For Open Call artists Jeffrey Meris and Calli Roche, dreaming and making are ways to connect with the core of their selves. As part of the Open Call 2023 Group Exhibition, Meris has created a chandelier-esque sculpture of bent aluminum tubes that support orchids, inspired by his Self-Care Saturday ritual of walking his orchids around the block in a stroller so that they can get the sunlight they need to thrive. Roche draws on their skills as a pattern-maker, working with leather and other materials to create five sculptures that draw the visitor into a path of spiritual development.
A month before the exhibition opened, the two met online with The Shed’s editorial director, Phillip Griffith, and one of the exhibition’s curators, Dejá Belardo. They discussed what happens when artistic vision demands a specific set of skills, how Blackness is a fundamentally creative state of being, and how art is the process of making rather than the end result.
Phillip Griffith (The Shed): Is there something new to your practice that you’ve been exploring with your Open Call commissions?
Calli Roche: This is the first time I’m relying so heavily on my pattern-making background and skills for my artwork. More often, I tend to make reliquary objects using wood and leather.
Jeffrey Meris: With Open Call and generally at this moment, I’ve allowed help into my work. Before I was always the sole maker, but I’ve allowed assistance and support when needed for this project. For instance Alex Murdoch fabricates joints on a metal lathe at MakeHaven, which I don’t know how to use, so he made inner components customized to the inside of the aluminum tubes. These custom parts make the work much more structurally sound.
Roche: Jeffrey, as you work with people with different skill sets or fabricators, does that expand your own creativity in terms of what you can do?
Meris: Absolutely. When I started my time at the Studio Museum in Harlem as a 2022 – 23 artist in residence I ran into the problem of wanting to do something but not knowing how to do it. As I leaned into the idea of outsourcing for other skill sets, I felt I was having an identity crisis, to be honest. I’m so used to my hand being so heavily inside the work, having crummy fingers and doing the whole nine yards, and in some ways feeling depleted, that once I started to remove myself to invite others into the process, I had this feeling of, Who am I? What am I even doing here anymore?
Roche: That’s exactly why I asked.
Meris: Theo Boggs, former lead art preparator at the Studio Museum in Harlem, offered an analogy that helped me work my way through my feelings. He pointed out that the architect isn’t necessarily going to be covered in concrete and materials as someone pouring the foundation of the house, but the architect is no less important than the people building the structure.
Roche: That’s really interesting. How has it impacted your process in working through conceptual issues?
Meris: Working with fabricators mostly arose out of necessity. My former studio was about 400 square feet. That was all the space I had, no wood shop, no metal shop. I realized I could name any artist who has a grounded, rooted practice in New York City and almost guarantee they don’t make everything themselves for the same reason.
What’s the making process like for you?
Roche: Well, it’s interesting that you’ve said all this because in my pattern-making or fabricating practice, I’m doing all the skills, making patterns for clients, sewing for different artists.
I identify as a maker and a craftsperson. So I try to make everything myself, but like you’re saying: one, my neighbors are sick of me, I’m on the sidewalk outside working with all kinds of stuff. And two, I have had to dilute certain ideas I’ve had because of my skill set, or my lack of certain skills.
I can see where you’re coming from in terms of the necessity of inviting others into the work. But for me, the making is the art, more than the conceptual aspect, more than the exhibition, more than talking about the work. And so I’ve had to be honest with myself and adjust my expectations to focus on how I can excavate or exercise the concept within my skill set until I’m more comfortable inviting other people in.
The Shed: Does the question of collaboration make you think differently about your work around the self?
Meris: I don’t see them as at odds. I’ve been making work for the last five years that was very invested in a trauma gaze, having to do with the hegemonic pressure on Black people and Black bodies in the way we exist in society. Thinking about the mythologies around Blackness, and how I could disturb them or disrupt that violence. How do I emancipate the state of Blackness from the whole of white supremacy? I was making these sort of crude sculptures that had all these questions inside them. For me, inside those works were a thematic and psychological emancipation, as jarring as those works are.
In 2020 this paradigm shift happened and I realized that as necessary as that conversation was, it could not be the only modality I was working in. I had to function from a space where I was conscious of and the captain of my own fate, my own wellbeing. I realized that as much as the conversation around trauma, violence, and Blackness around racialization, interpolation, and all these really heavy concepts is important, Black experiences or Black life can’t be limited to those conversations. Part of my own coming to self and my own caring for myself was dispelling those myths, or finding a way to talk about the long legacy of anti-Blackness. How do I also hold space to care for myself and to care for my community? That’s how I came to this mythology I’ve created around Self-care Saturday. If it’s so easy to witness and experience acts of anti-Blackness and aggression towards Black folk, how can I be conscious of the ways I move in the world? I realized that caring for plants was one of the simplest, easiest ways in which I can be operative inside that conversation. I still walk my plants and that makes me feel so happy, so grounded; for a brief moment in the world, I feel okay.
Roche: I can relate to that so much. Though I don’t walk my plants, currently they are suffering. [laughs] If you want to water them, you’re welcome to.
Meris: You should come walk my plants with me someday.
Roche: I could get a plant babysitter…
In a similar way I initially approached my practice dealing with large, macro issues, narratives that I created surrounding headlines and conversations in the zeitgeist. I saw an image of this gate at the Elmina slave castle in Ghana, and it had a sort of cross-shaped opening in the center, like a window. It’s almost big enough to pass your hand through. I don’t know if food was passed through it or not, but it’s a sort of exit. I began to think of Blackness as Christina Sharpe describes it in her book In The Wake; we’re not necessarily where we were, but we’re not where we’re going.
So, I’ve also referenced Henry ”Box” Brown who shipped himself north in a box to Philadelphia to escape enslavement. In those 27 hours it took to make it north, what was he thinking about? Was he meditating? Was he dreaming of Philly? What was going on on the inside and how can I create what I think of as portals. If you’re in the portal, you’re not going through it, you’re in it. How can I create a space of rest for myself, a space of collective healing and collective dreaming? I’ve always had super vivid dreams, and I love hearing about people’s dreams. To a certain extent, in the midst of some really dark times, creativity, imagination, and whimsy can be restorative and healing, orienting us toward a future that we can dream about together.
So in previous works, I’ve made portals, boxes, and containers for me to be inside. With this work, I’m the portal, I’m the container, and I’m removing layers to find my own internal place of rest, resistance, and dreaming. I nap a lot, and that is part of my process. I write down both my sleeping and waking dreams.
Part of what I love about being in New York City is when you’re on the subway and you look out the window and see somebody else on another train for a split second. Who are they, what’s going on with them? I love creating an imaginary scenario about them, or even overhearing people’s conversations, their opinions. The energy here being so close to so many people makes me feel connected to people’s imaginations in a way. I dream differently in New York than I do in other places.
Meris: What you’re saying about dreaming, creating, and imagining makes me think of the age-old question, How did you become an artist? One of the answers that I often give for that question is that I think Black people are inherently artists. To exist in a world that has been fundamentally designed to eradicate your existence, to say, “I am here and I exist,” that’s a creative act.
Roche: I think you’re right. My parents work in nonprofits. Growing up I thought I would become a lawyer and work in DC for human rights. Part of becoming an artist for me was understanding not necessarily what I want to do but what the world has for me to do, or what the world is asking of me based on what I have to offer.
Creativity, making connections, going to the core to excavate something beautiful are talents, but also a skill set that you have to work on. To do that is uncomfortable, but I find it to be rewarding. So again, the process is a somatic healing for me. And the art is what’s left over for other people to appreciate.
Dejá Belardo: And your trade does come from a family lineage of making garments…
Roche: Yes, something that I am very aware of is that I don’t have an art degree—it’s part of why the fabricator question can be tricky for me. I come from people who are extremely creative. My great aunt was a dressmaker in the Bronx, and my great uncle made carnival costumes in the UK. Artists often reference craftspeople, Gee’s Bend quiltmakers or iron workers in North Carolina or ceramicists. But for poor Black people, turning your skill set into a practice that’s going to make money and maintain your creativity at the same time is a flex.
What I make are art objects, and so they’re not clothes to be worn. I’ve had to make a mental shift and realize that what I’m making has a lot of value to the community and society, but also to me. In terms of liberation and Black people, I have to remind myself that my presence is significant, even if I’m just messing around with some wood, leather, and canvas.
The Shed: Calli, you said you dream differently in New York than elsewhere. What’s the difference in your dreams?
Roche: When I’m at my mom’s house, I dream about Beyoncé a lot. We’re friends in my subconscious. But in New York, my dreams are not necessarily based in this world, or they’re not going-back-to-school dreams, they’re not missing-the-train dreams. They’re like…an alligator turns into a salamander that turns into a puffer fish and chases me toward the ocean. Those are my New York dreams.
The Shed: That’s an amazing series of transformations.
Roche: I don’t know if it’s the noise or my bed or what it is, but I do think that in New York I feel a little bit more rooted than I have in other places.
Meris: I actually find myself feeling place-less. Not quite belonging to the Bahamas, even though that’s the place that I call home and where I grew up in. I was born in Haiti, but I don’t really have a relationship to the land there. In New York, I’m an immigrant to this place, but who isn’t an immigrant in New York?
Roche: That’s why I like it. It’s for place-less people. I feel less lonely.
Meris: I think everyone is looking for a sense of familiarity in New York. We’re all unfamiliar in this strange place, and it’s that unfamiliarity that bonds us, and we have this thing to—I don’t want to say grieve or commiserate—but we have this thing to bond over. It’s a village filled with strangers.
Roche: As a transplant, I connect to that idea. But for whatever reason, my favorite people in New York are people who were born and bred here. New Yorkers who have been in it their whole lives have an energy that I appreciate, a way of moving through the world that’s persistent. A few months ago I was having a hard time and a switch went off where I realized, Life is hard. If I’m going to live it, I might as well go ’til the brakes fall off. That’s how New Yorkers live, and that’s why I like being here.