Published November 1, 2022
Photograms, Architecture, and Community: A Conversation with Ron Moultrie Saunders
Artist and landscape architect Ron Moultrie Saunders moved to San Francisco after visiting friends, seduced by the landscape. Years ago, he was asked to teach a photography class to kids, and wanting something immediate, he hit on photograms, made by setting objects on a surface and exposing them to light. He started making photograms in his own practice as well.
As a child in Jamaica, Queens, New York, Saunders drew all the time and made things with his grandma. For a while, he planned to be an architect, and then decided on being a landscape architect. He took a few art classes in San Francisco, and now makes art pretty much full time, but makes sure to do at least one landscape project a year and often uses plants in his work.
About a dozen years ago, Saunders began making public art, wanting his work to be in places where people who may not go to galleries or museums can see it. Recently, the Southeast Community Center opened in San Francisco’s Bayview, Saunders’ neighborhood, with his art on the walls.
Saunders co-founded the Three Point Nine Art Collective, a group of Black artists in San Francisco, and he’s on the board of the Black [Space] Residency, run out of the Minnesota Street Project, where Saunders has a studio.
How did you first get interested in art?
RMS: I'd always been interested in art when I was a kid. When I was 12 or 13, my teachers told my mother I wasn't focusing on my work, and needed to stop doing this art stuff. My mother said, “Okay, no more art.”
But, when I got to high school, I decided that I'm going to do anything that's creative. I took a drawing class. I took shop. I took computer language. Computer language sounds like an outlier, but I learned Fortran and used the language to program the computer to make art. I found outlets for my creativity.
When I was in high school, I had an opportunity to attend Cooper Union in New York for an architecture program, and I said, “That's what I'm going to be. I'm going to be an architect because it's a professional job.” The family can't deny me because that will be acceptable.
I entered college thinking I was going to be an architect, but in my junior year of college, I discovered landscape architecture. When you're taking these classes, you're learning how to draw and observing the world. You're looking at buildings and landscape and how people interact with these environments.
I went to University of Pennsylvania, and I was taught by Ian McHarg, who was very interested in the overlay of all these different systems, because everything is interconnected and interdependent. It's a very interesting way to think about the environment. At that point, I said, “Oh, I'm going to be an architect and a landscape architect.” Well, fate had its way of saying, “You can't do both right now.” I chose landscape architecture and stayed with it.
Then when I moved to San Francisco, I had an interest in photography, and I took a class at the de Young Museum school, where I learned how to develop film. I’m primarily self-taught. The photogram work has just been all my own discoveries in the way I use it.
How did you get started making photograms?
RMS: Back in 1997 and 1998, I had an opportunity to work with some kids from Marin City. It was a summer environmental art program that I got invited to participate in. We wanted to introduce them to photography, and I figured the best way to do that was to take them in the darkroom and do something really simple to get them used to using the papers, the chemicals, the clocks, the enlarger, so I had them do photograms. Basically, they placed their head, their hands, their keys, their combs, anything they had on their body, or that they brought with them, onto the paper, just to get used to using the equipment and the chemicals.
I realized while I was teaching them, that this was a perfect way for me to investigate my own story. I’d been thinking about it because my mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and I am an only child and I wanted to explore that. The reason I decided to do it that way is because I did not want to have props. Typically, photographers will have props and do a staging. I didn't want that — I wanted something very direct and raw, I wanted the same size of my hand to be replicated, the size of my head to be replicated. I didn't want it to be enlarged. It was challenging. It's like, what can I use to tell my story?
I started just by placing my hands and my head on paper. But that wasn't enough. I decided to find material that would also talk about the internal expression of my life, and that included the physiology, the structure of the body, and different elements that talked about the African diaspora, so water is a huge part of the work that I do. That really speaks to not only my body, but it also speaks to other people, considering we’re 75% water, so that is a bridge people can cross and bring themselves to it. That's how I got started, looking at how I can tell a story about myself and do it in a truthful, honest, and direct way.
What do you like about it?
RMS: I work by myself. When I'm placing my body on the paper, I can't see what I'm doing. So that means I have to think about what position my head is in. If I do my arms and my hands, then I can see what I'm doing, and I can play around with different gestures. But with my head, it's a little more difficult. And because I also have dreads, I take my hands, push them up, and hope that it's in the right position. It's a big unknown until I develop the print and see what I've actually accomplished. That was step one.
Step two was looking at natural materials. It was very easy to look at the plant world because it talks about life from beginning to end: from seed to dried up stock. I started looking at things a lot more closely, particularly leaves, because they have veins in them. I started incorporating leaves with the body because the structure of leaves reminds me of the veins that run through our bodies. It's always a new discovery, because every plant, although similar, has differences, and I can also make it bigger or smaller, so it also takes on a different textual context as well.
Then how did you end up working as an artist? You said you were teaching photography to kids in Marin City. How did that happen?
RMS: An architect by the name of Shirl Buss reached out to me. Shirl does a lot of work around kids and art education and architecture, and it just sounded amazing. She was already working with this group from Marin City. There are very few Black people in the field of landscape architecture, so she reached out to me, and I said, “Yeah, I'm interested in doing that.” It was really good working with these kids. Marin City is just over the hill from The Headlands. We were doing this environmental art program at the Headland Center for the Arts, and it was a way to introduce them to a place that's basically their backyard.
I hadn't done photographs before, but I knew the process. I knew it would be an easy way for them to get into that process. We had also done a program with them taking photographs, and we had them tell their story about their home. The next step was to actually get them into the process of creating imagery, with materials, their body, and things from home to help bring more self-expression to their work.
How did you use your experience as a landscape architect in your art? Are you still working as a landscape architect?
RMS: As a landscape architect, it was very easy for me to jump to thinking about plants. I am a registered landscape architect in the state of California. I've been fortunate the last few years to really be able to focus on just my art. However, I miss having that interaction with plants and thinking about them and thinking about how those plants work together in a landscape, so I do one project a year, at least.
I grew up in Jamaica, Queens, New York, and went to school in Philadelphia, where I got my master's in landscape architecture. I lived in Philadelphia for seven years and then moved to San Francisco. I've been here for 40 years.
What made you move here?
RMS: The landscape. I had some friends who were here. I came out to visit and I went, “This is the place I could live.”
How did you get involved with the Three Point Nine Art Collective?
RMS: I met this artist named William Rhodes back in 2009. He had moved here from Baltimore, and like me, he participated in an Open Studio program, which is held once a year throughout the city. I met him at the Bayview Opera House, and he's like, “Where are all the Black artists?”I said, “We're here. We're just scattered.” He said we should start an organization, and I said OK, so that's how the Three Point Nine Art Collective was born.
In 2010, we formed, and in 2011, we had our first show. There were five co-founders. Every year since then we've done at least one show somewhere. There was an article in the Bayview Reporter saying that the Black population of San Francisco was going to be 3.9%. The actual federal number was 6%, but we decided to keep 3.9 as part of the name. It became an entree into having a discussion about the declining Black population of San Francisco.
How did you get into public art?
RMS: I didn't know I was going to be a public artist until 2010. My neighborhood library, the Bayview Library, was going to be demolished and rebuilt, which was good because it looked like a fortress. The San Francisco Public Library did an open call to artists. I was one of three people selected, and I won the commission.
Three years later, the building opened, and I did a mural piece with photograms that talked about the history of the Bayview and acknowledged the people all the way back to the Native Americans. I used water, which not only referenced our bodies and the crossing of the Atlantic, called the Middle Passage, but also the Bay.
I always do a lot of research around my projects to learn as much as I can about any neighborhood that my project is going to be in. And I learned a lot by digging through the history books. The work was produced as large-scale panels that are five feet tall by 16 feet long. It was an outdoor courtyard, and we had a great big opening, and I watched how people responded to it. That's when I realized that I have to do more public art, because it brings art into communities of people who will not go to galleries and will not go to museums because they're intimidated. That's when I entered the public art arena.
What about the Southeast Community Center, opening at the end of October?
RMS: The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission is in the process of upgrading the sewage treatment plant, and anytime there's a huge public project like that, they have to spend a certain amount of their budget on a community enhancement. So, they built a brand-new community center that has two buildings. The artwork in the entryway and in the community building are murals by Kenyatta Hinkle and Phillip Hua. Mildred Howard, who is very well known in the area, did the sculpture that’s outside the building. The San Francisco Art Commission did an open call for artists to fill the walls, and I have two works in it.
And what are you doing with the Black [Space] Residency?
RMS: Black [Space] Residency was co-founded by Erica Deeman and Ashara Ekundayo. Erica has a studio at Minnesota Street Projects and went back to school to get her master's. She decided not to give up her space during the two years that she was away, because there was no guarantee that another Black artist was going to be coming into that space. She decided to start a program for Black creatives. I became part of that and joined the advisory board. I also give orientations to new artists that come in every month. We've had collectives, performers, and writers. The program has expanded to include writers through Artist as First Responder.
What's been interesting is that Black [Space] Residency started during the pandemic — we started in January 2020, and it infused new energy into the space. Artists in the building were really excited about it, because they got to meet new artists. They got to see people in different processes, so it energized us and also gave us a sense of hope. You understood that there were other things happening in the world beside COVID. The residency has been going on ever since.
What are you working on now?
RMS: I’m currently working on two projects for BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit). One project is for the 19th Street Station in Oakland in which I used a photogram of a flower to pay tribute to the art deco buildings in the area such as the Paramount Theater. The image is reproduced on a nine-foot square light box and is being installed soon.
The other project is for the Market Street Canopies in San Francisco which is currently under construction, and they haven’t made a public announcement yet. I can tell you it’s another photogram though.
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