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For years, ceramicist Kevin Snipes thought his strength as an artist lay in two-dimensional work despite having, as he puts it, a “builder-self.” It was when he learned to love clay during a pottery class in college that his childhood 3D creations—a diorama from a shoebox, boats made of popsicle sticks and milk cartons—gained new meaning. Now, the kiln is central to Snipes’ work. His signature boxy, angular ceramics tend to be hollowed out, and he paints people’s faces and bodies on each side, incorporating a mixture of patterns and colors.
Snipes’ work is inspired by Indian miniature painting and Japanese art, but the Philadelphia-born, Cleveland-raised ceramicist incorporates his own investigation into the theme of “otherness,” represented by the curved protrusions jutting out from the main body of his clay creations. Some take the shape of teardrops, a recurring motif in Snipes’ art. “You have this square, which is the mass of people, the Whiteness, and then you have this upper protrusion which is Blackness,” Snipes says.
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The artist, who is Black, began thinking about otherness after a classmate suggested he should be creating Black-centered art. He questioned this critique and worked on a thesis that delved into the construct of difference and its necessity for human existence. While race doesn’t define the artist’s work, the protrusions, boxiness, and separate frames for the images are derived from Snipes’ understanding and experience of being an outsider.
Denverites will have the opportunity to see Snipes’ ceramics and the work he helped North High School students create at an exhibit hosted at the Art Students League of Denver’s (ASLD) Grant Street location. The show, held April 8 to May 22, will be the culmination of ASLD’s inaugural BIPOC Artist-in-Residence (BIPOC AiR) program, a residency set aside for artists who are Black, Indigenous, or people of color. The idea, according to the program description, is “born of the recognition that artists of color have historically been excluded from many formal art spaces, including artist residencies.”
Leadership at the ASLD hopes the BIPOC AiR program will help students of color feel represented and see that a career in the arts is possible for them. That message has the potential to reach a lot of young artists—since opening in 1987 to build a community for young creatives to flourish, the ASLD has grown to accommodate roughly 900 students per month, who participate in courses, workshops, and summer camps taught by professional artists.
“The goal with all of our diversity initiatives is that everyone who comes through our doors feels comfortable,” said Rachel Basye, executive director of ASLD. “I believe part of the way to achieve that is that people can see themselves reflected in the people who are teaching here and also in the art that’s being made.”
For the North High School students mentored by Snipes (during 90-minute sessions, twice a week, for about a month), having their work displayed alongside that of the professional artist only underlines the possibility of a career in art. Each piece will be shaped like a teardrop the size of one’s hand and able to hang on a wall, per Snipes’ instruction. But the images on the teardrop were left up to the high schoolers. Snipes encouraged them to be self-investigative and look at everyday experiences and the power those possess. The teardrops didn’t have to be grandiose—rather, the project was about empowering the teenagers by “making them happy and helping them to understand that they actually matter, just who they are,” Snipes says.
According to Basye, the students were enthralled by the mentorship and appreciated Snipes’s various techniques and approaches while working with them. Some students even included protrusions on their own teardrops, which Basye noticed after taking a peek recently.
Of course, students aren’t the only ones to benefit from the BIPOC AiR program. The residency, which is a new offshoot of ASLD’s Visiting Artist Series (VAS) program (which brings notable artists to Denver to teach master classes to members and students), runs for a six-to-nine month period. Artists receive a 900-square-foot private studio space at ASLD, a monthly stipend to cover housing, another stipend to cover living expenses, a budget for studio materials and equipment, and the opportunity to spearhead workshops, lectures, and programs. The program’s budget is set at $42,800.
The idea is that it’s easier to focus on art when these needs are met. “We believe that art is real work and artists need to be paid for it,” says Tessa Crisman, communications manager at ASLD. That’s in contrast to other residencies Snipes, who’s pursued a nomadic life since receiving a B.F.A. in ceramics and drawing from the Cleveland Institute of Art in 1994, has had: He’s received poor accommodations and been met with the expectation that he be grateful for getting any support at all. All the while, he felt uncomfortable for simply being there, and faced a “level of hardship just because of being Black.”
Snipes has had plenty of good experiences, though, with programs at the Hambidge Center for Creative Arts and Sciences (a residency in Rabun Gap, Georgia) and the American Museum of Ceramic Art (an exhibition space in Pomona, California). They allowed Snipes to work on his art while placing himself among unfamiliar spaces and people—a gesture to his pursuit of expressing otherness.
While Snipes is investigating the role of the outsider, the BIPOC AiR program is supposed to make visiting artists feel like anything but. ASLD works with the residential artist to develop opportunities and collaborations related to their work (such as Snipes’ work with the students at North High School), and encourages its visiting artists to make the residency their own through their art and mere presence. It’s the same opportunity ASLD will offer to its next BIPOC AiR resident, whose name won’t be released until this summer. “Other places sometimes I felt, really, just like an awkward protrusion,” Snipes says. “I feel very supported here.”