By Savanah Mandeville
Through the month of February, Springfield-based artist Denise Belt will be showing an installation piece called, “Smear of Inconvenience” at Artivities, 209 W. Commercial Street in Springfield, to demonstrate how privilege in modern American society works:
“The piece is this really nice table setting, but on one of the settings there’s s smear of a shit. Now, with social justice, when you are the person who points out sexism, when you are the person who points out racism, you are pointing out the smear of shit on your plate. Everyone at the table will say to you, ‘You used to have to have a whole pile of shit on your plate. Now it’s just a smear. Be happy.’ But you can’t get over it. You’re not going to enjoy your meal. I know it’s just a smear. But everyone else here has a clean plate, and I have to swallow this smear because I used to have to have a whole plate of shit? It wasn’t right then. It’s not right now. They don’t want me to acknowledge it, but they damn well won’t put their sandwich on that plate. If the rule here is we all get a smear, then come here and give me your plate. But what we need is for everyone to have a clean plate.”
For Denise Belt, the brains behind Afromation Pottery, creating art has always been an outlet for communication and protest.
“My work is a running journal of whatever is going on in my life,” she said. “You can tell if I’m going through certain lines of thought in my work where it’ll just get heavy. You’ll see a lot of women and men, or babies, or relationship pieces, and that will represent whatever I’m going through at the moment.”
Her journal of thoughts and experiences that have influenced the evolution of her work has had peaks and valleys, dry spells and periods of flourishing self-discovery, and periods of compulsive vulnerability and measured business acumen.
Her story as an artist was born through a need to a need to speak out.
“I think I became an artist when I first made art for protesting. When I made art specifically to be seen, and to say something that I could not say. And that was around age ten.”
Today, she expresses herself through a variety of media including pottery, paintings, printmaking, and weaving. In fact, she spins her own yarn on a spinning wheel for truly unique and organic textiles.
While Denise enjoys life today as a well-known artist with a sophisticated home studio, it didn’t start out that way.
“The first time I saw myself as an artist, it was crayons and protests, and emotional constipation,” she laughed. “We were a country family, we grew up in Neosho, Missouri, we were the only black family, and I was very eccentric. I had a lot of things to be hostile about. So, when I wanted to express myself, I found it would be better to leave a conversation piece on the table because then it would get the conversation going more than me saying something. And because if it went wrong, I could always dumb up.”
As she went through school as the only black child in her class, she found herself often in the spotlight, buckling under stereotypes and expectations that she never asked for. Her need to protest outside of the home sharpened.
“The black chick has a lot to live up to,” she said. “You have a lot of issues when you are already one of the few minorities in town and you’re already standing out. There are a lot of expectations. You were expected to be tough. You were expected to be a good dancer. You were expected to be sexually affluent. You were expected to be kind of cool. You were expected to be a problem. There are all these labels that you just walk into when you are the black chick in a small country town, and all I wanted to do was live my life and go to school.”
She said that even in her beloved art classes, she felt as though her art teacher, who she looked up to and admired, expected something different from her than the other kids. Nevertheless, she turned to art to vent her frustration.
“My years growing up were both rebellious and trying to fly under the radar and trying to dodge all these personality stereotypes I didn’t realize I was supposed to have,” she said. “But with art, I could say something – kind of passive aggressively, if I’m being honest – that was not great. Or maybe not super acceptable to say.”
In a self-admitted act of rebellion, she got married at the age of 15, dropped out of High School, and moved to Springfield with her husband, Victor.
“My mom said I’d be back in a week,” she laughed. “We’re still married 22 years later, and he’s my best friend.”
“But it wasn’t great right out of the box.”
Denise describes the next few years of her life as “trying to do the house wife thing.” In the early years, she and her husband struggled to make ends meet in a tiny apartment, eating ramen noodles for almost every meal. Denise was too young to work so she said she remembers being home a lot and using art as a pastime.
“I was still making art, doing little things all the time, but it was more crafty. I had no easel – I was just randomly making. It wasn’t like now,” she said.
The next chapter arrived quickly, though. She and Victor decided it was time to really settle down and get serious about their lives so he enlisted in the military. Just before he was set to leave for boot camp, they found out they were expecting their first child.
“Victor was gone during boot camp. Then he was gone during training. And so that was a lot of time when I was pregnant and in mom mode, so it was kind of fade out, artistically, for me,” she said. “I didn’t have my driver’s license. I was basically in the house all the time. It was kind of the lost years.”
Life kind of carried on that way for the next decade. The Belts welcomed their second child. Victor retired from the military and started working regular jobs back in Missouri. The family moved to Joplin.
Denise’s rebirth as an artist came through a pretty unexpected epiphany
“One day I was watching ‘Dora the Explorer’ and I knew every word. I knew like all the influctions and tones of the voice,” she recalled. “And I thought to myself, ‘Oh Lord, look at me. I have got to get out of this house.’ I remember it so vividly because I was sitting on the couch, and I was having a pretty good time. Dora is a great show! It was then that I realized I had to get a freakin’ life!”
Not long after that, Victor lost his job and decided to enroll in classes at Missouri Southern State University. Denise followed suite.
In the next chapter of her life, her identity as an artist really began to take shape.
She said it was her art classes under the guidance of professor Burt Bucher that really helped her find her voice, fine tune her skills, and get involved in a local community of artists.
“He was awesome,” she said. “He was actually interested in my work and what I had to say. He’d ask you about your back story and if you were interested in what you were doing. He was so encouraging about my work. He was the first person to say, ‘Hey, you should hang your work up in the Focus Gallery.’”
Under Bucher’s guidance, Denise began exploring her heritage as an African American woman and injecting personal experiences dealing with race into her work.
“You begin to ask yourself why you’re making art,” she said. “You realize you have this back story and you start reviewing your diary and asking yourself, ‘Why the hell am I making things like Aunt Jemima?’ And when you realize that you’re making Aunt Jemima because of a moment in fifth grade where everybody was making fun of a woman who looked like your grandmother. Because when I was in fifth grade, it was a moment of embarrassment because in Black History Month, everyone looks over at the black person when there’s only one. So, that was a part of my past that I was dealing with and reclaiming.”
Denise delved deeply into African American and feminist literature and historical texts during those years. Thinking critically about the things she learned and discussing those issues with other artists helped her realize her power to communicate and make a difference.
“All the things that Aunt Jemima had to endure – she raised someone else’s child and she had to make them believe she was okay with it. She was the mother figure that was despised, but she was the most enduring figure. Thinking about that – that made me want to put her on a cape. And I did. Because when you can reclaim this moment of history and you realize where it came from, suddenly art has to mean something,” she said. “When you’re trying to explain why you’re digging something and you want everybody else to understand, that builds you as a person. That builds you as an artist.”
As Denise made her way through college, she continued to explore those themes, she added to her repertoire of skills, and built up her home studio. Through all this development, though, she discovered another road block. As an artist interested in expressing African American and feminist themes, she discovered she was at risk for being overlooked or misunderstood.
“I realized pretty quickly that, while there were people who would be interested in my point of view, that I would also get crickets,” she said. “So I’ve also had utilitarian things. Like I can make a cup. I can make a scarf. … People can put an Aunt Jemima painting in their house and they have to explain that to all their friends. You slip Aunt Jemima on the bottom of a coffee mug and it’s different. I found that my art will be somewhere in your useful, everyday life and that was the great thing.
“There’s a piece of me in everything I do.”
Denise Belt will be showing throughout the month of February as part of “The Voice” – an exhibition featuring artists of color – at Artivities Studio & Gallery, 209 W. Commercial Street in Springfield.
She also does vending every Saturday at C-Street Market, 321 E. Commercial Street in Springfield.