Taryn Wells may draw in black and white, but the multiracial artist doesn’t see things in that limited light.
In a solo exhibition at the Brookline Arts Center, Wells examines racism from all angles. Through her graphite drawings, the Medfield native stresses how important it is for people of mixed race to create their own identity.
“I hope people will look at my work and learn to say, ‘I’m fine with the way I am,’ rather than picking one or the other,” said Wells, 27, who graduated from Boston College with a degree in studio art. “Because you’re not one thing; you’re many things and you should embrace all of them.”
Some of the drawings in the exhibition, titled “There Are No Others Around Me,” stretch to 3 feet in length. Most depict Wells herself.
One piece, “Check Only One,” grapples with the pressure multiracial individuals feel when forced to choose a single racial identity. The picture features a list of races, each with an adjacent box for the responder to select. Wells opts for “other,” but instead of replying with a check mark, she strikes back with one of her many revealing self-portraits, arms outstretched and pressing against the borders of the box that encloses her.
“I’m not about to choose one, and that’s what they want you to do,” Wells said. “I’m literally going to be pushing outside this box because I just do not want to be in it anymore.”
Although Wells pushes, she does so gently. Raised in a predominantly white town by a white mother and a black father who also has Native American blood, Wells grew up witnessing racism against her father and paternal grandparents.
As a light-skinned person, she also had the unique experience of being privy to the racial slurs of whites who were unaware of her multiracial heritage.
“I could get under the radar and find out people’s true feelings, and some of them were horrible,” Wells said. “But I wouldn’t say it was racism; it was just ignorance.”
Wells’ art responds to such ignorance not with rage, but with compassion and an eye toward fostering empathy.
“My work is not necessarily negative and it’s not necessarily positive,” she said. “I just want to show people who don’t understand where I’m coming from what it feels like to be in my position.”
She illustrates her experience as a light-skinned person of color with “Swatch of Approval.” Her earnest face looms in the background of a hand holding a color swatch, consisting of a variety of skin tones from dark to light, reading “questionable,” “suitable,” “passing,” “flesh” and “porcelain.” Wells has circled “passing.”