Our Authentic, Creative Selves
Suzan E. Jenkins has an inquisitive mind—from a young age, she was eager to learn about the world around her, in particular the artistic practices she saw in her community.
Growing up in Trinidad, she became enraptured with the steel pan, wanting to know how it worked and what it meant. When she later moved to Puerto Rico, she was fascinated by bomba and plena. The first time she met a saxophonist, she knew she wanted to study that too.
This hunger for learning and passion for the arts led Jenkins down a career path in arts administration. She has held executive positions at the Rhythm and Blues Foundation, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Recording Industry Association of America, and is currently CEO of the Arts and Humanities Council of Montgomery County (AHCMC) in Maryland.
Jenkins shared her insights on living an artful life with us, not only what it means to her personally, but how it manifests and is nourished in her community, in particular through the work of AHCMC.
THE POWER OF CREATIVE THINKING
I think of myself as a cultural warrior. I see myself as an advocate for the arts and humanities. I also see myself as an advocate for traditionally marginalized communities, and the need to bring these voices to the table. From an administrative standpoint, running a local arts agency is about creative thinking. I think about how to run our agency in a way that allows me to use improvisational thinking in innovative ways. I am a student of the saxophone and have been playing for a very long time. I am not a performing musician, but I greatly appreciate that work and pick it up every once in a while, for inspiration and grounding.
I grew up in the Caribbean. I was born in Buffalo, New York, but raised in Port of Spain, Trinidad, and San Juan, Puerto Rico. I didn’t come back to the States until my late teens. While in the Caribbean, I attended small, private schools, and those programs provided me with incredible opportunities to practice visual arts. There was always music in my house growing up. My father played the trombone with a small group of friends in New York, and my mother sang around the house. So, I’ve always had a huge appetite for the arts.
Curiosity is what I ride on every day—wanting to learn more about how it’s made, what creatives think about to make things, and what barriers to participation they might face, keeping them from realizing their biggest dreams.
"We want to be our authentic, creative selves and reside where we can express that and feel a sense of belonging."
CREATIVITY IN THE COMMUNITY
I live in Montgomery County, Maryland, and as the CEO of the Arts and Humanities Council, I see the entire county as my community. I’ve been in this position 15 years, and over that time, I’ve had an opportunity to observe and work in a county that’s the size of Rhode Island with 1.2 million people (about the population of New Hampshire). You see all kinds of things throughout this incredible county, from Klezmer groups and East Indian dance to Cambodian Buddhist practices and Ethiopian coffee rituals. There are many great global cultures here, and so much to learn in a community representative of the global majority. I spend my weekends going out, looking at and experiencing new things in the region that I might not have seen before. I’ve gained an enormous appreciation for the vibrancy and the vitality we have in Montgomery County due to my experiences here.
I’ve learned in my career that, as we say in the islands, “all of we is one.” Whether you live in Essaouira, Morocco; Perugia, Italy; Málaga, Spain; or Rockville, Maryland, we all want safety. We want our families to thrive. We want to be our authentic, creative selves and reside where we can express that and feel a sense of belonging. My curiosity to investigate this culturally throughout the world has grounded me in an artistic way of life. It constantly helps me see myself in others, see them in me, and appreciate our oneness.
AN IMPACTFUL ARTISTIC MOMENT
I was asked to join the Remembrance and Reconciliation Commission for Montgomery County a few years ago. This commission sits under the Human Rights Commission in Montgomery County and was formed to memorialize the three African American men—John Diggs-Dorsey, Sidney Randolph, and George Peck—who were lynched in Montgomery County in the late 1800s.
I joined the commission as an ad hoc member to serve and support my colleagues who were figuring out how to accomplish this, and they asked me to think about it through an arts lens.
Initially, I didn’t know how that was going to work. My agency has a public art roadmap, and we began looking at the roadmap and asking ourselves, is there any intersection between the work the commission might do and our public art roadmap? We decided to investigate the new media campaign for public art. And we engaged an expert projection mapping artist named Robin Bell. I met Robin and said, “Look, I have this incredible challenge. What will I do?” and he said, “I think we can help.”
We engaged [Bell as] the lead artist on a public art project now known as Certain Party or Parties Unknown. The lead artist then worked with six artists from the DMV [District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia]—Alix Lambert, Curtis Woody, LaShell Rivers, Liz Miller, Nikki Brooks, and Tim Davis—who had never done projection mapping before. We asked them to talk about the three gentlemen who were lynched and through this process, to create an original piece of projection artwork.
Once completed, we projected these images of racial terror on the front of the Montgomery County Council Building—which is the site where the three men were jailed in the 1880s when the public broke them out of jail, dragged them to their deaths, and lynched them. It is a horrible history of racial terror, but we made something memorable out of it for three days at the beginning of Remembrance and Reconciliation Month in November 2021. Certain Party or Parties Unknown educated the public, taught artists new skills, and gave them greater agency and gravitas to express themselves in new and different ways. The entire experience was terribly moving.
In November 2022, we took the original pieces of art the artists used to create their projection works, put them on display in a gallery exhibition, and produced audio recordings of why and how they approached the work in the way they did. We followed up the gallery exhibition with a documentary film tour, inviting the community to discover the process of creating 2021's outdoor projection art installations from inception to opening night. We also asked artists and residents to participate in roundtable discussions after the film screenings to further community dialogue and understanding. I learned an immense amount through this project, including how open people’s hearts are, even in the face of incredibly difficult issues.
I chose the title [Certain Party or Parties Unknown] because, in the history of American lynchings, this is the most commonly used term for describing those who committed the majority of the terror lynchings in America. How can it be that no one knew any of the perpetrators at all? The opportunity to bring this horrific history to light for remembrance and reconciliation inspired our work.
LIVING THE ARTFUL LIFE
I am a dyed-in-the-wool jazz fanatic. I love jazz. I’m there wherever I can see it, hear it, or talk about it. I also love the visual arts, particularly quirky and contemporary visual art. I enjoy new forms of creative expression and new media. Anywhere those things are happening is where I’m going to be.
I do not have a choice. I was born a creative. My birthday is September 23rd, and a plethora of creatives were also born on this day, like John Coltrane, Bruce Springsteen, Ray Charles, and Ani DeFranco, to name a few. If you look up how many artists’ birthdays are on that day, you will see it is a sparky, creative day on the cusp of the autumnal equinox. If I didn’t do this work as an arts management professional, I would be a musician along with my work as a leadership coach. For that, I'd have to practice much, much more and would probably be a saxophonist!