An Interview with Yvette Cummings

For my blog post this month I chose to interview a local artist who I have the honor of also working with in the Visual Arts department at Coastal Carolina University. Yvette Cummings (Arendt) works in multiple mediums, which includes the use of her own family as a models within some of her work. For the interview I learned a little about Yvette’s educational and career background. She received her BFA from Kendall College of Art and Design and completed her Masters of Fine Arts degree at the University of Cincinnati’s School of Design, Art, Architecture, and Planning in 2003. Cummings is currently Assistant Professor of Visual Arts in Painting/Drawing at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, South Carolina. Her work can be found in both public and private collections and has been exhibited in multiple group and solo exhibitions throughout the south and mid-west. 

Bruce Maggi: Looking over your portfolio of work I see a surrealist aspect to some of your work. Do you feel any connections to the values of the Surrealist art movement?

Yvette Cummings: I am not directly referencing the Surrealists, but their work with using memory as an influence can be seen in my work. The images I am creating are meant to give you a feeling of unease, you can’t recognize a specific place and actual space is flattened so in these respects the Surrealist comparison is appropriate though my thinking is not directly linked to a specific artist or work from that period.

BM: Who do you feel are your greatest influences on the art you create?

YC: The content of my work is influenced by my personal experiences in childhood; being the survivor of sexual abuse has shaped the narrative of my paintings from undergrad to now. I have worked through many of these experiences in abstract painting and most recently using the figure to create narrative work. As the mother of three children, my conceptual influences have transitioned from telling my story to exploring more universal concepts of perception and policing of the female figure, abuse, and confrontation. My artistic influences range from Matisse’s Red Room to Vuillard and Neo Rauch. I mimic the way Matisse and Vuillard used pattern within their paintings and I like the compositional strategies that Rauch uses.

BM: Do you have a specific goal with the art you create? Is there a message you are trying to convey to the viewer?

YC: Most viewers do not immediately come to my work and see that it is about child sexual abuse and survivorship, but they know they are uncomfortable. As they look closer at the total body of work I think this message comes through. When talking about the work I am very honest about the stories behind each one and my overall experiences. I have had many people come up to me after a talk and express their gratitude for speaking about such a tough subject, they often are not comfortable doing that so I feel like if I or the work can be a voice for those who cannot share their stories then the work is successful.

Yvette Cummings, “Mother Don’t Worry”, 2020.

BM: Another aspect that I find very intriguing about your paintings is the use of patterns in the backgrounds, like the paintings by Kehinde Wiley. In reference to your backgrounds, you are quoted with stating, “create a visual abstraction and represent the confusion that occurs over time and space. The figures are pushed to the foreground, making the viewer confront them leaving nowhere else for their eyes to go.” Can you elaborate on this statement? Do you mean that you don’t want the viewer to focus on anything except the foreground?

YC: Much of the work references memory – when we remember we are really recalling the last time we thought of the event, not the actual event itself – each time we bring a memory forward a little detail is lost and our sense of dimensional space is abstracted bringing the figures to the foreground of our mind – in the same way I see the patterns as a way to confuse the space, create a “razzle dazzle” effect for the viewer.

BM: As an art historian I choose to focus on the battles marginalized groups face when creating and exhibiting art from the Renaissance through contemporary times. One group that has and still deals with these hurdles are women in the ability to exhibit art. Do you feel that the tides are changing, and women are getting their fair share of exhibition space or is this still a challenge for women in the field of visual art? 

YC: Things are improving, however if we look at the numbers and hard data, women or women identifying artists are still very underrepresented in comparison to our male counterparts. Women make up the majority (about 70%) of students earning an arts degree, but typically are under 50% of the positions filled and that number decreases significantly when we talk about gallery representation. Many institutions have moved to “women only” exhibition calls which provide opportunities but is not a solution.

BM: Do you feel that getting art shows has become more of a challenge living in the South, compared to the Midwest? If so, why do you think this is?

YC: No – there are many great opportunities in the south both through arts organizations and university calls for exhibitions. Location becomes a problem only in logistics and underfunded organizations who ask artists to pay for shipping costs. This can be very limiting to artists who cannot afford to ship their work across the country and are only able to drive their work to be exhibited. Online opportunities have been on the rise in recent years especially during the pandemic; this has provided many artists the chance to have jurors from large, important institutions look at their work who would have never had that opportunity before.

BM: Do you find yourself following any trends of the artworld, or do you focus more on what is important to you and not worry about mainstream?

YC: It’s funny when I started using pattern so heavily in my work, I didn’t see other artists doing it, then suddenly pattern was everywhere. I make the work for the works sake; I am concerned about what the work needs to be successful both formally and conceptually without worrying about what the latest trend is. I am a fairly traditional painter. I think artists looking for longevity in their work need to watch how they move through trends though they can be a springboard for a rich career.

BM: As an artist, what do you feel is your greatest accomplishment so far?

YC: That is a tough question. I was proud to win the 701 CCA Prize in 2016, my solo exhibition at UCF, 3000 sq. ft of exhibition space and being included in the Mint Museum Contemporary South exhibition. I am still working towards some of my bigger artistic goals, specific institutions I would like to exhibit in and prizes to be won, but I am happy with the path I am on moving towards those goals.

Yvette currently has a solo art exhibit at the Fitton Center until March 8th.

Bruce Maggi is a Teaching Associate at Coastal Carolina University where he teaches courses in art history and Indigenous cultures of North America.

Published by Dr. Bruce Maggi

Follow me on Instagram @ TheyCallMeDrMaggi

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