University of Arizona

Episode 4
Artists Reworking the Ruins of Racism: Aaron Coleman & Lizz Denneau

Visual artists are skilled at taking ordinary materials and transforming them into something new and thought-provoking. Their work goes beyond aesthetics; it unearths histories, challenges perceptions, and sparks crucial conversations. In the US where racism is endemic—structured into the everyday existence of individuals and institutions so as to appear ordinary—how do artists rework the remains of racism and resist its traumas in the present? In this episode, Aaron Coleman and Lizz Denneau exhume their multiracial pasts using DNA tests, ancestral research, personal experiences, and artistic expression. With a potent mixture of pride and pain, the two artists reveal the rewards and responsibility in making art that challenges and corrects historical fictions.

Lizz Denneau is a Tucson-based multi-media artist and K-12 art educator. Her artwork draws from personal and global histories to express diverse themes of identity, memory, and race. Her teaching incorporates contemporary art methods, visual literacy, and social justice.

Aaron S. Coleman is the Kenneth E. Tyler Chair and associate professor of art at Indiana University. He makes prints, paintings, collages, sculptures, and installations that connect historical events to the current sociopolitical climate.


Amelia (Amy) Kraehe Race/Remix.

gloria j. wilson This is Race/Remix, a podcast that pushes forward enriching and challenging conversations about the arts in racial justice. We talk with artists, poets, writers, directors, dancers, designers, performers, and creative practitioners from the Arizona community and beyond. As you listen, be inspired to advocate and activate in your community. Together, we can create a more just joyful and sustainable world.

Welcome to Race/Remix. I’m your host, gloria wilson, visiting us in the studio is Aaron Coleman, the Kenneth E Tyler chair and associate professor of printmaking at the Herron School of Art and Design at Indiana University. Purdue University, Indianapolis. And Lizz Denneau, artist and art educator at Tucson High School, whose work is influenced by narratives of human perseverance, societal class systems, vulnerability and power dynamics.

I begin this episode by posing a question which you may notice as a bit different than the other interviews this season. I might also add that not only do I consider Erin and Liz colleagues, I consider them friends. Please enjoy our conversation. I’d like to begin by asking you both what has it meant to see yourselves do the complex positionality that is race?

How does your creative practice connect with how you’ve been positioned within a racialized U.S. historical context?

Aaron Coleman Yeah, that’s a it’s an interesting question, and it’s a that’s a tough question because I think for me to talk about how this enters into my creative world, we have to understand, you know, what my positionality is, right? What is my position as far as race goes in North America and and throughout history. And so as a biracial person, I’ve always grown up sort of in between worlds.

First of all, like finding my identity or where I come from or where I belong has always been a challenge. It’s not something I recognized, you know, concretely when I was a child. But the older I got, the more it came into play in my world. And I think it made me acutely aware that even though I wasn’t white or black, I was living in a white world that saw me as black.

And I have a black father who was born in 1938 of a white mother who was born in 1949. So whether I felt acceptance from white folks or black folks didn’t really matter, right? I grew up in a white world that saw me as black. And so as I got older and started a life or a career as a studio artist, one of the main questions that I’ve always had is where does this idea of race come from?

You know, and why has it been attached to me in such a specific way? And having this idea of race attached to me is a point of pride. But at other times it’s a it’s a point of pain. And contention. And so it’s always been kind of a cloudy area for me to think about and study and mull over.

And I think to make work about these issues helps me understand more about who I am within the black world and the white world, but also totally separate from both of those worlds. Right. When I talk to people about my work and they say that you’re making work about black issues. Yes, I am. Because the white world likes to lump us all together.

You know, brown people or brown people, they’re not white. So I am making work about black issues, but I’m also making work about my my position.

gloria j. wilson Wherein you talk about, you know, living in a white world that sees you as black. And I’m wondering too, Liz, if there’s something there that also resonates with you.

Lizz Denneau Yeah, absolutely. My family taught me love and they taught me strength and stubbornness and stuff, but they could not teach me blackness. They couldn’t do that. You know, so that was kind of lacking in my education. Not to say that blackness is a monolith, but there’s definitely there’s definitely things that that connect all of us. Right. And the world is centered around white supremacy.

So I am a black woman. I am not white. Fairly light skinned person, not necessarily passing, but, you know, understanding that. And growing up, I did not have a black community. You know, I was raised by white Irish immigrants. And so as an adult, my practice really revolved around trying to connect with that ancestry and that history. And it wasn’t until I was much older that I felt like I could call myself a black biracial woman.

You know, it is this huge process. So I think I think there is uniqueness in the biracial diaspora. I guess. So really my work with, you know, researching histories and these stories is really an attempt to connect with, like the broader ancestry on a like a spiritual level. And it’s also a way to learn about myself and my history from this part of my family that’s been absent.

So yeah, I would say I actually don’t know what that position is. I think people want to tell me what my position is.

gloria j. wilson So we’re talking about proximity to blackness here. It seems and as I’ve been studying the work that both of you do, it seems to make itself present in a variety of ways. It’s very present in your work in many ways. And so I’m wondering, both you, Liz and Aaron, have gestured toward this notion of pride and trauma or pride and pain, which places you, you know, directly in proximity of a racialization.

And I’m wondering what some of the main questions that stimulate or animate your current research and how did you come to those questions?

Aaron Coleman My research has asked a whole lot of questions over the last decade that I’ve been making work and for a long time I focused on issues that impacted communities that I did not come from. Right. And something about working with students and hearing their their experiences straight from their mouth. It convinced me that I should be doing the same thing.

And so having asked all these other kind of large questions, I started to focus in on my own experiences. And the first question was, where does this idea of race come from? That’s what I wanted to know. And so that’s the research I was doing. You know, I was looking into our history, human history, to start understanding where this idea of blackness comes from, where this idea of whiteness comes from, and, you know, as a result, white supremacy or black inferiority.

But the more I got into that, the more I realized that even in this kind of arena, I can be more specific to my experience, right? Like, Lissa, blackness is not a monolith, right? And so I started thinking about my lived experience as a biracial person. And in 2017 or 18, my father did his genealogy test or study and found out that 73% of his bloodline comes from Ghana in the Congo.

And if you look at the map, if you look at the African continent, Ghana and the Congo are really small and they’re right next to each other, Right? So to have a number of 73%, that’s a huge number. First of all, to have it be isolated to such a small location that in detected my studio practice and research with ferocious specificity.

And so when we talk about a point of pride and a point of pain, there’s there’s immense joy that I feel in all of a sudden at age 36, having people in a place of which I am descendant. But when you start researching about that, it becomes incredibly painful because you learn what happens to your people. And when you think about my father being 83 years old, born in 1938 with a number like 73% coming from this small location.

That to me says that it wasn’t long ago. It’s only a couple of generations removed before his, you know, his ancestors were taken from Ghana in the Congo. And so what I’m getting to is this question of how do I simultaneously represent this joy and this pain? Right. It’s when you’re talking about social political issues or identity politics, race, it’s an easy move to grab a headline and throw it on a canvas or make a sculpture, you know, and talk about the trauma.

But there’s also all this other there’s all these other emotions embedded in that. There’s a lot of joy and pride. And so what I want to show people is, is how both of those things exist simultaneously. And that’s what makes the black or brown or indigenous experience so rich, right? That’s what makes our history so rich and colorful.

And just a quick kind of offshoot. This question has pushed my work into back into the world of music. When I was making hip hop, you know, in my younger days. I think a shining example of this simultaneous existence of joy and pain and black life or brown life is found in black music. It’s in the blues. It’s in jazz.

It’s in hip hop, right? It’s in R&B like it’s been there since day one. And so I’m getting the chills just talking about it right now, you know, because I feel I feel like my roots in music coming back as I’m talking about this. And so to answer your question short, the main question that I’m thinking about is how do I simultaneously represent this joy and pain of black life or brown life?

And it’s leading me to the world of music and how I can incorporate that into my studio practice.

gloria j. wilson It’s type that I like the notion of, you know, sort of this shuttling and as a process, it’s the sort of shuttling between or among the things that sort of move us. And so if we’re thinking about joy and pain as part of this movement in our work, the thing that propels us in our creative endeavors, it speaks volumes to that navigation process that I can understand happens in by racialization.


Lizz Denneau So my my questioning and again, really started with the absence of blackness in my life right? So and not knowing really anything about my father’s last name, not even knowing what he looks like. You know, I kind of went on I did a DNA test as well, said most mes from Nigeria. And then it ended. Right. Like that’s there’s so many tracks with material.

Like I’m like, okay, at least I got a place. So yeah, I it was really kind of a quest and like kind of making work throughout that, but really hitting a lot of dead ends. Like most people in America who are descendants from slaves, which is, you know, most of us, you know, can only take you so far.

You know, and I don’t have thousands of dollars for genealogists someday, someday. But so I said, okay, let me cast like a wider net, like, let me really learn about blackness and let me actually educate myself on the origins of slavery and how my ancestors may have stepped foot here. So a lot of times I talk about ancestry, I’m talking about this broader ancestry that we all belong to.

And it’s comforting to me, and I often feel guided by it. Sometimes I just feel like they’re pointing me in directions. So my work really kind of revolved around like, where did this start? And and then inevitably, because I’m biracial, I was really interested in the dynamics of plantation life and what it meant to be a biracial woman in that time and what it meant to be a dark skinned woman in that time.

Conversely, and you know, I landed on a lot of stuff just sifting through a ton of work around the antebellum South. And it’s ugly, you know, like and it is hard. It’s hard, hard research to do. And I realized that the sculptures I was making out of that were really kind of like an ancestral retribution. Like I was my work is not particularly joyful, but it’s definitely about power.

And I definitely don’t want I’ve been thinking about trauma like porn a lot lately, too. And that’s not a realm I want to go into. What I want is to empower, you know, I’m very interested in empowering others and how how how do I bring about a retribution and for something that’s already happened, How do I how do I how do we make this these people see or even pay for what they did to my ancestry.

And so a lot of like my pieces are like some sort of manifestation of that. Like, all I know how to do is make our, you know, so I making these pieces to kind of one educate, you know, and two and talk about these heroes, right? I kind of moved away from doing a ton of research around the ugly and started digging up these, like, hidden histories and how things how things are stolen and rearranged intentionally.

So we couldn’t have these histories. And of course, as somebody who didn’t grow up with blackness, history is key for me because that’s what I’m trying to learn about myself. So so a lot of my work kind of revolves around that. And then there’s also the history of being a light skinned black woman and and my responsibility around that and my privilege around that.

And also what that really meant in the complexities, especially in the antebellum South, especially Louisiana, the systems of like massage and and caste systems and how those are still very colorism is so present in our society and within our own communities today. It’s a question of like, who am you? It’s really, really big. And it’s also a question of like, how how can I bring about empowerment and education and also like give my ancestors some almost like a dialog with them, like how can, how can I create something that will ease or bring about retribution for what happened to you, in essence, as in the state, because all of those things I’ve been thinking about

how we carry the plantation within us, like all of the systems, how it was run, all of the social, the joy that we found on those plantations. When you know how we carry that with us, it’s it’s in us. It hasn’t been eradicated because we haven’t come to terms with it as a society. So I believe black people will continue to carry it.

gloria j. wilson And so again, I return to the back to this proximity, this proximity to blackness, this proximity to history that sort of insists and propels the work of creatives that are necessarily positioned within the context of racialization. What is the responsibility, what is our responsibility as creatives, and also how do we make this legible, which I think is an important question that artists grapple with.

It’s the legibility and only of a condition, a condition that which has positioned grace within a context of terror. But what that produces. So can you each talk a little bit more about your methods, your methods and strategies?

Aaron Coleman I don’t know if I can say my methods and strategies as though like there’s an Aaron way of doing it. And not that I’m saying I can’t take ownership of what I do, but my methods and strategies change based on what the work needs, what the research leads me to, what the topic I’m focused on at the time calls for.

And so, you know, I’m trained as a printmaker. I started as a 2D artist and trying to draw images of the things I wanted to talk about. At a certain point, my emotional and physical reactions to what was going on in the world was so visceral that I couldn’t draw a picture of it right? And so I needed to make objects and not just objects, but I needed to present my body to the audience.

The most recent body of work that I exhibited was a series of sculptures in a show called True and Live in. And I’m building objects. I’m building picket fences in that work, but I’m also casting my body and embedding my body into those picket fences. And they sort of take on these vignettes of different events in my life and in history.

So, you know, one is like a roadside crime scene, one is a prison cell, one is a boxing ring. And so as far as studio methods or approaches, it’s just sudden changes based on on what the work needs or how I’m feeling about what I’m searching for or discovering. I’ve also been really interested in sort of correcting history, so to speak, you know, I guess like a revisionist history and in other terms.

And so my research methodology is I have a hard time not separating my studio practice from the word research, because I do believe what I do in the studio is research in a conceptual or more traditional idea of the word research. I look back through history to try to find stories that resemble things that are going on right now so I can try to connect those dots.

And in a way, it’s like what Liz said about sort of educating people, or I call it reeducating people, right? I think about like the title of Lauren Hill’s debut album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. I think a lot of us have been miseducated and I say us because we are. We are part of that. And so I do a lot of research, historical research, and then I do a lot of observing social, political, contemporary current events.

And I try to connect those things. And so that often leads me to the altering of popular culture, ephemera or historic ephemera. And so oftentimes, like whitewashing the cover of books or redacting information from coloring book pages, recently I’ve been cleaning and resurfacing racist objects from, you know, the forties and fifties and sixties. For a while. I was interested in acquiring these things to take them off the market.

They’re these bizarre objects because they hold so much. History is power is like they hold a power over me. You know, they’re in my space as these horrible objects. And so I don’t know if I should destroy them. I know I don’t want to recreate them to make any kind of statement. And so the only thing I can do is alter them, right?

I can change them so that they don’t exist on the planet the way that they used to. And in that way, I get to revise our history. I get to change what is in our universe, right? So I’ve been, you know, painting and burning and breaking and reassembling these racist objects, painting over the lyrics and musical notes in Confederate songbooks.

And it’s weird because this methodology, if that’s what we want to call it, is new to me. And so I have no idea where it’s going. I just know that the problems I see with history, the way things have been handed down or taught to people, need correcting. And so I guess in a way that’s I’m trying to correct things.

gloria j. wilson Yeah, I like that notion of returning to what’s already in history or within material culture, though, taking up the space to change the narrative through both living the omissions, meaning, you know what has already been redacted, which also speaks to, you know, excavation, which speaks to research. And I think, Aaron, we’ve all internalized what the status quo narrative about what research means.

Often the arts or those who are artists don’t necessarily find themselves or take up the hat of being a researcher, when really this is what the process of making is all about, the exploration and the experimentation. All of that is a part of a methodology that maybe it is, you know, these conversations that help folks understand that it is what we do as part of our process.

It isn’t necessarily embedded in notions of what research is and also what it can be.

Aaron Coleman Well, it’s similar to Western ideas of what is knowledge or wisdom or medicine or spirituality, Right. All of these all of these things that get twisted through a western lens or a white lens research is one of those things. What qualifies as research, right? If I can write down my experiences on a piece of paper and somebody can learn from that, how was my experience not considered research?

Right. I lived it. I was the experiment, you know. And so I think that’s how I see my studio practice and Liz said something about she explained a lot of of what she’s trying to do and what she’s researching. And at the end of what she was saying, she said the big question is, who am I right? And yes, that’s a humongous question.

But the way that we figure that out is by making work, right? Or making music or dancing or it’s like we’re tapping into who we really are. And when we put that out there for other people to see, it helps them understand who they might be or how they can find who they might be. So to me, this is like the epitome of research, right? It’s like a raw, rugged form of research.

gloria j. wilson Yeah. Liz I’m wondering, Aaron is already, you know, brought us back to your question of who am I? And so I’m wondering what are what are some other questions that stimulate your current research?

Lizz Denneau Yeah, sometimes the work I make because it’s about sometimes it’s about specific like events or people. I am doing something about the Edmondson Sisters and the Pearl incident, so sometimes it might not seem like I’m connected to it other than being black, you know? But how I stumble upon these things, everything has me in it in some way.

It’s kind of unavoidable. Like, I can’t stop that. I’m not an artist. I can work, I guess, objectively. So my research methods are maybe a little haphazard. I mean, you know, a lot of times I’m guided. You know, the first sculpture I made, I made about I was doing research into resistance on plantations, and there’s such cool stuff there.

And they were happening on multiple plantations, right? Because people traveled, you know, you, you got sold and you got taken and then you take your message with you. And so there’s evidence of movements happening right under the slave master’s nose. And one of the things I thought was interesting is this notion that there’s some argument around it, but this idea that Bree, it’s like just cornrows might have been messages to each other on the plantation, might have been maps even much like the quilts of the Freedom Quilt for the Underground Railroad.

And so that when I’m researching, I research a lot of things. I don’t make art about all of them, but some I will get a specific idea, like a base, a blueprint, a visually just an idea. It just comes to me and then everything else after that is instinctual. So, you know, when I made this sculpture about this specific thing, I was like gluing pearls on to it.

For some reason, I had no idea. It’s just an esthetic thing. So I have a background in fashion design. So everything’s adorned to the 10th degree. And a friend was watching me do it and she said, What are the pearls? Now? Know what they mean? They’re just, they need to be there. She’s telling me she needs pearls. So my friend goes and looks just like a quick Wikipedia search and comes back and says, because she knew my work is around the south, antebellum south.

And she said, “Well, you know about the Pearl incident, right?” And I said, “What was the Pearl incident?” Well, it was the largest slave escape attempt in America, like North America. And so that led me to researching the Edmonson sisters and this huge thing that happens that we don’t know about. And almost they almost made it out of the Chesapeake Bay.

It was like this amazing thing and then led these two women to be at the forefront, like celebrities of the abolitionist movement, which was not common even within the abolitionist movement. There is still very patriarchal force happening there. Women didn’t address conventions and things like that. So it was fascinating. And then in and still like working around this idea of pearls, I fell into some poetry by Dumas and another person told me about pearl divers.

Right? So then I go and start digging around and there’s this huge culture around aquatics and Africans and African Americans. We don’t know that, right? Because the trope is we don’t like water. And I love water. I can’t get enough of it. So it’s really like if I were to put it on a wall, I probably look like one of the serial killer maps, right?

Because everything’s like, you know, or I’ll hear something and then I just start digging into it more. So it’s almost that that piece of my work, maybe not the product can be. Maybe a little intimidating. Looking at some of the words you’ve never heard or are dark, but that part is joyous to me. Like that is the joy of like, my God.

And then telling people like, I’ll nerd out on this stuff all day long. Well, let me tell you about pearls. You know, like, so there is like this weird thread that I’m just kind of following. And then there’s also, like, me picking up pieces along the way. And so I think research can be play. There’s this Ideas of the Loom research in a researcher like with their big book and by Kindle I will collect this writing away and in a library.

That’s not how I view research. And as the K-through-12 teacher, that’s not how I teach research either. I couldn’t like areas that I couldn’t say what my method is, and there’s a lot of pop culture that also seeps into my work as well because I’m tying these two things together, the past and the present. So a lot of our pop culture icons have a huge history that we don’t know about, right? So you could just dig forever, you know.

gloria j. wilson I think both of you offer such rich and nuanced descriptions of experience, essentially, which is really what seems to propel your work. Right. And so there is a distancing from a history. Liz, as I’m listening to you talk about the side of your family that you were loved by and cared for by, yet it distanced you from this part of your DNA that it seems both you and Aaron have had questions about and have both carried your journeys to to do the research, to sort of understand how you’re tethered to the broader history.

And through your questioning, Aaron, you know, where the notion race comes from, you know, by exhuming, if you will, part of material culture, hoping to connect to this, who am I? And so hearing you to talk about these discoveries, it conjures such complex and competing aspects anger, sadness, joy, the thing that we’ve been talking about, and it’s sort of the through line of this conversation, these things that we then become affected by and distanced from, again, you know, sort of this distancing from water, you know, or certain types of music.

And when we come to the realization that a lot of these narratives are are false because they have been admitted, I think we could probably talk all day about any of this. And so which means that we’ll just have to have you both back.

Lizz Denneau Thank you, Gloria. This is actually been like kind of a balm for my soul as well, my love of being able to talk to others about their work and my work and especially around race. So I really appreciate being here.

Aaron Coleman Yeah, it’s a it’s a good space to be in. And I wish we had more of, you know.

gloria j. wilson Thank you for joining the conversation on Race Remix today. The podcast is the creation of Racial Justice Studio in Tucson, Arizona. Land of the Tana Awesome and Pascua Yaqui. This episode would not have been possible without the efforts of our team of students, staff and faculty fellows Chelsea Farrar, Amy Cray, myself, Gloria Wilson, Isaac Schutz, Deana Scott and Jenny Stern.

This program is brought to you by Arizona Arts at the University of Arizona with generous support from John and Sandy Flint. If you enjoyed this episode, please invite your friends, family, students and colleagues to listen. Interested in joining our community or listening to more episodes, please visit Race Remix dot Arts dot Arizona dot edu and sign up to receive emails about upcoming news and events.

You can also learn more about all of our guests in the show notes. 

Amelia (Amy) Kraehe Race/Remix.



  • gloria j. wilson

Executive Producers

  • Chelsea Farrar
  • Amelia (Amy) Kraehe
  • gloria j. wilson

Executive Editor, Director

  • Sama Alshaibi

Audio Engineer

Marketing Production Assistant

  • Deanna Scott

Audio Designer

  • Jenny Stern

Theme Music Composer

Cover Art And Logo Designer

  • Deborah Ruiz

Website Designer

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Visual Designer

  • Jona Bustamante


  • Amelia (Amy) Kraehe

Production Coordinator

  • Jenny Stern


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