The Spotlight: Samuel Dunson
By Jay Sanchez
September 20, 2022
The concept has been prevalent in the United States of America for centuries now. Dating back to this nation’s dark historical past, we have been presented with the absolute mirage of progress and evolution that’s guided with the false narrative of empowerment for us all. This fucked-up reality; has ignited progressive action, community, and conversations that are being led with swift approach in the most underprivileged communities of America today.
I had the grand privilege of visiting Channel to Channel Gallery in Chattanooga, TN. A quick shoutout to Dustin Hedrick for receiving my visit with open arms. The gallery is home to Reconstruction: By Samuel Dunson. The exhibit is currently on view until October 1, 2022. Upon my arrival the feeling within was unlike any other I’ve experienced before. I suddenly felt an energy that embodied conversations I’ve had with my grandmother growing up.
“Partially inspired by a move from Nashville to Atlanta, Samuel Dunson’s work focuses on the historical process of reconstruction: what it means to rebuild, to construct a new life out of one’s own history.” I had the absolute honor to sit and conversate with the legend Samuel Dunson late on a Wednesday night. He was kind enough to take some time away from his busy schedule to give Number a deeper look at his latest body of work, Reconstruction.
“Sam Dunson tore apart material and reconstructed it using his family history as the focal point. While looking at himself, he makes important statements on how reconstruction in America was attempted and is possible if we tear everything apart and really look at it. The exhibition is timely, important, and incredibly executed.”
Jay Sanchez: Good evening, sir I must say it’s an absolute honor to be in conversation with you.
Sam Dunson: “You’re far too kind my friend. I appreciate your kind words.”
Jay Sanchez: I’ve admired your work and the influence you’ve become in many other creatives around the city of Nashville. I must say, it was an honor to experience a show by the great Sam Dunson. Could you please give the reader a bit of the background behind this magical body of work you call Reconstruction?
Sam Dunson: It would be my pleasure. After 10 years of traveling back and forth between work and home, there was a need as a man who is a father and a husband to make sure the family was ok. My father did something very similar with me and my siblings growing up. My family had become a mirror of everything that was going on with the black community in these past 10 years as well. Assessment was needed.
Jay Sanchez: Sir, could you please elaborate on that.
Sam Dunson: Certainly. “In reference to my family and community, this turmoil and strife going on had to happen for us all to grow during this 10-year period.” This all made me look back to analyze what I thought was happening around me. The idea of Reconstruction was the result.
JS: Reconstruction is the result after breaking something all the way down, or even demolishing a structure. Why was this term important at that time?
SD: Well, it’s somewhat of a 3-part answer. The show itself is a bit of a 3-ring circus. The idea of reconstruction for the United States, the era soon after slavery. The idea of integrating black men and women into white America and our history.
The second ring focuses on family. We reconstructed what we define as family. I had to own the last 10 years. We all had to do our best to keep the family centralized and connected. I felt as if I was doing a poor job as a father until I spoke with my children. They were very honest in saying that everybody did their job in keeping this family together.
The third ring focuses on me attempting to force a new idea of what painting is for me. I’m taking recycled pieces of fabric that had a previous life, putting them together, and reconstructing something totally new. I am reconstructing as an Artist.
JS: Take the reader into a more in-depth conversation on the titles behind these beautiful pieces.
SD: Each of the pieces is titled by a system the Unites States has created to either keep a group of citizens down or as an attempt to help others. “The titles are Affirmative Action, Welfare, Jim Crow, Separate but Equal, Black Face, Black Codes, Red Lining, and Make America Great Again.” What I’m doing with each one of these pieces is exploring the effects these systems had positively or negatively in our society. Unfortunately, the effects these had were more negative than anything else. For example, lets reconstruct and allow us to give “affirmative action” a positive outlook and positive connection to our family. By remixing this idea, I was able to speak in a very scientific way of thinking. “In order for us to advance we have to have a connection to the future Us.” This concept facilitates a 52-year-old me to lay a foundation for the 25-year-old me in previous time.
JS: I must ask sir; you don’t happen to be Morpheus from The Matrix?
SD: (Laughs) No my friend! No red or blue pills over here. Although this concept is very sci-fi, it’s very reconstructive to my approach as a creative.
JS: As I am hearing these words, I’m completely at awe in understanding why I felt the way I did when I stepped in the gallery. Honestly, I went back to the 14-year-old me and reminisced about conversations with my grandmother and older gang members from my neighborhood. I sincerely tapped into that time in life.
SD: Wow! My intentions with this body of work are in provoking conversations such as this, thank you for sharing that my friend.
JS: Let me take you in a different route sir. My grandmother was a big influence in my life. For some reason she would always be doing some type of hand sewn activity, it mostly involved 12 dresses from the goodwill turning into 6 beautiful garments that couldn’t be replicated by Versace. Looking back at your previous work, why did you decide to make fabric your canvas with the Reconstruction series?
SD: “I have been fighting myself for 10 years on why I am still dependent on canvas as the foundation of my paintings.” I told myself go get a sewing machine. I wanted to challenge myself; as I’ve been challenging my students at TSU for quite sometime. If everything is going well for you, throw that monkey wrench in the machine and challenge yourself. I bought the machine and then it sat in my basement for a couple of years, “until I told myself ok challenge accepted.”
This challenge has taken me back to a more tactile mentality, a more 3D approach with my work. This made me so uncomfortable. I stood up to this challenge and this work was the outcome. This is the absolute idea of Reconstruction. I want people to come out and engage in conversation, I want people to come out and be in harmony with one another. Although my work is reflective of my community, this body of work can very well be the conversation that brings us all to the table. I’m not ashamed of being an American, but the history of our nation is something in total need of Reconstruction. We have the ability of accomplishing so much as a whole. “These ideas or thoughts are not to be confrontational, but my work most definitely is.”