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Interview with Elvira Clayton: Autobiography of the dead and unknown

Elvira Clayton with The House on Lela Street...photo by Moses Djeli

Texas-born artist Elvira Clayton lives and practices in Harlem, New York. Clayton’s work, multi-layered and multi-medium, might be reminiscent of elaborate Mexican or Haitian altars to the dead. The artist, however, has no formal ties to these cultures and hasn’t necessarily chosen them as sources for inspiration. Instead, her work seems to be homage to her own ancestors. As with altars, she often has a photo at the center of her work. Different from Mexican or Haitian altars, however, her pieces are generally contained in wooden boxes and are adorned with found materials that Clatyon collects obsessively, like hair beads, bottles, Barbie dolls and cowrie shells.

Her work first came to my attention at the home of the College Station-based collector and editor, Dr. Charles Rowell. He owns one of her early “mojo boxes.” The wooden boxes are painted entirely red, including their contents. To this writer they often seem like lovely baroque coffins or tombs, open-faced and standing, filled with objects that serve as symbols of someone’s life. Contrarily, Clayton says she thinks of the boxes as vessels of life or wombs. Odetta’s Folks, a mojo box which will be featured in her upcoming show, is filled with red painted burlap sacks.

“They look like body bags,” I said to her when we met this June in her studio.
“I think of them as pillows,” she said. “This particular work is about life.  I am not comfortable with ‘body bags’. That would never be a mindset for me when working in this genre.”  Little figures are lined like sentries around Odetta’s Folks, their heads and faces covered in burlap sacks.

Detail of The House on Lela Street...photo by Moses Djeli

Clayton moves beyond red in her most recent boxes, crowning them with  peaks so they resemble doll houses. The House on Lela Street, a mostly gold box, is an homage to a friend of Clayton’s who died recently and to his mother, who survives him. It contains a bead-adorned Barbie doll at a table and a picture of Clayton’s friend in a “room” below.  I asked if the doll was the mother and Clayton answered that it’s any woman. There is also a chest in the house filled with tiny little baby dolls.
“Dead babies?” I asked, “the babies that lived in the house?”
“No. I don’t know what they are.”
“How many kids lived in the house?”
“Nine,” she said.
“What if there were nine dead babies in that chest?” I asked.
“I would be surprised. I didn’t count them. I didn’t mean for them to represent the children in the house.” We counted them again and again to make sure. There were nine.

The interview took place in Elvira Clayton’s Harlem studio.
Tiphanie Yanique: I know your work often uses actual pictures of your ancestors; your mother and grandparents—Texas and Louisiana folk. Is there anything particular about your cultural roots that seems vital to your work?

Elvira Clayton: Because I am an artist who grew up in Texas, whose father was a Texan, my work and all that I am will always have that reference point. As artist, there is always that element of self-portrait in everything that we do. Besides, there is also that Texas Pride thing that all Texans have. We’re American, southern, but most importantly, we’re TEXANS!

TY: I’m thinking also of Herstory/Mystory, the community art project you did with your partner, artist Walford Williams, in conjunction with the Harlem Children’s Zone. All the student artists used a picture of someone and made it the centerpiece in a kind of ancestral box, in reference and reverence to their own roots.

EC: I talk about the girls looking within. I am inviting them to redirect their references from "outside" influences (images and messages from the mass media), and to seek positive inspiration and guidance from their own family and cultural history. I believe that it is extremely important to stay connected to our past, especially African-Americans. When you look at our history and our role in the development of America and the many new traditions that we created in order to survive and thrive, there is so much wonderment and inspiration there.

TY: In your own artwork, would you ever you ever use a photo of someone else’s ancestor?

EC: I’ve been asked. But I haven’t. I don’t know. It depends on who. But really it would feel like digging up a grave. It would be disrespectful.

TY: Do you ever use pictures of living people?

EC: My friends laugh because they take pictures of sunsets and I take pictures of homeless people. I use pictures of people I don’t know and won’t know again.

TY: But they might be dead.

EC: You’re right! I don’t know.

TY: Besides the photos themselves, what is Texan in your work?

EC: Because I am a native Texan and, as with any artist, my work is somewhat self reflective, the work will always have that sensibility.

TY: Your mojo boxes and life vessels are like little huts or cottages. Places where people, Barbie dolls for sure, could live. Now you live in Harlem but you’re from Houston. You’ve worked as a flight attendant for years, traveling all over. Where is home for you? What is home for you?

Mojo Box, 2006

EC: Home for me is about who I am. My story begins with my parents and their parents. Southeast Texas and southeast Louisiana. I live in New York and I love it. But when I speak of home I speak of Houston. I speak of that hot, muggy climate that I’ll always love, I speak of Tex-Mex, Texas barbeque. Opelousas, Louisiana, my mother’s birth place, boudin, gumbo and zydeco—all these elements are reflected in my work.

TY: Well, Houston has its own vibrant art scene. Why did you leave Texas? What do you think you needed to gain in New York?

EC: One of my collectors said to me once, that he thought Houston was the art capital of the south. I agree with that statement. But the opportunity to move to New York sort of presented itself and I took it. Believe me, it was not an easy decision. This city is alive! And it is not always easy. It was the path I had to take. I do believe that there is a great deal of opportunity here.

There are goals I’ve set for myself as an artist, and being here really forces me to focus. Six months after arriving here I showed my work in a Chelsea Gallery. I know many artists who do not live here, yet they are represented by New York galleries and they show and have work purchased by New York museums and collectors.

New York does not have to be the center of the universe for anyone. Right now, it is my center and I know I am exactly where I’m supposed to be.

TY: Wait, let’s go back. You said that Houston is the center of art in the south. What do you mean?

EC: That is my opinion, I’m sure some will agree and many others will not. The city has such wonderful art establishments: MFA Houston, the Glassell Core Program, Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, Project Row House, The Menil Collection, etc. Houston is a diverse and progressive city. And the art establishments and artists there reflect that diversity.

TY: Do you think the racial and gender politics in New York allow you any more artistic freedom than the relatively conservative Texas?

EC: I think we’ve got to allow ourselves our own artistic freedoms. Because New York is such a huge art market, there is more opportunity for exposure. Racial and gender politics are active everywhere.  

TY: In your artist statement, you talk about your process as intuitive. But I want to know what’s hard for you. What’s not intuitive?

EC: Struggle with self. Learning to relax and not be concerned with telling the truth and how others will react to my truth. I think that struggle will always be present; I’ve learned to work in spite of it.

TY: Ok. Let’s end on a big question. As an artist, what do you miss most about Texas?


Elvira Clayton’s work will be showing in the 461 group show at chashama 217,
217 East 42nd Street, from June 12 – June 29. The closing reception is on June 29 from  6 – 9pm. Among the featured works will be Ms. Clayton’s Odetta’s Folks, an ode to folk music and prison songs from the deep south.

Tiphanie Yanique is a writer and professor living in New York.  Her collection of stories, How to Escape from a Leper Colony, will be published by Graywolf Press in March 2010.

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