After a monthlong social media contest run by the Northwest African American Museum to select a local Black artist to represent Seattle in a docuseries, the museum announced the winner Monday: Seattle-based visual artist Lisa Myers Bulmash.
Seattle community members nominated over 40 local Black artists to participate in the contest and voted for their favorites on social media.
For the series, titled “The Story of Art in America,” Pierre Gervois, show creator and CEO and executive producer of Legit Productions, will visit 10 different U.S. cities with his team, highlighting artists and museums in each locale. Each episode features one city. The series currently has a release date of late 2021 or early 2022, on networks to be announced.
“I’m pretty floored honestly,” said Myers Bulmash, still giddy a few hours after hearing that she won.
A collage and assemblage artist, Myers Bulmash has lived in Seattle for 23 years and says her work is about making sure the stories and experiences of Black people are seen and heard, and showing the many connections between our past and present.
We caught up with Myers Bulmash to learn more about the artist, how she feels about representing Seattle, and her own “story of art.”
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you come to be doing the kind of work you’re doing?
I really started taking my work seriously sometime after Trayvon Martin was killed and then again after Tamir Rice was killed, because they were both very young. It’s hard to say which one hurt me more. The reason why was because I really started connecting these things to my own life. I have two sons — one just turned 16 and one is 12, which was the age that Tamir Rice was when he was shot. My husband and I used to joke that people who might hate us would have multiple reasons to hate our kids, because my husband is Jewish and I’m Black. Around 2012 and 2014, when Tamir was killed, was when it really settled into the pit of my stomach that my children were at risk just by being who they were. That got me thinking more seriously about the vulnerability of Black bodies. It got me thinking more seriously about my family history and genealogy and the stories that I’ve learned from that.
What is the purpose of art right now, when people are experiencing loss and trauma?
My reasons for making art especially in this time are primarily two things. One, to let people who look like me, people who have a history like me, people who are marginalized, know that they’re not alone, because for the last four years, it’s felt like that was about all we could do is say, “I’m still here. Are you still here? Yes, I’m still here.”
The other reason is partly representation. I don’t really think of me making work as part of a grand crusade to right the wrongs and uplift the downtrodden, but it’s important for people to be seen, to feel seen, to be heard, and a lot of the things I’m interested in showing in my work have to do with that. I also just want to throw a little of the unusual or magical into somebody’s life. The last four years, a lot of us have just been putting one foot in front of the other. As a kid, I was always really big on the idea of there being magic just around the corner.
How did little Lisa first get into art? What were the magical moments that made you believe that “magic was just around the corner”?
I remember asking for an oil painting kit for my birthday when I was a kid, maybe 12 years old. It was after I had gone through the encyclopedia — you know, those things we had before the internet — and just being wowed by Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci and so many others. I said, “Oh, I want to learn how to paint with oil paints!” My folks got me that for my birthday and I was really excited. I didn’t know a thing about it, so, of course, everything came out brownish gray. [Laughs.] So that was a big disappointment. But one of the things I love about collage is that even if I can’t draw like da Vinci, I can borrow his art to create something. I think I’m most excited when somebody connects with a piece of my work and wants to dig around and find more, wants to talk to me about some of the inspirations behind it or the processes I used. But mostly asking more about the images and why I use them.
How are you drawing those communication lines between past and present?
I pack a lot into my pieces. I have a friend who said this in the kindest way possible. She said, “Your work is sometimes too content-rich for the average bear.” That may be why most of my work is relatively intimately scaled as opposed to the big wall-sized paintings that you might see in a Mickalene Thomas painting. I think in most of my work I have a limited amount of time to reach the person who’s interested in it, and I’m probably talking about something they don’t really want to think about. So I need to get their attention, I need to hold it, and I need to sort of cut them off from everything else that might distract them in order to tell the story.
That’s a lot of pressure. [Laughs.]
Try being Black someday. [Laughs.] Look at the [artwork] “Bought and Paid For” — books that are mounted on antique washboards. With this triptych in particular I was thinking about a quote that’s been attributed to James Baldwin and Maya Angelou: “Your crown has been bought and paid for. Put it on and wear it.” When I was thinking about that quote, I was thinking about all the sacrifices and the difficult choices and the walking a tightrope that my parents and everybody before them have had to walk in order to get me where I am. [In the “Bought and Paid For” triptych], all of the altered books have a transparency image from my family archive of my brother running into the house we grew up in. I laid that image over various images of houses or things that aren’t anything like houses. The one on the far left is laid over a slave auction house, which obviously is not really a house. The center one is an altered version of the house my mother grew up in. The third one is the house that I started my family in.
This contest was pitched as: You will be representing “the soul and DNA of Black art in Seattle.” What does that mean to you? How do you feel about that?
When I saw that I was like, “Oh my god, you’ve got to be kidding me.” I’m not representing every last person, I’m not representing every last Black person, I’m not representing every last Black female artist. I’m not representing every last Black woman. It’s a lot to pack into one statement. So at first I was a little wary. Black people are not a monolith. I have to think about the DNA and soul of my Black art in Seattle.
And what is that?
One is, “Hey. Hey! HEY! We’re here! And we didn’t get here five minutes ago.” Partially representation. Partially trying to pull back and see how so many things that seem completely disconnected are actually connected either through history or art or perception. I actually had somebody say to me not too long ago that they liked my work but they didn’t understand why I was using old images to talk about contemporary issues. My response was, more or less, “Well, because all of those things are still happening, for one thing.”
What should people know about you and your work?
Some of the things I talk about are kind of hard to face, but I try to make work that allows people to face those things, yet still be able to live with my work. I guess my work is, um, living-room-friendly? [Laughs.] As for me, I’m just out here doing my thing and hoping I can convince some people to help me continue doing my thing.
Correction: This story has been updated. Due to incorrect information received by The Seattle Times, a previous version of this story contained erroneous information about the release date and network of the show.