A Tender Thing with Jenna Porter, Iris Lee and Shan Wallace

Introduction: Building Tenderly

During a recent weekend Open Hours at Press Press, we gathered to talk about the latest issue of Scroll, an all intern produced annual publication by The Contemporary in Baltimore.This year’s issue is called A Tender Thing and is co-authored by Iris Lee, Jenna Porter and Shan Wallace. A Tender Thing is comprised of five vignettes taking various literary and visual forms that explore the ways arts practices (here framed as practices of self-care) exist as forms of resistance and survival. Similarly to the practices highlighted in this publication, the project itself is born out of a necessity for sisterhood, acceptance, and tenderness between the authors during the past year in which this publication was produced. During our talk, we explored the ways the authors used tenderness as a strategy to build in space for empathy and support throughout their collaborative process. Throughout our conversation, we wrote down values as they came up to propose our Manifesto for Tender Collaborative Work which flows through the following text. We hope this manifesto and conversation can build on, or inspire, some tender strategies for life and work.

Tender Structures for Collaborative Work

Kimi Hanauer: Can you give us a brief overview of what you all did for this issue of Scroll 4: A Tender Thing?

Iris Lee: We did five interviews and structured each one in a different way; some of them were conversations, some we were making art as we were speaking, some we were basically just a conversation between two people. We tried to mold each one around the people we were interacting with.

Shan Wallace: Throughout the process, we tried to be reflective on what we were living in individually and in relation to the people that we also talked to. One thing I realized is that there are so many similarities between us as individuals and the people that we were interacting with. It felt really good to be honest and create work that can continue to be a testament to our own lives, as well as those around us who are using art as a way of preserve their own space.

  1. Embrace and support one another fully. You are at your best when you feel accepted.

KH: Could talk about how tenderness is something that flows throughout each piece, as both a strategy and a theme in this work?

SW: One thing I realized throughout the interview process was that everyone was making art for a reason – it wasn’t just for leisure, but it was for survival – and one thing I noticed about everyone we talked to, like The Very Black Project, is that they exist because it’s necessary! Robin said she started making art because it was saving her life and Naji creates art because, as a Black woman, she’s amidst all this chaos and she has to disperse these feelings. She can’t just keep them inside herself. They both are making art as a way to truly express who they are, as a way of mourning, and as a way of saving their own lives. Then Morgan and Joyce took us on a whole history trip, everyone talked about struggles and trouble, and how art is tender to them. It’s what they do to save themselves. It’s what they do to take care of themselves, but it’s so serious because this is something that they do for a living.

One of my favorite things about The Very Black Project is this thing on their website that says “Asian is Very Black,” and I’m like, how can Asian be Very Black? In our conversation, they said they hope that people who are onlookers can also learn from how they celebrate themselves. Asian is very Black, not meaning Black in skin, but meaning it’s very loving; our community and our spaces are here for each other, and that they are simply a tribe.

  1. Don’t compartmentalize. Be your full self and bring that into your work.

Jenna Porter: Another thing that goes through this work is how to make tender spaces. For example in Rebecca’s interview she talks about how she went to Standing Rock during the No DAPL movement and she made a tent for women at the camp who were survivors of sexual assault. She talked about how to make a safe space for them within an environment that was completely unsafe. When we put this piece next to the Bell Foundry piece, we realized there’s a lot of connection between these things; between either trying to claim a space, or reclaim a space, and build a sanctuary – whether that’d be protecting your land from the government, or protecting your house in Baltimore from the City shutting it down.

KH: Could you expand on how the content you were developing was fueling the sisterhood that was developing between you all, and how your sisterhood also then influenced the content? It feels like you valued your process equally to the product you ultimately produced.

  1. Mold the structure of your work around the people that are a part of it.

SW: The process was such a divine time for me. We were able to create something like this because we were so supportive and open with one another. There would be days where we would talk about our lives and what we were going through for hours, and then talk about Scroll for like five minutes. In those moments, the trust that we are going to get it done was developing. It’s funny to just look back at the process and the many talks we had, the conversations, the traveling…the days at The Contemporary just chilling, or the days at Red Emma’s, being amidst all that traffic and still being able to just embrace each other. And that’s one thing that really supported the process – is that we were able to embrace each other. That felt really good because I can be at my best when I am accepted, and also being pushed and challenged, but supported. That’s one thing that I got from both of them was support. It just suddenly happened: we all gravitated towards each other through the work.

  1. Be tender to your collaborator’s identities, experiences, and daily challenges.

IL: I remember one of the first things you said to me was “I just love women.”

SW: I was so happy that it was all women.

IL: I was like: yes. Me, too.

JP: Regarding the holistic process, I think part of that was us being our full selves and not compartmentalizing, or being our ‘professional’ selves. We couldn’t do that. If we are making a product that is about tenderness and issues like race, gender, sexuality, and violence, it was really impossible to not bring our own stories into that. I think if you are trying to make a product that is actually inclusive, and you’re not bringing your own self and community into that, the product will reflect that. The product was never more important than our relationships with each other. It was never worth it to ruin our relationships for, and if it had I think it would not have been as good of a product.

SW: And we didn’t really have a conflict at all. We all just agreed on everything. It felt so easy and natural. The energy and effort was all reciprocated. We all are clearly coming from different places, and we were just tender to each other and our daily challenges. I think what really helped us was that we just opened up. We all here, we getting paid, we have to spend time together, let’s actually spend time together.

  1. Know what is going on in your collaborator’s lives. Don’t assume your project is their first priority at all times.

KH: Were there insecurities you had going into this process? Knowing that you are three women who come from different backgrounds and that you’re dealing with issues like violence and racism in this publication, did you have insecurities about how you were going to navigate this subject matter collaboratively and how your identities fit into the conversation?

SW: I just wanted to bring what I could bring to the table. I reflect my community and where I come from and that was immediately accepted. When we didn’t work on Scroll and we were just reading a lot and just chillin, I felt really accepted. I was nervous going into it because I haven’t collaborated with people in this way before. So my insecurity was around that—I have to check myself, make sure I bring myself to the table, be a good listener, and compromise on things I usually don’t compromise on. We got it done. Real quick and real easy. Wasn’t hard at all. I really want to come up with a story where it’s like, we worked hard, blood, sweat, and tears, but it’s like no we didn’t, it wasn’t that. We just were there for each other.

  1. Universal Love. Pick up the extra slack when needed.

JP: Which is work, too. It’s just a different type of labor!

KH: This publication is definitely a rigorous project though. Even if it was ‘easy,’ you can tell that this is a loved project. If you can reflect internally on the process, what characterized the approach you took as individuals that allowed you to hold space for tenderness throughout?  

JP: Being the only white woman in this group, I had to think about that. I think you have to be careful to not recreate the power structures seen outside, even in such a small space like this. Not being afraid to talk about difference is important too—because we are different. Saying, “OK, we’re all women so let’s just focus on that,” is counter-productive, because we are different! Let’s actually handle these differences in a direct and productive way. We can’t just pretend that we are all coming from the same place. You have to acknowledge your privilege in a situation and step back, listen, learn, and not ask for too much emotionally. Try to be in a supportive role instead.

  1. The product is never more important than the process or the relationship.

KH: I know Audre Lorde was an influence in this (you quote her in the introduction) and I know she talks a bit about embracing difference. Could you talk a little about the ways she influenced this work and what lessons you took with you?

SW: One thing that Audre Lorde talks about is universal love – a universal fight, of course for women, but for all women, for all plants, for everyone…so paying homage to her is really respecting that and practicing what you preach. That was really part of the process: just caring about each other, making that effort, asking about each other’s days, or if you’re sick, if you’re not. One thing I know is that I don’t get offended. I don’t take people’s mood’s personally. Like, “Shit, ok, you don’t want to work on Scroll today? Ok, that just means I got to pick up the slack.” You know, just being open. It’s just that: universal love – that understanding of being like, “I get it, that’s cool.”

  1. Embrace difference! We are different, let’s address our differences directly.

JP: That’s definitely something that I had to learn throughout this. I’m definitely that person that takes things personally. I know they had to deal with me all the time being like, “Are you guys mad at me?” (Laughs).

IL: I’m sensitive…. They were just really accepting of that. You just learn little quirks about one another and you have to make sure you make space for that.

JP: …and being aware of the other projects everyone is working on too. I think that’s something else that could go on this—know what is going on in each other’s lives! You can’t expect this to be your first priority all the time.

  1. Paid time. Creative freedom. Femme-centric space.

SW: We had a lot of creative freedom.

IL: The Contemporary was a source of constant support.

SW: They also picked our brain a lot, they helped us think big, but weren’t helicopter parents. Like I said, we all come from different places, we all want to talk about different things, and to have that freedom to be like, “This is what we are going to do. This is what we want to talk about.” was really important.

  1. Trust the process and trust the people. Make space for each other’s quirks.

IL: It felt good to have that supportive structure that was invested in our work, but wasn’t actively part of the creating process. We felt really independent, but also had that support when we needed. We’d get an email from them sometimes saying something like, “Hey, the world sucks, and we are here for you if you need anything.” They offered us tenderness, which really inspired our work.

KH: So, supporting you as people just as much as they were supporting the product you were producing?

SW: Yes, and the financial support too. And they weren’t on our backs about time. We were just able to operate how we wanted to. And they are smart as shit too.

  1. Know and embrace your own subjectivity. There is no such thing as being objective.

KH: This project could be seen as an affirmation of tenderness as power, in your product and process. In doing that, it redefines what power looks like. I find myself in situations all the time where it feels like I need to ascribe to patriarchal notions of power, and it only goes so far for so many reasons. Could you expand on how power shows up throughout this work? And if you see this redefinition of it as a strategy for coming up against what patriarchal modes of power typically look like?

JP: In the beginning we say that soft is strong, soft is necessary. If you’re trying to define power in this white-man-suite-kind-of-way you just can’t do this kind of work. I think for us, as three women, it was really important to redefine power in a way that made sense to us that’s not this notion of power that’s really capitalistic and only informed by domination. What do you guys think?

SW: I think we were able to expose new windows of power, and how power can work. One thing that Robin does is sex work, and that’s redefining power. She has power and agency to do what she wants with her body proudly. Then how Naji takes power over her own emotions and then disperses it out into the world. That’s power. Power to me is just agency over yourself, your emotions, your body; to put that out in the world through your expression, that’s power. So I think we just gave different examples of what power is and what power can be.

  1. No hierarchy. No one should have more control than someone else.

IL: I think in other ways, when we were talking about carving out spaces – that is also a really powerful action. I think all of the discussions we had, being able to carve out your own space and support other survivors in a way that shows itself to the public rather than hiding.

JP: Scroll is also a platform. It’s not the biggest, but it is one. We chose these people for a reason. They don’t need help with getting power, but just to share this platform.  

KH: Going back to the content you sourced for this – the biggest chunk is this conversation between Morgan Monceaux (Rest In Power) and Joyce Scott. Could you expand on why you chose those two individuals and what that experience was like? Why is this the biggest chunk of the publication?

  1. Let go of control. Try stepping into a supportive role.

SW: Deana [Haggag] really put the bug in our ear about them – that we need older artists in our publication. That was an experience we will never forget – even just going to his house in West Baltimore. The neighborhood is not the prettiest, and of course it’s just moments away from where Freddie Grey is from. His entire house is an art museum. And Joyce, of course, she is the mother of everything. They were very welcoming, but they def carved out their own space, and had their own thing going on. We really didn’t get to ask questions or have much of a say so because they were vibing out. We were there for four hours… They were making references we didn’t know, talking about people we have no idea who they are, just getting schooled the entire time. The one thing is that they were both just so open and they trusted us.

KH: What was your biggest take away from the entire process?

SW: Definitely, trust the process and trust the people – and that I can be vulnerable too. Especially traveling – that I was able to travel but that I was able to trust that they can make decisions without me and that it will be ok. And the friendship that I have with them has been the best, the conversations that we have really just opened dup my eyes to who they are and how they feel… Just the fact that they are so, so supportive. I took a lot away from the process of building this publication, but most importantly, it was the friendship that developed with these two.

  1. Let yourself be vulnerable.

JP: For me, definitely trust is a huge thing. We didn’t decide to work with each other and just had to make the best of it, so being able to trust and letting go of control. In a feminist structure, no one should have more control. There shouldn’t really be in any hierarchies. Coming back to my own privilege in this group, I had to let go of having to control things – and I’m glad I met that challenge. And friendship, of course.

IL: I think my takeaway is that trying to be objective is not a real thing. You have to acknowledge and embrace your subjectivity, and infuse it into the process if you’re trying to make a project that hits home in all these ways.

JP: Knowing your subjectivity and how it’s influencing what’s being made is really important.



This interview was originally published as the zine The Tender Talk by Press Press. 

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