Ten Minutes with Mabel O. Wilson: On Found Materials
Hear the artist’s niece talk about how John Outterbridge brought new life to old materials.
Mabel O. Wilson
Oct 20, 2022
Mabel O. Wilson is an architect and curator who explores the ways Black artists have mobilized their materials and surroundings to create spaces of imagination, refusal, and desire. In discussing the work of her uncle John Outterbridge, an artist known for his use of found materials, Wilson says, “[Salvaging] was very much a part of how my uncle grew up, and certainly Black cultural practices, but also cultural practices of folks of any ethnicity…who don’t have a lot and have to make do with what they have.”
For Outterbridge, salvaging was not just a means of survival, but a form of creative expression. To create his assemblages—three-dimensional works of art like Strange Fruit—he would combine discarded objects from around his home and community. In his hands, worn-out rags, metal scraps, and an old ammunition box found new life as Broken Dance, a sculpture resembling a seated doll. But this transforming of materials was more than an art-making technique; it was a path toward connection. Through salvaging, Outterbridge was able to understand his surroundings, build relationships with others, and imagine new visions for the future.
John Outterbridge. Broken Dance, from the Ethnic Heritage Series. c. 1978–82
To hear more about John Outterbridge and his work with found materials, click on the SoundCloud audio below.
See below for a transcript of the SoundCloud audio.
Mabel O. Wilson: John Outterbridge’s work could be situated in the traditions of assemblage art: making art from everyday things. But I would also say that it was very much a part of how my uncle grew up and certainly Black cultural practices, but also cultural practices of folks of any ethnicity who don’t have a lot and have to make do with what they have. That assemblage sensibility is a part of a kind of family, cultural history of making do.
My name is Mabel O. Wilson and I’m a professor of architecture and Black studies at Columbia University and John Outterbridge is my uncle.
Dion Wilson: My name is Dion Wilson, and I’m Mabel’s brother. I’ll be reading quotes to you from my uncle, John Outerbridge.
John Outterbridge: Art was always a way of life with me because of my parents, because of the environment I grew up in. My father was a man who always refused [to] work for anyone else but himself. So he devised a means of making a living by hauling things, he was a junk collector. …He just accumulated things. Also he had a strong interest in music. After the long, hard days he used to have, he would…always come in at night and play a French horn. My mother as well was a very creative woman. I think that their lifestyle...in order for them to survive, [was] very creative.
Mabel O. Wilson: John Outterbridge grew up in North Carolina. He is the second oldest of eight siblings. But he wasn’t the only artist in the family. My grandmother was a seamstress. My grandfather had a kind of salvaging business. He was a jack of all trades and he had a truck that he carried things around in, like metals and timber. I had two uncles who taught art. I had an aunt who actually turns out to be a pretty amazing painter. My father was an engineer, and had a little workshop working with radios. My uncle John always said he would love to hang out with my dad because there would always be these bulbs and tubes that were making noises. And so that is to say that my uncle John grew up in an environment around people who were just constantly making things.
John Outterbridge, after he leaves North Carolina, he ends up in Chicago and studies art. And then he moves, with his wife Beverly Outterbridge, to Los Angeles in the mid-sixties, right around the time of the Watts Riots. Broken Dance is constructed out of objects that he found after that uprising.
The Broken Dance figure sits atop an ammunition box. And because one of the legs seems to be replaced by a kind of prosthetic, it does feel broken. You see on the other leg a kind of leg warmer, and then those legs sort of fit into almost like a leotard of stitched-together fabrics.
John Outterbridge: My sculpture had always developed from scrap materials, found objects, and that kind of thing; I couldn’t afford many of the sophisticated materials to work with. I tried to stick to my background and philosophy about using anything that you have at hand to express yourself with and getting people into not walking past so many things, but picking up a lot of things, just accumulating elements around oneself to work with.
Mabel O. Wilson: My uncle John, and other artists that are working in the assemblage genre of art-making, rummage around those sites in Watts to recuperate fragments that then start to speak to this phoenix moment: what’s going to be constructed out of, maybe, a kind of ruination of a capitalist project, a Jim Crow project.
What coheres is a kind of aesthetic response to the detritus that is lying around after that uprising. And a lot of it were commentaries on “What is it to be Americans?” And really thinking about, what is the status of citizenship when one still can’t vote—even though emancipation was almost a hundred years ago.
And so the assemblage art, working with objects out of a conflagration like the Watts Uprising, and these kind of found objects that seem to have no value that is then being revalued and rethought, was an important movement.
John Outterbridge: Material stuff has language—it’s historical, and it says a lot about our society and the waste we create. I often go into thrift stores looking for old rags. I can smell the spirit of a rag: where it has been…who discarded it. I think about how it will help me spin my own language of making. …Old rags make me think about the boxes of clothes my aunt Clementine…used to send us from New York.
Mabel O. Wilson: So there, you can see he’s thinking about these larger social issues around waste, but then it’s a very tactile engagement with the material itself, and then it ties directly back to his own remembrance of family and there’s a kind of through line just stringing together all of these associations that resonate throughout all of the works.
And maybe that’s the cycle of it’s discarded, but then it gets reused and remade and it still has the potential in terms of what it can become. To salvage is also to salvage from a worn-out pair of jeans which then becomes a quilt, or the parts of the pig that aren’t the most valuable, those become a delicacy or part of an amazing dish.
John Outterbridge: You see, there is something unique about each of us as individuals. ...You have to get into yourself before you relate to anyone else. But, I think that most of the work and the feeling to work has always developed from the things around me, people around me, situations around me, conditions in the world, and so on.
Mabel O. Wilson: Some of what is driving my uncle was that community that he grew up in, in North Carolina. The people who were committed teachers used the arts as a means of generating the ability to think beyond what you might have been told in a Jim Crow South.
Not all artists are community-focused, but he was. I think that he understood that if institutions are going to change, you have to bring not just yourself, but others. It has to be a collective endeavor. There are these art objects, but behind those art objects are collaborations and dialogues with so many people, with his family and his friends and his community.
He made work that was just very, I think, humble—humble materials, accessible. It was playful. But it was also kind of deep, you know? Like when you look at Broken Dance—the register of the violence. Why is the limb missing? Can this body dance? Can it move? What’s the ammunition?
John Outterbridge: Art is a process, and it has the audacity to be anything it needs to be at any time.
Mabel O. Wilson: I think that he wants to see this as a process that says, “This is what you can be. This is what you can become.” Part of what he is attempting to do is to be liberatory, is to kind of liberate these figures, to liberate these materials, to show us what the possibilities are.
John Outterbridge: I’ll never stop expressing myself. I’ll never stop working. I’ll never stop being a creative individual…I like to make beautiful things. …I like putting things together. …The elements of composition become spirits, souls, people, homes, children. …And the concept just stretches out into being a very positive thing. Art is a basic tool for getting people into themselves and getting people to relate to other people.
Mabel O. Wilson: The house that I grew up in was filled with the work of a family who knew the sort of value of artistic expression and what it means to have that situated in everyday life. It’s great to grow up having an uncle who’s an artist because it says that you can construct a creative life, so long as you produce a body of work that engages, that is questioning, and that is thinking.
For me, the moment in which my own aesthetic, intellectual sensibilities emerged, his work was very key. Thinking, like, how would you take an assemblage practice and apply it to architecture? I did, and it was kind of the first project when I was in grad school that I was thinking about Blackness very directly, thinking about Black women and labor, so many things that are still a part of how I think. I just feel incredibly lucky that I’ve had someone in my life that has had that role.
Mabel O. Wilson is is the Nancy and George Rupp Professor of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University, where she also teaches courses in African American and African Diasporic Studies and serves as the director of the Institute for Research in African American Studies (IRAAS) at Columbia University. She has curated exhibitions in the past, including Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America (2021), MoMA’s first exhibition to explore the relationship between architecture and spaces of the Black diaspora. Wilson has published two books, Begin with the Past: Building the National Museum of African American History and Culture (2016) and Negro Building: Black Americans in the World of Fairs and Museums (2012). She is currently developing the manuscript for her third book, Building Race and Nation: Slavery and Dispossessions Influence on American Civic Architecture, and co-editing the first-ever volume on Race and Modern Architecture.
This episode was produced by Arlette Hernandez and Joan Horn, with original music by Zubin Hensler and sound design by Brandi Howell.
MoMA Audio is supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies.
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