Seitu Jones

Youa Vang interviewed Seitu Jones for Wakpa. Youa is the Curator of Community Engagement for Public Art Saint Paul.

Within Seitu Jones lives many tales. He carries the ideas and stories that have passed from generations and renders them into new iterations and new art forms. Jones will share his work for the Wakpa Triennial via artARK, a boat that will contain art along with being a piece of art itself. The artARK stems from his love for being on the water as a child and carries with it the tradition of his great-grandfather coming to Minnesota and making a home in Red Wing, another river city.

Why is it important for you to have these stories and to remember them?

You know, stories nourish us. Stories feed us, both metaphorically and literally. Stories about food, stories about how our family got to the point where it is now, and all of those stories propel me and place this expectation on me to pass on these stories so that they’re not forgotten.

Is it hard pressure to pass it on? Or is it something that you feel compelled to do? Do you feel stressed out when you think about it?

All of the above! On one hand, it’s a burden. Part of the reason it’s a burden, and don’t show this to any of my cousins, but there are just a few of us—all of us have this in our memories—but there are just a few of us in this generation that are conscious and feel a conscious obligation to pass this information on, so it’s not forgotten. That’s part of the burden. Part of the joy is the humor, the love, the knowledge that comes with these mini stories and how each generation has built on what the generation before has done. 

My family has been in Minnesota for six generations. My great grandfather was born in slavery. He grew up on a plantation in Kentucky. He was born into slavery on a plantation in Kentucky and at that time, in the 1840s, they were growing tobacco. He was a farmer. He was born into that lifestyle, born into that condition. When the Civil War came around, he was in his early 20s. He freed himself, joined the Union army in an infantry unit, and stayed in the army until about 1866. We don’t have any record of him between 1866 and the 1870s, when he showed up in Red Wing, Minnesota, where he worked for the St. James Hotel that still stands. We have a letter of reference that the owner of the hotel at the time wrote about him, so he’d get a job elsewhere, but he earned enough money there, and then working in other spots in southeast Minnesota. We’re not sure about that as well. 

Why Red Wing?

You know, Red Wing was one of these river cities on the Mississippi River, and that was the highway for taking folks in both directions, sometimes against their will. He came up the river, and we don’t know exactly why he wanted to come here. There may have been a connection between the officers he served with in Red Wing, but we’re not quite sure. There was a Black presence, not just in Red Wing, but throughout that little corner of southeast Minnesota. There were Black folks in Hastings in the 1850s into the 1920s.

I’m working on a project right now in Hastings that will celebrate that at the Duke Mansion. My great-grandfather met my great-grandmother in Owatonna. His first wife lived in Byron. There’s an African historian who said that the sun never sets on the descendants of Africa. Wherever folks are, there are people of African descent who are there and spread among the world, so that was the case in southeast Minnesota. 

He earned enough to start a farm in Rochester, Minnesota where my grandmother was born. There’s some folks that, when I say my great grandfather was born into slavery, they say that’s impossible. Especially people that don’t know our collective American history and think that slavery was a long, long time ago.

I mean, it’s only a few generations in the past.

Exactly. So my grandmother, who I grew up with, and knew and loved, was the daughter of a man who was born into slavery. Now, I don’t know what trauma prevented her from sharing those stories about her father who was a Civil War veteran.

Did she ask him about it?

Well, I’m not sure, because she never really shared that with us as our grandchildren. 

My dad passed about a decade ago, and I think about all the stories that he never shared and I never asked him about, and I wish I had asked.

Me too. I wish I would have been as conscious of that. My grandmother died when I was 18, in 1968, and it was only a decade later when I found out about her father that I thought, I wish I would have asked, but my uncles felt the same way. They wish they would have asked their mother. 

Did your grandmother share any traumas that she endured with you? 

No, but I found these little bits and pieces. Because my grandfather was one of the first African Americans that lived in Rochester. They called him Black Joe. I say they—white folks—called him Black Joe. That’s how they identified him. My grandmother growing up in that context, and having white folks call her father Black Joe, I don’t know what that could have done to shape her.

Is that offensive to you?

Yeah, it wasn’t applied in a real gracious manner, you know, and I’m not sure how he reacted to that. We found that out because there are these references in the Rochester paper at the time that referred to him as Black Joe. 

I was just listening to a song by this blues player called Eric Bibb. It’s a new song, and he goes on about, “Call me by my name.” My great-grandfather’s name was Joseph Parker, and he died shortly around the time when my grandmother was born. He was almost in his 60s when he met my great-grandma, who was in her 20s. There was almost a 40-year difference between them, and sometime after his passing my great-grandmother brought my grandmother and her sisters and brother up to St. Paul and they settled in Old Rondo. That was over 100 years ago now.

So they were part of this area when the interstate came in?

Oh, yeah, most definitely. I can remember that. That was in my lifetime and in my memory. I saw that displacement. I saw that destruction happen. I was too young to really grasp everything that was going on, but I was old enough to know that I shouldn’t be going down there to hang out. It opened up this vast playground for dumb boys like me. We were down there with all of the construction equipment, and I got this scar on my head that’s here today. During construction I was down there. We couldn’t wait to get down there to have rock fights of all things, throwing rocks back and forth!

That was a thing you did for fun?

Yeah, it was. Supposedly it was a fun thing. That’s why I had to preface it with being a dumb boy thing.

To bring it back to your great-grandfather, grandmother, and this plays into your role in your life too, but do you feel legacy is something we predict or get to decide? Or is that something that other people just remember of us? 

That’s what this space we’re in right now is all about. Before I talk about legacy—here, I’ve got images of my grandmother in her backyard on Fuller, not too far from here. You can see her garden behind her. This is in the spring, and then there’s another photo of me in her garden when I was about three years old. She grew a little bit of everything, but the thing that impressed me the most was this plum tree in her backyard. I can still remember those plums, and then almost over 20 years ago, I planted a plum tree in my own backyard. 

And is it fruitful? 

No, no, it stopped producing about five years ago, even longer ago than that. This is part of the legacy, part of seeing me in my grandmother’s backyard, and then growing these plums. For several years I entered my plums in the State Fair’s agricultural contests, and I won prizes! I’ve got red ribbons, I’ve got blue ribbons, I got a white ribbon, all from my plums, and I have to thank Ada Jones, my grandmother, for exposing me to that. I didn’t think about that having this impact on me, but that was also something that I consciously chose to do. 

The space that we’re in right now is my temporary archive space. I’ve gotten some folks from the Hennepin County Historical Society, the Hennepin County Library, who have asked about my papers, and the University of Minnesota as well, and they’re collecting their archives. All of the stuff that’s behind me right now, and the crew of people that just left here are helping me catalog, document and archive all of this work. What you see here represents about 50 years of my artistic career. I’ve got boxes of sketchbooks, old communications and letters, a whole slew of things. Maybe at some point in time some of this work will go into one of the institutions that I just mentioned, but I want this to be a living source that folks can access without a lot of obstacles. All of this work, if I donated it to the Historical Society, they’d have to go through the process again, archiving. So this work would be inaccessible for a while. I want this work and everything here to be really accessible. So this is me determining my legacy. Not only what will be passed on, but how folks will be able to access it. Now, there’s no question that some of it is ego, that I do not want my work or my history, or the history of my family, to be erased. Growing up here, growing up as an artist in America, and seeing so many of my friends, collaborators, colleagues, mentors’ work being literally thrown away. Many times the circumstances prevented them from determining what was going to happen to their work after they passed on. This is all a process of me doing estate planning, working on my collective will with my wife, and then starting to develop a family trust that will ensure—at least I hope it will ensure—my legacy. So that my grandkids and their kids, if they ever have any, will be able to embrace and pass on. So yeah, legacy is real key and important to me.

Was it your father that was a sign painter?

Yes, he painted signs. 

So why did he decide not to go into art?

Well, for a number of reasons. Dad was a World War II veteran. He was in the Navy during World War II, stationed in Hawaii, at Pearl Harbor, and came back, like so many other returning veterans, to heightened discrimination and racism. It took many of these Black veterans a little bit longer to access the benefits for veterans. So he finally was able to access money through the G.I. Bill to go back to school, he went to school, because he wanted to become an artist. Went to school at University of Minnesota, and during that time he started a family and didn’t finish school. There were a number of folks that he was in school with, his white classmates that also left school or didn’t complete their degrees, who were on the same par as him, his peers, who ended up still being able to get jobs in art-related fields. Dad finally gave up taking his portfolio from place to place when somebody told him that they didn’t hire Black people, but he never stopped making work. In here, there’s a painting that Dad did of me when I was about two or three. The painting behind you is done by my Uncle Willie, of his grandfather and my great-grandfather, Joseph Parker. So I came up in this family of artists.

Dad painted signs for Black businesses and I can still remember playing with his brushes and him showing me how he created these letters. That was kind of the beginning of this trajectory for me. I never had anybody in my family that really discouraged me from wanting to be an artist. I have wanted to be an artist since I was a little kid, and knowing what that was, I’m fortunate to have these people around me who were making art. Not necessarily making art for a living, but making art.

So you are very established, you make a living as an artist. What if nobody bought your art? What if you were a struggling artist? Why do you continue to do art?

It’s a passion, and it’s this love that I have that’s so deep that drives me to make this work. I’ve been so fortunate and so blessed to have been so persistent that I earn a living primarily from commissions, and from being the artist on a design team for infrastructure for Public Works and for commercial developments for a wide range of projects, and that has kept me going.

Is persistence a key there?

I really think persistence is key. Despite the obstacles that have been placed in front of me. Dad, while he encouraged me, he also didn’t want me to go through what he went through. There were times when he said he didn’t want me to be an artist, but he became one of my biggest patrons I ever had. So the work I do is very satisfying. Sometimes it can be really frustrating. Detailed work, especially the public artwork, the pieces that are going to appear on a streetscape, or a building or whatever. At the same time, those works are works that I share with the world, that I kind of let go of after I complete them. They’re my bread and butter. 

What I wish I had spent more time doing is spend more time in my studio creating works that were just my sole vision. I do that and I have done that, but I’ve never made enough to live on from the sale of my work alone. There are some artists, and I’ve got really good friends that have been able to do that. I admire them for how they’ve been able to do it. I keep thinking, in this next season in my life, I’m gonna be able to do that, but it’s hard when these opportunities come up to turn them down. 

I want to know about the artARK. How did you come up with that idea?

Well, once again, this relates to me coming up. My crazy father, and my crazy uncles and my grandfather had me and many of my cousins, folks in my generation, on boats almost every weekend. They were these mad Minnesota fishermen.

Do you think being able to own a boat is very much a rich person type thing?

Well, let me tell you, you absolutely pinned it on the head. We went to lakes where they would rent boats. My father and uncles couldn’t afford a boat and couldn’t afford an outboard. My grandfather who was a sleeping car porter bought an outboard motor, and my uncles fought over who’s going to take Pop out. Otherwise, we would use what my father called our Armstrong motors. That was being on a boat and rowing out on these rented wooden boats, so I grew up fishing all the time. We fished, not just for sport—that was a big part of it, just the excitement of catching a fish—but we also fished for sustenance. We would put away this fish and freeze it, and my cousins and I still laugh about all that fried fish that we had. 

That love for being in boats stayed with me. As I began to mature and travel, I really tried to travel throughout the African diaspora in the Caribbean, in South America, and in Africa, where all of these folks had these maritime traditions. I would hang out and still love hanging out with boat builders that use these traditional techniques to build boats. I learned from these folks, so I’ve got hundreds of slides of folks building boats. One time in Ghana, I commissioned a boat, so that I could follow the process and participate in this process of building this boat and seeing that happen. Then, about 25 years ago, that passion manifested itself in the creation of Urban Boatbuilders, this nonprofit organization where the motto and mission was “building youth one boat at a time.” So I had this passion for building boats, and then worked with some real-deal boat builders and established this nonprofit that still exists here in St. Paul. 

In addition, I’ve done a couple of public art related boats, these things that have been more floating sculptures than anything else. I resurrected one just over the last couple of years. It’s now in my backyard, but it was a wooden pontoon boat that has this flat deck on it. I was able to finally complete this thing by putting an electric motor on it and was able to take it out near the end of the last season last year. Looking forward to putting that on the water again. But that really was the impetus to build the artARK. 

The artARK is a larger version of this small wooden pontoon that’s 12 feet. The artARK is 20 feet, has a deck on it that can accommodate five to six people, and will have an electric outboard on it as well. So this will be a larger one that is designed to be this platform to engage folks with the Mississippi in particular. 

This came from your grandfather?

Yes. I live in Frogtown. My wife and I have lived in this storefront that was designed and built as a cigar factory. It’s a small storefront, so we live upstairs, and I’ve had studio space downstairs in it. My neighbors, I’ve known some of them for decades now, never interact with the river. We will pass over and I say “we,” meaning the collective we. That includes folks from every cultural background that will pass over the river on the Lake Street Bridge, Ford Bridge, the Franklin Bridge, the 94 Bridge, will cross all of those bridges, sometimes four to six times a day, but never really have an opportunity to go down to the river and come into contact and engage with the life of the river. 

This was my motivation for building the artARK, so that my neighbors, my friends, folks that I grew up with, and my relatives would have an opportunity to engage with a river. The artARK, I hope will be this research vessel, this observation point to put people on the river. To have that experience framed by an artist to be able to conduct these real simple experiments and ways you can engage, like testing for turbidity, testing water temperature, observing the birds that are there in the river, the mammals, insects and working with an artist be able to document them. That’s really what motivated me and that’s what I want the artARK to be.

Tell me about the art. Is there art on the boat, or is it a work of art itself?

All of the above. I came up with the rough design for this boat, but that design was shaped by several folks. Right now, it’s being built upon by a shipwright, a guy who knows more than anybody else about wooden boats on the river. St. Paul shipwrights. Also, there was another artist that came up with the calculations for me to figure out displacement, to figure out flow, how this thing was gonna sit in the river – all these different things, all these different elements helped shape this thing. The metal work is going to be done by a sculptor, who actually built the aluminum frame, and is going to now extend on the frame so we can add on to the deck of this thing. Then it’s going to be left for me to paint. I’m approaching this thing as floating sculpture, but it will also literally be this thing that is painted by me and, and I’m not exactly sure what patterns are going to be on this thing. We hope to have the boat in the water in early June, but to really have this thing up and functioning in September, by the end of the festival, so that folks can really experience it. One of the goals for me is to have this thing Coast Guard certified, because I want this thing to live on past me. 

Can we fish off of it?

Yes, yes, yes. For the record, I am going to tell folks that the real reason I’m doing this, this is all about me! I want to have a platform where we can take folks out on the river and actually do some fishing as well.

The Triennial is called the Wakpa, so it’s very literal to the word river. Part of our theme for the celebration is Dr. King’s network of mutuality. I was thinking about how you said your great grandfather settled on the river, and now you’re doing that stuff. Is there a connection there?

Yes. At some point, I want to take this boat down river and take it all the way to Red Wing where my grandfather probably landed on the river. I’ve talked about doing that in a real ceremonial way. But also, there are some other descendants of some of the Black folks that lived in Red Wing and Hastings that I knew, that I still know, and I thought, we should all go down there, land in Hastings and Red Wing almost like pirates and take over! Raid the town! Take over the town! So there is that similarity. In addition, when I think about even the word wakpa, and how the original inhabitants of this area really shaped this land, and how this land was literally stolen, more and more I have been using a land and labor acknowledgement. Describing how stolen people were brought here to work on stolen land, and how we should always be aware of that. There are all these little points where we can come back to the river.

I hope your trip doesn’t turn into Gilligan’s Island.

Hah! We’ve all been laughing about that.

You talk about diaspora a lot, about the Black experience. I think about that and immigrants who come to this country – to either willingly come here to make a new life or as a refugee – I don’t know if I feel sad, or if diaspora is just something that’s inevitable.

I mean, we have to consciously pass on that stuff, the culture we need to hold onto. There are these maritime traditions, and these agricultural traditions, and those are stories that we need to embrace and pass on. It’s this ongoing story that is still being told.

Mahmoud El-Kati, I call him my master teacher, taught history for years at Macalester College. I first encountered Mahmoud when I was in high school, he taught this class in African American history. That blew my mind and expanded in my world when I was 18, and in a real formal way. I grew up in this Black family and lived here for generations, but I didn’t know that history. In a real formal way, Mahmoud introduced me to that specific history. Now it’s amazing to look back over 50 years ago, encountering him. One of the things he said is that, “Whenever cultures come into contact with each other, there’s going to be blending.” Period. 

Did he say that in a good way?

Not so much even in a good way, but in a factual way. It’s going to happen, and there’s nothing you can do to stop that. As a result, how we define our culture now is going to be different 50 years from now. My great-grandkids may be drawing on a wide range of maritime traditions – not just my little African American tradition – but from an Italian, from Vietnamese, from Hmong, different traditions that they will embrace and call their own. I hope that’s the case, and that’s another reason why I want to create this thing here. 

Speaking to you, I feel like you have a lot of joy in your life. Even though you’ve had a lot of trauma as well. How do you find joy in your life when there’s still so much strife happening in the world too?

You know, you just quoted Dr. Martin Luther King. I mean, not just then, but with the themes of Wakpa. Martin Luther King was an inspiration to me, but only now when I reflect back on his teachings. Martin Luther King described love in a real practical way. He said that our contemporary philosophers have got it all wrong about love and power, power in particular. He said that power isn’t an evil thing at all. Power really is the ability to affect change. He said that love and power go together, and that without love, power is reckless and abusive. Without power, love is effectless. You need to have both of these things together, because love can empower power. Love can help shape our future. All this is leading me to say is when you ask about joy, the thing that really drives me is this love that I learned in my family, this love for each other. 

I’ve described my crazy uncles and my crazy father. They loved each other so much, they loved their families, and I learned that from them. They also loved their communities and were engaged in all these projects, these initiatives that shaped the community. They were members of these social clubs that were necessary during the height of discrimination to allow for folks to excel, for folks to have these social contexts. They loved this world, they loved the environment, and they passed that on to me, the love and respect they had for the earth. They never said that, but through their actions they were able to show me and pass that on to me. It is that love that gives me joy, and joy is a part of my work as an artist. It’s part of what really keeps me going despite everything around me. My father, my mother, my aunts and uncles, all knew that they had to give me, my sister, all my cousins, all the folks in this generation, the tools to fight this racist world, and know that we were going to be up against it at some point in our lives. They also gave me the tools and the passions that would help me mitigate many of those struggles. I get that joy in making art. I get that joy when I’m going for a walk, I get that joy whether I’m in a boat in my waders out there. I also love cycling, and I’m a member of a bike club that was founded by a group of African Americans named after this great African American cyclist from the last century, Major Taylor. These are my outlets, along with the joy in family. Hanging out with my kids, grandkids. I’ve got an army and nieces and nephews that I enjoy being with. I’m so fortunate that I’ve always been on good terms with and part of my in-law’s family. My wife’s the same way with folks on my side, on that part of our family. I have to also give a big shout out of respect and love to my wife of over 35 years. That has given me, shown me all kinds of love and support and given me the opportunity for that joy, as well as correcting me all the time.

That’s what we need these people for. 

Oh, absolutely.

Talking about these tools, and tools that you’re passing on to the younger generation that you’re affecting. It’s you that’s applying it. So it’s like, you’re given tools, but you have to apply it to use those tools that were given to you.

That’s right, and you keep learning the whole time. On that note, you know, I described my crazy uncles and crazy father. But I also had this whole army of crazy aunties, and my whole team that works with me are women. I have grown up accustomed to women correcting me all the time. In addition to that, partnering and collaborating is essential to my work; my wife is one of my biggest collaborators, too. We’ve done a number of works together and have a series of pieces that’s going to be dedicated at the end of April together. 

But all of the men, my crazy uncles and crazy father, all were in the kitchen. I have three uncles that love to cook. I grew up never thinking the men weren’t supposed to be in the kitchen cooking, except when my grandmother and my aunties were there. But yeah, they all love cooking, and that was another thing that was passed on to me, as well.