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an interview with Grace Rosario Perkins

and Danielle Wright

Grace Rosario Perkins is an Indigenous multi-disciplinary artist, lecturer, and teacher currently based in Santa Fe. She is one of the founding members of Black Salt Collective, a SECA Award-nominated, all California-based art collective of women of color. For years, I’ve admired her work from afar for its richly textured explorations of history, language, and non-linear notions of identity. Earlier this summer, I finally reached out to connect and we agreed to meet virtually. Below are excerpts from our email exchanges and conversation.

—Danielle Wright

BIBBIJJUM, an installation in Sooner or Later, an exhibition at Southern Exposure, 2017. Smaller paintings made in collaboration with her father, Olen Perkins. Courtesy of Philip Maisel and Southern Exposure.

DW: Alright Grace, I’m going to start with the basics. When did you first start making art? What were formative experiences for you as an artist? How has your practice changed over time?


GRP: I feel like it’s almost kind of cheesy when people talk about how they “always” made art, but I guess that’s where the genesis always is. I was an introverted kid who made comics and fake magazines. I would draw this comic called “Mad Woman,” which was a riff on “Attack of the 50 Foot Woman.” Throughout high school, I drew a lot and made kind of crappy acrylic paintings.

During college and after, I worked at Creativity Explored, NIAD, and Creative Growth. I actually don’t have a very traditional art education, as in I’ve never taken painting or drawing. The most traditional course I took was sculpture, but I was kind of an amateur, really, working in the most analog, hand-heavy way possible, which is how I still work. Teaching at these art centers for adults with disabilities showed me the possibility of line work, repetition, and color. They’re spaces where people throw aside any sort of rules, and instead, create from intuition. I learned so much from watching people pick up a sharpie or something with “permanence” and just go for it. That’s kind of where I got away from the preciousness of making and its product and started focusing more on the process and experimentation. If things don't work, I'll just paint over it, or even if they do, I’ll use them and then eventually alter them.


DW: I see on your website that you grew up moving between cities, the Navajo Nation, and the Gila River Indian Community. What was that like for you? How does having lived and moved through these spaces inform your practice?

GRP: Right now, I’m in New Mexico and it’s so good to be back here. I was born and raised in Santa Fe and lived on and off my parents’ reservations throughout my life until I moved to Oakland. Santa Fe is complicated. There is a commodifiable aspect here regarding this fantasy merging of Spanish Colonial and Native cultures. I think it wasn’t until I left and got a little older that I absorbed how damaging (or at least confusing) it was as a Native child. Now that I’m a bit older, it’s good to be in these spaces where the land checks you a bit. I can consciously dissect the culture here—I have the mindset to do it. The land informs my practice, informs my being. I consider a lot of the land in my work through palette or form, or I bring it in somehow. I sneak it in. I feel like to be home here in my community is really generative right now. 

Wardrobe Test  from WE BELONG TOGETHER, shot in Sedona AZ, 2016. Courtesy of Grace Rosario Perkins.

The other day I hung out with like nine Native people from different parts of my life, people I grew up with. I was like, “Damn, I miss this.” I got a ride home from one of the hosts from The Singing Wire, a Native radio show, and the entire time he was like riffing on a list of topics—his grandchildren, the pueblo his ex-wife is from, hiking it, how he played basketball with my dad in college, and how my dad is tall but why are you so short? Something about it clicked for me. We were just cruising, listening to classic rock and talking, with like “Beast of Burden” playing low in the background.

I think in more urban epicenters, there is an access to art, scenes, vocabulary, and they’ve been formative in forging the work I am doing now. When I first moved to Oakland from the rez, I was a little hungry. I spent every week at the Pacific Film Archive just consuming—I saw so many film retrospectives. That’s what grounded me when I moved there ten years ago. But what has been frustrating to me is just the lack of awareness or consideration that happens in city centers with the larger public regarding Native communities. When people talk about gentrification, they don’t even talk about settler colonialism, and in city spaces, people are really detached from what a contemporary indigenous experience even looks like or who the people are around them, or how to engage. When Standing Rock was gathering attention, it felt a little confusing how so many people were allies on social media since, at the same time, I felt such an absence of that in the urban cultural sphere I lived in.

Black Salt Collective (L-R): Adee Roberson, Sarah Biscarra-Dilley, Anna Luisa Petrisko, and

Grace Rosario Perkins. Photo courtesy of Texas Isaiah (


I’m kind of putting it all back together right now. Leaving home, coming home. This feels like a process that has been incremental but is now more intentional. I think with the obstacles my family has faced—particularly as a Native family—I have had moments where home felt hard. Now I’m more situated in healing that. I want to be here. It’s not a spectacular story, but it’s the path I’m walking on right now and it feels good.

DW: I’m curious about Black Salt, whether you’re still involved with them and how it all came to be. Whatever you want to share.

GRP: Black Salt—we started in 2012, which is crazy! I was living in a house with Adee Roberson and Fanciulla Gentile, who makes music in the Bay Area under the name The Creatrix. We were all roommates and like lots of conversations or collaborations happened. We were just sitting around and venting about being queer women of color, and how the work we were making was getting lumped into shows that didn’t feel particularly generative for us.

Out of that conversation we just were like, “Let’s start a collective” and we didn’t know what that meant. That was the beginning and we expanded to add Anna Luisa Petrisko and Sarah Biscarra Dilley. Since then, Fanciulla has left the group so now it’s the four of us. We’ve been doing curatorial projects, we’re working on a book right now, with a lot of collaboration in between.


DW: Yeah!!


GRP: Yeah, it’s kind of a long process, we’ve been working on it for a while. We have interviews with artists we admire. In essence, the whole idea around Black Salt is that, and I feel like this is in my own practice too, we’re creating a platform to bring other people in. It’s our priority, and that’s kind of what we’re always doing. Curatorially, or with our book, or even with other projects. Whenever we have an event, we try to find people who want to perform or be paid. Whenever we can, we try to find the resources to support other artists of color.

DW: Yeah, I think the piece about offering compensation is one way to show others that you recognize them and appreciate them, but then other things are important as well. Switching gears, I’m curious about your time at Creativity Explored (CE) because it sounds like it was really generative for you. I also didn’t realize that you had also worked at NIAD and Creative Growth until this interview!


GRP: Yeah, I’ve done the circuit. I was an Art History student at Mills College. I kind of hated being an Art History student when I was there because it seemed like a lot of other people in that department were more aligned with, “I wanna be a gallery girl!” and I was like I can’t do this. That, and a lot of the focus was really Eurocentric, so I really had a hard time. I pushed to do an independent study on “Self-Taught Artists in the Contemporary Market” and got an internship at Creative Growth (CG).


I would organize their flat files and attic. It was really important for me because I got to look at art for eight hours a day. I remember looking at these drawings by Dwight Mackintosh that were so beautiful and unlike his normal work. He drew a house over and over and would write something along the lines of “I want to go home.” I was so moved by them. Then kind of by mistake someone told me to check out NIAD, so I went there and they offered me a substitute position. I had no teaching experience so I was like, “... O.K.” and then I just became a teacher! I taught at another art center in Marin for a while, too, also for adults with disabilities. Then I got hired at Creativity Explored. It was a hard transition to leave that line of work, but I had done it for eight years so it was time to move on to the next thing. I just finished teaching art to inner city youth in Richmond and that was really cool. The way I’m teaching now, it’s similar but different.

Opening of Visions Into Infinite Archives at SOMArts, curated by Black Salt Collective, January 2016.

Courtesy of Dan Fenstermacher/SOMArts.


DW: Cool, cool. And when you’re working with kids, and kids that are probably underserved, what are the differences and what are the similarities for you?


GRP: My teaching philosophy is that I’m more process-oriented than technique-oriented. I teach once a week because that’s just the state of art today. I roll in a cart of art supplies and I’m like the weird art woman who’s wearing 20 different patterns. Kids get really engaged because we’ve been doing these large-scale sculpture projects. I had a class at a community center where we did free writing about identity and community, first differentiating between the two, and then exploring how they’re intertwined. They had to make drawings based on their writing and then develop sculptural elements out of that. We had lots of cardboard so kids made gigantic stuff. I felt bad because I was like, “Oh shit, where is this stuff going to go?” and you have to take it home. Some kids made houses, someone made a car.

DW: Amazing.

GRP: Some people made life-size people cardboard cutouts. All I’m there to do is to facilitate the cutting with a matte knife or mixing colors, the kids more or less are at at the helm. I didn’t really want my hand to be in it.


DW: Yes.


GRP: Even when they’re like, “I can’t draw a person!” I’m like, “Yeah, you can.” It’s not that hard. And they’re like, “Can you do it?” and I’ll be like, “No.” I push that. There is some push-back, though. Some kids are like, “What’s the point of making art?” I’ve had to have some conversations about that. I’ve had some people tell me that they don’t want to make this, or that their mom won’t care. So I’ve had to talk to them about how art can be a vehicle for change and transformation and can build community. I have to reiterate that people can be artists and it’s totally a possibility for them to continue to do so through high school, and even as adults. I think this is a conversation I still even have in my own family. At public schools, and especially low-income public schools that are having a hard time, it can be intense to be inside the system and to see the state of things. I try to just take [the space of] that three hour period and get everyone engaged.

DW: It sounds like it. It’s really interesting that this connects to some of the questions I had about how community and identity show up in your work. I’m wondering if we can transition into talking about what role concepts of history, healing, and trauma play in your work.

Web (Don't Even Begin), Acrylic on canvas, 2017, Courtesy of the artist.

GRP: It’s really interesting because I took a video class once I got to Oakland. I started making a bunch of work but one piece was really important. It was about my grandfather who was a Vietnam vet. It was called “Now It’s Soft” and I used still photos of the rez, yearbook photos, excerpts from letters, and bits of phone conversations. In high school, he was valedictorian, but the way systems are set up he got drafted, sent to Vietnam, and in these letters to my great-aunt he had a slight criticism of the system itself, but also a really strong way of connecting to the youth and community of Vietnam. I carried around these letters for a few years. Maybe my grandmother gave them to me? I don’t remember, but they finally were activated. Once I made this piece, I realized how personal history is like a reservoir waiting to be tapped.

I began to consider questions around community and family and legacy as I got further and further out of school. Not just legacy, but change, and tracing myself through all of these things, like the way culture is kind of circumvented. Like for me, my grandmother is the last native, fluent Navajo speaker in the immediate family. She went to boarding school. All my grandmas did, all her brothers and sisters did, and they all grew up in a hogan—raising sheep, cooking, working hard. And now people can't speak the language and language is so much a part of identity. So to not have a clear identity, it is something I've been thinking a lot about in my work because that’s me. One of the weirdest aspects of indigeneity are all these ideas around authenticity and tradition because a lot of that gets tied to validation inside and outside the Native community and in a place like Santa Fe, it’s capital. It isn’t always but it definitely gets shoved into these tight parameters. Where I am right now, I’m not really interested in referencing too much—other than what feels intuited, because being young, being a contemporary native person, I’m kind of forging my own way, in an intense way. It’s hard. It’s very hard. But it's what's happening.

DW: When you say you’re forging forward and pushing through that, does a lot of it come from mining what's really personal? How do you find a way forward when you feel freighted with history, or what other folks are doing, or what they expect of you?

GRP: There’s no real easy answer, I’m just sort of figuring it out as I'm making. The thing I work off of more than anything, which is how I would describe my process, and how I’m doing this future-oriented work, is just by following what feels right. And movement, and my body. I think of that as a means of working.


The tropes—I think they definitely have a place but they don’t work for me as much. There are aesthetics and narratives that come up in a lot of native work and contemporary native work that I think are important. At the same time, just like anything else, there has to be a point where people are able to be a little bit more abstracted. I try to let color and form and texture guide the work, as opposed to more literal or didactic ways of telling a story.

I’ve talked to my dad and my uncle, both of them don’t make work that looks “native,” and they've told me a little a bit about what it's been like for them. I think I was just radicalized at a young age to be just like, “Make your work, be yourself.” So the more and more I do it, the only thing I bring that maybe someone outside could recognize is that I bring in the language. Regarding language, I try to think about how could the text be part of the landscape or the color itself, even more than some of my other work. What I’m trying to do is to have this camouflaged language, how it is always there. If not on the surface, it’s there. So yeah, I don’t have easy answers as to why I’m doing it.

DW: Yeah, it’s a huge question! I know that sound is also something that you’re working with and that you’ve been doing some performance. I’m curious about your interest in sound and performance. It seems like it’s kind of “new,” so that there’s excitement there. It also seems like it kind of connects back to making video work and moving pictures.

We’re Getting Through This Together, In collaboration with Olen Perkins, Acrylic on Paper, 2014. Courtesy of Grace Rosario Perkins.

GRP: Yeah, totally. So I was in this program called Intermedia Arts in Oakland at Mills. And through this program, I learned how to circuit bend and build. I built a synth and I built contact mics.


DW: That’s amazing.


GRP: Yeah, it’s weird, because once I graduated Mills I was like, “I don’t want to do that, I want to paint.” So I painted for a while. I also didn’t have access to the resources. Just recently, I did a residency at ACRE and I had this studio visit with this artist, Selina Trepp, and we talked about things I’ve been questioning in my work, like notions of commodity. I don’t know, I mean, obviously, I want my art to support me like anyone else. At the same time, I don’t want to completely commodify myself because there are also some people who really don’t get it and I’ve been there and it’s harmful. Especially as a person of color, it can get really tricky and tokenizing. I think performance work isn't really commodifiable. You get paid for the performance and it can be documented, but no one owns it, really, and you can keep expanding on it forever.

So, I was just talking to Selina about that and I showed her some of my recent performance—I did a performance in May at Galeria de la Raza in San Francisco, I collaborated with my friend José. We did a performance where we looped tapes, like cassette tapes, and played the keyboard, and drummed, and had a projection of family photos. We screen printed our outfits head to toe and built this set with fabric and PVC. I also showed her a performance I did last year with Ryan Dennison and José where we played records through a looping pedal and did a kind of noise set with contact mics on typewriters and all of these different objects all taking place within a cardboard set we made in a day

She gave me the idea to mic a mask, and so I did it. It’s at my cousin’s house. We were talking about performance and she said, "You know, you are an instrument,” and I was like, “Yeah, I am!” I got really excited about that. While at ACRE, it was nice to have these moments of conversation and support. I traded a lesson on tarot with this amazing composer and improviser Ada, who goes by Madam Data, for a quick refresher on contact mic building. So I’m working on this concept. I’ll probably show this piece out here in New Mexico, or get the gears going here. Possibly bring it to Shapeshifters Cinema in Oakland next year.

Performance is super hard. It’s really, really nerve-wracking. The last performance I did, I started to cry as soon as I finished. It was emotional for me because it was the first time I spoke Navajo outside of my house. In preparing for the performance, I actually had my grandmother tutor me and give me lessons over the phone how to say these specific phrases in Navajo because I’m not able to speak it very well. When I finally did it, as soon as I finished saying them, I didn’t want to talk to anyone for a minute. To speak my language to an audience in that way felt really vulnerable. And then there’s the history of learning it from my grandma who was punished for speaking it. So performance is hard, but that’s why I want to fine tune it.


DW: That sounds exciting.


GRP: Yeah.


DW: That sounds like a really big moment, too. The idea of that big circle, big loop. I’m thinking about what you said about your grandmother being punished for speaking the language, and then you having the courage to speak it in front of other people. And just investing the time, the care, and the energy to get it to feel right for you, that’s really big.


GRP: Yeah, I rehearsed it like a billion times and was fine, and then once I did it in front of people I was like, “Oh my god, this is so emotional.” My friend Kū'i'olani said something really important to me afterward. She said, “You did good by your grandmother and for all the people who passed down those words til they got to you.” It really set some stuff in motion for me.


DW: I can imagine. Well, I’m curious about the masks now. I’ve seen many on your site. The idea of bringing some way of recording the experience into the mask is interesting. So I wanted to ask about the masks, and where they’re coming from, and how they figure into your work.


GRP: Yeah, I made my first mask around five years ago. Faces have always been present in my work and when people are like, “Why do you make them?” I’ve tried to find answers. I kind of had a graphic drawing style because I didn't learn how to properly draw. So at one point I just made one of the masks. They’re really crude—I mean, in no way are they really detailed armatures. They’re simple. It’s chicken wire, and fabric, and paper mache. I build out words or faces or facial features with paper mache as well. I put the first two I made in a window installation in San Francisco. They were just these static objects even though they were wearable. I didn’t really understand what they would become for me.

Vision Mask, mixed media, 2013. Courtesy of Grace Rosario Perkins.

Then Black Salt did a road trip. I made a mask for every person in the collective and I made myself one that I still use in my work a lot, the Vision Mask, it’s a purple-y mask. Being an artist, you make these things and in the moment you don’t really understand it. Then, the more and more you get removed from it you’re like, “Oh my god, that’s what I'm doing!”  I’m building my own system of symbols and language. The masks are beings with their own messages and specific energy to them. I believe sculpture, in particular, and masks, they’re really big, big ways of carrying energy.  Whenever I make one, I have no idea of who it’s for or what kind of messages it’s going to convey.

I’ve had them static, on vitrines. I’ve worn them in performance. I have one on my altar right now in my room with cut flowers and candles. I also do a lot of print work with them. The print work is like my alphabet—I’m making a poster and it’s like, “Here’s my message.” So, I’m thinking of ways that I’m situating masks, not as static elements, but as ever-evolving bits of language in my own work.

This year I’m wondering: what does it look like if I wear a costume? What does it look like if I don’t only work on a costume, but I incorporate sound as well? Or what if I have these different elements that are a bit more research-based? So they’re changing. They’re still intuitive but I’m trying to get them a little bit more planned. My other prints have been a little more spontaneous—just taking images and mixing them together. In the next month, I’m going to do a new print series that’s going to be a little bit more intentional and more about the body.

Growing up, my dad made masks and they were always around the house. They were really weird (and actually scary). It’s so funny, our masks are very different. His are made of wood, mine are more ephemeral, made of paper mache. Kind of like throwaways. I wanted to have a mask show with my dad, like masks and objects. The masks are like really important to me—but also, they’re not. As I previously mentioned, I paint over them often.


DW: You know, it’s interesting what you just said. The masks, they can be really important but not precious, you know? There’s this sort of process of discovery that happens, that you don't get too attached to because you’re just doing and making. I see that a lot at CE and it's always really inspiring.

Díí hane' t'áá'íídáá bee nihił hweeshne' / Ya te conté la historia, Commissioned performance for Galeria de la Raza, in collaboration with José Luis Íñiguez. Live tape loops, drums, sunflowers, transparency projections, language, handbuilt projection screens, cactus, screen printed family photos, 2017. Courtesy of Grace Rosario Perkins.

GRP: I swear I learned from them. Even five years ago, I would make a drawing and be like, “I  HAVE to keep this in a container, inside a little bin, inside this flat file.” And now I’m just like, “Whatever, I’ll make another one.”  There have been times recently where I’ll have a show and I’ll pull out a painting and realize that I need to take better care of my work. That’s the thing, they’re important and precious to me, but they’re ephemeral. They’re just of the moment. There have been times where I’m installing and people are surprised because I’ll just throw my painting on the ground.

One time someone was like, “Do you want to roll that in bubble wrap?” And I was like, “No.” and I threw it in the back of a truck. I don’t know, it’s an interesting part of my work but it can also be to my detriment, archiving, and all that considered.

Flowing from the Distance,' 2017.  Courtesy of Grace Rosario Perkins. Made in residence at White Leaves Artist Residency, El Rito NM.

DW: I don’t know—in a way, there’s like this provenance that’s really interesting to me. That’s a whole thing, too, and that maybe connects into not wanting to commodify things.


This is a bit of a pivot, but, notions of family seem particularly significant and meaningful to you. Will you tell me a bit about your fam (biological and chosen) and your collaborative work with members of your family?

GRP: I collaborate most with my father and my uncle. My father, Olen Perkins, was an art professor at the University of Illinois who had the most insane racist mascot, Chief Illiniwek—so I grew up in this galvanized setting, at least politically and artistically. My whole life my dad always made work that was abstract or weird in its own way, so I think, obviously, that really transferred into my head as an artist. He’d always have a critical way of talking—just illuminating racism, structures of oppression and limitations.

My father has been back home for maybe 20 years, which is wild to think it’s been that long. He paints all the time. He’s kind of a painting purist (sorry, dad, but you are) so our collaborations have been interesting. We’ve done two sets of paintings together, once in 2014 and this last winter. I consider these paintings really important. I sold a lot of them the first time around but am almost disinterested in selling them now. They’re little capsules—it’s our conversation that we’ve never let unfurl until recently. It’s a merging of our ideas, personalities, and histories—just painting on top of one layer after another, and of course, I always want to bring in the language (indigenous or English text) and my father wants to take away the language. That becomes the work. I want us to do sculptures together next and he joked about performance the other day, but we really should! We’re figuring out our relationship to one another.

My other frequent collaborator is my uncle Michael McCabe, a great printmaker. Totally a master and runs Fourth Dimension Studios in Santa Fe. He has been showing me printmaking techniques since I was a little kid. Through time, I’ve met so many great artists through him—he prints with Edgar Heap-of-Birds and Jaune Quick-to-See Smith so I get to see their work around the studio and have gotten to connect with lots of artists via his studio. He really is a wonderful teacher, resource, and artist. He taught me Xerox lithography techniques, which in the beginning, I was a little shaky at, things cracked or weren’t saturated enough, but this last round I had an “A-HA” moment as I’ve gotten pretty good at printmaking. He’s so important to me as far as being an artist goes and is for so many others in his community. It’s ineffable really how much I have learned.

Pile (Know You) Xerox Lithograph, 30”x22”, 2016. Courtesy of Grace Rosario Perkins.

DW: That’s rad. Let's wrap up with this: will you tell me a bit more about working with your dad?


GRP: Our first collaboration was really hard, for the series “Thin Leather.” We did a few in person, but we also mailed them back and forth. I remember one time I opened a tube and he painted over everything I did and I just started crying. It is this really intense way that we’re navigating, taking up space, and asserting ourselves. On top of that, my dad is a painter so when I would paint with him, he would be like, “Whoa, why are you putting a face in that painting?” Or like, “Why'd you write that word there?”


At the end of the day, they were really important to do, and I feel really lucky that we’re able to collaborate in that way. When we were doing them, he was like "They're alright, these paintings are alright.” And just recently he was like, “If you get a residency, can I come visit and make stuff?” Now he’s seeing where he can be involved. He reads everything, he gets google alerts so when this comes out he’ll read this. I think he’s realizing the importance of our relationship through our work now. So it’s interesting, we have a lot in common, but there are lots of moments where I’m still like breaking the mold by wanting to do these things. Even now, like me being interested in performance, he’s absorbing a little at a time. But it’s good, I get a lot of insight from him. It’s good and bad, I don’t agree with everything he says. Like he always told me to just stay with one medium, but I can’t. At all.

Based in Oakland, CA but having spent most of her life moving between city centers, the Navajo Nation, and the Gila River Indian Community, Grace Rosario Perkins is interested in disassembling her personal narrative and reassembling it as one that layers words, objects, faces, signifiers, and sound built from cultural dissonance, language, and history. Grace is one of the core founders of the SFMOMA SECA Award-nominated, all women of color Black Salt Collective. She lectures locally and nationally, centralizing land, biography, collaborative practice, and material in her discourses.

Danielle Wright is a visual artist based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She earned a B.A. in Visual Arts with an emphasis in Fine Arts at the University of San Francisco in 2007. Her work investigates the language of materials and the delineation between artist and viewer/participant. In addition to her studio practice, she teaches at Creativity Explored, a not-for-profit art gallery and studio in the Mission District of San Francisco.

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