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Published May 7, 2024

“A Mutually Understood Conversation”: A Daughter on Finding Inspiration in her Mother’s Fearless Work

By Annie Lyall Slaughter

Annie Lyall Slaughter is a writer, editor, and ceramicist based in New York. Her art writing has appeared in Cultured, Artsy Editorial, Whitehot, Cultbytes, and other publications.

Frankie Slaughter in her studio.

On an unseasonably warm February afternoon earlier this year, I stood introspectively beneath the showstopping work in Frankie Slaughter’s long-awaited exhibition at Quirk Charlottesville: a fifteen-foot monochromatic textile called Pathways to Understanding, which cascaded off a towering, sun-lit wall. An exhaustively detailed work comprised of 130 individual squares sewn together, I felt microscopic beneath it, frozen in the impossible decision between closely examining each lavish inch of fabric or stepping back to enjoy the rare gift of simultaneous noise and quiet it offers at once. I felt that giddy sensation of aliveness that arises when I see immense depth in an artwork or introspective potential in an artist’s practice, a nameless feeling that invariably compels me to the page. This time, the artist was my mother.

Frankie Slaughter, Pathways to Understanding, 2023.

Growing up with Frankie Slaughter was like being raised by the elementary school art teacher everybody loved, the one who helped you find your inner magic before you could spell your own name. When I was little, she would happily bring me to her seaside studio, plopping a Lyle Lovett or Tracy Chapman CD into a clay-covered boom box and a hunk of stoneware on the high-top work table, saying, Go for it. Make anything you want. We pinched pots and sang to Lovett’s “If I Had a Boat.” We laughed and watched fishing boats dock along the Hong Kong harbor where we lived, and we felt alive—and connected—through the act of uninhibited creation.

The expressive, mark-covered paintings Frankie has been producing over the last few years—catapulting her career forward in her sixth decade of life—ooze with the playfulness she inspired in me as a child, prompting me to reflect on my own artistic journey. A self-taught artist, my mother was recently described in an essay by artist and educator David Hornung as an “inveterate explorer” and a “natural, fearless colorist.” In her 30-year career, which began around the time I was born, she has worked in every conceivable medium, ranging from found object assemblage to wearable art, glasswork to metal smithing, encaustic wax to acrylic. A foray into one media informs the next, offering the opportunity for incessant “interplay” (as her 2024 Charlottesville exhibition was appropriately titled) between competing materials. As Hornung pinpointed, it is this attitude of exploration—one might even call it inquisition—that unifies her panoramic work; when she discovers a new medium, she consumes it wholly and fully, emphatically asserting herself as someone who can both break rules and create them.

For the first time in my adult life, I feel deeply intertwined with the element of chance that lies at the core of her oeuvre—not only as her daughter, but as an evolving writer and maker.

Throughout my twenties, unable to hear the voice inside of me that said, you have it too, I envied my mom’s self-determination. Often, I felt a strong urge to create something, anything, but because it was still inchoate, I worked around the sensation instead of through it, adjacent to the act of making. Answering phone calls at a Chelsea gallery, I felt drawn to the emotive colors of Marlene Dumas’s portraits and the deep mauves and curved, floating shapes in Suzan Frecon’s saturated paintings. I was developing opinions, critiques, maybe even inspiration, but still felt unsatisfied and unclear about my relationship to art. On visits home to Richmond, Virginia (where we had since moved from Hong Kong), I watched Frankie sew onto collages and then move onto jewelry moments later, designing ornamented, one-of-a-kind necklaces from bins as overflowing with beads as she was with creative ideas. Grudgingly, I pulled a pottery wheel out of storage and set it up in the garage, sinking my hands into the cool clay while my mom made a beautiful mess in her studio upstairs. Once again I felt her life force pulse through me, that creative joy she and I had shared together, long ago.

Four years later, while my simultaneous journeys into collage making, hand-built ceramics, and writing are only just beginning, I feel a peace inside myself akin to the tranquility Frankie's textile evokes in its viewers. Through my mom’s continued work, I am learning the fearlessness required to push a medium to its extremes. Despite clay being just one of her many chosen mediums, she displays a mastery of the form, successfully able to shape it into polar opposite forms. While the hefty, sheeny porcelain beads in her oversized pearl necklace from 2019 feel impenetrable, almost manufactured, the wire-like loops and pear-shaped clusters in Unravel, a wall-hanging porcelain sculpture from 2014, are organic and lightweight. Likewise, her clay and fabric panels from Interplay are beautiful odes to porcelain’s soft, feminine qualities, while her hand-built clay assemblages from earlier years are playful and boisterous, like excited little boys. Unifying these works is a visual language of expressiveness and courage, the always-present voice of a woman who sees roadblocks as opportunities, life itself as collage.

Installation image, Frankie Slaughter, “Interplay,” Quirk Gallery, Charlottesville. "Following her instructions was never easy" (2023) pictured in the center.

“My work is not about closure or tidy packages,” my mom recently wrote, “rather, it braves the unrefined chaos, the spinning fans of the pinwheel, where the only language is this one: a visual expression which urges the viewer to stay again and again in the imperfect but beautiful moment.” When I’m writing about an artist’s work, I often try to penetrate that very feeling Frankie describes, somewhere between the aesthetic value of a work’s formal qualities and the instinctual reaction it instills within a viewer. When trying to translate my mom’s work to the page, however, the relationship becomes more complicated: in Following her instructions was never easy (2023), an encaustic wax painting that manages to blend the whimsy of childhood with the sobering reality of adulthood, I feel the ease and release of that looping yellow line and understand how it creates a focal point that helps balance the work’s crowded composition. But I also feel the “unrefined chaos” Frankie embraces when she hits her studio early in the morning, looking up only when the sunlight fades to find cut papers, spilled paint, and encaustic wax hardening on the cluttered table before her, collaged with materials.

For the first time in my adult life, I feel deeply intertwined with the element of chance that lies at the core of her oeuvre—not only as her daughter, but as an evolving writer and maker.

A collage and ceramic work by daughter Annie Lyall Slaughter

Ultimately, there’s a harmony of self that shines through in my mother’s work, an inner confidence required to vigorously gouge and stain a red and black encaustic wax painting one moment, followed by the gentle and patient molding of lace-imprinted porcelain into fabric-like folds in the next. Through Frankie, I’ve learned that true creativity is a process of nurturing something beyond oneself, much like those Hong Kong fishermen waiting for a nibble of bait. Describing Pathways to Understanding’s unified but disparate parts, Frankie said, "each individual square represents a language that collectively culminates in mutually understood conversation.” Cut from the same metaphoric cloth, she and I continue to learn from each other, fostering a deep and mutual understanding between us.

To learn more about Frankie Slaughter, watch the artist speak with Quirk Gallery Manager Diana Nelson on the occasion of her 2024 show Interplay or follow her on Instagram.

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