“Maya’s Mind” is going to the Smithsonian.
This is a very big deal! How many Reno artists have had their work featured in a major exhibit at the world’s largest museum? And so, I must congratulate Mischell “Phoenix” Riley for tirelessly pouring her heart and soul into sculpting this 24-feet-tall monument of Maya Angelou.
It debuted at the Black Rock Desert for Burning Man 2017, and now the 6,000-pound, acid-stained concrete bust will be on exhibit outside of the Renwick Gallery building from March 30 to Jan. 21, 2019 for “No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man.”
As I write this blog on the final day of Black History Month, I can’t help but recollect the significance of having this bust at the weeklong festival and the impact I felt seeing it every day. Also, one of my most memorable, and tearful, Burning moments last year was with Phoenix. More on that in a moment.
Several articles have been written about the scarcity of black people that attend the event. According to 2016 census figures, only 1 percent of the approximate 70,000 people who enjoyed all the fun and art were black. (That’s a measly 700 people. Let’s add Maya and make that 701!) And there are even fewer black artists who take their artwork to this spectacular art event, let alone get paid to have it out there. Although she isn’t African American, I was thrilled that Phoenix decided to sculpt this great African American author and poet.
Phoenix said she chose Angelou because of the author’s story of triumph over pain and struggle. Angelou was sexually assaulted as a child by a family member and as a result, spent years as a mute. It is a pain and reaction to it that Phoenix said she related to.
“I used my art to grow out of that and escape,” she said.
Which brings me to my memorable Burning Man moment of 2017.
I’ve had the pleasure of being part of a three-person team that gives the Meet the Artist Tour, which is aired live on Burning Man’s radio station at Black Rock City. I enjoy bragging about all the Reno art and artists that show their work at Burning Man, so I asked Phoenix to talk on-air about her sculpture and read her favorite poem by Ms. Angelou.
I didn’t realize it but Phoenix has a severe reading disability. But in true Angelou fashion, she mustered up the courage and agreed to read “Still I Rise” if I would help her. So, we alternated reading stanzas and I assisted with challenging words. And together we read the last three lines – I rise. I rise. I rise. Listen here to our on-the-playa interview.
For Phoenix, Maya Angelou is an inspiration because of how she rose to become a powerful and successful woman.
“She is a pillar of strength,” Phoenix said in her Hatchfund video. “She is my life. It is an honor to work on her. I want that strength to show through in this monument.”
Not only is it a powerful sculpture but Phoenix also has shown us just how strong she is.
Maya’s Mind will be on the grounds of this magnificent museum in Washington, D.C. for all to see. But Phoenix still needs to raise some money to transport and install it. The Smithsonian gave her $18000 but the total budget is $26,000. To date, she’s raised a little more than half. Let’s show Phoenix, and the Smithsonian, just how proud we are of her ability to rise above her personal struggles and become such a successful Reno artist by donating to her Hatchfund.