This happened when I began creating the audio guide for young people for Whistler to Cassatt. I wanted to try to tell a story that supported the themes of the exhibition and gave deeper insight into artists who tend to be overlooked. Henry Ossawa Tanner is the only person of color represented in the exhibition. I saw this as a chance to dive deeper into his story and highlight him as an important American artist.
I knew I couldn’t do this alone. Enter Kenya Fashaw. Kenya is a local artist and poet, playwright, and actor. She was the creative lead for the DAM program called Untitled: Creative Fusions (a collaboration with local artists and creatives to create an evening full of experiences) in January 2021. With the pandemic in full swing, the programming for this Untitled was an entirely virtual. And I was mesmerized by Kenya. Her spoken word performances were powerful and riveting. I noted to myself I would love to work with her someday, and was thrilled to think of her some time later when the audio guide project called for a collaborator.
She immediately said yes. Earlier we held a discussion forum with gallery hosts and members of our community to get an idea of what type of character or story would be most interesting to them and the kids in their lives for the youth audio guide. The forum said they'd be very interested in hearing the story from a female journalist’s point of view.
I researched female journalists active between 1850 and 1913 (the dates of the works in the exhibition) and was reminded of Ida B. Wells. Wells was an American investigative journalist, educator, and early leader in the civil rights movement. She was an outspoken Black female activist and was very active in women's rights and the women's suffrage movement, establishing several notable women's organizations. The founder of the NAACP, she was also one of the first to document the lynching of people of color in the South. Kenya loved the idea of Wells being our inspiration for the character in the audio guide, and suggested her name be Adele and that she be Henry Ossawa Tanner's granddaughter. We settled on the story being a young girl excited to tell the story of her artist grandfather.
Soon Kenya and I were off writing the stops of the audio guide, molding the characters to tell a story from an unexpected perspective. We chose eight artworks from the exhibition to support our story. We decided that Adele was a time traveler from 1913 bestowed with magical powers to visit the future to see her grandfather's work in the Whistler to Cassatt exhibition. This way, she could "meet" kids of the present day and introuce them to the artists of the past who traveled great distances to study, hone their craft, and paint in France. And not only does she get to behold her grandfather artwork, but she also gets to meet artist Mary Cassatt, and even talk to a poppy flower, of all things.
As we were writing and revising and writing some more, I realized Kenya would be the perfect voice for Adele and asked her if she was interested in playing her. Hesitant at first, Kenya finally agreed to perform the role. And I have to say, the result is thrilling. She nails the voice and story of Adele. I listened in the soundbooth as Kenya experimented and developed Adele’s voice into the warm, intelligent, and thoughtful character who hooks right into the experience of the exhibition. I can’t think of anyone better to portray the hero we wrote together. We created something we are excited about and are proud to share with visitors.
We're also excited about another thing we created for the exhibtion: a livret. Livrets were the small booklets people received when visiting the Grand Salon in Paris that helped guide them through the artworks on display. Visitors are encouraged to take our version of the livret at the exhibition's entrance (or download it online) and use it to identify the artworks hung in the style of a Paris salon at two different spots in the galleries. There are also a few activities to find in the livret that prompt questions and ask visitors to draw and color in artworks inspired by the show.
While Adele is a made-up character and not actually the granddaughter of Henry Tanner, we hope our time-traveling friend helps visitors get a better sense of what life was like at the time. Stop by the visitor services desk when you arrive to get the audio guide or bring your own headphones and follow Adele's journey on your phone.