The work of mixed-media artist Aaron Coleman is of both the past and the present. Made with found objects, or artifacts, and replete with historical references, Coleman’s installations combine and repurpose recognizable imagery and forms, yielding visceral, jarring, and powerful artworks that reflect on and interrogate the complex and pervasive histories of racism and classism in the United States.
Originally from the Tri-state area, Coleman is currently based in Tucson, where he’s an Assistant Professor of Art at the University of Arizona. He has exhibited internationally, and his work can be found in various public and private collections around the world, including those of The Janet Turner Print Museum; The Bibliothèque Nationale in France; the Ino-cho Paper Museum in Japan; and The Yekaterinburg Museum of Art in Russia.
We recently spoke with Aaron to learn more about his journey to becoming an artist and recent work he’s shown in the Valley of the Sun. Here he is, in his own words, on early inspirations, hip-hop, his 2019 exhibition at the Mesa Contemporary Arts Museum, and his new botanical bliss.
“I create work that focuses on tying historical events to our current sociopolitical climate. I’m interested in where we come from and how that has led us to where we are now.”
Aaron Coleman. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Kyle Mittan/University of Arizona.
PhxArt: Tell us about where you’re from and when you knew you wanted to be an artist. What was your first inspiration?
Aaron Coleman: I was born in Washington D.C., but spent most of my younger years in Maryland. I had a pretty regular childhood and don’t recall much in the way of art or creative experiences outside of coloring books or things like that. When I was about 12, we moved to Indianapolis. That’s where everything (as far as art goes) began for me. I made friends with some people who were into graffiti and was immediately hooked. That was really my first introduction to any kind of visual culture and the people producing it. I wasn’t very good at it, though; I was decent with a spray can, but the lifestyle kind of caught up to me quickly. I knew I wanted to keep making cool stuff, so I decided to go to art school. Of course, I now have a much clearer understanding of what I do and why, and my studio practice is largely motivated by sociopolitical issues, history, and culture.
Aaron Coleman, True and Livin’ exhibition entrance installation, 2019 (detail). Book and latex. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Tamrin Ingram.
PhxArt: With this interest in sociopolitical issues, how does living in the Southwest inform your work, if at all?
Coleman: One can’t live here without being acutely aware of the Indigenous lands we occupy and the activity around the border. Culture, history, and politics are in the air here—they’re in the ground we’re standing on. My work doesn’t focus on these specific issues, but that energy certainly keeps me motivated to make work about settler colonialism and white supremacy.
Aaron Coleman, Ropr-Or-Dope, 2019. Lumber, hardware, rope, cast plaster, tassels, turf, latex, enamel and acrylic. Installation view, True and Livin’, 2020, Mesa Contemporary Arts Museum. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Tamrin Ingram.
PhxArt: What are the main topics you explore in your work, and what is your preferred medium?
Coleman: I am trained as a printmaker, and my earlier work was almost exclusively developed through those processes. Now, I use whatever medium helps me express my most authentic voice for the given topic I’m exploring. Through printmaking, painting, collage, sculpture, and installation, I create work that focuses on tying historical events to our current sociopolitical climate. I’m interested in where we come from and how that has led us to where we are now. More specifically, I expose the ways in which authoritarian systems of power, such as science, anthropology, religion, education, criminal justice, and politics, are manipulated or created to uphold white supremacy throughout modern civilization.
PhxArt: Tell us about your work The Pietà. What’s that specific piece about?
Coleman: The 36-star flag, or the “Lincoln Flag,” was in use when the 13th amendment was passed and is the flag Lincoln’s head rested upon after he was shot. The Pan-African flag hangs from a golden coat hook in a pose resembling Christ as he lies on the lap of his mother, Mary, after the Crucifixion. This sculpture examines the failure of the 13th amendment, which was followed by Jim Crow, as well as the role the church played, for better and worse, during the Reconstruction era. The stripes are formed from red pickets, conjuring thoughts of the American dream, red lining, and protest. These pickets are adorned with bird shit, as I wondered what it meant to truly be as free as a bird.
The work’s title pulls from Michelangelo’s The Pietà (translation: “The Pity”), which is carved out of Carrara marble that was quarried in Tuscany by people who were convicted of crimes and, as punishment, were forced into labor under the harshest conditions.
Aaron Coleman, The Pietà, 2019. Lumber, hardware, Pan-African flag, pepper, blueberries, cigarette ash, plaster, enamel and acrylic. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Tamrin Ingram.
PhxArt: What inspired you to start teaching art, and how does teaching affect your practice?
Coleman: Teaching was a part of my graduate school program, and I loved it immediately. Early-stage students are inquisitive and want to try everything. They often come up with ideas that I would have never thought of, so they are inspirational in that way. But I also realized that I could offer them what was missing from my own education. As a student, I floated by for the most part, and my goal is to not let anyone float by. I spend a great deal of time working with my students, trying to reassure them that their life, their experiences, and their interests and outlooks are all valid points of entry into a studio practice.
PhxArt: Who are your greatest artistic influences?
Coleman: This is an enormous question, and there are far too many to list. But I’d really have to say that my biggest influence in life has been hip-hop culture. The music specifically helped me to understand that I could create something new out of things that already existed. Growing up biracial was not easy, and I often felt as though I was between worlds with no real home base. Hip-hop offered me a place to belong. Hearing DJs and producers create music by sampling and altering other genres of music opened my mind to the possibilities of building from things that were already there. This impacted my outlook and way of thinking about everything—99.99% of my work starts from a point of recontextualizing things that already exist, including images, stories, ideas, and objects.
Aaron Coleman, Home Away From Home, 2019. Lumber, hardware, steel, cast plaster, carpet, latex, enamel, and acrylic. Installation view, True and Livin’, 2020, Mesa Contemporary Arts Museum. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Tamrin Ingram.
PhxArt: What are some works or series you’re currently working on or have recently exhibited?
Coleman: One of my most ambitious exhibitions was True and Livin’at the Mesa Contemporary Arts Museum in 2019. It consisted of five sculptures and 14 paintings.
Most recently, I just finished up a large suite of mixed-media paintings for an exhibition at Benedictine University, and I’m wrapping up work for another at California State University, Stanislaus.
PhxArt: What can our community expect to see next from you?
Coleman: It’s hard to say what will happen for me in the near future given the current circumstances. Lots of shows are being canceled or moved online. I’ve got some large installation projects on the horizon that I’m crazy excited about, but those are top secret for now. I’d really like those to go as far as possible, but I’m also particularly interested in sharing them with the local community here in Tucson and Phoenix.
Aaron Coleman, Spectator Sport, 2019. Lumber, hardware, cast plaster, playground rubber mulch, Nike Cortez sneakers, tassels, latex, enamel, and acrylic. Installation view, True and Livin’, 2020, Mesa Contemporary Arts Museum. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Tamrin Ingram.
We’re curious how creatives are navigating the time of coronavirus. Aaron Coleman shares what’s giving him life as a creative during quarantine.
Coleman: I’m growing a lot of orchids—amazing, rare terrestrial orchids. This practice has been my sanctuary, really. About a year ago, I got into building vivariums, which are essentially terrariums but on a much larger scale that include microfauna (isopods and springtails) that eat decaying matter and fertilize the plants. The vivariums are almost self-sustaining and include fans for air circulation and an automatic watering cycle via misting systems.
Along with this hobby comes an interest in mosses and rare plants, such as epiphytic ferns and miniature tropical plants. I’m often searching for small tropical plants that really pack a visual punch, and that’s how I came across a subtribe of terrestrial orchids known as Goodyerinae, more commonly referred to as jewel orchids, which are typically grown for their foliage rather than the flowers. I currently grow just over 70 species of Goodyerinae and Spiranthinae and have recently set up a tissue culture “lab” at home to cultivate these plants in vitro. I’m also hand pollinating in an attempt to hybridize and grow from seed.
I’ve also been “reading,” but when I say that, its means I’m really listening since I find it very difficult to sit still long enough to actually read. I recently finished up The Cross and the Lynching Tree, Thus Spoke the Plant, Gathering Moss, The Water Dancer, and We Want to Do More Than Survive. Currently, I’m bouncing between Orchid Fever, Medical Apartheid, and Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments. All of it impacts my work.