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Art and Soul: A Conversation with Howardena Pindell and Athena LaTocha

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From left, Athena LaTocha, Howardena Pindell and Sohl Lee.

The legacy of Howardena Pindell, a SUNY Distinguished Professor in Stony Brook University’s Department of Art, was honored at “Artists in Conversation,” a March 20 talk at the Staller Center, part of SBU’s Women’s History Month celebration.

Pindell is transitioning to the John S. Toll Professorship at Stony Brook after 43 years as a faculty member. The Toll professorship, which honors Stony Brook’s second president, provides an opportunity for tenured faculty to hold special post-retirement assignments, allowing the university to retain the important institutional experience and contributions of influential campus contributors.

“The impact of Howardena Pindell has been felt across this entire university and it’s especially fitting that we recognize these accomplishments during Women’s History Month,” said President Maurie McInnis, herself an art historian. “She is truly an artist who has made an indelible mark in our history beyond her seminal accomplishments as an artist.”

Pindell was joined by former student Athena LaTocha, an accomplished landscape artist who received her MFA from Stony Brook in 2007. The talk was moderated by Sohl Lee, an associate professor of art history in the Department of Art.

Mary Jo Bona, associate dean for faculty affairs in the College of Arts and Sciences, described Pindell as an “artist, mentor, distinguished professor, revolutionary survivor, museum curator and educator whose innovative art has transformed silence into artistry and action.”

“Through her art and action, Professor Pindell gave voice to an apartheid America bent on silencing black voices and voices of difference,” Bona added. “She has never hesitated to call out institutions and organizations for their discriminatory practices and racial bias.”

Lee asked the two artists about what inspired them to pursue art. Not surprisingly, both credited teachers with helping them find their path. Pindell described the importance of a third-grade teacher who urged her parents to encourage her.

“This teacher brought my parents in for a meeting and said ‘your daughter is very talented, you should take her to museums, art galleries, take her to meet artists,’” said Pindell. “Thankfully, my parents took her seriously. As a result of that teacher’s recommendations, I was taken to Saturday art classes. I was 8 years old, I was the youngest in the class and it was during the de facto segregation so the white kids didn’t really speak to me. It was a very lonely journey, but I didn’t feel it as lonely because I was drawn to the art.”

LaTocha, who grew up in Alaska, described a very different route.

“Contemporary art museums didn’t exist where I grew up,” she said. “There was the Anchorage Museum, which was about an hour away, and I had no idea it existed at all. So, I had no knowledge of contemporary modern art. It wasn’t until I was a sophomore in college when I took a studio art class and the professor there pulled me aside and asked if I was going to study art. I didn’t even know what that meant. But she helped me apply to art school, and I went to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago because I thought it would be a good place to explore the field.”

Pindell artists stagePindell described her experience growing up as a Black artist, and spoke of Free, White and 21, a film she made in 1979 after a car accident left her with partial memory loss. During her recovery, she set up a video camera in her apartment, focused it on herself, and made the film as an account of the racism she experienced coming of age as a Black woman in America. The film is currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

“When I first made the film, there were a lot of reactions to it,” said Pindell. “It was stolen from one exhibition by students in Ohio and it got some very uncomfortable reviews. And then all of a sudden it became iconic. And my painting just kept changing after that. After having that near-death experience, I wanted to have my work express what I felt and my view of the world.”

LaTocha similarly described a need to find herself as she entered Stony Brook.

“The work that I was making at the time explored how we constantly cycle through different periods of our lives questioning and pulling apart the foundations of everything that we think we believe in,” she said. “When I landed at Stony Brook, I was really questioning what it meant for me to be a person working with these ideas. Coming from Alaska and being a citizen of the Hunkpapa Lakota and Ojibwe tribe, I was grappling with a lot of social political issues. So, when I came into Stony Brook, I had to find a ‘language’ and I didn’t know where to start. I was basically pulling the plug on everything that I thought I believed in and wiping the slate clean.”

Reinforcing the influence of teachers and mentors, LaTocha credited Pindell as being instrumental in helping her choose Stony Brook.

“When I first met Professor Pindell, there was an ease and a comfort,” she said, noting the importance of maintaining relationships with mentors like Pindell.

“They’re the folks that are out there trailblazing, and they’re the folks that have laid the groundwork for us,” said LaTocha. “I’m grateful for all the conversations that I’ve had with everybody in the Stony Brook community.”

“This is the kind of engaged responsive instruction that Stony Brook relies on that teaches our students to connect with one another, with their mentors, and with the world around them,” added McInnis. “Because of people like Howardena Pindell, Stony Brook is a rigorous and dynamic institution that encourages our young artists to never stop pushing the limits of artistic expression.”

Robert Emproto

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