Reclamation: Vicki Meek
On a cool gray morning, I visited artist Vicki Meek. In spite of the dreary weather, a cheery Meek greeted me and invited me in out of the rain. Behind the door that led to her studio and home, I discovered a space filled with curiously attractive and questionable objects, stuffed bookcases and an art collection that includes prints by Romare Bearden, Hale Woodruff, Alonzo Davis, David Bradford, Jacob Lawrence and Meek’s idol and mentor, Elizabeth Catlett. As I move from one print to another, she explained that these artists and their work have always been a part of her life.
One of five children , Meek grew up in Philadelphia along with two brothers (an architect and a jazz musician) and two sisters (a dancer and a singer). Her father, a university professor, and mother, an attorney, were political activists, as well as collectors and supporters of the arts. The Meeks encouraged and exposed their children to many of the culturally rich opportunities Philadelphia had to offer. And like her parents, Meek chose to collect art that reflects political issues, which expresses just some of the values instilled in her at an early age.
Meek’s childhood experiences with art influenced her decision to become a sculptor. As a sculptor, she enjoyed a three-dimensional approach to creating work until she came to realize the limitations the medium placed on her imagination. Not abandoning sculpture, she made the transition to installation which is today the principle motivator for her creative expression. At the time of my visit, she informed me that she is again in the process of reinventing her work. Performance will be a key element; dance, music and the spoken word will soon elevate her work to an interdisciplinary level.
Phillip Collins What made you decide to become an artist?
Vicki Meek I didn’t decide to become an artist, I was born an artist—or so my parents always told me. I was creating visual art, dancing and making doll clothes from a very young age. At eight, my parents enrolled me in the Fleischer Memorial Art School at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Instructors from various art schools in the area formed the faculty, so there was no “kiddie art” being made! We were taken quite seriously by our instructors and much was expected of us. I studied clay sculpture.
PC Could you summarize your education in studio art?
VM I graduated from high school with straight honors and matriculated at Rhode Island School of Design. I stayed at RISD for a year and then transferred to Tyler School of Fine Arts, because their sculpture program was much stronger than RISD’s. My professor at Tyler was Italo Scanga, who I adored and who encouraged me in ways I’m sure helped me stay on course.
PC What is your artistic philosophy?
VM Because Scanga had such a profound influence on me, my artistic philosophy grew largely out of my adaptation of some of his basic principles.
As a conceptual artist, he stressed the need for art to have a very strong concept. Even if you fancied yourself a representational artist, the idea behind the work needed to stand up to intense scrutiny. Consequently, I approach all my work with that idea in mind. I probably spend an inordinate amount of time thinking and researching ideas—sometimes as much as six months, so the actual execution of the work is often anti-climatic. In many ways, I am a conceptual artist because that is the part that excites me the most.
PC: What motivates you to create?
VM Life motivates me to create. What I see and experience informs everything I do. My work has always been a response to the world I live in and the issues I confront. Although I consider my work political, it is not about politics. It is about connecting with human concerns that affect all of us in a political world—understanding the basic human instincts that motivate empathy and sympathy, along with those that drive hatred and love.
PC What are you currently working on?
VM I am in a transitional period right now. After my last major installation in 2000, I began to question how I was communicating with my audience. I turned to installation in the early ’80s because I felt inadequate as a communicator working in one medium—sculpture. Now I find myself in the same place, looking for a better, more effective way to interact with my audience. So, I am working with several friends in the performance art world, transforming some of my key installations into performance works. I will incorporate many of my visual elements into these performances so the visual vocabulary will essentially be the same, but I want to introduce my body and the movements I create with it into that vocabulary.
PC Are there recurring, influential historical and/or cultural factors included in your work?
VM My work has always been about reclamation and memory and their impact on spiritual well-being. The use of traditional African iconography and philosophical thought is simply a part of reclamation. Cultural memory is essential to human growth, so I also focus on understanding African culture as a means of growing as a displaced African person.
PC Do you consider your work issue-oriented?
VM Not necessarily. I consider my work culturally based. I think everything an artist does involves certain issues. The question is, are they community issues or personal issues? I strive to connect with my audience in a communal dialogue, but what I’m addressing in my work is personally motivated. So, in some sense, one can say the work is about specific issues related to the African-American community, but in another sense, they are universal issues related to all humans.
PC What artists have influenced your art making process?
VM Specifically, Kathe Kollwitz, Elizabeth Catlett, Hale Woodruff, Romare Bearden, John Biggers and Jacob Lawrence. Generally,
I am influenced by all artists who find a way to discuss the human condition through their use of visual elements.
PC What influence has the Texas environment had on your work?
VM I think living in Texas has allowed me to broaden my perspective on the world. Growing up on the East Coast, one can easily assume everyone thinks like Yankees! All Yankees think the Northeast is the center of the universe and that all innovative thought originates there. I’ve lived in Texas for twenty-four years now, and in that time I have met some of the most innovative thinkers anywhere. More importantly, I’ve met people who don’t know the meaning of the phrase, “It can’t be done.” ARTL!ES is a testament to this fact!
PC What do you imagine the state of the arts will be in the next ten years?
VM I can’t imagine it. So much is changing so fast, I am in awe. Technology is forever changing the face of all areas, including the visual arts. If someone had told me twenty years ago that I’d be losing interest in creating objects, I’d have told them they were crazy. But the introduction of technology into my visual toolbox has me in that place today. Although I still get a certain kind of satisfaction from making a drawing, it doesn’t provide the total satisfaction it once did. I guess I’m like the Hip-Hop generation:
I want so much more!