We are being bombarded through public platforms with rhetoric that is aimed at dividing and categorizing us based on our differences. It is being projected in both the United States and the world at large as imperious alienation and disparaging rants are somehow marketed and sold as nonconformist truth-telling. Such vile hyperbole is not only close minded, it's dangerous. It promotes xenophobia and strips the world of its humanity.
One of the issues that is repeatedly being discussed is immigration. Those who debate this topic oftentimes speak in statistics and exaggerated generalizations, overlooking the simple fact that immigrants are actual living, breathing human beings. When our fellow person leaves one area and migrates to another it is done in search of a better standard of life for themselves and their loved ones. Let us not forget the words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, taken from Emma Lazarus' sonnet New Colossus, "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free..."
Overstreet Ducasse, known to many as Street, migrated to the United States at the age of six. His father, a construction worker, was the first of his family to escape turbulence in Haiti, migrating to the U.S. in a refugee raft. His mother soon followed and the two settled in Miami before sending for their children. After arriving in America, a young Street attended a predominantly Hispanic and black inner-city public school where he was enrolled in an English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program. As a student, Street wasn't necessarily fond of school, but as an adult he credits the teachers who contributed to his education and helped shape him as an artist, such as his junior high drafting teaching, Mrs. Alexander, who taught him grid work and how mathematics are used to create perspective.
Street's family lived in the United States for 18 years before his mother received an interview for citizenship. Equipped with limited English, she was confident in one name, Martin Luther King, which she pronounced "Marte Lewteh King." In every question she was asked during her citizenship interview, Street's mother responded with the name of Dr. King as her answer. Mrs. Ducasse's limited English didn't prevent her from raising four outstanding children, three girls and a boy. Those children grew up to be a doctor, a forensic psychologist, a mortgage broker, and one of Northeast Florida's most socially focused and skilled visual artists.
Street's work is purpose driven. His mind formulates profound concepts that his hands then go to work manifesting into visual narratives. Street meticulously employs mixed-media materials, including found and recycled objects, to create layer after layer of metaphoric imagery. As a child Street was self conscious of his ability to communicate verbally using English. As an adult he has found a way to amplify his voice through his artwork, and he often uses that voice to advocate on behalf of people who have been dehumanized or excluded because they are perceived to have unwanted behaviors, attributes, or traits.
Street works from his studio in CoRK Arts District. On Saturday, November 18, 2018 the public is invited to participate in CoRK's annual Open Studios. With over 70 artists between 8 buildings, visitors will have the chance to explore the district facilities, interact with artists, purchase original artwork, and receive a behind-the-scenes look at artists and their practices.
10 Questions with Overstreet Ducasse
Do you have any patterns, routines, or habits when starting a new project?
I plead the fifth, in order to not incriminate myself. I mostly listen to some hardcore hip-hop once the juice start flowing. If I am alone, I have this weird habit of walking in circles for at least 10 rotations.
What have you learned about yourself through your artistic endeavors?
I have learned that I can do anything with art. I can’t think of another career that is so broad. With my art, I can be a teacher, a carpenter, a comedian, an astrologist, an activist, and so much more.
How do you define success in what you do?
I do not consider myself successful, at all. I have way more mountains to climb. My ultimate success would be to help my mother and my father because they sacrificed so much to leave Haiti in pursuit of the American dream.
I know I will get some flack for this one... but, I am a firm believer that I am more American than thou. You would not believe the things my family had to go through to make it here in the home of the free. I remember my mother praying with me and my sisters every night and giving thanks to God. Our biggest prayer though was to make it to the United States.
My father is a Haitian Refugee and he went through hell to get his family here. He caught a refugee boat from Haiti. If you ever saw a refugee boat from Haiti, then you know exactly what I am talking about. Somehow he ended up getting derailed to Cuba where he was arrested.
He was arrested again when he got to Miami and placed in the Krome detention center, a prison built for illegal immigrants. When he got here he did a whole bunch of odd jobs like drywall just to make sure that his wife and his children would not go through the same experience. Me, my mother, and all three of my sisters came on a plane.
My father followed the tradition of the founding fathers of the United States. This is not an attack on Americans. All I am saying is if you think you got it bad, please think of the Haitians, the Cubans, the Jamaicans, and all the other immigrants who were and are here with no papers and the things they have to deal with.
What is more American than that story?
What role does found and collected objects play in your creative process and artwork? Additionally, what draws you to specific items when looking for materials and what do you think it means that something as simple as a can of soda, a #2 pencil, or a matchbox car can convey a deeper message and support a theme or narrative?
Found objects have played a major role in my art for the past couple of years. I don’t know where it started but at some point everybody started constantly giving me stuff. The one thing about my art is that everything I am involved in eventually becomes a part of my art.
I think I was in California when I got this Idea of painting on doors. Everybody was doubting me and asking me where I was going to find all these doors. Eventually, I found them and people began donating paint to me so I could paint these doors.
When I left Cali and moved to Jacksonville, my first solo exhibit -- at the Karpeles Museum -- was a series of doors. I don’t know if I can go back to being a “normal” artist. Dolf James, Virginia Cantore, and Diane Wise are constantly leaving stuff in my studio. Sometimes, I am not even there and I have to figure out, who left this?
The truth of the matter is, it is tough being a mixed media artist. Sometimes I am good at it, and sometimes I totally suck. I have crates upon crates of junk. The beauty of it though, is when you hold on to something for 5 years and there finally comes a moment when it becomes the perfect piece to be added in a composition.
When it was all beginning, what assumptions did you have about your work and yourself as an artist and how do those assumptions compare to where you are today and the work that you're creating?
I use to call myself a self taught artist. Now I think that concept is so corny. No disrespect to any artist who uses this term, but that is not me anymore.
I took AP art in high school from 10th grade to 12th grade. That teacher taught me nada. As a matter of fact, my teacher stole several pieces of my art. He was an opportunist that was taking advantage of underprivileged youths in the city.
But once I got myself together, I realized that I could use my personal experience to create. In the beginning, my art didn't have the depth of emotion it has now. I was a hyper realistic drawer who painted old people because the wrinkles on their faces expressed emotion. Then there was an award ceremony where I was the recipient of an award. No one knew me. But I could hear the comments, both good and bad. Half the crowd was praising my work while the other half was not because they weren't impressed that it looked like a photograph.
From that moment on I became a surrealist and now I am a mixed media artist that is applying in my art my experience working with my father in the construction industry. Other contributors have been Mrs. Alexander, my graphics teacher in junior high school, Jean Shepeard, Mark Sablo, Dustin Harewood, and my favorite is Larry Davis. Before Larry Davis, everything was trial and error. When I took his class, I knew how to do exactly what I wanted.
Does whether you work in small or large formats or alter the way you plan and implement your work?
There is no alteration. I am one of these artists that likes being challenged. I have absolutely no problem with a curator coming up with an idea that I then need to create a piece for. I have been doing this at the Ritz for about 13 years. I did it at the Cummer for the Our Shared Past show. I also just did it at the library for the show about immigrants that was curated by Shawana Brooks. Nothing was altered.
I find myself in a very good place where I am blessed at the right time. I don’t know much about my family. I find this to be the perfect opportunity to create a piece and do some research about who I am. Every idea doesn’t have to be your own and research can always help you develop.
Haiti experienced an artistic revolution starting in the 1940s, leading to a rise of new artists creating in a style that was independent of academic tradition. Though you left the country at age 6, what did Haitian art and the artists of the country imprint on you?
At an early age I understood that Haitians are hustlers. I used to see it every day. There was the wood pottery makers, the soda pop sellers, the Haitian naif painters, and so much more. My father used his artistic skills to finance his trip to America, though I never saw any of his art. If there was any influence it is the hustle. It is probably in the blood.
You moved to Jacksonville in 2004. The arts community herald you as one of the greatest talents in our region. What does it mean to you to be so affectionately embraced by your fellow artists and others who appreciate your work?
I love Duval. Period!
In many ways your work is about survival. Specifically, survival within an antagonistic society. In what ways have the arts amplified your voice and given you a platform to tell your truths and to provide a voice for the marginalized and disenfranchised?
Because of my experience as a Haitian immigrant and all the crap I had to go through, I have found it really easy to understand what others are going through. Haitians were so hated in Miami. My parents and I used to march on the streets of Miami when I was 9 years old against the injustice of Haitian people. I was so angry and humiliated as a child. But it has made me the artist I am today.
What would you like to see as an effort to support and grow the city's creative economy?
Mo Money, Mo Money, Money.
We'd like to thank Overstreet Ducasse for his participation in this interview. We'd also like to thank you for taking the time to read this week's 10 Questions interview. If you enjoyed what you read or you found it engaging, please consider making a donation to the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville. Your donation supports the advancement of the arts and culture in Northeast Florida.
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