By Nina Berman on June 7th, 2021
Erin Washington: Crafting Space for Black Artists
Erin Washington thinks a lot about lineages as a descendant and as a future ancestor. As an artist and educator based in Atlanta, Erin recognizes her relatives who participated in the Montgomery bus boycott and supported her creative ambitions by taking her to auditions. She also recognizes her spiritual, creative ancestors like Audre Lorde who paved the way for later generations of Black artists and thinkers.
Through her arts space SoulCenter and in her work as an educator at Spelman College, Erin supports the next generation of Black artists through mentorship, encouragement, and the sharing of resources.
Her work is about building the structures that she and her community need to thrive, and then letting the next generation take the reins and build something completely new.
Earlier this year, the Fractured Atlas staff shared a conversation with Erin. It resonated so deeply with us that we wanted to share it more broadly. Below is an edited and condensed transcript of that talk:
Who are you and what kind of work do you do? What are you interested in these days?
My name is Erin Washington. I'm from Montgomery, Alabama. Red clay dirt, the South.
A large part of my work has been making and crafting Black space. I'm a third generation HBCU alumni, third generation HBCU educator. I work at Spelman College. I'm also a trained actress. I taught myself the art of producing and then in my 30’s transformed myself into this concept of Waymaker, which is how I identify now. I wanted to decentralize the concepts of producing in the larger commercial theater field and really think about my work, which is activism, in social making space for Black youth.
I've taught kids from five years old all the way to elders in their 80’s. Right now I run a center here in Atlanta and in Montgomery, Alabama, called SoulCenter. We are a content development space, fiscally sponsored by Fractured Atlas. We're making some amazing art here in Atlanta. We craft film pieces. We're crafting some space in the VFX space. We have a fantastic fellowship program that now has seven amazing young Black folks across the country. We have a Black Art Studio Space, which last year was in our physical space, and this year is also online where we offer classes in writing and producing and in acting.
We're really giving a lot of resources and tools to young creatives. So we center youth thought. We center the thoughts of folks that are 18 to 35 years old.
I really want to demystify these concepts of the South, that the South is just in relation to whiteness, that the South is just in relation to oppression. Here in Alabama, you know, we are the second largest per capita state that has Black residents. It's very important for us to remember that a lot of creative and art flow exists here if we're funded or not. There are a lot of things that are budding in the South.
We have space to make! I walk outside every day. I see a tree. I see the grass. I see the dirt. It's very important for me, to be back home, to be making and working in Black space. And educating in Black space is very important to me.
Especially for those of us living in Northern cities like New York, Chicago, LA, it's easy to have never been taught that the South is this incredibly generative, creative space for Black artists and for political work. We have to unlearn and relearn that.
Most of us know Montgomery from Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, you know, but sometimes I think people really don't understand…. [Rosa Parks] was more than just the woman that sat on the bus, she was more than a secretary for the NAACP, she was an anti-rape investigator and a follower of Marcus Garvey. She was deeply radical. The action of residents in Montgomery, Alabama to create that bus boycott has literally still worked. Them decentralizing those oppressive structures. Literally to this day, people do not ride the bus.
A group of Black folk and other allies said for over 365 days we're going to walk. My grandmother, Berdie Lee Washington was a person who patched up people’s shoes and cooked. Sometimes we just hear about the huge leaders, the speakers. But there were students from Alabama State University who were activating space, who were writing letters. Folks that were making sure that Martin Luther King's suits were pressed and right. Folks that were defending him like the Deacons for Defense, with guns.
I always tell people Alabama is deep. I'm saying this to say innovation has happened in the South in many different ways if our country wants to acknowledge it or not. And for me and my work, I've stopped trying to prove to others that this has happened and actually just nest and be in this space because it is very generative.
Decentering the figureheads of the civil rights movement feels related to the way that you're considering yourself as a Waymaker; reshaping how we think about creation and production. Tell us a little bit more about Waymaking.
I've worked across five of the LORT theaters, I was at American Conservatory Theater last as interim associate artistic director and I was on a certain track. I was supposed to be one of the first Black women that would be a lead artistic director at a LORT Theater. But what I found was the root was sick.
I did not believe in the practices of not centering interns and fellows, of not paying folks what they actually could be making, of paying a certain group of people more than what other folks were being paid. And then also this kind of hierarchical part of art; that art had to be a particular type of thing in order to be accepted, then to be seen in front of these audiences that were just majority white.
I didn't believe in this system. When I moved back to the South, I had all of the knowledge that I gained from the regional theater and from creating my own work. I wanted to really work at the root of generativeness and in creativity and love and peace and what at some points can be tension, which is Black young adults. So at SoulCenter we center queer and trans Black young adults. We center Black experimental projects because sometimes here in the South folks tend to go with the more traditional art practice. I've even brought methods here to say, “Yo, let's create something in 15 minutes and put it up.”
My biggest Waymaking piece is helping these young Black artists learn how to make their own spaces.
For me, SoulCenter is a legacy project. It is a project that I make with the young people and that hopefully within 10 years I'm able to pass to them as a way to say this is a part of your birthright as a young Black artist. “Here is a space; it is financially solvent. It has a base. What do you want to make?”
Also decentralizing this thought that has happened in Black space a lot, which is that you have to create something in your own personality. When you die, it goes. For me, SoulCenter has to continue. It will continue to morph and reshape itself regardless of my original intent.
I always say as an educator, if by the end of my class, my students aren't sitting me down, I haven't done what I'm supposed to do. We exist in spaces where we give young folks a little bit. I want to give them so much that we are not needed.
Waymaking is a liberatory practice. It's a queer form of leadership. It is a leadership style that actually centers healing and wellness, not just productivity.
When you're working with these younger artists, these younger creatives, I’m curious what it looks like for you to be imparting the knowledge that you have and for you to be receiving their visions as well.
I want to shout out the great artist, creative thinker, Audre Lorde, for giving us the blessing of her concepts around the master's tools and eroticism. I want to shout out Toni Cade Bambara who as an educator and a creative, taught at the side of the classroom instead of in front of it to just automatically decenter this hierarchical structure of teacher/student, [affirming] that the learning space is one that's peer-to-peer.
I'm interested in the art that [our fellows] are making, why they're making it. In our individual sessions, which they have weekly with me and my associate Waymaker Toran Moore, we really engulf ourselves in their work. Our first thought is not to put things on them. Our first thought is to say “What is the work you're doing?”
So it comes through in our main meetings led by our Fellowship Coordinator, Dara Prentiss, our mentor sessions, and then, toward the end of their fellowship, we actually produce a final project for them. That's been an amazing project because through the fellowship, through our Black Art Studio classes, our producing workshops, they're getting more the chops to understand how to manage their own project.
I want Black young folks to know they don't just have to be the performers. They don't just have to sing, act, and dance.
They can understand something about the art that they're making, they can write about it, they can think [in an] interdisciplinary [way] to connect with other artists, to talk about it. They are not just a tool of this entertainment system to perform. I would love to see them actually be activists and not perform.
Our act of Waymaking shifts autonomy and power in a different kind of way, that I feel like a lot of us young Black folks have not had the opportunity to have in the past.
We know that the current systems that we have, that the ones that we've inherited, are killing us.
Our industries are wild, right? Our jobs have continued on. Sometimes we forget the pandemic because the capitalist structure says we have to go, but when in actuality we need to pause. I feel like the South extends a natural pause. I grew up sitting on the front porch for hours in silence. I didn't learn until I moved to California that it was meditation.
We have to craft the world we want to live in. If we don't, it will not be made.
If we don't carve that intentional time, it will not be had. For me in the morning, I have a morning practice of journaling. The first person I talked to in the morning is me. It’s super hard! As you all know, if you’re a founder, you have a million people calling you at all times. We have to really have our boundaries in place so that we can actually cultivate the spaces that we need to make.
How do we let go, you know? Because if we don't, these things will take hold of us. And we've already seen this historically, especially for folks of color.
I refuse to wait on any one org, any foundation, any money source for me to do the things that I have to do because I feel like it's a call. I'm very grateful for Fractured Atlas and just learning more about your programs and support systems, because it's very important.
What systems are we crafting now to actually think about future space? Last year we created a piece called Black 3000 where we dared to imagine ourselves in the future space. And it was a deep project. It was real deep. One thing that was so crazy was that even when we were imagining it, improvising for hours, about [the year] 3000, these systems of control were still president. One young person still had a robot cop.
Angela Davis came to Atlanta a few years ago and she said, "Can you imagine a future with no violence?" And this was to a group of educators and literally everybody in the auditorium of about 300 people said no. She said, "How could you be an educator if you don't believe for a moment that the possibility of a nonviolent future is possible? If you can't pretend that is possible, then how could it actually be?" So I'm thinking about how we place Blackness in the future.
How do we place a non-oppressive, non-violent space in the future; a space where no one is violated? A space that hierarchy does not have to exist? I put these questions to my students and they look at me crazy, which is okay.
For me, as an imaginative person, as a creative, I believe that we should have the audacity to be able to craft the future space that we actually want to make because our ancestors did it. They made space for us to be present. Each and every one of us.
As an educator at Spelman, engaging in these institutions and also building your own, I would love to hear you talk about what you think formal institutions can do for us. What can they not do for us? Do we do away with them? Do we reform?
There's a book called "The Practice of Everyday Life” by Michel de Certeau. He breaks down, kind of like Foucault, the major institutions: hospitals, banks, schools. These institutions are important. There is a purpose for why they were made. But at the same time, these spaces have all also been spaces of violation of oppression.
He breaks down this thought that some institutions can only be strategic, meaning that they are so large and huge, like a college or like a bank. They have enough resources that they can guard themselves. And then you have institutions and organizations that can move in the tactical space.
One of the positives about a tactical space is that they're smaller so they're more nimble, right? They can do more. They can move quicker; they can make decisions quicker. But also these spaces at times are invisible because some of the larger spaces take up so many of the resources.
The college-educated space is important, but also I believe that the anti-college space is as important. This college space teaches us a lot because it has a lot of roots and the foundation and the core of theoretical frameworks. So many amazing artists and creators and thinkers have come through these spaces.
With our Black Arts Studio Space, there are conversations I could have in that space that I cannot have in my classroom at my college. There are ways there at the Black Art Studio Space folks that are queer and trans are more accepted than in a college space, that accessibilities are thought of more deeply than in college space because the college is still understanding a lot of these frameworks and ideas. Because they're so large, it takes time to move. We can be a little bit more nimble at the studio.
I feel that a generative economy looks like a space where you can have a large institution and then like smaller generative creative spaces that are flowing inside and outside of that space. Using pieces.
I always suggested to the theaters, especially a lot of the Black theaters that would get to the point of not being able to have the fundraising to continue to go on. I would say, “Why not stop now?” Like, stop this theater right now. “What you have known yourself as, cap at 50 years, because we also have to remember every institution doesn't have to be one hundred years old.” Spaces are only supposed to be around for as long as they are needed.
So, for example, with a theater in Minnesota, I suggested to them, “Cap at 50 [years]. The theatrical part that you've done is complete. It's beautiful to complete. Now it's time for something else.” And I offered it to them [that they could] take the name of the theater and place that on a school, a studio. “[That way] the name and the concept that the things that y'all made will continue on way past you. There will be a space for young creatives K-12 to be able to be educated.” They actually took that advice and now they're crafting this healing center space, which I think is fantastic, and then they're going to transition it into a school space.
I believe in the diversity of institutions or structures, but I would love for folks to be able to be in more conversation with one another. And to stop when it's time to stop. And it's hard because sometimes this is the only work we have, especially as creatives.
I used to be a teaching artist in New York and this company would send us out to teach different things. And so I asked them one year, “When will your program not be in school?” and they were like, “Oh, we're going to be here forever.” If you're crafting a space that continues to need you, you don't actually give people the tools. That's what I feel like a lot of the large institutions have done. That's what the education system has done. They're not crafting a space where students actually feel empowered by the end of these courses and the end of these years in classes to say, I can lead myself. To me that's liberation. That's activism. We want that to occur.
Is there anything that you want us to know or that you want to say that I didn't ask you about?
One thing that SoulCenter has coming up that I'm very excited about is this project, HBCUx. Beautifully, we were funded by the Mellon Foundation through the Black Seed Funding to craft a HBCU creative's showcase. How theater works right now, there's only URTA. You submit your resume, you have to fly to Chicago and New York or San Francisco. When I did it about ten years ago, it was a sea of whiteness. And you know, though I was grateful for the opportunity, it was a space of oppression.
We're partnering with HBCU's across the country to craft HBCU showcase. And we're also partnering with MoCADA Museum in Brooklyn. We're trying to empower Black creatives and artists to really receive these amazing young folks into space. So, watch out for that project.
I would love to introduce the concept and idea of Fractured Atlas outwards to other black artists here in the South. As I know, a lot of folks are crafting space and needing help with kind of an organizational building pieces.
This was such a joy, such an honor.
Change takes some time. But also we're doing it every day. We're shifting processes and systems. As my elders will always say, we're crafting space not just for us but for 100 years from now, for our grandkids' kids. Know your part. Stay encouraged. Stay building with folks that are like-minded, hold each other accountable. Continue to make space for folks that might not look like you, which is always important. Continue to connect to the south. We got a lot here. We're in open space and we're ready to commit. So all of the love and thank you for the work that you do. Keep going.
You can follow Erin Washington’s work on her website, at SoulCenter, and on Instagram. You can support SoulCenter on its Fractured Atlas fundraising page.
Image credit: Still image from "Blychedelic" by Ekio, presented by SoulCenter
About Nina Berman
Nina Berman is an arts industry worker and ceramicist based in New York City, currently working as Associate Director, Communications and Content at Fractured Atlas. She holds an MA in English from Loyola University Chicago. At Fractured Atlas, she shares tips and strategies for navigating the art world, interviews artists, and writes about creating a more equitable arts ecosystem. Before joining Fractured Atlas, she covered the book publishing industry for an audience of publishers at NetGalley. When she's not writing, she's making ceramics at Centerpoint Ceramics in Brooklyn.