Changing Hearts and Minds Doesn’t Happen Overnight - 10 Questions with Mixed Media Artist and Community Catalyst Tracie Thornton
Southern-born artist Tracie Thornton creates 2-dimensional and 3-dimensional mixed media works under the moniker Thorn. Her work combines post consumer packaging and textiles with printmaking and assemblage to create collages, sculptures, and wearable body adornments. The elements that Thorn uses in her work are every day objects that she has collected from all over, saving them from being discarded and eventually finding a way to give them a second life.
Thornton is gracious with her time. She currently serves on the City of Jacksonville's Art in Public Places Committee, who, along with Cultural Council staff, are responsible for overseeing the growth and management of the City's official public art collection. Additionally, Thornton founded Renewed Community Initiatives (RECi), a grassroots community service organization. In early 2018, RECi received a grant to fund several small scale-scale beautification projects in the Harborview neighborhood of Jacksonville. The projects will illustrate how small changes can make big differences. One project that is slated to be funded from this grant is a mural located off Soutel Drive. The organization is requesting that artists submit to them their qualifications to be considered for the project, which has a $2,500 budget. If you are interested, please email email@example.com for additional information.
On Friday, May 4, The Urban Atelier will host an opening reception for "Play Play," a solo exhibition featuring works by Thorn. The artist invites the public to explore, through interactive sculptures and performances, a different perspective of how aspects of popular games we play as children can follow us into adulthood, though they may change and morph over time. "Play Play" is on display until June 28, with an artist talk scheduled for the afternoon of June 9.
10 Questions with Tracie Thornton
What have you learned about yourself through your artistic and cultural endeavors?
I've learned that there is no point or place where you get to or destination you arrive at and feel like you know everything; and I believe that is a good thing.
Some feel that in order to be taken seriously as a professional you have to present yourself as being all knowing. Biut, egos ruin nations
I've learned I have to embrace adversity no matter what situation I find myself in. Challenges help you grow and I've learned the most from the challenges that I didn't resist, simply embraced and leaned into.
How do you define success in what you do?
I feel that success has to be measured one challenge at a time. I don't truly think that there is some all encompassing definition of success.
During my time in the Peace Corps, I learned the hard way that success isn't always defined by the number of people you reach, but instead it is measured by the fact that you've reached anyone at all. Helping to empower just one person to change their life, through sharing information they needed, makes a difference and means I was successful in some way. This is what defined success during my service. Who would say one life isn't important?
In art advocacy, I feel the same. My goal is to help others understand that art isn't just an aesthetic improvement to communities but that it can potentially change them economically and shift a community's self-esteem. So, if I've convinced at least one person in a position of influence to make a difference and act in a positive way by injecting more art into the communities that need it, I feel that is success. I know some wouldn't see reaching just one person as 'successful', but that's how advocacy begins.
I believe my success as a professional artist is multi-pronged, so measuring success in my personal work as an artist is a little more difficult. As I mentioned, it goes back to what the challenge at hand is. How success looks also changes as I grow as an individual.
It is always very tempting as an artist to say that if someone buys my work that means I'm doing something good, but I think money is an over simplification of one's success as a professional in any field, especially an artist. Don't misunderstand though, I believe that being able to support oneself as an artist is absolutely an important and positive goal and outcome, but it can't be the only thing that we as artists ever aim for. For me personally, if I do it leaves me without the passion to create art with meaning.
Evolution and change are important, as well. Not change just for the sake of becoming something else, but change for the sake of progress and positive growth. If I've changed as a result of creating a body of work or encouraged someone to think a little differently about the world as a whole, I'd say I reached a goal and therefore a certain level of success.
What patterns, routines, or habits do you think advance the likelihood that any given project will be successful and how do you integrate those behaviors into your workflow?
First, I think any successful project begins with defining what success of the project looks like. What are the goals of the project?
Then, I identify the positives. What are my assets? What do I already have in hand that can help me get to where I am going.
Next, pull together a team if it aligns with the configuration and goals of the project. I always look to collaborate when possible. Many hands make light work. Don't think you have to do everything alone.
From that point I have to lean into how things might evolve. It's ok to be upset when things don't go the way I want them to, so long as I keep moving. If I thought I was going to have 10 volunteers to help with a project and I now have two, how can things be reconfigured? When there are many moving parts to any project, whether it be art or anything else, you have to constantly reassess, remain mentally agile, and problem solve creatively.
What is Renewed Community Initiatives (RECi) and in what ways is RECi positively impacting the community through creative placemaking initiatives?
Renewed Community Initiatives is a community service organization that I recently started. The organization initially started as a neighborhood organization a year ago, but I saw the need for advocacy and representation for other communities outside of my own. RECi works to improve communities in need through various beautification projects, including art, while working to create a sense of place through the identification of natural and historical community assets.
Though we are still a young organization, RECi has positively impacted the community by helping individuals realize their power to create change. The goal of RECi has been to advocate for art in every community for everyone because not everyone sees the benefit of art initiatives in certain neighborhoods. We’ve become a catalyst for other organizations and individuals looking to change their communities through the injection of art.
What attracted you to serve on the Art in Public Places Committee and what insights or appreciations have you garnered from your time as a committee member?
I was asked if I was interested, which I was. Initially, I believed being involved was just another opportunity to volunteer my time and simply voice my opinions about art. But, as time went on I realized it is much more than that. It's been an extraordinary opportunity to advocate for the arts and their positive influence in the community on many levels.
I see part of my responsibility to be helping others in understanding that art should always be inclusive and not exclusive. It isn't just for those who have million dollar art collections. It is also for the little kid that walks to school everyday and who could be inspired by art that she or he sees on the way. Art is not just for certain neighborhoods. It is for all neighborhoods. It is important to me to make sure that all Jacksonville communities have access to art.
From my time on the Committee, I've also learned that we as artists are captains of our destinies and leaders in our communities, but only if we choose to be. Too often we look for others to come along and 'do something' or provide opportunities for us to share our work. I've learned to stop waiting. Work to create your own opportunities. Work with those who are in a position to provide assistance; whether that is a city official or someone with a passion. Look in the mirror and you will see someone capable of making a positive change in our community as a whole. Look to build as opposed to demolish, unless you plan to leave something positive behind.
I know these all sound like platitudes, and they kind of are; and for a reason - they work. I believe we must sometimes revisit the basics of positive action in order to move forward. Nothing fancy needed.
Your work commonly incorporates post-consumer materials, items that would otherwise be discarded and landfill-bound. You've previously said that your affinity for graphic design is what attracted you to using these materials. With that in mind, how would you describe your design aesthetic and what is the most memorable item you saved from a landfill and later incorporated into a piece?
Doing collages and assemblages for my graphic design work taught me to explore, be adventurous, and to be appreciative of all things design. I was always a little sad to throw away packaging and design that I thought was amazing, whether it be mailers, a food label, or wrapping for a set of chopsticks.
In our culture, we buy, we consume, and then we throw away. I disagreed. So, I looked for ways to allow the packaging I loved to continue to live on by recycling it and creating art from it, or with it. I'd probably be called a hoarder if I wasn't so organized and discerning about it. I don't think I am that bad, but that is probably what lots of hoarders say.
I love so many things I've found. I keep organized files of 2D pieces and have a small collection of storage containers for 3D items. There were these amazingly embroidered shoes that I loved. They held great memories of places I'd been and thoughts I was thinking while wearing them. I kept the embroidered parts after I'd worn the soles out . I used the embroidery from one shoe in an assemblage piece last year. But, the piece I am longing to use is the head of a cherub that was originally part of a planter from my Grandma's backyard. I grew up looking at that planter as I played in her backyard so it holds sweet memories for me.
Both of these items are types of foundational art pieces. The piece from the slipper is a connection to what is a traditional art form in so many places. The preservation of traditional arts is something that's close to my heart. The cherub is a connection to traditional sculpture.
"Play Play" opens at the Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum on Friday, May 4th. What went into creating this exhibition and what is the narrative surrounding the exhibit?
In order for me to create this work it required me thinking about myself differently as an artist. I was working using more of a minimalist aesthetic, which is a little different for me. It is what I believe instinctively was needed as far as what I am doing conceptually is concerned.
When working two dimensionally and three dimensionally, I usually look to fill a space with whatever I feel is necessary. I did not do that with this work. This is probably one of the most introspective collections I’ve put together but I’ve left space for people to insert themselves in the work. It has been a little uncomfortable but I have continued to allow the work to evolve as I felt necessary.
The show focuses on games and pastimes that we play as children that we might continue into adulthood with simple emotional ramifications and sometimes with more tangible outcomes. For example, some of our government leaders might’ve grown up playing ‘War’ or pretending to lead an army as children. Now they might be in an actual position to send real people to war. I believe that sometimes they forget these soldiers are real people with families and not pieces to be moved around on a chessboard.
You donate a generous portion of your time to serving others and contributing to initiatives that are bigger than yourself. Since time is a precious commodity, how do you determine whether you should say yes or no to a role or initiative?
It is tough to decide what opportunities to say yes to.
First, I’d say that just because I say no to an opportunity doesn’t mean that it isn’t a good opportunity; it just may not be the right opportunity for me. I have to decide if an opportunity will help me to move in the direction that I wish to or help me to achieve a specific goal. Another key factor is that I have to determine if I’ll be able to accomplish the task without something else being extremely neglected. I don’t believe in spreading myself so thin that I am not able to do a quality job.
I also believe there should be a mutual benefit when it comes to any opportunity. One of my favorite quotes says it all: “Don’t set yourself on fire to keep other people warm.” I don’t believe that giving back to your community is about self-sacrifice. I believe in giving in a way that leaves all involved with more than what they started with.
What words do you have to encourage others to donate their time and energy to causes or communities they are passionate about?
There is so much I wish others had shared with me when I first started this journey. Here are a couple things that are good to remember:
What is the greatest challenge(s) you face as an artist working in Northeast Florida?
Probably the same issues I would face anywhere that isn’t New York, San Francisco, Atlanta, Chicago, LA, or Miami - the perceived art capitals in the states. Overall though, there are three issues that stand out to me, but I think these are issues that affect any artist community.
First, it would be what I believe is a somewhat outdated notion that you have to be in a specific city at all times to be successful as an artist. I think perception is reality. If you only see barriers to your success as an artist then there they will be. I don’t feel that being in a specific place is the challenge that it was 20 or 30 years ago. With marketing, branding, networking, and perseverance you can be a professional artist.
Second, I don’t think artists in this area truly get the consideration they deserve.
Third, I think artists can be a little cliquish. I feel that sometimes we act like, and I’m about to get really Southern here, crabs in a bucket. Meaning that we scramble over each other and step on someone else’s neck for an opportunity. We should share more, whether it is information, opportunities, resources, or skills. There is strength in collaboration.