Interview with 2019 Driskell Fellow Kimberly Wade

FALL 2019

by Eric BessDavid Driskell Fellow ’16

It is a pleasure for me to welcome Kimberly Wade as a 2019 IDSVA David Driskell Fellow. I connected with Kimberly through email to get to know her. Allow me to share some of my very few and brief experiences with Kimberly.

Kimberly Wade in Venice with IDSVA. June 2019. Photo courtesy of Kimberly Wade
Kimberly Wade in Venice with IDSVA. June 2019. Photo courtesy of Kimberly Wade

I sent her questions to initiate the interview process, but first she had questions for me and my study group about balancing the demands of the program. I immediately recognized and appreciated her candid but playful character, and my study group provided her with playfully candid responses in return. If she were in our cohort, she would get along wonderfully.

A few days pass and Kimberly sends me an email notifying me that she finished answering the interview questions. Her email read, “Ummmmm… I’m done but my responses are crazy long… 7 pages.” I laughed to myself now confident she will do very well as a student at IDSVA.

I want to thank Kimberly for these gracious responses. She has allowed us the opportunity to look into the why and the how of her story, and I am truly grateful.

EB: What made you pursue a PhD, and why did you choose IDSVA?

KW: My journey to pursuing a PhD, like everything else in my life, was not a straight path. It was also a path I feel that I was chosen to take. I didn’t take many art classes in high school or undergrad. I am fairly new to art. I didn’t know I wanted to be an artist/photographer until later in my life.

After I received my Master’s in Advanced Photographic Studies from the International Center of Photography - Bard College, I imagined working at a museum fulfilling a role in photography.  But in the last four years, most of the positions I’ve held have been focused on the archive. In 2015, I worked as a Digital Imaging Technician for the National Archives and Records Administration digitizing photographs of the American culture during WWI in 1918. The following year, I found a program for veterans called the Veterans Curation Program in which I was an Archaeological Lab Technician and learned about the organization of an archive, collections management, basic document preservation and conservation techniques. The program was only five months long, but it led me to another veteran program: the Mission Continues. One program of The Mission Continues is supporting veterans as they volunteer in nonprofit organizations in their communities. As a Mission Continues Research Fellow, I was able to spend time in the personal archives of Dr. Driskell at the David C. Driskell Center at the University of Maryland.

There I met Dorit Yaron (Director of the Driskell Center) and Prof. Curlee Holton, who introduced me to IDSVA. I was looking into pursuing another degree but I didn’t feel ready. I felt too intimidated by the concept of the program. In 2017, I started working at the National Museum of African American History and Culture as a Visitors Service Assistant. They paid me to talk to people and help them dig through the mountains of history that lived in that building! Because of health and financial reasons, I only stayed at NMAAHC for 8 months. But it was there that I began to seriously look at Master’s programs in Anthropology, Public History, American History, and Art History, with a focus on African American History.

Before I considered IDSVA, I had started applications at two iSchools to pursue a Masters of Science in Library Information Science. The programs had concentrations in archives, special collections, and digital curation. I was also considering applying to two schools in the Washington DC Metro area that are known for their programs in Museum Studies. I sat on these applications for a little while because when it came to the personal essay, I couldn’t think of a reason good enough to convince even myself on why their programs would get me the vision I had of working in an organization/institution’s special collection and sharing it with the public.

In March 2019, as I was about to leave my position of only a year as an Archives Technician for the National Register of Historic Places at the National Park Service, again for health reasons, the universe brought me back to IDSVA. I had left my research notebook at the Driskell Center and I kept thinking about Dr. Driskell’s archives and how much I learned about other Twentieth Century African American artists (so many of his friends) and was able to see the world from their personal perspectives through his personal correspondence. Luckily after two years, my research notebook was still inside of a desk in their library. Dorit Yaron and I spent some time catching up and then she invited me to attend a talk given by philosopher, Dr. George Smith. I almost didn’t go because I wasn’t feeling well. But that night, I met IDSVA Founder and President, Dr. George Smith and Zoma Wallace, IDSVA David Driskell Fellow ’15. After speaking with Zoma for 90 minutes, I knew I wanted to be in the orbit of this program. Hearing Zoma’s story squashed most of the intimidation I received about the program from the website.

The very next day I met with Dr. George Smith. Through our conversation, I came to understand that IDSVA is a space for thinkers to create a world in which they’d like to see, using art and philosophy as their guide. I chose IDSVA because as rigorous as the program sounded it became the program I needed to connect my questions, my thoughts, and my ideas with history, sociology, anthropology, and photography. In the program Dr. Smith described, I would be encouraged not to take a journey in finding answers but instead participate in a community dedicated to formulating relevant questions. Dr. Smith also framed it as a program that needed me to participate just as much as I needed it.

EB: Since you began the IDSVA program in May, what did you think about the first residency?

KW: I am a veteran. During our last week at Spannocchia, I associated the feelings I experienced to the ones I had during Army basic training I attended the summer of 2001. It was hard. I didn’t think I had it in me to get through it all.

But the atmosphere and attitudes of the faculty and staff gave me the support I needed, we all needed, to not allow fear to block our growth or our ability to expand beyond ourselves. IDSVA Writing Fellow, Jason Hoelscher (PhD ‘19), who had recently successfully defended his dissertation with IDSVA, encouraged me by telling me about his journey and how participating in the work of this program requires taking a leap of faith.

I’m glad I attended the residency first. I’m struggling to set-up a study regimen for myself. I’m hoping I’d be able to get closer to the mark during the fall break. But had I not attended the residency, I don’t think I would have continued past Kant.

EB: How does it feel to be an IDSVA David Driskell Fellow?

KW: It feels great to be an IDSVA David Driskell Fellow. Dr. Driskell’s work as an artist and his contribution to African American Art History as a whole has had an impact on me since I started my journey as an artist in 2011. I don’t believe I was named as a David Driskell Fellow by accident. I want to be an African American art historian (among other things) when I grow up, and so during the moments when I become discouraged or afraid of where I am, I think about Dr. Driskell and the legacy he has created. I believe that everything happens for a reason.

EB: You stated that your "goal is to create images that offer additional narratives of what a Black woman looks like as well as the spaces in which she exists?" How do you think IDSVA will help you accomplish this goal?

KW: One of the very last photos I created was inspired by Ms. Geeshie Wiley, an African American Blues singer from the 1930s. A classmate recommended that I look into her and her music after I mentioned I was interested in exploring my personal history of my maternal grandparents who grew up Geechee in South Carolina. While researching Geeshie Wiley, I learned so much, not just about her, but about myself as well. I learned that Geeshie Wiley not only sang but she played guitar in the 1930s. The music that Geeshie and her bandmate Elvie Thomas made was unusual for their time period. There are about thirteen songs of hers that still exist. Her song Last Kind Words, actually has a cult following and has been used in many contemporary movies.

The most interesting fact about Geeshie Wiley is not that she is from Louisiana instead of South Carolina, as her name suggests a connection to the Geechee/Gullah culture of that region. I was most disappointed to learn that there are no photos of her — not even in the Library of Congress. In Googling Geeshie Wiley, the photos of the Black women are not her. The photo of the woman on her “album” is a generic image of a non-credited southern woman. There is a photo of a Blues woman with a white headdress that comes up but that woman is actually a different Blues artist, Lucille Bogan. Her life is mostly a mystery outside of the thirteen songs that have captured her voice.

The journey to find a photo of Geeshie Wiley led me to create photos inspired by her songs. It also made me think of the erasure and exclusion of Black women in history. I started thinking a lot about the archives and legacy of African American women. We are seen as strong, “sassy” — in some outside communities — very sexual and promiscuous. And what I don’t see are women like me, women like Geeshie Wiley, who live outside of the established narrative of who an African American woman is. We are versatile and vulnerable. We are not the flat beings society wants us to be. We are complex just as everyone else.

In all honesty, I feel my current approach to this topic could be rather pedestrian and sophomoric. I feel that IDSVA will support and encourage me to expand beyond the shallows of my artistic journey.

EB: How are you adjusting to the program so far?

KW: I have a lot more room for improvement. My biggest obstacle is saying no to everyone else and fully immersing my mind in the texts and making a connection to photography, African American art history and archives.

EB: Is there a thinker or philosophy to which you feel drawn?

KW: Many ideas Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels presented in the Communist Manifesto drew me in but Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche was the most exciting for me. His wit, his sarcasm/skepticism kept supporting my thoughts about truth, about right or wrong, about ego and humility or the lack thereof. My interest was piqued in point #19 in Beyond Good and Evil when Nietzsche speaks of the will, and the relationship between commanding and obeying. He speaks of the emotion of supremacy, “I am free, ‘he’ must obey.” My thoughts on this passage are still in formation but I think about how people’s thoughts and words are law only because we allow it to be so. I remember writing in my high school senior yearbook a list of things I was and it became a list of contradictions. Before I read Nietzsche, I read an article recently, quoting a leading contemporary sociologist as saying humanity with all its technological advancements is doomed because people want simple answers to complex problems. And it is that sentiment that, people give up their power and blindly obey without question that I receive from Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil. In the introduction, Nietzsche is described as someone who shakes things up. I mean his opening asks what if Truth was a woman? People want answers and without any follow-up, except them as final. Even though I respect laws and rules, I have always played devil’s advocate in many situations. I can’t wait to read this article three years from now.

EB: I know it's still early, but do you feel like any of your strongly held beliefs about art, society, culture, etc., are being challenged?

KW: To be quite honest, as we move through each of the five thinkers, I feel like my strongly held beliefs about art, society, culture are validated. I think society is full of lemmings and minions blinded by the lies that the few create to control the many. I must say though, I’m nervous that I don’t feel sidelined or challenged about my beliefs when held up to these thinkers. Again, let me put a pin in this response and let me return to it a year or two or three from now to see how it holds up.

Kimberly Wade with David C. Driskell at Spannocchia. June 2019. Photo courtesy of Kimberly Wade
Kimberly Wade with David C. Driskell at Spannocchia. June 2019. Photo courtesy of Kimberly Wade