Master Artist Michael Bernard Stevenson Jr. (they/them) and I met by happenstance one February evening at a socially distanced art event hosted by Art Design Xchange (ADX) Portland. We were introduced by a mutual friend with whom Stevenson had collaborated to create, A King and His Crown, the work that was on view that evening. So there we were, myself, my friend and Stevenson navigating an art event, my first one in nearly a year, during a global pandemic.
At the heart of their practice, Master Artist Michael Bernard Stevenson Jr. is desirous of being in collectivity. They weave the many iterations and facets of their identity and their work into coherent demonstrations of activism and social engagement. It is as personal as it is revolutionary. As a practicing educator and multi-disciplinary artist committed to social practice, Stevenson orbits a wide range of creative-minded spaces. That evening we only just began to touch on art, its institutions, and our collective sentiments towards the notion of artistic output as a meter for social change. We exchanged emails and established a virtual correspondence, touching on topics that center at the core of Stevenson’s practice – race and identity, community engagement, and art as an antithesis to marginalization.
THE ART OF LEARNING: An Occasional Series
Luiza Lukova: The night of the ADX show I saw a brief glimpse of your visual art, but you seem to do a little bit of everything – you’re as multi-disciplinary as they come.
Master Artist Michael Bernard Stevenson Jr: The short answer is totally, yes. I definitely push a range. I also wonder about flattening [my practice] in a way that feels more natural to me where I am just being a fully, complete human. My artist practice has kind of collapsed to my life and lifestyle and therefore maybe a little bit of everything is going to come up on my canvas, so to speak.
LL: When you say “your canvas” you mean more of a metaphorical one, no?
MAMBSJR: You did pick up on some intentional hyperbole. I used “canvas” intentionally to be in art speak, but me saying “flatten” was a way of using my own vernacular. People think flatten has a negative connotation and while I think I can be an articulate person, I don’t actually want to spend so much time circling in discourse about information. I think there are social components that exist in networking in the community or in the professional realm of art that are not seen or spoken. But as you are cleverly picking up on, it’s latent with intention.
I think I’m in discourse with a few life and specifically art institutions about that dynamic. This whole conversation about language and identification is an interview with Master Artist Michael Bernard Stevenson Jr., so there is a way that I am pushing against that. It is my way of showing up to that space. The way I appear on paper, which might be my bark, and the way that I show up and am in your community, which might be my bite, is my way of playing with formality and casual engagement.
LL: Could you talk about the inauguration of “Master Artist” into your name?
MAMBSJr: Sure. It feels relevant, and it feels critically misunderstood. I received my diploma from Portland State University [in Art and Social Practice] recently and I asked the school to use my [full] name, Master Artist Michael Bernard Stevenson Jr. They said, “No, you can’t have this name.” They didn’t say that literally, but they sent an email that said, “We need proof such as a birth certificate or a passport of your name.” When that happened, I said, “this is annoying, this is an invisibilization of the way that I identify.” This is also happening to transgender and gender non-conforming people who are trying to free express and the system says, “No, this is what we do.”
My name is essentially a copy of my father’s name. When I was a young artist, at some point I was invited to think about how I was signing my work. I didn’t really strongly identify with “Bernard” and I wondered, what does it mean to pick and choose? Michael is a biblical context identity, Bernard is a Germanic name, and Stevenson is a Eurocentric surname structure. Those three are all slave names and my dad is a Black man and I’m thinking what does that mean? I was already identifying [as Master Artist] as I was embarking on the Master [degree] and it wasn’t actually until the title became close to being received that [my name] came to be considered and critiqued. As I embrace it even further it’s almost frustrating that people feel like my self-identification has anything to do with them.
LL: Do you see Master Artist as any kind of a critique, personal or social? Is it a reclamation?
MAMBSJr: I think it’s definitely more the latter. It’s definitely a lot of me claiming. There’s a lot of Black Liberation activists, Malcolm X being a prominent one, who have removed their slave name. It’s interesting as I work in the Afro Contemporary Class context [at King School Museum of Contemporary Art] and I’m looking at other Black artists, presenting their work, and understanding my own cultural context to draw inspiration. There’s also a contemporary artist who identifies as American Artist, and it’s this young Black artist, with dreads, whose instagram handle is @ivorytower_headass, and my only assumption without even doing much more research than I already have, is that that is a critique of America, an American society, and the way that Black people are labeled, owned, characterized and re-represented later. My family is American inculturated and have Black and Italian cultural presences, but a lot of the way that I am is a shirking of the American piece of it.
All of that being said, I am also an artist but I also see and feel the artist as a marginalized identity. So I am wearing it as a strong identifying characteristic of who I am – me as an individual, as independent from my father or my father’s son, as well as a way of beginning to recontextualize my relationship with Michael Bernard Stevenson as a colonized name identity.
LL: Tell me more about your relationship with social practice.
MAMBSJr: I do think that I do fit into social practice, I also like the term “social form” more. I am actually interested in social spaces that are not “operationalizable”, as well as being interested in practical art practices or other practices that are not art or social. Social practice in a way flattens it and that may be relevant, depending on the context. social form, however, begins to expand whereas I think social practice is always more dialogical, in how it sits on a museum wall, how it is also starting to develop its own vernacular. I do think I am a part of that discourse and I also feel like I am functioning beyond.
LL: I like your use of social form because it lends to more flexibility to creating things – I’ve always perceived social practice as harder to marry to a 3D Art form, and to then place in an exhibition space.
MAMBSJr: My own desire is that at some point in my own future I can just say social form and people will understand. I will have done whatever a human being does to develop richness so that no one is intimidated when Master Artist Michael Bernard Stevenson Jr aka The Urban Shaman shows up – instead they go, “Oh man, we’re gonna have a party, and we’re probably gonna eat good too!” The Urban Shaman, for the readers sake, is essentially my height, but taller. My headpiece has a giant red stick that extends maybe a couple inches above my head, kind of streamer-y, ratchet strappy, coming down from the top. Then my shawl made of beanie babies; green, inspired by Robin Williams circa Jumanji, leafy skirt situation into my electric zebra tights. The Urban Shaman as an expression exists because it is inside me, even when it is not visible to other people.
As you said, that it is hard to be [exhibited], I do think that is in a way a misconception and even more than a misconception it is also in response to colonized forms. There are a couple instances, in a hybridized format of course, like Rikrit Tiravanija, who cooked curry in the gallery, or a Michael Rakowitz work, Rise, [which] was just a smell filled room. Examples of how a social form thing can fit into space without not meeting the expectation of a gallery or museum. That being said, none of the things I even said are described in social practice. They are something else and all that stuff drives me crazy. I’m still interested in visual art, and I am not interested in identifying so strongly as a social practice artist that I am not invited or a part of the visual art world. In fact, I want to participate in the visual art world in a traditional way and I want to participate where I help it see that social form [can also be] a visual art.
LL: Of the many social spaces you navigate, I’m curious specifically about your work with King School and KSMoCA.
MAMBSJr: Yes, it is my most important creative expressive region. The reason I graduated from object making was because I have an internal passion and compulsion to interact with the world in its troubled areas and bridge some gaps. I’ve tried to bring myself and my work as close to working directly with young people because the process of interaction with the young person is the genesis moment. The young person is charging towards the future, their own future, their communities future, and the larger collectives in which they lodge themselves. Coming into Portland through the PSU Art and Social Practice program, I started working at King School as a volunteer/supporter/collaborator of KSMoCA and within a few years I had gained entry into this container. I was operating beyond the parameters of any invitation and just building relationships with specific young individuals and the school, culture, community, administrative staff itself. Through all of that building of relationships, I developed the Afro Contemporary Art Class.
LL: Another writer for Arts Watch just published a piece on KSMoCA that touched on your Afro Contemporary Art Class – tell us more?
In its inception, it was an after school program with a specific avenue of exploration focused on Black identity. We met after school every week for a year, for an hour and a half, exploring Afro Contemporary artist’s work and the underlying concepts, contexts, historical places and persons in that work. It culminated in Black Panther Breakfast Program which was my own passion prior to even starting this class. It was a way of leveraging my interest in gathering community around food and getting into the authentic activist roots origin of the thing, all in service to my grander intention to cultivate prosperity. It has also touched maybe the most young minds in a single arc in my practice. Right now my thrust is to try to collaborate with King School to imbue their core curriculum with Afro Contemporary lessons, ideas, imagery, everything.
LL: Afro Contemporary Art Today! – the newspaper you created with the class – boasts a wealth of information on Black art, Black history, the 2020 election, the Portland community – it reads as a huge labor of love.
MAMBSJr: Afro Contemporary Art Today! is the first kind of lesson that I have disseminated to the whole of the school. In a way it was a sort of mini retrospective through Afro Futurist February (LL note: Stevenson’s own moniker for Black History Month) which was a larger container through which I then deployed some of the cultivation of my Afro Contemporary Art class. Lisa Jarrett (KSMoCA co-director) in the Afro Futurist February presentation on Identity, asked me the question, “What is real or imagined in your practice?” The Urban Shaman is not an idea. My work has always been all of the things swirling together and so I think for the first time in my own life, that is starting to exist. I do feel that my practice right now is beginning to feel very whole and I’m excited about it.
Specifically [for] Black artists there is no incentive to pigeonhole yourself. As I teach young people ultimately not to be bound by the parameters that are set on them, but to invent and navigate around in their own way, I think that’s also visible in my life to me. I am building this Afro Contemporary Archive as a time capsule machine that is looking into the past, is accessible in the present and is meant to project young minds into the future.
LL: One last question – your call to action at the end of the newspaper asks, “What is a big idea you have for bettering your own neighborhood and your community?” I’d be curious to learn of some of the responses you’ve received from the kids and I would love to know how you would answer that question yourself.
MAMBSJr: I wasn’t even beginning to think about how that might strike [someone other than] a young person. So it is beautiful, interesting, exciting, poetic that it would do that. Some of the responses are hilarious, they were, “No more police!” or “Good things for everyone!” – really sweet and honest.
My operation right now is not sustainable, whether that’s from a labor or a financial kind of approach, however the dream is being actualized and the things that I want to see in the community are there as much as they can be because I am bringing them there. When I can start to afford more people’s time I’ll be able to have a broader reach. These things are happening and they take time and I don’t have a need for reality to be different. I think maybe I’ve struggled with that in the past when I was making objects thinking, “This is not doing it fast enough,” and now I’m at the bleeding edge and I’m going, “Ok cool, if I get a day off I’ll be happy.” I don’t wanna be a part of something that is confirming or denying something because of how it is labeled. That is where I am into social forms, in addition to material forms. I was always dreaming of being together with other people and building prosperity and I see it at hand. The only thing out of reach is a strong feeling of security but the system is designed for me not to. So ultimately, the mastery is equal parts superficial and equal parts the reality of my life.
You can find Master Artist Michael Bernard Stevenson Jr.’s work and education throughout Portland. As Artist in Residence at KSMoca, they have an upcoming Spring Lecture on April 15th through the KSMoCA website. Their current visual installation, Educate to Liberate!, as a recipient of the Arlene Schnitzer Visual Art Prize is on view at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art in downtown Portland. Its three components are the Afro Contemporary Art Archive, The Afro Contemporary Art Bookshelf and the People for Mutual Aid Pamphlet Rack and each also exists online. You can watch their Artists in Residence Lecture Series that took place on February 11th on the KSMoCA youtube channel here. They are on Instagram @michaelstevensonjr and their Patreon to support their work is live here. Find them at their website for future and past projects, and for press and publications, here.
Luiza Lukova is a visual arts writer, poet and curator. Her academic background lies in Postmodern Art History and Literature, with a particular penchant for the Abstract Expressionists and for confessional narrative. She is the co-founder of homebase, a non-traditional backyard gallery space in SE Portland. Her other critical writing can be found at Art Practical, Art & About PDX, 60 Inch Center, and others. Born in Bulgaria, she is currently living and working in Portland, Oregon. More of her work can be found on her website.