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Artist Profile Series: Paul Rucker

Erika Enomoto

Communications Manager

Photo by Ryan Stevenson

Visual artist, composer, and multi-instrumentalist Paul Rucker of Seattle had just started working as an arts program manager when he received a Fellowship award from Artist Trust in 2007. The funding from the award was used to create PROLIFERATION. With 18,740+ views on YouTube, PROLIFERATION is an animation video that maps the rapid growth of prisons and incarceration centers in the United States from 1778 to 2005. “I made it as a piece to give away, not a piece to sell. I wanted people to understand the impact of mass incarceration. Unrestricted support gives you freedom to explore.”

In 2012, Paul received a Conductive Garboil Grant and Grants for Artist Projects (GAP) funding. “Every Artist Trust grant has been a major contributor to where I am now,” he shares. The support from GAP funding allowed him to create some of his most bold and impactful work such as his GAP project Assassin Series. Assassin Series evolved to be a part of his award-winning show REWIND, which parallels lynching of the past with the unprosecuted shootings of and excessive force inflicted on Black men by the police, what many consider lynching’s present incarnation.

For more than 25 years, Paul has conducted research on the histories of slavery, segregation, incarceration, police brutality, and the judicial system, which manifest in his oeuvre. Over time he has amassed a collection of artifacts including branding irons used to mark runaway slaves, publications on white supremacy, and currency printed in the antebellum South that prominently displays a romanticized view of slavery.

This pained history is reimagined in Stories from the Trees, an animated vignette accompanied by a somber and contemplative cello composition. The work depicts a hanged body of a Black male, swaying gently in the breeze for the visual consumption of a crowd of White spectators that includes three young children. As the piece transitions from color into black and white, it is revealed that the scene is an adaptation of an actual photograph from a lynching postcard.

Selected works like Stories from the Trees and objects from Paul’s artifacts collection were presented in REWIND, a solo exhibition that has recently travelled to Ellensburg, Washington; Ferguson, Missouri; and York, Pennsylvania. “I love to engage with communities off the beaten path. Most artists want to show in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago…. I’ve enjoyed the journey to more rural parts of the United States that get fewer opportunities to view contemporary art and engage in important, difficult conversations about race, power, and social justice.”

Early this month, TED Talks named Paul as one of their TED2018 Fellows. Recognition of the media organization’s “gold standard” position as the premiere platform for presenting and spreading ideas led Paul to apply to the TED Fellows Program. “Any opportunity to broaden the audience for the work you do as an artist is invaluable. When working through a talk and presenting, you also gain a better understanding of your own work.”

Through TED’s network and global viewership, Paul hopes to increase awareness of his current work, which draws upon challenging and unsightly themes from America’s long history of inflicting social injustices and violating civil liberties and human rights. Unapologetic and jarring, his work brings into focus the vast disparities that disproportionately impact marginalized communities, such as people of color and women.

Currently, Paul is preparing work to be featured in Declaration, the first exhibition of the Institute for Contemporary Art (ICA) at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. “I have new Ku Klux Klan robes and artifacts that build on the ideas from my show REWIND, which uses a multimedia approach to illustrate and analyze the economics of the prison-industrial complex, the lingering effects of slavery, the explosive growth of the US prison system, and the relationships among these trends.” He anticipates that it will be an exciting inaugural show for the non-collecting art institution, which is slated to open its doors on April 21, 2018.

At this point in his career, Paul is most proud of the projects that bring audiences from different backgrounds together. He explains, in particular, “The evidence that my art is promoting empathy, understanding, and compassion. That change can happen through reaching beyond our own comfort zones. Also, we have the power as artists to make the lives of others better and more equitable through knowledge and beauty. The beauty of art is that it means different things to different people. We all bring our own experiences to the show, and that’s part of the power.”