20 People to Watch - Bethany Collins: The visual artist

How an obsessive quest for self-definition led the conceptual artist to wide-open spaces

To understand how novel visual artist Bethany Collins' approach is to deconstructing the coded language that shapes perceptions of race and identity in America, look no further than the latest addition to her White Noise series.

The chalk on chalkboard work "Black as this Board" — which will help launch the grand opening of Kennesaw State University's new Zuckerman Museum of Art during its spring exhibition See Through Walls — takes its title from Paula Deen, queen of cliché Southern cuisine and unintentional ethnic slurs, who used the colorful remark during a 2012 New York Times webcast to describe the complexion of her longtime African-American "friend"/employee.

Collins couldn't help but laugh at the thought of Deen's dubious description as she took a break from her work in progress one day last November at the under-construction Zuckerman. On an oversize chalkboard, cosmic in scope, jumbled white letters handwritten in all-caps converged like constellations against the vast black background. For Collins, who was born of mixed parentage in the Deep South, it's a personal statement with universal implications. In her figurative quest for space to define herself beyond the binary of black and white, the artist's work has taken her to new heights — the latest being a coveted 12-month residency at Studio Museum in Harlem. It's resulted in a new identity of sorts; that of full-time artist.

In conversation, Collins has a way of whispering certain details to provide subtext. That's how she incidentally lets it slip during our interview that she's due to turn 30 this year.

"I told a friend in college, I'm going to really try being an artist when I turn 30," she says. Despite an impressive CV that includes multiple exhibitions, residencies, and awards dating back to 2007, her need for stability led her to double-major in studio art and photojournalism, the latter of which she attempted as a career after undergrad at the University of Alabama. After realizing that being a nosy reporter wasn't her bag, she earned an MFA at Georgia State University in 2012 while juggling four part-time jobs.

A native of Montgomery, Ala., Collins was familiar with the conservative racial politics that define the region. But not until pursuing a fine arts graduate degree in Atlanta did she expose herself to a more subtle form.

It's a story she's shared often over the past couple of years as her star has risen among the Southeast's shortlist of emerging artists to watch. In an attempt to make sense of the early critiques her work received from mostly white peers and professors, she turned text into context by feeding their words back to them in elaborate conceptual pieces.

"It was kind of a strange attempt to root myself in blackness," says Collins, who found herself defending her work against claims of elitism. "Instead of absorbing that critique," she decided, "I'll just push it back and label it white noise."

Through obsessing over language from external sources in the White Noise series, she began to gain her own outline — a term for self-definition she references from biracial author Rebecca Walker. Though she's always defined herself as black, despite having a white mother and black father, Collins says that reality wasn't by choice as much as it was rooted in the historical one-drop rule. So, what began as a private quest for the liminal space between racial extremes became a public unveiling of what Collins calls the "absurdity or arbitrariness of language itself."

It's enabled her to embrace a more evolved sense of self. "I don't have to define my blackness so stridently anymore," she says. "It doesn't have to be one thing. It just is."

Since beginning her residency at the Studio Museum last fall, her quest for space has turned quite literal now that she resides in New York, where, she jokes, "everybody touches on the subway." Far from abandoning the Southeast, where the themes of her work are rooted, she says she likes the idea of remaining based in Atlanta.

But she does intend on expanding her chalk palette. In newer works, she's already beginning to experiment with a wider series of colors to define blue noise ("like a frying pan, something sizzling"), Brownian noise ("a bit more calming"), and black noise ("almost silent"). The idea is to continue chipping away at the limitations surrounding race, identity, and language in an indirect way.

"It's not like I want to end this conversation, but I do think the White Noise series solved something for me, so it would be disingenuous to remain in that space without becoming more broad. I'm looking for more space, I think," she says, before adding with a subtle whisper: "Space again, it's apparently very important to me."

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