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Celebrating the Process: an interview with Chloe Hayward

Dessane Cassell

Jacob Lawrence
The Architect (detail), 1959
The Studio Museum in Harlem; gift of Mr. and Mrs. James Hathinas 1982.1

Chloe Hayward is Family Programs Coordinator and a Teaching Artist at The Studio Museum in Harlem. A licensed creative art therapist, Chloe’s background is in art and design education, sculpture, and ceramics. She earned her Master’s degree in Art Therapy and Creativity Development at Pratt Institute in New York. Chloe and I sat down to discuss her path to art therapy, some of her favorite Jacob Lawrence paintings, and her work with the 2017 exhibition Their Own Harlems at the Studio Museum.


Dessane Cassell:  2017 marked the centennial of the artist Jacob Lawrence's birth, an occasion that the Studio Museum commemorated with an exhibition called Their Own Harlems that traced Lawrence's legacy, artistic style, and particular vision of the Harlem community among a range of more recent artists. Can you describe how you first learned about Jacob Lawrence and some of your initial impressions of his work?

Chloe Hayward:  I first learned about Jacob Lawrence through the Studio Museum. I remember being disappointed that I was just finding out about him only recently, especially having done an undergrad degree in art history and having such a core foundation in it. At the same time I was also really grateful to find out about his work and to know what I know now about Lawrence. My initial impression of his work was: it's vibrant, it's colorful. I also connected to it because it was another example of being seen, of seeing people of color. Growing up, I never had that, so it was like another layer of validation and hope and joy.

DC:  Can you tell me about your favorite Jacob Lawrence work?

CH:  The Schomburg Library (1987). I spring right to that because I grew up in a small town called Shelter Island, and I didn't have many friends. My sister and I were the only people of color. I spent a lot of time in the library on Shelter Island, and I loved reading books. It was a safe space for me. It's how I saw the world from this tiny little place.

When I first saw The Schomburg Library, before I even knew the title, I was drawn to the rhythm and people. It's of people reading books, but if you look closer there's so many other things going on. It just really spoke to me and it connected to my personal memories. That's what I like so much about Lawrence's work—no matter who you are, he somehow speaks to your spirit on a deeply personal level. There's always a point of entry to connect to through memory. I think, given my art therapy background, that’s particularly why his work sings to me.

DC:  That’s a really beautiful way of thinking about it. To go further, how would you describe the influence Lawrence has had on you?

CH:  I love The Schomburg Library because of this personal memory, but I’m also interested in his process. With my background in art therapy, the focus is really on the material, and I'm always thinking about how someone uses theirs. I think that The Architect (1959) and the metaphor that that story holds is a great example of an artist using a material to tell a story. When you're making art, your materials are your ingredients. You can give two people the same ingredients, but it's what each person does with the materials that makes the artwork so unique. 

I did a workshop in September using egg tempera paint and exploring that process. Families were in the workshop and they got to see how Lawrence would make a tempera painting. We were all invested in the process of learning how to make tempera paint, but we all ended up with different paintings, because we all have different experiences that make each of us unique. The Architect is about unifying us as a people, and it presents this vision of hope and prosperity. At the same time, when you’re teaching with it, there’s room for this sense of individuality that each person can bring to their work, through their own personal memory and connection to it.

DC:  Something that I think is unique about Jacob Lawrence is the way that he was first exposed to art, in publicly funded after-school programs around New York. While he later dropped out of high school at sixteen, these early experiences with art had a profound impact on him, and the skills he developed as a result earned him a scholarship to the American Artist School in New York.

As an educator who teaches several after school programs, among many others, can you describe some of your first experiences with art, and how they led you to your career path?

CH:  It's interesting, I'm the Family Programs Coordinator here, and I think that what draws me to this work is my personal experience within my own family. I hope to give families the experiences that I never had growing up—there were no Target Free Sundays, there was no museum, there was no wonderful space talking about and celebrating Black culture. I never had those conversations about race and identity growing up. As an art therapist and educator, I see how important those conversations are now.

Art was always a way for me to let myself out, and so I immediately think about fifth grade, and just loving the art room. I loved everything about it—the bright open windows, green trees outside, the smell, and especially the fact that we go to work in clay. My art teacher was a ceramicist herself, and she was kind of like my first mentor and teacher. I would go to the art room, even when I wasn't supposed to be there, because I just felt like it was calling to me. I loved being there because I felt safe, I felt seen, I felt heard, and really it was my first experience with the energetic shift that happens when you experience creativity.

Fast forward all these years later, if I look back throughout my life, I've always returned to the creative process as a way of dealing with difficult times in my life, and difficult emotions. If I think back to that moment in the art room, my first experience with the power of art, the power of creativity, the power of material, it became like the feeling of home. So to me, art is home. I always strive to bring that to whoever is sitting in front of me, whether it's a client, in a therapeutic sense, or a young child or family. Whatever the dynamic is, I always come from a space of offering an openness that maybe wasn't there before. I think that art connects us all as humans, it's a universal language.

DC:  I want to talk a little more about your work as an educator at the Museum and how you engaged with the exhibition Their Own Harlems. Can you describe some of the ways in which you worked to activate the exhibition and provide entry points within it for audiences?

CH:   Last September was a pretty big month at the museum, we were celebrating the centennial of the birth of Jacob Lawrence. Some of the things we programmed include an activity that references my favorite work, The Schomburg Library (1986). This drew on accordion book-making, where we thought about how books can be used as an art medium. Whether it's altering a text to thereby alter the narrative and create your own story, or creating your own book from scratch, there are so many great themes to explore, especially through the lens of Black culture.

The ethos of Education programs here at the Studio Museum is very person-centered. When you come here you're definitely going to learn about the artwork, and you're definitely going to make personal connections, but the way that we arrive there is through Visual Inquiry. And so, when people are coming to workshops and engaging [with the art] it’s as simple as starting with “what do you see, what do you notice?” and the conversation continues through to the use of materials. The engagement with the artwork is visual, it's verbal, and it's always tactile—there are different ways of understanding things. When you can feel something and make something in response, it just brings so much more excitement to the work. It brings the work to life.

If I'm a child and I'm standing there and I'm looking at The Architect, and I've just been told that this is a painting, but the painting was made with eggs, I might be like, "What? I had eggs for breakfast!" Then I'm in this space and I've got these eggs and I'm cracking them with a teacher, and we're mixing in colo,r and then I'm painting a picture with these eggs. It just ... it blows their mind, you know. It blew my mind. I always try to provide unexpected materials, and I think that that really gets people excited.

Chloe Hayward with visitor in the Studio Museum workshop during an Education program for Their Own Harlems.

It just feels necessary to teach people about his work. He's a major part of the legacy of Harlem.

DC:  How did audiences or workshop participants respond to the programming for Their Own Harlems?

CH:  People were excited for it, especially in the month of September. It was very popular. I think that people have responded very positively to the programming. I think that the weirder and the more engaging the material, the more people want to come through those doors. What really brings people through the door is an opportunity to do something that they can't do at home or something that they haven't thought of doing on their own. They're here for a unique experience. "I'm going to make a sculpture using hair!" Things like that.

DC:  I think it's also important to discuss the fact that Jacob Lawrence spent a large chunk of his life here in Harlem, as a teenager and for part of his early adulthood. He was greatly influenced by the people and the neighborhood. How does it feel to teach people about his work in a community that he was so shaped by?

CH:  I came to Harlem in 2006 as an educator. I didn't know anything about Harlem. All I knew was that I was from this really small town, and the only people of color I knew were my family, and I would walk down the street and see no one that looked like me. When I came to Harlem it was like a cultural explosion. The energy and the rhythm and the sounds and the smells and the people—I was hooked. It became like a second home to me. Even though I don't live in Harlem, I spend a great amount of every day in this community, and so I would consider it my community as well. 

DC:  How has it felt to teach your groups about Lawrence’s work in this context?

CH:  I think it's important. It feels special, it feels warm. It just feels necessary to teach people about his work. He's a major part of the legacy of Harlem.

DC:  That reminds me of something that curator Connie Choi wrote about the exhibition: “Lawrence thought of Harlem, in a broad sense, acknowledging the powerful and positive experiences that people of African descent across the country could find 'in their own Harlems.'" Can you describe another place that you might think of as your own “Harlem,” where you feel creative, accepted, and supported by a community?

CH:  I felt that in my art therapy program with my cohort. There were ten of us and we became very close. It was one of the few times that I felt like I was in a nest of creativity and acceptance, where you don't know where you're going or what you're doing or even what's happening, but you know that it's going to be okay because you've got these people here with you and you're all moving forward.

DC:  As we both know, Jacob Lawrence was born a little over a hundred years ago. What do you imagine him depicting in his work if he was still alive today?

CH:  I have to read his mind?

DC:  We’ll call this an inference.

CH:  I just keep thinking about The Architect, and how he depicts building this world, building this Harlem. I think so many things have changed since his birth—they’ve been remixed, and there’s been a remodel of Harlem. There's also that expression, "the more things change, the more things stay the same." There are things that have changed and there are things that have remained, and I think Lawrence would create something that shows that juxtaposition—what that constant changing would look like, symbolically.