Mildred Howard retrospective on display at SF gallery

“That Was Then and This Is Now III,” Mildred Howard, 2008, buttons on canvas and pigmented ink, 38x40x2 inches. (Courtesy of Turner Carroll Gallery)

When the artist Mildred Howard was in junior high school, she wanted to learn a foreign language.

She was told, “People like you don’t speak other languages.”

By the time she entered college, a counselor told her she should drop out and go to work because of the color of her skin.

“It just made me sad,” Howard said in a telephone interview from Oakland, California. “I was young. I wasn’t how I am now. I was thinking, ‘Why did he say that to me?’ It’s like you’re not good enough.”

Now the winner of two Rockefeller fellowships, the Joan Mitchell Award and a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship is showing her work in “Mildred Howard: From 1994 to Now” at Santa Fe’s Turner Carroll Gallery through May 30. The exhibition includes collage, tapestry , printed compositions and mixed-media sculpture.

Howard is known for medium-transcending artworks blending history, activism and the Black American experience.

She acknowledges that the art world is more open to Black artists today than it was when she was still emerging.

“Yes, it is somewhat better,” Howard said. “But if I were white, having a 26-to-27 page résumé would have gotten me a lot further. Fortunately, my friends within the art world are different from those who control the art world.”

Howard grew up in Berkeley, California. Her parents de ella were in the painter’s union during World War II and her mother de ella owned several Bay Area antique stores. Howard’s use of found objects and stories of the past surfaced in her practice from the very beginning.

“My parents took me to the museums and to the theater and let me explore a variety of different things,” she said.

The artist’s work has long focused on themes of home and belonging. In 2017, a rent hike forced her to move out of the Berkeley studio where she had lived and worked for 18 years. In 1990, she created a house made of engraved bottles and sand in the atrium of Los Angeles’ African American Museum. In 2005, she fabricated and installed a house made of red glass at the Museum of Glass in Tacoma, Washington. The work was inspired by the book “Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man” by James Weldon Johnson, who described bottle houses in the text. She stuffed smaller bottle houses with tiny perfume bottles.

“I was exploring the physics of light,” Howard said. “At the beginning, I always knew there were bottle houses in the South. They used bottles to decorate trees and to keep bad spirits away. I was interested in what happens when light hits a bottle throughout the day.”

Her 2014 “Gold Dust, The Other Side of the Coin,” pigmented inkjet and acrylic on Japanese paper, serves as a commentary on an old laundry detergent brand known for its racist logo depicting two Black children. Howard turned the figures into mirror images of herself and transformed the coins in the logo into tributes to such figures as Martin Luther King Jr. and Booker T. Washington.

Her 1997 mixed-media collage “Diario del ricordi,” features images torn from books, magazines and newspapers of homes, Black faces and an idealized white family, emerged during a fellowship in Bellagio, Italy.

“It’s like a white person coloring a doll or a coloring book,” Howard said. “It hopefully shows the innocence of children.”

Her mixed-media piece “Tea at 2235 Sutter” represents the Great Migration from the South to the West and Midwest after the Civil War. A collage of faces, families and news clippings about an atomic workers’ strike, it reflects the barriers faced by newly-freed slaves searching for a better life in shipyards and factories.

In the self-portrait “That Was Then and This Is Now III,” Howard printed her face atop a constellation of buttons, producing a cascade of textures.

“You’re always pigeonholed into this stereotyped group,” she said. “I don’t like being categorized into groups because we’re all individuals.”

Howard is currently working on a bronze triptych of 14-to-16-foot currency bracelets in San Francisco. Jewelry has been used as currency in multiple cultures.

“Many cultures wear their wealth,” she said. “This is also an exchange for goods. It’s a tool and it also can become a weapon. It looks like the bow of a ship.”

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