The Fifth Element: Charmaine Spencer at the Sculpture Center

Sculptor Charmaine Spencer, in her studio

Sculptor Charmaine Spencer says she remembers the specific moment when she decided to become an artist: she was sitting under a kiddie slide as a young child, making mud pies. At that time, she thought making art meant painting. So she did that for a while, especially in high school, mostly making abstractions. One of those hangs now in her studio on the top floor of 78th Street Studios. But throughout her youth she was immersed in day-to-day creation by necessity, making things with found, salvaged, and natural material—using what was available.

She grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, but in a life not associated with the university there. Her father had been a farmer in Mississippi, where he grew cotton. Her mom helped with the picking. They moved north to Ann Arbor, where her dad got a job at a ball bearing manufacturing plant.

“Growing up poor, you have to make do with things you have. You have to come up with what you need for the least amount of money. Usually it is something that nature made for you, or something used for a new purpose, like if you are going to have a swing it might be a tire swing, or if you need a planter, a planter made from an old tire. I feel funny if that kind of challenge isn’t there.”

One of five vessels, in progress, in Charmaine Spencer’s studio

Her childhood making included “blanket circle” with her sisters, which involved sitting in a circle and disassembling old clothes to be reassembled as blankets. “It felt like punishment,” Spencer says. There was also the construction of furniture from salvaged wood and cardboard, using a set of pink tools her mom brought home. She and her mother even made their own beds, using big slabs of foam for mattresses, and stitching fitted sheets from Sesame Street blankets bought on sale.

Those skills and perhaps more importantly that inclination to use free or low-cost supplies have deeply informed her artistic practice. Spencer is known for her use of natural, found, and re-purposed materials in sculptural pieces. Her studio is filled with works both in progress and finished, and improvised or salvaged wooden furniture. In her sculptures, you can find lath bound in complex forms, bent strips of wood, driftwood, and even dirt. One corner is a seating area, with couches completely surrounded by thriving green plants. She’s committed not only to those materials, but also to the idea that the things she makes will eventually break down and nourish the soil, or perhaps plants, birds, or other animals.

She says the reason she enrolled at the Cleveland Institute of Art—at age 30, after supporting herself as a home health care worker, already making art, and after a two-year stint travelling the country by train—was to figure out her own definition of art. “I didn’t know how to define it. If art is everyday life, how do I make art for other people?”

Her conscious evolution as a sculptor began shortly after she enrolled at CIA. She lived first in Euclid, commuting by bus to class, and then moved to the Hodge School at the same time Michelangelo Lovelace was living there. She studied sculpture with Amie McNeel and Kim Bissett.

Charmaine Spencer, Journey, reed grass and hemp thread, 7 X 7 X 1.5 feet, 2021.

Bissett recalls that Spencer arrived on campus with skills, and an interest in learning. “She knew who she was. She had an interesting, unusual combination of being so hungry for learning, for new information and new ideas, and yet she had a direction. Those things don’t always go together.”

Years later, Bissett says she believes she remembers all of Spencer’s work from that time. “I can’t say that about all my students,” she adds. “Her work doesn’t look like anyone else’s, to me.”

Spencer has had a steady stream of commissions and recognition. She’s a past winner of the Creative Workforce Fellowship, grants from the Ohio Arts Council, and commissions from  IngenuityFest, CAN Triennial, and the Hilton Cleveland Downtown, adjacent to the Convention Center. She has also been part of multiple group shows, including the extremely well-received seenUNseen at Artists Archives of the Western Reserve in 2019. But this winter, a show at The Sculpture Center, featuring five large-scale vessel installations and at least two other significant works, will be her first solo show since another at the same venue way back in 2009.

For her upcoming show, she plans a series of vessels, including one that she made for The Sculpture Center’s 2021 exhibition, Crossroads: Still We Rise. She’s making them in a manner similar to the way the Maasai tribe in Tanzania make their homes, which she learned by watching video documentaries on YouTube. The Maasai women are responsible for the task. They first build a frame for each hut out of branches, then weave over them a lattice of smaller branches or reeds, and then over that apply mud and cow dung. The tribe is nomadic, and the shelters are built to be temporary.

The first of Spencer’s vessels, made for the Crossroads exhibition, was installed physically at The Sculpture Center, and—via Augmented Reality software—virtually at the entrance to Woodland Cemetery. During the COVID pandemic, while she was making the vessel, the idea of communicating with ancestors became a big deal for her. “Because of COVID, you are stuck in your head. And then there was George Floyd, and the protests, and living in fear. Asking for help and guidance from ancestors was an awakening, a coping strategy. What did my ancestors do during outbreaks?”

The vessel was a way of channeling that energy. Visitors to the physical installation were invited to write out their questions, feelings, thoughts, and fears, and put them in the vessel: a way of asking questions and communicating with the ancestors. She kept all those pieces of paper, and plans to use them in a new piece for the upcoming show.

In all, she plans to make five vessels for this winter’s exhibition. Each vessel will represent a different one of the classical elements of matter: earth, air, fire, and water. To those original four, Spencer adds people. People are the fifth element.

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In the hallway approaching Spencer’s studio, the artist has made an installation of photocopied photos on the wall, perhaps twenty feet in length. There are scores of photos showing scenes of protest spanning decades, from throughout the twentieth century, up to more recent actions. They show horrific treatment of people by police. They show people demanding respect. In case you didn’t know, a bold banner spans the whole thing: BLACK LIVES MATTER.

This installation has evolved and moved over the years. For some time, it was inside her studio. Now you see it before you get there.

Spencer talks frankly about being a Black artist. She recalls that while she was a student at CIA, she made a Christmas tree with ornaments that were figures of lynched people. “And people didn’t know what to say. And my mom was big into Christmas. There was a time she feared being lynched. But no one knew what to say. You can’t say ‘we like it.’ No one wants to say ‘We don’t understand what you are saying.’”

She says when her studio is open to the public, and she is there with a white friend, people compliment the friend on how nice the studio looks.

“It happens every time I open my door,” she says.

She adds she has a difficult time getting solo exhibits because of her skin color, and that sometimes her expectation of rejection is a hurdle she has to overcome to even apply.

In recent years, she says she has even faced criticism from other Black artists, who say she is making art that white people want to see. “But they say that not knowing where it is coming from,” Sencer observes. “Yes, it is beautiful, but the message behind it, the method, the process—that is something else.”

She continues talking about her work in this light, and the ways that people respond to it, and what it means. “Now I have all these natural materials. They are bound, and broken down, and it is about resilience, and the state of being able to live in peace beyond all that, and on the flip side, the horror. That is the basis I am working from. My work is burnt. Those slats are tied, bound, stressed.”

Informed by ancestors and all that history, her series of five vessels for the upcoming exhibition at The Sculpture Center takes pain and stress and poverty and transform it into beautiful works that embody optimism for her own life, and for humanity.

“We have the capacity to be better. We are the fifth element. We can be a natural disaster, or we can change and be a positive force on this planet.”

Charmaine Spencer’s exhibit at The Sculpture Center opens with a reception from 5:30pm to 8:00 pm Friday, January 21. It will be on view through March 5.