The'Shima Craver makes art out of toilet paper to explore the Black experience
'Right Now' is Craver's series of toilet tissue works in response to the experience of being Black in America, part of CCAD's 'MFA Thesis Exhibition'
“What does it mean to be Black in America right now?”
That’s the question artist The’Shima Craver posed to 60 people on social media. After receiving the answers, Craver wrote the responses on a roll of toilet paper. Initially, she envisioned the finished project as a performance. Craver is a multidisciplinary artist with a background in spoken-word poetry, and she imagined reading the responses aloud while unfurling the roll of toilet paper like a scroll.
But the more she handled the squares of toilet tissue, the more she thought about the material itself, and as she did so, the project took a different direction. “Toilet paper is so essential. It's in high demand. We literally can't go a day without toilet paper,” said Craver, a second-year MFA student at CCAD. “But it's not valued. It's this throwaway, disposable thing. And I thought, wow, that's so [similar] to what it means to be Black right now — to be needed and to be a part of the system, essential almost, and then to feel disposable at the hands of police officers or employers or whoever. And that became a conversation between that material and the Black experience.”
Craver shifted her project from a performance to a series of five artworks made from toilet paper that she titled “Right Now,” which is part of the “CCAD MFA Thesis Exhibition,” on view at the Beeler Gallery through May 1, featuring the work of 19 artists from CCAD’s MFA program.
“Right Now” is an evolution for Craver, a Dayton native who hopped from medium to medium while attending the Art Academy of Cincinnati as an undergraduate. It took some time for Craver to embrace the interdisciplinary nature of her interests and realize she didn’t have to be only a painter or only a poet. After teaching K-12 youth in Dayton, Craver enrolled in CCAD’s MFA program in hopes of teaching at a higher level while also pursuing her own artistic calling, which led to an interest in performance art.
In one early performance piece at CCAD, Craver handed out “Hello My Name Is” stickers alongside two of her paintings while reciting a poem, but some of her classmates found the experience to be too confrontational. “Some people were like, 'Oh, no, no no. Not me. Don't come to me,’” she said. In her next performance piece, Craver filled a rubber tote with dirt from her childhood home and spread it all over the floor, along with her muddy gym shoes and a shovel. She sat in the dirt and rubbed it all over her clothes while reciting a poem, which felt less confrontational and allowed others to come closer.
While less of a performance, “Right Now” invites viewers even nearer to see the rolls of toilet paper and the tiny script. "It's something that's going to make someone come up and say, ‘Let me come closer so I can experience this thing,’” Craver said.
The five pieces, which Craver arranged so that each one speaks to the others, sit side by side at Beeler Gallery with their own individual titles on brass nameplates. Rather than unfurling the initial roll with 60 responses, Craver wrapped it back up and used string to keep it intact. “I tied it up very neatly because I didn't want it to unravel,” she said, titling the piece “Not Here, Not Now, Not America.”
Craver took the opposite approach with “There’s A War in Everything,” which features a toilet paper roll stitched together and stuck with a needle. “I asked myself the question, 'How are we being affected as a community to the point where the Black man and the Black woman are sort of divided?’” Craver said. “I cut that whole entire roll in half, which is that great divide, and then I stitched it back together — but poorly, because we're still a work in progress.”
Adjacent to the stitched roll is a single square with the words, “Give me the strength,” a comment on what is needed to bridge the divide, while another roll, “No Crystal Stairs,” is burnt at the ends, its charred bits forming black scattershot designs around the piece. Setting the piece ablaze was a cathartic, almost spiritual process for Craver as she released trauma-induced fears and anxieties into the atmosphere with the smoke.
“I asked myself, ‘What are you holding on to that's adding to the everyday load?’ I can't escape my skin, but there are certain things that I can let go of as a human being so that when I am experiencing racism or I am experiencing sexism or all of these other things that just makes existing feel exhausting, I won't feel that much more exhausted because I'm holding on to childhood trauma at the same time. And so I wrote all of those things down and then I burnt the roll,” she said. “The point of the project isn't to just confront the systems I'm talking about in America and how it's penetrating our own personal spaces; it's also supposed to nurture this idea of healing through process.”
That healing can be difficult at times, especially as the only Black student in her second-year MFA class. "I haven't felt like I've been excluded or anything,” she said. “But you look around, and here's this thing that's really only affecting me, so when I go to talk about it, who's really going to feel this?”
Craver has been encouraged, though, during America’s racial justice reckoning over the past year. “I've had people reach out when some of these things are happening and say, 'How are you feeling?’ They’re recognizing they have a Black student or a Black peer and saying, ‘How are you feeling in the middle of all of these things?’” Craver said. “It was a perfect time to really say, 'This is what I've been advocating for. You guys are seeing this now.’"
She noticed something else about toilet paper, too. It may be seen as fragile and disposable — something easily tossed away. But it’s more than that. “I did a lot of things with this toilet paper, and it was still kind of strong!” she said. “I was thinking about being Black, and not saying, ‘Oh, I feel so easily broken.’ I feel like I've been taken through all of this stuff, and I’m still standing. That's resilience.”