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Today we talk to textile artist Sonya Clark, who applies the techniques of textile work to represent her personal and cultural history. Her assignment draws on her insightful approach to histories and asks you to represent yours. Here are your instructions:

1. Think about an aspect of your personal or cultural history that is hard to imagine
2. Select a material to quantify, measure, and actualize that history
3. Or, do something familiar to you for as long as you can and measure it to see what it lines up with from your personal or cultural history
4. Upload documentation of your experience using #theartassignment
5. Fame and glory (your work might be in a future episode)

Learn more about Sonya's work:
http://sonyaclark.com/

And don't forget to subscribe for new episodes of The Art Assignment every Thursday!

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[MUSIC PLAYING]

Sarah: We're in Richmond, Virginia today to talk to the artist Sonya Clark. Sonya is a textile artist, but I mean that in a very wide way, for she applies the mentality of textile work to a broad range of materials.

She's used human hair as thread, calling it the fibers we grow, and thread as hair, putting to use embroidery and braiding techniques to mimic the way cornrows and Bantu knots are created. She's also deployed the common fine tooth comb in a number of works, weaving, and stacking, and assembling, the ready-made items into configurations that lead us to consider how hair, hairdressing, and its tools are a reflection of who and what we are.

For Clark, the head and hair are not only the site where we present and express ourselves, but also a place where we negotiate race. Other recent works include "Unraveled," for which she dismantled a battle flag of the Confederacy thread by thread and presents its remains, and "Unraveling," for which she displays a partially unraveled that the audience is invited to help take apart.

Sonya's insightful approach to histories is going to be our focus today. And we're going to consider how we process histories, how we measure them, and how we represent them to the world.

Sonya: Hi, I'm Sonya Clark. And this is your Art Assignment.

So I'm going to tell you a little bit of a story because that's what I do. I wanted to make a self portrait. And I was using hair as a self portrait because it already is. But it's also not a-- it's not just a portrait of the self, it's a portrait of long, long, long legacies.

Anyway, so I decided to save all the hair that I combed out of my brush. And I made-- I felted it into a dreadlocks. I've never had dreadlocks, but I felted it into a dreadlock. And I decided that this dreadlock would make a perfect self portrait because not only does it contain my DNA, but I was going to make it my height, 67 inches. And I also happened to be born in 1967. And when my photographer and I were working on documenting the piece and we realized that the detail the real piece, then I shifted from a sort of very logical measurement that had to do with me and my height and what year I happen to be born in and etc. to thinking about, well, how long would a dreadlock be if it didn't measure someone's height but it measured a lifetime? If someone started growing a dreadlock from when they were a child, from infancy, until, let's say, they live to 90, how long would that be?

And so I calculated that. And I made this piece called "Long Hair," which is actually a digital print of that original dreadlock that I made that was this thick. So I digitally printed that, and reproduced it, and stitched it together so that it would be a continuous gridlock of 30 feet long. Because 30 feet is how long it is if someone grew a dreadlock from infancy until about 90 years, which is quite incredible to measure a life that way.

It's hard to imagine what a lifetime would feel like, but we can measure what a lifetime might be like in hair. So this is the way in which measurement becomes a way for us to understand things that numbers help us understand things that we can't understand in other ways.

So there are two parts to this assignment. The first part is probably the most difficult part. I want you to spend some time thinking about something from your personal history, your own cultural history, something that you want to share, something that is almost hard to imagine, something hard to conceive of, something that you're going to help, in the second part, your audience understand because you're going to pick a material that is going to help quantify, measure, bring to fruition, actualize what that history is.

Or you could do the reverse. And that is to take an action, something that you normally do in your studio, and the materials that you are most comfortable working in and do something for as long as you possibly can and then measure it. And figure out what that measurement lines up with in terms of something from your own personal or cultural history.

Sarah: John, I'd like to emphasize with this assignment that the history you address doesn't need to be something huge or monumental. I think it can be something small or personal that still has importance, like William Anastasi who would take a subway ride every day. He would hold pens or pencils and kind of let the subway move him to and fro to create this scribbly drawing. That was a way of measuring that ride.

John: Yeah, I think a lot of art is about trying to process history in both personal and monumental ways. In the context of this assignment, I kept thinking about this quote from James Joyce's "Ulysses" where Stephen Dedalus says, "history is a nightmare from which I'm trying to awake."

Sarah: Yeah. I actually think this assignment is really difficult, but it's important. And I think that you need to spend a lot of time thinking about what your history is going to be that you're going to think about and also what the materials are that you're going to use.

John: Yeah, I mean, you could use anything for chewing gum to corks from wine bottles to candy.

Sarah: In 1991, Felix Gonzalez Torres made a series of works informed by the minimalist strategies of artists like Carl Andre, who made simple arrangements of everyday units like bricks. But Gonzalez Torres instead spilled wrapped candies onto the ground, sometimes spread into geometric shapes and other times mounded into corners. And it was always a specific amount.

For "Untitled" (Portrait of Ross in LA), Gonzalez Torres specified 175 pounds of candy corresponding to the ideal body weight of his longtime partner who died of AIDS-related complications that same year. He could have chosen 175 pounds of a lot of things, but he chose candy, which he invites the audience to take and eat. The candy is a stand-in for Ross's body, which was gradually depleted by a devastating illness. By taking a piece, the audience savors something sweet and ephemeral, opening up allusions to so many things, to the millions of lives abbreviated by AIDS, to the drugs used to treat it, to the body of Christ, to fears of contagion, and to our own complicity in the continuing AIDS epidemic. You choose how to read this piece. And that's the beauty in how Gonzalez Torres chose to measure a history both personal and monumental.

Sonya: But there are darker parts of our history, our collective histories, our cultural histories, our global histories that also seem unfathomable to me to try and understand. And so I started thinking about Richmond as the seat of the Confederacy and Ghana as being one of the places where people were enslaved and then brought to the Americas.

And so I measured that distance, which is a little over 5,000 miles. How to measure that? So I decided to measure it in gold. Now, Ghana used to be called the Gold Coast because that's where gold was and that's what the colonizers wanted. They got gold, and then, they got people. And I made gold wire, over 5,000 inches of it, and spun it around this spool of-- this core of ebony.

Now it's hard to imagine what 5,000 miles is. And it's still hard to imagine what 5,000 inches is. But to imagine a spool of thread every inch counts for every mile that someone's body was put in the base of the ship, shackled to other people, and then traveling across the ocean is some way of quantifying something that, to me, still seems unfathomable.

If you do this assignment, you're going to learn more about yourself, and you're going to find something about yourself that you can extend to others. And I actually think that's the only reason to make art. So as an artist, I understand things a little bit more when I measure them. But then when I put them out into the world, they become a way for us to understand something together.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

I should have been a mathematician. That's the thing everybody thought I was going to be because math came easily to me. And often you don't do the thing that comes easily to you. Art is actually very hard for me.