A native of Goose Creek, SC, Jennifer Mack-Watkins (b.1979) acclaimed printmaker and illustrator, recognized at an early age that her education was limited, and wanting to learn more about her culture chose to attend Morris Brown College, an Historically Black College & University in Atlanta. She attained a BA in Studio Arts, later earning a Master of Arts in Teaching from Tufts University and a 2009 MFA in Printmaking from Pratt Institute.
Printmaking classes at Clark University (which she could attend while at Morris Brown) with Professors Christopher Hickey and Louis Delsarte were enormously influential to her practice, as were classes with Japanese woodblock printer and author April Vollmer at the Lower East Side Printshop, and with Takuji Hamanaka at the Manhattan Graphics Center in NYC. Japanese water-based woodblock printing, or Mokuhanga, dates from the 17th century and so inspired Mack-Watkins that she held numerous sales and fundraisers to self-finance two trips to Japan, one to present a paper, and one to study with the Mokuhanga Innovation Lab Artist-in- Residency program.
Today, Mack-Watkins includes Japanese woodblocks, silkscreens, lithographs, and illustrations as part of her studio practice, and her work is part of the permanent collections of such prominent institutions as the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Library of Congress, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and The Getty Archives. She says, “In my prints, I combine digital methods with hand-drawn additions to create narratives based on how I see the world through my lens as an artist. I use photographic imagery from vintage magazines, advertisements, newspapers, and literature to counteract how media and popular culture flood society with harmful, stereotypical perceptions of my culture.”
The acclaimed printmaker currently has a solo show on display in ARTS Southeast Main Gallery. Entitled “Children of the Sun: In Orbit,” it is a continuation of the themes explored in her 2021 solo show “Children of The Sun” at the Brattleboro Museum of Art Center in Vermont which was covered by the New York Times in March of that year. The title is inspired by the influential but short-lived publication The Brownies’ Book: A Monthly Magazine for the Children of the Sun, edited by sociologist, historian, and civil rights activist W. E. B. DuBois. Regarded as a pioneer in children’s literature, it celebrated African American children with positive images and sought to, in his words, “teach Universal Love and Brotherhood for all little folk – black and brown and yellow and white.”
Following in DuBois’ footsteps, Mack-Davis’s work explores ideas of children imagining their futures without constraints and is critically considered part of the Afrofuturism genre – a cultural aesthetic in music, art and literature that combines themes in science fiction, fantasy, and history to connect African American people to their history and culture. “I think we, as African Americans, have always thought of the future because we have always been displaced.” She goes on, “Through my art, I seek to provide a sense of assurance for all African American children and hope the work encourages imagination and aspiration. In the same way, I hope to encourage children to enjoy childhood while being aware of the injustices and challenges that lie ahead of them.” She continues, “That’s the power of art. I can make people believe in how I see the world through my imagery.”
Two years ago, Mack-Watkins and her family returned to the south because she wanted her young children to “have a connection to where I’m from: family, nature, land, culture, food (steamed cabbage, red rice, Hoppin’ John cooked by my mom; To know who they are.” During the prior 15 years she taught grades K through 12 in private and charter schools in Harlem, Brooklyn, New Jersey, and Atlanta. Today she embraces combining the flexibility of working in the studio, traveling for projects and book signings, and her passion for education. “I’m starting to see that all my work has an educational component. I educate myself and then I can educate others.”
With her show in Brattleboro, for example, her research led her to teach others about Vermont-born Daisy Turner, an American oral storyteller, poet, and activist born to former slaves in 1883. She also discovered an image of “The Negro Silent Protest Parade” that showed 10,000 African Americans, some of whom were children, dressed in white and marching down New York’s Fifth Avenue on July 28, 1917. “At first, I thought it was a celebratory parade…but it was held to protest and mourn the 40 men, women, and children who lost their lives in a race riot in East St. Louis. I was affected by this imagery because these children were beautifully dressed and were called to protest a horrific tragedy as a form of activism…The image appeared in the very first issue of The Brownies’ Book.”
ARTS Southeast is exhibiting the original pieces from the Brattleboro show, some studies for an upcoming series, and a projection mapping area created with the technical expertise of Will Penny “to make you feel you are walking into the experience of being in outer space.” The exhibit explores children being the center of their own universes, allowing them to imagine the future they want without limitations. The artist chokes up as she remembers when limitations were set on her by a high school art teacher who decreed that her portfolio wasn’t strong enough to participate in advanced level art classes. “So that’s why I had to go the art education route.”
That experience of being told she wasn’t “good enough” to continue her art studies made her determined that another child would never feel that same way. “I feel like it’s the purpose of a teacher to see the potential in each child, to help develop their imagination so that they can continue to be great and be greater.” Mack-Watkins says, “My own six-year-old daughter wants to be an astronaut and bring pets to space, and I am encouraging that! We play and we imagine.”
She talks about “always searching for positive ways that I can encourage my own children to play and use their imaginations. It’s important for me to find toys that look like my daughter to build her self-confidence. I’m always on the hunt for children’s books, coloring books, and dolls that offer a positive representation of African American children. As a child born and raised in South Carolina, it was hard for me to find toys that looked like me.” In her show, Mack-Watkins reimagines dolls to “represent that very hope, joy, and awareness of the world that I seek for my own children. Each doll is given a role to become part of the future. I chose to name them after famous African Americans who have made an impact on our history—names like Katherine, Carter, Guion, Langston, Harriet, and Emma. I want to take the darkest color and make it beautiful. All babies are beautiful.”
Most recently, Mack-Watkins has garnered accolades for her striking Japanese woodblock print illustrations in the Kokila Penguin Random House children’s book You Gotta Meet Mr. Pierce: The Storied Life of Folk Artist Elijah Pierce. Authored by Chiquita Mullins Lee and Carmella Van Vleet and published in January of this year, the book introduces Elijah Pierce (1892-1984) who migrated for a better life from Mississippi to Ohio and opened a barbershop to cut hair, make art, and share with his community. He was honored with a National Heritage Fellowship in 1982.
Jennifer Mack-Watkins’ show “Children of the Sun: In Orbit” hangs through June 24 in ARTS Southeast’s main gallery, 2301 Bull Street. There is an artist talk hosted by award-wining author and historian Trelani Michelle on Saturday, May 27 at 2pm; open studios on Sunday afternoons (she has a space in Arts Southeast’s Sulfur Studios); and a gallery reception on Friday, June 2 from 5-9 pm in conjunction with First Fridays in Starland. The illustrator will also host a Book Signing and Story Time for You Gotta Meet Mr. Pierce on Saturday, June 10 at 2pm at ARTS Southeast.
Full details, including links to purchase her book and her prints, can be found at ARTSSoutheast.org/inorbit. Find out more at jennifermackwatkins.com and on Instagram @mack_jenniferprints and @mwatkins_jenniferillustrate.