“When the rapture happens, I can still play this thing,” Paul Rucker said, pointing at his early 20th century cello. “It survived Word War II – it’ll be around long after I’m gone.”
Paul Rucker is a visual artist and musician who has recently moved to Baltimore as MICA’s Artist in Residence. His previous home was Seattle, where he moved fifteen years ago from northern South Carolina sight unseen. It was in Seattle that he began experimenting with visual art. An accomplished bassist and self taught cello player, Rucker expanded his artistic context in the mid 2000’s when he began creating visual and auditory art installments, often centered around racial injustice.
His work over the past couple of years has been dedicated to exposing the injustices of the prison industrial complex and drawing parallels to slavery. He combines his physical art with elements of noise and music – often the intense sounds of his unique cello-style.
After playing a few minutes of cello for me, which you can watch below, Rucker pulled out a postcard wrapped tightly in plastic. On the front was a black and white photo of a lynched man hanging from a tree. The grotesque image is part of an installation that Rucker has been working on. “I outbid someone $450 to get it,” he said.
At first I didn’t notice but Rucker pointed out that the victim’s head was twisted completely around in the photograph – a disturbing and chilling reminder of a not-so-long ago time. It’s these images and many others that have made Rucker advocate for the cause. And although he never referred to himself as such, he is a stanch advocate against racial injustice. This postcard is just another piece of the story Rucker is telling.
“The prison system is a problem by design,” Rucker explained. “It’s all about money. It’s all about profit and the numbers.”
At a MICA lecture just a couple days before our meeting, he mentioned something that had really resonated with me: nearly all the furniture that fills public university dorm rooms in California is made by inmates in California prisons. Each inmate might make 30 or 40 cents a day for their work, which in turn often goes right back into the system.
We continued our conversations over some tofu chicken curry and yams at Land of Kush a vegan place on Howard that Rucker endearingly called “yummy.”
“My brain is changing in a good way,” Rucker said. “I’m really enjoying meeting a lot of amazing people. Baltimore is the right place for me to work on my project.” A city in which African Americans are incarcerated at a very high rate, Rucker believes that the city’s problems are certainly racially charged and structural.
When I asked him how the idea for his work came about he told me a story of a few classmates at the University of South Carolina that went to prison because of a drug related murder. “We don’t give young kids a lot to say yes to.” Rucker said. “I came to realize how big of an issue this still was in America. One out of every 99 people are incarcerated.”
After sharing his musical inspirations which include Earth, Wind, and Fire, Hendrix and Elvis Costello and grilling me for some great healthy food spots and bars for live rock music, I dropped Rucker off at his house with a pound of kale and 36 bottles of kombucha that he picked up at the grocery store. “What are you going to make with all that kale?” I asked. “Kale chips.” He replied. “Have you ever had them? They’re quite yummy.”