An artist finds inspiration in Flo-Jo, Venus Williams and others

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The late Florence "Flo-Jo" Griffith Joyner is pictured in a 1989 photo.

Pamela Council is an artist in residency at the Bemis Center in Omaha, Nebraska. During a video interview, there is an unmade bed to the left of her. She will spend the next few months working on her upcoming exhibition.

I introduce myself to her and ask the first question, but she isn't quite ready. Council, 32, vets my angle.

"Well first, what do you like to write about?" Council asked.

"I write fashion, beauty, sports, and working on my second novel," I responded, caught off guard.

"You carry a lot of threads in your head already. A lot of voices, that's good. I always like to know how the person I'm talking to synthesizes things, because I can be really airy about my process," she said, with a satisfactory nod and smile showing through the screen.

"To me, it's really easy to see how everything connects. It's not always easy for me to articulate that; that's why I became a visual artist."

Council's charmingly bold personality is direct and certain. The same can be said for the outspoken athletes who influence many of her collections. Inspiration for the passionate artist sprawls from a young Venus Williams to Florence Griffith Joyner to Ray Lewis, whom she calls her "problematic favorite."

She also uses her work to champion the legacy of three-time gold medalist Florence "Flo-Jo" Griffith Joyner. She created a sculpture made from 2,000 hand-painted acrylic fingernails, a homage to the fastest woman in trendsetting six-inch claws.

Council's work has been met with resistance. Griffith Joyner's estate issued a cease-and-desist order, which stops the artist from using the late athlete's name in her work. However, Council continues to push the conversations of ownership of artwork, creative labor and protecting black women's and girls' rights to play, as she explains below. Her exploration of Flo-Jo was an experience that led her to learn more about herself.

Courtesy of Pamela Council

This sculpture is made in the same shape of an ascending 200-meter track upon which Flo-Jo set the world record in the 1988 Olympics, according to artist Pamela Council, who created the piece. The paintings in the back are by So Yoon Lym.

espnW: What did you learn while making the sculpture dedicated to Flo-Jo?

Pam Council: I learned a lot about Flo-Jo and myself while making this piece. I have learned an enormous amount about legacy and ownership of content of one's style. Flo-Jo was a true trendsetter who inspired multiple generations of athletes.

espnW: Flo-Jo was scrutinized a lot as to whether or not she was using enhancement drugs, even after she passed multiple drugs tests. Do you think this tactic is used to target athletes, especially black women? 

Council: There are some things I want to talk about with black women's bodies in a broader context, but I am very sensitive about using Flo-Jo to do that. I don't want to project too much on to her because she was one person and I think she had enough of that. I can say that my experience as a black woman has been one of being second-guessed.

espnW: How does that play into your artistry? Do you doubt yourself when you are creating?

Council: No. Doubt sounds like an external voice that is placed on the gifted, which is why practice is so important. I don't doubt myself when I am creating. Flo-Jo has this quote that says, "When someone tells me I can't do something, I'm just not listening anymore."

Martin Parsekian

Fountain of Your Youth is a mechanical/kinetic sculpture that operates like a fountain, spinning and churning up hair beads.

espnW: What plans do you have next for the sculpture? Would you like to see it travel anywhere?

Council: I would like to see it be a part of the 2020 Olympics opening ceremony in Tokyo. Nail culture has become such a staple around the world, and Flo-Jo still holds the world record for the 200 meters. It would be a nice place to honor her.

espnW: Do you think that art and sports go hand in hand?

Council: Absolutely. Sports and art go hand in hand in the fields of manual creative labor. We are making beautiful things with our bodies. Some of the most iconic images come from sports. There is no way to separate the two completely.

espnW: What are you working on next?

Council: Right now, I am working on pieces on why it is important for black women and girls to protect our play. I think there are certain expectations as to who our bodies belong to when they are seen in the public sphere. Which is why Flo-Jo and Serena are deemed defiant, because they make it clear that their bodies belong to them. I am thinking about how we protect ourselves so that we can have pleasure and play, which I think relates to sports.

espnW: How so?

Council: Last year for my show at Rush Arts Gallery in Chelsea [New York City], I made a piece called "Fountain of Your Youth," which is a fountain filled with [hair beads] that pour out beads. It is inspired by an interview of a young Venus Williams, where her father, Richard, had to step in because the journalist questioned her confidence. It was an example of someone protecting their daughter's right to play.

espnW: You're inspired by athletes quite a bit?

Council: Yes. I have a whole series dedicated to Ray Lewis. He's my problematic favorite. I have this piece called "Ray Lewis Needs Love." I think he's a special one. I love to watch his performance of manipulating the media.

This interview has been edited for length. 

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