Monday, June 23, 2014

Stephanie Ellis-Smith, Founder Central District Forum, Board Member Artist Trust, YMCA, etc.

Stephanie Ellis-Smith has worked in the Arts, Civic Engagement as well 
as in science

Stephanie Ellis-Smith. Photo: Madeline Crowley

Stephanie Ellis-Smith is as warm as she is smart, as interesting as she is interested in cultivating an artistic community in her adopted home of Seattle. 

Today, I have the great good fortune to speak with Stephanie Ellis-Smith. We’ll talk about her experience of the Central Area as a place and about her life…

When did you move to Seattle?

In 1994, that’s about 20 years ago last month.

You were a scientist at that time?

I was working in laboratory research building my publication history. I was applying to grad schools and my husband had just finished applying to grad school, he’s a Russian historian. We decided to move up here from Los Angeles and I began working at the University of Washington right away in HIV in Virology.

That must have been interesting work.

It was actually quite fun, quite fun.

Then you stepped away from that?

It was a circuitous process. I was looking for a Bio-Chemistry Genetics program and then I realized post-docs were few and far between, so there was no work for me. My husband was looking for a teaching job in Russian History, and we were trying to find a University that could take both of us which was highly unlikely.

Also, I was working a lot, maybe 90 hours a week in the labs. We were just married so it was very un-romantic. I never saw him. I thought, well, maybe I don’t want to do this as this would be my future for the next 15 years, at least. I was applying to graduate schools and I withdrew all my applications. I decided I wasn’t going to go through with it. I was going to do something else but I had no idea what. All of my life I thought I was going to be in science or medicine. It was a very scary time.

That’s very courageous, to walk away from all that without knowing what comes next. This must have been especially true as you who must have always a very focused student to have been in Science or Pre-Med.

I was. I was very driven. Yet, because of that I had almost no marketable skills. I didn’t know how to use a fax machine. I didn’t know how to use a multi-line phone. I had no jobs like that, all of my jobs were highly skilled but in a really niche area. I literally didn’t qualify for most jobs, so that was very disconcerting after all the education I had.

Long-story-short, I ended up being involved in a catalogue raisonné project, which is an art historical endeavor for the artist,Jacob Lawrence. It resulted in a two-volume catalogue of his life’s work. All of his paintings, drawings, and art works were located, many had been lost, and those were newly located and photographed.

Jacob Lawrence Catalogue Raissoné

A catalogue raisonné is the definitive compendium of a lifetime output; they are very prestigious books for artists. I didn’t know anything about Art History when I started because I was a science person. This was the first catalogue raisonné that was ever done for an African American artist.

It was wonderful; it was an amazing experience. The best thing about it was that my husband and I became quite close to the Lawrences (Jacob and his wife Gwen) and spent a lot of wonderful time with them. They became like surrogate grandparents for us in this town. This was truly amazing not just because of who they were as artists but also who they were as people. They were just lovely, lovely people to get to know and to be around.

Gwen Knight and Jacob Lawrence at Black Mountain College, N.C., 1946
Photo by Nancy Newhall, Courtesy Francine Seders Gallery, Ltd.

It was through that experience that I began thinking about African American art, history and culture. About how all three of those things became intertwined as well as the impact that they had on American culture at large. That realization was because of the time spent with Jacob and Gwen.

One of the things I’ve learned doing this project, is that we tend to think of history as Fact. History can also be a very selective thing. Many people’s stories have been left out. Often people don’t know that roughly 25% of cowboys were African American, or that there have been professional women boxers since the 1800s. Yet, every so often the media discovers women’s boxing as if it’s new. If you’re not selected to be part of the dominant narrative, you and your story can be erased. This may be why a catalogue raisonné hadn’t been done for any black artists until that point.

Lifting someone into the official narrative begins to break down that idea that there were no important artists of color. I would imagine you thought about that during the catalogue raisonné.

Yes, it was clearly apparent looking at the trajectory of art criticism around his work. It was very fascinating to see, he was considered late Harlem Renaissance or perhaps was at the very tail end. Yet, he did benefit from that level of interest and the exoticism that came from that in its heyday. He rode that wave initially. Then came the 1950s, Abstract Expressionism became the vogue. Lawrence was still doing figurative art, making statements.

Jacob Lawrence and Gwendolyn Knight, 1993
Photo by Spike Mafford, Courtesy Francine Seders Gallery, Ltd.

However in the world of the critic, Clement Greenberg, Lawrence was sort of marginalized even though he was part of the NY scene. Now, to be sure, he had his followings and his followers. He was respected but he was not part of the ‘hot, young things’ coming up at that time, the Pollocks and all that. Then through the 1960s and the ‘70s with the Civil Rights Movement when a lot of work became more political Lawrence was more of a quiet voice of change. He wasn’t ‘quote-unquote’ angry, he wasn’t making big, bold, brash statements. He was making important quiet statements. Like a lot of people with the back-to-Africa sensibility and ideas, he spent some time in West Africa. From that he made some paintings that weren’t necessarily Afro-centric, so he was again a little on the outs. With all that, he ended up moving to Seattle

I always thought, though any art historian could completely argue this point, that given the way Seattle is-and-was as a black community; I imagine for him it was a very safe move. Earlier, you alluded to the Black Panthers not being the same here as they were in other places. Seattle is just not loaded with all the baggage as intensely as other major American cities with larger black populations. I think it was possibly that he could get out of that New York City fray, when he moved here. Boy, from New York to Seattle, Seattle then was not the way it is now, it was really totally (trails off)

Jacob Lawrence in his Seattle studio, 1994
Photo by Spike Mafford, Courtesy Francine Seders Gallery, Ltd.

It was comparatively nearly a town…

It was like a town, it was out of the way, off in the hinterlands. To me, when I was reading and thinking about this, it always seemed to me that he was placing himself in self-exile, self-banishment. In a way, (here) he was able to be to be nurtured and supported and was able to think more on his own and more clearly.

I just found the black community here to be very — (pause) I just found it to be fascinating and interesting and very strange. I’m from Los Angeles; it was very foreign to me at first.

Could you explain a little more about that for someone who doesn’t have that perspective?

Well, sometimes it’s hard to put a finger on. For example, I remember not too long after we arrived here, someone was giving me a tour around and they said, this is the Central Area; this is the ghetto. I was from LA, so I thought, Seattle does not have a proper ghetto, there’s no respectable ‘hood here. It would have been much better if Los Angeles had been like the Central Area.

It seemed to me to be a middle- to working-class neighborhood, not really rough here. From my perspective, coming here from all of the drive-by- and gang-shootings. People said there are a lot of shootings in the Central Area and around Rainier Avenue. I was thinking, Well, that’s nothing compared to LA —

In the early 90s in NYC, in one day you could have the same number of people killed as in Seattle nearly over a whole year…

One day in pre-Giuliani New York

…which isn’t to say there aren’t real problems here, there are —
There are, but it’s a question of proportion, of perspective. I just found it to be so jarring. It was very, very different. My parents wondered, why are you here?

To be fair, we didn’t think we’d stay here. We thought this would be a pit-stop ‘til we were on our way to the next thing. We’re in an inter-racial relationship and were married in 1993. That was a very, very bad time to be an interracial couple in LA between the O.J. (Simpson) trial and the Rodney King (riots). It was actually quite dangerous; we had many threats (made against us) there. It was just a very weird place and time.

From both sets of communities?

From both sides.

That’s awful.

We came up to just visit and saw there were a lot of interracial couples and families here. It was quiet.

And all the sudden it’s not a factor in the same way.

Not at all, it was like no factor at all. And that was weird. We were so jittery (from being in LA). It’s almost a cliché but we were on edge. Once someone was gesticulating to us from his car, and coming from LA at that time with the drive-bys my husband said, “Don’t look, someone is by our car.” He sped away but that person sped up, pulled up and yelled, “You have a flat tire.” We thought they were trying to harass us because it had happened constantly in LA . We said, “Oh, sorry!”  Those people must have been thinking, what’s wrong with you? We were just trying to get your attention for the last two miles; your air is low in that back tire.  Being in Seattle was a very different, very happy change, but it took some time to get used to.

Stephanie Ellis-Smith. Photo: Madeline Crowley
Another thing I learned while doing this project is that the percentage of Black home ownership was higher than in any other city in the country at one point. When you can own your home there’s a sense of control over your life. You can provide an environment that’s determined by you for your children, you can’t be forced to move out by a landlord so it may give a kind of rootedness to this community that isn’t the case in other places.

I think you’re absolutely right; it’s a very, very good point. It also says a lot about what’s happening today with rising property values, which is arguably a good thing on one hand for the people who already in, but to try and get in it’s obviously getting harder and harder. I hope that doesn’t change that sense of ownership and rootedness.

I mean, of course it will, and it already has even in the 20 years I’ve been here. I’ve seen a huge change with the influx of immigrants especially Black immigrants from Africa. I think the Black Community here has been forced to open itself up more than it ever has before because it’s been a very enclosed insular group, as is normal in a city with a small number of black citizens. When new people moving in, like myself, try new things, foist new things and expect participation in different aspects of civic engagement — I do think that does change the nature of the community and what people can expect.

Did you feel welcomed when you came here?

I didn’t.

It was interesting; I went to Tanya Mosley’s Black in Seattle.

I didn’t see any of that —

It was really fun. At the end, she opened it up to the audience, people came up to speak about their experience here. A lot of people were from somewhere else originally saying things like, “I’m from Detroit and I’m really happy to live here…” And eventually somebody asked, “How come there are so few people here from Seattle coming up to talk?” It seemed that largely the people there weren’t from Seattle…

That was true with the CD Forum (the Central District Forum for Arts & Ideas) too; it was people from somewhere else.

There were all these new arrivals looking for a connection to the Black Community here and yet it seemed there were so few people from here. It’s really hard to come here and meet people…

That’s very true. Most of CD Forum’s audience was newbies and what we called all the Black Misfits, all the unaffiliated black people. They are happy living here and don’t need a huge black community to feel complete but nonetheless would like some sort of connection. So not being able to break into the Black Community of Seattle — I mean, none of my close black friends in Seattle, none are from here. 
Image Property of CD All Rights Reserved.

Yeah, only a few of my close friends are from here either —

This was new to me to. This was a surprise to me. It made sense to my husband because he was from Minneapolis, which is similar in one way: they go to high school together, they go to college together, they’re from the same neighborhoods and then they marry each other.

Perhaps as a positive interpretation, maybe they already have the friends they need, they’re fully allocated. Maybe it’s not that they’re rejecting, they’re already full up.

Yes. They already have all the contacts they need in their community; they don’t need anymore. I understand that now, I’m at that place having been here for 20 years. But as a new person coming in, I remember everyone was very polite, very nice, but not necessarily welcoming.

It was never, why don’t you come over for dinner? We’re having some people over. In the first two years we lived here, we made one friend and by that I mean a person we saw on occasion who would invite us over and we’d reciprocate.

People that are from here often say the Seattle Freeze isn’t real but if you’re new here, it really is. 

What inspired you to create the CD Forum?

As I mentioned before, the initial inspiration came from the Jacob Lawrence project. Well, let me back up a step, my job at the catalog raisonné was to do some location work but mostly I had a team of 50 photographers both nationally and internationally to re-photograph all the works, the originals that we found. To do so required me to contact the owner or the owners’ representatives, the curators at museums. I got to talk to a lot of people with that. I was so impressed when I would get them on the phone and talk about the work to hear their stories about how they got it, and what it means to them, from all across the social economic spectrum, across ethnicities, nationalities. It was amazing to me how this work that was very Black, it was about the Black Experience and how all these different people got what they needed from it.

It is profoundly humanist work too.

There’s a niche aspect but it’s very broad at the same time. I just thought that was so interesting. I had never really thought about the Black Experience being so universal in many ways. That made me think, ‘Well gosh, other people must feel that way. There are other artists—I mean, as wonderful as Jacob was, he’s not the only one. I started thinking, who else does that? That was the artistic focus of it. 

Image Property of CD All Rights Reserved.
As far as the Central District and Seattle, during our early years here we had our first anniversary in 1994. My husband gave me Quintard Taylor’s book, The Forging of a BlackCommunity. I was so blown away by that book because I was trying to get a sense of who are these people? Where am I? It was so amazing to me and so different that people had been here for ages: the loggers, and the sense of ownership in the community— Maybe that’s because the numbers overall have been relatively small as compared to other cities, there’s a lot more freedom here: voting rights, home ownership. Yes, there was redlining but there was redlining everywhere at that time — still here they were voting and owning houses at such a high rate. I found that to be really interesting and really foreign to my own experience regarding how black communities get started.

The CD Forum was about pairing those two ideas, those two concepts. I thought Seattle and the Central District in particular was such a rich and nurturing place for art in general and about how Black people in the community have been able to take advantage of that, to use it. Despite the bumps in getting the Forum started, and people not being sure what I was doing and why, especially as I had come from LA, it was relatively speaking an easy place to do this because it was just so ripe for it. People ask me would you do this in LA? I don’t think it would work in LA. Honestly, one, there’s too many competing entertainment options and two, it’s too big.

Image Property of CD All Rights Reserved
Everything is more difficult there.

And things and people are not accessible. When I first left my (science lab) job, I was looking for things. I don’t know what possessed me to do this but I was looking for all the famous people who lived here in the phone book, when we still had phone books. There was Jacob Lawrence listed in the phone book. Our then mayor, Norm Rice, his address was in the phone book. I thought, Oh, my God. I called my husband and he said, “That can’t be the real one.” I said, “No, it is! I read in the newspaper, this is his address.” When I started the Forum, we had a black mayor. I was just doing random things so I called the Mayor’s Office and an Assistant answered. I said, “I sent some material to Mayor Rice. I want to follow up.” Then, he answers the phone. I think I hung up! I didn’t think I’d speak to him, I just thought, oh my God — where would that happen? Could you call Bloomberg’s Office and have him pick up the phone? I was shocked by that, it totally caught me off-guard; everything was so accessible. I say this to folks who want to start artistic projects, if you really want it here, you can really get it.

It’s true. One thing that impressed me when I moved here 20 years ago was the emphasis on supporting local books, local food, local music… that wasn’t true then in NYC. In fact, if you said something like, ‘I’m going to be an actress’ people would subtly undermine you. There was this attitude, who do you think you are? Whereas here, people say, “That’s cool!”

Yes, and you should meet so and so…

People here are really supportive. Even when people get their big break, there will always be some jealous people but there’s still a lot of support - even when you mess up like Macklemore with the nose and the wig. Many believed he wasn’t aware of anti-Semitic cartoons, that he had no intention to offend anyone. 

And that’s shocking on another level, that you could be that ignorant. 

Yes. Still, many here were supportive of him during that situation. Often anywhere else I’ve lived, people would have grabbed that opportunity to smear him.

And rip him to pieces and he’d never get a job again.

Yeah. People here seem to see him as ‘ours’. I always tell people who are ambitious; if you get to the top here you can leap to the national stage because people support you here. That’s not true in a number of other cities.

There were a handful of artists we worked with on-and-off from this area. Sometimes they’d say, “Things aren’t really happening here. I’m going to move to LA or NYC.” I’m thinking, if you’re not making it happen here, good luck in a bigger city. It’s very, very nasty. This is about as supportive or as warm as you’ll ever, ever get anywhere, especially in a city that is this size.

That’s one thing that I hope CD Forum did, and I hope we can do more of, is create a platform for local people to launch into new things. I always try to encourage people to take Seattle by storm, completely wring it out, take every ounce it has to offer and then move on. There is actually a lot here. There are a lot of important people here.

Yet, going back to the early days of CD Forum while it was a challenge to get going, I have to say after 20 years I’ve benefited tremendously from the warmth of the community. People from all backgrounds, once they understood what I was trying to do, that I wasn’t a nefarious California person with horns coming to destroy their way of life; I’ve found the community to be so supportive. I felt so welcomed.

That’s the weird flip side, personally people don’t invite you into their lives, but in terms of the larger community it’s very generous about supporting artists and activities. Even things like the Hopscotch CD, the first year, a bunch of businesses jumped in to do their own little fairs or tables during it. Here, community things just sort of come together and pretty naturally.

I hope with the city’s growth, which generally I support, it’s only selfish, I’m not thinking of anything larger, I’m just a big city person; I still hope with the growth we don’t lose that essence of the city. Things change and alter. That support and generosity is very special and unique to this area.

I hope that there are many people coming after me with new ideas. I hope that they will be as easily supported.

I hope that now I’m at a place where I’m not working, at the moment, but still involved in the community, I’d like to be able to continue to help support the new: new ideas, new things people try out. It’s so important to keep an area vital and to keep people thinking and not to get too settled in whatever is considered normal. That is funny for me to say being married to a historian who is very rooted in the past but I’m a very future oriented person.

That’s a good balance.

I think so; we keep each other grounded.

Are you still involved with the Forum?

Yes, tangentially. I’m supportive of Sharon (Williams) and the rest of the Board but for practical reasons when I left after being a Founder, I really wanted to really give the organization space to do its thing.

Image Property of CD All Rights Reserved.
That was very generous of you.

(laughs) It was generous. Also, I was tired. We ended up moving, we left the country for a couple of years. It actually was a perfect time for them do whatever, to go through whatever they needed to go through without me. I didn’t have to worry about it constantly. It was actually perfect.  When I came back two years ago, I no longer felt the intensity of it. I just have a very healthy love and respect for the Forum. I told them to call me anytime for anything. I’m happy to help and support but it’s now their deal. I think it’s a nice balance for me, at least. I don’t know what they would say. For me, it just would be too easy to get sucked back in.

What are you focused on now?

My husband and I had this sort of deal in which during the first 10-12 years of our marriage. I got to call the shots. I was in control; my career came first. Then, after a break, we would switch. In his line of work, it takes years for things to build in academia so now it’s his turn. We took a break when we moved abroad. Now, his career has taken off, he does a lot with his writing and he needs a lot of travel time. I’m mostly the home point-person.

That’s great.

He’s doing his thing out and about. I do some volunteer work, some Board work with Artist Trust. I help CD Forum when I can and also the UW Press, who published the catalogue raisonné, so it’s kind of nice being back with them. I volunteer with the YWCA and do Board work with them. All that, while shuttling kids crosstown from Queen Anne to Madrona - back and forth, back and forth. That’s kind of my focus now, that’ll be for the next maybe eight years or so.

What I really admire about you is that at every transition point in your life you really followed your heart. You’ve created something interesting and rewarding for yourself. That’s still true because you get to be with your kids while they’re still around.

It’s been very nice, no complaints. There are always ups and downs with every choice; but it’s worked out really well, knock on wood!

(Stephanie came to this project through the CD Forum)

©  Madeline Crowley People of the Central Area 2013   All material is covered by copyright. Express written permission must be given for any copyrighted material on this page. Email to request permission to copy or paste materials
This project was supported in part by
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About Me

Seattle, WA, United States
I am not a professional photographer nor a trained journalist. At community meetings, it became clear that many of us don’t know each other. We haven’t heard each other’s stories and don't know each other’s circumstances. This is my attempt to give a few people the chance to tell their story, to talk about our community, to say their piece in peace. As such, comments have been disabled. The views and opinions expressed here are those of each narrator and do not necessarily reflect the position of views of the CentralAreaComm.blogspot blog site itself. The is not responsible for the accuracy of any information supplied by narrators of this project. All interviews have been edited and in places condensed.

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