When interdisciplinary artist, scholar, and Stamps Professor Marianetta Porter reflects on her time at the University of Michigan, she talks about the “full circle” nature of her career journey.
Porter started at the University of Michigan as a graduate student studying with Catherine B. Heller Collegiate Professor Emerita Sherri Smith, earning her MFA in Fibers from the Stamps School in 1986. A decade later, Porter joined the Stamps faculty, becoming a full professor in 2006. Professor Marianetta Porter will enter the next chapter of her creative life, retirement from teaching, at the end of the Winter 2021 semester.
“I am honored to have had the opportunity to join the Stamps faculty and work alongside many of my mentors,” Porter said. “I hope what I have learned from them has been positively reflected in my presence here.”
Porter, a 2017 Distinguished Faculty Achievement Award recipient, has enriched the U-M community in innumerable ways as an artist, scholar, educator, and mentor. An affiliate faculty member of the U-M Department of Afroamerican and African Studies (DAAS), Porter’s research, scholarly investigations, and creative practice are grounded in the study of African American history, culture, and representation. She draws on ethnography, religious traditions, folklore, and visual culture to investigate the consequences of the transatlantic slave trade, the vernacular art of the Black church, the politics of visibility, and the poetics of color. Through mixed media, teaching, and community engagement, Porter recognizes the power of art to confront social justice issues and to activate positive social change.
Porter’s mixed media sculptures and works on paper have been exhibited widely in museums and galleries across the globe. She is a recipient of the Atlanta Life National Arts Competition Award, recognizing the works of African American artists nationwide.
Over the course of her career Porter has received several prestigious fellowships, including the Smithsonian Senior Research Fellowship (2001), supporting independent research at the Smithsonian’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, where Porter investigated proverbial folklore, food customs, slave lullabies, and the establishment and resistance of maroon cultures in the Americas.
Porter also received the U-M Institute for the Humanities’ Helmut Stern Fellowship (2006); the Philip Jones Fellowship, Ephemera Society of America (2012), supporting Porter’s research into the history and cultural significance of African American church fans; the Rockwood National Fellowship for Leaders in Arts and Culture (2013), a distinguished international fellowship for individuals engaged in critical arts and cultural work to advance positive social change; and the Bentley Historical Library Fellowship (2019), where Porter is working to construct or improve an undergraduate course based on resources available in the Bentley archives.
In 2016, GalleryDAAS presented Color Code, a solo exhibition of work by Porter, curated by Stamps Professor Franc Nunoo-Quarcoo. In Color Code, Porter explored the codes and values that frame racial identity and define Blackness in our everyday lives.
Porter’s generous, thoughtful service to the school has manifested in many other ways over the course of her tenure. In addition to teaching everything from Foundation courses for first-year students to graduate seminars, Porter served as the coordinator of Stamps Foundations courses from 2013-2015. In this capacity, she worked with faculty members to enhance the school’s Foundations curriculum, build bridges between classes, and create a robust database of instructional resources for Foundations faculty. Porter also served as the Stamps Inclusive Teaching Liaison for the 2017-2018 academic year.
Her commitment to teaching courses across disciplinary boundaries is evident in her collaborations with faculty from across the university, teaching courses such as The Concerned Hand/Eye with Peg Kusnerz (Art History), Cultural Confrontations in the Arts with Susan Walton (Residential College), and Marking Memory, a mixed media course for the Lloyd Scholars for Writing and the Arts learning community at U-M.
Porter reports feeling particularly proud of her role in establishing the student organization Stamps in Color with Stamps professors Franc Nunoo-Quarcoo, Ed West and Diversity and Inclusion Advisor Brian Banks. Stamps in Color, dedicated to increasing creative, social, and professional opportunities for artists and designers of color at the Stamps School, was awarded the U-M North Campus MLK Spirit Award in 2016 for its contribution to the university’s mission to increase diversity and inclusion on campus.
“Over the years we have had some remarkable experiences, engaging conversations and collaborations,” Porter said, reflecting on her time with Stamps in Color.
“It has been joyful to see the impact the students have had on each other, their contributions to the broader campus culture and the ways they have used their talents to make a difference in the world.”
Porter’s commitment to nurturing the next generation of artists and designers has led to some incredible collaborations off-campus as well, often executed with Stamps students as part of the school’s Engaged Creative Practice curriculum. She was central to the Stamps School’s collaboration with the Horizons Upward Bound program, an initiative which connected Detroit teenagers with Stamps students to foster exposure to and engagement with the visual arts. Her outreach course Alternatives for Girls, launched in 2004, facilitated student-centered visual arts projects with AFG, a Detroit-based organization dedicated to helping girls explore opportunities and develop self-reliance.
Similarly, Porter has initiated and sustained significant relationships with several communities in Detroit, including a partnership with members of the Latino Family Services community of southwest Detroit whereby LFS youth and educational staff were introduced to new ways of documenting the life of their community through pictures, texts, and interviews. The process and creative outcome was called the Living History Project and received an AT&T Network Grant in 1998.
In 2003, construction was completed on Stanton Park in southwest Detroit, a collaborative undertaking done with Professor Marianetta Porter, Professor Ian Grandison at the U-M School for Environment and Sustainability, residents of the Hubbard-Richard Community Development Center, the Bagley Housing Association, Detroit Parks & Recreation, and city developers. The park renovation encourages opportunities for intergenerational play and community engagement.
Arguably, the most impactful of Porter’s accomplishments might be her role as mentor to countless Stamps students over the course of her career. Known for providing patience, wisdom, guidance, and an unwaveringly supportive presence to her students, Porter is a beloved community member at Stamps.
Reflecting on her time at the school, Porter is reminded of how excited she becomes at the top of each semester, thinking about how much there is to learn from her students. For students both current and future, Porter offers this piece of critical advice:
“As an emerging artist, one often struggles to define one’s passion and place in the world. Forget about it! Instead—follow your curiosity. It will lead to your passion and your rightful place.”
During her retirement, Marianetta Porter looks forward to sustained time for deeper research and reflection on the history, culture, and contributions of African Americans to the birth and blooming of the American landscape — as well as translating these discoveries into visible forms through her continued art practice.