Written By Elnor Walsh and Alicia Gordon-Smith, with editorial support from Rana El Kadi
Charmaine Lurch is an interdisciplinary visual artist known for her work that explores human-environmental relationships. She uses various materials to reimagine our surroundings, creating art that subtly connects Black life and global movement. Lurch’s art employs simple yet familiar materials to depict dynamic movements, invoking a new way of perceiving and understanding the world by casting shadows, tracing landscapes, and challenging conventional perceptions through expressive and textural forms.
Charmaine recently sat down for an interview with students from the School of Disability Studies at Toronto Metropolitan University.
Can you tell us about yourself as a visual artist and what drew you to the arts?
I am a Black female environmental artist who uses many different media to craft a story. I used to be really quiet when I was young. So, one way that I operated in the world was that I used to draw. And like any young person, if your friends see your art and say, “Oh, you’re pretty good,” you start to believe that about yourself. So, I kept going. My work is primarily based on academic research or stories that people from the community share with me. As an environmental artist, I think a lot about people in the environment. I also try to “dig where I stand.” So, my art stems from thinking about my own position as a Black woman in the environment.
Which material that you work with brings you closer to the human-environment relationship?
I have always been a keen observer of the world around me, and I am especially fascinated by light. I try to capture it in a lot of my work. Understanding how light moves through space helps us notice that we are the environment. We are not separate. At school, teachers try to make you draw the foreground, middle ground, and background. But that does not make sense — we are always in the environment, and it’s around us.
You have created an artwork about Henrietta Lacks, a now famous Black woman whose unique cancer cells were harvested after her death in 1951 and used without her consent. Do you believe there is a personal connection between your experience as a Black woman and that of Henrietta Lacks?
I would say, yes, definitely; but it is so much deeper than that. Many medical tests and vaccines that are given these days are based on studies done on HeLa (or Henrietta Lacks’) cells. She is in all of us. Her cells went around the world to all these biotech companies, and they used them to test many diseases. Her story is in the news right now because there was a landmark case that the family has finally won after many years. I hope they are outrageously rich now, because those companies got outrageously rich off her cells, and then tried to say that they owned parts of her body. That is really disturbing! Nowadays, we have to sign to give consent for research on our bodies. This concept of consent, and the laws that surround it, came from the Henrietta Lacks legal case. As a Black woman, I definitely feel very touched by her unintended contributions to our understanding of the human body and how it is used in scientific research.
What do you want your audience to learn from “The Phenomenal Henrietta Lacks” artwork?
I would first like them to know her story. I would also like them to see themselves as part of that story while viewing the bottom reflective magnetic panel. The way I have created my artwork shows that there are multiple ways of looking at bodies and understanding how we are individually constructed. In the exhibition, I included a few magnetic Petri dishes for the audience to view. Each showed one piece of information about Henrietta Lacks: that she wore red nail polish, that her cells were used in cloning a sheep, that she had many children… I wanted to humanize her but also show the scientific advancements that her cells helped to make. So, people were invited to first pick a Petri dish that had something they wanted to say about her, and then add it to the panel. After that, they were invited to replicate what her cells did by taking the thing that they chose and sending it around the world to their friends. This artwork helps us think about how we can move Henrietta Lacks’ story around the world the way that her cells did.
Do you have a favourite piece that you have created?
I don’t have a favourite piece… It changes often, depending on what I am working on. What I will tell you is that as an artist, I work alone, and I work in community. And maybe my favourite way of working is in community, with lots of different bodies and different abilities. This allows for a lot of different perspectives to come into the piece, and you can see it when the work is completed. So, for example, I would usually create the structure for my bees or pollen grains art pieces. And then a whole bunch of people from the community would help me wrap, because it takes over a hundred hours to make one bee and about seven hours to complete a single pollen grain. The work is very labour-intensive, imitating the intensive work of farming.
Do you have any recommendations on how Crip Ecologies can be more appreciated in Canada?
I can give an example of a project that relates to Crip Ecologies and was really appreciated by the community. I recently worked with a disability studies researcher at Humber College to create a film for a history museum called Montgomery’s Inn. This inn was built in Toronto in 1837 by Robert Montgomery. When we looked through his extensive records, we found references to disabled people, like “a Black man with a peg leg.” But the museum has only been telling visitors the story of one Black man who lived in the area — Joshua Glover. So, we decided to make a film to tell the stories of the 53 other Black people who lived and worked around the inn. We also researched early wheelchairs and crutches at the time. The film also takes you on a tour to parts of the inn where people with any restrictions in getting up the inaccessible stairs can now see what the inn looks like upstairs. In that way, I think art has that ability to expand the story to be more inclusive.
This article was written by Elnor Walsh and Alicia Gordon-Smith, with editorial support from Rana El Kadi, students at Toronto Metropolitan University.
In summer 2023, AWE collaborated with students and faculty from the School of Disability Studies at Toronto Metropolitan University on a work-integrated partnership. This program was supported by Co-operative Education and Work-Integrated Learning (CEWIL) Canada, the School of Disability Studies, Toronto Metropolitan University, and Art Windsor-Essex.