One of the three exhibits opening at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts this month will highlight the rich community of accomplished African-American artists in our midst.
Where We Stand: Black Artists in Southwest Michigan will feature nine artists at various points in their careers, all living and working in western Michigan. The exhibit is co-curated by Denise Lisiecki, who directs the Kirk Newman Art School at the KIA, and Fari Nzinga, a post-doctoral curatorial fellow at the KIA and Kalamazoo College
Speaking for others
The works by each of the nine artists in the exhibition offer different perspectives of the black experience.
For example, photographer Tanisha Lynn Pyron, of Kalamazoo, who is also an actor, dancer, poet and educator, will present a multi-media piece called Black Americana: A Black Woman Speaks. Inspired by a 15-minute poem by actress and activist Beah Richards, Pyron’s work will remix and reappropriate the idea of “Black Americana,” which Pyron says is a vitriolic subject.
“If you Google ‘Americana,’ it’s Norman Rockwell, Coca-Cola, and a smile. It is the happiest dish on Earth. And then you put ‘black’ on there and it becomes a different thing,” she says.
Black Americana — sometimes referred to as Afro-Americana — is a type of memorabilia that can include anything from “mammy” cookie jars to racist prints of black children eating watermelon.
“Black Americana is a warped view of black identity,” says Pyron, “so I decided to remix it and say, ‘You know what? I am Black Americana, and that is not what I look like.’”
Black Americana: A Black Woman Speaks is a display of vintage LP covers featuring African-American female recording artists, with an audio component and digital projection.
Pyron says the piece was motivated by a desire to speak for generations of women who weren’t allowed to speak for themselves. Her grandmother died young, and Pyron says, “I didn’t get to hear her voice at all — what she dreamed about, what she wanted.”
She says a lot of women’s stories have been lost to race and gender inequities and to poverty. “I felt obligated to dream and speak for them,” she says.
Exploring past and present
Printmaker Audrey Mills, who will show two large screenprint monotypes and six smaller ones, says she constantly thinks about black bodies and how the U.S. government finds ways to “restrain and control them.” For the smaller series, Mills used copies of a declassified document called the Rabble Rouser Index, compiled by the FBI during the civil rights movement to document instigators of “civil unrest.”
Mills, 39, who is originally from Detroit and now lives in Kalamazoo, graduated from Western Michigan University’s Gwen Frostic School of Art in 2018 and recently completed a nine-month residency at the KIA’s Kirk Newman School of Art. She has shown her work twice before at the KIA: first in a 2018 show titled do it and then, in 2019, with a work she created for her residency called Flight, a textile piece made using printmaking techniques.
Mills describes herself as “an artist of the African diaspora” and someone “interested in the similarities that are the remnants of our stolen cultures.”
Like Pyron, Mills says she’s seeking reconciliation with what she’s lost as a person whose heritage includes the tragedies of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
“I can’t go back and live how I might have if colonialism and slavery hadn’t happened,” Mills says. “That time and place is gone. I am seeking an expression of both my past and present.”
Mills’ two larger pieces, Bougie and Inheritance, are meditations on the relationship between “text” and “texture.” They were fun to make, Mills says, since she enjoys researching the history behind words.
A personal perspective
For some artists, history has a more personal bent. Al Harris Jr., 65, who grew up in Detroit and came to Kalamazoo as an education student at WMU, is showing a portrait of his youngest daughter (his “baby daughter,” now 36) titled Kim. At 40 by 50 inches, it’s one of the largest paintings in his portfolio, and the only one he wouldn’t sell.
When people ask Harris how he can sell other paintings of his kids, he responds, “I’d rather it hang somewhere and get attention for what I tried to do. I’m not trying to create some Kmart family portrait here.”
Indeed, the expression on Kim isn’t precious. She’s looking off-frame and could easily be an older person gazing over her shoulder.
Harris says that when he was a young man with a family, he wondered how he was going to do everything. He recalls the advice of one professor who was also a father: “He said, ‘Some artists around you are creating like machines. You’re going to look at an empty easel for months, even years, but don’t worry about that. The emotion you put into raising your kids will come out in the work.’”
“He was like Yoda,” says Harris. “I had no idea what he was talking about. In retrospect, it’s so clear.”
Harris often zooms in on his subject, capturing faces with vivid colors. The artist works from blown-up photographs of people who inspire him and keeps a camera in the trunk of his car.
“I’ll see someone on a porch and have to back up, and, wow, the sun is just perfect, so I’ll ask this person if I can photograph them,” he says.
Some people turn him down, so he shows them a photo album of his work. “I try to impress them,” he jokes. “And some just say flat out, ‘Nope.’”
Harris will also show a second oil pastel, a close-up of an elderly black man in a pink hat, titled Shadows in Elijah’s Mind. The piece features a model Harris worked with several times, and it captures in bold contours a strip of shade across the man’s face.
Lisiecki says she and Nzinga chose pieces based on their aesthetic response to them. Some may think this is simply a show of local black artists, but, for Lisiecki, it’s a show of artists making a statement. In other words, their subject matter just happens to be African American.
An artist herself, Lisiecki says she hates being called a “woman artist.” “I’m an artist, period,” she says, and she feels strongly about her selection of artists based on skill and technique.
“Just because they’re choosing black subject matter, well, everybody chooses a subject matter that resonates with them,” Lisiecki says. “What makes a great work of art is when an artist speaks from their heart.”
Nzinga, who previously curated shows in New Orleans and teaches art history classes at Kalamazoo College, says she and Lisiecki made a visit to the studio of 75-year-old James C. Palmore, another artist in the show, one with a long list of credentials. Palmore will be exhibiting a large acrylic painting called Nikki, with an arresting figure staring out from the frame, and a smaller mixed- media piece called A Sundered Beginning.
A co-founder of Kalamazoo’s Black Arts & Cultural Center, Palmore won the People’s Choice Award at the KIA’s West Michigan Area Show in 2018 with Chief, his large drawing of an older black man.
“On the surface,” says Nzinga, “it would be easy to think that he only does portraiture of black people.” But at their visit to Palmore’s studio, she says, she and Lisiecki saw images of Palmore’s white friend, a fellow artist, and a landscape with a blonde woman in it.
Lisiecki says, “If he had put those works in — and they’re of equal quality, they were beautifully done —it would feel more universal to some.”
Nzinga says the passion an artist has for his or her subject shines through in the works she and Lisiecki chose. “It’s not any less universal because some of these artists portray black people or make a comment about what it’s like to live in this world as a black person,” she says.
Different career phases
In addition to selecting people who excel at their craft, Nzinga and Lisiecki wanted to spotlight artists at different points in their careers.
The owner of Kalamazoo’s Alchemist Sculpture Foundry, Brent Harris, will show a bronze called Empyrean Woman, a figure reaching into the sky, with a generous arc of hair circling her head. Harris shows in galleries across the Midwest and boasts work in New York, Chicago and Paris collections.
There will also be an oil painting titled Victims by James Watkins, who founded the Kalamazoo Film Society and has appeared in exhibitions throughout western Michigan. The KIA has a painting by Watkins in its permanent collection as well as a piece by another artist in the show, Maria Scott. A Kalamazoo artist who makes handcrafted ceramics, Scott will show an untitled piece of stoneware with a mysterious, sensual opening at its top.
Chakila Hoskins, from Grand Rapids, will show an oil painting called Visitation, a diptych of a child in moody gray tones on grass, with pastel butterflies hovering above her chest. Hoskins won first prize in the 2019 West Michigan Area Show with an oil painting called Transformation (Metamorphosis) and was also featured in the 2018 Area Show.
Installation artist Darien Burress is still a student, a senior in WMU’s Gwen Frostic School of Art, but her bronze sculpture in the show, titled Fruitful Tree, is a breathtaking execution of the form.
With a nude torso growing from a cocoon-like swath of metal attached to a large slab of wood, Fruitful Tree explores Burress’ pregnancy that had many complications, she says.
“The fears I had around that pregnancy, and the pain of loss, are channeled in this piece,” says the 24-year-old, who hails from Grand Rapids. She notes that there will be an interactive element to her piece, encouraging others to embrace their stories of motherhood.
Like much of Burress’ work, Fruitful Tree takes its inspiration from nature. And, as with the natural world, the sculpture had complications of its own.
The plaster mold of the cocoon element broke into three pieces when Burress was making it. She soaked the mold in water and tried to cast it in a wax form, with trial and error. Finally satisfied, she created a channel system to allow molten metal to reach all areas of the sculpture and made a ceramic shell out of slurry and sand for the casting, building up seven layers. Once the shell dried, Burress fired it to melt out the wax and plastic.
“Then the real fun began,” she says. Within WMU’s foundry, she used the pouring floor — similar to a sand pit — to cast the sculpture, pouring in molten metal. She finished by cutting off the channel system, sanding and cleaning up the sculpture, and adding patina to create visual depth.
If that sounds arduous to the layperson, like many of the artists in Where We Stand, Burress knew from a young age that she wanted to be an artist. She remembers, as a kid, seeing old drawings her father did and knowing she wanted to create.
For others, it took a while. When Mills was a senior in high school, she wanted to be a surgeon. “Anyone who knows me personally just fell out of their seat laughing,” says the printmaker.
Her uncle suggested art school, which she tried for a year before dropping out, joining the Navy, and working odd jobs. By her late 20s, though, she knew she wanted to pursue art for the rest of her life.
“For me, at least, art is not a profession but an identity,” she says. “It is an exciting, exhausting journey of self-discovery.”