Queering the Kudzu: Richard Jonathon Nelson on Plants, Roots, and Colonialism

Richard Jonathan Nelson, "Border", 2018

Hop into our car to East Oakland where we’ll meet textile artist Richard Jonathan Nelson at his friend and fellow artist Jamee Crusan’s place. Richard talks about being a black, queer man in the US, how his mother and aunts encouraged him to make textile art as a child and how language plays an important role in his life. What’s a hand baby and who brought the Kudzu? Richard tells us all.

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Check out Jamee Crusan, artist and good friend of Richard Jonathan Nelson. Her work Black and Blue/Lack and Lure is our Beautiful Online Thing of the week!

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Transcription of Richard's interview



RN: Richard Jonathon Nelson

SV: Svea Vikander

JB: Jozefien Buydens


RN: I was originally introduced to making from my grandmother and my mother. I come from a long line of seamstresses in the deep South. And so when they were sewing for other people to make clothes and different items they would give me fabric to make toys. I would make weird technicolour animals. It was a mixture of this soft sculpture queerness that was inherent in me, and then the masculinity of being a boy. So, I would take like transformers but then make them these fantasy playhouses for technicolour animals. And so inside this rigid structure of what it meant to be a boy, I would have these fantasy worlds that were very much about magic and light and just happiness.

SV: Did anybody else make any textile toys for you?

RN: They would show me how to make practical things or things that I would want. So if I wanted a new shirt they would show me how to make a new shirt. Or if I just wanted to make something weird like, cushions or just like, a weird, fifty foot scarf, they would be like, I'll show you how to do it and just…Go! Just do whatever you want. We're not gonna constrain you or say what you need to make or if it has to be functional. If you wanna mix colours and play around just play with materials, yeah. And so I would go with them to fabric stores often, every weekend, and just browse the colours and mix and match and play. That wonder of an overwhelming textile sensation, just being a child and running your hand over all the fabrics, associating colour with a physical object.

JB: And so, you were doing that as a kid. And you, then you decided to go to art school, after that? And to keep on doing the same thing?

RN: I started with that. And then when I got to high school there were a few textile courses. And so I took the textile courses where I was introduced to weaving and basket making. And painting on silk. And I was like, “Oh, this is interesting.” But I didn't really think anything of it at the moment. So I put it away and I pursued a more classical idea of what it meant to have an art career. So I was going to school for graphic design and very traditional things.

SV: What kind of high school did you go to, that had weaving and basket making?!

JB: Yeah that sounds amazing—

SV: I mean, my high school had, like [nasal voice] "sewing class.”

RN: It wasn't the normal-normal high school. It—funny thing was, it was the high school my mother went to for integration, that she was bussed into. So decades before she went to the same high school, which was in the “better” part of town, the whiter part of town. And she went there and then later in life when she married my father they moved to that part of town and I ended up going to school there. So it was an interesting neighbourhood to be in a, what is historically a very white, affluent part of the city, and there were horse ranches near it, and there were a golf course near it, we had a golf team. It... It was interesting to be in a place that was this sort of unwelcoming and had to be opened up by my mother. And to then be in the legacy of that.

And then to sort of see this growing integration that was happening there. And so it, we were afforded these opportunities because we were in this more affluent part of town but still being the minority and the outlier and the new thing? Because there were, I want to say, four black families in my entire neighbourhood. But there was a good Black population in the school. But they lived on the opposite side of the, like, dividing line near there. But yeah.

But being there did, it offered opportunities of like textiles, that was very much how I was able to get to college. Because I was a first generation college student. I'm the first one to get a MA or any sort of higher education in my family. And just, the people that supported me. Who I still speak to. Who, like, my mom shows my diploma to. Like, "He made it.”

I moved to Atlanta and was taking a tour of the campus and found out they had a textile lab. And just like, "You know what? This seems interesting. I'll take this. I have a love of textiles. I've always wanted to know how they're actually made." Because I’d only been, at that point, I was only engaging with textiles as a finished product from someone else. And so to see all the equipment and the dyes and the processes, and from there it started.

JB: Were you doling weaving and embroidery and stuff?

RN: I was doing weaving and traditional Japanese dying and digital printing on silk. And so it's all just been a mixing and matching of different techniques and layering. Thinking, "What would happen if I mixed this together with this?" Very much, I am about mixing two disparate things together. It does connect back to my childhood of taking, like, "How do you take an idea of who you are and fit it into a larger structure that's been before you? And how do you change that structure and how do you transform it?" Because textiles allow you that freedom.


RN: It has been a very strange path, that I have been working in traditoanlly male fields that are very masculine. Every time that I've had to take a break off from college. So at that time I was working in the sheriff's department at the court house. So, working with police officers. And so there is, that is a...whole other thing that I want to explore in my work. Of being in that relationship to police officers. My dad is originally a police officer. And that sort of relationship to the Black male body and law enforcement. So I went to that and I was working in the court house for a while.

And then I went to Atlanta and I went to school and then in 2011 I graduated and then started unloading trucks for grocery stores and for fabric stores. And so it was this very physical masculine environment of [chuckle] being very much my queer outgoing self on loading docks. Which was interesting to see the interpretation and the acceptance of that. And being in the deep South and going, "Huh, this is interesting, that, that you can slowly ingratiate people to you and expand their knowledge." And sort of talk to them about what it means and about who you actually are. And these sort of misconceptions of identity. But I was there since 2011 to 2015, for four years?

SV: Wow, that's a real public service.

RN: Yup. Just talkin' to the guys!


RN: And so I wanted to find a place that I could actually talk to people and learn and have these discussions about what it meant to make work about my life and my identity. And so that brought me to the Bay Area.

JB: Did you know somebody here? Or did you just decide,

RN: I'm just going!

JB: Wow!

RN: And it's that interesting thing, I recently did my DNA. And to realise that we've stayed so long and that we've been in the Lowcountry so long that it can actually locate me there. And so, so many generations of my family are there. And it's interesting to go back to my grandmother's hometown in South Carolina and to see people who look like me. And it's weird to walk into a  church and go, Everyone looks like me and it’s…very odd.

SV: Oh my gosh, wow.

RN: But I wanted to branch out. And that is a conversation I had with my family and my mother, and just about like, “You've gone farther than any of us ever have. And you’ve," yeah. And it's, it's very much...It's about, it's about them in a sense. It's about wanting to do this, to instil pride in them and then feel pride from them that I've done this. So yeah.

SV: Sounds like you come from such a loving family.

RN: I realise it every day.

JB: Do you go back?

RN: Not been back since 2015.

JB: No?

RN: They came for my graduation but I have not been back since then. I do want to go back. And experience it, and, and just have all the fun conversations and the language. And the way of talking, and... My grandmother is Gullah. And she speaks Gullah and she can speak in a very fast sort of patios, and it's interesting that I have to slow myself down when I'm in the Bay Area. Which is very much a disconnect when people think of the deep South. And I do kind of miss those turns of phrase and those languages. And that is something that I realise more and more in my work. Some of the things I say and the way I word things, is a hearkening back to that language and culture.

SV: Can you give an example?

RN: Like, hand baby.

SV: Hand baby? What's a hand baby?

RN: Hand baby or knee baby, a baby that you're able to carry in your hands

SV: Like, a babe in arms, we might say?

RN: Mmhmm, and a knee baby is like a child, a toddler, one you would keep on your knee. There are like interesting things that pop up.

JB: Beautiful words.

SV: So it's been three years, what's stopped you from going back?

RN: Money. Keeping housing in the Bay Area and money and just being able to afford rent and fly back and fly back. One day I'll be able to go back and see them.

SV: Hopefully soon

RN: Yeah. After I graduated from my BFA—we have family that splits. Because South Carolina and Georgia are so close together, just separated by a river. We have my mother's side of the family on the South Carolina side and my father's family on the Georgia side. I had never been fully introduced to my Southern Carolina side. So we went back, and actually went to the plantation of where our family comes from.

And it's on an island. And it's very interesting to be in a place and to know, this is where my family first came here. This is where they've been. And to see how they live so very close to it, to that town and to that island. And also, sort of remnants. Like the house is gone. The plantation house is completely gone. The land was sold. It is now a protected bird reserve. But the owner, because his wife loved ibises brought them there. So there's supposed to be a lake in the middle of it that has birds that aren't natural to Georgia. And so I want to see that.

And that is, that was like a connection to the work I was making at the beginning of the year, about plants and the Black body, and these constructed narratives. Realising that what I think of the South and what I think of that space, isn't actually? That there is this sort of layers of like, colonialism and the natural landscape and then like, a Japanese revival, so there is this sort of…masses of kudzu and bamboo, and like, mulberry trees. And wisteria. And that was a weird sort of realisation. That what I think, because I've grown up there my entire life, of this place as being, is really just multiple layers of influence and manipulation by outside cultures. And so that is something that I'm just like, “Wait, where is this? Like, I want to see this.” And I want to see how the land has changed. But then the land is also ingrained in me. Because my family's been there.


RN: I've only really had a studio for the last two years, since I came to the Bay Area. Like the idea of an artist studio, is very much a new concept to me. Because I come from people who have made stuff on a kitchen table their entire lives. And so I'm just like, “What would that mean?”

JB: So you don't have a studio space now, except for your bedroom?

RN: Yes. I was bouncing from residency to residency. After I graduated I went to the Headlands for a year and then after the Headlands ended I went back to CCA as an alumni in residence for a couple of months. I was making work there in the gallery. And that was an interesting experience: to be in a glass box making work about Black rage and Black emotion and sort of performing your identity for the white space, while being in the white cube? And being on full view.

I was doing drag makeup there. Making yourself over in an artificial image in like full glass panes throughout the day, and having people walk by and look at you, and see you in, like, different states of vulnerability. Like, to be putting on padding and to be lacing myself up in a corset and to be putting on makeup and trying on wigs or teasing out a wig, was a very generative experience. This, I should pursue this more, and see where this can take me.

SV: What would be an ideal studio space for you?

RN: For me, someplace where I could set up multiple looms. I've also been doing this series of performing humanity photos. They are these multi-layered sets I'm creating with flowers and textiles and physical objects and me in makeup and digital prints. And it would be nice to have a space that I could set all this up and take these sort of durational photos and durational video that I don't have to take down because the makeup is so intensive.

There is, I...Like I could do these sort of like high artificial alien transformative makeup but then what would that mean to get on BART after doing it? And sort of take a very long BART ride, dressed like a multidimensional demon just sort of staring at somebody like, [sweet voice] "Just going to the studio" so I would like someplace close [laughter].

I don't know if I'm ready for that performance yet. To be like, “Well I've been on BART for a couple of stops and I'm just, oh God, I'm smearing blue all over everything!” [laughter] But I would like a space that has that sort of comfort to it. That I can be vulnerable and sort of change and turn into different things and do these very slow processes.


JB: I have maybe another question. You mentioned that you moved to the Bay Area because you wanted to be able to talk to people about being queer. And I’m wondering if you've found that here.

RN: I found a very intellectual, complex conversation around queerness and identity. And I'm very happy to find an older population of queer individuals. And to be able to see happiness and joy and that you can have long-lasting relationships and be who you are, to fully express who you are. Even though that does feel like it's disappearing from the Bay. There still are these holdouts and these people who are very much themselves and every expression of themselves and it's just like, "Oh my goodness, you've had this beautiful life.” And it has given me hope. And that has driven my work, to think about: what will I be like when I'm 80? Or like, how will I be in the world?