Welcome to Conversations with Black Creators. This week, we're chatting with Brooke Chaney, a Dallas-based artist and high school art teacher.
(Editor’s Note: This is the fourth feature in our series, Conversations with Black Creators, which is intended to highlight Black creatives’ work in various fields. At Tako Agency, we are really proud of being creators--people who pour creativity and skill into beautiful projects that add value to a corner of the world--and we want to make sure that all creators have a platform from which to make every corner burst with life.
The murder of George Floyd was a Molotov cocktail smashed onto the simmering rage, grief, and racial injustice that has plagued this country for hundreds of years. I’m not going to go off on a tangent here because the purpose of this series is to amplify Black voices, not mine, but I’ll say this: Black Lives Fucking Matter. End police brutality. This time, I hope, change is permanent. It’s up to us--all of us--to make it so.
To support Black creatives, Tako Agency is making a donation to the Black Art Futures Fund for every feature in this series we publish on the Tako Stand. The outpouring of funding and philanthropic giving that was initiated when #BLM re-entered the spotlight in May was a GREAT thing, but we believe it’s consistent support over time that makes the most difference.
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A textiles major and self-proclaimed “hoarder” of materials she may or may not ever use to create, Brooke is an artist’s artist. Her home--where she took my video call for our interview--is a free-wheeling hippie’s Wonderland: paper ornaments suspended from the ceiling, string lights loosely pinned around the door frame, and hung art of innumerable mediums all but completely obscuring the walls.
From her warm-but-wild artist’s hideaway, Brooke admits that she feels caught between her job as a high school art teacher and the desire to be a full-time creator (who leaves the house but once a year--if that). She jokes that her midlife crisis might come early, having just breached her 30th birthday this month.
While I identify with that what the f*ck am I doing with my life feeling (as I’m sure most of us do), I can’t help but marvel at Brooke’s obstinate resolution to just make--whatever she wants, whenever she pleases. She said at one point that she’s most inspired not by people who simply make art, but those who are experiencing it all the time. In speaking with her, I found that she is one of those people, and she’s right--it’s downright invigorating to encounter.
What's more, she’s adorable and funny as hell, which made the two hours we spent together feel like 20 minutes.
Hey Brooke! Go ahead and introduce yourself.
Hi, my name is Brooke. Some people in my circle call me Mom. I’m a high school art teacher, teaching 9th through 12th grade. I make t-shirts and other stuff on the side--all around, just a pretty DIY-type person.
In your Voyage Dallas interview, I read that you were in the Fibers program [a degree program focused on fibers and textiles] at the University of North Texas, which is actually sort of a novelty now, since they discontinued the program in 2018! Tell me about that.
We learned a lot of cool stuff, like underwater basket weaving. I remember telling my dad and he was just like, “What the f*ck? I’m paying for you to go to school for this?” [laughs]
We also learned to use natural dyes. We’d bring in food scraps and boil fabric in a pot like witches. [laughs] We also learned screen printing and how to weave on a loom, which takes a billion gajillion years to do, but it’s a very cool and specific skill to have. I’m glad I was able to be a part of it before they closed [the program]. It was a pretty rare major.
When you’re teaching art at school, are you bound by a curriculum, or are you free to do what you want to do?
Our school is partnered with the International Baccalaureate organization, so for my 11th and 12th graders, I teach the set curriculum of the Diploma Program. They’re in the same art class, working on the same stuff, for both years. At the end of the program they submit an exhibition, comparative study, and process portfolio.
With my 9th and 10th graders, it’s different. Yeah, there are TEKS and shit mandated by the state, but when I arrived, there was literally no curriculum, so I got to decide what we did. I really focus on building up art vernacular [and analysis], because students should be able to articulate what they want to make, in art words.
A lot of people on the outside looking in at the art world feel like it’s very pretentious and foreign because you can’t understand anything artists say. Once you learn the vocabulary, the facade crumbles and you realize they’re not saying anything f*cking profound--it’s just basic English. [laughs] So I want the kids to be able to use the vocabulary, correctly conceptualize and analyze, and experiment with different mediums.
I guess the short answer to your question is...there is a curriculum, but like [grimacing face]...who cares? [laughs]
Photo: Brie Banks
In that same Voyage Dallas interview [about your apparel journey], you said you experienced some stop-and-start. What did that process look like?
I got really into thrifting and I’d bring clothes home and do what I call Frankensteining, where I’d just pull everything apart and like, swap sleeves around, put a hood on something that didn’t have a hood...you know, stuff like that. I loved experimenting in my garage, like a mad scientist...a really lame one. [laughs]
Eventually, I bought this screen printing press and started screen printing. I didn’t have any of the other tools you’re supposed to have, so I’d just cut out stencils using an X-acto knife and contact paper.
A “business” type friend saw what I was doing, and it turned out he knew someone who worked for a screen printing company, so the three of us started making stuff together. I entered us in the Dallas RAW Showcase at Gas Monkey Live. We put together 10-12 designs and I printed 250 shirts by hand. We came up with a name, a website...all that. We basically built a business in like a month and a half. We showed at RAW and people really loved our stuff.
After that, man, we were so burned out. We just wanted a break, but as the months went by and our lives started going separate directions, I was the only one still motivated and hungry to make things. So I started printing shirts in my garage again, for fun.
I have a friend who DJed at Crown and Harp, and he did this thing called Goes Well With. He would choose an artist and do a whole night of music that paired well with them. One of the first ones he did was Kaytranada.
So I was like, well I’m gonna print some shirts and give them out. I made this shitty line drawing design of Kaytranada and printed 10 or 15 shirts, and whoever walked in first got one. That’s how people got to know me around here. I’d just show up, pass out shirts, and leave.
"Visible Empire," Brooke Chaney, 2020; Photo: Milton Garay
Back in my hometown, Seattle, it felt like the creatives were split into two groups: uber pretentious art “clubs,” and people just throwing shit at the wall and having fun, expressing. A quick scan of your Instagram reveals that you surround yourself with lots of different kinds of creatives. What’s the creative scene like in Dallas, in your experience?
I tend to stay mostly in the DIY realm of the art scene in Dallas. As an adult, I haven’t displayed my work in a proper gallery or been part of a professional exhibition yet. Hosting something like Pop Up and Chill, my local arts and crafts vendors event, is what I see when I look at the scene here. I see people that are working in different trades and with contrasting aesthetics, coming together to share their passions with other people.
In my bubble of the Dallas creative scene, there’s healthy support for one another. We have lots of collaborations and group events. People are always promoting one another on social media. It’s seemingly pleasant but, like every community, there are cliques and problematic individuals. We won’t get into that though, because I stay out of people's business.
As far as criticism and exclusion in the creative community... it’s inevitable. Although Pop Up and Chill is supposed to be an inclusive space, I still view people’s work with a critical eye and curate the participants of the event. I have to look for artists that are creating quality, reliable products.
I also have to search for things that I think people would actually want to see or buy. I definitely have moments of harsh judgment when looking at other people’s work, but I believe the difference between your Seattle “pretentious art clubs” and me is that I’m objective and not subjective. Or maybe I’m just flattering myself. [chuckles]
"There is a place for everybody, but I don’t think every place is for everybody, if that makes sense?"
What would you tell creators in the “DIY” scene who want to break into a more elevated space?
I think artists need to make what they want, but if they do want to be in a more elevated space, they need to realize that it’s not so much about what you want to say, but the way you say it--the quality or form of your work. You’ll be excluded simply because your work is not formally conscious or intentional enough. And that’s totally fine--those creators still have spaces where they can flourish.
There is a place for everybody, but I don’t think every place is for everybody, if that makes sense? (But at the same time, if you can fine tune your form and intention while staying true to your art, f*cking do it!)
Then there are artists who are making stuff that is...I don’t know how say this… "worthy” [eyeroll] of that space and they’re not being let in because of discrimination based on gender, race, sexuality. Those ones--yeah, for sure, bang the door down.
Coat by Psychic Outlaw
Totally. Do you think that people in--for lack of a better term--“low art” can also be exclusionary?
I was just listening to the Brilliant Idiots podcast the other day and they were talking about how cool, but also kind of f*cked up, it is that we have all this freedom to carve out our own little realities--but by creating those spaces, you keep other people out, and it’s this weird, exclusionary cycle. You want the freedom to create your own shit, but then [just like the “art elite”] you look like an asshole for not including other people.
Honestly, I think that’s how Black people feel a lot of times. Like, you make shit and [white people] are like, “Why aren’t there any white people in this?” And it’s like, [laughing hysterically] “WHAT DO YOU F*CKING MEAN? YOU LITERALLY OWN EVERYTHING ELSE. Get your powdery-ass claws off my shit. God DAMN.” [still laughing]
"There are artists that totally thrive on Instagram, but I think that popularity can cause redundancy. Like, you did something that “worked,” so you just keep doing that thing, which then breeds complacency because you get comfortable with not pushing the bounds of your creativity."
Speaking of people carving out their own spaces, do you think Instagram is helping or hurting artists?
[sighs] Good question. Just like everything, a little bit of both. There’s this feeling of inferiority that comes with being an artist in general, and now with everyone being able to just slap their shit up, it can definitely discourage some people or make them envious. On the other hand, [creatives] can easily share ideas and images, which presents us with exponentially more opportunity.
There are artists that totally thrive on Instagram, but I think that popularity can cause redundancy. Like, you did something that “worked,” so you just keep doing that thing, which then breeds complacency because you get comfortable with not pushing the bounds of your creativity. You might be talented but, like I tell my kids at school, make me care about this.
" 'Beyonce’s boring.' Quote that."
How do you use Instagram?
I love following other artists on Instagram, but I try not to follow people with a ton of influence. I don’t follow any celebrities, because you can get stuck in a hive mindset. I’m not intentionally contrarian; I’m just usually genuinely uninterested in things that everyone loves. I don’t know if that’s me trying to be cool [laughs] or if it’s a natural reaction.
Like, I hate Beyonce with a passion. [laughs] She’s got some talent, she’s a great businesswoman, but her music’s boring. She’s boring. Boring, boring, boring. But people love her. [cups hands around mouth] “Beyonce’s boring.” Quote that. [laughs]
"Boy," Brooke Chaney, 2020; Photo: Milton Garay
Another interviewee for this series, Alcynna Lloyd, coined the term “New Civil Rights Movement” for the post-George Floyd era. Do you think anything sets this particular upheaval apart from others in the (recent) past--Trayvon Martin, for example?
Yeah, there’s 100% a difference between now and then, because people don’t have shit to do because of COVID. They’re just sitting around. They want something to be a part of; they want an excuse to get off their asses and feel needed.
Plus, they’re already disgruntled about the pandemic, politics, etc., so they’re putting more energy into this backlash against the government and fighting for civil rights...[sigh]. It’s just so tiring, honestly.
I’m surprised the subject has been circulating for this long, though. Americans are so bored they’re actually doing research--what does it mean to defund the police, and where does all the money go, and how is the government f*cking us over?
Before, the movement revolved around a black child being killed and some closely tied issues (systemic racism, prejudice, etc.), but that’s essentially “all it was.” This time, the movement is fueled by more complicated circumstances, and we needed time and resources to fight against it--which COVID conveniently provided. It all just happened to start with a Black man getting killed. Again.
I’m interested to see what happens in the long run because it’s already started to fizzle out, but just the fact that it’s gone on this long and to this degree is different. It’s like the universe telling us to start again and fix shit that’s broken. We’ll see what happens.
"I don’t think everyone needs to have something to say...everyone has their own job and this is my lane--to make things."
Does it make you hopeful, or tired, or maybe a little of both?
I don’t know if I’d say “hopeful.” Curious? Intrigued? Intrigued and fatigued! [laughs] Honestly, I know it’s important to be aware and participate, but to a degree, I stay away. I’m listening, I’m watching, but I’m not speaking. That’s not my avenue. I don’t think everyone needs to have something to say.
It’s good to contribute, but I’m not turning my [Instagram] account into a social justice crusade. I felt guilty about that when all this started. Like, f*ck, everyone’s marching, donating, yelling; and I could do that too, but my natural reaction is to make something about what’s happening. I was just like, you know what, everyone has their own job and this is my lane--to make things.
"Allocating Nutrients, Part I," Brooke Chaney, 2020; Photo: Brooke Chaney
You literally teach people how to make art for a living. Do you think creativity--not to be confused with the ability to create--is innate, or do you think it can be taught?
Mmm. I think you can teach someone the process of how to be creative. The artistic process is used all the time, everywhere, not even on purpose. It’s the cycle of getting inspired, coming up with an idea, reviewing it, experimenting, fleshing something out, and reflecting.
I think humans are innately creative, but some people don’t understand the design cycle, so they don’t have a starting point. If you never get started, there won’t be output, so you can’t claim to be creative. Would-be creators might stifle themselves because they think creativity looks a certain way.
So, it exists inside of everyone, but it’s more a matter of being taught to creatively articulate oneself?
"Some people make art, and some people experience it constantly--I’m most inspired by the latter."
Who are three creatives you admire?
Maybe because I just watched her documentary for the second time, I’m gonna say Marina Abramovic. She’s a performance artist who does things that are really strenuous for the body, and I think using the body as art is interesting. It’s very interactive, which is really my speed.
I think I admire work more than I admire people--anyone who’s willing to explore and experiment with their work instead of just living in one space, like the Instagrammers we were talking about earlier. Some people make art, and some people experience it constantly--I’m most inspired by the latter.
"One Man's Trash," Brooke Chaney, 2012; Photo: Feran Stennett
What’s your favorite thing you’ve ever created?
I kind of want to say the Visible Empire piece I recently made, but maybe I just want to say that because it was received well. [laughs] But I really do love it. I think it’s the only thing I’ve ever made that turned out exactly the way I imagined it.
When I was in college at UNT I got pretty interested in hobo culture, and did a project on that subject. [laughs] There was a Joann’s [Fabrics] with these small shopping carts, so I went and stole one, spray painted it gold, and filled it with all kinds of shit from my house. I wove a long, golden piece of fabric on a loom and inserted pieces of garbage into it, and then wove it into all the shit that was in the shopping cart.
I wheeled it across campus and it became a whole thing, because people were watching me. I got so many funny reactions. After I presented it, I left the cart on campus for about three days because I didn’t really feel like wheeling it all the way home. When I finally did go back for it, that shit was gone! [laughs] There was stuff in there I actually needed. Gone, bitch! [laughs]
What’s your favorite taco filling?
Like, all together, or like one singular thing inside of a taco?
You’re making this way more complicated than it has to be.
[laughs] I’m a literal person! Shit!
Ok, you get three things in a taco. What are they?
Chicken, corn, and cheese.
Mad love to Brooke for taking this chunk of precious time to chat with me. You can follow her on Instagram at @madexmom.
Don't forget to check out our other Conversations here!