Ralf Jean-Pierre explores Bed-Stuy to find artist Derrick Adams in his studio for a behind-the-scenes look at his series “Floaters.” They discuss working in a residential neighborhood, hip-hop and how relaxation can be a radical political act for Black people.
Today I'm venturing out of North Brooklyn
and deeper into the heart of the borough.
This part of Bed-Stuy is gorgeous,
boasting Victorian architecture and historic brownstones.
But there have got to be artists here too, right?
Hi, Derrick. How's it going?
Wow. Look at all these colors.
It's part of an ongoing series that started in 2015
and is still in progress.
These all make me feel like -- When I'm looking at them,
I feel like I'm in whatever this water park is or whatever.
I feel like I'm there with them.
Yeah. That's kind of the idea.
The figure is always very much positioned
in the viewpoint of the viewer,
you know, to have a visual exchange.
In the beginning when I was making the series,
it was really because I didn't see images
of these types of subjects --
Black figures in leisurely positionings
or environments that looked like this.
So I started working on these because I wanted to see it.
I started to get, like, images from friends who are artists
or friends who were on vacation.
Jean-Pierre: I'll tell you what's really funny to me.
Even before I'd seen the work,
just the idea of paintings of Black people relaxing...
Yeah. Because just that idea is really --
The satire of it is so --
I didn't really have tosee them and get it.
And then look at them, I'm like, "Oh, this is so good."
We get it that we are living in a place
that, like, doesn't want us to relax.
It doesn't want us to be able to enjoy our life.
[ Indistinct conversations, water splashing ]
And also, with my work,
I always think about what type of acts that could be radical
without necessarily, like, being purposefully radical.
Adams: Because we are dimensional,
like everyone else, we have areas of experience
that are not just about combat.
We have experiences where we need to refuel,
regenerate, spend time with family, reflect.
And a lot of images are, again,
images of actual people I know doing these things that, for me,
are equally important as people protest.
It's something that even for us, as people, we're not --
we feel sometimes a little resistant of showing.
Because I think sometimes we think people are gonna forget
about the things that we also are pushing up against.
And -- Yeah. I feel that all the time.
And that is, like, not being on message.
But I also feel like, especially in the last few months...
...guilty forany enjoyment that I have,
because I feel like I'm supposed to be --
Oh, I'm supposed to be marching right now
or I'm supposed to be writing a screed right now or something.
Like, I feel...
It's like, if I laugh, I feel guilty.
You know what I mean? 'Cause so many are in pain.
And the thing is, you know, those things are important,
and I've done those things as well.
But I also understand that it's important for, you know,
younger people to see themselves depicted in this manner.
To me, it's something that is not always
the most popularized image in media... Mm.
...and something that I think the next generation needs to see
as much as the images of dealing with struggle
and dealing with oppressive structures that exist.
[ Helicopter passing, group clapping, chanting ]
Group: These racist cops have got to go!
Hey, hey! Ho, ho!
These racist cops have got to go!
♪ Black children matter ♪ Black children matter
♪ Black children matter ♪ Black children matter
You know, I would love to see images like this
next to images of protest.
My hope is that, you know, in the future,
curators will understand how complex representation is
and how they have to actually understand what we want to see,
not just what they want people to see.
Jean-Pierre: What shaped your own conception of that,
of, like, of knowing what people want to see?
Talking to people.
You know, talking to non-art people
about things they like and things that they respond to.
For me, I'm always interested in the non-art person
when I'm making art because I always think about that --
That audience is the audience, to me, that's more complicated
and a little bit more hard to get, to connect to,
and to keep.
And so I'm always interested in that,
'cause that's like my family for the most part.
A lot of my family aren't artists.
I relate to that so much.
Like, I make art as well.
And a big thing for me has always been like, "Man,
I refuse to make art that my mom couldn't enjoy."
Not in terms of, like, no cursing or something like that,
but I don't want to be making art
that you need a master's degree to enjoy.
The access to the work is really important,
and the audience who engages with it
is also something I think about when I'm making work.
[ Indistinct conversations ]
Is there a practicality or significance
to being here in Bed-Stuy as opposed to having your studio
somewhere else in the city or in North Brooklyn?
One of my goals and one of my dreams
have always been to have a studio.
Not necessarily a big studio or a small studio,
but a studio in the neighborhood
that's not like an industrial neighborhood.
You know, I always wanted to have a studio
in the neighborhood of, like, just a regular citizens
walking by, hanging out, you know? Yes.
I've never had that experience, really, until recently
because most of the studios I've been in
have been studios and big industrial buildings
kind of like on the outskirts of the neighborhoods
where there's basically a bunch of artists
in a building, working.
That was good in the beginning of my career as an artist
because I was in a community with my friends.
But after a while of doing that,
I was really interested in staying connected
to the community that I feel I'm very inspired by.
'Cause a lot of my materials that I use in my work
are from, you know, from the streets of Bed-Stuy
and go to the dollar store or the fabric shop
or the beauty supply.
Like, a lot of those places, I get inspiration from.
In some of these collages, I've used fabric.
And these fabrics are from the local shops.
Sometimes they think I'm a stylist, you know?
Oh. Yes, yes, yes.
Then I show them the image of what I was working on
that I bought from the supply store.
They're like, "Oh, wow."
Man, when I was a kid growing up in Brooklyn,
if I would've run across a studio like this,
I'd have been like...
'Cause I was always the only artist that I knew.
I'm like you. Like, my family didn't make art.
So if I would've known that -- I would've been...
Yeah. ...you know, looking at all your paints and stuff
...and being like... So, like, do you have that?
Is that part of your...
Well, the good and bad side of being in a studio
that's on the street -- Once people know you're here,
you get visitors all the time tapping on the window
or people that I know coming by.
And it's important, you know, for people to see artists.
I have friends who have kids who are drawing
and kids who like art.
And they ask me, "Can I bring my kid by the studio
to see what you're doing?"
And talk to the kids about the individual work
and they ask me questions about, "How do you make that?"
and, "What's that color?" why it's so vivid.
And I tell them, like, what kind of paints I'm using.
[ Air hissing ]
Jean-Pierre: It feels to me a lot like --
I don't know what it is,
and I would like you to talk about it,
but this whole series to me feels very hip-hop.
[ Chuckles ] Yeah.
There's something about the energy of it
and the colors and the rhythm of it.
There's something about it that like, pops
and is bright and is... you know...
Yeah. I have a lot -- I mean, I'm fortunate
to have a lot of young Black professionals
who collect my work and who support my work.
And I think that visual art and music and fashion
are becoming a little bit more in sync with each other.
Oh, I love it. I love it.
The other thing that feels very hip-hop about these to me
is, like, there's such a...
there's such an integrated sense of humor that is --
I think hip-hop doesn't get credit often
for how sophisticated its sense of irony and sense of humor is.
Yes. And that's something I really feel in these.
There's a wink here.
The unicorn has a gold chain. You know what I mean?
[ Laughing ] Yeah. Exactly.
And this homie right here, he's like...
He's chillin' with a drink. He's got the Drake beard.
He's like, "Yeah. Yeah. We're having a good time."
And I'm thinking about those things.
I'm thinking, you know,
how there's a certain level of pride and comfort...
Mm. ...that we have.
So these images are really more about
how I want people to look at the figure.
You're trying to really pull the nuance out
of what the Black experience is
and it seems like really enjoying doing it.
What words of advice would you give
to, like, just a young artist that you met right now
who is just trying to understand their place
or what they're doing?
A young Black artist.
Most creative people kind of start with this very --
Especially if you are part of an academic background,
you really start with the very Westernized idea
of what art is and how to present subject matter
relating to classical or Renaissance or those things.
Or you're responding to that in some way,
because you look at it either as a negative or a positive.
Or you're making work that is about things
that really affect you in a negative way
and you're trying to create a positive response from it.
But for me, it's always about looking around at the world
and looking at art and looking at your peers
and seeing what they're making
and figuring out what is missing...
...what is missing in art.
What is missing in the art that you want to see?
And as an artist, as a creative person,
how can you fill that void?
How can you fill that void in the way that you can only do it?
Visual art is really about looking around,
being observant of your surroundings,
and kind of realizing what you can add to that.
Jean-Pierre: Derrick's work has inspired me to do some relaxing.
It's not always easy for me.
It always feels like there's more to do,
especially this year.
You can't tell if quarantine is a rest period
or a jail sentence.
But this has been such an incredible journey,
meeting the wonderful artists of North Brooklyn.
I can allow myself to slip into a Slurpee mirage for a bit.
[ Exhales deeply ]
[ Children shouting, water splashing ]
[ Thunder rumbling ] Uh-oh. I guess summer's over.
[ Slurping ]
Stay creative, everybody. See you in the flow state.
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