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Engaging Artists

Sean Desiree: Building Solidarity Through Woodworking

November 20, 2020



Desiree more recently spoke with Jules Rochielle about their current work as well as the origin of their woodworking practice, one rooted in self-sufficiently but also community-building; their responses are excerpted below, lightly edited for length and clarity.

“To have something created by a non-binary person of color is something you don’t see very often. It’s about filling the space with what makes me feel spiritually and physically protected in a world that doesn’t do that.”

We last spoke to Engaging Artist Fellow Sean Desiree (@seandesireestudio) in August, when New York City seemingly had rounded the corner of the first wave of the COVID-19 crisis, at least for the time being. As part of the 3d PPE Artist Network (@3dppeartistnetwork), Desiree spent a large portion of the spring and summer making personal protective equipment for activists, mutual aid volunteers, and elders. Along with EA cohort member Cody Herrmann (@americanbabe), Desiree worked to print, assemble, and distribute face shields for hundreds of workers in Queens. Both fellows took on creative leadership with outstanding fundraising and community outreach efforts, using small print stations to take action during this crisis. Engaging Artists (EA) is More Art’s two-tiered Fellowship and Residency program for artists seeking to both develop and sustain their public art and socially-engaged practice. The program curriculum encompasses a professional development series, public art commission opportunities, mentorship, and peer networking. This year’s cohort has remained committed to each other, their practices, and their communities despite the tremendous challenges of 2020.

In their own practice, Desiree, a self-taught artist and furniture maker, uses wood from found pallets, demolished buildings, and discarded scraps to create works informed by the language of geometry and guided by their commitment to highlighting stories of resistance. A non-binary artist of color, they often focus on the experiences of the LBGT community as well as those facing ongoing and historic systemic racism.

Sean Desiree: The most direct way I could explain my creative practice is that I’m a multi-disciplinary artist and I do music and woodworking. All of my practices are generally rooted in my own survival and self-sufficiency — and that’s how I began with making tables for the first time. I didn’t have the means to buy a table, and I was like, what can I do myself, that I can make on my own? I was quite motivated by watching YouTube videos of people making things out of pallets and other scrap wood.

Over time I started to think about incorporating more art into the project, thinking about what can I do with this blank space of a tabletop? I saw different people making these herringbone patterns r basic zigzags or whatever, and I was like, what can I do on this pallet that could, you know, potentially tell a story?

That led me to my first art series, LIFTED: Public Housing and Aerial Perspective, where I took aerial views of different public housing units specifically in Hudson, New York, where I was working at the time. And Hudson, New York, if you’ve never been there, there’s this huge disparity between wealthy and poor. Specifically, there’s a lot of wealthy artists that live there. Me starting to come into my identity as an artist, I’m always trying to connect with the community and figure out how can I use the means that I have to support other people also trying to live that dream of being an artist? I did the series on the different public and subsidized housing in Hudson, and at the end of it, I gave a portion from the profits of the sale of artwork to artists living in public housing, as a grant.

I’m a self-taught artist, so I’m constantly learning and evolving as I go. Another skill that I picked up while I was expanding my skillset in woodworking is timber framing. There is this workshop that I co-facilitated in Soul Fire Farm in Grafton, New York which is where I learned how to actually build structures. For me, what inspired me to are my roots in having my practice be about survival and self-sufficiency. Being able to build your own structures, there is a lot of power in that. Especially as a non-binary person of color, I feel like I had control, I can provide for myself.

I’m starting to develop the series that I would like to do in the future called Shale Dust Keep All Of Me, which is going to be a project where I build smaller timber frame structures. The idea is to think, as a non-binary person of color, what is safety for me? What feels safe? Creating a space of my own. You know, a lot of buildings are mass-produced, by mostly cis, white men and it’s all about capitalism and what’s going to be the cheapest and most efficient. And so to have something created by a non-binary person of color is something you don’t see very often. It’s about filling the space with what makes me feel spiritually and physically protected in a world that doesn’t do that. And so right now I’m just growing that idea of what the space would look like inside, and playing around with the lines of geometry and timber framing itself to create something that doesn’t necessarily look like a generic timber frame structure.

The third thing that I’m doing with my woodworking practice also incorporates gender identity and the LGBTQ community. Right now I’m in the beginning stages of developing a series or a collection of chairs that is solely about what does nonbinary design look like? How does it feel? What does a chair designed by a non-binary person look like? And so I’m creating these thrones, which are typically associated with cis men as far as noting status, and kind of giving non-binary people a throne for us to also feel supported on, to fill uplifted, to feel like we have a place and deserve a place in the world.

I feel like it feels really good to have a direction and something I feel excited about. I want to keep developing the idea and also connecting with folks that can provide some sort of insight because a lot of times, I’m functioning on my own. What feels good to me? What instincts come to me? It was really nice to connect with people through More Art and also just people I’m finding myself to give me that perspective that I need sometimes. And also, I feel like I’m doing a good job of trying to figure out how to create opportunities for myself within this new space that we’re working in and think, how can I adapt? How can I also be supportive? Because woodworking is very much rooted in providing, having something tangible. That is another reason that I came to woodworking as my practice and why it’s important to me. Because I could actually contribute something physical to someone or to a community.