/3:

We will be closed to the public Friday, July 28 through Thursday, August 4 as we install our next exhibition, Inspired By Nature. Please join us for the opening reception on Friday, August 4 from 5 to 8pm!