Bio. Offer us a short, snappy (not-copied-from-your-website or any publication), fun biography. Who are you?
I am a North Carolina-based artist, wife, and mother of an 8-month-old son named Maxim. Originally from Winston Salem, North Carolina, I value my familial relationships and attribute any success to the wisdom taught by my elders. I use photographic narratives and video testimonies to examine the personal yet contemporary stories of women of color working within the corporate space. Having traveled across Europe and attended the Yale School of Art for my Master of Fine Arts degree, I witnessed the underrepresentation of stories by and for people of color within fine art circles and photojournalism. My projects stem from my personal journey and struggles as a black woman. I speak about everyday experiences that are universal to many people of color.
Beginning. Do you remember the first time you picked up a camera? The first picture you took? Tell us a story about your beginning.
The first time I picked up a camera, I was taking a summer school course in black and white photography at the University of North Carolina Greensboro. I had recently been rejected by the undergraduate program in Graphic Design at North Carolina State University (NC State). I was a rising junior at NC State with no major. The Director of Graphic Design suggested I take a photo class to build my nonexistent portfolio. (Side note: I had never taken an art class in college and I scheduled a meeting with the Director of Graphic Design. I entered her office with a notebook full of sketches and somehow she saw potential in my array of cluttered papers.)
My Father let me borrow his 35mm film Pentax camera for my summer school class. The first photograph I ever took was of my Mother. I was 20 years old at the time and I began taking pictures of people and things I love. My family calls my Mother a “wildflower.” Her personality is contagious. Here are a series of photographs of my Mother from that day.
My sister, Tiffanie Nickleberry, wrote a poem about the photographs.
My Wildflower awakens your heart.
When she enters the room all eyes stare.
She radiates a light unlike no other.
Her love diminishes any cares.
She is delicate and gentle
And blooms in cold or in heat.
Yet, within the warmth and the beauty
Is a fighter who weeps.
Becoming. Can you identify when you first started calling yourself a photographer —when you felt comfortable naming yourself as such? How did you morph from someone who takes pictures to “photographer”?
I actually consider myself an artist/photographer. I love to paint! I wanted to be a painter, but the studio was really lonely. The camera allowed me to enter the world and capture people faster than painting them. I use the term photographer and artist interchangeably. I guess that’s how my mind works.
Being. What are you working on now? Where? How? Why?
My latest project is my son, Maxim, which will be a lifelong project. I am taking this year to finish up a few projects and find the harmony between being mother and an artist.
Borrowing. Tell us a little about your artistic lineage. Who are the artists and/or works that influence you? Who or what inspires you and why?
I do not think I could name all the artists who influence me in this interview, but short list would include James Van Der Zee, Julia Margaret Cameron, Roy DeCarava, Gordon Parks, Helen Levitt, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, Walker Evans, Diane Arbus, and Cindy Sherman. I remember the first time I saw the work of James Van Der Zee in my large format photography class. It was a simple portrait of an older African-American woman sitting in her living room surrounded by flowers. The photograph reminded me of my Grandma’s house. It was the first time I ever saw myself, my story, something I could relate to, in art.
Blown-away. Show us the last image that completely took your breath away (contemporary or historical—depending on where you’ve been looking). What do you love about it?
The last image that completely took my breath way was a painting by John Biggers entitled “Ghana Jubilee Harvest Festival.” The painting is located at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. It is simply beautiful. This painting depicts a festival, or durbar, held annually in Ghana to celebrate the passage of the seasons and the harvest. The cyclical passage of the seasons is echoed in the swaying rhythms of the singing and dancing women. It is based on a series of drawings John Biggers made while in the Ghana region of West Africa in 1957.
Blown-away 2. Show us an image by you that takes your breath away. What makes this image great?
Here is a photo of my Grandma’s wall. She displays all the graduation pictures of her children. This was one of my first photographs. My Grandma is 93 years old: she has 12 children (nine girls), 27 grandchildren, 41 great-grandchildren, and 6 great-great-grandchildren.
My Grandma told me a story about riding the bus during segregation and about Jim Crow laws. She said, “I was on the bus with 3 small children and a baby. There were several seats in the front, but I was not allowed to sit there. My children had to stand and I carried the baby the entire ride home.” This photograph is my Grandma’s legacy.
Better. How do you work towards continuous improvement, on honing your craft?
I surround myself with people who inspire me and are smarter than me.
Bolster. Whose work do you think deserves a shout-out here, and why? Who haven’t I been hearing about and whose website I should check out immediately?
You should check out the work of Genevieve Gaignard, Deana Lawson, Latoya Ruby Frazier, Alison Minto, Pao Her, Hannah Price, Sheila Pree Bright, Nina Robinson: the story of women of color in photography is still being written.
Best. What is the best advice you have to offer someone reading this?
“You’re going to be successful, now is the time to learn everything.” - Rose Harper Elder
“I’m different, I can’t base what I’m gonna be off a what everybody isn’t,
They don’t listen,
Just whispering behind my back,
No Vision, lack of ambition,
So Wack.” - Jay–Z
In other words, if you are obsessed with something and are willing to dedicate yourself to your craft, you will be successful.