If you want to get to know renowned artist Janet Taylor Pickett, look no further than her artwork, which is informed by her personal and shared history.
“Everybody has a story to tell,” Taylor Pickett said. “The paintings, the mixed-media, the fabric works… my past informs all of it somehow. It’s part of who I am. No matter what I chose to do, my history would be imbued into it one way or another.”
Taylor Pickett’s history is firmly rooted in Ann Arbor, Michigan. As part of the third generation in her maternal family raised in the city, Taylor Pickett received her BFA from the University of Michigan in 1970 and her MFA in 1972. She is recorded as one of the first Black students to receive a BFA and MFA at U‑M.
Taylor Pickett reflects on her rich history and U‑M experience as a celebrated artist.
Growing up with the “seed of art”
Growing up in Ann Arbor, Taylor listened to her family’s stories about the Underground Railroad and the Great Migration.
Her parents, Ethel and Dempsey Taylor, Jr., both working-class individuals, created an environment rich with creativity and curiosity. Taylor Pickett recalls being surrounded by all kinds of collectibles – from discarded materials from her father’s apartment maintenance job to her mother’s unique finds from rummage sales.
Taylor Pickett’s love of art sparked as early as she could remember.
“As a little girl, I liked to draw and just kind of copy things from my comic books and funny papers,” Taylor Pickett said.
Once it was time to follow her college aspirations, Taylor Pickett’s family provided invaluable support, especially when the world wasn’t always welcoming to aspiring Black artists.
“The thing that has been important to me as an artist, specifically as a Black artist and as a woman, was that I had parents that supported my art,” Taylor Pickett said. “My parents said to me: ‘If you’re going to do this, the world is going to say no to you, so you have to say yes to you,’ ” Taylor Pickett said.
Taylor Pickett’s family was always present when she commuted back home from class and even bought her a second-hand camera that she used for her photography course at U‑M.
Time at U‑M
Taylor Pickett’s journey as an artist is deeply intertwined with her formative years at the University of Michigan. As a student in the early 1970s, Taylor Pickett’s time at the university coincided with the Black Power Movement and the women’s movement, making it a pivotal period in her life.
She fondly remembers hanging out with friends, like fellow artist Lula Mae Blocton, in the studio and attending prolific artist lectures.
Taylor Pickett poured her time into printmaking, photography, and studio courses. Because she enjoyed U‑M’s courses and received a scholarship offer, Taylor Pickett decided to continue her academic studies at U‑M with an MFA.
But with students of color making up just about two percent of the student body, Taylor Pickett’s experience at U‑M was not easy. Taylor Pickett recalls one professor who gave her a blistering, racist critique in front of her classmates.
“The professor said, ‘Are you sure you want to be in this class? Are you sure you want to participate in art because your people do really well in nursing and those other kinds of careers,’ ” Taylor Pickett said. “But 50 years later, here I am. No matter what, I always had that seed of love of art. I have always done what I was meant to do.”
Two of Taylor Pickett’s fiberwork pieces, “Poem For My Father” and “Fly Away,” remain permanently displayed at the University of Michigan School of Social Work building, preserving her connection to the institution and the town.
Taylor Pickett has drawn inspiration from her time at U‑M and renowned artists she has met through workshops and events.
While pursuing her MFA at U‑M, Taylor Pickett remembers reading a book that said that Black people had not made a significant contribution to American art. With inspiration from her mentor, Professor Robert Stull, Taylor Pickett proved it very wrong.
“During that particular time, it was incumbent upon me as a student and my other colleagues to do our own research about African-American art history,” Taylor Pickett said.
Research about African-American history was the core of Pickett Taylor’s MFA thesis. She published her book, “Black Art: Reviewing its Roots” in 1972. Taylor Pickett compiled hundreds of addresses and phone numbers of African-American artists around the United States. She wrote letters to all of them and featured the original letters of those who responded in her book. Her thesis aimed to shed light on the contributions of African-American artists throughout history, an often marginalized perspective.
These experiences helped shape Taylor Pickett’s evolving artistic style. For example, she recalls renowned abstract artist Sam Gilliam “poking” into her open studio in 1991.
She remembers the moment that transformed her artistic trajectory, saying, “I remember Sam Gilliam coming in, and looking at one of my pieces and saying to me: ‘You have enough work in this one piece for 20 pieces. You need to get off the canvas.’ ”
Taylor Pickett’s art defies easy categorization. She seamlessly weaves together torn paper and other materials, drawing from the visual language she developed over the years. Her work exhibits a graphic quality influenced by Romare Bearden, whose collaged elements were foundational inspirations. Bearden’s work, in turn, was inspired by Henri Matisse.
“I enjoy the graphic quality of using photography, torn paper, and cut paper,” Taylor Pickett explains.
One of the turning points in Taylor Pickett’s artistic journey came when she experienced a painting block after her parents’ passing. Inspired by the quilts made by her grandmother, Taylor Pickett turned to fabric and quilting to channel her grief.
“I figured that the ancestors were saying, ‘You’ve got to start quilting again if you can’t paint for a while,” Taylor Pickett said. “So that whole idea of using different mediums in my work became part of my vocabulary.”
Since her time at U‑M, Taylor Pickett has made her mark as a renowned teacher and professional artist.
Taylor Pickett points to her time in Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan as a diverse experience that prepared her for teaching. She’s also stayed true to her “Midwest personality,” allowing her to connect deeply with others.
“When I started teaching, I met students from all over the world,” Taylor Pickett said. “I was a good professor after being at a place like Michigan and knowing what that journey was for me. It made me a better teacher and artist.”
Perhaps Taylor Pickett’s most notable patron is Vice President Kamala Harris, who displayed Taylor Pickett’s piece in her congressional office when she was a senator in 2020. After coincidentally running into Harris on a flight to D.C., where Taylor Pickett was set to open an exhibition, the two agreed to meet.
Taylor Pickett has experienced trials and tribulations as a Black artist and single mother. She remembers living in a little apartment during her divorce and using her bedroom as her studio. Taylor Pickett’s passion and determination defied the odds.
“I gained the strength and mission to create art anywhere,” Taylor Pickett said. “Anybody who decides to be an artist, whatever gender or race, knows it’s not an easy journey. But, you’re loving what you do. You have to.”
Taylor Pickett often sees her mission of “loving what you do” in her daughter, Samantha Taylor Pickett, who pursued her dream to become a writer in the movie industry. Samantha moved to California from New York, and Janet moved to Pasadena, California, to be closer to her daughter shortly after.
Taylor Pickett says it is vital for her to tell her story about her time at the University of Michigan. Her story, inspired and driven by her ancestors, is visible in the celebrated art she has created.
“Here I am, standing on the shoulders of my ancestors and great grandparents who made it through the Middle Passage, and their work and life influences me whether I know it or not,” Taylor Pickett said. “This is the history that’s living in my head and my heart.”