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January 25, 2023, Adrian, Michigan – Laws dating as far back as 1640 – well before the United States of America was established – have either strengthened the institutionalism of racism in what is now the United States or have in some sense liberated Black people who have been oppressed.
That was the theme of a piece of artwork, A Natural Language Search, now showing at INAI: A Space Apart, as part of a special exhibit, Unraveling Racism. That exhibit will remain at the art gallery of INAI, adjacent to Weber Retreat and Conference Center, through Saturday, January 28, 2023.
Michelle Graznak, the Detroit-area artist who created A Natural Language Search, visited INAI on January 15, 2023, during the Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend, to speak about her artwork to Adrian Dominican Sisters and Associates and to members of the Lenawee County Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Michelle was part of a group of 12 Michigan artists who gathered regularly to listen to John Biewen’s podcast, Seeing White, and to share an artistic dialogue about the issues raised in the podcast. The artwork in Unraveling Racism is the result.
Michelle said she deliberated for a long time about how to approach the subject through art. She ultimately based her decision to create A Natural Language Search in part on her experience in a Catholic school when her Dominican teacher read from a history book about U.S. history and at one point closed the book and then spoke of the past from her own personal experiences. “I realized that … the putting down of the book and talking from life experience was the most impactful thing for me,” Michelle said. “That means there’s something missing in an authorized text by an authorized institution. That’s where I became curious, so I decided to educate myself.”
Michelle’s interest was piqued when, on the podcast, she heard about the 1640 John Punch case, in which John Punch – the only Black servant of three indentured servants who ran away – was sentenced to a lifetime of slavery, while the other two were only sentenced to a few more years of slavery. Michelle noted that this was the first case in which the defendant’s race was a factor in sentencing.
Michelle began to study other legal cases involving race. “I wanted to approach institutions, especially the legal institutions,” she said. “When [issues] get to court, it’s always way after it’s been an issue in society. The law is a reflection of what society has already been going through.” The John Punch case “became the basis of my further research into laws that contribute to the continuous construction of legally racialized body [of laws],” she wrote in her artist’s statement.
In Michelle’s artwork, the John Punch case is the first in a series of laws and court decisions dealing with race, covering 1640 through 2019. That year, the Michigan House Judiciary Committee began to consider automatic expungements of certain crimes from criminal records – a process that was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Numerous legal decisions and proceedings between those two dates are written on blocks of cloth – becoming more and more unraveled toward the bottom of the artwork – placed on a large white sheet. The work also includes the projection of a bald eagle – national symbol of freedom and democracy – in its natural habitat.
In her artist’s statement, Michelle explains that the white fabric is “a page in a book, a blank slate which the early colonizers believed this land to be, the color of spirituality and of terrorists’ cloaks.” She added that the process of cutting and sewing fabric “became a meditative space where my growing knowledge of this country’s legal history intersected with forgotten memories, observations and experiences of race throughout my life.”
Michelle said much of her research focused on Michigan, an abolitionist state that still had laws that discriminated based on race. “As people who were escaping from slavery came into Michigan, white people came to see that these were skilled people,” possibly competition for jobs, she explained. “There was a concerted effort on the part of white people to keep Brown and Black people out of the job market.”
The laws and decisions depicted in A Natural Language Search are only a portion of the racist laws that Michelle uncovered, she said. Information on more cases is available on her website.
Jeanette Henagan, Branch President of Lenawee County NAACP, attended the event and said the issue persists. “There were many laws that were passed intentionally to keep the Black community from realizing our full rights as U.S. citizens,” she said. “Even after the passing of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, there are people who continue to try to limit or deny our rights. My hope is that more right-minded people will serve in our legislature and on our Supreme Court that will assure that everyone is afforded equal rights under the law.”
Throughout the afternoon, Michelle spoke to various groups as they came to INAI, eliciting questions, comments, and reflections from her audiences. Sister Josephine Gaugier, OP, was struck by reflections offered by members of the Lenawee County Chapter of the NAACP.
“They said that as mothers and grandmothers, they never get to rest from being worried and concerned for their children and grandchildren because they know that when they step out the door, anything can happen,” Sister Josephine said. “That’s another white privilege that we have – that we don’t have to worry like they do about our children. We don’t get pulled over just because we’re white.” She added that the women also expressed the hope that generations in the future won’t have to worry as much about their children.
INAI (pronounced in-EYE, meaning “within” in Japanese) is a contemplative space and art gallery that resonates with the Adrian Dominican Sisters’ Vision: to seek truth, make peace, and reverence life. It houses an art gallery, a quiet space for personal reflection and meditation, and an art room.
The next exhibit, Carole Harris: Textile Artist, is open from Friday, February 3, 2023, through Sunday, May 21, 2023. The Artist’s Reception is from 1:00 to 3:00 p.m. Sunday, April 23, 2023. All guests are screened for COVID-19 and are required to wear masks.
INAI: A Space Apart is open from 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. daily, or by appointment. Call 517-266-4090 or 517-266-4000.
Feature photo: Artist Michelle Graznak points to one of the laws or court findings that were featured in her artwork A Natural Language Search, on exhibit at INAI: A Space Apart. Photo by Sister Suzanne Schreiber, OP
January 17, 2023, Adrian, Michigan – The art gallery at INAI: A Space Apart, adjacent to Weber Retreat and Conference Center, opens a new exhibit, Carole Harris: Textile Artist. The exhibit is open from Friday, February 3, 2023, through Sunday, May 21, 2023. The Artist’s Reception is from 1:00 to 3:00 p.m. Sunday, April 23, 2023. All guests are screened for COVID-19 and are required to wear masks.
Carole Harris, a Detroit-based fiber artist, has extended the boundaries of traditional quilting through inclusion of other forms of stitchery, irregular shapes, textures, materials, and objects. Captivated by the interplay of hue, pattern, and texture, she often draws inspiration from the color, energy, and rhythms of ethnographic textiles that she collects, as well as the music, changing rhymes, and history of her environment.
In 2015, Carole was awarded a Kresge Foundation Visual Arts Fellowship. Her work has been exhibited extensively. In 2018, she was one of two veteran artists honored with an exhibition in the Detroit Institute of Arts. Her work was also included in The Sum of Many Parts: 25 Quiltmakers in 21st Century America, which toured China in 2012. She was a guest lecturer for that exhibit.
INAI (pronounced in-EYE, meaning “within” in Japanese) is a contemplative space and art gallery that resonates with the Adrian Dominican Sisters’ Vision: to seek truth, make peace, and reverence life. It houses an art gallery, a quiet space for personal reflection and meditation, and an art room. INAI: A Space Apart is open from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. daily, or by appointment. Call 517-266-4090 or 517-266-4000.
Weber Center is on the campus of the Adrian Dominican Sisters’ Motherhouse, Adrian, Michigan. Traveling east on Siena Heights Drive, pass the Adrian Rea Literacy Center and turn left just before the solar panel-covered parking lot. Follow the signs to Weber Center. For information, call the Weber Center at 517-266-4000.