I first met Donald Black Jr., and Ali McClain in the fall of 2012 through a mutual comic friend. Since then, I have always enjoyed our conversations about art education, artistic process and the Cleveland art community. During a studio visit with Donald, we discussed several projects he had been working on under the name acerbic, an artist collective of which he, Ali and Gabriel (Gaby) Gonzalez are all members. Founded as a “direct response to the continuous number of artists of color who often feel artistically stifled and excluded,” acerbic serves as an art producing collective, consultation group and art-education program. Most recently, acerbic participated in the Rooms to Let exhibition in Slavic Village, where they transformed the attic of an abandoned home into a powerful exploration of what it means to be a black man in America. I met up with acerbic after the project to discuss the group’s formation and mission in Cleveland.
Thea Spittle: I’m curious to know more about how acerbic started, and your name, Donald, we talked about that a little bit before. It has a kind of visceral quality, sour, bitter.
Donald Black Jr.: Back in the day, when me and Gaby were running around the streets of Cleveland, trying to figure out how not to be taken advantage of, I got shipped to West Side Community House, to meet Ali. Us three, we’re always on the same page, all the time, and been around each other all the time, working in the similar capacity where we’re trying to create art, and dealing with our frustrations of trying to create art, and teach young people art, life skills, the whole nine yards. Predominantly kids of color…
But, we just always trade all these war stories, and all of these frustrations, all these annoying situations. We started just to see this extreme pattern in it. And then it was like, ok, let’s make this a little more official. Let’s sit down, let’s plan to meet, let’s create a schedule. Let’s give ourselves a name, let’s figure out how to take this individual stuff we’re doing and turn it into a group effort. And a year and a half later from that, we’re here.
I had been watching Elementary. I’m a big fan of Elementary. And Sherlock Holmes, he referred to himself as acerbic, and it made me look the word up. So, that was one of the ones I threw into the pot, and then it stuck.
TS: So, what was acerbic’s first project, once you figured out the name, and made it a little more official? What were some of your most successful projects? Any failures?
Ali McClain: So, our first project was Rooms To Let last year. What was successful about that, in my opinion, it was our first run. Donald and Gaby have known each other since they were 15. Our former member…
DB: I guess we have two former members, technically (laughter).
AM: Oh yeah, two former members. Let’s get the history right, for the history books. Two former members. It was a way for us to see how everybody works. This was like a test run to see who was going to pull the 24-hour all-nighter, who’s going to run and get water. And then we saw who quit. And it’s interesting, if we’re trying to use an exhibition as a test to see how you’re going to perform, it’s a great one. And we see that, we’re the only ones still standing.
Gabriel (Gaby) Gonzalez: So, failure’s not an option.
DB: To me, failure would be not being able to deliver, that would be the fail point. And ultimately, we’ve been able to deliver.
Well, I guess maybe failure in the conceptual success. If you feel like your project was received the way that you had intended. What specifically about the first project at Rooms To Let was successful in your opinion?
AM: Well, I think our name, we live up to it: sharp, forthright, in your face. For me, it’s always a success, because when we’re creating the concept, we’re saying, “This is going to be powerful, this is going to move people, this is going to make people feel uncomfortable when I run up the stairs, or run down.” So all of the emotions, feelings and energies that we anticipate, I feel like they have all been explored or projected.
DB: Somehow I think all the information that comes out of all of us, goes through this metamorphosis. Last year was about being out of place. My mom suggested turning the basement into a prison. White people will feel very out of place in what looks like a prison. And our goal was to make people feel the way we feel. This is how I feel, so can we emphasize that feeling?
GG: We put mousetraps everywhere.
DB: Because, we are sick and tired of all of the cheese at all of the openings. [We wanted to] showcase the idea of feeling trapped. We’re on this rat race.
So, I feel like at the root of your art making is creative problem solving. Acerbic is approaching a problem from many different angles: as an art production-collective, a consultant group and a mentorship program. So how do you see all of these different roles working together under one cohesive name, without compromising the goal of your powerful mission? Is there one function that acts as primary, and then how do you select to represent as one kind of role over the other?
GG: I’m processing…
DB: It’s built in.
GG: We’re automatically doing it, but now it’s like, let’s house this together.
DB: And tell people this is what we’re doing. We’re all making art individually, and we’re learning about art and ourselves, and we’re showcasing that, and communicating that to the young people we’re around. Realistically, it’s just taking all the information we’re already studying, and saying let’s put it in motion in a more intentional way.
AM: And that’s ultimately why we started the group. We’re all at these different organizations, all on these different panels. And each time it’s the same story, it’s the same problem. You know people can’t figure it out…
TS: So, what do you view as being some of the biggest struggles that face artists of color in Cleveland?
DB: Our skin complexion (laughter).
AM: Being artists of color.
DB: That’s the biggest thing.
AM: It is.
DB: It supersedes everything. It supersedes resources, money, backings, support, whatever. That’s the biggest. Do you want something that’s not that big?
No, I want your honest answer.
DB: Yeah, I think it’s the skin complexion. I mean we can say we’re not at the table, when the decisions are being made. But, before there’s even a table, the issue is what happens when we walk in the door.
So, I’m interested in the consultation part of your group. What is a problem that you are trying to solve at an area institution?
DB: Minority engagement, and minority education. You know, diversity is everybody’s issue. Everybody’s figured out, in their own politically correct way, of saying, “What do we got to do to get black people in here?” But, they won’t say that. They’re trying to figure out how in a city that is predominately black, we don’t know how to get black people in the door.
TS: Are there some specific examples of solutions that acerbic has given to these institutions to engage more diverse populations?
AM: I was in a focus group at CMA [Cleveland Museum of Art], and they were trying to figure out how to engage minority youth. And I was at the table because I’ve had success engaging minority youth. Many of the people at the table [invited members of the focus group] applauded my relationship building skills, but said they wouldn’t be able to build such relationships without being reprimanded. I think that’s a big problem. My girls see me like a mother, and that’s why I have such a successful program.
DB: I just do genuine things. And they don’t even want to miss a day.
Wow, that’s simple.
GG: It really is that simple. That’s what it is, it doesn’t matter if they’re black or white. I teach in Wickliffe. There are five 8th graders in this afterschool program, and they’ve been with me since the 6th grade. So, obviously I’m doing something right. Out of all the other programs, the only 8th graders are all with me. For me, it’s like you just have to listen. Talk to them just like we’re speaking here. I think that’s the problem with a lot of these adults, is that they talk to them just like they’re kids. If you want their attention, it’s not gonna work.
TS: Any upcoming projects you want to get out there?
AM: As a collective, Project Row Houses next Fall. And we’re definitely thinking of these pop up installations or performances.
DB: We’re knee deep into our planning process. We need to communicate to the community that we exist.
AM: Last year we were just mad, and our mission was, “By any means necessary.” … what was our mission?
DB: acerbic is an interdisciplinary group that goes against the proper order of things. That is what our description was.
AM: Everybody had that memorized.
DB: Now we can break that down. We’ve positioned ourselves to really have some significant influence in some of this art education.
GG: In the end, who better to teach the kids than us? I’ve gone through just about every problem they’ve gone through. I know there are some educators that can’t relate to them. We can because we are those kids, and they’re us.
Thea Spittle is an Admissions Counselor at the Cleveland Institute of Art and also runs seasons project space, the sunroom, in Cleveland Heights, OH. View more articles by Thea Spittle.