Words by Erica Ciccarone
Photography by Gina Binkley
Stephanie Pruitt has a curious heart. She’s a poet, a multi-media artist, a strategist, and a teacher, but the self-appointed title she’s claimed is “Aha Moment Maker.” You know the feeling she’s after. It comes to you when you’re tuned in to an artwork and something is unlocked within you. It is not something new. It is ancient. It rises from that deep well within you and colors your present, which is now lush with understanding. “Aha,” you think. “There it is.”
A native Nashvillian, Pruitt has not only worked to hone her own craft of writing—an important and difficult endeavor in itself—but she is a hugely important voice in Nashville’s changing arts landscape. Whether she’s turning a phrase that sails through your mind, corralling the energy of a roster of artists, or teaching others the business side of art making, Pruitt has a talent for bringing people together to find common ground and share in their personal journeys. I sat down with Pruitt for lunch, and our conversation left me energized and inspired.
Here it is.
Who are some of your favorite living poets?
I love Nikky Finney, a fellow Affrilachian poet. She is very rooted in her truth. Nate Marshall’s writing is fresh and formally inventive and challenging. Amanda Johnston always makes me feel like I’m happier to be alive.
What’s your desert island album?
The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Oh my goodness. I never get tired of that.
One thing that draws me to you is how you seem to build community wherever you go. What role do you think community plays in art, writing, and the creative spirit?
The foundation of art is relationships. When you look at any artistic principle or concept—imagery, metaphor, allusion—it’s all relational, connecting one thing, place, person, concept to another that might initially seem disconnected. In my thinking, something that exists based on relationships will hopefully live and manifest itself in a way that builds relationships between people, places, and ideas. That to me is the core of community. My favorite works of visual art and poetry are the ones that tear me up a little bit. It’s not a relationship where everything is symbiotic, but that’s how communities are. They’re messy.
What is your art philosophy?
Curiosity is one of my core values. I know that. It kind of ends there in terms of what I know. I think creating work is for me an act of questioning. It’s not necessarily believing there is a hard or firm answer, but believing that in the process of exploring ideas or materials, we’ll come to some sort of truth with a capital T. Many artists are dealing with major philosophical questions, and they use their media, form, and other physical aspects of construction and craft that act as scaffolding to move through and explore those concepts. Sometimes you can’t look at things head-on; it can be like Medusa. But if you can, figure out a way to reflect it.
I find myself more and more drawn to artwork that is engaging socially, looking out at its community and saying, “What do I see?” I see that in your Poems and Pancakes series.
Poems and Pancakes is something I’ve been curating for six years with my husband, Al. The whole premise is, we’re going to bring in a poet from out of state somewhere and we’re going to read. I’m going to make about three or four hundred pancakes and say, Come on y’all. Some people will come for the poems; some people will come for the pancakes. It’s people who otherwise would not be in the same room. Under the guise of a poetry reading and a shared meal, all of these people suddenly come together, and they’re looking around, and they have something in common because they’ve been brought into this physical space, and they’re listening to the same poet who might be stimulating something that’s troubling or hilarious or whatever, and suddenly there’s a community.
Nashville Arts Commission is working to make our arts institutions more equitable. How do you think Nashville can better support artists of color?
I think Black artists, just like any other artists, will absolutely suffocate if their work is viewed in a very narrow box. Being in the South with all its complicated, ridiculous, beautiful history lends itself to some boxes that have been in place for a long time. Of course, all artists need conceptual space and resources and community. But it’s like saying all lives matter . . . For all sorts of reasons, I think the pathway to becoming an artist has more roadblocks if you are Black. I am committed to making that professional pathway more feasible.
Langston Hughes and Robert Hayden have written some really seminal essays on the responsibility of Black artists. Hughes would say it’s the responsibility of the Black artist to instill this pride and hope in Black people. Hayden would say it’s the responsibility of the Black artist to make the best art he or she possibly can and get it out into the world without the pressure of identity weighing them in such a way that it dictates the subject matter of their art. I stand somewhere in the middle in terms of the artist’s responsibility. In terms of an audience’s responsibility, look at the work for what it is.
You lead workshops and seminars on the business side of being an artist, both through private consultations and classes and through Metro Arts Commission’s Periscope program. What are some of your core teachings?
I will talk about money and dollar signs all day while other people say that it’s poor taste or manners. Years ago, I went to this entrepreneurial business conference. I asked a speaker, how do you charge for work when you know it’s connected to your life’s purpose. You’re passionate about it; it’s part of your spirit, and you truly are fed simply by doing the work. How do you then charge people? Her answer has stayed with me forever. She said, “If you don’t charge people, how long do you think you’ll be doing that work?”
I am really focused on creating a platform for artists in their marketing and business. It’s part of what I’m supposed to do. Whether I publish another poem or not—and hopefully I will—if somehow something I put my hand in makes it easier for ten other artists to do their work, then screw my work. That was my work.
Your daughter, Nia, has this wonderful sense of self-possession and confidence that I think teenage girls often struggle to find.
In so many ways she was born that way, and I just told myself not to break her. She was born such a beautiful spirit, and I can’t take the credit for who she is. Hopefully, I created an atmosphere that has allowed her to believe that she is valid and valuable just as she is. She can walk in a room feeling like, “I’m supposed to be here.” It’s the same for me. Even though I’m messy, ridiculously messy, I have this core belief that I’m supposed to be here.
Download a free e-book of poems and creative writing exercises by Stephanie at www.StephaniePruitt.com.