Tracy Snelling’s Art Contemplates the Precariousness of Suffering

An Oaklander heads to Germany temporarily, her focus keenly on humanity and human rights.


Tracy Snelling's One Thousand Shacks.

Photo courtesy of Tracy Snelling

Oakland has long been home for artists working to showcase human rights issues. Tracy Snelling, a former firefighter who has lived in the Ford Lofts in East Oakland since 1997, is no exception.

Currently a visiting artist in Berlin, Snelling has been hard at work on multiple projects since winning a Joan Mitchell Foundation award for $25,000 in December. One of her most recent pieces, titled One Thousand Shacks, draws from the United Nations Millennium Development Goals to free the world from extreme poverty and hunger by 2030. Between 1990 and 2015, the number of people living in extreme poverty was reduced by half. With more than 1.5 billion people today living without many resources at their disposal, however, there is a long way to go. Snelling’s piece conveys the precarious individual existences of those still suffering.

Shacks is composed of a 15-by-10 wall of small-scale shacks piled practically on top of each other. Inside each box, photographs, wire, wood, and other materials have been constructed to capture people living the best they can in excruciating circumstances. Snelling portrays her subjects not as powerless victims, but rather as defiant and hopeful members of humanity. Shacks first exhibited in Oakland in November.



“Since I was a young girl, I loved art,” said Snelling, who worked for the U.S. Forest Service in the Angeles Forest fighting fires during part of her adult life. Snelling still recalls a painting class she took when she was 5 or 6 years old at the Mosswood Recreation Center. There, she painted pictures of the sea. From that young age, she said, she knew she would be an artist, a musician in an orchestra, or an actress. At 7, her family moved to Manteca.

“It was rural and not very cultural,” she said. “I remember sitting for hours outside on the wooden fence and drawing.” Snelling said she would fall into a daze, coming out of it hours later. “My mom took us to the library a lot, and I liked the Dürer and Bosch books the best. Also a picture book of New York that I would draw from.”

Seeking adventure, the artist took photography in junior college in Stockton, and then did environmental work up and down California and in Australia. Putting herself through school firefighting, she finished her BFA at the University of Mexico in Albuquerque, ultimately landing back in Oakland.

Snelling will be living abroad until October. Before she left Oakland temporarily, her exhibit, Clusterf*ck 3, cobbled out of bits and pieces of material collected as she was packing her studio, was shown at New Image Art in Los Angeles in January. Visitors were able to recycle parts from the display for their own art projects.

Currently, she is working with seven other artists on an installation for the Historisches Museum Frankfurt, in Germany. Her portion, titled Criminal City, will be integrated into the final project, Typically Frankfurt, which will be installed for 10 years in the museum in a special installation and then moved to a permanent exhibition space.

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