I first started creating and doing art because I was a mother of eight. I never understood the term “starving artist” because I took care of eight children by making with my hands. —Sallah Jenkins
Sallah Jenkins has been working, making, and teaching in Baltimore communities for decades. Engaging in creative work was crucial to building her life there. She has dedicated thirty years to raising children and supporting her family through the many creative opportunities that Baltimore offers. She has taken part in ArtScape, the largest free outdoor arts festival in the country, taught in schools and after-school programs, worked in museums, and even at the Baltimore Zoo. Through her work, she not only earned money to support her children but also paid homage to her heritage as an African American. At the zoo, she painted huts according to a South African tradition in which the elders of the young women doing the painting followed behind them to touch up anything that needed fixing—an authentic community effort that ensured success. Jenkins proudly recollects, “I had my mom there with me, following along and touching up all I did. I was able to create an African experience for the people of Baltimore.”
Over the years, Jenkins has worked in various artistic fields and media: dancing, painting, singing, poetry, clay, fiber, and more. In 1999, she began teaching at Baltimore Clayworks, where she still offers classes. They are joyful environments, where she supports her students in finding creative fulfillment. “Sallah knows everyone by name,” her student Shirley says, “she gives us a hug when we come in, and we always listen to music, she always breaks out in a dance.”
Diana, another student, says, “She helps bring out our creativity. She’ll show us how to take a look at our work from a different perspective and see something new. She’s inspirational.”
Jenkins elaborates on what inspires her: "What I love most about my work is the joy it brings me; most of all, the joy of my students as they are encouraged to reach for the sky when creating. I say to them, ‘If you want, be more ambitious!’ I love how ‘I can’t’ becomes ‘I did it!’ My love for ceramics is far more than creating beautiful things out of clay, it’s the therapeutic qualities that it possesses. Clay takes you to a place of total relaxation and peace, if you allow it. I find my classes never end on time because all of us go into the ‘clay zone’. What a wonderful place to be.”
Once her children were grown up, Jenkins recommitted herself to her growth as an artist. At fifty, she returned to school, first to Baltimore City Community College, then to Coppin State University for a degree in Urban Arts. At Coppin, she had her initiation into self-driven creativity. She felt compelled to make a work of art that did not fulfill the assignment and describes the result as “energy being channeled through my ancestors.” Reminiscent of African D’mba dance masks, Yemaya is a bust of a woman with patterns decorating her face, neck, and breasts. Eyes open, lips pursed, and head held high, the sculpture has an air of energy and wisdom. A description from Frederick John Lamp’s book See the Music, Hear the Dance, of a D’mba mask in the Baltimore Museum of Art fits Jenkins’s piece as well:
D’mba represents the best in humankind, characterized by the dressed bust of a mature woman with flat pendant breasts. The ideal of femininity is expressed in her unquestionable comportment, her vigorous, yet elegant movement, her refinement of coiffure, cosmetics, adornment, and dress, and the evidence, in her breasts of her selfless devotion to the nurturing of her children.
After earning her degree, Jenkins continued to pursue an independent creative practice through a short-term residency at Baltimore Clayworks the summer of 2014, and as a Vermont Studio Center fellow in 2014 and 2015. Her time in Vermont was unique. For the first time in thirty years she was away from her children for an extended period, and for the first time ever she was working with a group of international artists. The environment was different from the creative spaces that she had worked in in Baltimore; the expectations and competition surprised her. She wanted to leave after the first week. She felt out of place and unsure of how she could connect with artists who had different experiences, expertise and skill sets. But soon she found a way to share her experiences. “We had a dance class,” she recalls, “I started visiting the [nearby] river every day and dancing with the other artists every week.” The undulating shapes of the river began to appear in her clay work. Through the dancing, she began to develop relationships with the other artists.
Jenkins plans to continue to teach; it is a part of her artistic practice. “They have become my family,” she says of her students. Her student Mikey says, “She is a very free spirit. She’s an encourager. She stretches our creativity. She gives us projects that seem difficult, tells you [that] you can do it, and then you do it!” At the end of each class session, she and her students sit down to a meal together. One of Jenkins’s longest-running classes through Baltimore Clayworks is Senior Clay, held at the Zeta Center for Healthy and Active Aging. After six years of working together, and sitting and eating together, they are her family. Jenkins began a creative career to support her children, and now her creative work adds members to her family. It provides a way to connect to her ancestors, to those here in Baltimore, and to a global community of artists.
Learn more about Sallah Jenkins and Baltimore clay works at baltimoreclayworks.org