“This is who I am”: My mother on connecting to her ancestry and her voice through art.

For as long as I can remember, I have seen my mother, Michele Tejuola Spindle, create beautiful art. As a child, I used to sit in her studio and color while she spent hours drawing, carving, and painting stories of the Black diaspora on gourds. 

My mother grew up in Detroit, the child of factory workers and Southern emigres who made their way northward during the Great Migration. Her parents encouraged her artistic talent, even after it took her to Atlanta to pursue a career in graphic design.

In Atlanta, my mother immersed herself in Black American and West African culture, the latter of which she had been exposed to for the first time. She frequented the famed Neighborhood Arts Center, where she took African dance classes, listened to speakers, and met other Afro-centric Black folks. It was here where she saw her first gourd: a kora, which is a harp-like West African stringed instrument made from a gourd. 

A kora, which is a West African stringed instrument made from a gourd.

Source: Wikipedia

For my mother, the gourd represented a connection to the past. Her mother grew up drinking water from gourds in rural Georgia, much like her ancestors would have done centuries before in West Africa before slavery severed them from the continent. 

Unlike its cousins the pumpkin and squash, a gourd becomes harder and more durable as it ages. Once hardened, a gourd can be functional (a drinking vessel), instrumental (a kora), or, as my mother would soon find, the perfect canvas for her imagination.

Over her three-decade visual arts career, my mother has painted countless stories on the humble gourd. Her work has been displayed at the Cameron Art Museum in Wilmington, North Carolina, at the Mint Museum in Charlotte, North Carolina, in multiple public art projects throughout North Carolina, and in other venues. This weekend, she’ll have her Texas debut at Fort Works Art gallery in Fort Worth; her work will display from March 25 through April 29.

In advance of this showing, I spoke to my mother about her love for gourds, her evolving storytelling style, and how she has found her voice through her artwork.

On her interest in African stories

I was not exposed to a lot of African art or even African culture up in Detroit. So, when I came down [to Atlanta], going to places like the Neighborhood Arts Center, [I saw] lots of African culture. Seeing the new art and learning more about my culture, my ancestry, Africa – the connection and the timing, they just worked well together. Early on, I had a lot of gourds about Yoruba stories, Nigerian stories. 

Photo of a carved and painted gourd by Michele Tejuola Spindle. The gourd features the image of a Black man in a red, white, and black outfit, and whose whose face is painted red.

“Seeing the new art and learning more about my culture, my ancestry, Africa – the connection and the timing, they just worked well together.”

Photo: Warriors by Michele Tejuola Spindle.

On her evolving subject matter

Before, [I] was talking about other cultures. The Grandma Nettie piece was definitely personal. 

Grandma Nettie was, I think, rare at the time. She was a pastor of a church [in Reynolds, Georgia].  

She’s the main feature on the gourd. But I also have a bench with different people on the gourd. They’re excited; they’re in praise. I’m on the bench with my long dreadlocks. I had long dreadlocks at the time [I created the Grandma Nettie gourd]. I was thinking of my appreciation for who Grandma was – looking back at Grandma, saying, “Wow. This was something.” 

On shifting toward self-portraits and Black American stories

In retrospect, it’s because I was single – divorced and single. And, I was like: It’s about me. The Grandma Nettie piece, I was in it, but it wasn’t about me. 

I guess I was being more self-conscious about who I am. How do I feel? How can I express it? That was very different for me, doing self-portraits and self-stories. That was really stepping out of my bounds – to put myself out there like that in the open because I’m so quiet and shy.

“People would come up to me and say,’I can relate to that story.’”

– My mother on her Mind Over Matter gourd, which is a self-portrait that depicts some of her physical health struggles.

I know I don’t want to just keep [my stories] in my little pantry. I don’t want to just keep it boxed up. I put all this time and effort and energy into it, and, I don’t know, maybe other people would relate.

There’s this one piece, Mind Over Matter. I’m really glad I put that out because at the Cameron [Art Museum] in North Carolina when I had it out there last year, people would come up to me and say, “I can relate to that story.” 

Mind Over Matter is a self-portrait. It’s about how I’ve had physical issues. I’m on there with crutches. I walked with a cane for years because of issues I had. Even growing up, I had different health issues. But I was always told, “get up and try it again and don’t sit around feeling sorry about yourself.” That’s like mind over matter. Sometimes it is okay to say “ugghhh”, but you have to keep going or else you just end up in this little shell. It’s harder for some people. Mind Over Matter is this “keep moving” story – keep going.

On My Hair and waiting to tell the right story

There were these two long gourds – the My Hair piece – these long, skinny gourds I kept for probably seven, eight years. I loved them but I didn’t know what to do with them. And then all of a sudden, I got this one gourd, separate from those and laid them all next to each other – [I thought] “I know what I’m going to do with it”, because it was so unique, seeing them flow together. I just saw this story.

My Hair gourd, which depicts the power of Black hair, identity, and the forced severing of this identity that began during slavery and continues today.

That is a story about how as slaves our hair was cut. That’s this whole identity about hair – I even have a gourd about my hair story; it’s called Scary Curl. 

In Africa, the stories and cultures and tribes and identity were all together with the hair and the stories of the hair [and] the hairstyles. To cut off that identity, our hair was cut [by enslavers]. It was shaved. 

It made me think of the wrestler [Andrew Johnson] just a few years ago. He had dreadlocks, and they did not allow dreadlocks while they’re wrestling. And they cut his hair right in front of everyone.

When I saw that, I couldn’t believe it. On the gourd, I have the face of the young man and the dreadlocks.

That was amazing to me, because, you know, I’ve had locs, and I could not imagine that happening. Because growing locs is a long process. He was able to go on and I believe he still participated in the wrestling match. Emotionally, that would have been hard. All those years, just – zap – cut off in just a few minutes.

On finding herself through self-portraits

That was a period where I was like – it’s about me. It was that period where I wanted to tell my story. From the story about my hair [Scary Curl] to Mind Over Matter to After Love. 

“That was a period where I was like – it’s about me.”

Scary Curl gourd, a self-portrait about my mother’s hair journey.

“A lot of women probably do [think]: Where do I go now? Who am I? 

So maybe that was my way of saying: This is who I am.

That probably went on for at least two years, that I was putting time into pieces about myself. Of course, early on, I never would have done something like that. 

At the point I did it, I was [newly] single. It just made me think about who I am. A lot of women probably do [think]: Where do I go now? Who am I? So maybe that was my way of saying: This is who I am.

12 responses to ““This is who I am”: My mother on connecting to her ancestry and her voice through art.”

  1. Irie – Such powerful writing. It touches me deeply, esp the part of figuring out who one is after love, or at anytime in one’s journey. I need to talk to your mom about similarities in our stories, but mostly I want to celebrate her, where she is, her beautiful art, and the daughter and grandchildren who are what her ancestors dreamed of. Good heavens, all of this is yummy.

    1. Thank you for sharing this, Emily. I think she would really enjoy talking with you!

  2. Denise Spindle Avatar
    Denise Spindle

    I’m so proud of my sister !! through health and life challenges my sister has persevered. At 9 she asked our dad for an easel. My dad asked, “ do you know what an easel is “??. Michele told him and the rest is history. Congratulations!!!

    1. I love this story!!

  3. Marleta Soringer Avatar
    Marleta Soringer

    This such interesting and inspiring story. I love it and can’t wait to see her art!

    1. I’m excited for you to see it!

  4. Irie this is beautiful and amazing! Thank you for sitting her down and getting this incredible information for everyone out there to begin to learn about the incredible artist your mother is.

    1. Thank you so much, Lauren!

  5. Such a well written narrative with your mother’s words and art intertwined throughout…..her amazing talent also embodied in you with your craft at the written word!

    1. This is so kind! Thank you!

  6. Very inspiring story miss Irie. Would love to speak with you personally.

  7. […] to South Africa to study printmaking, and returned to the States a few weeks later, refocused on her artwork. I see friends and acquaintances who have started new careers and new businesses or made time for […]

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