Ricky Weaver can still see the images, a triptych of photos she’d taken of herself while in undergraduate school, self- portraits of a blossoming adult unpacking her identity, of a new artist groping for a style to call her own, of a young black woman trying to figure out just what that meant.
“It was me,” Weaver says of the decade-old photos, some of her first attempts at artistry. “There was a closeup of my eye as I put my contact on. Then there was one of me straightening my hair. And there was one of me mixing a perm. That was me, like, really trying to figure myself out because I had these crazy gray contacts and blonde hair — but I had really damaged my hair, and I was just like, ‘What are you really doing? What are you trying to do?’
“I think that work was called ‘You Only Feel as Good as You Look.’ That was because my grandmother taught me that even if you don’t feel good, get up and get dressed anyway.”
In the years since, Weaver — now an adjunct professor in the photography department in WSU’s College of Fine, Performing and Communication Arts — has certainly matured as an artist, her work more nuanced, evolved, expanded. Just as importantly, that work is also enjoying increased success, with Weaver having earned a growing number of accolades as well as heightened recognition in artists’ circles both locally and nationwide.
These days, Weaver’s images are featured (among other places) at the newly reopened Carr Center in Midtown Detroit as part of the inaugural Beyond Space exhibit, an awe-inspiring collection of works from a group of young black artists honing their craft under the watchful eye of highly acclaimed photo-art virtuoso Carrie Mae Weems.
But in spite of the growth and success she has begun to see, Weaver says, she’s still in some ways the same young artist in that triptych, still curious and searching, still prone to unflinching self- dissection in her use of stark imagery to explore themes such as spirituality, identity and lineage.
“Ideas about legacy and what we leave behind are really a huge part of my work,” says Weaver, an Ypsilanti native and Eastern Michigan University alum. “I understand that I’m living my grandmother’s legacy and my mother’s legacy and my aunt’s, so that’s a huge part of my work ... My grandma was 103 years old when she passed away. She was born in 1915. Thinking about the context of the time she grew up in in relation to the things she was saying became a huge part of my work because she taught me so much.”
Weaver says the lessons are only part of what she took from
her grandmother. Years ago, she also decided to take her grandmother’s surname as part of an exercise in reinvention. In an instant, the young woman born Erica Williams restyled herself as Ricky Weaver — although she notes that the transformation wasn’t all that thought out initially.
“I was named after my father, Eric Williams,” explains Weaver. “I also have a brother named Eric Williams. One day in undergrad, my professor says, ‘You guys want to be called anything other than your name?’ And I was like, ‘Actually, I do. I do. Call me Ricky.’ So that’s where Ricky started. Nobody had called me Ricky up until then, but people just started doing it. I really think I was in a place where I was reaching for a different identity.
So Weaver is my grandmother’s name, and that’s my mother’s maiden name also, my matriarchal lineage ... And then I noticed, ‘Oh, I’ve been making work about my matriarchal lineage.’ And this is really what that has to do with.”
Her work is rife with lineal references, some subtle, many not so. In one of the more striking images in the Beyond Space exhibition, for instance, Weaver is photographed laying atop an open grave in an old cemetery.
“That’s my grandmother’s grave,” she says. “I lost her not long ago, so I was working through my grief, working through different ways about thinking about spirituality, the idea of ancestors and really thinking about my grandmother transitioning. I was trying to stay with her and listen to her spirit around me. Something kept telling me to be closer to the dirt, to the earth. Then something was like, You need to lay in it. I was like, ‘Why am I thinking this?’ I mentioned it to mom, and she ended up telling me about a parable in the Bible where this man had to go lay on top of someone else’s grave to receive his anointing. I was like, ‘I think that’s what needs to happen.’ So I went and did it with my cousin, and it’s been transformative.”
Of course, Weaver says she’s had plenty of artistic influences beyond family, counting the celebrated Weems, multimedia artist Lorna Simpson and painter Kara Walker chief among them. “Those three were my triumvirate for forever,” says Weaver. “I’ve always been inspired by that ’90s period of the work that they were making.”
These days, she’s also trying to be more of an inspiration to others. She fulfilled a longtime dream, she says, when she began teaching college courses, joining the WSU faculty nearly two years ago.
“I always wanted to be a professor,” says Weaver, who attended graduate school at Cranbrook Academy of Art. “When I took my first photography class in college, I was like, ‘This is what I want to do: I want to make my work and I want to teach because I think photography is so much about the images that form our reality.’ So how do I teach these young image makers to be responsible for what they’re putting into the world? How do they contextualize themselves?”
Weaver says she loves teaching at Wayne State in large part because of the campus culture.
“I love the students at Wayne so much,” she says. “It feels like there’s more energy. They’re more assertive. They let me know what’s on their mind. So the communication is there where I feel like I can be more personable with them. It’s always a good time.”
Meanwhile, she continues to create. With her work having taken her to New York City, Cuba and other places, Weaver says she constantly looks for new ways to expand her horizons and broaden the scope of her personal lens.
“What I’m doing is important,” she says. “I always believed when I was younger that I was going to do something important, and I think that I’ve found that thing.”
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2020 edition of Warriors magazine.