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Anwar Floyd-Pruitt: The 2020 Russell and Paula Panczenko MFA Prize Winner

Each spring, the Chazen hosts a show featuring the work of the Russell and Paula Panczenko MFA Prize winner. Due to the pandemic, the show for this year’s winner, MFA student Anwar Floyd-Pruitt, has been postponed until this fall. Though we’ll still get to see his show, SUPERNOVA: Charlotte and Gene’s Radical Imagination Station, in person, we’re giving readers a bit of a sneak peek here and a Q&A with Anwar to find out how he began his artistic career, where he got his inspiration, and what he hopes viewers take away from the show.

Tell us a little about yourself and how you became an artist.
I’m from Milwaukee, and the oldest of three children. I have a younger sister, Anjail, and a younger brother, Mikal, who are both contributing to my MFA show.

I went to Harvard and I played football there for less than two years because I injured my knee. By the time I was 20 years old I’d had a knee surgery and a shoulder surgery. So, the sports just didn’t feel like the best direction.

During that time, my mother signed me up for a standup comedy class in Milwaukee, which kept me involved in performing arts. But I hadn’t really embraced the visual arts until I moved to Milwaukee in 2003 to work on an independent horror film. I was hired as a producer, so I was writing schedules, doing budgets, and posting casting notices. And I found myself getting really jealous of the people who were on the more artistic side, building special effects, building props, story boarding and directing.

I wanted to flex some creative muscle, so I started making t-shirts. I would cut stencils by hand and then use them as a resist while spraying the shirt with bleach. So, I just started bleaching these patterns onto these shirts, and that’s really how I got started.

How did you end up in Madison for the program?
I was living in New York doing marketing for a number of different beverage companies, and I had already started making comedic hip-hop music videos and learning how to do a little bit of animation. I realized I just couldn’t be a weekend warrior—I wanted to make art all the time.

So, I left New York and moved back to Milwaukee and enrolled at UW–Milwaukee. I applied to the MFA film program and I wasn’t accepted. I didn’t have a BFA; I didn’t have a lot of experience producing my own film and video content, with the exception of the hip-hop comedy. Then I just thought to myself, well, if I’m going to spend the rest of my life working as an artist, I’d better start at the very beginning. So, I enrolled at UWM and got my BFA there with a focus in sculpture and video.

Then I applied to grad schools and my sculpture professor at UWM was a graduate of the MFA program at UW–Madison. He strongly suggested that I apply. In the end one of the things that attracted me to Madison was that it’s a 3-year program. The other schools where I was accepted were 2-year programs and I just thought that I wanted as much time as possible to formally be a student of art.

Tell us a little about the show.
The title of the show is SUPERNOVA: Charlotte and Gene’s Radical Imagination Station, and I would describe it as a celebration of my parents, Charlotte and Gene, who are these wonderful examples of kindness and generosity and hard work.

This takes a slightly dark turn, but during my three years here as an MFA student, a lot of my classmates have lost family. This is a difficult conversation certainly amid this pandemic and peoples’ fear of sickness and death. But so many friends losing family plus my cohort losing of our own classmates, Josh McMahon, last summer, I just started to feel an appreciation for my parents, who are both alive. There’s that saying, “tell people you love them while you still can,” and that’s what this show is—it’s me telling my parents I love them.

The show is also based on the idea of self-portraiture. The last few bodies of work I created were self-portraits, mixed-media, abstract. The source imagery I used for all of those portraits were just pictures of myself as a newborn all the way to now as a 42-year-old. I wanted to sort of look at other ways of defining oneself and other ways of exploring identity. And one of those primary ways is as a member of my nuclear family and as the child of my parents.

In this body of work, I use my parents’ images as source imagery and constructed self-portraits by combining my mother’s face and my father’s face, as well as my grandparents’ faces. My parents came to Madison a few weeks ago and I had them trace pictures of each other and trace pictures of their parents. I had them do it with different thickness pens and markers, so the amount of detail changes with each tracing. And I also had them do it with both their dominant and non-dominant hand, just to create a little bit of challenge, let them experience my life as an artist.

After they made those drawings, I digitized them and turned them into vector images that I was able to laser cut. I have hundreds of pieces, hundreds of silhouettes and partial faces, all made out of cardboard and cardstock and I used all of them as stencils. So, I laid each piece down on another piece of paper and then used spray paint to create a sort of duplicate of the image.

So, it’s mostly faces?
Yes, one portion of the show is mostly faces. There are two rooms, which is really exciting. The first room is specifically dedicated to my parents, who I turned into space cadets. There are three different sort of space-cadet designs; one of them represents my father; one represents my mother and then a sort of blending of the two represents me. And in the first room, the walls will be covered with this extremely colorful tableau of abstract, atmospheric paintings. The space cadets are mixed and mingled amongst and on these paintings, and there are hundreds of the little space cadets sort-of “flying” around the room. Some of them are fantastical and don’t necessarily portray anything from our world, and some of them reference moments in my parents’ lives—the states they grew up in, the schools they attended, the vocations they chose.

I would say that first room is the “radical imagination station.” And in the middle of that room there’s also a series of kinetic sculptures that I’m referring to as my “star forest.” They are floor-to-ceiling trees, if you will, that slowly rotate. You’ll be able to see all of these stars from different angles and perspectives.

What’s in the second room?
The second room is full of self-portraits, varying in size. Most of them will be human scale—the faces will be approximately human scale. There are others that are probably five times human scale, and those will be situated in the middle of the room as a sort-of portrait garden. The others will be on the walls. There will also be a video installation in the room, and there will certainly be some dancing in there, because it’s an important part of my life and a passion that I got from my parents. There will potentially be some other video content, maybe some animation; I’m still working on that.

How did you get the idea and why you focus so strongly on family? 
While I was making those first few bodies of work— the self-portraits—I think there was a question of ‘what does my work do.’ I was interested in pushing beyond my own personal narrative to something broader, but still personal. And that’s where my family was an obvious choice.

The mirror is a very prevalent motif in the work. There was a specific mirror from my parents’ home that really struck me. It has this beautiful, ornate, baroque-looking frame. But in this sort of sci-fantasy that SUPERNOVA has become, the mirror is the vehicle by which we travel through time and space. So, you’ll see images of the space cadets within this baroque mirror.

People say to you, ‘you look just like your mother,’ or ‘you look just like your father,’ or ‘you have your grandfather’s eyes or your grandmother’s nose.’ To then look in the mirror and acknowledge the intergenerational contributions to who you are feels like a type of time-travel to me. It feels very romantic.

What do you hope people will take from the show when they see it?
I hope people understand the main premise of the show being a celebration. I hope people enjoy the work, with moments of reflection, in addition to experiencing exciting moments when they’re looking at the objects. I’m hoping that people also take away from it what we all have in common, having two parents and us being mixes of them in addition to previous generations, and all the influences that shape who we are—family, friends, society, media.

What’s next after you graduate?
Well, I re-signed my lease in Madison, so I will be staying here. I am scheduled to perform my hip-hop puppet party this summer. Additionally, the plan is to teach some workshops in puppetry and other subjects at the art and literature laboratory.

The 2020 Russell and Paula Panczenko Prize winner is Anwar Floyd-Pruitt. Floyd-Pruitt focuses on interdisciplinary approaches to art-making by combining his BA in psychology from Harvard University and BFA from UW-Milwaukee’s Peck School of the Arts. He served as visual-arts coordinator for the therapeutic arts nonprofit organization Express Yourself Milwaukee. His recent projects include a body of work encouraging students to vote, a gun-violence memorial sculpture garden, co-producing an interdepartmental performance art showcase, and leading puppet-making workshops at Madison-area schools and arts organizations. His work Black Pain, an abstract trio of assemblage wall pieces, was featured in the Milwaukee Art Museum in 2013 in conjunction with 30 Americans.