The Surprising Vision of Artist Faith Ringgold

Legendary artist Faith Ringgold began her career in 1963 — the same year as the March on Washington. She talks to guest host Celeste Headlee about her life, work and why no one originally wanted to hear her story.

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CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

And it's time now for our Wisdom Watch segment. That's when we speak to those who've made a difference through their work and their lives. Today, we go back to 1963 when the fight over civil rights in America was nearing its boiling point. It was also the year that legendary artist Faith Ringgold began her series "The American People." It's a harrowing depiction of American life painted with bold colors and striking lines and absolute honesty. That series alone could have made a career. But Faith Ringgold went on to create other things - quilts, sculptures, books, maybe even now some digital apps. I spoke with Faith Ringgold earlier this year, and she told me how her neighborhood, Harlem in New York City, influenced her artwork.

FAITH RINGGOLD: Well, everybody looked beautiful all the time. I can recall that nobody ever went out the door that wasn't dressed nicely, even though it was the depression. I particularly remember on Sunday, the day we all went to church, if you didn't have it together, you kind of stayed in the house. But of course, in my family, we always had it together.

HEADLEE: Many people think of the art world as, you know, very liberal, open, accepting, but the Art World - capital A, capital W - can sometimes be quite the opposite. I wonder if it was complicated for you - by your choice of not only materials, but subject matter. You were very proud to mix things which were thought of as craft materials, that you were so famous for turning the quilt into high art. Your very first story quilt, for example, was "Who's Afraid of Aunt Jemima?" which is, you know, an advertising icon for syrup. Did that also complicate your relationship with the sort of elitist art world?

RINGGOLD: I would say no. I thought there was going to be a problem. And the reason why I began making quilts is because I wrote my autobiography in 1980 and couldn't get it published because I wanted to tell my story and my story didn't appear to be appropriate for African-American women. That's what I think, and that really made me so angry.

HEADLEE: Why? What was it about your story that wasn't appropriate?

RINGGOLD: Well, you know, I didn't have that knock-down, drag-out, black woman story. That was what was being published at that time. My story was about growing up in Harlem and becoming an artist, getting married, having two children and continuing my struggle to be an artist. It wasn't that typical bad-luck story. But it was a story of struggle to be.

HEADLEE: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with the legendary artist Faith Ringgold about her life and career. You know, one of the things about your art is that you didn't end up just telling your story. It almost feels to me as though you were retelling all of our stories.

I mean, you wanted to recapture - even going back to your first quilt, "Who's Afraid of Aunt Jemima?" you took ownership of that story. You gave her a new storyline as opposed to the one that was stereotyped for her - the assumed story that everyone thought when they looked at that picture on the syrup bottle. To what extent does art have to have a story or a message? I mean, you've gone so far - you've been arrested for your political views. You have always stood on the side of activism and voicing your opinion. Is that a necessary requirement for an artist?

RINGGOLD: Not necessarily. It's whatever your story is, whatever you need in order to live in the world and be a part of it. If it's just colors - there are very many artists who just want to paint colors. That's fine. I couldn't do that. I have something else I want to make my story about. And I need the freedom to do that. And I have the freedom to do that. Of course, it's been difficult. The work that I did in the '60s, from '63 to '67, comprised my first exhibition. And that's the work that kept me out of everything.

HEADLEE: What do you mean it kept you out of everything?

RINGGOLD: Well, it kept me from advancing as an artist. The struggle was on. People didn't like that work. They didn't want to see it. They were not accepting of it. That work has not been shown since the '60s. It got shown again in 2010. So what's that? Almost 50 years. But I kept working, and I kept telling my story in different ways.

HEADLEE: What was in these paintings that you think people objected to?

RINGGOLD: I think they were a little bit too bold in that I was showing the relationship between black and white people, the struggle for independence and freedom that black people were pursuing during the civil rights era. It was just a little bit too damn much going on. The struggle was one thing when you talk about it, another thing when you picture it. I wanted people also to look at that work and see themselves. Whichever part you were playing, this is what's going on. This is what I'm seeing. I want you to see what I'm seeing. And I think it was a little bit too much. In fact, I was told that many times - just a little bit too damn much. Pardon the expression.

HEADLEE: We know a lot about what has changed in the past half century. I wonder what has not changed that you expected to be different by now.

RINGGOLD: My expectations were not all that much. I don't think I was sitting around expecting. What has not changed is people are still doing whatever they think they can get away with. I think there's still a lot of advancement for people, generally speaking, to learn to let other people live in the world with freedom. So that might be a continuing struggle. As long as people are different and they can find a way to classify a group and oppress them accordingly, I think people pretty much will do it, if you understand what I mean.

HEADLEE: I do, sadly. One of our producers noticed on your Twitter feed that you are looking for a Sudoku game developer for something that you called Quiltuduko.

RINGGOLD: Yes.

HEADLEE: Can you explain to me what that is that you're working on?

RINGGOLD: Well, Sudoku is nine numbers.

HEADLEE: Right, in the boxes.

RINGGOLD: And so I like it 'cause, you know, it's good for my brain.

HEADLEE: I think your brain is doing just fine.

RINGGOLD: I like to feel I'm 22, OK. So I developed this aspect called Quiltuduko, which I named it. And instead of just numbers, I do nine colors with nine images with the same rules, right? And you end up with quite a nice abstract art piece. This is new, and I'm excited, very excited.

HEADLEE: I mean, it's no surprise to me that you'd be interested in something like this that kind of brings a new form of artwork to...

RINGGOLD: ...Yes

HEADLEE: ...Everybody. I mean, you've been involved in teaching your whole life.

RINGGOLD: That's true.

HEADLEE: And I wonder if we could just take a moment and picture a little girl listening to our conversation right now. Somewhere in the back seat of her car or her parents have the radio on, she's listening to us talking. She loves to draw. She loves art, and she wants to grow up to be an artist someday.

RINGGOLD: All right.

HEADLEE: What advice do you give her?

RINGGOLD: Do it. Children are so talented. Little children, until about the age of 10 or 11, are just little artists. They need to be given the time and the space and the materials to do their work. That's all they need. However, when they get a little older, they start picking themselves apart and deciding that, well, you know, maybe I'm not as good as I think I am. But when they're very little, from the time they come into the world practically, they're little artists. And they just need to be given the opportunity, the time, the place, the materials to do their work. So go for it.

HEADLEE: Legendary artist Faith Ringgold. She joined us from our New York bureau. Thank you so much.

RINGGOLD: Oh, this has been great. Thank you.

HEADLEE: And that's our program for today. I'm Celeste Headlee. You've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. And we'll talk more tomorrow.

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