Texas Tech University

Patrick Quarm: Exploring Identity Through Art

By: Amanda Castro-Crist 

patrick quarm in front of his work

A row of colorfully patterned African fabric lines one wall in Patrick Quarm's Texas Tech University School of Art studio. Like Quarm, an international graduate student and teaching assistant within the J.T. & Margaret Talkington College of Visual & Performing Arts (TCVPA), the fabric has traveled across the world from Ghana, Africa, to Lubbock. And like him, it has a story to tell.

“The reason I use this fabric is because it's African, but it's not African,” Quarm said. “It originated from Indonesia, then ended up in Africa, where we put our symbols on it, and now we call it African. The fabric has this question of authenticity when it comes to its identity. Is it really African fabric? I reflect on that, I use that as a metaphor and connect it to modern Africans and the modern person. Can someone really claim to be from a particular place?”

The fabric is shipped to Quarm by his brother, Emmanuel, who resides in Ghana, and is used in works of all sizes that are mixes of collage, painting and deliberate cuts that create complex, three-dimensional, layered pieces. This Friday, Quarm will share these expressions, and others, of his exploration of identity and authenticity at not one, but two stops on the First Friday Art Trail.

At the Caviel Museum of African American History and Culture, located at 1719 Ave. A, Quarm's collaborative show, “West Meets West: Illuminated Figures,” includes several of his own pieces and work by fellow artist Alexander Bostic, an associate professor in the department of art at Mississippi State University. The exhibit was featured on the trail in March and explores the African and African-American communities and experiences.

Quarm also will present his thesis show, “Parallel Identities: Patterns of Place” at the School of Art Satellite Gallery at 1108 Fifth St. The exhibition explores the fluidity of self-identity when in a new country and the hybridity that occurs within people at the intersection of different cultures. The work draws on Quarm's Ghanaian roots and his experience with Western culture in the U.S.

For Quarm, the shows represent the culmination of three years of creative exploration much different from the work he completed during and after his undergraduate work in Ghana.

“When I came here, I decided to just concentrate, be a student and not worry about showing my stuff to the public,” he said. “I wanted to take my time, build ideas and be confident with what I'm doing. Now, in my final year, I'm pretty confident and very sure of what I'm doing, so it's time to show it to the world.”

Getting Started in Ghana

Growing up in Ghana as the youngest of nine children, Quarm said he had big shoes to fill. He always looked up to his siblings, who he says have gone on to have success in fields like science, accounting and building technology. 

“They were always looking at me like, ‘What is he going to do? What is he up to?'” he remembers. “My dad asked me, ‘Hey, what do you want to do with your life?' I told him I wanted to be an artist.”

“Of all the choices,” his father replied, “why choose that?”

For Quarm, the answer was simple.

“I told him I love it,” Quarm said. “He told me, ‘If that's what you really want to do, make sure you become the best in it.' It's something that has stuck with me. It's like there's this unending desire to make the best out of every situation I find myself in. Even with making art, there's a pursuit for excellence, a pursuit for uniqueness, of being the best.”

Though he worked some in other mediums, like video and animation, much of his undergraduate work at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Ghana focused on drawing and painting. True to his pursuit of excellence, he quickly built a reputation for himself.

“I was doing a lot of commissioned paintings of Ghanaian politicians and other high-profile people, and I was well-known for it all over Ghana,” Quarm said. “I was getting commissions from the United States, from London and from South Africa.”

It was good work, he said, but it slowly became routine. He grew tired of the repetitiveness and knew it was time for a change.

“After my undergraduate work, I had all these skills and I was like, ‘OK, what do I do next?'” Quarm said. “It was either stay and be known as a portrait artist, or pursue something new and be known for the rest of my life as a unique individual. From reading about and watching other artist interviews, I knew there was something bigger out there. I wanted to be part of it.”

Becoming a Red Raider

After applying to several graduate programs, Quarm decided on Texas Tech, partly because of the financial help he received via a teaching assistantship, a graduate fellowship and a School of Art scholarship. His decision also was based on the type of experience he said living in Lubbock offers an artist.

“I like being here because, being a creative person, Lubbock is an escape,” Quarm said. “It's different from being in school in a place like New York, where everything is at a fast pace. Here, I'm able to isolate myself, dig deep into what I'm doing, take my time and create something unique. It was a win-win, because I would be able to have that quiet time, not get distracted for three years and, maybe, create something beautiful.”

Since he was still unsure what research would entail at Texas Tech, Quarm began experimenting with new ideas and mediums as soon as he arrived while still painting and drawing some as he had during his undergraduate years.

Having some knowledge from friends and family about what to expect about living in the U.S. didn't prevent him from experiencing a bit of culture shock. From getting around Lubbock without his own transportation to adapting to different customs and behaviors on and off campus, Quarm made an effort to find balance in his new home.

“You have to understand where you are in order to engage in it, and I think that culture shock triggered the ideas I'm exploring,” he said. “Another thing that triggered these ideas was social representation, or who I am as an African and how I was perceived.”

In Ghana, Quarm said he was never questioned about his identity. Turning on the TV here suggested discussions of race and issues of identity were much bigger topics in the U.S. Questions posed to him and his peers in the classroom by professors – What story can you tell? What do you bring to the table in addition to your talent and skill? – led to even more introspection. By his second year, Quarm began pushing himself out of his comfort zone and brainstorming different and creative ways to visually express his ideas. 

“I started with one question: Who am I?” Quarm said. “It was like I had a whole life, and I had to strip it down and start all over again. I started thinking in terms of my history, where I come from and all these days in Lubbock. I was able to compose this narrative I've been exploring, and I began finding all these interesting responses, answers that we normally ignore, that we normally don't bring into view. It's been a very good journey.”

David Lindsay, an associate professor of foundations and drawing, said while Quarm is a very skilled artist, his work transcends his talent and skill to focus on deeper ideas about identity and how people view each other.

“His work is about understanding others and trying to communicate the layers of information that make up our identity,” Lindsay said. “He has really developed in his ability to think about art as a way to communicate big ideas about human nature, our own identity and how we describe the human experience.”

sample of bright, patterned fabrics quarm usesFrom Idea to Canvas

Finishing one of his mixed-media pieces can take up to several days, Quarm said.

“I start with a clean canvas, but before that, I have an idea,” he said. “When I come to the studio, I always say there is a relationship between me and the fabric. The fabric is always posing questions to me depending on the patterns, and I try to answer those questions by manipulating it.”

Initially, he purchased fabric online, only to realize the quality wasn't what he was looking for. Having his brother ship the cloth in bulk between semesters solved that issue and adds to the narrative Quarm aims to create in each piece.

“It's kind of like the fabric is on a journey,” he said. “I thought that would be something interesting that adds value or more flavor to what I'm talking about.”

That journey usually begins with a video call with his brother that allows Quarm to pick colors and designs. Once the fabric arrives in Lubbock, he chooses one to serve as a background, gluing it on plain canvas and letting it dry overnight. Painting comes next, either on the background or another piece of fabric that will be layered over the first, followed by the erasure of some sections to create a blending of the figures with the fabric.

Quarm said the figures serve as protagonists for the stories he composes in each piece and can include anyone from people he has seen on advertisements to members of his own family. In one work, he has recreated a black-and-white photo taken of his parents, Samuel and Margaret, in post-colonial Ghana. In another, two boys, his brothers, stand side by side, blending in and out of the designs of the fabric.

“I wasn't even born then, I wasn't even in the picture, but I thought it was interesting because they grew up in that era,” Quarm said. “It is post-colonial Ghana in the early stages of independence, and that shaped them into becoming who they are now. They assimilated elements from both cultures, Ghanaian and British, so I see them as the origin of the hybrid. I was born into a different era, so my experience of hybridity is different.”

Hybridity is a focal point for Quarm and one featured extensively in the pieces he creates.

“I explore social evolution, how we evolve as humans, and I look at that idea through the eyes of the hybrid individual,” Quarm said. “It's a conceptual idea, which is kind of like a merging of two entities. It shows you the in-between spaces of our existence.

“When I'm navigating through a space, I feed on everything happening around me, my own experiences, the experiences of others, and I try to compose a story. I want the viewer to come in, see these works and question why a part is erased, why a part is a certain way. I think when they start asking those questions, they start reflecting on their own story of hybridity. I become the starting point, but the finishing point is their experience.”

Once painting is complete, Quarm may dive back into the piece, weaving in other pieces of fabric, or cutting sections, many times along the lines of the original pattern. The cuts flip pieces toward the viewer and invite them to inspect additional aspects of the piece.

“I address history, but I do not view it from one point,” Quarm said. “I don't see past, present and future as separate entities. The past is something that creates the future, and the future is also dependent on the past. So in the collage sections, the part that is suspended is how the past and present break into the future.”

Tina Fuentes, a professor of painting and Quarm's thesis committee chairwoman, said the depth and breadth of Quarm's visual statements are influenced and driven through visions derived from his ethnic cultural perspectives.

“The advancement of his research has developed through his productivity, inquisitiveness and energy throughout his studies, which I feel has been outstanding,” Fuentes said. “His classical training is a gift demonstrating the development of an extraordinary painter. His work not only demonstrates a thorough understanding of the fundamentals in art, but also exemplifies the willingness to explore the central topic at hand, which gives a reflection of self and how the body can bring forth social and political discussions.”

The Shows

close up of quarm picking paint off of boardIn choosing pieces for each of his shows on the First Friday Art Trail, Quarm stuck with the advice his collaborator, Bostic, gave when planning the show at the Caviel Museum.

“He said, ‘Let's tell a story,'” Quarm recalled. “So when you enter that space, the whole experience is kind of like a narrative, a story on a wall. We're just telling a story using images. It starts with his and ends with mine.”

The show is a way for Quarm to test himself and see if others connect with his work. He said he was blown away by the first showing in March, watching people interact with the pieces and then approach him with questions.

“I usually asked them what they thought first,” Quarm said. “They would give me their view, and then I would come in with what I was thinking when I was creating. It was never far off, and I was very excited to see how people could connect to what I've been working on for three years.”

While the Caviel Museum show consists mostly of his second year-work, Quarm said the pieces in his thesis show are in a new and more engaging realm. One group of pieces, “Discoveries From Papa's Wardrobe,” focuses on his father's identity.

“I think of my dad as a post-colonial gentleman,” Quarm said. “He was a product of colonialism, and now, as a young man reflecting back, I see how that history shaped my dad, both who he was and how I view him. This is an attempt to go back into my dad's wardrobe and decode his identity, his being.

“Identity is kind of like a skin, and when you think of skin like a persona, in order to gain access to a particular space, you put on a different persona. I'd see my dad go to a business meeting, and he would choose to wear the most fashionable things in order to be accepted in that space. But if he's at home, he's in his shorts and he's just chilling. That's how the hybrid self evolves through spaces.”

It's a bittersweet tribute to Quarm's father, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer's shortly before Quarm was accepted into the School of Art.

“The one person I really wanted to make proud was my father,” Quarm said. “It's like everything that I've yearned for, to tell him, ‘Hey, I promised you I would make you proud.' This is it, but sadly, he's not aware of it.”

He said his siblings and mother have stepped in, letting him know just how much his success means to them. 

“My sister sends me messages,” Quarm said. “She'll be like, ‘You know Papa is proud of you,' and I'm like, ‘Yes, I know.' They are really proud, and they are so happy.”

Planning for the future

Quarm hopes people attend the shows to experience the stories he has created. He's interested in their responses to an artist who finds himself within two in-between spaces.

“I always say we are all hybrid individuals, and it's something we take for granted,” Quarm said. “The works I'm showing are trying to stimulate a new understanding and create a form of enlightenment. I ask myself, ‘How can you transform an idea into a visual representation?' That's sometimes hard, but if I think of what I'm doing, I think I've done justice to that kind of exploration. I want people to gain that enlightenment, and also, an understanding of who we are humans, what composes us, what kind of history forms our being and the layering of our persona.”

As his graduation nears this semester, Quarm and his professors are reflecting on his time at Texas Tech and in the School of Art. Ghislaine Fremaux, an assistant professor of painting, said Quarm has proven himself to be agile with critical and social theory, a great public speaker and a gifted teacher and communicator.  

“Patrick has contributed enormously to our program,” Fremaux said. “He has inspired his peers and faculty alike and has grown tremendously. His undergraduate portfolio demonstrated exemplary technical quality, but his graduate work brought radical innovations in regard to both the medium itself – fabric and paint – and his conceptual concerns of identity, self, space and place.

“In getting to where he now is, he made many brave leaps – sometimes he had to put the beauty of his work at risk or compromise the obvious dexterity with paint that has typically marked his style. He has become intrepid as a maker. We look forward to what lies ahead for him.”

Quarm said he has applied to several artist-in-residency programs across the state and country and has received interest from galleries, including one in Germany, that want to host shows of his work. He said he plans to go back to Ghana at some point, but for now, is content to be in a place that allows him to have more direct contact with the art world.

“It will be a good opportunity to build something here with the work I do and, at some point, if I get to where I can position myself anywhere in the world and still ship and show my works, that will be good, too,” he said. “I'll just pursue any opportunity that comes my way. Life will happen. I believe in that. Once you put your best out there, everything starts working out.”