“ The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people. ”
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Thirteen paintings, to date. Each one is different, unique in fact, but they are all similar. Abstract portraiture. My words; however an art expert might define Daisy Rockwell’s Precarious Lives Project differently. Perhaps figurative portraiture would be a more accurate description, but to quibble about where they should be classified would be to miss the point.
Because the paintings all have something else in common. They are all artistic depictions of people, specifically women. Dead women. Women who led precarious lives and who met death while incarcerated and alone. And now, invisible women.
When a person’s life – and their death – passes largely unnoticed they become essentially invisible. And save for the commemorative effect of these paintings, these were women who, because of their circumstances, became inconsequential to the world at large.
Each portrait serves both as a poignant memorial and a stark reminder that a Hobbesian stratum continues to exist as a foul underlayer of what we believe is civilization. No matter how far we think we’ve advanced societies in four-hundred years, for some unfortunates still today, Thomas Hobbes’ dictum remains in force. For these people, life is indeed: ‘….solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’.
When a person’s life – and their death – passes largely unnoticed they become essentially invisible.
When I saw the actual paintings of the Precarious Lives Project for the first time and read the attending narrative, I was reminded of an aphorism that was bandied about a lot back when I worked in the newspaper business. Afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. I haven’t heard it much lately – perhaps because I move in different circles these days – but it used to be worn as a badge of honour in newsrooms.
The paintings have that quality about them, an almost indefinable je ne sais quoi that can induce frisson in viewers, if they take the time to absorb each work – image and narrative – in its entirety. And for those who do get it, that was the artist’s intent. The paintings are meant to make a statement; to afflict the comfortable and, if not actually able to comfort the afflicted – they are dead and beyond comforting – to provide some means of comfort for their families.
Daisy Rockwell paints under the alias of Lapata. Her evocative paintings were no longer on display on the walls of the Brown Cow Café in Bennington, Vermont when I met with her there in September, 2016 to find out more about the project. I had seen the exhibit during a trip to Vermont earlier in the summer. This is not an uncommon thing there as restaurants in the area frequently feature the work of artists and photographers for sale, changing the displays every month or so.
These paintings, however, were not for sale at the time I first saw them and Daisy explained why as we sat at a glass-topped table outside the restaurant in the growing warmth of the late-morning sun.
“My hope in the future would be to show them all together and auction them as a benefit for their families…”
I had taken down her contact information when I had seen the art exhibit during the summer and we had exchanged several e-mails to arrange this meet. She arrived on time, poised, relaxed and smiling, with coffee in hand. She radiated focused intelligence and self-confidence and was friendly, open and forthright. When she spoke about herself she was light-heartedly self-effacing, but she conveyed a quiet intensity of purpose when it came to the subject of her project.
“My ongoing goal is to get the physical work exhibited more widely and I have not put them up for sale because I would like any proceeds to go to the families of the victims.”
A section on her website further states her intent in this regard.
“My hope in the future would be to show them all together and auction them as a benefit for their families, many of whom have difficult legal battles ahead, as they try to learn what happened to make their daughters, or their mothers, or their sisters take their own lives in police custody, or die suddenly when no medical attention was proffered.”
Daisy Rockwell’s own story and artistic trajectory is an interesting one. She grew up in a family of artists in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, graduated with a doctorate in literature from the University of Chicago and then pursued a career in academia at Loyola University and the University of California, Berkeley. She had grown up painting and continued to paint through her undergraduate years of college, but stopped when she went to graduate school. Four years ago she moved back to New England and now lives in Bennington, where she has taken up her art again. She laughed when she spoke about this transition back to her artistic roots.
“When I was in academia I was really committed to the notion of career goals and career benchmarks. But I was unhappy and ultimately didn’t feel that I could write in the way that you’re asked to write because I am more of a creative person, so since then my goal has been anti-careerist. Now I do what I think is right and what strikes me and I pursue each thing purely in terms of what inspires me, and what I wish to do.”
“Art is a bunch of accidents.”
I asked her if she had any particular influences, in terms of shaping her work as a painter of fine art.
“Well, not on purpose. But, you know that sometimes you feel that things can come out that you didn’t realize were coming out. Art just happens and sometimes you have an intention that doesn’t come out at all but something else comes out. For example, I was painting something that I imagined would turn out looking something like a Mughal miniature and instead it reminded me of Gauguin. To you it may not look like either of these things. You don’t really know what will happen. Art is a bunch of accidents. My father always says that. He says that art is the accidents that happen when we start to create something.”
Her preferences in art cover a wide-ranging spectrum of artists past and present. She also cited Vincent van Gogh, Hieronymus Bosch, the British graffiti artist Banksy and California-based Camille Rose Garcia as other people whose work she admires. She expanded on Garcia’s style and linked it loosely to her own work.
“She does these kind of weird psychedelic canvases. They are enormous and they have lots of glitter on them and she has huge amounts of text to accompany them. I think that sometimes what influence means is that as a teacher it is somebody who gives you permission to what was in your head already, and so she, I think she sort of gave me permission to put glitter on my paintings and also to use text with the paintings because it’s very important to me now that the text is included. The text and the image are mutually illustrative to me. So it’s not just that I made a picture and I’m giving it a title, the text is also an illustration of what I’m trying to say.”
Daisy Rockwell’s motivation for initiating the Precarious Lives Project is well-defined on her website, but, sitting across from her at the café table in Bennington, I got a deeper sense of her commitment as she spoke from the heart about the genesis of the project and what she hopes it will accomplish.
“Their lives were only scantily documented…”
“I had been carefully following all the stories coming out about police brutality and Black Lives Matter and the various men who had been shot and wrongfully killed while incarcerated, and then these other stories started bubbling up – I’m a bit of a news junkie – about women that mysteriously died, but there was no evidence that they had been shot or anything like that. They had just, for some reason that nobody knew, either committed suicide or were just dead in their cells. And so, I had read about three of them and I thought maybe I’ll make pictures of these three women and explore the issue.”
“But as I started to do research on it, there were just more and more and more and they just kept bubbling up every time – it was kind of a rabbit hole.”
What she found however was that although there was a report of a woman’s death, there was very little other information available about them and almost no imagery.
“I’ve done a lot of paintings of major politicians, dictators and such, and there are thousands of pictures of these people, millions of them, on the Internet. But for these women, there was hardly anything. Their lives were only scantily documented, with just blurry selfies and things like that.”
“I realized that this had a lot to do with stigma…”
“I would read as much as I could about their lives, but that tale was poorly documented and I realized that this had a lot to do with stigma, because they were incarcerated, or under arrest, so the families weren’t releasing it. You know that a lot of times if an ordinary person wrongfully dies then you’ll get all of these hagiographies, little biographical accounts of their lives. Like the most wonderful football player in the world, or wonderful mother, and most often these stories are about white people and not African Americans because I think in our public discourse a black person who is suddenly found dead in prison is presumed to have done something wrong already and there is a sense of shame, even from the family as to why she was there even if there wasn’t any good reason, whereas if it was a white person, you know, it was considered tragic and it has to be documented and fought against. “
Daisy was also emphatic about where she saw herself within the societal matrix, and how her own status relates to the project. This narrative is covered on her website, but she elaborated on it during the interview.
“Sandra Bland was pulled over for an invalid traffic-related reason…”
“It’s partly about my own privileged position too. A lot of these women were brought in on traffic incidents, really minor traffic incidents. And I’ve been pulled over a handful of times in my life and most of the time the police officer acts like he made a mistake. You know, when he sees me, it’s like, Oh!, this isn’t a big thing. It’s like the whole thing is off when he looks in the window, that I’m not the sort of person who he needs to have any business with. He’ll give me a warning or something like that. Maybe once I got a speeding ticket, but it was all very cordial. We really didn’t mean to get you. It’s the kind thing that I’ve always gotten.”
“And so, I’ve always thought just how much that level of privilege is understood by realizing that Sandra Bland was pulled over for an invalid traffic-related reason and then they got into a heated discussion and he very roughly restrained her and took her and locked her up for several days, setting a bail that was too high.”
“I also started to feel an urge to memorialize them.”
“I think that when you think about issues of discrimination you also have to think about your own position within that conversation, like what would happen to me and who am I in this. That was part of what I wanted to discuss with it. What do I have that they don’t and what has my experience been that theirs hasn’t been?”
“Beyond that, as I began to do the project I realized how scantily that their lives had been documented. I kept expecting to see quotations, small pieces that would say something like: she was a wonderful mother, or that sort of thing you usually see when people are wrongfully killed in some way and I didn’t, so I also started to feel an urge to memorialize them.”
The paintings of the Precarious Lives Project are available for the world to see on the Internet and although a viewer there is able to quickly identify with the strong sense of social justice that the project carries and conveys, the individual e-images do not even come close to delivering the same visual impact as the paintings themselves. What is missing for me in the electronic versions is an intangible; an ethereal, haunting quality that seemed to hover around the surface of the physical portraiture.
That poignant, evocative effect was ineluctably present in the original work, even though, as fine art goes, the paintings are quite small.
The portrait of Sheneque Proctor, for example, is a five inch by five inch acrylic on wood panel. Sheneque was an 18-year-old woman from Bessemer, Alabama, who was arrested for disorderly conduct and resisting arrest and was found dead in her jail cell in November of 2014. I could not help internalizing the Proctor family’s anguish and loss when I saw Lapata’s miniature memorial to this young life cut short.
One painting that is now on the project’s Internet page, but that I didn’t remember seeing at the summer exhibit, is a four inch by twelve inch acrylic on canvas of a young woman named Natasha McKenna. She was killed after being tasered four times by police at Fairfax County Jail in Virginia in February of 2015. Reading the stark detail of how this came about, why it happened, and the aftermath, had me shaking my head in disgust. It also caused me to again question the current mindset, methods and practices of policing generally, as it also reminded me of the senseless death of Robert Dziekański in British Columbia in 2007 by RCMP taser.
This provocation or stimulation of critical thought seems to be what Daisy Rockwell had in mind when she created these works.
““I think that one goal of my political work is to get people asking questions, not to send a specific message but to make people open their minds and ask questions. As with my work on the war on terror, I wanted people to trouble their assumptions and move around their ideas a little bit, because I just feel like a lot of our public discourse gets ossified into certain sound bites. So I’d like to open these clichés and repetitive words up and give people a chance to think about their ideas and think about bigger issues that affect us all.”
Protest art takes many forms and is a medium frequently used for pushback against atrocity, inequity and wrongdoing and speaking truth to power. One of the best-known examples in the realm of fine art is Picasso’s Guernica. Painted in 1937, it helped raise world awareness about the Spanish Civil War and brought in funds for war relief. More recently, New York artist Susan Crile protested the torture and abuse that was exposed in 2004 of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq by American military and CIA personnel, through her visual work.
“I am just focusing on my own country.”
In a similar vein, Daisy Rockwell has centred out offenses against humanity that are happening (figuratively) in her own back yard through this distinctive form of artistic self-expression. She has honed her Precarious Lives Project into a sharp-edged object for peeling back the thin layer of veneer that covers what we regard as civilization, to expose the decay beneath. Would that people in a position to help cut out and scrape away this rot take notice.
She reflected a bit and then spoke forthrightly when I asked about the geographic scope of the project.
“I am just focusing on my own country. I have written and painted about different parts of the world, but I felt like this is technically an American, meaning United States, problem. I am sure there are similar things elsewhere. I have read about the native women in Canada, for example. And I feel like that’s another story, which I might be interested in exploring, but you also have to be honest and confront the problems in your own environment. You can’t just write about other people having a lot of problems and I think at this point in our country there are a lot of ugly things bubbling up to the surface that need to be addressed.”
For Canadians reading this, it would be easy to be smug and say that this sort of thing doesn’t happen here. But that would be wrong. When it comes to deaths attributable to questionable legislative policy, failed policing practices and apathy, indifference or outright abuse within the legal and correctional systems, Canada has its own wall of shame. The names Ashley Smith, Breanna Kannick, Veronica Park, Terry Baker, Jocelyn George and Robert Dziekańsky are only a few from there that come to mind.
Daisy Rockwell’s Precarious Lives Project aptly serves as a wake-up call to everyone that this kind of social imbalance and injustice is not restricted by borders. REG
Links for additional information: