Beyond the Binary: Q&A with AK Garski
Posted January 20th, 2021 by Russ White
The local artist, who participated in our 2020 Sketchbook Project, offers their insight on rest, consent, anti-racism, and the gender binary
Russ White (he/him/his): First off, how are you? How has the pandemic affected you and your studio practice?
AK Garski (they/them/theirs): 2020 provided me with many harsh lessons. As an artist I typically piece together multiple jobs to make ends meet. For the past five years my primary form of employment has been adjunct teaching; however adjuncts are contracted on a semesterly basis, and we do not have job security. I had no classes to teach in the spring of 2020 so when the pandemic hit in March, I was already in the middle of job hunting for seasonal work. Eventually, I was able to qualify for unemployment, which was a huge relief and an eye-opening experience. For the first time in my life, I was able to devote my full self to my artistic practice and I was not being asked to perform unpaid labor, which is always the case when I am adjunct teaching. I was also able to rest when my body was tired. Although I was “unemployed” I was working hard at something I am highly skilled at. I recognized with renewed clarity that maintaining a rigorous art practice is, in fact, hard work. If I pushed myself too hard, worked too many consecutive hours, I became less efficient in the studio. The only cure for depletion in creativity is rest. I began asking myself: what type of work qualifies as a valuable form of labor in the world today? I am still in the process of understanding and deconstructing a lifetime of toxic values that took hold in my life out of necessity due to capitalism. Americans are conditioned to admire people who succeed in their career at any cost, even at the expense of their physical, emotional, and spiritual health. I came to realize that a part of me thought of this kind of pedal to the metal, unsustainable career drive as an impressive mark of “mental discipline.” Unemployment taught me how I, someone who thought of themselves as an anti-capitalist, had accepted capitalist ideology on a deeply personal level. I defined my self-worth based on how much I could produce, with limited capacity for self-compassion and consideration of the societal conditions that make my life difficult as a person who is compelled to make art, who struggles with chronic health conditions, and who is also trans/non-binary.
Now that I am beginning to fully understand how maintaining a set of values that reinforce capitalism hurts me and my community, I am also beginning to establish new values. I am asking myself how I can continue to unlearn what needs unlearning while adapting my teaching strategies and artistic practice accordingly.
You are part of the new cohort of artists in residence at Second Shift Studio in Saint Paul. What has that meant for your practice? What are you working on there now?
Becoming a 2020/21 artist in residence at Second Shift Studio Space has been truly transformational for my art practice. For 3 years I worked out of the second bedroom in my apartment, which is only 100 sq ft. Before that I set up a makeshift studio in my “dining room” (which was more of a glorified hallway in my one-bedroom apartment). I crammed everything I could into my second bedroom studio space: my flat file, drafting desk, two easels, and all of my supplies. I made it work, but I was always trying not to trip over myself, which made me quite anxious; I create technically detailed work with almost no margin for error from drips of water or paint. At Second Shift, my workspace has tripled in size, and I have access to a small storage space. I am able to spread out, I can hang multiple finished pieces and works in progress up in the same place, and experiment with different installation techniques. This has been particularly important as I expand upon a body of work titled Yes, NO: Portraits of Consent, a series of drawings and paintings of the words “yes” and “no” selected from literary and academic texts at pivotal moments in the narrative. This series consists of multiple, relatively small works on paper that utilize a variety of drawing and painting techniques.
Beyond Endurance, from The Erotic as Power by Audre Lorde, oil on panel, 20" diameter, 2020.
Often times, I am working observationally, as I study the printed word from the books I am referencing. Visual elements within the composition of each piece such as color, contrast, and emphasis vary in accordance with the context of the narrative and emotional tone of the text overall. I select each “yes” or “no” from texts that explore consent politics from multiple perspectives. Systemic violence, particularly violations of consent, are often viewed strictly through the confines of the gender binary. Therefore, I am specifically selecting books, essays, and articles by queer and trans authors as well as authors who are Black, indigenous, and people of color.
Do It Anyway, from Sissy by Jacob Tobia, graphite pencil on torn Arches watercolor paper, 2020.
I read each text closely. As I read, I am searching for moments in the narrative where a “yes” or a “no” profoundly impacts the story that is being told or the thesis of the piece of writing. A “yes” or “no” could be spoken through dialogue, expressed as internal thought, or utilized pragmatically in an academic essay. This project was supported by a 2019 Minnesota State Arts Board Artist Initiative Grant. Through the completion of this grant, I discovered that I would like this project to achieve a larger scale than I initially anticipated. I can envision a whole wall covered in at least 50 drawings. As someone who tends to work for long periods of time on a single painting, working more rapidly and at a smaller scale has pushed me to open up my practice in ways I never anticipated. It has forced me to let go of achieving "perfection" in every piece, which has been a frightening but liberating experience for me.
Left: “No, from Hunger by Roxane Gay, graphite on torn Arches watercolor paper, 2020 Right: No as No, from Hunger by Roxane Gay, sennelier ink and watercolor on torn Arches watercolor paper, 2020.
You’ve developed an Anti-Racist Art Curriculum available for free online through your artist website and your Instagram account. Can you tell us more about it, how people are using it, and how putting it together has informed your own work as a white artist?
I began working on the creation of the free, publicly accessible anti-racist art “micro-syllabi” back in July of 2020. This curriculum is a condensed and more user-friendly version of a traditional semester-long syllabus. It provides users with a curated selection of readings, explanations of key concepts within the readings, and critical thinking questions to guide them through the subject matter. The curriculum is an extension of my social practice artwork, responding to the growing need for anti-racist curriculum that draws direct connections between white privilege, the historical prevalence of racism, and visual culture.
For far too long, “artistic liberty” and “creative freedom” have been prioritized over understanding the impact of colonialism in art and developing the ability to recognize how inequities within our society impact our imagination and, therefore, influence the artistic process. The first micro syllabus confronts these issues head-on by tackling the following questions: How does racial bias impact our imaginations and the artistic process? How do white artists benefit from racial privilege? Do artists have the right to depict the stories of people outside of their racial group? These questions are specifically directed to white artists, as we are rarely asked to consider how white privilege shelters us from legitimate criticism from our BIPOC artistic peers and community members. Recently, we have seen a swell of white artists create work about Black pain, create images of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, take commissions to create public murals focusing on similar themes, with little consideration about whether or not such actions co-opt the pain of the Black community and, even worse, take up creative space that rightfully belongs to Black artists. Local artist Maiya Hartman wrote a piece about this that was featured on MNartists.org, called “The Black Experience via The White Gaze.”
As a white artist and educator, creating this anti-racist art curriculum, I am very conscious of my own privilege. My background working in the field of equity and inclusion does not mean I am incapable of making mistakes or indirectly perpetuating white supremacy without realizing it. I believe we should all be skeptical of the underlying intentions of white folks working in diversity, equity, and inclusion particularly in regard to their income and whether or not they actively redistribute wealth to BIPOC communities. Because white supremacy is a system of domination created by white people to advance their global power, it is very easy for white folks to lean back into all the privileges that white supremacy affords us. At the same time, I also believe that white people have a responsibility to work to dismantle the system we created and continue to benefit from. Too often white people expect people of color to educate us about white supremacy, without understanding the problematic nature of such an emotionally exhausting request. It is my hope that my first micro-syllabus will help white artists take responsibility for our own education and start thinking critically about how white supremacy permeates everything we do, including the creative work we do in the studio.
In 2021, I’ll be creating more syllabi that will not be targeted specifically towards white readers and will prioritize addressing the prevalence of white supremacy in art history while centralizing the artwork and critical theory of BIPOC artists and scholars. I have gotten a lot of positive feedback about the curriculum from students, fellow educators, and local community members. Eventually I’d like to put together an online course that utilizes the curriculum, but this is still very much in the idea stage for now.
Much of your work is about breaking down what you call our “state of psychological duality that is encouraged by the gender binary.” It’s such a keen insight—how the social constructs around gender affect our thinking in so many other ways as well—and I’d love for you to expand on that. What does a future with more nuanced understandings of our bodies and each other look like to you?
As person who is trans and non-binary, I consider it to be my life’s work to understand just how deeply the gender binary has influenced my perception of myself and the world around me—gender identity and expression are really only the tip of the iceberg. So much within Western culture is measured within a false binary: logic vs. emotion, mind vs. body, light vs. dark, masculinity vs. femininity. These socially constructed divides prevent us from recognizing the validity of people and ways of thinking that defy categorization within a binary. Before I claimed my true self publicly and asked people to acknowledge me for the person I know myself to be (someone who is gender non-conforming, trans, non-binary, and gender fluid), I spent many years creating self-portraits. These drawings and paintings often contained two figures that assumed adversarial positions.
Both Ends Burning; sennelier ink, watercolor, and gouache on paper; 72” x 55,” 2017.
This is perhaps best articulated in the largescale painting, Both Ends Burning, a piece that depicts two selves bound together by the same ACE bandage. ACE bandages are symbolic of early methods of breast binding. It’s a queer symbol of gender non-conformity that not all cis-gender or straight folks recognize. ACE bandages are notoriously dangerous to bind with because they are not designed to move with your body. The more a person breathes, the more the bandage restricts and resists bodily movement. This can cause breathing problems, bruised ribs, and spinal issues. Nowadays we have much healthier methods of binding. The ACE bandage has become a metaphorical symbol in my work for the challenges of living openly as trans: the thing that frees you and gives you life can also restrict you, make you vulnerable. As a symbol it is neither good nor bad, it resists that kind of binary categorization.
It’s A Girl (detail); sennelier ink, watercolor, gouache, and graphite on paper; 144” x 55,” 2016.
During the time that I was making these self-portraits, I was still clinging to the gender and pronouns that I was assigned at birth, I was afraid to embrace myself fully as something entirely different. My artwork understood my desires better than I did. Once I came out publicly as non-binary and trans, self-portraiture became inadequate. I could not express the ways in which I was made to disassociate from the person that my childhood self wanted to be—the ways in which I had disconnected from my body in order to survive—through self-portraiture. So I began building a new visual language through a collection of objects. Each object is chosen for its functional purpose, symbolic meaning, and personal significance. I also gathered ephemera that had been cut or pulled from my body in the years prior to my transformation. I recontextualized these bodily fragments with other objects, giving them new meaning. These drawings/paintings created in colored pencil, gouache, and ink make up my newest and ongoing body of work, The Redacted Collection.
Left: Redacted; sennelier ink, watercolor, gouache, graphite, and colored pencil on paper; 4” x 6,” 2020. Right: Scraping Goodbye, colored pencil on paper, 4” x 6,” 2020.
I long for a future where a more nuanced understanding of our bodies allows us to be kind to ourselves and others from an early age. I do not want young children to have to go through the shame, isolation, and violence that is still so prevalent within our transphobic and racist society. I am trying to find ways to create this future through my art practice and through my social practice artwork like the Gender Re-Reveal Party, a series of events that I have created in collaboration with LGBTQIA+ student groups to celebrate gender fluidity and rejoice in a wide range of gender expressions.
You contributed two pieces to the MPLSART Sketchbook Project. Do you normally keep a sketchbook going, and if so, what does that practice normally look like? Was it a different experience contributing to this Project?
I do not normally keep a sketchbook! I feel guilty admitting this but with my limited time, I would rather jump right into the process of creating more substantial drawings, paintings, or social practice projects. This is why, at first, I was very unsure of what my contribution would look like for the MPLSART Sketchbook Project. I decided to create two colored pencil drawings of my asthma inhalers, functional objects that play a crucial role in my life but seem almost exclusively utilitarian in their aesthetic design. I was thinking about the precariousness of my body as someone who lives with severe asthma and how vulnerable I have been feeling during the pandemic. I fell in love with capturing the structure of my favorite brand of rescue inhaler, Albuterol (Ventolin HFA, the blue one with the drop toggle cap). I have not addressed the struggles I have had with my health directly in my artwork. For a long time, I wanted to maintain distance between my chronic illnesses and my identity as an artist. This was largely due to internalized ableism and shame. My contributions in the MPLSART Sketchbook Project presented me with an opportunity to begin opening up about this topic and I foresee myself addressing this more directly in future work. ◼︎
The artist's two contributions to the MPLSART 2020 Sketchbook Project.