“George Floyd Memorial,” Ashley Page, 2020. Photo by Ashley Page

Like other graduating seniors, Ashley Page had an anticlimactic end to her college years. With the coronavirus closing down schools in early spring, the Maine College of Art sculpture student was forced to head home, her senior thesis show canceled and ambitious thesis project left partially completed. Although initially disappointed, Page’s priorities quickly shifted: Her immediate apprehension about exams and making art gave way to worries about her family’s safety and well-being during the pandemic.

A few weeks ago, those safety concerns took on a different tenor. Page’s family lives in Minneapolis, where George Floyd was killed by police. The 21-year-old artist now feared for her siblings, her friends and herself as they took to the streets to fight for change.

A multiracial woman who identifies as African American, Page uses her art to address the complexities of the Black experience, and her interest in public engagement to introduce conversations about representation and visibility to a broader audience. Returning to Maine last week to resume her work as an assistant preparator at the Portland Museum of Art, she hopes to further the discourse she started at MECA.

Q: George Floyd was killed in your hometown. How has your family responded?

Ashley Page Photo by Sarah Kathleen

A: My mom is really angry and scared. And scared for us. I have two older brothers, and even the thought of us protesting freaks her out. I was so surprised that my mom was so angry, but she’s a white woman who grew up in Minnesota and was protected from that. I think having children of color changed the way she thought about things and the way she engaged not only with race, but with herself. When I talk to my brothers, or my dad and his family, they’re annoyed, but they’re not angry and surprised in the same way because it’s something that they see over and over and over again.

What hurts my parents is how some parts of the city are completely unrecognizable. They grew up in South Minneapolis and storefronts, even whole buildings, are just gone. And it’s not members of the community doing this, but outsiders taking advantage of the situation to go burn (expletive) down and loot, disregarding the fact that this is a mostly black and brown neighborhood and that these are their community stores.

Q: What was it like for you to move to Maine from Minneapolis?

A: It definitely shaped what I’m doing and what I’m interested in because of how I was perceived – a Black woman entering a predominantly white space. I was 17 and didn’t have any family here, just my roommates and friends. There was no support system at MECA at that point.

I remember talking to a close friend and saying, “I don’t want to be here anymore. I don’t know if I can do this.” I was at my wit’s end. He was a fellow student of color and said, “I understand. But what if all of the students of color here leave? What does that tell the other students of color that come in and don’t see themselves? What about the community that we could build?”

At first I thought, “No, that’s not my job. That’s not what I signed up for.” I signed up to learn a skill and develop my artistic practice. But then I realized that social-justice equity is really important to me. And knowing how I felt in that moment, it pained me even more to know that other students were also feeling that way. So that led to trying to build that support system with other students of color, which snowballed into the first Black Student Alliance at the school.

Q: Is this what led you to minor in public engagement?

A: Yeah, there was all this social weirdness, micro-aggressions from students and even from teachers looking at our work and not knowing how to talk about it or other black and brown issues. And being in an art history class and relearning that same European white canon, without the contributions from Black and brown artists around the world, and seeing their work appropriated. I view art as an exchange, a conversation, but this was one-sided.

There’s a public-engagement fellowship at the college, and Alejandra Cuadra and I both got it. She is a fellow student of color, and a lot of her work is about what it means to be an immigrant today in America. Our work intersected and we decided to collaborate. For our first project, we put newsprint up in the cafe hallway and asked, “What social and political problems do you see in Portland and at MECA? What changes do you want to see?”

The response was eye-opening. A lot of it was about the lack of diversity, about food insecurity, about gender inequity and lack of diversity within the curriculum. This is what our community feels passionate about. We took that as our jumping-off point and we created our framework of representation, equity, inclusivity and diversity, which led to a series of projects. The most recent was Resilience Week at MECA in February, a series of workshops, symposia, and a curated exhibition of Black and brown artists within the community.

“A Departure From Should to Could,” Ashley Page, 2019, Wooden Reed, 35″ x 17″ x 15″. Photo by Ashley Page

Q: You employ a variety of media in your practice. Tell me about your methodology.

A: I like anything that’s really process-driven, the ritual behind the steps, the transformation within a process. What calls to me is how the process itself fuels the narrative. A lot of paper making, printmaking, paper collage and fiber work. I do a lot of stitching into things, and weaving and coiling to create basket forms and vessel-like objects.

I’m interested in the ways that a vessel can be metaphorically viewed as a body. A vessel is a container, it holds things and it’s to be carried. But what do we carry? What does our outer shell look like? How does it tell a story, and how can I have this vessel I’m creating also tell that story?

Q: How have the events of the last few months affected you and worldview?

A: COVID reconfigured our priorities. Suddenly, school was not my number one priority. My safety, and the safety of my family and my community was. That shift has been so real; it’s something we feel every day.

Then suddenly George Floyd was murdered, and it felt like a breaking point. Not only do we have it on video, we have it on multiple videos, with multiple witnesses. Add to that people being at home, not working, on social media more than ever. It was a real wake-up call. People in all 50 states have been protesting and calling for change, for reform, for the defunding of the police departments. It’s not being swept under the rug in the same way that it has been for so long. The solidarity feels unprecedented.

Q: What role can art play as we try to confront these issues?

A: A lot of the work I see coming out right now is graffiti and murals. People are marking their space, putting their words down, and putting their foot down. They’re saying, “This is our city. These are our values. This is what we want. This is what we need.” So much of it is Black Lives Matter.

I always think about how we can accurately reflect what people want. How can you actually create a project that people need and want to see? Studio work is valuable as a way of processing and reflection. But I don’t know if people need a painting or a coil basket right now. People want to know that they’re safe, that they’re welcome in their community.

Any sort of honest expression will tell us what we need. The role of art right now is to be honest.

Stacey Kors is a longtime arts writer and editor who lives on Peaks Island.

“Daughters of the Dawn,” Ashley Page, 2019, handmade abaca paper, collage, 10.5″ x 8″. Photo by Ashley Page


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