Chotsani Elaine Dean

Chotsani Elaine Dean, is an artist and assistant professor of ceramics at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. She received her BFA in ceramics from Hartford Art School and her MFA from Sam Fox School of Art at Washington University in St. Louis. Dean is coauthor of the book, Contemporary Black American Ceramic Artists, Schiffer Publishing. She has been in residence at the John Michael Kohler Artist Residency, and is the recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Teaching and Research grant. Dean was the inaugural MJ DO Good resident at Red Lodge Clay Center in Montana, held the position of studio manager at Wesleyan Potters in Middletown, Connecticut, and is the recipient of a Connecticut Arts Grant. She has lectured and exhibited widely in solo and group exhibitions and has taught at institutions including Banaras Hindu University in Varanasi, India, University of Connecticut, Connecticut College, and Hartford Art School.

Artist Statement
The complex, layered realities of my communal ancestry’s history and visual archives set forth the foundations of creative purpose in my studio practice and research. A significant part of my research begins and is rooted in quilts from Slavery (chattel enslavement) into the Antebellum period, made on and off cotton plantations through the mid-20th century by enslaved and free African Americans. These quilts and the material that gives them life, cotton, serve as a historical source and point of departure I use to explore and comprehend this dreadful time in America’s history. These quilts are fascinating to me for their uniqueness in origin, evolution, aesthetics, visual endurance, and range of creative techniques and processes. Also important is the commodity, cotton, from which the textiles are made to make the quilts and what my enslaved ancestors cultivated and picked. Cotton, the commodity at the center of my ancestry, led me to the global history, trade, and impact of cotton through its production in textiles and trade. I follow the cotton off the plantations of the American South and the financial market of the North, encountering the various cultures, economies, and periods connected to cotton continues to take me through non-linear timeline journeys from the past to the present. Quilts from these periods reveal and preserve the historical blending of aesthetics and the emergence of distinct material cultures and traditions. These diverse and interconnected histories permeate the work I make.  

As I think more deeply about the city of my birth, Hartford, CT I have reached deeper into another root of research tangled in the garden of my mind, seemingly unconnected, is Sojourner Truth’s story. Her tale became entangled with my research when I learned her first language was Dutch and how much of Dutch culture and history surrounded me as I grew up in Connecticut. This entanglement among the roots of my research is always symbiotic: a cross-pollination of facts that leads me to a more potent hybrid strain. Expanding my work from tiles that create ceramic quilts to the spoons that serve as metaphors for domestic labor and the complexity of food and culture to the cast porcelain bleach bottles I made while in residence at Kohler. These bottles and other works have words in Dutch, French, and Portuguese combined with English to further reveal the synthesis I see in the quilts and history I research. These words, along with selected longitude and latitude coordinates, reflect and are related to marine navigation and the traded commodities that moved across the oceans and seas of the world.  

My garden practice and relationship with land inform my work with clay. The cotton I grew for four years in my garden has found its place in the ceramic work I create. My research on the history and life of cotton was distant. Growing cotton while living in South Carolina provided a direct and natural connection with the plant I did so much reading about from others’ research. I needed to have my own experience. The cotton is now embedded in my ceramic work and other flowers I grew in my garden.

Adaptation, resourcefulness, survival, and triumph are what I appreciate when I consider the fullness of these quilts, their makers, and the history from which they emerge and have moved through time. I aim to center the realities of those who sewed and stitched more than quilts in my work. Those who stitched and sewed a resolute history and legacy gifted freedom, personhood, and rich visual language to our world. I am indebted to the fullness of the past they formed that has afforded me deep meaning as an artist working with ceramic material. I strive to sustain and honor the many gifts of my personal and collective history embedded in my communal ancestry’s chronicles.