People of Duke Arts: Vonnie Quest

A laboratory for the arts at Duke University, the Power Plant Gallery promotes creative work, while engaging with audiences through the transformative power of the arts. We are in our fourth summer supporting local artists in their creative experimentation. The two cornerstones of this residency are encouraging artists to take chances by respecting failure as a part of the creative process, and inviting the public to interact with an artist in their studio as a means of making visible the labor of artists.  As part of the Power Plant Gallery’s public studio residency, Vonnie is using the 1500-square-foot gallery as his studio for six weeks, and will receive a $750 honorarium.

Read on to meet Vonnie, and discover how his work wrestles with personal histories and imagined futures.

Still from Vonnie’s current film project, shot by cinematographer Terence Price II.
Vonnie at work. All photos by Katy Clune.

Q: Tell me a bit about your work and what led you here.

Vonnie Quest: I have my BFA from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in interdisciplinary art studies with an emphasis in film and collage.

I began the program with a totally different interest. I wanted to have a narrative focus—but by the time I left, I developed a strong interest in experimental and nonlinear modes of storytelling.I started to think more about personal narratives, my family, and ancestral history. The film I made for my final project was called Remnants of a Room. It was about my father’s experience with a supernatural entity. I left the program a totally different filmmaker and artist. I think that was really amazing because that’s exactly what college should be—you go in one way and come out with a whole plethora of skills and knowledge.

I feel limited when I say that I’m just a filmmaker, or just a visual artist, or just a documentarian, so I refer to my practice as interdisciplinary documentary art.

“I think that was really amazing because that’s exactly what college should be—you go in one way and come out with a whole plethora of skills and knowledge.”

Q: Why do you think you developed a creative practice?  Was it something in your family background, or how you were raised?

VQ: I had a great relationship with my great-grandparents. They fostered an atmosphere for me to explore and be creative. They’d buy me sketchbooks, and there were always a ton of films for me to watch as a kid. I remember I would draw cartoons of family members in Memphis, TN, and they would frame them. They were just really encouraging, and made me promise I would be an artist when I grew up.

I loved listening to my great-grandfather talk about his growing up in French Camp, MS, as a kid. I’ve always been interested in hearing my elders talk about their history—that’s probably where my interview skills developed.

Still from Vonnie’s current film project, shot by cinematographer Terence Price II.

Q: Were you plugged into the Milwaukee art scene?

VQ: There’s a really thriving art and film scene in Milwaukee. There are many galleries throughout the city, as well as film festivals and microcinemas. I have shown work in both the Milwaukee Film Festival and Milwaukee Short Film Festival.

I’m also an emerging film programmer. I run a program called the Afro+ProjectionLab (a play on astral projection). I’ve thought a lot about how we don’t see enough work by black experimental filmmakers, and I see this program as a space to show works in progress and as a future documentary residency.

Q: Your work seems to incorporate two themes: science fiction and family history. Can you talk a bit about these dual interests?

VQ: I’ve always been very inspired by science fiction, the supernatural, and futurism. One of my favorite films as a child was Tales From Da Hood—now I see it weaves together all of my interests. I also loved to watch the original The Twilight Zone, Beyond Belief, and Fact or Fiction.

I learned about Afro-futurism in college. That was a turning point for my work. I met filmmaker and programmer Amir George at a Black to The Future party in Chicago, IL. I cite Amir George as a major inspiration for my work. Amir co-founded Black Radical Imagination with Erin Cristoval.

A stack of old family photos on Vonnie’s desk—materials he regularly incorporates into his work.
Paper-making materials.

Q: What are you working on while at the Power Plant Gallery this summer?

Science fiction comes through in this project about my grandmother because I am activating her memory through the people who knew her closely. I am using their memories to reimagine what the future would have looked like for her, had the incident not happened.

In 1996 my grandmother was a victim of homicide. I chose this project because the only memory I have of her is that morning, when my family received the call that she had been murdered. My family has yet to heal from this, and I feel that this work will help them.

My aunt (my mom’s older sister) has been extremely helpful throughout this process. A few weeks ago, she found some documents that my grandmother had left behind and decided to share them with me. My grandmother’s spirit is definitely here with me in this residency.

I want my work to incorporate these documents, writings, and her thoughts, but I don’t want to just place what she wrote in the project. I want to think: What if this thing had not happened? How would that have changed the trajectory of her life, or my family’s lives?

“I am making new use of the old and making new memories of the past.”

This entire project is an act of refusal for me. Even the process of paper making— tearing up old pieces of paper and putting them in the blender to make new paper—is similar to reimagining. I am making new use of the old and making new memories of the past.

Q: How has this residency impacted your work?

I’m entering the MFA in Studio Art program at UNC-Chapel Hill this fall, and this residency was a good precursor. I have to think about time management, which can be hard when your work is so interdisciplinary.

This residency has also had a huge impact on how I think about my work. It’s helpful to just pause and embrace the moments of making, and to think about the possibilities of the work and where it could go. I have had all of these ideas swirling around in my head and having this space to make the work is amazing.

I’ve learned a lot about myself as an artist. This is a really hard project and an emotional process. At times I need to just set the work down, walk away, and take a break from it. This has been a transforming experience.